All posts by South 85 Journal

Converse College MFA Open House May 31

Discover why Publishers Weekly named the Converse College Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing “a program to watch” in 2015. Join us at our Open House information session on May 31, 2015 from 6:30-7:30 p.m. in the Barnet Room of the Montgomery Student Center on the Converse campus.

Meet current students, published alumni, and faculty, including Robert Olmstead, Denise Duhamel, Marlin Barton, Leslie Pietrzyk, Susan Tekulve, Albert Goldbarth, C. Michael Curtis, Suzanne Cleary, and program director Rick Mulkey. Learn about the program’s new concentrations in Young Adult Fiction and Environmental Writing, plus scholarship and Teaching Assistantship opportunities, along with information on recent alumni successes in fiction, poetry and nonfiction. Then stay to mingle with current students who are on campus for their summer residency, enjoying live music with Nashville-based folk rock band The Hart Strings beginning at 8 p.m.

More information on the Converse College Low-Residency MFA is available at www.converse.edu/mfa.

About the Converse College Low-Residency MFA

As South Carolina’s only low-residency MFA program in creative writing, the Converse College MFA offers students opportunities to focus in fiction, Y.A. fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and Environmental writing, plus opportunities to pursue internships in publishing and editing through our C. Michael Curtis Publishing Fellowship at Hub City Press. MFA students may also participate in editing opportunities with the program’s national online literary magazine, South 85 Journal, and pursue teaching opportunities with our Teaching Assistant program, a unique opportunity for low residency students.

“One of the strengths of a low-residency format is how it introduces students to the real writing life,” said program director Rick Mulkey. “Most writers have family and career obligations in addition to their writing. While students spend part of each academic year on the Converse campus during the residencies, they continue work on their writing and academic projects during the rest of the year without disruption from their family and career. Plus they study in a true mentor/apprentice relationship with a gifted writer. It provides both an intensive learning environment and the flexibility that most of us need.”

Converse MFA faculty members include National Book Critic Circle Award winners, best-selling novelists, award winning short fiction writers and essayists, plus some of the top editors in the country. “In addition to being outstanding writers, our faculty are energetic and dedicated teachers who have been honored for their classroom instruction,” said Mulkey. “In some graduate programs, a student enrolls to discover that the writer she planned to work with only teaches one course a year, or is on leave while the student is in the program. Here you have the opportunity to work with a large number of writers, editors and agents in a very personal mentoring relationship.”

In the last few years, Converse MFA graduates and current students have distinguished themselves with honors and awards including the AWP Intro Award, a Melbourne Independent Film Festival Award, and the South Carolina Poetry Initiative Prize, among many others. In addition, they have published work in a range of literary venues from Colorado Review, Shenandoah, Ploughshares, and Southern Review to such noted publishers as William Morrow/Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Random House, Negative Capability Press, Finishing Line Press, and others.

In-House Readers

Mark Brazaitis

My older daughter had a few suggestions for a draft of one of my stories:

“We need to know this character’s last name.”

“We need to know what that character looks like.”

“This third character is too mean.”

I began to offer reasons why she was wrong. But they weren’t good reasons. My daughter’s criticism was thoughtful, insightful, and ultimately helpful. Thanks to her, my story improved.

At the time, my daughter was nine-years-old. Although she had been asking to read my stories since her first sweep through the Harry Potter series two years earlier, this was the first time I’d let her. In the copy I gave her, I’d edited out two expletives and a mild reference to sex. Otherwise, she read the story straight, at whatever grade-level it was on. There were subtleties in my story she missed—at least, I’ll flatter myself to think there were—but she understood the essence.

I was of course proud of my daughter, literary critic. But my pride was joined by a selfish delight: I had ensnared another family member to read my drafts!

Why bother to seek readers in workshops, on-line, or even around the block when you can find them in the next room?

My sister, whom I have bombarded with my drafts since we were both in college, is usually entirely complimentary about my work. Occasionally, however, she pinpoints exactly what I’ve done wrong. For example, on a long story I’d labored over for months, and which had continued to confound me, she offered: “I wonder if this is Maria’s story rather than Tom’s.”

