Creative Writing MFA Information Session: Meet faculty, current students, and alumni of the MFA in Creative Writing Program for an information session and reception on Wednesday, January 7, 2015. The info session will begin at 6:00pm in Room 510 of 66 W. 12th Street. Admissions representatives will be on hand to give tips about the application process.
Cave Canem poets Geffrey Davis, Dawn Lundy Martin, and Arisa White shared new works as part of an ongoing collaboration between Writing at The New School and Cave Canem on Thursday, November 6, 2014 at The New School. The event was hosted in the beautiful Orozco Room, located on the 7th floor of 66 W. 12th Street.
Geffrey Davis grew up in Washington and holds degrees from Oregon State University and The Pennsylvania State University. His work has appeared in Crazyhorse, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Massachusetts Review, Mississippi Review, Nimrod, Sycamore Review, and elsewhere. Davis is recipient of the 2014 Anne Halley Poetry Prize, the 2013 Wabash Prize for Poetry, the 2013 Dogwood Prize in Poetry, the 2012 Leonard Steinberg Memorial/Academy of American Poets Prize, a Pushcart Prize nomination, and fellowships from the Cave Canem Foundation. Revising the Storm (BOA Editions), winner of the 2013 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, is his first book of poetry.
Dawn Lundy Martin is the author of A Gathering of Matter / A Matter of Gathering (University of Georgia Press 2007), winner of the Cave Canem Prize; DISCIPLINE (Nightboat Books, 2011), which was selected by Fanny Howe for the Nightbook Books Poetry Prize and a finalist for both Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Lambda Literary Award; Candy, a limited edition letterpress chapbook (Albion Books 2011); and The Morning Hour, selected by C.D. Wright for the 2003 Poetry Society of America’s National Chapbook Fellowship. Her forthcoming book, Life in a Box is a Pretty Life, will be published by Nightboat Books in 2014. Martin has given lectures on race, gender, and poetics at universities across the country, including most recently, the Naropa University Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and the University of California at Berkeley. She is a member of the experimental black poetry and performance group, the Black Took Collective, and Assistant Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.
Arisa White is a Cave Canem fellow, an MFA graduate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and is the author of the chapbooks Disposition for Shininess and Post Pardon (which is being made into an opera), as well as the full-length collections Hurrah's Nest and A Penny Saved. Her debut collection, Hurrah's Nest, won the 2012 San Francisco Book Festival Award for poetry and was nominated for a 44th NAACP Image Award, the 82nd California Book Awards, and the 2013 Wheatley Book Awards. Member of the PlayGround writers’ pool, her play Frigidare was staged for the 15th Annual Best of PlayGround Festival. One of the founding editors of HER KIND, an online literary community powered by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, and the editorial manager for Dance Studio Life magazine, Arisa has received residencies, fellowships, or scholarships from Headlands Center for the Arts, Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, Rose O’Neill Literary House, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Hedgebrook, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Prague Summer Program, Fine Arts Work Center, and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She is a 2013-14 recipient of an Investing in Artist Grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation, an advisory board member for Flying Object, and a BFA faculty member at Goddard College; her poetry has been widely published and is featured on the recording WORD with the Jessica Jones Quartet. Arisa is a native New Yorker, living in Oakland, CA, with her partner.
Are you considering an MFA in Creative Writing? The Writing Program at The New School offers a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program with concentrations in Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Writing for Children, as well as dual-concentration options.
Meet with faculty, alumni, and current students in the MFA program, as well as representatives from Admissions who will share tips about the application process.
New School MFA Creative Writing Info Session
Monday, October 6, 6:00pm
The New School, Hirshon Suite, 55 W. 13th Street, 2nd floor
Click here for more information
Current and recent graduates welcome the incoming class. The instructional video features, in order of appearance, Payal Doshi, Keisha Bush, Desiree Prieto, Nora Brooks, Brett Rawson, Luke Wiget, Cheryl Geliebter, Christina Shideler, Katrina Florio and Simone Tyrell. The New School, School of Writing offers an MFA in Creative Writing with the specializations of Fiction, Poetry, Nonfiction, and Writing for Children.
The New York City Poetry Festival is a two-day festival showcasing the diverse, talented, and dedicated group of poets who make their home in New York City. Founded in 2011 by New School MFA poetry alumni Stephanie Berger ('08) and Nicholas Adamski ('07), the festival brings together over 250 poets to read, share, and celebrate poetry on three stages. The festival also includes a book fair, a children's area, and food vendors from across the city.
The New School MFA program has had a large presence from the beginning, but this year more than ever! More then 20 MFA alumni will grace the stages of the festival, along with faculty members Sharon Mesmer and John Reed.
Alumni featured during the 2014 festival include Nicholas Adamski, Liz Axlerod, Lisa Marie Basile, Stephanie Berger, Graeme Bezanson, Sylvia Bonilla, Jackie Clark, Shanna Compton, Amy Leigh Cutler, Sean Damlos-Mitchell, John Deming, Gabriel Don, B. C. Edwards, Brooke Ellsworth, Joshua Fredkin, Thomas Fucaloro, Britt Gambino, Seth Graves, Steven Klett, Justin Marks, Alyssa Morhardt-Goldstein, Chelsea Reilly, Nicole Steinberg, Kiely Sweatt, Chelsea Whitton, Melinda Wilson, Hamna Zubair, and more!
