this is my story

     I am Isaac Tracer, Staff Sergeant in the United Nations Space Command Marine Corps. This is my story.
     I had just graduated out of basic on Biko, a colony planet in the Epsilon Eridani system. Fresh out of boot, I was in the barracks waiting to hear where I would shipped out to. Our DI read out the graduates’ names, one by one. When he finally got to me, he looked up and said: “Congratulations, Tracer, you’re being shipped out to Reach for further training. You are being given the option of becoming an ODST. Are you up for it?”
    Orbital Drop Shock Troopers were the stuff of legend. I had read articles on them through the daily newsletter the camp sent out. I had read that they come out of the sky in flaming pods that land right on top of you. Their ops rarely exceed more than twenty minutes and they leave a trail of destruction in their path.

Whale Boy, who is sixteen and obssessed with video games, especially Halo, and with joining the Marine Corps, is writing a novel. It’s up to 20,000 words and ten chapters and completely derivative. That’s part of the first page. We’re on vacation together at the moment and part of what we are doing is editing what he has written so far.

Which is turning out to mean that I read the story aloud as he has written it and highlight punctuation and grammar weak spots for him to correct as he reads along on his laptop. I’m not doing anything else, not sure I could do anything else. I just want him to finish it. And then maybe write another two, or three, before he actually writes one that is Whale-Boy-created and that he might think about keeping.

His spelling is great, his punctuation appalling. Beyond that, I feel totally lucky and so favored because I have a son who seems to want to write.

old-fashioned, racist claptrap

Following up on this post on un-PC children’s books, couldn’t resist getting this into the record. Wikipedia on Tintin in the Congo:

The shop later moved the book from the children’s section to the area reserved for adult graphic novels. In a statement, a spokesperson for the Commission [for Racial Equality] commented “the only place that it might be acceptable for this to be displayed would be in a museum, with a big sign saying ‘old fashioned, racist claptrap'”. Borders said that they were committed to let their “customers make the choice”.

I’m a fan of the Tintin books and my boys have most of them, although we don’t have a copy of Tintin in the Congo at the moment. On the whole, I think that while I wouldn’t object to them reading it, I would prefer that we have a conversation about it before/as they do so.

Ten Questions (2): Michaela Gabriel

Michaela Gabriel (author of the secret meaning of greek letters, among other chapbooks) is answering the ten questions on publication today. We are enthusiastic readers of her work and her blog and are especially delighted to have her with us today. Many thanks for participating, Michaela!

1. Describe your publishing trajectory. Where did it start? Where is it now? How long have you been at it?

Everything really began when I was about 13 and read a poem written by a teenage girl in one of those almanac/diary things. I sat down, wrote my first ever poem and actually sent it to the publishers. Looking back, I am amazed at my guts – and I really cannot blame them for not publishing the poem. But even so many years later, I am grateful for the encouraging note I received. It may have been politeness, but to a young person who had just discovered this new form of expressing herself, it made all the difference. I never stopped writing after that, though I was not thinking of publication at the time.

When I was 17, a girls’ magazine based in Germany ran a poetry competition; my poem made the top 100 and became my first publication. For a while, an Austrian print magazine called “My Way” published poetry, stories and photos by their readers, and I found myself thinking, hmm, I can do that, too. I was curious, I wanted to know whether they’d accept any of my work – and they did, several times. They even paid about 50 Schilling (5 dollars) per piece!

And then the internet “happened”. I’d begun to write in English during my late teens, and by the mid-nineties much of my poetry was in English. Through a student magazine I heard about gangway.net – an Austr(al)ian e-zine, and I sent them some of my work. In June 1997, they published a set of ten poems. I was thrilled – and hooked.

On internet boards I found encouragement, support, and a mentor, and being part of communities helped me find out about markets and the process of submitting poetry. About eleven years after my first online publications, countless poems have appeared online and in print, in magazines that have long since closed down and others that continue to thrive. I have had two chapbooks published, and co-authored a third (with Alex Stolis). Without the internet, I would certainly not be where I am now. Nowhere near it, in fact. Sometimes I wonder whether I’d actually still be writing at all.