“Well, no,” I began to argue, “it’s Tom’s story because…” But of course she was right. The source of my months-long agony was revealed: I had employed the wrong point of view.

It might hurt to have a family member criticize one’s work, especially if the family member isn’t a writer and is therefore un-credentialed. (My sister is a psychologist; my daughter is years from choosing a career.) But it’s a worse feeling when a family member won’t criticize one’s work and it’s at risk of stepping, un-groomed and smelly, into the world.

When I was twenty-three, I gave my mother the first novel I’d ever written to read. In retrospect, my nine-year-old daughter could have written something more coherent and mature. My mother’s assessment, written on the final page of my manuscript in bold, blue strokes: “Make way for the new Shakespeare!”

Presumably she was referring to Gilbert Shakespeare, William’s younger brother, a haberdasher.

(That particular novel has been erased everywhere but my memory.)

My mother’s critique was echoed, in a fashion, by my fiction workshop leader at Bowling Green State University, where I earned my MFA. After expounding on the faults of a story one of us presented in workshop, he would sometimes stop suddenly, gaze solemnly around the table, and say, “These may be mere quibbles,” then, in his booming voice, advise, “Send it to The New Yorker!”

We might have recognized his imperative as hyperbole if one of his students, a few years before, hadn’t had a story plucked off The New Yorker’s slush pile and published in its august pages. The story also appeared in that year’s edition of The Best American Short Stories, which made our professor’s send-it-to-The-New-Yorker advice all the more tempting to heed.

I contend that one doesn’t need to be a writer or have an MFA to offer helpful advice on a manuscript.

I drafted my wife, a marketer with an MBA, as a reader even before we were engaged. Although I couldn’t have been consciously auditioning her as a life’s partner based on the feedback she gave my fiction, it didn’t hurt our courtship for me to read: “This is fantastic. Wonderful. Maybe add a little more description in the opening scene. Also, slow down the ending. Let us linger. It’s lovely.”

My wife is still my first reader. As is befitting of where we are in our marriage—sixteen years, two children, 127 arguments, including, most recently, one over cupcakes—her critiques skip the pleasantries and hone in on the heart of the matter, often with a single word: “Redundant.” “Pretentious.” “No!”

Recently, she solidified her case as the bluntest of my critics when she said, midway through a gnarly section of what had pretensions of being a novel, “If this appeared in a book I’d bought, I would put it down now.” What she didn’t have to add was, “But because you’re my husband, I will grudgingly keep reading.”

One reason I love having those near and dear to me read my work is that even when they hate it, they feel obliged to keep going.

But my favorite of my wife’s criticisms is one of her one-word masterpieces: “Yuck!”

A writing friend of mine once told me she would never give her husband her drafts to read. “I need unconditional love,” she said.

For me, however, love is never having to say “Nice” when you mean “Yuck.”

 

Brazaitis P&P 3Mark Brazaitis is the author of six books of fiction, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose, and Julia & Rodrigo, winner of the 2012 Gival Press Novel Award. His latest book, Truth Poker: Stories, won the 2014 Autumn House Press Fiction Competition: http://www.autumnhouse.org/product/truth-poker-mark-brazaitis/.

His book of poems, The Other Language, won the 2008 ABZ Poetry Prize.

Writing for discovery

Why I Write: Discovery vs. Self-Expression

Terry Lucas

For the past fifteen years, during my morning appointment with the muse (I’ve shown up most days, even if she hasn’t), I play a game. I pretend that language is older than life on this planet, older than life on any planet, the planets themselves, stars—even this universe. I assume that language is built into the fabric of reality itself and, therefore, due to both its age and experience, has something to teach me. Thus, I come to language every morning in order to discover myself, rather than to express myself. This difference involves more than semantics; it is as important a distinction as can exist for writers, dividing them and their work into two camps with, I believe, two entirely different results.