The New York City Poetry Festival 2014
Saturday and Sunday, July 26th and 27th
Colonels Row, Governors Island, NYC
By Creative Writing at The New School / in 12th Street, Current Students, Faculty, Fiction, Graduates, New & Forthcoming, Nonfiction, Past Events, People, Poetry, Publications of the School of Writing, Riggio Honors, TNS Lit Scene, Undergraduate / June 7, 2014
Congratulations to the Riggio Honors Program's 12th Street Journal staff and contributors, who packed the house at the Union Square Barnes & Noble this spring for the launch of print issue #7. Featured readers Elizabeth Gaffney and David Grand were joined by student contributors Stephanie Leone, Isaac Lobel, Charlotte Slivka, and Anna Witiuk. Special thank you to Len and Louise Riggio without whom the Writing and Democracy program would not have been possible; our extraordinary advisory board Renè Steinke (Chair), Luis Jaramillo, Laura Cronk, and Robert Polito; our designer Brian McMullen (McSweeney's); and to the 2013-2014 12th Street Staff: Ricky Tucker (Editor-in-Chief), Ashawnta Jackson (Managing Editor), Tolly Wright (Online Editor-in-Chief), Christopher Pugh (Online Managing Editor), Naima Asjad (Assistant Online Editor), Charlotte Slivka (Nonfiction and Music Editor), Daniel Gee Husson (Fiction Editor), Bean Haskell (Poetry and Art Editor), Anna J. Witiuk (Poetry Editor and Reader), and Morgan Pile (Teaching Assistant).
Photos by John Reed and Ashawnta Jackson.
You can pick up a copy of the past and current issues of 12th Street—featuring interviews, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and art—at Barnes & Noble! Check out www.12thstreetonline.com for ongoing online content!
Congratulations to MFA and Riggio students, class of 2014! Between Nonfiction student Anya Regelin's terrific and moving speech at the MFA Recognition Ceremony, and Zadie Smith's brilliant remarks at University Commencement, it was a great year to graduate for writers at The New School!
Publisher's Weekly calls out The New School MFA in Writing in terms of its strong relationship to agents and editors ...
Different factors contribute to what makes an M.F.A. program stand out. Sam Hiyate of the Rights Factory says his favorite is the New School, from which he once repped five M.F.A. grads.
Scroll down, or you can check out the full issue, which praises The New School's MFA program in four separate sections: Writing for Children; Agents and Editors Talk M.F.A. Programs; From Workshop Table to Editor’s Desk—M.F.A.s Train Editors; What’s the Big Deal?
@newschoolwrites #newschoolgrad #newschoolalumni
Our Continuing Education catalog is making the rounds! Here's a PDF of our Spring 2014 courses in Writing: Summer Courses in Writing at The New School.
You can also head straight to The New School website, or peruse The New School's Full Summer Course Catalog in Continuing Education, or scroll down to check out the roster of writing courses in Continuing Education:
Craig Morgan Teicher, faculty member, at The New School's Writing Program Book Party, Publishing Year 2013. Photo by John Reed. Part of Pictograph: Portraits of The School of Writing at The New School.
I love that, without any words, these people are talking
like they can say exactly what they mean
because they never have to say it.
Rather than labor to construct a sentence, they play it.
How fun! O, to play the piano, to let my thoughts careen
instead of getting stalled in speech.
From "Jazz," originally published in To Keep Love Blurry (BOA Editions Ltd., 2012)
Last winter, I read iterations of Thrown while collaborating with Brooke Ellsworth in our second-year thesis group. I recently read the complete text (enamored with the beauty of the language, again) during a cat-sitting assignment at Ellsworth's apartment in Queens. With the changing of seasons, our correspondence over the poems has morphed from in-person dialogues to discussions via the web. Here, Ellsworth details her magnetism toward the myth, mutations of meaning, and the haphazard path that led her into the translation project.
AB: In your Facebook description of your new book, you write, "Thrown is a translation of Ovid's 'Echo and Narcissus.' Thrown is a junk-yard dog let loose on the history of translations of Ovid's 'Echo and Narcissus.' Thrown is a story about how I stole a book of Ovid translations when I was a kid." Let's start with the story from your childhood. Tell me more about stealing the Ovid translation.
BE: I grew up on an island—which was like any small town, but with the added confinement of thirty-ish miles of water between oneself and the mainland. Kids find ways of entertaining themselves, exploring impulses, and one of my many phases was that of shoplifting (which will most likely be news to my mother unless she secretly knew the whole time). We would try our hands at different sized items, like little hemp rings from the tourist shops down by the harbor. But the gold rings were always books. Books were the combination of satisfying the short-term impulse as well as, I guess, long-term impulses. A couple pieces of plunder I still possess are E.E. Cummings' 100 Selected Poems and Ted Hughes' Tales from Ovid. That's how I first came upon Metamorphoses, and specifically the story of "Echo and Narcissus," which was immediately one of my favorites.
AB: How old were you at this time?
BE: Actually I initially thought I was a lot younger until I went back and looked at the year Ted Hughes' translation came out: 1997 (which would make me 12). Also, looking back, I realized that I was writing poetry from a very young age. Hand in hand with juvenile impulses, I would end up lineating my notebooks. I actually found a bunch in a chest back home a couple years ago. It was a weird (but also from then on) an obvious realization that I'd been writing and rewriting the poem, "Echo and Narcissus," for a long time.
AB: You submitted Thrown as part of your MFA thesis at The New School. But, last winter, you were initially working on a separate collection of poems. At what point did you decide to return to "Echo and Narcissus" as the subject for your thesis?
BE: I was struggling with this megalith poem called "Anamnesis" with Robert Polito, my advisor. Anamnesis is Greek for recollection, and is also a concept that Plato develops in Meno, I believe, as being a process of learning—that the process of learning is the process of rediscovering knowledge from our past incarnations. This of course raises questions of absurdity (when do we first acquire knowledge if it's just copies of an "original" experience) and, like, exile from our own insight if it's just playback. These are good questions, I think, but good in the sense that I'm like, yes, embrace the playback. That anamnesis is way more evocative as a result of these absurdities—that memory is this high exaltation, that it calls forth the actual presence, here and now, of the past, in the kind of way that liturgical reenactment of myths has always done. Actualizing a past event, pressuring it into the present.
