Guest Post: Literary Community at The Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House

By David McLoghlin

The first time I used the term MFA was not in a Master of Fine Arts context. My close friend Sorcha Hyland and I used to salute each other in our letters and emails with an affectionate, “how are you doing, MFA?!”—our acronym for motherfucker. Continue reading

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Guest Post: From Adjunct to Amateur Astrologist

Guest posts are intended as first-person windows onto contributors’ journeys to make a life in writing. 

Psychic Barista by Ariel Fintushel

by Ariel Fintushel

Part I. From Double Shifts to Graduate School

As I write this, there is a partial Full moon eclipse in Aquarius which means something is being excavated. A hand – is it mine? – reaches in and extracts: what will you let go of and what will you become?

In between double shifts as a barista and as a waitress in a Middle Eastern restaurant serving soggy aram rolls, I read Rob Breszny’s horoscope column in the Bohemian newspaper. These are ridiculous, I think to myself, I’d do a better job. It reminds me of what Bukowski said, “When I begin to doubt my ability to work the word, I simply read another writer and know I have nothing to worry about.”

It was the year after I graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a B.A. in Global Literature. I thought I might travel to Thailand to live in a monastery or trek in wild landscapes, but instead I moved back home, got a small apartment with my boyfriend, and worked. I found a copy of Wang Ping’s The Magic Whip and Kim Addonizio’s Tell Me in the local library and would read at night, dreaming of a way to escape customer service: “When asked where I’m from,/ I say ‘Weihai,’ even though/ nobody knows where it is,/ even though I’ve never been to that place” (Wang Ping from “Mixed Blood”). I started wearing someone else’s name tag: “Mariah, it means wind,” a customer told me.

When I learned I was accepted to SF State’s MFA program as a poet, I had surging feelings of self-worth and even arrogance. It made dealing with snotty customers and overflowing toilets that much better. “I’m going to get my MFA and become a professor of poetry,” I told them. “Not that scone,” they replied, “the one with more blueberries on it.”

Part II. My First Class with Stacy Doris

The year I moved to San Francisco was 2009, and Jupiter in my ninth house meant my ideals were not matching up to reality. I found a house on 34th and Judah where the ocean made a steam room of the streets and rode my bike to Stacy Doris’s class for the first time. “Any poetry that doesn’t somehow begin in a realm of wild fantasy is not worth the writing,” she said. I liked her already.

The MFA is supposed to take 3 years, but because I took every class Stacy taught regardless of whether I needed the credit, it took me four. Her classes were workshops for collaboration where we listened with a meditator’s focus investigating the nature of sound and its implications for our writing. They were experiential classes, and we traversed the campus banging garbage cans and cataloguing the noises it could make. Once Stacy led us through Union Square and Chinatown where we recorded a parade, an opera in the alley, wind chimes, and the Blue Angels in order to make sound compilations exploring the phenomenon of interruption.

Stacy was my advisor, but she was also a friend. When my boyfriend broke up with me over Christmas, she said, “You’ll meet someone fun.” We got soup at Judahlicious, and she showed me her poem, “A Month of Valentines”: “To my Love Supreme// from her little/ lotus flower: Bud/ stamen and leaf/ my heart only beats/ with hope of your/ touch./ Kevin.” or “Red Rose:// All leather, rare/ flowers/ your cavelier lips/ my ponytail puff/ to dinosaur shape./Let’s fuck.// Ph.D.”

Part III. The Graduate Thesis

When Stacy passed away from a rare cancer affecting her smooth, involuntary muscles, Camille Dungy became my advisor. While Stacy told me, “I see a book in here,” Camille asked important and difficult questions: “what’s at stake” and “where are you in all this?”  Many of Stacy’s students felt suddenly lost and abandoned. Like one of her beloved disciples said, “Now the world is just a little bit shittier.”

Instead of “When where am I is I,” I took Camille’s class, Literary Mapping. I tried to write things that were more personal but sometimes felt like I was trying to dredge up traumas that did not exist. “Sometimes what is neutral is most powerful,” she suggested.

I focused on learning to teach. With two sessions of my own 25 person Introduction to Creative Writing class, I was overcome with excitement that also manifest as anxiety. If one student looked bored, my whole world ended.

In the meantime, my graduate thesis was a slurry of writing including illustrated comics inserted on a whim to make things feel more coherent. I was not disappointed with my thesis because I knew there was a lot to digest between Stacy’s and Camille’s different approaches to poetry. Like Basho said, “‘To learn about the pine tree… go to the pine tree; to learn from the bamboo, study bamboo” (qtd. in The Heart of Haiku by Jane Hirshfield). Both Dungy and Doris taught me this principle, sending me out into the field to investigate my questions.

Part IV. Teaching in New York City

After my MFA, I took a chance and moved into a Queens apartment with a new love. I got a job teaching English and Literature at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC). There I met poet Andrew Levy who gave me a copy of his book, Nothing is in Here and gave me advice over coffee.

BMCC’s small adjunct offices were packed with books and shoved you right up against your co workers encouraging conversation. I met a Syrian man with a PhD. in theater who said he had been there on September 11th, wandering aimlessly, unable to get a cab home. I met another who told me how to teach MLA citation and also buy an umbrella that would last. One adjunct told me how he supported himself by writing curriculum for tests and leading a trivia night in a metal bar.

The students at BMCC had a lot of energy. They were from all over – Haiti, Puerto Rico, Africa, the Bronx – “You have to live in the Bronx,” they told me. They wrote about dancing the Bachata and their New York identities whether immigrant or native. I made wacky essay assignments like compare Bob Marley to Salman Rushdie and defend a new set of laws for America. It was exhilarating but also exhausting. I took two trains lugging my heavy book bags through security and up six escalators to my classroom then all that in reverse on the way home.

Part V. Teaching in Los Angeles

After a year, I moved to Los Angeles and got married. I got a job teaching at the Acting, Music and Dance Academy (AMDA) and Oxnard College. I found it more difficult to meet coworkers at Oxnard and often felt lonely.

One day, during a heat wave, lugging my bags to a cafe to grade between classes, I had a thought: I’m a manual laborer. I did the math – I was making about $5.00 an hour tops if I counted lesson planning, grading, emailing and even less if I counted the commute. My back was always sore and I had to put my legs up the wall at home like when I was a barista. Also, I was always sick and had recently been to the emergency room for bouts of asthmatic coughing attacks which disrupted my lessons.

Diane di Prima said, “I wanted everything—very earnestly and totally—I wanted to have every experience I could have, I wanted everything that was possible to a person in a female body, and that meant that I wanted to be mother.” When I got pregnant, I had all-day morning sickness and used that as impetus to quit teaching in the middle of the semester. I broke out of the cycle, and that gave me a new perspective. I felt like Saturn gone retrograde had liberated my idealistic, Neptunian instincts. I lounged around for a month imagining other possible career paths.

Part VI. Life Beyond Academia

For fun, I picked up a freelance horoscope gig writing weekly and monthly sun-sign horoscopes. The pay was better than what I made as a professor. Plus, it was fun to spend time thinking about the Cosmos–I felt like the guy who burns down his house to buy a telescope with the insurance money from Robert Frost’s poem, “Star-splitter.”

Since I still had time on my hands, I volunteered with a non-profit called Women’s Voices Now writing curriculum. All of a sudden they said, hey, why not make a films and poetry workshop. Before I knew it, I was writing a grant proposal then driving alongside the ocean on Hwy. 1 to teach my first class. Stacy wrote, “Only the nerves are a sea plant we can’t gather. They spread like fire on a curtain of trees.”

