Monday, April 22, 2019

Cracking Shells

Invariably, my favorite part of any workshop has been the community that gets formed throughout  the semester. The inside jokes, the unique intimacy, an understanding of peers that can only come from picking apart their writing. The vulnerability that comes with sharing your art leads, inevitably, to a sense of trust and camaraderie. So while I was stoked, this spring, to learn from a poet I greatly admire, I was disappointed that the workshop would last only a week. Too short a time, I thought, to develop that kind of bond. Of course, I was wrong.

Danez Smith came into the room, so overwhelmingly themself, so comfortable and ready to begin. There was no academic veneer, no stuffy posturing, no attempts to mute their personality. They had us laughing, and, on the first day of passing out poems--to the left--had us singing “Irreplaceable.” A chorus of “To the left’s” erupted, and the energy in the room was light, lively, accepting. Now, it takes me a while to warm up to people. I hold a lot back. (A friend has said of me that it takes a while to crack the shell, but once you do, you find “a pretty weird fucking bird.”) Point is: I’m reserved, upon first meeting people. But Danez Smith had me, on that second day, table-drumming and belting Beyonce. If that’s not a testament to their teaching ability, then the rest of this blog post better convince you.

It wasn’t just the affability or realness that Danez brought to the table. They forced us to reconsider our relationship with language, to step outside the comfortable. For one assignment, they had us list the poetic strategies we rely on, and a second list of all the topics that appear in our work, and then had us write poems in which we abandon those crutches. Writing those poems felt like stepping out expecting a stair, and tripping awkwardly down. Eventually, though, I found my footing, and was able to see language from an entirely new angle. Defamiliarizing myself with my language allowed me to enter a fresh, generative space. By the end of the week, I felt rejuvenated, closer to writing than I had in awhile.

Danez spoke passionately about language, life, community, and communication. The lack of pretense, the lack of a professorial guise, the complete absence of a fake-self, allowed them to speak directly to us, to the point. The cliche I'm about to offer you is that they taught me not just about writing, but about being. Their parting bit of advice for us writers, the last wisdom they imparted, was a small phrase that I don’t think I can hear enough. “You want to be a writer? Then write. Just write.”

Aiden Baker is a first year MFA candidate in Fiction at FAU. Originally from Chicagoland, she now lives, writes, and sweats in South Florida. You can find her work in The Ninth Letter Web Edition.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Annual Poet Invasion of Delray Beach

For 15 years in a row, Miles Coon and his wife Mimi have brought poets from all over to Delray Beach. It is a week-long event of workshops, craft talks, readings, and bonding over a love of poetry. The Palm Beach Poetry Festival creates a space for poets who might be seeking their first publication to work with and alongside poets who may be finishing a manuscript and writers looking to train in a new form. There are hundreds of participants who work in the same workshop group all week, taught by some truly incredible poets, and some of us are lucky (or perhaps naive) enough to volunteer our time to help for the week.

Florida Atlantic University is a short 20-minute drive from Old School Square in Delray Beach, where the festival takes place. Thanks to the proximity of our campus, Florida Atlantic University MFA students make for the ideal volunteer interns for the Festival. There were four of us from FAU this year—Caitlyn GD, Colton Martin, Kelsey Moghadospour, and myself—along with some students from Florida International University’s MFA program and some independent volunteers both local and from far away. The diversity amongst volunteers matches the diversity of the Festival faculty.

I was lucky enough to work with two poets in my workshop, Jessica Jacobs and Nickole Brown (and their sweet golden retriever, Solace). Our workshop group progressed so much from our first meeting on Monday through the end of our time together on Saturday. What really made the experience worth it to me was picking up great tools for my own writing and getting some new methods for my teaching. Plus who doesn’t want to hang out with poets like Laureanne Bosselar, Sharon Olds, and Tyehimba Jess for a week? It’s a lot of work, but it’s something I’m already looking forward to next year. In the workshop time, I was able to compose two new poems and got inspiration for some assignments for my Teaching Creative Writing course. I also made some great friends from FIU, got closer with my FAU cohort, made connections with staff from some journals and presses, and bonded with my workshop faculty. Jessica, Nickole, and I have been eagerly making plans to meet up in Portland at AWP later this month. Volunteering is never easy work, but it is a vital part of being a model literary citizen. I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to be a part of the PBPF this year.