Anyway, I was working with a lot of imagery of absorption, specifically the ocean and a subject who is drinking up the entire ocean alongside a gin and tonic, and breaking down physical boundaries as a result. That's how I stumbled back into the narrative of "Echo and Narcissus." Except this time I actually turned to the Latin, which I had never done before.
It was from there that it very quickly mushroomed into a much bigger organism, and I didn't know how to control it. I came back to Robert and showed him what I'd been up to. His response was characteristically astute and pragmatic: "You know you can work on this for your critical thesis." At that point my face probably melted.
AB: Did you have prior experience with this type of writing?
BE: Translation? Yes and no. I've returned to the story of Echo and Narcissus throughout my poetry, with or without knowing it. But I'm also not categorizing Thrown as a translation in the "correct" sense.
AB: The myth of Echo and Narcissus is very much a story about semantics, meanings, adaptation. What does the term "translation" mean for this text?
BE: I believe that the story of Echo and Narcissus is perhaps the story of translation, one that involves shortcomings and misrepresentations, and death (laughter). Death via mutation. All of those things. Johannes Göransson and Joyelle McSweeney of Action Books are two poets who I feel very much in alignment with in regards to translation. I spent equal amounts of time looking at a number of antiquated English translations of "Echo and Narcissus," and more antiquated typefaces of Latin from which the Enlightenment translator, John Minellius (for example), worked. I brought together all of these Englished works, they were all my source languages. In Deformation Zone, Göransson discusses Christian Hawkey's experience translating from German and how Hawkey marks translation as his central concern mainly because he didn't read or speak German at the time. It was this same impulse that drew me to the Latin, to emphasize the fringes of my own knowledge in the way that Echo dwells in the fringes of the forest. The fringes of expression with one's vocal faculties disabled.
And so, no matter how much time I spent "outside" the Latin and with other translations there was always this inescapable interiority. No matter how external I tried to get with it, I could never really escape the echo chambers. There's no algebraic way of approaching a source language and pushing it into a target language, let alone five source languages that are all instances of English and instances of Latin.
AB: In your discussion of Echo and Narcissus on Tumblr, you write, "Can we call Narcissus the original? Echo mines his language for what is half-realized, activating her 'reclaiming zone,' the 'fictitious collective memory.'" What do you mean by these terms?
BE: Those specific phrases are taken from Caroline Bergvall's book Meddle English. She's describing the project of the author directly. An implication of these phrases that I enjoy is scrutiny of socio-political constructions of power, which ultimately have the most to do with arguments surrounding language-gain and loss and the questions of voice or identity. Not to be confused with narratives of identity.
AB: Is there a particular character's voice that you've been most drawn to in the story?
BE: I think the brilliance of Echo is that she is both constantly resonating and diminishing. What I found when I turned to the Latin was that there was never a point in the story that didn't deal with this high reverence of world play. Echo saturates the text. I don't think of Echo and Narcissus as separate, either. The pleasure of returning to Echo and Narcissus' lack of connection with each other is very much the complete and absurdly redundant connection with each other. Their repartee in the poem is one of ecstatic repetition.
AB: In the "In Nova" section of Thrown, you write "Ovidian history is / founded upon what is seen." What have you come to see about this story that's true?
BE: The act of seeing is the least passive engagement with the world that we can enter. But, it is almost dangerously considered to be totally passive. Likewise it's misleading to think that when Echo metamorphoses she then exits, and the drama turns to Narcissus. Echo blurs our sense of visual and textual boundaries. The word-play, imagery and repetition that surround the telling of Echo's retelling dominate the poem from beginning to end. The body of Echo is the body of the poem.
AB: I remember talking to you directly following The New Megaphone's acceptance of your chapbook early last summer. You mentioned that you immediately contacted editor Nate Slawson to make revisions. How much tinkering did you do? When did the "incessant mutations" stop?
BE: They haven't stopped. The most painful part of this process has been being faced with an object that is outside of my ability to meddle. It's hard for me to go back and reread it because there are all of these moments where I start to burst into a multifarious stream of responses, like I need to sit down and reenvision entire sections. The editing process for me is a really turbulent one. "Echo and Narcissus" has helped me to embrace the impulse to never be done with anything. I'm not interested in resolve. I'm interested in occupying these places of polyphony, places that exhaust the ear but are also incredibly ambient.
AB: Was there a time when the text felt "finished"?
BE: No. But there are specific places in Thrown where I feel compelled to buy every copy and burn them. This happens where the Latin stands opposed to the English. But it also happens in the places where the synthesis of language appears to be seamless. I have visceral reactions where I desire a new type of opposition or resolve. This pull is what will probably compel me to always keep writing.
AB: Ovid's text is all about change, about transitioning from one state to another. How did this writing change you?
BE: Re-reading "Echo and Narcissus" throughout the years has led me to discover the indifference embedded in the moralization of Ovid's Metamorphoses. It's lazy reading. Or more accurately, it's a way of reading irrelevant to me. With that said, Metamorphoses itself was written as a history of the world leading up to the deification of Julius Ceasar. So there's that. We are never without agenda. But that's not what you asked. How did it change me? Oh, I don't know—with feeling.
AB: This book will soon be in your hands. What do you anticipate feeling?
BE: Alienation. A lack of control.
AB: To take you away from the text, you do have students. You teach here at The New School. How do you find time to complete your own creative work while still guiding students' learning experiences?
BE: The easy answer is that I literally don't have the time. But I also don't ever consider myself apart from the process of writing. I don't place an emphasis on innovation. I'm never not writing.
AB: What's on the horizon for Brooke Ellsworth?
BE: This year I saw the film Onibaba, directed by Kaneto Shindo, for the first time. "Onibaba" can be translated as "demon woman." I've been overwhelmed with this film ever since. This movie allegorizes the trauma of Hiroshima. The "demon woman" is, in the film, a woman whose face becomes scarred after she wears a cursed samurai mask. I actually find a lot of similarities between this literal deformity and Echo's shortcoming. So, I'm like working on an apocalypto-feminist manifesto.
