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Archive for September, 2009

Matt Briggs

Matt Briggs

Matt Briggs is one of my favorite contemporary prose writers, and I had the pleasure of meeting him after he read in William Allegrezza’s Series A at Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago, back in April 2007. After the reading, I began the process of tracking down Matt’s American Book Award winning novel Shoot the Buffalo. It was one of the best books I read in 2007,  is one of my favorite novels, and is a book I recommend constantly. I’ve also read The Moss Gatherers and Misplaced Alice, two of Matt’s short story collections, which feature little oddities and obscure occurrences: the uncanny. Matt other books include The Remains of River Names and The End is the Beginning. The End is the Beginning is in my queue of books to read, soon.

Matt Briggs blogs here. His blog is fantastic and has a lot of links and resources. He also writes regularly for Fictionaut blog, keeping a column on neglected fiction called Rediscovered Reading. He also writes regularly for Reading Local: Seattle.

Matt told me he is coming back to Chicago this fall to read in Series A again. I’ll keep you updated when I get a definite date and time.

When and why did you get interested in blogging?

When I feel lonesome as a writer like no one reads me, I write a blog post because then I can see how many page views my blog post gets. If my blog post gets a lot of page views, I feel like a less lonesome wrier. If my blog post gets no page views, I feel miserable. This is the when and why of my interest in blogging.

I have kept a blog since 2002. Using a computer is completely entangled in my writing practice, but I am old enough that I am aware that this isn’t a given. A person doesn’t need to use a computer to write, just as they don’t, technically, need a typewriter. They need technology of some kind, an alphabet (which is a technology), something to make a mark (a pen, a needle and some blood, charcoal, something), and something to store the mark, like paper. To be black and white about it, if you use a pen and an alphabet, you might as well use a blog.

I need a computer because I am dyslexic. As a dyslexic, computers are blessing and a curse. For example as I type text Microsoft Word “corrects” my mangled typing into a word that is actually a word in the dictionary. It may not be the right word, but it is in the dictionary, and my brain tricks me into seeing what I meant to say rather than what Microsoft Word has “autocorrected” incorrectly. I use two grammar checkers (Microsoft Word’s pretty lame one, and a still lame but less-lame grammar checker called, Grammarian). I still make typos that a “normal” person can see at six paces. And of course computer programs are still idiot copy editors. But my reliance on computers as a writer makes me suspicious of them, but also makes me willing to try new things with them all of the time.

I’m always trying out new word processors. Mostly I want to find one that has a grammar processor that is a like a portable copy editor and a brilliant substantive editor such as Maxwell Perkins. Perkins was a famous editor who essentially made the writer Thomas Wolfe by deleting piles of extra stuff Wolfe had written. You could say he set the precedent for Gordon Lish/Raymond Carver. Concision is something I can only do if I have a lot of time on my hands. I’d like a piece of software that could produce flawless copy edits according to the style manual of my choice and perform edits like the editor of my choice.

Before I had a blog, I was writing emails, and before I was writing emails, I was sending and receiving letters. Some people miss letters, but the fact is, they only send notes in FaceBook and the occasional email now telling me they miss letters. They don’t actually send me letters. I don’t miss letters. Letters were slow, and letters didn’t have Google Analytics.

Do you read blogs? Which ones? How often?

I read blogs all of the time. Everyday I’m reading something on a blog. Actually it has also come to the point where I am reading tweets about blogs, and may not actually read the blogs. The current book blogs I tend to check: HTML Giant, Ron Silliman’s Blog, Reading Local, The Rumpus, Fictionaut Blog, Bookslut, Luna Park, and The Elegant Variation. I also go through my blogroll and read blogs that way, as well.

How does blogging affect your writing practice?

I see blogging, the production of a steady stream of text, as an important part of my writing practice. It is however separate, or tangential to writing stories or books.

At first I thought a blog was a kind of a way to distribute writing. It was like a magazine. People could read it. But text on a screen that is accessible primarily through a screen and written primarily through a screen is different than text that is in a book. While most books are read on paper, even an ebook is contained in the metaphor of a page. A blog post, however, is not a printed page. A post is a malleable piece of media that can be manipulated, altered, and reused. It might be displayed in a Web page, but it also might be drawn into an application and used in some other way. Anything can happen to a blog post. It might be used to sell Viagra.

