Friday, August 24, 2012

Jeff Tagami’s Rocket

Last night I was shocked to see poet Jeff Tagami’s name on the “In Memoriam” list in this month’s Poets & Writers. Jeff was only 57—in my estimation, about 50 years too young to die—when he succumbed to pancreatic cancer this past June. Jeff taught for many years at Cabrillo College and was known for his intimate, vivid poems about the people he grew up with, the farmworker community in and around Watsonville, California.

I met Jeff only once, but that meeting has stuck in my head ever since. It was about 15 years ago, at a writers’ conference where Jeff was teaching a workshop. I’d made an appointment for a one-on-one manuscript consultation with whatever poet was available, and had randomly drawn Jeff, whom I hadn’t heard of before that day. I brought in a few poems and nervously headed down a hall toward the room where we were to meet. Jeff—a boyish, soft-spoken man only a little older than I was—greeted me with the news that the room was occupied already, and we’d have to grab a couple of chairs and sit outside. We found a quiet spot under an overhang, and with the breeze riffling the papers in our hands, Jeff took a slow read through my poems. He made only a few comments; he thought they were basically good to go and didn’t want to steer me off in the wrong direction just for the sake of saying something. That was fine, I said, because what I really wanted to ask him was, “Where do I go from here?” I’d had a few poems published in decent literary journals, I told him, but I was feeling like Sisyphus rolling that rock—it seemed like every time I got some momentum going, the whole machine stopped and I had to go back to sending stuff out and getting rejected again and again. I asked him, does this ever get any easier?

Jeff laughed and said, well, maybe a little. At some point, some journals may start soliciting work from you, which is a good thing, and which will feel like the tide is turning. But there’s no guarantee that you won’t have to go back to doing the same hard work you’re doing now, and you might have to do it for a long time. Then he said the thing that has stuck in my mind all these years:

A writer’s career is like a rocket, he said. You hope it soars and goes great places, but you have to get it off the ground first. Too many times, he’d seen writers build and build and build their launch pad—which everybody has to do—only to give up, frustrated and exhausted, just before their rocket was about to ignite. They’d done the workshopping, they’d read the work of other poets, they’d attended the readings and networked with other writers, they’d researched literary journals and book publishers. They wrote good poems, got some work out there—and then got rejected the usual hundreds of times and just couldn’t deal with it. It was bloody hard work, and they gave up when they actually had something good going there.

That’s the key, he said: You can’t launch the rocket without building the launch pad.

I think about Jeff and that launch pad all the time. Obviously he did pretty well with his—there he was, mentioned in Poets & Writers on that sad memorial list, along with the likes of Ray Bradbury and Gore Vidal. And as a teacher—well, all you can hope for is that your students will remember you for all the right reasons. And I certainly remember Jeff.

Here are links to some of Jeff’s work:

Review of his book October Light* at the Poetry Foundation.

*October Light is out of print and goes for a fortune on Amazon. So if you see it at a used book store, grab it.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Little Things That Editors Love

A while back, I was talking with my friend, the poet Amy MacLennan, about an odd topic. We’ve both been reader/editors for literary journals and publishers, which means we’ve both spent many hours wading through piles of submissions, logging them in and sorting them into the Yes pile, the No pile, and the Maybe pile. The odd topic was this: Once in a while, a moment comes around when an editor is sitting there with two poems or short stories, both of which she likes, but only one of which she can accept. Maybe the fiction anthology is down to its last slot, or there’s room for one two-page poem, but not two. What will sway this editor to pick one piece of writing over another when, for all practical purposes, they’re equally good?

This is when little things become important—strange little things that an editor starts to notice when she’s read 300 submissions in a row. Picking one piece over another at this point may be a very unscientific process, one that boils down to a bit of charm, or a small annoyance, that the writer inadvertently sprinkled into his or her submission. Every editor’s different, and there’s no accounting for pet peeves. But let’s assume that I’m sitting there with two pieces of writing in my hands—one yours, and one that’s somebody else’s. Assuming that both of them feature stellar craft and suit my taste, what little things can you do in your submission that will make me root for you?

1. Surprise me.
By “surprise,” I don’t mean put a cockroach in the envelope, or tack another bloody O. Henry ending onto your short story. (Don’t get me started on O. Henry abuse.) The kind of surprise I like is, for instance, a sonnet that startles me with its gorgeous language set against an unusual topic—say, hospital food or safety deposit boxes. Or a short story that’s in the form of an accident report or a shopping list. This is the kind of jolt that lifts one good poem or story over another good one, a certain transcendence that makes an editor feel like she’s discovering truly inventive writing, perhaps even changing the course of literature. What editor doesn’t want that?