AB: Do you have advice for first and/or second year students in the New School's MFA program?
BE: Buy Mark Bibbins a drink. Also, don't spend all your money at the bar. And always tip your bartender.
AB: Is there anything you would go back and tell yourself a year ago, before you committed to this translation?
BE: You know, all my writing kind of haphazardly leads everywhere including up to writing Thrown, and this is very necessary for me, a breakthrough / a productive failure. So no, nothing. But if past-Brooke was transported into the present, I'm sure she'd have much more wisdom than I do.
Brooke Ellsworth lives in Queens, NY. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Artifice, DIAGRAM, The Volta, gobbet, and elsewhere. She teaches at The New School. For more information visit brookeellsworth.tumblr.com.
Alex Bennett lives in Brooklyn, NY. She completed her MFA at The New School and now teaches writing at Parsons. Her work has appeared on The Best American Poetry Blog and in The Sosland Journal. Follow her on Twitter at @alex_bennett7.
Congratulations to all involved in Free Verse #2, a journal of prose and poetry created by and for probation clients in the South Bronx Neighborhood Opportunity Network (NeON). This project is led by poet-in-residence and School of Writing faculty member Dave Johnson and produced with the help of the NYC Department of Probation. MFA students Thomas Fucaloro and Christopher Hermelin are Associate Editors.
By the time she arrived at The New School, Jen Benka, MFA '07, had five years of experience as Managing Director of Poets & Writers, and a published book of poetry, A Box of Longing with 50 Drawers, behind her. Since graduating, Benka has published another collection of poetry, Pinko, and now serves as the Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets. Justin Sherwood, MFA '12, interviewed her at her office in lower Manhattan to ask about what brought her to The New School, her vision of poetry and politics, and what she's been up to at The Academy.
Justin Sherwood: You began your academic career with a BA in Journalism from Marquette University. Does your interest in journalism persist, and have you found a journalistic impulse emerging as you write poetry?
Jen Benka: While journalistic investigation isn’t expressly what I do in my own work, I am personally interested in the possibility of poetry as a means to explore contemporary issues. I’m interested, for example, in the work of Muriel Rukeyser, who could be described as a poet-journalist. She wrote an important piece in 1938 about her journey with a photographer friend to Appalachia to document a trial involving several miners who were dying from lung disease. In the poem she weaved together primary source texts including trial documents, and her own interviews with people at the time. It’s called The Book of the Dead, and is part of her volume U.S. 1. I’m also interested in the work of Carolyn Forché, who thinks about poetry as a way of documenting atrocity. Forché has recently published another groundbreaking anthology called the Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English 1500-2011.
JS: I noticed on Twitter that you identify as “A Midwesterner in Brooklyn.” What brought you to New York City?
JB: I had always wanted to live in New York. I grew up in the Midwest, and my family moved in what I think of as a kind of Bermuda Triangle—I was born in Milwaukee, then we lived for a while outside of Madison, Wisconsin, in a small farm town that was actually a stop on the Underground Railroad, called Milton Junction. Then we moved outside of Chicago, and I eventually made it back to Milwaukee. Ultimately, I was able to move to New York because I was offered the position of Managing Director at Poets & Writers.
JS: When you enrolled in the MFA program at The New School in 2005, you were already five years into your service at Poets & Writers, and had recently published your first book of poems, A Box of Longing with 50 Drawers. Why did you decide to get an MFA?
JB: It had long been a personal goal to obtain an MFA degree. I come from a family of teachers, and higher education is something that had always been stressed. And, I was looking at turning 40 in a couple of years. I knew that if I didn’t follow through on my dream of obtaining an advanced degree by the time I hit that milestone, I probably never would. I was excited about the possibility of studying at The New School.
JS: Why did you choose The New School for your MFA?
JB: I had a great job in the literary field, so I wasn’t willing to relocate from New York City. When I researched other programs it seemed that The New School was the most open to someone like me—someone who was older and working fulltime. Being able to keep my job while attending a graduate program was essential for me financially and important to me philosophically. And, of course, The New School has excellent poets teaching and a terrific reputation as one of the leading programs in the country. I was thrilled to have the chance to work with so many poets whose poems I had long admired.
JS: Have you remained in contact with your classmates from The New School?
JB: You know, when I started the program I planned on being singularly focused on my studies because I had a demanding job. But I had a wonderful classmate who second semester reminded me that meet-ups after workshops were part of the experience. Thanks to him, I established meaningful connections with an incredible cohort of student poets at The New School, and I’ll say that that’s another defining characteristic of the program. The New School MFA program genuinely fosters a non-competitive, generative sense of community among students. I’ve remained in touch with a number of my fellow students, and many have gone on to be innovators in the poetry field. They’ve won Fulbrights, launched readings series and publications like the Agriculture Reader and Coldfront, started new poetry organizations like the Poetry Society of New York, and published books with wonderful small presses. I believe the success I’ve seen from my fellow classmates is due in part to the supportive energy and community that the program facilitates.
JS: What was your thesis experience like? Did the poems you worked on during that time make it into your second poetry collection, Pinko?
JB: I came to the program with some drafts of poems I thought would be in my next book, but I didn’t know what shape the book might take. Mark Bibbins, my thesis advisor, was incredible to work with. He met every poem with a seriousness and care that I really appreciated. He was a generous reader and critic, and every poem I worked on with him is stronger for it. My second book, Pinko, a reflective set of pieces in large part about my experiences in the 90s, is comprised of many poems that I worked on during my time at The New School.
JS: Do you have any advice for our second year students, who are in their thesis semester, on ordering a group of poems that may become part of their first poetry collection?
