April 5, 2017 § 19 Comments
By Pete Candler
Last week I received a very odd email from a notable Quarterly Magazine, in which the new Executive Director pre-warned me that I would soon receive a rejection notice for a submission I made to the journal over two years ago, which submission I withdrew in December. Here is my response:
My name is XXXXX…
…and I am writing you as the new Executive Director at XXXXX Quarterly.
Hey, congratulations! So is this your first email as Executive Director? I’m sure it’s going to be great!
I know it’s been quite some time since you’ve received word from us about your Quarterly submission…
Oh, that! I was starting to wonder about you guys. I assumed you went belly-up, or maybe there was a grease fire or something. That was—what? —December 2014? Thanks for assuming I’m still alive at this point, though!
…and I want to apologize for that. Our staff is quite small and…
No, don’t sweat it! I am sure y’all have been insanely busy—
…the Quarterly was on a long (too long!) hiatus.
A long hiatus, huh? Where’d you go? Mar-a-Lago? I hear that place is kind of hard to stay away from. And with a hiatus program like that, can I come work for you? Because I really like not working with as few other people as possible.
I am excited to announce that we sent our 49th issue to press…
Forty-ninth! Wow, congrats, y’all! Are you still writing each one out by hand?
…and subscribers will receive their copy in the next six weeks.
That is so great. I am so happy for them!
We’ll also reopen our submissions very, very soon!
[whistling “When the Saints Go Marching In”]
Please note that you will soon receive a rejection notice for your former submission.
Oh. Well that’s a new one. Never had a pre-rejection notice before. That’s so sweet. Most journals only let you down you one time. But you’ve given me the opportunity to experience rejection twice! You guys—always bucking convention!
To be honest, it’s been so long since I submitted the thing you’re referring to that I’m not even sure what you’re referring to. I’m not even the same person I was when I sent that to you. I have had another kid since then. But don’t worry about it—I don’t think I sent you a birth announcement.
Oh, and by the by—I withdrew the submission after two years. I’m sorry if I was a little hasty! The kid is talking now, though!
We highly encourage you to resubmit in April if you are still interested.
Why wouldn’t I be interested? I’ve waited this long, what’s a few more years of my life?
One thing, though: could I give you the contact information for my attorney, in the event that I am deceased by the time I hear back from you if I decide to resubmit? She is handling all of my posthumous publications.
Please do expect a wait time of 4-6 weeks while we get back up to speed.
4-6 weeks? Did you mean to type “weeks”? Is that lunar weeks? Or like Book of Genesis weeks?
Thank you so much for your interest in XXXX Quarterly! I hope to hear more from you soon.
You bet! But just in case you don’t, rest assured that my silence is in no way an indication of merit or interest in the journal.
Oh hey! That was fast. I was just in the middle of writing you too! Two years of absolute silence from you all and then two emails in twenty-one minutes! I’m starting to feel a special bond with you, XXXXX.
Because so many have already asked…
… please allow me to clarify: The impending rejection is merely an administrative necessity to re-open submissions and allow those still interested to submit again (or submit a newer piece) in April.
Well why didn’t you just say so? Not that I understand the term “administrative necessity,” me being an artist and all. But do continue!
It is in no way an indication of merit or interest in the piece.
Uh huh. I liked it better when you were bucking convention and pre-breaking up with me. But this line sounds familiar.
I do apologize if that was unclear. Please feel free to ask more questions. We’re deeply interested in reading your work!
How deep is your love?
Pete Candler’s scholarly and creative work has been rejected by a wide range of some of the finest and most illustrious journals in the land, including Modern Theology, Poetry, and The New Yorker, which once returned an unsolicited manuscript (circa 1997) submission with no note or letter but with a simple but thorough slash through the pages. Candler lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where he writes fiction and essays. He is currently preparing a manuscript for rejection by The Atlantic. His twitter handle: @tweetcandler
March 16, 2017 § 9 Comments
We are not funded by a university. We are volunteers. It takes time and money to do this (for almost 20 years now).
If you value Brevity, or use it in your teaching, can you help us out a bit with an Amazon order? (Support your local bookstore, of course, but Amazon sells so many other items.)