1. Writing as expression tends to be predictable; writing as discovery tends to subvert the reader’s expectations. We’ve all heard the maxim “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Writing to express means that the writer already “knows” (on some level) what’s going to be written before it comes out. Writing to discover oneself means that there is an open-endedness to the drafting of each line or sentence that always leaves room for lightning to strike.

How often in a workshop have you heard a writer defend a particular word or phrase against a suggested change with “but that’s not the way it happened!”? I love Dorianne Laux’s response: “We love you, but we really don’t care”—meaning that what’s important is the poem, the story, the end result, not that you are faithful in providing a precise chronicle of events or expressing your particular take on them. In poetry—Laux’s and my genre—language trumps the writer’s experiences, opinions, and beliefs every time because, as Lewis Turco points out in The Book of Forms (University Press of New England, 2000), “poetry is the art of language.” But even in other genres, it is the emotional truth conveyed in a fresh way, rather than mere historical facts, that maintains the reader’s interest.

2. Writing as expression tends to deplete a writer; writing as discovery tends to enrich a writer with even greater potential for creating new work. From Larry Levis, in “Elegy with a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage,” we learn that one characteristic of a voice so absorbed in self-expression that it diminishes into silence is its increasing lack of particularity:

Like the voice that went on whispering ceaselessly its dry rage
Without listeners. He said that even if anyone heard it,
They could not have recognized the dialect

As anything human . . .

. . . he began to lose interest in stories, & to speak
Only in abstractions, to speak only of theories,

Never of things.
Then he began to come in less frequently, and when he did,
He no longer spoke at all.

Then near the close of the poem, Levis gives us these astonishing lines:

What do you do when nothing calls you anymore?
When you turn & there is only the light filling the empty window?
When the Angel fasting inside you has grown so thin it flies
Out of you a last time without your

knowing it, & the water dries up in its thimble . . .

. . . I’m going to stare at the whorled grain of wood in this desk
I’m bent over until it’s infinite,

I’m going to make it talk, I’m going to make it
Confess everything.”

The it in these last lines is literally the wood in the poet’s desk, but metaphorically it is the page and the language of specificity that fills it when the poet writes. This process of listening to one’s own writing until it “confesses every thing” is what achieves the quality of poems Levis wrote; expressing one’s abstract thoughts about it leads to a drought of words—“the water dry[ing] up in its thimble.”

3. Writing as expression is like breathing out without breathing in—try that for a minute or so and see what happens. Writing as discovery is inhaling the words of great writers and watching that language evolve into something new that you exhale into the world. This is a corollary to number 2 above. I’ve long held to the idea that writer’s block is really only reader’s block in disguise. When writers come to me for help, one of the first questions I ask them is what they are reading. Most of the time they’re not reading anything. When I’m in a slump, I read those writers whose language speaks to me (like Levis). Or—here’s the open-ended aspect again—I read against my own grain—writers I don’t particularly like, to see what their language has to say to me.

Then I go to sleep, and wake up in time once again for my appointment with the muse of language, and see if she has anything to say.

 

Terry LucasTerry Lucas won the 2014 Crab Orchard Review Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry. His most recent chapbook, If They Have Ears to Hear, won the Copperdome Award from Southeast Missouri State University Press, and his full-length collection of poems, In This Room, is forthcoming from CW Books in February of 2016. Terry is Associate Editor of Trio House Press, and a freelance poetry consultant at www.terrylucas.com.

Remembering How to Write

Karen Ashburner

After giving up writing for close to five years, I am writing and submitting at least one thing every day now. I have been rejected twice in the last three weeks, and accepted once. At first the rejections were bothering me, but now I am easing into it, remembering what it felt like: yes, no, yes, yes, no…maybe. The writing is becoming a part of me again, like growing back a long-lost limb. My writing limb was lost in a fire, along with all my books and my clothes and my house and my sense of well-being.

After it all burned down, I put my mind to tangible things, concrete things: raising children, making jam, cooking dinners. I put everything poetic into a box labeled “silly” and hid it away because to write means to feel in a way non-writers can’t understand. It hurts. It makes us fall in love with melancholy; it makes us long for impossible relationships with far-away people.