JB: I would say this: don’t put the pressure on yourself to produce a book. Let the poems be what they need to be. Don’t rush to publish. Your thesis should be a culmination of the work you’ve done in the workshops, and the work that you’ve done one-on-one with your advisor. If you have the pressure of “this has to be my first book,” it might change the work in ways that don’t serve the poems, and eventually, your readers.
Ordering a manuscript is a very complicated thing to do. There are folks like me who like to build an over-architecture that scaffolds the work and moves the poems along, and there are others who organize work by subject matter or other systems. It depends on what you’re writing about, the larger story you want to tell.
JS: You mentioned the influence of Muriel Rukeyser, whose novel Savage Coast, recently published by the Feminist Press, is yet another of her contributions to literature that combines creative writing with reportage. Rukeyser was a writer who was deeply concerned with questions of democracy and social justice. Do you think that poetry is a viable form for exploring the problems of democracy?
JB: I do. In fact, I think it’s an essential way that we explore those problems. There are things that we can explore in art, and uniquely in poetry—because it is art made of language—that are essential to maintaining democracy. Democracy only functions when questions are being asked. Questions can’t be asked by just one segment of the public. Poetry can be a kind of Public Square. Just like journalists help maintain a democracy by serving as watchdogs and holding public officials accountable, artists also raise important issues. We need poets in the world asking questions.
JS: To what extent would you consider the work of the Academy of American Poets activism?
JB: We’re not an activist organization in the sense that PEN is an activist organization, fighting for freedom of expression and assisting writers in exile. The Academy of American Poets is dedicated to building support for and increasing the visibility of poets who are working in the United States, and to shining a light on American poetry globally. We are activists in the sense that we want to engage as many people as possible with this art form that we know is potentially transformative.
Poets provide the words that help us understand our lives, history, and location in the world; they test and reimagine syntax; they move us beyond the noise of the everyday. When we read a poem, we’re engaging with an art object made of language, which enables our mind and memory to wrap around it in a way that a mind can’t wrap around a painting on canvas. Poetry opens people up. In The Life of Poetry Rukeyser writes about how a poem can help prepare us to make changes in our lives by requiring us to feel. The emotional participation that great poems demand can lead to important new revelations. As Rukeyser wrote, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
JS: How would you describe the mission of the Academy of the American Poets? Has it changed at all in the two years you’ve been leading it?
JB: The Academy of American Poets was founded 80 years ago by a 23-year-old woman named Marie Bullock. She’d been living in Europe, and when she returned to the U.S., she was dismayed and frustrated by the lack of support for poets in this country by contrast. She founded the Academy to address that concern. In its early days, the Academy launched the very first prize in the United States to recognize a poet’s artistic merit, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship Prize, which we continue to award annually to this day.
Our focus hasn’t changed in 80 years-- poets remain at the heart of our work. We work to build an audience for their work. And we still have much to do. Poets are unlike fiction writers, screenwriters, and painters—there’s no big check waiting for us. Our most celebrated poets, and the poets who are selling the most books, are still nowhere near being able to support themselves financially the way that other artists can.
One of the things that makes the Academy unique is that we’re guided, in addition to a Board of Directors, by a Board of Chancellors, comprised of award-winning and established poets. Our Chancellors have always provided artistic advice, judged our largest awards, and guided us in our curation. Today, we have 15 of the most exciting, diverse poets working with us to ensure that our programs reflect the breadth and best of contemporary American poetry.
We’re also more focused on online publishing and social media. This year we’ll publish at least 250 poets’ new poems on Poets.org and share them with more than 300,000 readers daily.
In addition, for this year’s National Poetry Month, an annual celebration which we originated in 1996, we will be launching a multimedia education called Poet-to-Poet, which invites young people in grades 3-12 to write poems in response to those shared by some of our Chancellors.
JS: Many writers have a definite political and aesthetic stance. Yours, if I may, could be described as queer, progressive, even radical. You are also charged with leading a poetry organization that promotes all kinds of poetry to all kinds of people across the political spectrum. How do you balance your own aesthetic and political leanings with the perhaps necessarily more moderate leanings of an organization?
JB: It’s true, the Academy of American Poets is a big tent. In celebrating the talented poets writing today, with the support of our Chancellors, we look across a wide aesthetic spectrum. And we do all we can to engage as many people as possible in the art form so we might build a lasting readership for poets. So in addition to working with the artists themselves, we also serve educators, readers, and our members.
I’m very cognizant, as are all of the staff members at the Academy, that the work we do here is not about us. I’m not here to fulfill my own political or personal agenda. When we’re here, we’re working, writing, curating on behalf of a broader, larger mission.
JS: With such a large professional commitment, how do you make time for your own writing? How do you balance the highly individualized and curated world of the poet with the broad social network you’re a part of as an Executive Director?
JB: It’s not easy. I’ve always had to balance working fulltime with a creative life. And I’m fortunate that during my time at Poets & Writers I was able to successfully strike some sort of balance between my professional life, being a part of the literary community, and my own writing, so I know it can be done. It’s a little more complicated at the Academy, because my role is even more demanding, but I hold tightly to the idea that when we’re not writing we are preparing to write, so that there’s always some sort of creative process happening internally. I ultimately feel that my artistic practice is two-fold: it’s about my own making and it’s about serving others. It’s only when I take both together—making and serving—that I understand myself as an artist in the world. Concretely, right now the only way that I’m able to produce my own work is by having very specific deadlines.
JS: Deadlines that you create for yourself?
JB: Deadlines I give myself, or those created by an occasion or an event that I want to produce new work for. The professional-personal balance shifts, what motivates me shifts, the constraints shift, and I just stay open to those changes, hold tight to my artistic vision, and accept that my writing practice will look different over time.
JS: We’ll close with a question from one of our Fiction students: many professionals in the publishing world insist that aside from the writing that young people are doing, it is now essential to build a personal “brand” if a writer wants to be noticed and published. Do you think that the role of the young writer is changing, and how essential is building that “brand?”