Today, March 16, Amazon will donate 5% (10 times the usual donation rate) of the price of your eligible AmazonSmile purchases to Brevity Magazine.
Buy something massive: a car, a boat, a computer? Or really, anything at all.
Here is the link: at smile.amazon.com/ch/45-2439814
Dinty W. Moore
For the Editors
February 14, 2017 § 2 Comments
By Kim Liao
As I packed for AWP this year, it occurred to me that my first conference in Atlanta was now ten years ago. I stopped sorting toiletries and thought, Who was I ten years ago? I was a writer in zygote form, somebody who was impressed by cocktails with paper umbrellas and awestruck by Tin House. I’ve experimented with several different AWP personas in the last decade: student, first-year writing instructor, journal section editor, book reviewer, slush reader, and panelist. This year was the first time I attended simply as a writer.
At AWP in Atlanta in 2007, I was 22, and just before I left for the conference, I kissed a poet in my graduate school program. I was aflame with possibility. I took copious notes at panels, seeing the study of writing craft and literary theory as an alive, pulsing thing. I discovered my love of dirty vodka martinis and the Book Fair. Working the Redivider table as a fiction reader, I got hooked on chatting with writers who stopped by, our would-be subscribers and submitters. It conjured up my love of selling books over years of working in my town’s independent bookstore in high school and summers during college. That summer I started submitting my first essay to journals in manila envelopes with enclosed SASEs. My relationship with the poet didn’t even last a week.
At AWP in New York City in 2008, I was full of sophomore swagger, the rising Nonfiction Editor of Redivider with my first publication forthcoming in Fringe Magazine. I shared a hotel room five ways with my closest Emerson friends, who were also my trivia team. I played with them every Tuesday night after the Nonfiction Book workshop class I was taking with my mentor. This was the book project that would turn me into a writer, with its magnetic pull encouraging me to dig deeper into the suppressed stories of my father’s family and with its endless frustrations along the path to crafting compelling storytelling. The manuscript would take much longer to finish than I could ever imagine. On late Saturday afternoon of the Book Fair, we auctioned off Redivider issues for rock bottom prices, and I ran around to other journals’ tables in a frenzied haze, swapping Redividers for journals that would become the basis of my authoritative lit mag collection.
At AWP in Chicago in 2009, I shared a hotel room with my writing group. We danced on our beds and drank beer and took photos before they were called selfies and laughed endlessly. I was about to graduate, almost finished with my thesis, an excerpt of my family memoir about retracing my grandparents’ footsteps through the Taiwanese martial law period. Through the writing process, I realized that I would need to go to Taiwan in order to get the whole story of what happened to my grandparents after World War II. I gushed about the free issues of Poets and Writers at the Book Fair to my friend in the conference hotel elevator, only to have Kevin Larimer say next to me, “I’m the Editor of Poets and Writers,” as he departed to his floor, leaving me a deep shade of magenta. I went to the Dance Party on Saturday night with two girlfriends, feeling drunk on the intoxicating force of women in control of their destiny. After accidentally falling asleep in my friend’s room, I took the elevator back upstairs at 7am in party clothes and bare feet. When travelers looked at me with judgment in their eyes, I just gazed back at them and smiled.
In 2012, at AWP in Chicago, I spoke on a panel about finding funding opportunities such as fellowships and residencies, having just returned from a Fulbright year of book research in Taiwan. Someone mistakenly put us in a lesser ballroom. The other panelists did fine, but I crashed and burned, and did so slowly, because an hour an fifteen minutes is not a short amount of time. Before the panel, I poured bourbon into my paper coffee cup, in case I got anxious and needed to relax. That probably didn’t help. I wasn’t working on a journal anymore, and felt lost and untethered as I walked through the Book Fair. I stopped by the Fourth River table, who had finally published an essay I wrote five years earlier. They were polite. Right before leaving Boston for AWP, I kissed the same poet again. Have you learned nothing??