Kelsey Allman is a first-year MFA student at Florida Atlantic University. She earned her BA in Writing & Linguistics from Georgia Southern University. In addition to writing creative nonfiction, poetry, and tweets about football, she is working on a graphic memoir about mental illness. Her dog Remington controls most of her life decisions.   

Friday, March 22, 2019

Lessons Learned from a DIY Book Tour

As I write the first draft of this post, I’m on a plane heading home from North Carolina, where I did readings from my debut book, One Size Fits None: A Farm Girl’s Search for the Promise of Regenerative Agriculture. Now that I’m somewhere in the middle of my self-imposed tour, I’m glad Mary Sheffield-Gentry asked me to pause and reflect on what is a brand new experience for me.

Here are some things this amateur-hoping-to-become-a-pro has learned:

Make a plan and start early. Unless you are a proven best-selling author, your press will not send you on a tour (bummer). That means you’re in charge, which can be daunting or liberating. I’m choosing to see it as liberating because I can set my own schedule and embrace my tendency to want to control/plan everything book-related anyway.

Think about how much traveling you can afford, how often you can handle appearing in public, and how much time you will be able to devote not only to the readings, but also to the much heavier workload of securing, planning, promoting, and preparing for those readings. I did not anticipate how much time I would need to spend just on sending and answering emails involved with my book tour, for example.

Contact bookstores three to six months before you want to read there. Universities require more lead time; if you want to read sometime in the fall 2019/spring 2020 school year, for example, start reaching out in early 2019, preferably before. Applications for literary festivals and book festivals are due anywhere from a year to six months before the actual festival.

Another thing: a book tour doesn’t have to be a line-up of back-to-back readings that takes you away from home for weeks at a time. I scheduled two to four events per month for the first four months after my book appeared, and I am working to arrange a few more for the rest of the year. A book tour also doesn’t have to be travel-oriented. You can do a blog tour (asking prominent book bloggers to review the book) or a radio tour, and arrange for author interviews on important book-related sites, like I did here.

Partner with someone local. Bookstores want to know your reading will bring a crowd, and inviting someone from the community to participate will help make that happen. For my Asheville event, I asked Dr. Mary Saunders Bulan, professor of environmental studies at Warren Wilson College (an institution just outside the city), to join me “in conversation.” She interviewed me about the book in front of a live audience, and I also did a quick reading. Look to local writers, professionals, and other people whose work coincides with yours somehow. Ask bookstores about their book clubs, too; you might be able to get a club to read your book and host you for a discussion, as I’m doing at The Book Cellar in Lake Worth in April.

Another option for partnerships is community organizations. When I wanted to put something together in Tampa, for example, I reached out to The Sustany Foundation, a local group working to advance sustainable agriculture initiatives. They agreed to make my reading an official Sustany Foundation event, invited their members, and did much-needed promotion. In Greensboro, I put dual strategies to the test by being in conversation with local environmental writer Lee Zacharias and asking Green Drinks Greensboro, a group of environmentally minded people, to have the event serve as one of their monthly gatherings—and I ended up with an engaged group of 15-20 people, which I’ve learned is a decent turnout for a relatively unknown new writer.

Whether or not you partner with a person or organization, always reach out to local groups, institutions, universities, and the like to inform them about your event. Do some research to find out who is likely to be interested in your book.

Think outside the bookstore box. Yes, bookstores are great places to read—but they aren’t the only venues. People love the option of enjoying a drink or some food while you talk, so consider places that offer one or both. I held my book launch party at a brewery with a history of supporting the arts, and it was amazing! Think, too, about places that tie in with your writing somehow—a store, a public place, anywhere that makes sense. In Tampa, I read at an independently-owned wine shop specializing in organic and natural wines, which connected with my book’s argument for regenerative agriculture. Don’t forget about libraries, too.