JB: Young writers need to make choices that, above all, are going to serve their work. If it serves your writing to consider performance and packaging, to create a public persona and use social media to provoke readers, great. Let your engagement with your work lead you.
Being active on social media does create incredible opportunities for experimentation and community building. And having a social media presence does help you get in the door of the publishing community. Publishers care about work finding an audience. If you can demonstrate that you’re already building one, they pay attention to that.
I’ve been excited to see the connections made between poets through social media. Poets who might not have had anything to do with one another 30 years ago are now very aware of each other’s work and even in conversation with one another. We’re in each other’s news feeds. There was a time when you’d check fliers on light posts to find out who’s reading where and when, and now it’s at your fingertips. There is less space between us.
The Academy of American Poets will be experimenting with some interesting things online beginning this April. Stay tuned!
Jen Benka is the Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets. Her two collections of poetry include A Box of Longing with 50 Drawers (Soft Skull Press) and Pinko (Hanging Loose Press). She graduated from The New School's MFA Creative Writing Program in 2007. Learn more about Benka at The Academy of American Poets.
Nicole Steinberg is the author of Getting Lucky (Spooky Girlfriend Press, 2013) and two chapbooks forthcoming in 2014:Undressing from dancing girl press and Clever Little Gang, winner of the Furniture Press 4X4 Chapbook Award. Her other publications include Forgotten Borough: Writers Come to Terms with Queens (SUNY Press, 2011) and Birds of Tokyo (dancing girl press, 2011). She is the founder of Earshot, a New York reading series, and she lives in Philadelphia.
After watching the book trailer for Nicole Steinberg's Getting Lucky (Spooky Girlfriend Press, 2013) and clicking through her Tumblr, I knew her latest collection of sonnets would mean something to me as a reader, as well as a writer. We chatted on the phone about inspiration, millennials, pop culture in poetry, and the internet ...
Dianca London Potts: What was the genesis or initial inspiration for this collection of sonnets?
Nicole Steinberg: I used to work in magazine publishing, so I'm very familiar with that environment and its language. I never worked for a fashion magazine but I did edit at a couple of entertainment magazines, so that was one part of the initial inspiration. The other source was another poet, Bruce Covey, who runs Coconut Books. I heard him read two poems a few years ago that had been inspired by People magazine’s ‘Most Beautiful People’ issue. He took the editorial copy related to all of the male celebrities and wrote one poem, then another one using editorial copy related to female celebrities. It was astounding to hear the differences in the tone and the language we use to describe the two genders. That really struck me. Lucky magazine is one of my guilty pleasures. It’s about shopping and style and it's one of the only magazines that I consistently subscribe to. I’ve always been enamored with the way Lucky writers use language in such bizarre, fascinating, and ingenious ways, to describe and sell things like hats and handbags. So I had the idea to do something similar to what Bruce did, which was to use the editorial copy of that magazine to write poems. I decided to go with the sonnet form. I started doing them and I found that I couldn’t stop. I noticed that something was happening in the poems—that I was discovering a subtext to the language that I hadn’t even really noticed when I first started. The poems revealed something powerful about the way we write for women, the way we sell to women, how we see women as consumers, and what we do to attract their collective interest.
DLP: Could you describe the process or approach you took when you began writing the poems that appear in Getting Lucky? How did you go about crafting each sonnet?
NS: I was very methodical about it. I saw it as an exercise and I approached every single poem the same way. I would take an issue of the magazine and go through it page-by-page, cover-to-cover. Then I would make a Word document that listed all of the phrases and sentences that I found most interesting in the issue. Sometimes it was just a word, maybe two or three words. Sometimes there were full sentences. I would end up with a document for each issue that was three or four pages long. Then I would print that document and try to find words or images that jumped out at me as a starting point. It's one of the things that I look back on now with amazement—like, I wonder how I managed to make it work. The only things I would insert were conjunctions or pronouns, if I was writing in first person. Sometimes I would change the tense of a verb if I had to. Otherwise, every word that I used was strictly from that document. If I wrote one sonnet, I would take what was left over from the document and work on the next sonnet. Sometimes I was able to create four poems out of a single issue. I was digging enough into the text that I ended up with four May poems or three September poems. After a while it became difficult to know which poem was which, so I decided to name them after the women who appeared in the magazine. I went through each issue again and wrote down the first names of the women who were mentioned, and then picked from that list to match the sonnets I had already written. That made me think about how we characterize certain names, either because of pop culture icons or the history of the name, or people who we know with those names in real life. So that was interesting, too, to think about first names as labels and how much they can shape our opinions.
DLP: A lot of poets and prose writers are concerned with alienating future audiences or limiting the timelessness of their work by including contemporary references or contemporary situations in their work. How did you find a balance between being timelessly universal and also being contemporary? How do you approach the use of pop culture and zeitgeist motifs in your poetry?
NS: Pop culture is such a prevalent part of our lives that not only do I not see a problem with using it in poetry, but also I feel like it almost has to happen because its something we deal with everyday. I know many poets feel that references to pop and the cultural zeitgeist are fleeting and ephemeral, and that they won’t work after a certain amount of time. I did get some feedback from writers I really respect that was along those lines. For me, pop culture is like icing. If I make a reference in one of these poems, I meant to say something else; the reference is meant to point to a bigger issue. The book is really about women and culture and how that culture treats women—the give and take between those two entities. So if there’s a reference to Angelina Jolie and people don’t remember her in 50 years, that’s okay because the larger point of the poem still stands. I’m a proponent of pop culture in writing. For one thing, it helps people connect, especially those folks who aren’t writers. Sometimes I get my biggest response at readings when I talk about celebrities or make a reference to QVC. It might seem throw away to some but for others, it’s something to latch onto.