2. What would you do differently if you had to start all over again?

Well, it’s not like I had a plan! It just started to happen, and I sort of went along. The only thing – it took me ages to put my first chapbook together. I was dithering, and it took several kicks in my lazy butt from my dear friend Alex Stolis to finally make me sit down and choose those poems. I think I was a little intimidated by the whole thing, and for a while I blocked myself by worrying too much over poems I’d have to leave out. Just because they did not get into chapbook number one, did not have to mean they would never be part of a book, so that was silly, and maybe I could have gotten my act together sooner. But then, who knows, it might not have been snapped up by the first publisher I sent it to. :)

3. Why did you start seeking publication? Why do you continue?

Like I said before, in the beginning there was a question. And the question was: “Can I do that too?” I wanted to find out whether a magazine would publish what I had to say. I wanted to get reactions from publishers, other writers, friends. After all, most poets *are* trying to reach people out there. I continue to send out submissions for that very reason. I want to make someone laugh, shrug, shiver, sigh, or think “yes!” The market has changed so much over the last ten years, so many magazines have been founded, some have disappeared again. But the market is definitely much, much bigger and more varied than it used to be. So I send poetry to new zines, online and print, if I think my work fits in with what they publish. I don’t send poetry to magazines I wouldn’t read, I don’t want to get published just so I can say, “Been in that one. Check”.

4. Does your relationship with your work change after it is published and if so, how? How does the concept of publication affect your writing in general?

No, in general I wouldn’t say that’s the case. Sometimes when I go way back to the late nineties, to my first publications, I end up a little surprised that certain poems got accepted, because I have moved on since then, and my style has changed, but that’s it.

As for possible publication affecting my writing – sometimes I am challenged to try something new, say, if a journal runs a themed contest or such. And with my chapbooks, yes, there is an influence there. I started working on “the secret meanings of greek letters” with a chapbook collection in mind, it was always intended as a series, with one poem per Greek letter. Same with the collaboration I wrote with Alex – we had this concept of a series of letters, and we worked on it with a chapbook in mind. And the full-length manuscript I am working on, “elemental”, is another themed book – one poem for each element in the periodic table.

But the concept of publication does not usually affect my writing in the sense that I write “for” a magazine, a certain market.

5. Talk about putting a chapbook together. How have you done it in the past, how would you do it differently now? Why are chapbooks a good thing?

It took me forever to put my first chapbook, “apples for adam”, together. I found it difficult to decide what to include and what to leave out. I wrote lists of poems I liked, then abandoned work on the chapbook again, and started all over. Someone suggested a theme, so I went through my poems to see what themes would jump out at me, and it was actually pretty obvious that it had to be a women-themed collection. Knowing that, it was much easier to make choices, and once I had realized that leaving out a number of good poems was not the end of the world, the manuscript was finished pretty quickly. I did play around with the order of poems, and I sent the manuscript off when it simply felt right. I was worried I might not find a title for it, but then that was not difficult at all – the title refers to a poem included in the book, “Eva to Adam”.

The second collection, “the secret meanings of greek letters”, was a different matter altogether. I knew even before finishing the first poem that it would have to be the complete series of one poem each for the 24 Greek letters. I was in the middle of an a-poem-a-day challenge at the time, and “secret meanings” was basically written within a month.

With my latest collection, “love letters to invisible men”, which is currently looking for a home, it was different. I thought of the title ages ago, but did not have the poems for a collection. Once I had them, I spent a long time deciding on the order of poems, and I changed my mind quite often. I asked a few friends to look the manuscript over and that helped.

There are several reasons why chapbooks are a good thing: They give readers an idea of a poet’s work, and they don’t have to spend a fortune on a book they might not even enjoy. For me as a poet the thought of putting together a collection of 20 poems is a LOT less intimidating than writing a manuscript of 60-100 poems. It’s good for getting your name out there. I also love how chapbooks are used as a sort of currency on the web – swapping books with other poets is fantastic.

6. What’s your advice to someone putting together a full-length poetry manuscript for the first time? Share your thoughts on the importance (or not) of a narrative arc in poetry manuscripts.

I am definitely not the expert here, and could do with some advice myself. I have about half the poems for my full-length project “elemental”. What inspired me was Primo Levi’s short story collection “The Periodic Table”. The idea is to write one poem for each element. I am already wondering how to arrange the poems, because there are “series within the series” (like a bunch of prose poems, several ekphrastic poems, etc), but of course it would be nice to stick to the original order of the periodic table.

In a way, putting a manuscript together is like making a CD mix. I can take such things very seriously – there are songs that just don’t go well together. You probably wouldn’t want to go from a Verdi aria straight to Korn, or from Irish folk to trash metal. So I guess that poets should give some thought to the order of their poems and perhaps group similarly themed poems.