Every moment I spent planning and facilitating the workshop was in honor of the residents who took my class. It felt important to publish their work, so I made them a small anthology and also a video poem where their words and voices were raised up in honor of their creations. They wrote about homelessness with the poignancy of Rumi yearning for the Beloved: “We have the Right 2 Rest/ We have no home/ Where can we go?/ Sleep at the Mayor’s house, or the Governor’s mansion?/ Will they roll out the red carpet 4 us?” (Sunshine). Where the government failed them, I hoped to offer something: a spot they could return to be themselves, to be heard respectfully and speak with dignity.

On November 18th this year there is a new Moon in Scorpio representing an intimate blossoming and reverence for mystery. Overlapped with this cosmic event, my friend and I are hosting a 3-day inaugural retreat. Participating artists and writers will encounter a series of experiential workshops to commune, engage and dialogue with the desert culminating in an anthology.

In “Song of Enlightenment” Yoka Daishi sings of the desert, “You cannot take hold of it, and you cannot get rid of it; it goes on its own way. You speak and it is silent; you remain silent, and it speaks.” Sometimes I want to pin my purpose down, or pin down a poem, but of course that ruins it. “Poetry buckles under the weight of seriousness of purpose,” Doris wrote. Even the stars and planets are constantly in transit, pummeling us with a mishmosh of intentions and forces that result in the rough and wild terrain that becomes both art and life.


Ariel Fintushel is a Los Angeles poet working as the Curriculum Developer for the non-profit Women’s Voices Now. She runs a creative writing workshop called Films & Poetry at Turning Point Shelter in Santa Monica, and has previously taught at SF State, Borough of Manhattan Community College, Oxnard College, The American Academy of Music and Dance, and is a creative writing instructor for California Poets in the Schools. She has an MFA from SF State. Her writing has been published by Huffington Post, Zaum, Baltimore University’s Welter, The A3 Review, and elsewhere. She enjoys making audio and also illustrated poems and is interested in the desert as a place of deprivation and miracles, latent energy, adventure, malice, and mysticism.

Pediatrics and Poetry Arrive from the Same Impulse: An Interview with Irène Mathieu

You’re a pediatrician and a poet. Did one of those interests arrive first, or do you think of poetry and medicine as different aspects of the same interest?

Pediatrics and poetry arise from the same impulse for me – the desire to connect with other humans in a healing way. I have always been interested in stories, especially those that don’t make it into dominant narratives, and the therapeutic potential of listening to and telling these stories. Practically, as a pediatrician, this means focusing my efforts on helping the kids with the most acute struggles – socially, economically, etc. – not only as their physician but also as a researcher and advocate for systemic change. As a poet, this means writing my truth and hoping that it’s helpful for others, or at the very least that it complicates our national mythological ideas about what it means to be a woman of color.

How did you know you wanted to pursue medicine? What about poetry?

I’ve always known that I would be a writer. Before I could physically write I would dictate things to my mother, and she would write them down in a little black and white Composition notebook for me. I would narrate my parents’ actions aloud and tell myself stories as I fell asleep at night. It was quite annoying. I journaled on a daily basis through most of my childhood and twenties. As I got older poetry seemed to be a more natural way of expressing myself than prose. I also found it easier to jot down a poem in the quiet moments during my hectic medical training than to commit to longer prose projects.

As for medicine, I majored in International Relations in college and got very interested in global public health and in the structural socio-politico-economic causes of health disparities. Although my parents and many of my family members are also physicians, it wasn’t until the end of college that I realized I wanted to be a doctor. I knew that personal relationships with patients and their families would be as important to me as working on public health research or policy, so I decided to go to medical school.

 You’ve written elsewhere about how you see the potential overlaps between poetry and medicine, but briefly: how would you convince a skeptic that they are complementary?

I’ll borrow a bit from a blog entry I wrote about this. As a poet, I bend words in odd ways that unearth meanings unsayable in prose. I experiment with phraseologies and diction and the mass and texture and taste of words in juxtaposition with one another. What cannot be communicated through conventional means must be communicated poetically. To identify the voltae around which the moments in our lives turn, and then convert them into something that can be written down is a practice in both observation and translation.

Medicine calls for a surprisingly similar skill set. The particular musicality of blood whooshing past a valve in the heart helps us differentiate an innocent murmur from one that may require surgery. The flicker of an eyelid, the tenor of a baby’s cry, and the feel of a rash on the fingertips hold information that must be translated for their meaning to be communicated. The famous learning objective of a first-year medical resident is to discern “sick or not sick” from the gestalt of a person’s presence, pulse, breath. This is body language. This is the poetry of the body.

Let us imagine that poetry is the translation of the world’s body language. Poetry, for me, is the generation of knowledge, on some level, from our emotions. All poets, then, are diagnosticians and potentially healers. I think that both poets and doctors use particular types of language (poetry, science) to bridge the gaps between sensations (feelings, symptoms) and knowledge. Both answer the question, what does it mean that I/you feel ____?

As physicians, we are faced with malfunctions or different-functions (large or small, temporary or terminal) of the body; some we can help to manage and some we cannot. Regardless of the physical outcome, an important part of our job is to recognize and support the humanity that persists in the face of the body’s change in functioning, the body being our interface with the world and our only truly necessary physical possession as living beings. Perhaps the supporting of humanity, individual or collective, is a core quality of healing in both poetry and medicine.

You’ve also written about the importance of writers and scientists alike nurturing their curiosities about other fields. What do you think best drives that kind of curiosity, either for writers exploring new fields or medical professionals exploring the social sciences and humanities? What do you think the biggest gaps are in the humanities that could be aided by better understanding of science? Vice versa? 

I think that most if not all people have varied interests and curiosities. I also think that our educational system sadly does a good job of forcing us to silo our interests into falsely discrete categories – humanities “versus” science, for instance. Unfortunately we don’t all have the time/money/opportunities to explore all of our interests, but in my case I’ve tried not to neglect things that interest me, even if they don’t seem applicable to the task at hand. Because I went to a liberal arts college I was able to take coursework in a wide variety of fields that I saw as complementary. As a busy medical student and now as a resident physician, I explore non-medical topics primarily through reading and taking advantage of arts and cultural events in my city – especially those books and activities that have no ostensible connection to medicine or science. Constant exposure to new ideas and new work keeps me curious and engaged in the world outside the hospital.

The second part of your question is huge. I don’t want to presume what humanities folks know or don’t know about science and vice versa, because certainly there are many, many people who have a foot in both worlds and who understand the gaps and cross-linkages quite well. My general wish is that we can, as a society, learn to let go of the idea that there are limited ways of knowing things, and that some are better than others. I sense that there’s a hierarchy of epistemologies that keeps some people on the margins of what’s considered “legitimate” knowledge production. For instance, quantitative data is extremely useful in epidemiology – but so are stories, and qualitative research in public health doesn’t get nearly the attention/time/funding that I think it deserves. I guess I just want folks to be open to a broader diversity of epistemologies and to the idea that each can be valuable in multiple contexts.

Are you involved with narrative medicine? If so, how do the principles of that field resonate with what you’ve already intuited, as a writer, about the importance of language and storytelling in medicine?

I do narrative medicine to the extent that I sometimes blog about my experiences as a physician, and how they relate to my writing life. I haven’t participated in any formal narrative medicine programs, but I do think there’s a lot for physicians to learn from storytelling. It isn’t only what a patient tells me that’s important; it’s also how she tells me, what she chooses not to tell me, where she pauses, where the silences are. It’s why he’s chosen to tell me this particular story about himself or his child at this particular moment.

Communicating that patient’s story to another provider is also important. How do we paraphrase someone else’s story? What vocabulary do we use to describe our patients, and why? How do our own assumptions, experiences, biases, and fears impact our interpretation of someone else’s story? I’m not sure how the field of narrative medicine tackles these questions, but they’re things I think about a lot.