A year later, at AWP in Boston, every Emerson alum, student, and faculty member who I’d ever met attended AWP. We all recognized each other with more warmth and charitable familiarity than we showed one another as classmates. I was almost done with the first draft of my family memoir of the Taiwanese Independence Movement, but this draft had exacted a toll on my body and soul. Writing this draft felt more like vomiting than like composing, and being almost done was like being almost finished with an exorcism. Someday the demons would finally exist outside of my body. I shared a hotel room with one friend, and we marveled at finally having our own beds. We felt so grown up.
Last year, at AWP in Los Angeles, I came to get a break from the full-time grind of my nine-to-five day job working for an attorney. I packed almost nothing, flying in on Thursday morning and out on a red-eye Saturday night – a parenthetical vacation. I desperately needed a reminder that I could still write stuff and sometimes even publish it. It’s been a long time. I don’t teach anymore. I walked around the Book Fair like a ghost. What do I want? What am I looking for? I met my mentor who was teaching in LA that semester; we had a cup of tea and it grounded me. I told him that after getting blocked on revising the family memoir, I started writing a novel to teach myself how to tell stories again. He thought this was a great idea, and that these things unfold organically. I pitched my novel to an Amazon fiction editor at a party and she gave me kind and helpful notes.
On my way out of the Book Fair late afternoon on Saturday, I spotted Kevin Larimer, the Editor of Poets and Writers (his face etched in my long-term memory for life), and pitched him a Literary Life essay I had been thinking about for awhile. He encouraged me to write and submit it. The essay would not get picked up by P&W, but instead would be published in Lit Hub and directly precipitate my signing with a pair of literary agents. On that particular Saturday, however, I knew none of this, so I celebrated the end of another AWP in the hotel bar with friends and strangers and my world swam back into focus.
On this past Thursday, I flee a blizzard in New York on an Amtrak train. It’s a reunion of three Boston friends in my hotel room suite, and our hotel serves free breakfast. A 9am AWP panel after eggs is literally a revelation. There are 12,000 of us this year and endless possibilities at every time slot. My friends and I mostly want to do different things during the day but agree to meet up at night. Everyone here looks so young. When did we get old?
I go to more panels than I ever have before, since I just want to hear talks by writers who I love. I listen to and fall madly in love with Jennifer Egan, Karen Joy Fowler, Hannah Tinti, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Celeste Ng, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Julia Fierro, Emma Straub, Ann Patchett, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Is AWP getting better, people, or am I just getting better at picking stuff to see?
On Friday, I leave the hotel room at 9am and don’t return until almost midnight. I say hello to the Redivider table, impressed that they have a whole new section for “graphic narrative.” I meet a poet friend for coffee, who admits that the Book Fair exhausts her and that attending panels helps her recharge. I laugh and tell her I feel the exact opposite. My great anxiety is the agency party tonight, because my agents have had my novel manuscript for almost a month and I don’t know if they hate it or not. Do they hate me? My telepathic powers are stubbornly on strike.
At the party, my agent smiles when she sees me, and introduces me to her other authors. I ask their advice, a carefully phrased plea for comfort. “You just gotta be real chill,” says the first author she signed, who has been working with her for a decade. “When they are reading, you just can’t do anything. Try to distract yourself.” Another agent who works on nonfiction asks me for my elevator pitch. “I’m pitching it differently each time,” I say, and give it a new spin. “Would you crack that book open?” Collected together, we are like a little family. The competitive sneer you sometimes hear at AWP is gone, because here, everyone is rooting for everyone else’s success.
On Saturday afternoon, right before that weariness overcomes the Book Fair like a great wind toppling a house of cards, I take a seat at a giant banquet table near the windows. I watch young wide-eyed students, grey-haired older women holding political signs for that night’s White House candlelight vigil, and two new parents with a young infant. I am none of them. Looking back over a decade of growing up, I see that in many ways, AWP is where I found my writer self, my particular mixture of scholar and artist, of salesman and kindred spirit. This year, AWP has grounded me, stabilizing my soul, heart, and mind, even while wreaking havoc on my liver, digestive system, and adrenal glands. When we are here, we are all home. Yet none of us would survive it for more than four days.