7. Do you personally market your publications? If so, why and how, and do you enjoy it? If not, why not?

Yes, of course! I mean – if I am not interested in marketing my work, then who will be? I have a sort of newsletter, poetic news, that I send out several times a year to tell friends – poets and others – about publications in magazines. I send review copies of my chapbooks to magazines, I blog about publications, I post links on facebook. Word of mouth is so important. I write to poets whose work I like and suggest swapping chapbooks. I have swapped over 20 copies of my “secret meanings” so far.

There are not many poetry-related events in Vienna, but I presented “secret meanings” at the open mic I always go to, and I read some poems from that collection at the Vienna Lit Festival on April 17. Such events usually have book tables, and they are a great opportunity of making your work known.

8. Complete the following sentences: Big-name poetry publishers

… have a lot of know-how but are possibly unaware of what is happening “on the street” and desperately need to explore new areas.

9. Small- and micro-presses are …

… closer to what’s happening, something the poetry world needs, and worth being supported.

10. Describe the ideal relationship with a publisher and a relationship with a publisher from hell.

I must say that my publishers have been very good to work with. An ideal publisher is someone who supports the writer, who offers advise without violating the poet’s work. A publisher should be open to suggestions from the poet. Creativity and some marketing know-how are definitely a plus. What I love is being kept up-to-date with what is going on – layout, proofing, illustrations, ideas, delays, whatever.

A publisher from hell, hm, I guess that would be someone who is careless, who doesn’t keep their promises, offers no feedback, doesn’t answer questions, makes changes without informing the writer, misses deadlines without a word of explanation or apology. Also, being asked to pay for any services in the end would be a nightmare.

I had one bad experience with a print magazine based in India. I found out after submitting that they would not give published authors a free copy and I heard some unfavourable stories about them. I withdrew my work, received a confirmation of that email, but over a month later I got an email telling me that my poems had been published, and asking me to buy a copy. I was NOT amused. Fortunately such experiences are few and far between.

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Michaela A. Gabriel lives in Vienna, Austria where she helps adults acquire computer and English skills and gets together with the muse as often as possible. She wrote her first poem at the age of 13, but likes to think that she has improved since. Michaela has been widely published both online and in print and is the author of two and a half chapbooks – apples for adam (FootHills Publishing, January 2005), the secret meanings of greek letters, (dancing girl press, October 2007), and small confessions & pebbles of regret (Rubicon Press, March 2008, co-written with Alex Stolis). She has recently finished another chapbook manuscript and is working on a full-length collection inspired by the elements of the periodic table. When she is not writing, Michaela is reading, listening to music, taking photos, watching movies, blogging, communicating with friends, playing scrabble online or travelling – usually several of these at the same time. Her website is here and she blogs here.

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Previously on Ten Questions:

1. Kristy Bowen
2. Reginald Shepherd
3. Carolyn Guinzio
4. Nate Pritts
5. Sam Byfield
6. Neil Aitken
7. Edward Byrne
8. Rachel Bunting
9. Brent Fisk
10. Ivy Alvarez

Coming up:

12. Reb Livingston, May 1
13. Ron Silliman, May 8

Answers posted by others to their own blogs:

Rik Roots
Rob Mackenzie
Steve Schroeder
Cheryl Snell
Kate Benedict

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your favorite un-PC children’s books

Richard the Narnia-hater points to this NYRB article from 2006, which says, among many other things:

Many critics who first read The Chronicles of Narnia as children report being unaware of its Christian meanings or of any other hidden messages, but several complain that when they reread the books as adults they were shocked and dismayed.

and:

Last year [Philip Pullman] denounced the Narnia books as religious propaganda, and called the series “ugly and poisonous.” He summed up their message as “Death is better than life; boys are better than girls; light-coloured people are better than dark-coloured people; and so on.” 

There you have it. Religious propaganda, racism and anti-feminism – all masquerading in one convenient place as magic and high adventure.

One does sometimes find that works one read as a child without questions and with much enthusiasm become subject to doubt and deconstruction when re-viewed through adult contemporary lenses. Phenomena like Doctor Dolittle, Mary Poppins and the Swallows and the Amazons come to mind, to name but a few. And there was Edward Said and Kipling’s Kim, all very sad and difficult. 

I know I came across an online catalogue of un-PC former children’s favorites, but can’t seem to find it again. Among those mentioned above, it also had things like Little Black Sambo, pretty much anything by Enid Blyton (golliwogs!) and Tintin in the Congo, as I recall. And there’s Little Women and Eight Cousins and those Louisa Alcott books (remember how the latest film version of Little Women worked in some very contemporary revisionist feminist/anti-slavery activism…?), and what about the What Katy Did series…?