I’m working on a book about this called The Channel Manifesto. I wanted to call it The Channel Assembly, but had originally called the manuscript “a manifesto,” and the editor preferred the older, more confrontational declaration implied by the term “manifesto.” An assembly rather than a manifesto is a bundle of different parts that only belong together because they have been collected. An assembly is an arranged collection of objects. A manifesto, on the other hand, is a single object. It is singular, and agrees with itself. An assembly might not agree with itself. You can assemble things that do not go together. This seems more in line with the Web than making things agree with themselves.

A blog is more malleable than a publication. It may seem essentially the same as a publication. Words are written and put out and people read the words, sometimes. But unlike a publication, the author can adjust and fiddle with the text after it has been published. The author can measure the people who read these words. The author knows if something they have written has been read a lot of times or only a few times and where these readers come from — that is where they live, the kinds of computers they use, and where they have come from on the Web, and where they go after they read the blog. Sometimes these readers leave comments and notes to elaborate the post.

This does not happen at nearly the same speed with a book. A book may collect comments, reviews, and maybe even show up in people’s wish list online, or sometimes in reading guides. But the author doesn’t know how many people have read the book. He knows how many copies have sold, provided he trusts the number his publisher is giving him. But he doesn’t know how many used copies were sold. He doesn’t know how many people bought the book but didn’t read it. Or maybe read it and then loaned it all of her friends. He doesn’t know where this happens. Or what book they read next or the book they read before they read his book.

And so, writing becomes engaged in a different but related way to the writing of books and stories when the writer blogs. There are so called “Internet writers” or “Blog writers” who are in their twenties now. They seem to dislike this term. I think they assume there is a kind of smallness or fakeness to this term. After all, in their writing practice there were blogs pretty much before they started to write. They assume the things that are knowable on a blog are knowable because they know them about their own blogs and their own writing. They know who reads there blogs, and the numbers, and the kinds of things they write on their blogs that cause interest and the things people are not interested in. This is to them is simply “writing.” Writing includes this feedback loop. There is nothing as far as they can see that separates them from writers who do not blog.

But I know writers who do not blog and they are not interested necessarily in knowing the things that are knowable about the readers of a blog. These writers are content with the mystery that is part of writing a book and then publishing it. Maybe you see someone on a bus with your book. You can see them, but you don’t know their name, or where they came from before they got on the bus, or where they are going to go after they leave the bus. There are thoughts inside of their head as they read the book you wrote where you took thoughts from inside your head and put them down on maybe three hundred and eighteen sheets of paper over a six-year period. They are holding all of that thought you had and you know nothing about them except they are holding the book in their hand and their head with the eyeball part pointed at the open surface of the book. Maybe they turn a page while you are watching them. You assume they have read the words on the page. But you don’t know that. Maybe they can’t read and they just like to pretend to read books? And they are pretending to read a book you wrote. You get off the bus because it is your stop and they go off to wherever they go off to and you as the author are completely absent from the reader’s point of view.

Some writers like it that way, I think, or maybe they aren’t suckered into believing the metrics collected from a blog about people reading the words you wrote provide insight into that transaction. What would Hemingway do for instance if his short stories had page views? Would we get more “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and less “Hills Like White Elephants”? Maybe it would have been a good thing if Hemingway had Google Analytics.

Further Reading: “Knot” at Birkensnake; shorts and short fiction; essays and nonfiction; media a/v.

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In order to maximize the effectiveness of the portfolio swap, you will exchange your portfolio with one person from your small group (they will give you theirs; you will give them yours). This way, someone more familiar with your writing will get to look at, and it will be someone you pick and agree with.

We we also do an inter-group swap, so someone who has only experienced your work in a large group workshop can read a larger sampling and offer detailed feedback. So group Chicago Fire (Jason, Katie, Sean, Maggie, Tony, Kristen) will give their portfolios to group Tender Buttons (Ryan, Daniel, Kristina, Annie, Megan, Rob). Group Tender Buttons will give their portfolios to group AAA & LSD (formerly S(t)ickNasty & A(l)isons) (Lisa, Allie M., Alli P., Alison, Dani, Stacie). Group AAA & LSD will give their portfolios to group Chicago Fire. After the exchange, each member can select a portfolio (I would advise against tactical switching and try to pick without thinking about it too much).