Kim Liao’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Lit Hub, Salon, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Another Chicago Magazine, Fourth River, Fringe, Cha: A Journal of Asian Literature, Hippocampus Magazine, and others. She received her MFA at Emerson College, was a Fulbright Taiwan Creative Research Fellow in 2010-2011, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is currently finishing her first novel.
February 3, 2017 § 5 Comments
The annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference is in D.C. this year, and in fact, it is next week, and this year is starting to look a bit different. Yes there will be books, and yes there will be beer, and chances are good someone at some panel is going to sound pretentious, but in keeping with the times, we have this:
On Saturday, February 11, during the last evening of the AWP Conference & Bookfair, a Candlelight Vigil for Freedom of Expression will be held in Lafayette Square, Washington, DC, which faces the north side of the White House. The vigil is set to begin at 6:15 p.m.
The gathering will include several speakers: Kazim Ali, Gabrielle Bellot, Melissa Febos, Carolyn Forché, Ross Gay, Luis J. Rodriguez, and Eric Sasson.
The group organizing the event writes on their Facebook page: “This basic freedom is threatened in new ways and with more intensity than in recent memory. As the nation’s poets and writers, editors and critics, we have a unique and vital obligation to stand watch over free speech and expression.”
January 25, 2017 § 5 Comments
Marisa Siegel recently took on the role of Editor-in-Chief and owner of The Rumpus, and we are pleased to offer her our blog today to share thoughts on the magazine’s future and the challenges ahead:
I sometimes believe in luck and I definitely believe in timing. But I don’t believe in fate, or destiny, or even (especially) God. Still, every now and then a series of coincidences leads to a conclusion that may in hindsight seem like fate. You look back, and it may feel like a force was guiding you toward a future you did not plan but also marched directly toward. A future that you didn’t foresee but embraced, in small but meaningful ways.
In the fall of 2012, I was on an airplane going to visit a friend I’d met on the Internet. This is not typical behavior for me, but that visit began a friendship that has become one of the dearest in my life. On that airplane, I was skimming Facebook posts and saw a call for Rumpus poetry reviews. I emailed Brian Spears, Rumpus Poetry Editor, and my first review for the site appeared a few months later.
In June of 2013, The Rumpus’s first Music Editor, Katy Henriksen, put out a call for assistant editors. I answered that call, because I was in love with The Rumpus by this point, and looking for a way to get more involved. I became Katy’s Assistant Music Editor.
In late August 2013, Stephen Elliott sent out a Daily Rumpus asking for help with a new project, the now-defunct Weekly Rumpus. I replied, and we met for coffee. By early September, I was Managing Editor of the Weekly Rumpus, an app and PDF version of the site that also included exclusive original content.
In late November of 2013, I found out I was three weeks pregnant. This was not unexpected, because I was trying to be pregnant, but it was fraught, because I’d had three miscarriages in the prior year.
In April 2014, I was nearing the final trimester of my pregnancy. Stephen wrote and asked me if I’d consider taking on the role of Managing Editor of the site. I said yes. I didn’t even hesitate. A full-time job was not a part of my parenting plan, but this was not an opportunity I could pass on. I’m a Managing Editor through-and-through—details, organization, and structure are how I get through life. And I could work from home, staying active in the literary community and keeping my resume alive, while caring for my newborn.
In August 2014, my son was born. Four days later, we brought him home, and my mom let me know that my father died. I’ve written about my father before, in the Daily Rumpus and here on the site. He was an abusive drug addict, and dying was the only decent thing he ever did. I stopped worrying he’d find out I had a child and come around. I stopped feeling angry every time a good person passed away and I knew my father was out there breathing air and snorting coke. And, after a year of lawyers talking to lawyers, I was able to “inherit” a small sum of money that he had stolen from my mother in a nasty, long-time-coming divorce years earlier.
I put this sum of money in bank account and waited for something to do with it. I wanted to spend it on something that felt meaningful to me, something that would somehow—in light of the weight of the history surrounding this money—allow me to feel lighter. I knew I wasn’t going to spend my inheritance frivolously, but I also wasn’t going to spend it paying down student loans or buying groceries. I had to find just the right reason to use it. This fall, that reason became increasingly clear. The thing to do with the money was to buy The Rumpus, to invest in it and help it continue and grow, especially now, especially in light of a Donald Trump presidency. I promised we would not look away, and we will not.
