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Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop: The Goods

2014 October 17

The Writing Life

If you read my review last week, you know I was pretty impressed with Tin House’s Summer Writers Workshop this past July. Not only did I develop creative relationships and get some great feedback on my work, but I also left with a *few* reading suggestions. Okay, the reading list is ABSURD. But if you’re anything like me, and you believe that reading will improve your writing, then lists like these from people I hold in high regard are like gold. And so, I share the wealth:

Campbell McGrath – Capitalism (Wesleyan New Poets)

Campbell McGrath – American Noise (Ecco Press)

Campbell McGrath – Spring Comes to Chicago (Ecco Press)

          I have become a complete disciple of Campbell McGrath. No other voice (that I’ve found) encapsulates the identity of this nation, in this millennium, with as much subtlety, poise, and formal consideration as McGrath. 

Charles Wright – Bloodlines (Wesleyan Poetry Program)

D. A. Levy – Suburban Monastery Death Poem (Crisis Chronicles Press)

Dawn McGuire – The Aphasia Cafe (IFSF Publishers)

Derek Walcott – The Schooner Flight

Derek Walcott – Omeros

          My workshop group spent a good deal of time considering form. Omeros is an epic poem in terza rima, and our conversation of Derek Walcott, also led us to Edward Kamau Braithwaite—another poet attending to the African diaspora.

Edward Dorn – Gunslinger (Duke University Press)

Edward Kamau Brathwaite – The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy (Oxford University Press)

Edward Kamau Braithwaite – Mother Poem (1977)

Edward Kamau Braithwaite – Sun Poem (1982)

Ellen Bryant Voigt – Kyrie (W. W. Norton & Company)

Gwendolyn Brooks – “We Real Cool” (originally published in The Bean Eaters [1960])

          With Kevin Young as my workshop leader, sound and music were frequent topics in conversation. Poems like “We Real Cool” are concise examples of precision and rhythm in a poem. 

Jim Harrison – Letters to Yesenin (Copper Canyon Press)

Jo Ann Beard – “The Fourth State of Matter,” in The Boys of My Youth (Back Bay Books)

          Jo Ann Beard was a faculty member at the workshop. I haven’t read The Boys of My Youth yet, but if her prose is half as wise as her lecture was last summer, I expect to be blown away. 

Julia Story – Post Moxie: Poems (Sarabande Books)

June Jordan – “Poem About My Feelings”

Karen Volkman – Spar (University of Iowa Press)

Kevin Young – Jelly Roll: A Blues (Knopf)

Larry Levis – Wrecking Crew (University of Pittsburgh Press)

Matthea Harvey – Modern Life (Graywolf Press)

Maurice Manning – The Gone and the Going Away (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Muriel Rukeyser – “Effort at Speech Between Two People” (originally published in Theory of Flight [1935])

          Enjoy this poem here!

Natalie Diaz – My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press)

Paige Ackerson Keily – My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer (Ahsahta)

          Come on! With a title like that (My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer) how could you NOT want to dig into this book of poetry?!

Rochelle Hurt – The Rusted City (White Pine Press)

Sally Wen Mao – Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books)

T. Crunk  – Living in the Resurrection (Yale University Press)

Ted Berrigan – The Sonnets

          I admit, bashfully, that I did not know Ted Berrigan’s name before this summer. A “late Beat,” Berrigan became famous for The Sonnets, reissued by Grove Press in 1966, and influenced by T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

W. S. Merwin – Finding the Islands (San Francisco: North Point Press)

Walid Bitar – 2 Guys on Holy Land (Wesleyan Poetry Series)

Wallace Stevens – Harmonium

Yusef Komunyakka- Copacetic (Wesleyan New Poets)

The Party Train: A Collection of North American Prose Poetry (New Rivers Press)

There you have it! Now I know what you’ll be reading this winter so… see you next spring! Speaking of which, if at any point between now and then you decide this workshop might be right for you, get your application in for the rolling admissions process. Scholarship applications are due March 25, 2015.