How to deal with it? Another ghastly continuum in human affairs. In the end, I suppose, you muddle through to some accommodation — you can’t simply denounce and discard things that made up the very fabric of your development (nor do you particularly want to), but neither can you pretend they are as innocuous and wholesome as they appeared to you when you first read them as a child.

I suppose the real test of where you come down is whether you encourage or actively discourage your own children’s access to those books.

Ten Questions (2): Ivy Alvarez

Today Ivy Alvarez, author of Mortal, responds to the ten questions on publication we have been asking. Much to enjoy and mull over in her responses indeed. We were particularly struck by her description of how her internet presence has been evolving along with her publishing trajectory. Thanks so much for participating, Ivy!

1. Describe your publishing trajectory. (Where did it start? Where is it now? How long have you been at it?)

My poems and short stories first started appearing in my high school yearbooks and even once in the local paper. That was fun. It’s always been fun to see my words in print.

I had a really inspiring high school teacher, Mr Grudzien. He could tell when I lost interest in the middle of my short story and was coasting on it. Even now I can see his dreaded red pen marks all over my English assignments, but there was also the encouraging one that I still remember: ‘Don’t give up!’

When I started winning prizes during matriculation college for my poems, well, I guess I began to pay attention to what this might mean. I think I started taking poetry and poetry publication only seriously during my first year at university. It was still a lark but I wanted to see how far I could go with it.

I learnt as I went along how to get published in journals. No-one ever told me how to go about doing this, so I was pretty clueless. I remember reading one journal and looking at its guidelines. Under ‘Payment’, it had this amount. Well, I thought that was the amount I had to pay the journal to get my poems published. Being a student at the time, I’m glad I didn’t have the means to embarrass myself back then. I wonder what the editor would’ve thought if I’d sent in the money. Just given me a subscription, I suppose.

From the start, the lack of funds was a hindrance to getting my work out there, so I employed a scattershot approach and sent my work to random poetry journals. I remember being so crushed by the first batch ever returned to me, but when I told a poet friend about it, she pointed out that the accompanying note was actually quite encouraging. I guess I only saw the ‘no’.

Afterwards, I got better at judging which journals were more likely to accept my work, by actually finding copies in libraries and reading the poetry inside. That helped me on my way to getting my work in journals and my poems read.

Publishing Mortal (Red Morning Press, 2006), my first book of poems, felt like the long-awaited culmination of so many of my writerly dreams and desires. Even though waiting for it to be accepted for publication had been torture, I’m glad things worked out the way it did.

At the moment, I’m working on my second manuscript. I’m actually away at a writing residency in Spain for April 2008 to do this, so there’s more hard work ahead of me.

2. What would you do differently if you had to start all over again?

Initiate more conversations with poets I meet face-to-face. They’re the logical people to ask about good journals. Ask more questions. Give in to my curiosity.

3. Why did you start seeking publication? Why do you continue?

My reasons for wanting publication from the start remains true even now: I want my poems out there, to be read by others, to engage the reader and for my work to make a connection.

4. Does your relationship with your work change after it is published and if so, how? How does the concept of publication affect your writing in general?

Once a poem is published, I become detached from it. It’s still mine, of course, but it then becomes something for a reader to get to know, engage with and put forward ideas of what it might mean to them.

Publication does not affect my process of writing a poem. When I write, there is no Greek chorus of editors at my right shoulder questioning my word choices. It’s just me in the room and the poem at my hands.

5. Talk about putting a chapbook together. How have you done it in the past, how would you do it differently now? Why are chapbooks a good thing or not a good thing?

I love chapbooks. They are my absolute favourite thing in poetry. I think it comes from my love of comic books when I was younger, then zines and other such handmade printed objects. I love the fold and the staple, the ink and the words. It’s as much the physical aspect of the chapbook as the poetry, I think.

A chapbook manuscript is a much more punchier, concentrated form than a full-length manuscript. For my first chapbook, ‘Food for Humans’, I put together what I thought were my best poems at the time. With ‘catalogue: life as tableware’, I must confess there wasn’t really a thread tying all the poems together. By comparison, ‘what’s wrong’ has a definite narrative running through it and remains my favourite. I have a fourth manuscript under consideration, which is organised under the theme of distance in a relationship. I’m looking forward to when that one is finally accepted.