DLP: I found your modernized use of the sonnet really exciting. You turn a classic poetic form into a hyper-contemporary narrative. Why do you think sonnets worked best for this?
NS: I started using the sonnet because I liked having a controlled form to employ—a standard for me to follow. I knew that the poem always had to be 14 lines and I couldn’t stop until I was up to 14 lines. In a way, the sonnet, the built-in rhythm of the sonnet, matched well with the source material because there's something so musical to the language we see in fashion magazines. The people who write that stuff work really hard at it. It may not seem that way sometimes but every word is carefully chosen and crafted. I felt that using the sonnet form would pay homage to that and, in a way, elevate the language. That being said, I also enjoy writing short poems, so the sonnet's line count and inherent flow works for me. I really love hearing them read out loud.
DLP: Some of the poems throughout the stanzas there is a lot of reference to mirrors, eyes, gazes, and other optically based language. You deal a lot with identity, image, and embodiment in an innovatively sincere but cognitive way, which is refreshing because a lot of times when people talk about the body and the female body it’s either totally sentimental or way too philosophical but your work manages to find harmony between the two extremes. Are those themes of the body, identity, and image specific to certain sonnets individually or is it an overall focus throughout Getting Lucky?
NS: Thank you! The book is essentially about different views of women in contemporary culture: how we tend to view them, how the media views them, how they wish to be viewed, and how they view each other. So in that sense, yes, identity and image are overarching themes of the book. On the other hand, every word from the book is from the magazine, so it would have emerged even if I hadn't been thinking about it. This is something we push on women via consumer culture: intense self-reflection and the gaze, whether it’s the industry's gaze or the male gaze, or the female gaze with regards to other females. It's always there and extremely apparent in fashion editorial so it was organic, in a way.
DLP: In the sonnets like ‘Jamie’ and ‘Alexis,’ some of the stanzas touch on how individuals are touched by their pasts. They reference the adolescent self in a way. As writers, readers, and humans in general we are shaped by our adolescence. How do you feel the experience of adolescence shapes a writer’s form, more specifically your poetics?
NS: I can't speak for other writers; adolescence comes up for some more so than others. I tend to write a lot about girlhood and womanhood. I have a new chapbook coming out in a few months called Undressing, which includes a lot of poems that I wrote in my 20s. It’s about the armor that women have to wear when they're out in the world, especially young women, and what happens when that armor comes off. A lot of the poems are shaped by experiences that I had in adolescence and young adulthood. For example, I was an obese teenager, so that is a big subject in my writing now. I’m trying to find ways to write about weight, the issues around the obese body and the human body in general, but it's difficult because its very close to me, so that’s something I’m grappling with right now. In terms of form, I write a lot of short poems. I don’t know if my adolescence has anything to do with that. I think that’s more my short attention span and my interest in pared-down, economized language. This isn't to say that long poems aren't worth writing; it’s just something that doesn’t come naturally for me.
DLP: On any given day I’m reminded of Lena Dunham and her monolithic series Girls thanks to ads everywhere and my Facebook feed. Her show and your poetics chart some of the same territory yet your poems capture an essence of what Lena’s show attempts to embody in a much more artful and meaningful way. What are your thoughts about the female millennial narrative, its evolution, and the response narratives depicting that experience have gotten from the masses, from women? What excites you about the way the women of our generation are making meaning out of the world through the lens of the 20 something / 30 something female millennial occupying a cultural space defined hyperrealism, hipsterdom, and the internet plus everything women have always had to deal with?
NS: I do watch that show. I enjoy it. I don’t see it as super high culture, which isn’t to say I don’t think that it’s good. It paints a very specific picture of what it's like to be a member of a very narrow segment of the millennial generation. In that sense, I would hope that the poems in my book try to paint a broader picture of what that generation is like. At the same time, I don’t think that the book is completely millennial driven or millennial focused. I would hope that it speaks to other generations as well but I understand that millennials would identify with it because a) it’s written by one (I made it just barely, I was born in 1982) and b) it deals with a publication that partly caters to millennials. In terms of what excites me about what's going on with female millennial culture and how it’s represented, I really appreciate hearing that younger voice and the fact that there are more opportunities for young women and those who identify as women to share their experiences—and the female millennial narrative does feel intensely personal and confessional, which is probably thanks to the Internet, yeah. But, as I said before, I don’t think that Girls is necessarily the defining product of this generation, even if critics say it is. It's just one cultural artifact and it happens to be everywhere because it's on HBO and it's about a place where everyone wants to be: a street in Bushwick where a lot of privileged people live. My book is also essentially about privilege because its source material screams of privilege, being a magazine about beauty, fashion, and shopping. I would posit that the female millennial narrative is, in a way, all about privilege—either an abundance or complete lack of it, depending on point of view, and how each scenario resonates. Lena Dunham is privileged and her show is both a product and an investigation of that privilege, so I think it has merit.
DLP: As you answered that, I am shivering in my windowless, four roommate apartment in Bushwick. Very relevant.
NS: ‘Shivering in Bushwick.’ That could be the name of your book.
DLP: ‘Shivering in Bushwick: Stories’ by Dianca London Potts. It’d be perfect.
NS: It’s a good title. I like it.
DLP: Let’s talk about the internet. You’ve been featured on online outlets like McSweeney’s and HTML Giant. How do you feel the digitized space of the internet is impacting the literary scene, specifically within your genre?
NS: It's major. I wouldn’t say that print publications are dead, because that’s definitely not true, but I tend to submit to and read web publications more often. It's easy to send them work, the turnaround is quick, and you can link others to your work. I feel like everyday I see a new online literary publication. It has a huge influence on poetry; it kind of opens doors that were previously closed, mainly due to lack of money or influence. People who are younger and younger are putting out lit magazines—like, the editors are 21 or 22 sometimes—and that’s a whole group of voices that wouldn't receive exposure if everyone were limited to print publications. And some digitized spaces have grown to become insanely popular, like McSweeney’s. I was thrilled to appear in McSweeney’s. It was one of my first major publications and it was huge for me. So, these digital literary spaces are a changing of the guard and I think that's cool.