Your poem “Fear of Causing Pain,” begins with an experience and image unique to a doctor’s work, that of injecting a needle. How often does your clinical experience make it into your work, and how does the act of writing change it for you? Do you ever hesitate to reference more technical medical situations or processes for fear of losing the reader?

“Fear of Causing Pain” is a bit of an anomaly because my clinical experiences don’t usually make it into my work. I write a lot of eco-poetry and poems inspired by articles in the news or things I’ve seen in my travels. I find myself using these themes to write about the root social causes of illness more generally, so my work often draws from current events rather than my clinical experiences. Right now I’m working on a more archival manuscript based on family history. My poetry tends to take a more upstream view of health and illness – that is, how we get to where we are – but I don’t typically write about what goes on in the hospital.

I am an editor for the Humanities section of the Journal of General Internal Medicine, so I do think a lot about others’ use of medical jargon in poetry (and prose). It’s very easy to lose a reader in a jargon-heavy poem, and it’s tempting to write a poem like that when you’re a physician with all this fantastic, odd language at your disposal. The language of medicine is rich and historied; I think as long as it’s used in service of the poem, and not simply for its own shiny sake, it can be additive rather than distracting, but it’s a difficult balance to strike.

 Who are some of your favorite doctor-writers or scientist-writers?

I admire Nawal El Saadawi, an 84-year-old Egyptian psychiatrist, writer, feminist, and activist. She has never shied away from confronting injustice with powerful words, a quality I aspire to emulate as a physician-writer myself. Louise Aronson is a physician and writer who’s turned narrative medicine into some really neat short stories. Rafael Campo is a poet and physician who writes not only great poetry, but also some wonderful prose about the connections between medicine and poetry. It’s cliché, but William Carlos Williams is a poetry giant – and also a pediatrician!

What advice would you give to other medical professionals who want to write? To writers who are looking for ways to deepen their knowledge of science?

Read! Read deeply and widely. Read works by people whose experiences you know nothing about. And then write regularly. It’s hard for most medical professionals to find the time and space for an ideal writing practice, so make up a non-ideal writing practice. Write when and how you can, whenever you can. Identify why you are writing (Coping mechanism? Advocacy? To create something beautiful? To make sense of something you feel?) and keep that drive close.

For writers who want to deepen their knowledge of science: go to the scientists themselves. There is a lot of distorted information about science and medicine in the media, so often the best sources for accurate information are professional societies. In the case of medicine, many specialties, hospitals, and clinics have information about a variety of topics written for the non-medical public. If you’re not sure where to find this, ask someone who has a connection the specialty or field that interests you.

Irène Mathieu is a pediatrician, writer, and public health researcher who has lived and worked in the United States, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Peru, and elsewhere. She is interested in social determinants of health, global public health, community-engaged research, and medical education.

Irène is the 2016 winner of the Bob Kaufman Book Prize and Yemassee Journal‘s Poetry Prize, and author of the book orogeny (Trembling Pillow Press, 2017) and poetry chapbook the galaxy of origins (dancing girl press & studio, 2014). Irène has received fellowships from the Fulbright Program and the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop. She is a poetry book reviewer for Muzzle Magazine, an editor for the Journal of General Internal Medicine‘s humanities section, and a contributing author on the Global Health Hub blog. Irène holds a BA in International Relations from the College of William & Mary and a MD from Vanderbilt University.

“Get an MFA or don’t, but please get to work”: An Interview with Aisha Sabatini Sloan

aisha-sloan

Tell me a little bit about your background as a writer: how did you begin writing? What were some professional identities you’ve imagined for yourself over the years?

In the ninth grade I wrote a research paper about America’s prudish response to Sally Mann’s photographs of her naked children. I had recently gone to a public pool in Europe and had the image of a topless woman with a jungle print thong seared into my brain and I remember coming home feeling very aware of how Americans, including myself, are sort of dumb about nudity. I did poorly on that paper—and it’s just now occurring to me to wonder whether this was because of my writing or because of the topic—but I remember feeling so lit up by the prospect of using research to write about art and society even then. But I was and am equally inclined toward photography, printmaking and painting, and I’ve probably spent about as much time in undergraduate and graduate school pursuing studio art. I’ve had a harder time envisioning visual art as my professional identity, perhaps because I spent a year or so working in a gallery and felt pretty grossed out by the business side of art.

Why and at what point did you decide to pursue an MFA?

Before getting an MFA in creative writing I got an MA in cultural studies and studio art at NYU. It was an individualized study program brought to fame by the Olsen twins and for the thesis you could choose between writing a theoretical paper, doing a performance or making some sort of project. I put on an exhibit and wrote a theoretical paper about Adrian Piper, not realizing that I had gone a bit overboard. And I remember sitting in my thesis defense and the professors on my committee said, “I really enjoyed reading this. Have you ever considered writing?” I loved writing but this came as a bit of a surprise. It occurred to me that getting an MFA in creative writing was almost too exciting, I was somehow withholding this option from myself. But this moment gave me the permission to go for it.

Did you ever imagine yourself in academia, or do you still? What do you think is a healthy attitude for writers to have toward the academy when contingent labor is on the rise and full-time jobs are scarce?

After getting my MFA I ended up teaching composition as an adjunct for a several years and I promised myself that I would stop because it felt so disgusting to see how universities have shifted the burden of labor onto the most poorly paid instructors. But I have always adored teaching. It makes me exactly as fulfilled as writing does. I’ve been lucky enough to teach in some truly wonderful academic environments these past few years—at Carleton College, my alma mater, the New England Literature Program out of the University of Michigan, and OSU-Cascades’ Low-Residency MFA program. Even though I continue to be contingent in these contexts, and this is a problem for me financially speaking, I get so nourished by having the chance to teach, and I end up feeling so buoyed by my radical, hopeful, brilliant students that I end up feeling more empowered than disempowered. Or, in the worst of times, one cancels the other out. This might be an unhealthy attitude for a writer to have toward the academy. But I grew up with artistic parents who always had to stand up for themselves in all kinds of work environments so I don’t feel this problem is limited to academia. I think an important question to ask yourself is whether or not the student demographic that you are working with is composed of people you are happy to serve.

In addition to teaching, you work at the University of Arizona Poetry Center in their K-12 education program. What skills and experience do you feel you needed for that job, and what new skills have you learned while in the position? Have you discovered something you’re good at that you wouldn’t have identified before?

When I first interviewed for this job I realized that I’d done all sorts of things to prepare that I hadn’t originally realized were relevant. Like, a few years ago, I collaborated with some friends to put on a bunch of fundraisers and events for this initiative we called “Detroit Ho!” We did a reading and a silent art auction in Tucson then spent the summer in Detroit, fixing up my parents’ house and hosting literary and artistic events. I made a blog documenting the whole process. Another time, my friend Arianne Zwartjes and I went on a book tour and we put together our own tour dates and I made us a blog. Things like that—collaborative projects that you just dream up and start from scratch— end up feeling useful to me now as we are constantly brainstorming how to engage with our community and plan events, how to compile and present student work, who to work with and in what capacities. My colleague in education programming at the Poetry Center, Renee Angle, is so wonderful and encouraging, and she really built a lot of the infrastructure for this program by herself. So it’s been empowering to realize that if you want to do something, you should try it. And because Renee is so supportive I’ve discovered that I’m better at administrative things than I would have initially imagined. But I have a lot to learn.

How does academia feel different to you as a teacher and as a program administrator? Do you feel like you have more or less control over your work and its context? Are you treated the same or differently by the institution’s leadership? 