Full-group workshop will continue as scheduled: Alli P. and Jason should bring a piece to distribute to class tomorrow.

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Next week, on Thursday, October 1, we will be swapping midterm portfolios between students. I think I would like you all to swap with two other people, so you will need to bring two copies of the portfolio.

For the Midterm Portfolio:

This portfolio will need to include several things in order to be considered complete:

  • a cover letter
  • 7-10 pages of work that you consider to be “drafts”
  • 1-2 specific questions (can’t be answered yes or no) per page to guide feedback
  • a submission to Euphemism, ISU’s literary magazine that follows their submission guidelines
  • BCC me (cshalle at ilstu dot edu) when you submit your work

The cover letter should be written as a letter to your reader. It can include the following:

  • advice for reading you well
  • an introduction to specific works and what you set out to do in them
  • speculations about what you would do with these texts if you had more time
  • other pertinent information like acknowledgment of people (real, deceased, and in books, etc.) who helped this portfolio get written
  • a signature

The cover letter should be about 300 words (a single spaced page in an 11 0r 12 point font. You should clip you work together with a paper clip, but it is best not to staple. If order of pages is important, do include page numbers.

For Readers:

You should read the portfolios you are given carefully. Mark up the pages and make notes. In an approximately one-page (300 word single spaced) response, describe what you think the works are doing and how they are doing it. Since these are drafts, you can offer suggestions for revision, but please be mindful of questions the author asks and what their letter states about their intentions. How do these match up with the works and what they really do?

You will need to bring the marked-up portfolios with reader responses back to class on Tuesday, October 6 to give to me to read. I will respond accordingly.

All of this will be in addition to (not in lieu of) our regular workshopping and class activities.

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Mike Theune

Mike Theune

Mike Theune is a poet and professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. I first met Mike at the Matt Guenette/Jason Bredle I mentioned in a previous interview post. Luckily, I’ve gotten to know Mike much better now that I’ve relocated to Bloomington-Normal. He’s a super-smart critic and has encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary poetry, and we’ve definitely had some great conversations that have enlightened me and clarified my thinking about poetry.

His first book, Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns (Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2007), is an excellent resource for poets and teachers. It is essentially a study of poetic structures and poetic rhetorical moves. The focus is how poems make meaning via turns or changes/leaps in thought. Not only is this book great for poetry lovers, but it is also the book I recommend to teachers who have a difficult time teaching poetry. Mike began blogging in support of this book this year on his Structure & Surprise blog, which lets him keep the book current and add new content. He also writes regularly about poetry for the journal Pleiades.

Mike Theune is reading with Chip Corwin at Illinois Wesleyan’s Hansen center today, September 24 at 8 pm. They will be reading from their collaboration The Divine Pregunta (responses to Neruda’s Book of Questions) and The Book of Exclamations, funny and engaging “punchline poetics.”

When and why did you get interested in blogging?

I got interested in blogging because I got interested in other blogs.  Over the past three(plus) years, I came to realize how much of the conversation about contemporary poetry was occurring online.  I wanted in on the action.

More specifically, in 2007, I published a book, Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns (Teacher & Writers, 2007).  This book, I think, starts a new strand of conversation about what (a lot of) poems are and how they work.  Starts—the book itself acknowledges its own status as a conversation starter by, for example, including a section of supplemental poems in each of its chapters.  The blog allows me to continue such threads of conversation.  For instance, I have posts and pages devoted to additional supplemental poems and even to structures that I’d not had the space to include in the book.  I also try in many of my posts to show how the conversation started in Structure & Surprise interfaces with the larger, ongoing conversation of and about contemporary poetry, reviewing relevant publications and discussing trends in poetry pedagogy.

Do you read blogs?  Which ones?  How often?