I am starting to feel things again, remember things, bad things and good things. Bad things make for good writing more often than good things so it is sometimes difficult and it sometimes makes me sad. To disassociate and to connect with the sadness, at the same time, I listen to the same song on repeat while I write. The repetition clears my head. I don’t even hear the words. I don’t even know how many times I repeat it. Over and over, some disco song from the seventies that reminds me of my childhood. Some indie rock song that makes me feel like a teenager.

Outside, it is snowing, On the television, the studio talks to a reporter driving on the highways with a camera to prove how dangerous the roads have become. I flip through the pages of a book that tells me how to raise honey bees. I am storing it all for later and when it gets too crowded in my brain, I will write it all down, combining the sadness of my burning house with the swirling white snow, and the trick to retrieving a summer swarm of bees that has settled into the branches of a tree.

 

karen-ashburnerKaren Ashburner is a sci-fi prop artist and lives in North Carolina. Her prose is published around the Internet. You can see her sci-fi designs at www.sweetrocketsky.com and view her list of publications at www.karenashburner.com.

The Dunce of Listicles

Denise Low

1. In a 1970s poetry class I read “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and begin writing numbered, sectioned poems. I feel very cool.
2. In 2014 I discover “listicle,” the word for numbered, sectioned trivia like “Five Ways to Shampoo Your Poodle” and “Eight Origami Folds for Trash Sacks.”
3. A fellow writer tells me she makes a good income teaching “How to Write Listicles” workshops. She seems very cool.
4. In 2008 I find one of my early books of numbered, sections poems in a used bookstore, inscribed to a frenemy who decided to purge bookshelves of my presence. Every poet in town goes to this bookstore, so this private gesture is a public announcement. This is a brilliant passive-aggressive coup.
5. In 2009 at the same bookstore I discover one of my earlier books marked up with corrections and suggestions for improvement. In the front leaf I see this assignment was due March 8 for the Advanced Poetry Class. Only on the last page do I find praise—“The image of wheeling Orion works okay.” I feel less cool.
6. I do not have the cash to buy this book and burn it. I decide to let it travel through the time listicle known as the calendar until the paper pages are recycled for toilet paper.
7. In 2010 my new book of numbered, sectioned poems appears in the mailbox. It is not yet a book of listicle poems. On the first page I realize the printer cut off the last section.
8. The poem works better without it.
9. In 1984 I take my children to the special collections library to find a review of my numbered, sectioned poem, a sequence of quilt pattern names. The librarian gives the kids free pencils and brings the review. The brief, unsectioned review praises the typography, handmade paper, and abstract designs derived from quilt patterns—but finds my poems “lackluster.”
10. The children draw me happy faces with their stubby library pencils after this big Ow-ie.
11. The same day the mail carrier brings a rejection letter for a numbered, sectioned poem.
12. Rejection always comes in listicles.
13. This one says, “The T’Ang poets already did what you are attempting. Give it up.” I burn the letter. Later, I regret its loss because when I tell the story, no one believes it is true.
14. It is.
15. In 2015 I realize everything I write is a listicle, snaking through the bowel of Mother Wormhole, like Stephen Hawking’s arrow of time only wriggling forward in eel-like motions. Sometimes numbers appear on the page. Sometimes pages are unnumbered, and sectioned episodes of my existence simply disappear into the white field beyond all listicles.
16. I wake up in the pure air of the 1970s and hear blackbirds call my name thirteen times.

Poet Denise LowDenise Low, 2nd Kansas Poet Laureate, is author of 25 books: Jackalope Walks into an Indian Bar (forthcoming); Mélange Block (Red Mountain Press); Ghost Stories (Woodley, a Kansas Notable Book; The Circle – Best Native American Books); and Natural Theologies: Essays (Backwaters Press). Low is past president of the Associated Writers and Writing Programs board. She blogs, reviews, and publishes Mammoth Publications. She teaches professional workshops as well as classes for Baker University’s School of Professional and Graduate Studies. She has British Isles, German, and Delaware Indian heritage. Her MFA is from Wichita State University and PhD is from Kansas University. Find her online at www.deniselow.net.