In some ways things haven’t changed much, because I also teach as part of this job—we offer a course on how to teach residencies for undergraduate/graduate students. I feel very free in terms of curriculum design and all that. We have a good amount of creative control in terms of our programming. But funding is really tricky. And I was disheartened to realize that I am making a lot less money now than when I was an adjunct even though the work feels quite a bit more dynamic. I’ve felt supported, or at least heard, when I’ve articulated my frustration. Even though I don’t feel well compensated I do feel respected as an administrator and even as a writer and a teacher. I am really invested in the work that we do and in the fact that we’re serving these amazing children, but I feel that at this point in my life I have to get better at noticing when I’m working for free. Because it’s so normal to do this when you are a teacher or a writer. You don’t even realize this is what is happening it until somebody does offer to pay you and you think, “YOU’RE GOING TO GIVE ME WHAT?” So I’m having to draw boundaries that I don’t necessarily want to have to draw simply because I have to learn how to respect my creative energy and my time. But it becomes a bit of an acrobatic trick to figure out how to give the highest quality service to the most people with the fewest resources. Which is another way of saying: I work for a nonprofit.

Where does your own writing fit into a regular day or week? To what extent does being in a professional setting with other writers help create a supportive community for producing creative work?

I work part time, so I get time to work on my own projects. I am a person who needs a whole day to get down to business, creatively speaking, so I don’t think I could do a full on 9-5. And it is absolutely awesome to be surrounded by brilliant creative minds at work, too. One colleague just published a book of poems and writes these amazing essays about Jem and the Holograms. The librarians are superheroines. Three people who have worked at the Poetry Center in the last year have books that were just on Entropy’s “best of” lists for poetry and nonfiction. The teaching artists we hire to teach these residencies are phenomenal teachers and writers. I work with extraordinary badasses. And a huge work perk is getting to spend time with visiting authors like Aracelis Girmay, Claudia Rankine, Camille Dungy, Eileen Myles, Vickie Vertiz, etc. Hearing these folks speak and read supports my creative practice a lot. But some days I miss waitressing, actually, because when you aren’t surrounded by language and poetry and brilliance all the time you crave it in a way that can actually be quite motivating.

Your work is sometimes identified by other people as memoir, sometimes criticism, sometimes creative nonfiction. Do you identify with any of these genres? Do the connotations of any of those genres highlight or downplay elements of your work you consider essential?

This labeling thing in nonfiction just keeps moving, huh? Creative nonfiction, lyric essay, auto-theory. I just spoke with someone who offered the identifier critic-at-large, which I love. But yes all of these terms seem to leave something important out. The problem with the word memoir to me is that people expect super linear personal narratives so if you don’t explain a transition or if you refer to more than one artist or writer in the same essay readers might get annoyed… I may or may not be summarizing two Goodreads reviews that continue to stick in my craw after I published my first book. When you call it criticism you can go ahead and usher in the imposter syndrome. And when you call it creative nonfiction, I think you have to pay a fee to Lee Gutkind. I get the sense that you have to be white to call something a lyric essay. I’m being aggressive maybe because these labels bring up questions about capitalism, ownership, power and exclusivity. But then you go back and read Audre Lorde and James Baldwin and you figure: who cares what it’s called. I mean, a great thing about being queer and part of any minority group as a writer is that your approach to form will always feel problematic. If it felt right it would mean something impossible had happened to the machine of America.

In the wake of the election, especially, it’s struck me that what people write to convince one another on social media occupies a rhetorical space that might have only been found in newspapers or magazines a generation ago. (This isn’t a particularly new observation about social media, I realize). As an essayist, to what extent do you allow yourself to use social media as a proving ground for your ideas, and to what extent is it useful for you to keep some of that in reserve for more formal, solitary writing?

I remember a while ago the poet and essayist Wendy S. Walters posted something on Facebook about how she needed more time to process things than it seemed social media allowed for and I felt so relieved. I have something to say about Freddie Gray and I won’t know what it is until 2025. I find that if I write about something in a post that feels like it’s from my little jar full of fermenting ideas and images, I am letting go of whatever potential that this thing had to be art. Have you seen that TED talk where the guy says that if you say you’re going to do something you’re much less likely to do it? This is what I think is happening for me when it comes to writing projects and Facebook—posting on social media makes me feel like I’ve processed or internalized something that is still eons away from making sense. I honor writers who can, as you say, use social media as a proving ground. But my practice is so much more solitary and weird and time consuming than that. And predicated upon solitude and synchronicity and waiting in a very witchy way. I have the superstition that if I share something too early it will die from exposure.

What advice would you give to writers thinking of pursuing an MFA? Those interested in crafting a humanities career in general?

Now that they feel under threat I can’t think of a more beautiful word than “humanities.” I feel resistant to answering this for some reason. I really believe that we need to be better collaborators at this point in our history. I think art is essential but I think communication and brainstorming and problem solving with other people’s best interest at heart is much more important than pursuing our personal objectives any more. If getting an MFA is part of how you plan to get us out of this mess, go for it. If it’s part of the ego game you’re using to distract yourself from death, don’t. The humanities are an absolutely vital part of how we learn to think and communicate across difference. But the individualistic way we’re taught to envision our careers feels more and more corrupt to me. I hope that we can figure out how to be creative in ways that are essential. I say get an MFA or don’t get an MFA but please get to work.

*

Aisha Sabatini Sloan was born and raised in Los Angeles. Her writing about race and current events is often coupled with analysis of art, film and pop culture. Her essay collection, The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2013. Her most recent essay collection, Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit, was chosen by Maggie Nelson as the winner of the 1913 Open Prose Contest and will be published in 2017.

 

An Interview with Nicole Sealey

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What made you decide to get an MFA, and where were you in your writing and the rest of your professional life when you decided to go for the degree?

Time to write was the reason I decided to get an MFA. I figured I’d have at least two years of uninterrupted writing time. I’d been working full-time at a literary nonprofit for 7+ years. Though I enjoyed the work, I was always tapped out by day’s end. My professional life was flourishing, while my creative life suffered. I very consciously decided to go back to school. I’ve not looked back since nor thought twice about my decision.

What does a typical workday look like for you — where, how, and how often does your own writing fit in?

I love what I do! Working at Cave Canem Foundation feeds me in a way that no other job has. A typical day at Cave Canem is atypical–each day really does vary one from the other. I write during my commute, after work and on weekends. I’m not a writer who wakes with the sun and writes for hours every morning…I’m pretty useless before 8 am.  

What skills and strengths does your day job involve that you feel you had already when you started it; what have you had to learn on the job or improve along the way?

I’ve planned programs of the highest quality for years. Nothing, however, prepared me for the pace at which programming is planned at Cave Canem. This fast-pacedness is actually one of the many thrilling things about the job. There’s never a dull moment, never an opportunity for boredom.

If you didn’t have to do your job to pay the bills, would you still do it?

Absolutely–my job inspires and motivates me!

You’re the Programs Director for Cave Canem, an organization of which you’re an alum. How did the Cave Canem fellowship experience impact your writing differently than the MFA did? If you were advising a young poet of color, which would you recommend they experience first?

As a graduate fellow, I would have no MFA were it not for Cave Canem.  Beyond confidence, Cave Canem invited me into a community, gave me much-needed artist tools and helped me find my voice. The MFA worked for me because I’d already received much of what I needed as an artist. I’d rather not use myself as a measure, so I would invite young poets of color to take from my experience what they will.

What’s it like to work for an organization whose programs you experienced as a participant?

It’s cool to experience Cave Canem’s programs from this vantage point.  From inception and promotion to administration and evaluation, I get to see firsthand the great effort and hard work that goes into each program. And, our constituents deserve nothing less that great effort and hard work on their behalf.

