Saturday, February 12, 2011

Notes on the UMSL Publisher Panel

On February 11, I attended the publisher panel at UMSL featuring Alex Schwartz from Switch Grass, Ben Furnish from BkMk, and Jon Tribble from Crab Orchard. I didn’t take notes during the talk, but below are the things that stayed with me, the good bits of information that we were given—and hopefully these notes are helpful to those who were unable to attend the event (although I am proud to say that the Lindenwood writing community had a wonderful showing—I counted 17 LU MFA students/teachers/friends & family, which is quite impressive for a Friday night at 6pm). Many thanks to UMSL MFA Program Director Mary Troy for hosting this event, for opening it to the public, and for asking all the right questions to ensure we got the good information below.

Alex Schwartz from Switch Grass (accepts full novel manuscripts only, set in the midwest, written by midwest writers): Make sure the first few pages of your manuscript are the best writing of your life. In your cover letter, be sure you can explain clearly in a paragraph or two exactly what your novel is about (and obviously but importantly, be a careful writer—address the letter to the correct person and make sure the writing in your letter is good and doesn’t contain errors).

Ben Furnish from Bkmk (publishes collections of short stories, poetry collections, and some novels--and he was willing to hear a pitch for a good essay collection): Don’t send them a manuscript if you haven’t had individual pieces published. Get your work in journals first. When you’ve had a number of poems or stories published in literary journals, then you’re ready to submit a manuscript. (Ben also gave us many funny and wonderful analogies, saying he feels like a matchmaker when pitching a book to his fellow editors, and comparing a love for writing or editing to malaria, how it gets inside you and never leaves.)

Jon Tribble from Crab Orchard (holds contests for publication of full poetry manuscripts, and separate from that is their literary journal, Crab Orchard Review, which publishes short fiction, poetry, and essays): Agents do read their literary journal and will sometimes contact authors, asking if you have more work like that, which may possibly lead to representation and perhaps a book deal. For poetry manuscripts: it must feel like a book. It doesn’t need to have an obvious connecting theme or concept, but the voice of the pieces and their order needs to feel like a single work, that surprises you along the way, that takes you on a journey. (The poetry contests offer $2500 or $3500 depending on the contest--see their website for more information.)

All three said that when they read submissions, they are looking to be surprised, to read something exceptional and pure. They want to find that one great story/poem/novel, that one writer—they’ll know it when they see it, and it’s why they do this job.

On publishing with university presses: A real advantage is that these three editors were clearly all about the writing. They want to publish extraordinary literature. They know, and their universities know, that these kind of books are not going to make big money, are often lucky to break even. But they will publish and support your good literary work. Though it wasn’t mentioned specifically, a helpful point to take away from their discussion is that the fear many new writers have now, the fear that when they publish with small independent presses they are still going to be responsible for all the marketing of their book, for selling a certain number of copies, does not seem to be a concern with these university-based presses. They are not requiring their authors to be responsible for this aspect—they don’t say you have to pay for or sell a certain number of books at readings in order to be published by them. This is good information for writers who are considering self-publishing, worried that a small press would not support them. A university press (and these three in particular) would be an ideal place to submit your first book for publication.

Cleary these three editors want to publish high-quality literature, and they care about the writers and their work. Jon Tribble mentioned one writer who would have won his Editor’s Prize, but the writer had just heard from W.W. Norton that his book was very close to being accepted for publication there. Jon—although he would have loved to publish that book—told the writer to go with Norton because such a big house could do things for him that a smaller press with limited funds would be unable to do. And Jon looked at it as having two positive outcomes: the book that would have won got published and out in the world, and a second book by a different writer was able to win the Crab Orchard contest and be published.

This focus on the writing and support of the author was refreshing to hear and encouraging for writers, especially those who are trying to publish their first book. I think all of us left the event wanting to get to work, to write, to submit, to have hope.

