Monday, April 22, 2013

Setting Sail with Rum Punch Press: A Journey into Parts Unknown

It all started with a drink. Shocking, we know, but hear us out. It was a very cold night in Boston, which had been inundated by a blizzard of snow and a tsunami of AWPers, and after a day of paneling we found ourselves at our alma mater’s AWP party. As any writer who makes the annual pilgrimage to AWP can guess, it was that kind of party, a perfect storm of shadows and free booze, with a famous face or two thrown into the mix for good measure. Drunk on this heady combination, our fellow partygoers morphed into Writers. Writerly writers who spoke of blurbs and agents and Yaddo applications, angling for face time with the famous faces.

We should have left immediately. But did we mention the free booze? It was the highlight of our evening, and beautiful to look at. Tall pitchers of sangria, ripe with lush pieces of fruit. We couldn’t resist, so we staked out a corner of that very chic lounge and settled in for an evening of excellent drinks and even better people watching, talking only to each other and leaving our base camp when our glasses ran low. There are certainly worse ways to ride out a blizzard, though, as usual, we both felt out of place at that party—a recurring theme made most acute at an overwhelming event like AWP, but also one that got us thinking.

Full of wine and whimsy, we started talking shop about the types of stories and essays that we’d been writing and getting published (and the ones that weren’t), the magazines we thought were on fire and the ones that were letting us down. We talked about the kinds of stories we were reading and the ones we desperately wanted to see in print. There’s good work being done out there, writing that feels vibrant and different and new, but it’s not getting published.

As writers who have earned MFAs in a system that has been both lauded and criticized for the types of stories writers are trained to produce, we’ve both often felt like literary outliers. We’re part of the club, hopefully, but definitely the members-at-large. We have genre sympathies, yes, and what can we say: we like some pop in our culture. We believe that we’re not alone in what we want to see in print, but we realized that the current marketplace doesn’t really have a place for all of those stories. We saw a dearth, and we saw an opportunity.

We were almost sick of hearing ourselves talk (yeah, right) when the bartender brought out the next tray. It was a new drink, and a real showstopper, with tropical swirls of pink and yellow, the color of dawn in Mallory Square, scenting the room with rum and sunlight and offering a firm eff-you to the blizzard outside. Confounded, the Writerly Writers looked up from their craft beers and rum-and-cokes in dismay, like, “Pink drinks? Really?”

And there we were, a two-woman stampede to the bar, collecting our quarry and bringing it back to base camp for proper admiration. The drink was sunny and unapologetically tropical, two features that made our displaced Floridian hearts ache. (Life and work brought both of us sun-worshipers to the mountains, and we’re still bitter about it.) But this? This drink was a taste of home, and something else. It was sweet and tart with a frosty chill, and a bold punch of liquor that warmed us from within. It was bright and different from everything else on that Boston night with one blizzard raging outside and another tempest beginning to stir within.

“We should start a literary magazine.”

And so we did.

We did research, then we’d talk. We sent each other links, then we’d talk. We wrote, then talked. There was a lot of talking, texting, and emailing going on. We discussed our vision of writing with a pop -- no, with a punch. We learned very quickly we were riding the same brain waves. We’d both been readers of literary magazines for years and collecting samples at many different AWP bookfairs. We liked -- and wanted to see more of -- a lot of the same stuff. We starting comparing notes about our favorite journals and recognized commonalities in the ones we favored, magazines that were innovative, thematic, and, fine, a little tarty and tongue-in-cheek. This gave us an idea of the thematic and aesthetic direction we wanted to take.

Once we really started working on it, we were thinking about website design and marketing. We now know more than we ever thought we would about website design, social media, and marketing. We must have looked at a thousand magazines to be inspired and then had to come up with our own original design. Some sites were surprisingly amateurish looking while others were so pretentious.  We drafted submission guidelines and the other pages. The day we launched we were back and forth texting and emailing.

“Are we ready?”

“Can we put it on facebook?”

“Should we tweet this?”

“Are we go for launch?”

“We are go for launch.”

It seemed only days had passed from our gawking at famous writers and sipping on that
crisp, unapologetic tropical rum punch. Once we started getting submissions, it was real. So real. Writers, our peers, are sending their work to us, and it is our job to share it with the world. There is a specific and unexpected kind of joy to be had from this exchange.  Rum Punch Press is such a great way to participate in the writer-world from backstage. We are behind the bar, mixing the drinks, shaking them up, and serving them over ice.

This is what makes Rum Punch Press such a humbling project. While we do have
expertise, we sometimes forget this. Rum Punch Press is a reminder that we, too, can have a say in what should be going on with our craft. It is an honor to be asked by peers to consider work for publication. It’s also so exciting. For so long, we’ve been participating in the system, in the vicious cycle of writing, editing, submitting, praying, and then getting rejected or accepted. And this is fine; this is what everyone who wants what we want does. But having the chance to influence, in some small way, what goes out into the world and to be able to champion the writing that we believe in, well, that’s intoxicating.
To submit your fiction, mircofiction, and nonfiction to Rum Punch Press, go and check out our submissions page. We’re looking for brave work that is sincere and unwavering. Give us your best shot (pun intended).