What advice do you wish you could have given yourself as a writer ten years ago?

My husband always says that publishing is cheap and easy… and he’s right. It is easier to publish an underwhelming poem than it is to write a compelling one. I’d advise my younger self (like I advise my current self) to write poems that have the capacity to endure.

Born in St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. and raised in Apopka, Florida, Nicole Sealey is the author of Ordinary Beast, forthcoming from Ecco in fall 2017, and The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, winner of the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize. Her other honors include an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant, the Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize from The American Poetry Review, a Daniel Varoujan Award and the Poetry International Prize, as well as fellowships from CantoMundo, Cave Canem, MacDowell Colony and the Poetry Project. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker and elsewhere. Nicole holds an MLA in Africana Studies from the University of South Florida and an MFA in creative writing from New York University. She is the Programs Director at Cave Canem Foundation.

There Is No Typical Day: An Interview with Rosalie Knecht

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You’ve been writing for quite a while – congratulations on Relief Map, which looks wonderful – but did not go for an MFA. Did you have a conversation with yourself at some point about whether or not to get the degree? What was that conversation like?

I definitely did have that conversation with myself, and I more or less concluded that if I was going to try for a funded MFA, I would have to leave New York, and I didn’t want to leave New York. Of course, there are some great low-cost MFA programs in the city, but I think I felt really cautious about committing resources to an MFA because I had this vague feeling that having low overhead was my main advantage at that point, as a writer. I was anxious about getting into debt. Of course I ended up getting into debt anyway when I got my MSW.

You’re also a social worker. What does a typical workday look like for you, and where/how often does your writing fit in?

I am just at this moment transitioning from working in residential foster care to working at a mental health clinic. So I’m in my last weeks in foster care. There kind of is no typical day. I see my residents, we talk about what’s going on with them – family, girls, school. I try to write service plans and reports, and get interrupted a thousand times. I go to the kitchen for mac and cheese. I’m getting nostalgic now.

When I get home at night I’m really not fit for anything but heating up dinner with my fiance and watching TV. I write on the weekends. Once in a while I give myself a treat and use a free morning (I sometimes work a late schedule) to write instead of going to the gym. That’s the best.

How has that balance changed for you since graduating from college? Can you give me a snapshot of a time when writing + making a living looked very different than it does now?

For a few years I was mostly working part-time, and for a lovely period I was working M-F 2-8 pm at a ballet studio and I wrote every single morning for two hours. I got a lot done then. I lived in very cheap housing because I was sharing with a dozen people, and I had the advantage of having gotten through undergrad without loans– I want to be clear that some of this was facilitated by that kind of dumb luck– so my overhead was low and I could pay my bills without working full-time. Eventually I moved out of that shared living situation and couldn’t make it work anymore financially, which is when my shift to social work started.

You live in New York, a place that retains some of the allure of being a great place to make art without always acknowledging how difficult it is to keep a roof over one’s head while doing so. Did New York ever hold that kind of attraction for you? If so, how has your view of the city as a home for artists or a place friendly to art-making changed over your time there?

New York is a bind. It is a good place to make connections – maybe for writers, the best place to make connections. But you’re right, the cost of living is hostile to artists. This issue was the primary problem in my mind for a period of about three years. I was keeping a roof over my head and writing, but it all felt very precarious. I didn’t have health insurance a lot of that time, and I felt like my skills were not specialized enough to be safe from losing a job, and I didn’t think I was getting anywhere.

But it’s a place where there are lots of other people doing the kind of work you’re doing, and having friends and support networks of like-minded people is such a huge help. So sure, if you’re an artist, move to New York. But you are going to have to have a whole functioning career aside from your art if you want to stay here. But that can be really good for you, I think!

Do your social work colleagues know about your writing? Do you prefer to keep those parts of your life totally separate, or is it preferable to have permeable borders?

Some of them didn’t know until last week when I explained that I needed Tuesday off because I was going to be reading in Philadelphia on Monday night. I was uncomfortable at first bringing it into my work life, but then one of my colleagues said, “Well, you want to be seen.” And I did. I kind of did want to be seen. My first book was published while I was in this job. Again, I had to take a day off work to prepare for the launch! That would feel weird to keep entirely to myself. It would be like getting married and not telling anyone. It’s a big part of my life.

If you didn’t need your day job to pay the bills, would you still want to do it?

Yes. I would just want to do less of it. From experience, I can tell you that the ideal balance of work and life is to be working 20-30 hours a week. You get plenty of sleep. You exercise regularly. You cook. Your skin clears up. Your apartment is clean. It’s the best.

Elsewhere, you’ve written: “I’ve always been a writer and I’ve always found this fact embarrassing. Writing fiction is a suspiciously childlike activity. If I meet you at a party I will tell you I’m a social worker, which is also true, and then try to get you to talk about yourself instead.” Have conversations with strangers about your profession changed for you at all since publishing Relief Map? Has having a novel in the world seemed to legitimize saying “I’m a writer”?

Yeah, a little bit. I still find that it doesn’t come up organically very much. But when I was a kid, I was really secretive about being a writer, and for years I had a rule in my head that I couldn’t say “I’m a writer” to people until I had published a book. So by my own standard I should be saying it now. But I still feel a little inhibited.

You’re part of a long-standing writers group in New York – what’s been the role of a regular writers’ community for you in being able to write while working full time?

They are the best, and they are really understanding about long periods of time when I haven’t been able to contribute much. They’re great writers and great editors and they’ve been as flexible as possible about scheduling when I’m too swamped to do much of anything. Agents, hit them up! Helen Terndrup– writing a brilliantly constructed detective novel set in ‘50s New York; Tom Cook, working on adapting a screenplay about the AIDS crisis and the decolonization period in Botswana into a novel; Bonnie Altucher, writing a novel about the real-life Sorenson therapy sex cult; and Jenna Evans, who published Prosperity, a satire about a near future where debt is criminalized, with Dog Ear, and is now working on a novel about a climate-change-related weather catastrophe hitting hipster Brooklyn.

What advice would you give to someone who’s struggling to both keep a roof over their head and write every day? Someone who wants to quit their day job to write?

I don’t write every day. So first I would say: cut yourself some slack. The beautiful thing about writing is that you can do it a little bit at a time. All you have to do is not stop, and eventually you will be finished.

Also, don’t quit your day job. I mean, quit if it makes you miserable, but don’t quit to write. Looking back, I can see that the primary problem I actually had during the time when I was completely hung up on the idea that my job was keeping me from writing was that I was bored and miserable in the field I was in (nonprofit administration). I was constantly wishing I could go home and write all day because I thought my job was pointless. If you like your job and derive meaning from it, you won’t be staring at the wall all afternoon thinking about the things you could be writing instead. The day will move quickly and you’ll feel like you accomplished something that mattered and you’ll get a paycheck and you’ll write when you can and after a while, you’ll have a book in your hands, and you will also be able to go to the doctor when you have a rash.

Rosalie Knecht is a writer, social worker, and translator in New York. She was born and raised in Pennsylvania and is the translator of Aira’s The Seamstress and the Wind. Her first novel, Relief Map, was published in March 2016 by Tin House.

Landscape with Broken Fire Hydrant: An Interview with Jamie Zvirzdin

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You did a low-residency MFA at Bennington College, starting five years after completing undergrad and with lots of experience under your belt as a science editor. Tell me a little bit about why you decided to pursue the degree.  