- Beth Mead

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Winter 2011 Quarterly LU MFA Update

Three online classes will be offered each quarter beginning this spring, so current students now have the option of taking three separate online classes instead of an in-class cluster. (Students can also take one online class along with a cluster, or for a lighter load, you can take one or two online classes by themselves.) Any interested alumni can audit online classes for 50% tuition (and current students can also audit online classes if they want to take them as extra learning opportunities). Students who began the MFA Program in January 2011 or later must submit GRE scores to Graduate Admissions before enrolling in an online course. Please note that essayist Catherine Rankovic will be teaching the online Creative Nonfiction workshop for us for the first time this spring—I hope that any students interested in writing creative nonfiction will not miss this opportunity.

o Alum Erik Smetana has had an article accepted for publication in the summer issue of The Missouri Review. Erik also has a piece that will appear in the winter issue of BLIP.
o Student Chris Duggan has had an essay and pictures accepted for publication in the spring issue of Stymie.
o Student Doug Wallace has had an essay accepted by

o Blank Slate Press (who is publishing a novel by LU MFA alum Fred Venturini) is accepting applications for new writers through March 1:
o Colloquium opportunity: Poet/performance artist Shirley LeFlore will read accompanied by multi-instrumentalist David A.N. Jackson on Tuesday, February 15, at 7:30 in the Lindenwood Cultural Center.

The AWP Experience by Charlene Engleking

Guest blogger Charlene Engleking reflects on her experience at the 2011 AWP Conference:

As anyone who has attended writing conferences can confirm, such conclaves are a weird mix of enthusiasm and arrogance. AWP probably amplifies the vibe because of the number of attendees. One speaker announced that more than 2,300 scholarships were awarded to students wanting to attend. Of course, that prompted me to start looking at the shoes and purses of the students to see how many seemed well funded, quite a few actually. Established writers (true members of the Canon), writers whose names are vaguely familiar, writers whose names may become familiar, and writers whose mothers will continue to be their only fans all rushed through the lobby, laughed in groups waiting for elevators, and filled nearby restaurants. The Journal Editors (uppercase identification required) were mostly accessible and clearly aware of their power.

I was both inspired and annoyed by the various programs. One panel discussion was so energizing I wanted only to find a corner to start revising a current project. Another, pedagogical in focus, was a waste of time as three panelists read from their essays (I can buy the book thank you) and a fourth announced that she had prepared her presentation that morning on her iPhone. I think her fellow panelists shared my annoyance.

Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz were perfect counterpoints on Thursday and Friday nights respectively. Each writes of growing up as The Other and each spoke of how that has informed their writing. Both spoke of the need for connection – person and surroundings (alien in both cases)/child and parent/writer and reader.

Lahiri spoke specifically about “writing as an act of willfulness” as a means of identifying and claiming the self. Her soft spoken presentation compelled the auditorium to listen carefully to engage in her process. Her professed “leap from listening to saying listen to me” was particularly meaningful as the audience experienced that leap with her.

Diaz blew in Friday night and owned the room. While Lahiri was polite and gentle, Diaz was profane and animated. I was sorry that I couldn’t see the interpreter signing the presentation. How does one sign “An ass that could throw the moon out of gravity?” Is there a sign for the F-word combined with mother? Diaz read a new piece that he introduced as, “At that stage where it works, but it ain’t effing cute…the literary equivalent of a snuggy.” Of course, he didn’t use “effing”.

Saturday night’s Center Ring speaker was Kay Ryan. I know a lot of poets don’t consider her worthy of Poet Laureate status, but I like accessible poetry. Slam me with an obscure unrhymed set of words if it makes you feel better. I’ll probably like that poem too. As a speaker, Ryan was accessible. She spoke of being out of sync as a rhyming poet. She also noted that with no references to any body fluids she was surprised that she ever found a publisher. Her best speaking technique? She repeated several of her poems. How many poetry readings have I attended that I would have loved for a rerun of a poem to better savor it?

Would I recommend attending AWP next year in Chicago? Probably. I would also recommend attending with friends. It is a weirdly cliquish gathering that annoyed as well as inspired me; but, now when I write the cover letter for a submission, I will add, “It was such a pleasure to meet you at AWP” which I was assured during one panel would enhance the likelihood of publication.

-Charlene Engleking