Courtney Watson is an English professor and writer who resides in Roanoke, Virginia, far from her native sub-tropical climate. When not daydreaming about salt air and sandy beaches, she writes fiction, non-fiction, and literary criticism that has appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review, 100 Word Story, The Key West Citizen, Studies in Popular Culture, and more.

Gloria Panzera is a writer and English teacher who resides in Charlotte, North Carolina with her husband. When she isn’t whipping something up in the kitchen or missing her small beach town, she writes non-fiction and fiction. Her work has appeared in One Forty Fiction, The Inquisitive Eater, and more.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Jelly Packets

On the first day of class Nick Flynn told us a story about his daughter. She had said something funny that morning about the hotel pool. It was poetry, he claimed, from a four year-old. Initially, this annoyed me. Doesn’t every father think what his kid says is poetry? However, it was soon clear that he had the same kind of wide-eyed love for everyone’s work. After we read our poetry aloud he always seemed to find something uniquely satisfying in it. He always seemed to be able to pinpoint the “energy” of the piece. What I found surprising in this was that I actually believed him. His comments were genuine. His appreciation was sincere.

As a result of this, I felt a distinct freedom to write whatever came to mind. In the Nick Flynn workshop, I had the liberty to write carelessly. “Write faster than you can think,” Flynn told us during an in-class writing assignment. He claimed that the images that appeared from this type of quick writing were the images that would become novels, memoirs, and poetry collections. Our hurried scribbles were given power. So it seems that when students are given the freedom to write “badly,” it might also give them the freedom to write well.

This observation offers an invigorating paradox. No doubt, writers are often told to write recklessly, but when are they given the chance? And even after writing something that pushes the envelope of clarity or good taste, how often are they admonished for these attempts? In this way, perhaps the fiction and poetry that enters the graduate and undergraduate workshops is subconsciously edited for literary palatability. Like it or not, there is a certain sense of intimidation when a writer sits down to write knowing that twelve of his peers will be reviewing his work with itchy trigger fingers.  In order to avoid this, as critics of our peers’ work, we should strive to make the workshop less of a place in which “literary rules” are enforced—a practice that might result in safe, quiet, ‘oh so precious’ literary output—and more of a space in which artists are given the leeway to fail. We might not see as many adequate workshop stories, but we might be able to witness art in its most natural, triumphant form.

All week long, Flynn was ingratiated with his daughter’s love of jelly packets. In our free writing sessions, he wrote about them often. “Jelly packets, little jelly packets,” he would say. “Haven’t seen them in years, those little jelly packets.” In his writing that week the jelly packets turned into coffins. From their peel-able tops sprung angels. He never worried about us thinking him trite. He wasn’t worried about the red pen of the workshop. And we took his word for it.  By the end of the week, I thought jelly packets absolutely profound. 

Donovan Ortega is a first year MFA student at FAU.  He lives in Boca Raton with a cat named Og Mandino. He's pretty sure everything's going to work out. 

Monday, April 15, 2013


As a returning MFA in poetry studies student, the idea of taking a one week intensive poetry workshop with Nick Flynn (supremely intelligent poet and witty conversationalist) was very intimidating. My first introduction to Flynn was during a past poetry workshop at FAU where I was fortunate enough to have been assigned Some Ether, Flynn’s debut poetry book.  This first introduction to the poet only whetted my appetite for more, and I went into the workshop with little expectation except for two specific goals: One, to meet the poet whose intimate writing about childhood trauma could transform the terrible into beautiful and poignant verse, and second, to find some inspiration that would help me to sit down and find my own transformative power as a poet.

I’ve written plenty of poetry but nothing good, or rather, nothing good enough.  Perhaps that is the first and most important lesson that I learned from the workshop.  In order to write anything that transcends mediocrity, you must kill the inner critic; well, at least temporarily incapacitate it, so that creativity can take over long enough to produce something. I will not say that something is brilliant or even slightly good, but it is something, which by all accounts is better than nothing.

I will not say I had writers' block because I hate the term; it was more like my muse went on a long vacation and it was time for her to come back and get to work. 

In order to entice Ms. Muse to return from her long hiatus, I started to employ some of the writing exercises that we learned in workshop.  One exercise that was particularly helpful involved “free writing” for approximately seven minutes with a subject or topic in mind.  I noticed that the first five minutes produced complete crap, but somewhere in the last minute or so I was furiously writing down what could almost be perceived as a possible poetic line or idea.  It didn’t really matter where this idea, word, line, or image was going, it only mattered that it was a good idea, word, line, image, whatever, and that one day it would go somewhere. 

Now I make sure to write something every day and I try to stick to the seven minute rule.  Sometimes I produce a poem that may or may not need extreme revision, a story idea may materialize (or not) or I may have a complete creative breakthrough, in any case, it is never a waste of time. So if I could say one thing to Professor Flynn today it would be this, thank you.  Thank you for your time because it is indeed precious, as all writers know, time is something we do not have enough of, and thank you for your poetry because it is divine, and finally, thank you for showing me where my muse was hiding; she had run completely out of vacation days.