I have valued every moment of my time at The Rumpus, in all of the above roles. As Managing Editor these last three years, I’ve had the opportunity to create amazing events, make space for and work with writers on pieces that I’m personally so very proud of, oversee a staff of talented and creative and dedicated volunteer editors, bloggers, and artists, and connect with readers in meaningful ways that continue to surprise me.
I look forward to continuing the site’s tradition of featuring underrepresented and new writers and subject matter, particularly in our country’s disturbing current political and cultural climate. The Rumpus will not back away from the dangers ahead and we believe that writing has an important role in the fight against inequality and injustice. The Rumpus will continue to be a voice of dissent against policies of hate.
Deputy Books Editor Lyz Lenz will take on the role of Managing Editor. I first “met” Lyz by email, when she answered a call for bloggers and I replied that she was overqualified for the position. I still remember her answer: I love literary magazines, and I want to write for you. After blogging for nearly two years, Lyz became Deputy Books Editor. I met Lyz “IRL” (as the kids say) at AWP Minneapolis, and she became my hero. It was my first AWP, my first time away from my then-infant son, my first time organizing a literary reading. I was a mess. She brought me allergy meds, made sure I ate food, volunteered at our bookfair table way more than she needed to, and generally proved herself to be the woman you want standing next to you when about to embark on a thrilling but also terrifying journey.
What plans do I have for The Rumpus? In addition to growing traffic, revenue, and optimizing the site for mobile readers, I hope to expand our real-world presence and continue to build its community with increased appearances at conferences and events in cities across the country (not just in New York and California) and to increase The Rumpus’s focus on small, independent presses across all verticals on the site. I want to refocus our mission such that every piece we choose to run, every book we choose to review, is selected through the lens of what is going on in our country and around the world. And, I want to reach a point where we can increase our pay to writers, from a nominal fee to a more industry-standard rate for feature articles.
We’ll also be creating an advisory board to help guide the site forward toward reaching its goals. We’ll be choosing writers, editors, and members of the literary community who we look up to, and whose opinions and advice we know will be valuable to us. We’ve already shared that we are thrilled to have Melissa Febos, who also serves on the Board of Directors of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and the PEN America Membership Committee, and Mary-Kim Arnold, author of Litany for the Long Moment forthcoming from Essay Press in 2017 and former Rumpus Essays Editor, join us. We look forward to announcing the full advisory board shortly!
The next four years will surely test us all. Likewise, taking on the task of running a business—yes, there is a business to this literary world we love—and trying to keep a small, independent literary website alive will surely test me. I hope you’ll join me in trying my very best to make a difference. To keep the importance of storytelling and poetry and craft vibrant at a time when those in power will be doing anything but.
Let’s go ahead and keep writing like motherfuckers, and keep fighting like motherfuckers. Always stronger together, and always looking right at the truth.
January 13, 2017 § 13 Comments
By L. Roger Owens
John, author of the Bible’s book of Revelation—his apocalypse occurred on the island of Patmos. Mine began in a shopping plaza parking lot two days before Christmas.
I’d just dropped my wife off at the grocery store to buy the final foodstuffs for Christmas Eve dinner, along with everyone else, judging by the traffic. I decided to walk to Wine & Spirits to buy her a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream, the one gift she wouldn’t expect. As I stepped out of the car I pulled out my phone so I could check my email, which I hadn’t done it in the past two hours. We’d just finished a long lunch with friends at the new Indian restaurant, during which I managed to keep the thing out of sight. But I’d checked it often the past two days, expecting confirmation that a magazine piece I’d written had been accepted. An associate editor praised the piece two days earlier and forecasted that the buck-stops-here editor would say, “Great; do a little editing.” I was weaving among the parked cars like a lab rat mazing his way toward cheese when I saw it. But I didn’t have to open the email to know its contents. I could see enough from the first two lines—an obligatory “thank you,” an ominous “but,” a definitive “not.”