2. Include a short, straightforward bio with a few decent credentials and nothing cutesy.
Notice that this has nothing to do with your story or poem; this is all about the cover letter. Even if you have no publishing credits whatsoever, this is where you play it straight and say that you’re a stay-at-home mom or retired plumber or whatever, and maybe you’ve taken a few creative writing classes. If you have good credits—well-known literary journals, or small ones—list three to five of them*, and maybe a contest or two that you won, a degree you earned, or somebody famous you studied with, and keep it around 50 words. That’s it—no soliloquies, and no jokes. Humor in your story or poem is fine, but humor in a cover letter is like target-shooting in a strange, dark room—you’ll probably miss, and things will just go wildly wrong from there. If you’re a writer who likes mantras, here’s one for the cover letter: Do not scare off the editor.

3. Keep your cover letter simple.
This goes hand in hand with the short, straightforward bio, but it encompasses the entire look of your cover letter. When I was reading submissions for an anthology a while back, I was surprised at how annoyed I got with the overdecorated cover letters. I saw all sorts, from big splashy author logos to pastel photos of ripply lakes and aphorisms about dancing in the rain. All of those things qualify as too much information. I’m a sucker for elegant touches, like bullet points between the state and zip code, or the little telephone icon before a phone number. But after seeing so many methed-up cover letters, I’m leaning more and more toward the humble, plain-Jane variety, with the writer’s name and address at the top left-hand corner in the same font as the rest of the letter. (Needless to say, avoid frou-frou fonts, or the kind that a former co-worker called “too fontsy.”) The main attraction should be your poem or story; for the cover letter, the only rule of thumb is that it should not be distracting. If it does come down to you and that other author, don’t make the editor think, “Hmm…the one with the neutral cover letter that doesn’t say much, or the crazy teddy-bear lady?”

4. Just send one or two entries. Not twenty. Not fifty.
One exception to this: It might actually be OK to send twenty or fifty entries in to a contest. You have to pay for every one, so you’ll be helping them keep the contest going, and that’s not a bad thing. But if you’ve got twenty genuinely good stories or poems, they’ll do better work for you if you spread them around rather than putting all your literary eggs in one basket. And if you’re submitting to a journal or anthology—well, let’s just say that when an editor sees thirty-eight identical envelopes in the mail bin, he probably won’t be thinking, “I bet I’ll love this person’s work and will be thrilled to read every one of these!” Again, editor-ay, no air-scay.

5. Do any of the following, some of which are completely out of your control:

Be a little kid.
I love getting submissions from kids. I don’t care if the story is wildly inappropriate for our publication; these small people with their hand-scrawled cover letters and drawings of their hamsters just kill me. That’s not to say that I’ll accept the piece. But I will send the nicest rejection letter you ever got.

Be one of many people from your small town who sent in a submission.
I love this too. I’m fascinated by the little batches of envelopes that come in from the same tiny town in Kansas or Manitoba or wherever. Obviously these people know each other; they’re probably in a workshop or night class together. And because I’ve been in those workshops and classes where we all ganged up and tried for the same publications, and then laughed about it over coffee later, I’m instantly on your side. Bonus points if you’re from the same family.

Hail from an exotic-sounding place.
This is completely immature on my part, but I will give you a slight edge if you live someplace that sounds really cool, like Black Kitten Road or Woolgoolga, Australia.

Next up: There’s a flip side to this, of course. What dog-doodies should you avoid to keep your work out of the rejection pile? Stay tuned…

* Bonus pet peeve: authors who list every place they’ve ever been published, complete with the title of each poem or story, in a big honkin’ paragraph.

Photo by Niklas Bildhauer

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Olympics, Week 1: The Good, the Bad,
and the Rest of the World

Like a lot of people, I spent this past week glued to the TV, soaking up the Olympics. For me, it’s been an early-morning thing, hanging out on NBC’s “other” stations, the ones on channel eleventy-twelve that cover the sports I never see anywhere else, like archery and team handball and trampoline. As always, the Olympics are expanding my view of what’s cool, what’s possible, and what’s too freakin’ hard for me to ever try. But it hasn’t been all fun and Games. With all due respect to our talented American athletes, NBC is once again dedicating pretty much all of its prime-time coverage to them, while snubbing the rest of the world. And it’s a big world, with a lot of great Olympians—Olympians we will never get to know, thanks to NBC’s jingoistic journalism. But more about that later. First, the good stuff.

Cough, gag, sputter…gooooooooooal!!!!!
My favorite sport this week has been water polo. It’s just flat-out brutal, with more pummeling than taekwando and more dirty hits than hockey. The whole premise is crazy: You’re trying to throw a ball into a net while someone is trying to drown you. On the surface, it looks benign—a lot of bobbing heads and a few arms in the air—but the real action is happening under the water, where you can’t see it. Then they show the replay on the underwater camera and—holy cannoli, it’s a war zone down there, with all the shoving and gouging, kicking and grabbing and people pushing each other’s heads underwater. The women are even more vicious than the men because their swimsuits have more fabric, giving them convenient handles to drag each other down to their doom. I can’t get enough of this sport. It’s like roller derby with asphyxiation.