Yordanka Penton is an MFA first year student.  She is a passionate educator who currently works full time as a “Senior Student Success Specialist” (AKA academic advisor) for Broward College; she also moonlights as an adjunct professor teaching Strategies for College Success courses for incoming freshman at BC. Yordanka  loves 19th century British literature, confessional poetry, rainy days, happy people, and a cup of tea at the end of her day. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Results of a Conversation with Nick Flynn

He reached for the New Found Glory Rubik’s Cube I keep tucked in the driver side center console of my Yaris as I made a turn toward the school. I eased on and off the brake, nervous that my ability to drive somehow equated with my ability to write. I was anxiously trying to remember the carefully crafted queries I had been practicing for a few weeks as he turned and tweaked the random designs of the cube. Before I could mention my background in film and how I have always wanted to create a book-turned-film, and much before I could remember a single question regarding either, Nick Flynn offered me a pair of pieces of gum. Then he asked me about my name. 

There are many more fantastic opportunities available, when a writer in residence offers a week long creative writing workshop, than the workshop.  The most productive of which is the ride you selfishly offer to give the writer so that you may have 10 to 20 minutes of one-on-one mentor time. I offered three of such said rides, the first of which somehow designated me as the object of conversation.

“It’s Negean- soft “g.” I seem to always start. I became more anxious as I realized that those 20 minutes would be devoured by the incessant curiosity that propels a barrage of questions that leave me giving the same explanation so often it sounds like a rehearsed script given on a guided tour.

Conversations, no matter their recurrence, always prove to establish a connection between ideas and information. I find myself trying to shorten the explanation of my name a little more each time I tell it. I found Flynn asking me to lengthen it. For the first time I began making connections between myself and what I write. 

Think of an image, any image. Write. For seven minutes do not remove your pen from the page. Slowly your mind will reveal to you, through your subconscious, exactly how brilliant you are. With another classic re-telling of my name fresh on my lobes- I wrote. And through the scratch I saw something I haven’t seen before. I saw my thesis. 

Nick Flynn is an accomplished memoirist and taught Poetry as Bewilderment to a group of budding writers. With a firm process on diving into the self, Flynn’s workshop in turn kick-started the single cell of my thesis that underwent mitosis and grew exponentially in a direction of self-discovery. 

Negean is finishing her final year as an MFA candidate in poetry. Her rare blend of honest humor seems to captivate people enough to ask constantly "is she serious?" or to announce an inner thought "I can't tell if she's being sarcastic." She assures you that you will never know. Negean currently teaches English Composition to college freshmen, who laugh at the same jokes she tells her elementary sized creative writing aftercare students.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Belief in Bewilderment

Getting the chance to take Nick Flynn’s workshop was a welcome surprise for me. I haven’t been in a workshop (in a school setting anyway) since the spring of 2009.

2009. Four years. I worried that maybe I’d lost the knack, you know? The give and take of workshop. The furious scribbling and hand-raising required.

And the first day, yeah, I kind of did – I sat quietly and kept my mouth shut (like my most of my years as an undergrad, sigh).

But then something happened. And really I should’ve seen it coming. The second day of workshop, the day we brought our writing from the night before in, well, something clicked and workshop became natural to me again. Partly this was due to Flynn’s intelligence as a professor. His wit and his candor and his acumen. Partly it was due to the amazing students in class with me.

Partly a burgeoning understanding of my favorite take-away from his workshop: the idea of bewilderment. Of beholding. Describing. Getting thoroughly lost in language.

He had us read an essay by Tim Etchells titled “On Performance Wriitng.” Some prompts from this reading include writing a text: “to be whispered by the bedside of a sleeping child,” “which could be used as a weapon,” “written in binary,” “for people to find in their wallets, days later, when you are forgotten,” and “written at 3am in the middle of a war” among others.

These prompts allowed for an almost palpable kind of bewilderment – I began these exercises with something as close to faith as I could muster (otherwise there was no moving from brainstorming to writing – another wonderful aspect of Flynn’s workshop was his ability to get us moving, get us writing -  he pushed us over cliffs and then some). So you start the exercise with an image or description in mind, and then you allow yourself to fall into language.

Sometimes it worked, other times it didn’t, but regardless, the end results from our workshop were mesmerizing. And, listen, lest you think me melodramatic, we got to see everyone’s work (even Flynn's!) at the very end through a series of Pecha Kuchas (basically poetry/prose accompanied with images – a sort of slideshow we read along to). They were simply lovely – from repeating images of birds to lines about nuclear fission and families to sleeping children and superheroes – our work was, in a word, lush.

Nick Flynn showed us how to get lost – in the very best possible way – in the moment, in writing, in detail, in falling in love with language, and this sense of wonder has since been my helpmate.  

Mary Sheffield generally prefers to go by the nomme de guerre (guerre is, arguably, a more badass word than plume): M.R. Sheffield, and is an alumna of FAU's Creative Writing MFA program. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Pank, New World Writing, Monkey Bicycle, and The Florida Review among other publications. Read her blog here: Why is My Cat so Sad.