From 2011 to 2013, when my family was living in the Marshall Islands—a very isolated string of atolls in the Northern Pacific Ocean—my days were devoid of television, billboard ads, and people telling me what kind of woman I should be. With such freedom from cultural constraints, this incredible wave of words was released. It was like a broken fire hydrant blasting pressurized water everywhere. With hermit crabs crawling over my toes as I typed furiously on the edge of Majuro Lagoon, I wrote several essays and poems, finished a novel, and created the Unbound Bookmaker Project, in which 300 Marshallese students from all over the Marshall Islands wrote and illustrated 15 Marshallese-English children’s books. I feel like remarkable things happen when we take time to shut out opinions of the world and think our own thoughts.

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Poem as Calendar: Adrienne Rich and the Working Writer’s Time

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Some cows, composing in the interstitial moment.

“It’s true that a poem can be attempted in brief interstitial moments, pulled out of the pocket and worked on while waiting for a bus or riding a train or while children nap or while waiting for a new batch of clerical work or blood samples to come in. But only certain kinds of poems are amenable to these conditions,” Adrienne Rich wrote in the early nineteen-nineties in her brief essay “How does a poet put bread on the table?” She goes on to draw a distinction between types of “free” time: the infrequent gulps of unoccupied time amid obligations versus the time that has no pressing frame around it, the time made of the absence of all obligations but the one the poet makes to her art.

I’ve taken more than a year’s hiatus from writing and posting here, in part because until a few months ago, I was job searching and felt I couldn’t post publicly about that process. Going forward, I want to address the search process while examining what it’s meant for my and others’ writing, but those future posts will be in retrospect. Now that I find myself in a job I like, time crops up like wildflowers: the time I spent feverishly writing cover letters, the time I spent stressing about how much I wanted to leave my old job, the time spent unraveling myself from those tensions: it’s all been returned to me as a blank page. Just part of the day for me to do with as I will.

Rich writes that a poet’s feeling of fluency, when we experience “the speeding up of our imaginative powers” and “what was externally fragmented is internally reorganized, and the hand can barely keep pace” grows out of an accumulation of unplanned moments, crucially without the temptation of either interruption or distraction, when we could “simply stare into the wood grain of a door, or the trace of bubbles in a glass of water as long as we wanted to.” As part of a life that obliges one to make a living apart from art, she writes, such moments are often “fearfully taken because [they] do not seem like work.”

That’s the psychic exercise I find myself embarking upon, now that I’m free of the invented urgencies of my old life. To rail against a job I disliked seemed to take priority over the centering of my own attention, over the will to jettison busy-ness in favor of my own work. Now I find myself tasked with making my way back to the kind of time that is suspended in time, and getting rid of the feeling that I don’t deserve that time, that I ought to be “busy” or worse, “relaxing,” instead. Actual bubbles in a glass – suspensions of air in water — of the kind that Rich’s uninterrupted poet can contemplate, are formed at activation points on the inner surfaces of their containers. The activation points of our time-within-time bubbles, especially when we divide the day into job and not-job, are necessarily those interstitial moments Rich describes: putting an ingredient for writing down on paper in the time waiting for a train, or cooking dinner, can mean the difference between feeling shiftless and feeling fluent when we do have an open expanse of time: a day off, or a partner away on a trip, or a long city walk to ourselves. 

“Only certain kinds of poems” can emerge, writes Rich, during the caught moment, the fleeting second when no one demands our attention – or during which we make ourselves temporarily unavailable. Fine: water takes the shape of its container, a poem takes the shape of the moment it’s made in. There’s the story of Williams making poems on his prescription pads. Here, Rich subtly builds on Woolf: a woman – she is pointedly speaking of women writers – needs not only the privacy and means to write, she needs the time. Rich goes one step further than Woolf, who argued that money for women meant privacy, meant freedom of speech: for the writers Rich knows, who don’t have to contend with the opinions of benefactors or inheritances, a little money translates directly into time.

But rather than embrace Rich’s suggestion that either we have the luxury of the kinds of poems that require long hours gazing at wood grain or we do not, that either capitalism squashes us into a corner where our freedom is compromised or it does not, I’d rather accept that the writing we do in the moments between our obligations will end up keeping our calendars for us, rather than existing only when we manage to banish the calendar. The working artist makes a long moment of many short ones; composes not the poem out of time, but the poem as time.

But What Do They Want From Me? On Turning a CV into A Resume by Brian Matzke

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It took me a surprisingly long time to figure out how to turn my CV into a resume. Here are some tips I’ve picked up over the years:

When turning a CV into a resume, the first thing to bear in mind is length. CVs are as long as they need to be, while resumes are short–one page for recent college grads, two pages for those with advanced degrees and/or a few years of job experience. They’re never longer than two pages. This can feel really restrictive–my CV is seven pages, and cutting it down to two felt crushing. But that work of cutting ended up being really valuable, because the resume is a fundamentally different document from a CV.

This is one of the most important lessons anyone ever taught me about the nonacademic job search: A CV shows your accomplishments; a resume shows your skills. Academia is very results-oriented, so they want to know everything you’ve done. A CV gives academic hiring committees a comprehensive picture of what you’ve done: Here are the articles I’ve published, here are the conferences I’ve presented at, here are the courses I’ve taught, etc. Nonacademic employers care about what you’ve done, but in a different way. What nonacademic employers want is a narrative of your past experiences that answers the question, how have your past experiences shaped you into the kind of person who can do this job? As a result, you might have five or six different resumes tailored to different kinds of jobs, the same way you might tailor your cover letter for different jobs on the academic market.

You might end up cutting things that felt like major accomplishments in your academic career, but aren’t relevant, while elevating things that at the time seemed inconsequential, but that better highlight a key skill. For example, I was recently applying for an editor job, and I ended up including that I had been a research assistant for several professors–a job that would not be particularly impressive in an academic job search, but one that allowed me to legitimately establish in a one-line description that I had several years’ experience editing and preparing manuscripts for publication. On that resume, “Research Assistant” took up as much space as “University Writing Instructor,” a job that takes up more than a page of my CV, because on my CV I list all the various courses I’ve taught.

Finally, bear in mind that when submitting a resume electronically, a computer program is likely going to read it into a database and strip out any formatting, so keep it simple and be mindful of the keywords that they might be searching for. My resume has five sections: Education, Work Experience, Other Relevant Experience (such as extracurricular and volunteer work), Skills (such as language and computer skills), and Interests (another opportunity to insert keywords). Depending on the job and what I want to highlight, “Education” might come first or third, after “Other Relevant Experience,” but otherwise I keep them in that order. I’ve known people who’ve taken their Ph.D. off of their resume entirely, but I’ve yet to do that myself.

Note that this matters when applying to nonacademic jobs, but “alt-ac” is a little different. In the alt-ac world, they often use the terms “resume” and “CV” interchangeably, and depending on the job, it might make sense to submit your full CV even if the posting says “resume.” This is true of jobs at university libraries, university presses, and some academic support staff positions. It’s important to know your audience and use your judgement.

P.S. Brian was awesome enough to provide a copy of his CV-turned-resume for you to peruse! Brian Matzke Resume 2015. If you’re still stumped, here are some places to find more advice on this hurdle of transitioning out of the academic job market (or just looking in two places simultaneously):

From CV to One-page Resume, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Alison Green of Ask A Manager on resume mistakes. 

An Act of Translation: Turning a CV into an Industry Resume at the Northeastern University Career Development Blog. 

All I Need to Get By: An Interview with The Hustle Reading Series

The Hustle is a Brooklyn-based reading series that highlights all of the elements that go into sustaining the writing process: from day jobs that pay the bills to mentors and friends who read drafts, to living situations whose rhythms make it possible to retreat into writing. Last week in Bed-Stuy’s Herbert von King Park, MFA Day Job talked with The Hustle organizers Courtney Gillette, Jennilie Brewster, and Anna Marschalk-Burns.