Ah, sweet mystery of fencing
I love watching fencing, but no matter how many times I see it, I do not understand it. Even when they super-slo-mo the replays, I can’t tell who’s stabbing whom. But I’ve decided that a fencing match is like a poem: Just because I don’t get it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it. I like the contrasting styles of foil, sabre and épée—some are thrusty, others are slashy, and that’s about as technical as I can get because, again, I do not understand this sport. And that’s fine. Everything happens in a split second, all aggression and forward momentum, all speed and snorting and shouting*. I especially love the fencers’ footwork, how steady and balanced they are, as if nothing could ever knock them over. It’s a welcome respite from gymnastics, where everybody seems about to fall down and crack their heads open.

The best worst day of your life
Speaking of gymnastics, when those fabulous American girls** won the team title and the Russian girls were crying their eyes out, I found myself wondering how many of them, on both teams, threw their guts up before the competition or felt like crap the whole day because they were so nervous. Watching the Olympics is like seeing hundreds of brides on their wedding day, and I don’t mean just the women—most of these athletes are more stressed out than they’ve ever been in their lives, with no sleep and bags under their eyes and wacked-out blood sugar. I guess that’s what separates the champions from everybody else: The best athletes know how to come out on a really bad day and look great in spite of it.

The other Olympians
Years ago, I was watching the winter Olympics late one night when I saw a figure skater who was way, way back in the pack—in 30th place or something—skating her long program. She was having a horrible night; she fell again and again, but she kept getting up and skating. By the time her routine was over, she looked exhausted and her legs were hatchmarked with thin, bleeding cuts from falling so many times on the ice. It was one of the saddest and most sobering things I’ve ever seen, but also one of the most real. Wow, I thought, figure skating is f***ing hard. I don’t remember her name, but I sure remember her, trying to do this almost impossible thing in front of millions of TV viewers and just having a hell of a time. At this year’s Olympics, there must be hundreds of athletes like her—not dazzling the crowd with their world records, but just scratching their way through these extremely difficult sports. I would like to see those athletes. We have a kajillion cable channels, so why can’t we see every athlete, in every sport, on TV? And NBC’s live online streaming thing doesn’t count; my Podunk-town cable provider isn’t on their list.

Patriotism, racism, or just business as usual?
I don’t have a scientific count here, but during NBC’s prime-time broadcasts, I haven’t seen a single “up close and personal” bio—or even a post-race poolside interview—with a nonwhite, non-U.S. athlete. A few Brits and Aussies, yes, but I’m continually amazed that the commentator sticks a microphone in the face of the American swimmer who came in fifth, when there’s a perfectly good Asian swimmer right there who just won a medal and is having the best day of her life, and probably speaks English. It wasn’t always this way; I remember lots of little bios in past Olympics featuring athletes from other countries, including many who didn’t end up winning bupkus. We got to see where they lived and trained, got to meet their families and dogs and hear about the obstacles they faced on their long journey to the Olympics. But this year, nada—it’s like athletes from other countries exist only as backdrops for Americans. Perhaps NBC is feeling the pinch, as we all are, and it’s too expensive to rustle up a translator or go do those overseas interviews. But I get the creeping feeling that NBC is holding the rest of the world at arm’s length for a reason. I see this particularly when NBC commentators talk about Chinese athletes: There’s a hint of disdain and fear in their voices, an unwillingness to get close enough to see them as people, as if they want us to think that China is cranking out so many cookie-cutter automatons, inhuman in their perfection. Is NBC is too lazy or cash-strapped or too—what, racist?—to get any closer than that? Or is it just a business strategy? After all, General Electric owns 49% of NBC, and as a leading defense contractor, GE does not have the purest intentions when it comes to promoting harmony between nations. The whole system feels wrong, tragically short sighted and clattering with conflicts of interest. We’ll see how the next week plays out—track and field is full of great foreign athletes—but I don’t hold out much hope for change. So I’ll probably head back to the eleventy-twelve stations where they show all those “other” sports, the ones where the rest of the world kicks ass…and wows me every morning.

* In contrast, archery and shooting are very Zen sports where commentators talk about relaxation and “letting it happen,” and the arrow or bullet’s flight is at the mercy of everything from the wind to the rotation of the Earth. All three—fencing, archery, and shooting—are beautiful, strange competitions that all simulate murder.

** I know we’re supposed to call it Women’s Gymnastics, but come on—only one of the Americans was even 18. These are little girls. Little girls who could break me like a toothpick.