University readings are a bit more difficult to land, but definitely try because they help you establish and maintain important connections with writers who also teach. Approach your alma mater first, but also write to other universities with a reading series or programs that complement your work. In the coming weeks, I plan to identify and then reach out to university English departments that focus on research writing, environmental writing, and literary journalism and see if they would be interested in bringing me to their campus. Wish me luck!

Be prepared for rejection. For every “yes” I get, I have received at least ten “no’s.” Most people you query about a reading either won’t answer or will decline. That is normal, so do not get discouraged. Another thing: be prepared for readings that go horribly. By that I mean no one shows up. This, too, is normal, even for writers who are well known.

That said, do your best not to set yourself up to fail. Do readings in places where you have connections and people you know, and promote the heck out of events in places where you lack these advantages. If you have a few spare bucks, consider doing some advertising on social media. Share everything you schedule with your publicist so he/she can alert local media.

In closing and in the spirit of continued promotion, I humbly invite you, dear reader, to come out to one of my events in the coming months—and let me know about yours!

Stephanie Anderson is a writer living in Boca Raton, Florida. She holds an MFA from Florida Atlantic University, where she currently serves as an Instructor of English. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Flyway, The Pinch, Hotel Amerika, Midwestern Gothic, Grist Journal, The Chronicle Review, Sweet, and others. Stephanie is proud to have grown up in South Dakota, and her work often centers on the prairie and rural life. Her debut book titled One Size Fits None, a work of literary journalism focused on regenerative agriculture, appeared with University of Nebraska Press in January 2019.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Testing the Waters

I walked into Danez Smith’s workshop with the extent of my poetry knowledge limited to Shel Silverstein and an introductory course during my undergraduate studies at Penn State. I was lucky to be prepped with a few mini-lessons on form from my fellow Graduate Teaching Assistant and friend, Renae. She is exceedingly patient and kind, explaining to me the intricacies that are line breaks and tension. As a fiction candidate, I like to stick to what I know when it comes to writing and, more specifically, what I know I can write well. In a poetry workshop, I was a Type A fish out of my neat and tidy Type A water.

I took my seat at the table where we would gather for the week, and Danez asked us to introduce ourselves with additional tidbits of information – where we were at in the MFA program, what our primary genre was, where we were from, and what our favorite fast food restaurant was. Right off the bat, I was flummoxed, misstating that I was in my third year at FAU (I am a mere first-year) and letting the rosiness on my cheeks signal my embarrassment. I turned to Renae and reiterated, “I am out of my element.”

Soon enough, however, I felt myself embraced by Danez, who was successful in explaining poetic form by comparing entities like The Powerpuff Girls to a crown of sonnets. According to Danez, much like the crime-fighting trio, this form consists of unified “sister poems,” also known as poems that are “same same, but different.” Danez was able to break down concepts to more manageable ideas, and I’m always a sucker for a solid pop culture reference. We laughed as we compared one type of poetic sequence to the 2016 collaboration between Rihanna, Paul McCartney, and Kanye West for “FourFiveSeconds.” Danez explained it as something that makes no sense at all, yet somehow, it works. Cartoons and celebrities? This was very much my speed.

As the week went on, I found myself inspired by what Danez had been talking about. Not just poetry as a form, but poetry as a way to express thought and feeling through writing. During their reading, Danez stressed that being honest in your work is something they focus on, and I felt a resonance with that statement. Maybe poetry was the outlet that would allow me to talk about my experiences and the ideas I so often tried to integrate into my fiction. I ended up walking away from this workshop with a new sense of what poetry was, and I felt inclined to thank Danez for their time working with us during the week. I shook their hand, thanked them while smiling, and felt the same nervousness I had on the first day. This time, however, it was nervousness in the form of excitement and the potential to get started. Having tested new, sometimes uncomfortable waters, I now feel confident in expanding my writing wheelhouse.