 LF: Why don’t we just start from the beginning – tell me what the Hustle is, how it got started, how does it relate to your lives?

JENNILIE BREWSTER: I’m pretty curious to hear if we all have the same recollection of how it started.

COURTNEY GILLETTE: The three of us started meeting as something called Writers Support Group,

JB: But I would even go a step back further. Which is that you and I took a class together, and then you and I started our own writing workshop and basically edited our memoirs for several months, then the three of us linked up into Writer Support Group.

CG: Writer Support group was once a month, we’d get together, usually at Jennilie’s apartment, share what we were working on, and then just sit and work quietly for two hours. So it was like, accountability. I was applying for a fellowship and Anna and Jennilie read my cover letter, and Anna was preparing to do a reading, and we helped her pick something to read – that was how it began. And then – how did we come up with The Hustle?

ANNA MARSCHALK-BURNS: We were talking a lot in general just about how people make a living, our interest in how that happens for people, and I think as we were talking about a reading series – I don’t know if it became, let’s do a reading series and then we came up with a theme, or –

JB: I was interning for [The Renegade Reading Series] at the time, and sort of got to see what it would be to do a reading series, and Anna was like, but let’s do it differently.

CG: Yeah, Brooklyn needed another reading series like a hole in the head, so we were like, how will we start a reading series that offers something besides, ‘here’s six of my friends reading’? At first we came up with two ideas: we were either going to do one that was about process, where writers brought in rough drafts of something they had published, and shared both the rough draft and the finished draft, and we also came up with the idea to do a reading series about day jobs. And then we merged the two things, where we said, what if we did one that talked about process and also about day jobs and how you pay your bills, and what does it mean to you to be a writer, etc.

JB: I personally had a hang-up when it shifted from process to day job, because I was like, wait a minute guys, I don’t have a day job – but I could connect to the idea of “hustle,” and working different jobs at different times. Hustle was the practicals of paying your bills, but also ways of finding time to write, what do you read…

CG: …who has helped you, how do you find mentors, what’s the best advice you’ve gotten. In terms of day jobs, it’s like, I have my MFA, and I have worked in education for the last 14 years. My day job has been as the secretary of a nursery school. And Anna works full time as a teacher – so we had that kind of experience of, what about writers who don’t work in publishing, who don’t freelance, who don’t TA – how does that work?

LF: You’re thinking of ‘the hustle’ as less just the job that you permanently do in order to get by with your writing, and more the whole picture.

CG: The response to people wanting to talk about money – it worked out really well because our first event was in March, and I a few weeks before was when that Salon article, “Sponsored by My Husband,” blew up. On social media I could see all these people being like “yeah, transparency.” Is your husband an engineer, and you’re being supported by them? Do you work for a nonprofit? Are you living off a fellowship? People actually saying I write, but I do it in this way.

LF: People are posting about their accomplishments, and you see when someone’s new book comes out, but you don’t see all the stuff that happened to make that happen.

CG: The babysitting gigs, and their great uncle died and they inherited ten thousand dollars – just the nitty gritty. Some people don’t want to talk about that stuff, and that’s totally fair, but for me it’s been comforting in reminding myself that I can write, and I can pay my bills, these things are not mutually exclusive. Also, a lot of solid writing advice I’ve read over the years has been like, sit and write for six hours a day, six days a week, and I’m like that sounds awesome, but what if you’re working full time? What if you’re writing four hours on a Sunday, and that’s it? One of our first guests, Daniel Jose Older, said “one of the myths we have to break is that you have to write every day.’ If you’re working a lot, you can’t write every day, so write when you can. It was so refreshing to hear him say that.

JA: We’ve had two [Hustle readings] now, and we had Daniel, who writes sort of sci-fi/ fantasy, Ashley Ford who’s an essayist primarily, and Cynthia Cruz, who’s a poet, and we also asked each of the guests to share the best advice they’ve gotten as a writer. For Ashley part of that advice was “don’t let people not pay you for your writing” which was really good for people to hear, and then Cynthia was like ‘I’m a poet, there is no money” and that was good for other people to hear.

LF: How does the fact of living in New York play into these conversations – not getting paid as part of a poet’s life may be a thing one has to accept, and maybe that’s easier to contend with in rural Ohio, say, but in NYC, the cost of living is so much higher.

CG: I think it makes the question even more important. I think about Patti Smith making statements like “you can’t be an artist in New York anymore, you have to move to Detroit.” Because there are so many writers in New York, [the question becomes not just] how do you pay the bills as a writer, but how do you pay the bills as a writer in New York? I do pay attention to people outside of that conversation. One of our guests last month was Stacia Brown, who drove up from Baltimore to read, and she said at one point, you don’t’ have to be in NY to do this writing thing. You can live somewhere with a lower overhead.

JB: That was another good ‘myth buster.’

CG: it’s easy to get stuck in that here. This week was BEA, and all my friends from publishing and I were all going to parties, and I was like this is why I live in New York, because I’m standing on a boat with all these Riverhead people, like Edan Lepucki. but I’m sure if I didn’t live in places where I was invited to a boat with Edan Lepucki I might get more writing done?

AMB: I feel like I sometimes have the opposite feeling about it, where the more that I learn about money in NY, the more I feel completely idiotic for living here. I see this incredible privilege of being able to have experiences like what you’re describing, and being able to know you all – those are things I wouldn’t find in other places, but at the same time, I might be able to not work sixty hours a week. So it’s humbling to think about that, and ask, is this actually what I want to be doing with my life? Maybe not. Maybe not for good.

LF: Have any of you had the experience of working a day job with other people who have another thing going on (roller derby, amateur opera, writing?)

CG: I think you get more of that in New York. I have more friends who are writers and have other day jobs, than I do friends who are just full time writers. I have friends who are booksellers, and work for nonprofits, and have worked in magazines, or…babysitters. At my workplace, there’s one guy who’s a painter and a poet, and my first year we all came back from summer break, and we went around the circle and he was like, yeah, I finished a book of poems, and I was like, what? But this job at the nursery school is the first job I’ve had as a writer where people know that I’m a writer, and that I’m just doing this to make cash. And it’s been really freeing. There is some awkwardness – I’m leaving the school after this year, I’ve been there too long, and we announced that I’m leaving, and all the parents are like ‘where can we read your work? this is so exciting’ and I’m like ‘I write lesbian memoir and explicit sex scenes and lots of stuff about how I’m sober and I used to drink a lot.’ There’s a weird professional line – I’m okay with telling you I’m a writer, but I’m not going to share my website with you. But it has been my first experience where people knew I had another interest outside of the job.

AMB: I don’t have that experience at my job at all. The school I work at is very intense, there’s actually not a lot of time for [another pursuit] so, nobody. Everybody’s like, I’m a teacher, or I’m going to leave teaching to become a lawyer. It’s pretty much on the straight and narrow. The one thing that’s been so great about knowing Courtney and Jennilie, is that when things that are good have happened to me in terms of my writing, and I go to my coworkers who I’m close friends with but don’t’ have any stake in this game, they have no idea how to react to it. It’s like oh, that’s neat –? And I’m like no, this is a big deal! I’ve been working so hard for this. So it’s really nice to have people who know all of the blood, sweat, and tears that gets put into this.

LF: A couple of you have done a number of residencies. What did you take away from residencies that you came back and applied to your more harried writing lives?

CG: My most concrete thing was, my writing studio [at Vermont Studio Center] had this big bulletin board above the desk, and I just collaged it. By the end it was covered with quotes and pictures and magazine clippings and I loved it so much that I was like, why am I not doing this in Brooklyn? So my first week home I took down everything above my desk and did the same thing, so when I make it to my desk now, the first thing I see are these inspiring quotes, and the list of people who backed me to go to Vermont, I still have that – a concrete list of 45 people who absolutely believed in me, I can’t refute it – so that was the most literal translation of this was my writing studio in Vermont, and I just brought it home.