DLP: So, how do you picture your reader? How do you imagine that person? Do you think that reader’s experience would be different if they read the sonnets in Getting Lucky silently or aloud?
NS: I wouldn’t say I have an ideal reader. I think that young women are the "target audience" because they are the ones who are exposed to this language in everyday life and I think it would be useful for them to see that language shaped and manipulated in a different way. A colleague asked me a few months ago if the book would be a good gift for her friend's teenage daughter and I said absolutely, that’s who should be reading it. It’d be nice if a younger audience found it. I would hope that men would read and enjoy the book, too. In terms of reading the poems aloud instead of silently… There is something to that. I know I definitely get a reaction when I read them aloud at events. I did a book trailer where I had my friends read various lines from the book aloud and we spliced them together into a collage, which sounded like a whole new poem. Hearing all of their voices patched together gave the language an interesting texture.
DLP: I really enjoyed the trailer a different way of thinking about not only how to promote a chapbook or even a prose story but it’s so cool because to its so relevant to the way that we consume things now, and like you said it’s another poetic piece of its own of all the voices of the people who participated.
NS: It was really fun to do that book trailer. We did it to raise money for the book and to get people excited about it. It ended up being such a cool thing on its own, even beyond the fundraising. I’m still really happy with it.
DLP: You mentioned your forthcoming chapbook, Undressing. What other projects are you’re working on right now?
NS: I have two finished chapbooks that are coming out in the next couple months. One is Undressing, to be published by dancing girl press, which I described earlier. It deals with the vulnerabilities of young women and how we treat them, so it shares some themes with Getting Lucky. I have another chapbook coming out from Furniture Press, Clever Little Gang, which I refer to in my head as my "sarcastic chapbook." Most of the poems in that collection came from my NaPoWriMo attempt last year. Some of those poems are based on questions from OKCupid profiles, so the poems have titles like "What I'm Doing With My Life" or "My Self-Summary." I’m still working in those realms of gender, culture, and interpersonal relationships but also veering off in different directions. Right now I’m writing a lot about body image and trying to incorporate it into my poems, in ways that aren’t trite or obtuse. My mother passed away about five years ago and she's been finding her way into my poems, too. I didn’t mention this earlier but part of the impetus for writing Getting Lucky was her death. I needed something to do after it happened; something to focus on that was unrelated, because the grief was too much to write through at the time. The exercise element of it gave me a way to concentrate on something that was simplistic in nature and had both flexibility and strict parameters. I wouldn’t say I’m working on any particular project right now, just writing poems with the intention of developing another full-length manuscript.
DLP: Ok, super generic: Are there any poets or prose writers that you’re really into right now or really excited about?
NS: One of my all-time favorites is Denise Duhamel and I believe this book is a direct result of her influence. I offered to send her a copy and she sent back this really complimentary note about it. I was so happy that I printed it out and put it up on the wall next to my desk at work. A prose writer I love right now is Jami Attenberg. I read and loved and anguished over The Middlesteins, because I see my own family in that book. It felt like she plucked it out of my head. Just today, I got new books in the mail from Coconut Books: Dork Swagger by Steven Karl and Hold It Down by Gina Myers, both poets who went to The New School. I’m excited to read those. Two other great books that I read in 2013 were also by New School alums: Christie Ann Reynolds, who wrote Revenge Poems (Supermachine, 2010) and Amy Lawless, who did My Dead (Octopus Books, 2013). I’m ultra-aware of New School writers because those are the people I know well. In fall 2013, I went on tour with two poets who I really admire. One was JD Scott, who put out a complex and ambitious chapbook in 2013 with Birds of Lace, called Funerals and Thrones. We called the book tour the "Lucky Funeral Tour." The other poet who joined us was Niina Pollari, who is a fantastic, funny, and cerebral writer. All of our styles felt oddly complementary. Other writers I'm excited about: Laura Cronk, Ryan Eckes, Rebecca Lindenberg, Marisa Crawford, Mark Cugini, Caroline Crew, Amy McDaniel… (laughs) I’ll stop there.
DLP: I’ve saved the cheesiest question for last. Do you have any advice for future New School MFA Alums?
NS: I would say, enjoy New York. Go out with the other writers. While I enjoyed my classes and got a lot out of the program, I would say the relationships I developed with other writers is what has had the most lasting impact on my life. Like I said, I know so many of them still. They’re part of my community. I follow them on social media, I know what they’re up to, we read each other’s work. And part of that is because every week, after class, we went to the same bar and drank for hours and ate greasy potato wedges, and that’s where those relationships took root. I would say, talk to your fellow writers and get to know them. Also, don’t be afraid to start something. New School people are so good at creating things, and by that I mean small presses, reading series, literary magazines. People there are inspired and eager to help their fellow writers, which I think is the overall influence of The New School. So I would say to forge those alliances, make those big ideas happen, and stay out late once in a while.
Nicole Steinberg is the author of Getting Lucky (Spooky Girlfriend Press, 2013) and two chapbooks forthcoming in 2014:Undressing from dancing girl press and Clever Little Gang, winner of the Furniture Press 4X4 Chapbook Award. Her other publications include Forgotten Borough: Writers Come to Terms with Queens (SUNY Press, 2011) and Birds of Tokyo (dancing girl press, 2011). She is the founder of Earshot, a New York reading series, and she lives in Philadelphia.
Dianca London Potts is a first year Fiction student in the M.F.A. program and is currently working on a collection of short stories and first person plural vignettes. Her work has appeared in APIARY Magazine and New Wave Vomit.
National Book Awards 2013 at The New School, 11/19/2013.
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