Abigail Reinhard is a first-year MFA candidate at Florida Atlantic University with a concentration in fiction. A native Jersey Girl, she received her bachelor's degree in English from Penn State University in 2016.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Dangerous Seed

Having read Don’t Call Us Dead in both my African American Literature course and my Poetry workshop, I was eager, and nervous, to meet the author behind the words. This was my first workshop hosted by an outside author at Florida Atlantic University, so I didn’t know what to expect. After meeting Danez Smith, the nerves quickly faded. They were so welcoming and motivating throughout the entire workshop, I almost felt as if I had met them before. Perhaps because their poems evoke that same, welcoming aura, and perhaps because they always seem to have a smile on their face.

            Throughout the workshop, Smith emphasized the importance of writing for specific audiences, which is something I had previously not put enough consideration into. We all belong to different communities, and can therefore write to those groups in a specific language of sorts. This doesn’t have to mean a literal different language, but by including specific insiders, one invites people in while concurrently holding others at a distance. Smith had us put this idea to practice by taking one of our poems and reworking it, keeping three separate audiences in mind as we revised. When we all shared our new pieces, the poems seemed to change form completely, solely dependent upon who the speaker was addressing. Moving forward with my own work, I will be sure to decide who exactly I am speaking to before I begin writing.   

While attending Smith’s reading at the end of the week, I found myself smiling along with them as they read. I was sitting next to fellow MFA student Abigail Reinhard, who I met through FAU’s MFA program and now consider a best friend, when Smith read their poem “acknowledgements,” specifically dedicated to friendships. Abigail and I found ourselves nudging each other whenever something applied to us (specifically the line “I text you & you say, I was bout to text you bitch”). While reading all of their poems, they had the room laughing and aching at the same time. To evoke those senses simultaneously through writing is to evoke something true. Listening to Smith read was admirable, and reminded me of the many reasons why I love to write.

At the end of the reading, I waited in line for Smith to sign my copy of Don’t Call Us Dead. When it was my turn, I made sure to ask them if they meant for the italicized lines in “summer, somewhere” to read both down and across the page, to which they said yes, they did intend this, but not initially, like a happy accident. As a writer, I lingered on these words—that feeling of doing something exciting subconsciously is a moment I, and I assume others, strive for.

I walked to the parking lot after the reading feeling full (and not as a result of the provided food, which was lovely). I opened my copy to see what was written. They crossed out their own name and wrote, “Renae! Be a dangerous seed!” I think these words capture what Danez Smith was teaching us during the week-long workshop—take risks with your writing, and know that your words mean something to someone and, most important, that they hold power.

Renae Tucker is a first-year MFA creative nonfiction candidate at Florida Atlantic University.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Observing like a Writer