What We’re Reading: Floating, Brilliant, Gone

2014 October 16

What We're Reading

Floating_Brilliant_Gone_final3Floating, Brilliant, Gone by Franny Choi (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014)

Franny Choi’s debut collection of poems, Floating, Brilliant, Gone, is haunted. There are ghosts everywhere, from the opening poem “Notes on the Existence of Ghosts” to the “dead lover” in “My Lovers” to the ghosts of old neighborhoods in “Gentrifier.” However, it would be wrong to imply that these poems aren’t based in the realm of the living. On the contrary, ghosts and living bodies occupy these poems in equal measure. Living bodies, in Choi’s poems, are political; ghosts are lucky enough to escape the politics of the living.

One of the most memorable—but nearly impossible to memorize—poems in the collection is “Pussy Monster,” which takes the lyrics from Lil’ Wayne’s song of the same name and rearranges the words in ascending order of frequency, ending with the word “pussy” repeated a whopping 40 times. Similarly, “Second Mouth” focuses on the female anatomy and the ways womanhood has been made political.

Other-lips   whispering   between her legs

What they called black hole    not-thing

is really packed full of secrets     A rebel mouth


testifying from the underside […]

from “Second Mouth”

The political poems showcase Choi at her most focused, and that intensity keeps the poems afloat. The strongest poems in Floating, Brilliant, Gone cleave to the page in some way, while still begging to be read out loud, to be performed. However, other poems are bound to performances that the reader can’t access on the page. Lines fall flat, even in the strongest poems. In one poem, “Metamorphosis,” which takes butterflies as its central metaphor, stanzas are scattered on the page like a cloud of butterflies. It’s a striking poem, and yet, even here the page muffles the poem:

he held the last raspberry

of the season to my lips.

the sun was shining. everything

was dying & we

laughed hand in hand

over the graves of
tiny kings.

The final sentence of this stanza contains wonderful music (“the graves of / tiny kings”) and a surprising juxtaposition in “everything / was dying & we / laughed […]” Unfortunately, the uninspired image of the sun simply “shining” weighs the stanza down, though, read out loud, it’s easy enough to ignore the line.

The best poems here are moving, surprising, and big. They speak to loss and love in real and wonderful ways. The second poem in the book, “Halloween, 2009,” begins:

When my boyfriend’s mother

called to tell me


he was dead

I called her a liar


and took the day off.

These lines are spare, but the hurt and denial are huge. In “Kimchi,” Choi plays on her heritage, both familial and, more broadly, as a Korean-Amereican woman, writing, “My parents’ love for each other / was pickled in the brine of 1980 […]” The metaphor of a relationship as kimchi is unexpected and acute. It’s in these poems that the ghosts begin to speak more clearly.

The shortest poem in this collection, “Heaven is a Fairy Tale (& Vice Versa)” reads in full:

We are all

dutifully practicing

our deaths.

In the pages of Floating, Brilliant, Gone the exploration of bodies and how they become ghosts—the “practice” of dying—dominates. The collection suffers slightly from a lack of focus, both in poems individually and overall, but Choi’s voice is strong and at their best these poems ring clear and true. It’s a good bet that Choi’s poems will appear in pages and on stages across the country for some time to come.

What other new poets are you looking forward to reading as their careers grow?


Three Things: The Sci-Fi Edition

2014 October 13

Three Things Banner

This week, I’m in the mood for science fiction. Care to play around with some sci-fi elements in your piece? It’ll be fun, I promise.



Simon Stålenhag, Septemberjägare, from Invasive Species series, 2013. Digital painting.



Melvin Sokolsky, Untitled, from Harper’s Bazaar “Bubble” Spring Collection, Paris, 1963.



Arthur Radebaugh. Illustration from his syndicated Sunday comic strip Closer Than We Think, December 9, 1962. 


P.S. Are you a sci-fi fan living in the Twin Cities? Then you should be at Club Jäger every Tuesday night for JägerCon Sci-Fi Tuesdays, hosted by Rob Callahan. Yessirree.


Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop: A Review

2014 October 10

The Writing Life

This summer, a great and wonderful circumstance led me to the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop. Hosted by Tin House and housed on Reed College campus in Southeast Portland, Oregon, this workshop was the miracle I didn’t know I needed. It was the kick in the pants I didn’t ask for. Most of all, it was deeply touching, intellectually stimulating, and rife with endless seeds of inspiration!

Okay, I’m gushing clichés. But seriously, stick with me while I lay out the excellence which was #THWW14.

Tin House logo

I had the honor of participating in Kevin Young‘s Poetry workshop with eleven other poets. We ranged in age from 20 to 44 and came from all over the U.S.: Indiana, L.A., Florida, Albuquerque, Washington, Maryland, North Carolina, N.Y.C., Portland, OR., et cetera. We had six days of two-and-a-half hour workshops, and each day we workshopped two poets, each for an hour. In the remaining time, Young took requests. We wanted to know… everything: How to begin publishing seriously? What makes a good title? How does one improve & develop his/her writing process? And he obliged, graciously. However, what was so affirming about asking these questions was being in a room with other people who were wondering the same things I was. Furthermore, since the group was diverse and generous, we were able to offer each other heaps and heaps of advice, recommendations, and encouragement.

The community that we developed in the workshop classroom extended out onto the campus and throughout the rest of the week. As is always the case, I learned just as much chatting with my colleagues over lunch and in between lectures as I did during workshop. This was aided by the environment and atmosphere which were carefully crafted and supported by Tin House.

In addition to the workshop, each day held multiple opportunities for stimulating discussion and cross-genre consideration through lectures, seminars, and readings. This year’s faculty included: Matthew Zapruder, Mary Ruefle, Kevin Young, D.A. Powell, Jo Ann Beard, Nick Flynn, Robert Boswell, Dorothy Allison, Jonathan Dee, Anthony Doerr, Ann Hood, Kelly Link, Antonya Nelson, Dana Spiotta, Wells Tower, Joy Williams, Rachel Kushner, and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. And several special guest writers and editors made themselves available, also through seminars, lectures, one-on-one sessions, and readings.  I attended lectures by: Lacy M. Johnson on the Chronology of Memoir, Bianca Stone on Ekphrasis and Poetic Comics, Ann Hood on How to Write a Kick-Ass-Essay, Jo Ann Beard on transfiguring the Personal into the Universal, Kevin Young on the Hoax Poem, Matthew Zapruder on “the meaning” of poetry, D.A. Powell on silence in poetry, and Mary Ruefle on the Imagination. Actually, I’m getting a little hot and bothered just thinking about the innovation and intensity of these conversations! These writers questioned me in ways I wasn’t ready for, and also on matters that I desperately needed to be challenged in. Obviously, I cannot speak highly enough of my experience with the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop, but I also have to acknowledge that it’s not the only opportunity of its kind.

There are countless workshops, conferences, retreats, and residencies for writers each year, and each one offers a unique setting for creative exploration and development. Tin House’s workshop emphasizes networking and highlights the most current arguments and trends in Creative Writing. Other workshops and residences are more interested in creating a laboratory for the writing process. Still others offer interdisciplinary opportunities and even collaboration with other artists in residence. How wonderful and endless. Or, how overwhelming! If you’re thinking about pursuing an intensive writing experience, I suggest Poets & Writers’ database. (The Association of Writers & Writing Programs [AWP] also has a search engine, but I find it more difficult to navigate.) And you might think about asking yourself a few of the following questions as you vet your options:

What is my creative focus right now?

Do I have a specific project in mind?

What stage am I at in my process or project?

Do I need time & space for writing or revision? Or both?

Am I looking for feedback? What kind of feedback (peer, faculty, publisher)?

What is my budget?

What is my timeframe? What season would work best for me? How much time can I devote to this experience?

Clearly, there’s much to consider. And much to be gained. There’s more I’d like to share from my experience, but in the interest of readability, let’s call it a day. Tune in next week for “The Goods,” where I spill the beans about what Kevin Young, and other writers, think everyone should read.