Making Love in Public: Part Two of Poets & Writers ((LIVE)) San Francisco

January 14, 2015 § 1 Comment

Part two of the Rebecca Fish Ewan’s blog report (and nifty sketches) from the recent Poets & Writers ((LIVE)) event in San Francisco:

Let’s just jump back in…

Perfect Pitch Panel

Perfect Pitch Panel

The Perfect Pitch panel offered insight on query letter writing in a refreshing way. I’ve read hordes of tips on the topic, but watching a public critique was vastly more revealing, because the panelists reacted to the words as the authors read the letters (on stage, brave souls!).

The panelists, Jordan Bass (editor), Ethan Nosowsky (editor), Danielle Svetcov (agent) and Megan Fishmann (publicist), also illuminated the fact that query letter readers are human. They love to be told stories. “We read queries like we read everything,” said Svetcov. Rather than write in tight and stilted language, the letter needs to:

  • “Compress beautifully what your book is about” (Svetcov)
  • Reveal your voice
  • Reveal that you take writing seriously (include brief writing/publication history and blurbs from established authors attesting to your awesomeness)
  • Use comps that are current
  • Be read out loud to another human being before it’s sent

The Shields and Powell smack down came next, which I thoroughly enjoyed, along with a clip from the film adaptation of their book I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel. For me though, their quarrel was more cerebroerotic than homoerotic as Shields had hoped. Guess it depends on personal preference, but I always enjoy watching two brains going at it. I care much less about the sexes of the brains’ owners.

Both men did agree on the necessity of an initial wound from which art can emerge. “I can’t imagine art without the wound,” said Shields, emphasizing the necessity for rupture by quoting Kafka: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” When asked by the audience whether friendship can stay real when it becomes art, Shields commented “There is something incredibly artful about a well-maintained friendship.” To which Powell replied “We’re stuck together for life…it’s better to be friends.” The audience all agreed their friendship stands a better chance of surviving if Shields makes good on his invitation to have the Powell family over for dinner.

The final panel, Why We Write, on its own filled me with enough inspiration to compensate for the conference registration fee. Authors Wendy Lesser, Yiyun Li, Alejandro Murguia, D. A. Powell and Michelle Tea shared details of their writing process. Tea described her approach as what was soon called The Barfing Method. Akin to the shitty first draft, it’s relinquishing the work to the writer and keeping the mental editor at bay. Not until the first draft is complete can the editor come out of the cage in the writer’s mind.

“It’s a lot easier to eliminate the stupid than to get out that first draft,” agreed Lesser. D. A. Powell described creating poetry as a collaboration between “two separate impulses, the writer and the shaper. I am always doing both these things when I am writing.” Either way the writing is balanced with the revising. Lesser noted that “the best way to edit is to read aloud.” But when is it finished? “The last version should be like a dwarf star, one spoonful weighing a ton,” said Murguia. A smaller comparison that also resonated with me was how D.A. Powell spoke of writing blocks, which he called “silences.” “Hummingbirds burn up a lot of energy beating their little wings. They need another action, to figure things out.”

Roman Muradov Poets & Writers ((LIVE))

Roman Muradov, Poets & Writers ((LIVE))

While this session focused on the more solitary act of writing, each panelist integrated other authors’ work as part of their own writing practice—reading out loud, rewriting it in their own hand, memorizing poems and passages. It becomes an intimate sharing of words. “Reading to your lover is one of the sexiest things you can do,” said Murguia, who has a particularly seductive spoken voice. And we’re back to human connection. Michelle Tea extended the companionship scope, suggesting “Be a part of a literary community. You need to create a world that you want and then live in it.”

The event closed with The Inspiration Experiment, performances of creative work inspired from the poem “Too Young to Marry but Not Too Young to Die,” written and read by Joyce Carol Oates and then interpreted by Ben Arthur (singer-songwriter), Nick Twemlow (poet-filmmaker), Sarah Fiske (dancer-choreographer), and Roman Muradov (illustrator-cartoonist). As I watched and listened to Oates’ words woven into dance, film, song and drawings, the work became like a synesthetic haunting. As Fiske put it afterwards, “imagine what the landscape will sound like.”

When Kevin Larimer, Editor-in-Chief of Poets & Writers, closed the event with a quiet wish that he hoped we are all inspired, I felt so stuffed with the generosity of the writing community, my original selfish aspirations seemed very small. I’m grateful to the people I met and to the moderators and other staff who organized the event. This day in San Francisco was the fourth of a series of Poets & Writers ((LIVE)) shows. The next one will be in Chicago on June 20, 2015, and will track the writer’s journey from idea to publication. The San Francisco event was so well put together, I wish I could attend in Chicago. Maybe I should become a LIVE Head and follow the tour…maybe I’d meet a publisher…Oh, shut up, book whore.


Rebecca Fish Ewan, author of A Land Between and graduate of the creative writing MFA program in poetry at Arizona State University where she teaches landscape history and design, is trying to learn to market her free verse cartoon memoir of her life’s deepest wound. She lives in Tempe, Arizona, with her family, and makes pilgrimages to the Pacific Ocean whenever life permits.

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