When I received the writing advice to slow down in my prose, it felt like (unintentional) life advice. But life advice, I’m sure we all can take. 
            Whether you’re reading this as a current/former/hopeful MFA student or as a writer of any stripe, it’s safe to assume you’re a busy person. Fair chance, writing isn’t your only obligation and to slow down seems impossible because you can’t drop your job(s), children, classes, teaching, spouse/partner, etc. And you can’t drop your writing (I’d hope).
            But you can slow down in your writing, particularly when thinking about setting and details.
            I should have realized sooner that my aversion to sitting in a setting and providing a reader with the unfolding details of a place was a reflection on my aversion to sitting in a setting and taking in the unfolding details of a place in my life. I eat breakfast during my office hours, with a book in one hand and a pen in the other. I meet a friend for lunch and my mind is confetti on the next dozen things that need to get done (the next scene to write, the next paper to grade, the next paper to write, etc) and so place becomes transitory. At lunch with this friend, I won’t be able to recall afterwards whether the chairs were wood or metal, whether the table had both ketchup and mustard but no mayonnaise, whether all the Splenda was gone, but the Sweet n’ Low was packed too tight. If I can’t slow down and notice the details in my life, why was I surprised that I couldn’t slow down and provide those details in my prose?
            Chances are, I’m not alone in moving through the world as if each space is only a bus depot to hop to the next transitory location.
            I know mindfulness is a buzz word that can feel cheapened recently, but there’s something to say about writerly mindfulness. We learn how to read as writers and (hopefully) read to feed our creative work. Reading becomes part of the work of writing. We learn to dedicate slowness with published work and understand that if we don’t read (and don’t read with the purpose to learn and expand possibilities) then we don’t improve. We learn to read mindfully. Can we also learn to observe mindfully? Can observation become the deliberate work of a writer? I’m a fan of carrying a notebook everywhere, but even then, I don’t take down every detail of every room I enter—that’s exhausting for one, and also when you notice everything you can’t hone in on what’s important. But, I can take down one or two ideas. Just the ketchup bottle alongside the mayonnaise packets. Just the Sweet n’ Low with the bent pink corners.
            But even then, taking notes can still be exhausting or cumbersome. Another observation technique is to build your observations into the work you already do as a reader. When I read as a writer, I read for setting. I read for how the writer walks me through a room (or not), how the writer directs my attention. I observe and take notes on the places I would never think to set a story or place a scene.
            I don’t expect any of us to get less busy, but I hope that slowing down can create writerly mindfulness so we can observe with intention. I hope that observation can become a part of your writing life, something as integral as reading. The places we inhabit are not transitory and I, at least, needed a reminder of that, in my life, as well as in my prose.

Cheryl Wollner is a first year MFA student in fiction, currently working on an alternate history novel about Bess and Harry Houdini. She 100% believes in magic.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Let's Do This

Hello, and welcome to the Spring 2019 semester! So, yeah, my picture is from October, but come on. Who can resist that little Pikachu and his big brother? Anyway.

I'm including the picture so you can see why I've been absent from this blog. Those two kept me busy for a full semester of parental leave (I'd thought to get a draft of my novel done - it turns out they had other plans). And as much as I miss their little cherubic faces every day, it really is nice to have the full use of both of my hands.

But enough about me.

There is a lot going on this semester, some of which has already transpired. We had the Alumnae reading with the lovely Brittany Ackerman, Stephanie Anderson, and, you know, me. Not sure lovely applies there. Maybe the adjective needs rethinking. We could go with indomitable. Indefatigable? Hm. Probably we are all three some of these things to some degree. But! Our reading was so fun, and we thank all in attendance. You can find Brittany's book here, Stephanie's book here, and my book is here, or I have a box of books in my office (CU 306F) if you're so inclined.

Last week literary agent  Renée Zuckerbrot spoke, and this week Danez Smith will be giving a reading (2/14 at 7pm in the Majestic Palm Room of the Student Union - do not miss it! Maybe this link to the FB event will work).

There are additional exciting events to look forward to as well. On 2/28 Mary Blossom Lee Poet, Sy Hoahwah, will be giving a reading at 7pm in the Majestic Palm Room of the Student Union, and on 3/21 the next Off the Page reading will be given by John Keene (7pm, Majestic Palm Room of the Student Union).

Remember to meet with me to discuss your program of study. Probably we should update your Plan of Study. Maybe you have questions on thesis guidelines or deadlines. Maybe you've just, you know, missed my office. I know I have... Come on in! I take appointments MW 10:30 - 1:30 and TR 11:00 - 12:30. I'm also happy to speak with you over the phone if those hours don't work.

I'm looking forward to the rest of the semester. We are going to have some great blog posts in the near future. I, for one, cannot wait to read about the Lawrence Sanders Writer-in-Residence Workshop. And listen. I'll probably be bugging some of you for a blog post. Please add your voice to this! YOU are what make this blog interesting. I'm just here, you know, curating.

MR Sheffield is the Creative Writing Advisor for the MFA program at FAU. You can reach her at to set up an appointment. Her debut book of poetry, Marvels, was released by Sundress Publications this winter.