JB: The last couple residencies I’ve done I applied to them as a painter, but the last two I’ve been writing at. They were open to that — it wasn’t about production, it was about time and space to explore.

CG: One of the writers at Vermont was in the metalwork studio every day learning how to make knives.

JB: I definitely had the experience of just really connecting to a different kind of pace. It’s very easy to fill up one’s time in the city with “I’m going to meet this person for coffee.” I think I came back from my residency and it was like, I’m not doing all the coffee dates anymore, I don’t need to catch up with everybody.

CG: All the brunch. I love brunch, but goddamnit.

JB: It’s like, there goes a day! It’s allowing a change — the residencies I did were also all out west, and it’s just spatially different, mountains, desert. It’s like geologic time — I guess I try to bring a little bit of that back in my life. But with New York I find myself constantly renegotiating my internal rhythm with the city’s rhythm. It’s very easy to just get caught up in the current, a current that maybe isn’t so conducive to doing the kind of writing I want to do. So just trying to find the psychic space in the city.

AMB: I’ve never done a residency, but I did have a day job four or five years ago that I quit three months before my contract was up in an attempt to give myself time and space to write, and I did nothing. I watched six seasons of Law and Order. And that really scared me, and since then it’s been a terrifying thought to actually stop working, because I think the best things I’ve written are the things I’ve written at 3 am before they’re due for a class that I’m in, and trying to cram things in in the margins of a really full day is when I’m able to get things done. It’s very hard for me to have a wide-open time frame.

JB: Everything changes.

AMB: I might have more discipline now.

CG: At Vermont, I would leave my phone in my room-room, and when I was at my computer it was just me. But I also napped a ton — I had to accept that that’s what my body needed. Maybe you needed to veg out for three months.

JB: I immediately started thinking about some of the stories I’ve read of Anna’s and how the pacing of Law and Order may have affected her fiction writing.

AMB: That’s a huge compliment.

LF: I like to think about two categories: the things that have ‘happened to you’ as a writer or artist – you get into a program or residency, someone accepts your work – and then there’s a category of things that you feel like you made happen. And sometimes those things overlap: someone couldn’t have accepted you to this thing if you hadn’t put work into it. So since there’s a junction between them, but there’s also the way we feel about those two things. What are some things during the last couple years that you feel have happened to you by a stroke of luck, and things you have pushed through and made happen?

JB: One thing that I feel like really good about is The Hustle. That we have gotten together and that this sort of emerged out of our community, and that’s a cool thing that’s happening. And there was no waiting for someone to give us permission, it was about actually building something.

CG: One of my big ones was I sent a story in 2012 to The Master’s Review…and I was a finalist and then one of 10 stories chosen by A.M. Holmes to be in this volume. I later met A.M. Holmes at the Brooklyn Book Festival, and I was like ‘hi, I’m Courtney, you picked my essay for this thing’ and her face lit up, and she was like, ‘I remember that essay,’ she was like, ‘I look forward to whatever you write.’ She signed my book, and for a couple of months I slept with that book under my pillow, because I was like, A.M. Holmes likes my work. I will float on that for a while. Because my self-confidence plummets every day. Every day it is like me versus self-doubt. And I think for the ‘working hard’ thing, one of my things has been I just have started to freelance. I’ve always sent work to literary magazines and now I’m starting to send to online publications, because you actually hear back quickly and you get paid, which is incredible. I had this essay I had written for modern love, I workshopped it with some people from my MFA program, Jennilie and Anna read it, I sent it to Modern Love, it got rejected. It sat on my desk for a year, I spruced it up and sent it to Buzzfeed, and they were like, yes, love it. And I worked with that editor back and forth for a few weeks to get it into the best shape, and that was one of those moments where I was like ‘I burned this.’ So I think those are my two —

JB: This isn’t something that’s happened yet, but — I’ve been working on a book project for a long time, it’s a text that accompanies a series of paintings that I did. But I just allowed myself in the past couple months to say ‘I’m a writer,’ this is what I’m doing and it goes beyond this book, and I’m gonna write an essay. I’m gonna untether myself from this one project, and explore writing in another form. I sent it to a few people…and then to a couple other people who’ve been kind of like mentors to me, and who’ve both published a lot. I felt like I was asking my friends who are further along in their writing life for permission – like, can I do what you guys are doing? And I really felt like I got the thumbs up for this essay. Two women have both offered me ‘I’ll give you this editor’s email, or I’ll give this editor the heads up that this essay is coming.’ Who knows if that’s gonna play out, but I feel like it does touch on this idea of luck. It’s like I’ve worked five years to be able to write this essay, and it would be really nice if this personal connection happens and it gets noticed and moved out of a pile of a thousand into a smaller pile. Networking is sort of a dirty word, but the reality is you start to make friends who are doing what you’re doing. So I don’t know. I hope that luck works out for me in this one.

LF: Part of luck is others working on your behalf, to some extent.

JB: Another artist told me: it’s your job to be prepared for when luck happens. Have the work ready.

CG: I’ve tried in the last few years to view it not so much as networking but more as kindness. Whether that’s just being gracious at an event, or offering to read something – to be as generous and forthright as you can be. And that I think has gotten me pretty far in terms of people being accepting, and available. That’s become my framework for it.

LF: There’s a poet who wrote an essay about asking an older male writer for advice on getting into a particular journal – and he declined to give her the information she was asking for, like it was an industry secret that he couldn’t tell her. She said that made her want to tell anyone who asked her the secret information that they were asking for. Like, oh, you want the name of that editor who’s not listed on the website? I have it; you can have it. Do you want to know the best way to write a cover letter? I will tell you; I’ve written a successful one. And she considers that a sort of feminist way of spreading information.

JB: I’ve been looking toward women my age or even younger, as opposed to that older dude who’s part of the establishment.

CG: Binder Con has been a huge forum for women and gender non-conforming writers helping other women and gender nonconforming writers. The Binders [Full of Women Writers] Facebook group was started last summer, and Binder Con grew out of that as a physical conference experience that I helped with in NY last fall and it was magic. I remember standing outside of the speed-pitching sessions, where women editors had come to listen to pitches by women and gender nonconforming writers and these women were coming out of the pitch session high five-ing and hugging each other. It was this camaraderie that I think is absent a lot. There have been a lot of awesome dude writers in my corner, but there was something really unique about that experience.

AMB: Both [getting into Brooklyn College, and] my first published fiction, which came out last year, and felt like so much luck to me. Because it was just a slush pile submission.

JB: I guess I was thinking luck more “when the world sort of smiles at you.” That seems to me, your work had to be so great that it stood out — nobody knew to look for your name.

AMB: I guess that’s probably true.

CG: And your part is that you submitted. When we had writers support group…we’d share which journals we were submitting to, and I remember when [Anna] submitted to [The Atlas Review], and finding out months later that you were being published, it felt like a win for all of us. I think that’s especially with submitting to litmags, it’s such a numbers game. Yeah, you’re going to get rejected a lot, but if you don’t submit, there’s no chance.

AMB: I think getting into the MFA program felt really like luck to me. In part because the person who wrote my recommendation letter is a graduate of the program, close to the program director – I’m sure that helped. But also just the way that the program has been so welcoming and kind, it doesn’t possibly feel deserved. It’s like this is the nicest reception I’ve felt in this particular arena in my life, and I’m confused by it. I think it just brings up a lot of feelings of impostor syndrome, but you know, I feel very lucky.

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