I read blogs all the time.  Off the top of my head, I read Ron Silliman’s blog, Harriet (the blog of the Poetry Foundation), Seven Corners, Mark Wallace’s blog (wallacethinksagain), and American Busboy (Matt Guenette’s blog).  And I employ the links they use, so I end up reading a lot of blogs (along with other online content) in my forays into the blogosphere.  I check in on Silliman’s blog and Harriet about every other day.  The others, I check about once a week.

How does blogging affect your writing practice?

Here’s the thing: I think my kind of blog affects my writing practice very little.  My blog isn’t really that expressive or experimental, rather it is an extension of my book.  Thus, in my blog I try to write clearly and succinctly for a general audience.  I try to use some wit to keep things alive and moving, but in general my blogging is a good deal of business—important business, I think, but business nonetheless.

If you want to see a blog that I think really reflects and encourages a style, you should check out Matt Guenette’s American Busboy.  (Matt’s previous blog was Exquisite Platypus.)  Matt is a terrific poet, and he’s a terrific blogger, and the blog has to encourage the kind of thinking that goes into his poems.  Matt’s posts are funny and thoughtful as heck, but also at times outraged, despairing, bemused—just like his poems.  And, in fact, I know Matt has had poems that have grown directly from his posts.  Sometimes, he incorporates new poems into posts.  Here is a poet who uses the blog in the same way that poets (up to just a few years ago) would have used a journal: to think, to inspire, and to activate.  If I start a personal blog, I will aspire to write one like Matt’s, one that I’m sure will feed into my own poetic practice.

Further Reading:  Seven Corners; Aphorisms @ All Aphorisms, All the Time; “Ballade” & “I Saw it Move” @ Sedge w/ Chip Corwin.

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Show/Tell

Mahakala circulates

above ignorants’

neck leather, amber,

overhand knot.

pick pillbox then

pick show. shadows live up

to music, holy real of platinum

finger schola cantorum: wet petals

from the loft @ end of summer.

teacher light makes perfect vortex of

St. Louis in random quotes.

VaTech shooter too close two

dead friends’ shit went down:

We can still see you.

Two Roosters

& grandmother above my toilet two weeks

wax mustache

deadly people of extreme sports

Consolidated Ledge Butta buy rail prep

Animal Series 1-3 years’ tiny mitts

brooks are creeks. farm books of Chinese

made I Ching ball game to predict

father-son historical Depression

The Jovanovic women in a forgotten

war picture and brother and sister, say

never get to see steps separated, say

still cherish it along, say bookstrap

time walking instead of reading ration

labels divination from street signs, aphids,

soybeans, windmills, & constellations

keep it open leather bound and lead

weights champagne Annie wait my camp

name is 24/9 kitchen staff guitar circle.

she smoked some chords leaned

into chorus, halving night into

Green Lake grows fish ministry

and conference center 64 thoughts

on word and number: 14, 12, 10, 3 ½, 2.

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Write a ten line text. The text must include a proverb, adage, cliche or familiar phrase. You must change this expression in some way. In other words, it can’t be transparent or played straight. It must also include at least five of the following words:

  • cliff
  • blackberry
  • needle
  • voice
  • whir
  • cloud
  • mother
  • lick

You have ten minutes to complete this text.

Rationale: This exercies give us a fruitful way to use cliches to our advantage by not playing them straight. The time constraints combined with the list force us to act on them rather than get caught up in thinking and associations.

For later: What we have essentially done by adding constraints to our writing is created a form, of sorts. When writing poetry, devising forms often helps me to write sequences of poems that have overt connections or make me think through language in a certain way. If the constraint, form, or project seems productive, I follow Mei Mei Bersenbrugge’s advice and “play a form of feeling out to the end.” In other words, I go as far as I can. This can get us thinking beyond the single text while still focusing our attention on the single text. It is a step of invention that points toward something larger: project, portfolio, sequence, collection, or book.

Adapted from Rita Dove’s  “Ten-Minute Spill” in The Practice of Poetry, Robin Behn and Chase Twichell, eds.

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Check out this article that posits new use value for fiction as it can help humans to empathize and imagine themselves as part of something larger than the self.

Or this one that says Franz Kafka’s stories increase cognitive function (notice, too, the positive effects are generated by surprise and enstrangement…)
Further links:

http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/122525255/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/06/health/06mind.html?_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss

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