I think chapbooks are a very good thing. They offer much more of an insight into a poet’s current obsessions because they are more immediate than a full-length manuscript, which often takes years to put together and see print. They are so much more accessible and not as daunting, either. Sometimes a full-length feels more of a commitment, while a chapbook is really very approachable. I can see no downsides to a chapbook, especially when they are beautifully made and a lot of care and attention is given to their creation.

6. What’s your advice to someone putting together a full-length poetry manuscript for the first time? Share your thoughts on the importance (or not) of narrative arc in poetry manuscripts.

I don’t think there’s any prescription for a poetry manuscript. The only thing one must be faithful to is the work itself. If the work dictates a need for a narrative arc, so it must follow. If not, then one must find another way to pull it all together. A book of poetry is a piece of artwork, as valid in its form as a painting or a sculpture, expressing the thought of its creator in the only way possible.

As it happens, Mortal does have a narrative arc, but one should be able to skip around and still get something from the book, I think.

My advice to this unknown someone: Every word, every line, every poem must be necessary to the book. Pare down as much as possible so that only the essential remains. Be prepared to wait but if you believe in your work, don’t give up. You only need one person to say yes.

7. Do you personally market your publications? If so, why and how, and do you enjoy it? If not, why not?

When I first started my blog, I thought it was a way of thinking about poetry and writing out loud, as well as celebrating acceptances of individual poems when they happened. As the need to have my manuscript published into a book became more irresistible, it then became a record of my progress as it went along, from the mis-steps to the day of acceptance. One could view my blog cynically I suppose, as a marketing tool, but when it began, it was more for my benefit, puzzling out how I felt about being a writer, the process of publication, while enjoying the small yeses along the way.

To more clearly demarcate my private thoughts and process from the public persona, I recently launched my author website, which I update with news and upcoming events associated with my book, Mortal. I don’t know if people follow that. Sometimes I think even that is more for me but I guess we’ll see about its usefulness.

I announce publications and important notices on the listservs of which I am a member and which have space for that. I take part in festivals and readings when I can: these I enjoy. I’ve given workshops to share what I know about writing and publication. I help promote my readings by telling my networks about it.

Why do I do it? I think if somebody invests their time in inviting you to participate in a festival, lead a workshop, or give a poetry reading, includes your work in a journal, or publishes your book, it makes sense to help get the word out about it. Otherwise, who will know about it? Nobody else will do it for you. Ultimately, I want my poems to find its readers and so I do what I can.

And I must admit, there’s a part of me that does enjoy doing it.

8. Complete the following sentences: Big-name poetry publishers are…fine and dandy. I like reading books from Faber, Bloodaxe, Cape Poetry, Carcanet in the UK, a great number of US publishers, and so on. Poetry should come from as many quarters as possible.

9. Small- and micro-presses are… the bees’ knees. I have a real affection for these presses. They are the ones who take the real risks because they often fund their publications out of their own pockets. They are also more likely to publish the real bolts of lightning, those incredible voices that come from the ground and arc out into the air, white-hot. I love reading the work of poets I can learn from and be continually stunned by their words.

10. Describe the ideal relationship with a publisher and the relationship with a publisher from hell.

An ideal relationship: a press that communicates with their authors consistently, working with them from start to finish.

A relationship from hell: a press that doesn’t respond to communications, or drops the author if they don’t sell enough books to make back an advance, or does not publish the book as agreed or at all, or does not include the author in important decision-making, or is unyielding on matters of contract, or does not help in promoting the book in any way. Thankfully, none of this has happened to me, though I’ve heard stories. I think if one is in a bad relationship, bow out as gracefully as possible, do your research and seek a new press.

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Ivy Alvarez is the author of Mortal (Washington, DC: Red Morning Press, 2006). Her poetry is published in literary journals and anthologies worldwide and online. A MacDowell and Hawthornden Fellow, both the Australia Council for the Arts and the Welsh Academi awarded her grants to write poems for her second book.

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Previously on Ten Questions:

1. Kristy Bowen
2. Reginald Shepherd
3. Carolyn Guinzio
4. Nate Pritts
5. Sam Byfield
6. Neil Aitken
7. Edward Byrne
8. Rachel Bunting
9. Brent Fisk

Coming up:

11. Michaela Gabriel, April 24
12. Reb Livingston, May 1
13. Ron Silliman, May 8

Answers posted by others to their own blogs:

Rik Roots
Rob Mackenzie
Steve Schroeder
Cheryl Snell
Kate Benedict

Standing Page
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