I thought of my ten-year-old son. Last spring he auditioned for the middle school honors band. He was a rising six-grader, the best saxophonist in his elementary school band. He brimmed with confidence. A week after the audition a letter arrived. Daddy-spy that I am, I held it to the light before giving it to him. I saw typed on the band director’s floral-print stationary, the font inappropriately cheery, her judgment: “not this year.”
“It’s probably the letter telling me I got in,” my son said as I handed it to him.
“Well, there’s no way to know what the competition was like, or how many sixth-graders she accepts,” I warned. As he read, the confidence leeched from his face, his expression turned from hopeful to puzzled to sad, saltwater pooled in his eyelids.
Now frozen in that parking lot, flurries whirling around me, I became a ten-year-old boy again—deflated and confused. Until an impatient SUV driver honked to hasten me along.
By the time I made it to Wine & Spirits disappointment had turned to anger, the kind that keeps you from thinking straight, which explains why I was looking for the Bailey’s in the domestic whites aisle. Why did that first editor have to give me false hope? I thought, as I wandered the store aimlessly. I needed someone to blame.
Apocalypse: in the popular imagination, a cataclysm. But really it’s a revelation, an unveiling. An apocalypse doesn’t destroy reality. It discloses reality by destroying illusion. John’s revealed a cosmic battle between good and evil. But they don’t have to be cosmic in scope. A rejection email can occasion one on a blustery day in a strip mall parking lot.
I began to see that in the past two days I’d invested that article with a significance embarrassingly beyond its due. I imagined the future: my academic dean passing around the magazine at a faculty meeting, as she does with faculty publications, and my wine-sipping colleagues admiring my article. They nod their approval, finally seeing the value in my dabbling in creative writing. The essay would certainly secure my receipt of tenure.
I imagined the senior editor of the magazine loving it so much he invites me to become a contributing editor. Roger, you simply have to write for us every month!
I imagined the acquisitions editor of a major press asking me to turn it into a book—the book destined to secure my promotion to full professor.
“Dreams of fame and fortune die hard,” Frederick Buechner once wrote, “if they ever die at all.” It took a rejection email to kill these dreams, to reveal them for what they were: sad delusions. This little crow-bar of an apocalypse began to pry apart the joints of the imaginary mansion I’d been living in until all that was left was a pile of rubbish. And watching the demolition hurts.
Until it doesn’t anymore. Because seeing clearly will always—eventually—feel better than living in the mist of make-believe.
Many have written about writing as a spiritual practice, usually referring to the act of writing itself: facing the terror of the blank page, keeping the hand moving, relinquishing perfectionism, not fearing what shows us, not so much you won’t put it on the page—all of this, the spirituality of writing.
But it also includes the disillusionment caused by rejection. Because before we can see what’s there, what’s real, we have to break off our love affair with illusion. Let the dreams of fame and fortune die. Submit to apocalypse. We can choose not to—we can keep spinning the narratives in our minds, keep blaming the editors or writing-group members or anyone else whose reaction to our work doesn’t fit into our imaginary world.
Or we can let the revelation do its work.
Now that my essay doesn’t bear the weight of winning me tenure or wowing book editors, I can begin to see it for what it is: a decently crafted piece that—as the senior editor said—would fail to capture a reader not already familiar with its subject. I can begin to remodel it, improve it. I can explore other publications, even less prestigious ones, that might make a better home for it. And I can see that making this essay do what it can do—all that it can, but not more than it can—is no one’s responsibility but my own.
Roger Owens teaches spirituality at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He’s written for numerous publications including The Christian Century, Weavings, and Faith & Leadership. He is the author of, among other books, Abba, Give Me a Word: The Path of Spiritual Direction.
January 12, 2017 § 3 Comments
By Carol Guess
The things I can’t do with bodies I can do with words.
The things I can’t do with your body I can do with your words.
When I was a dancer I stood at the barre, inches from others. During grand battements we leaned in or away so as not to get kicked, or kick someone’s pink shoe.
I fall a little bit in love with my collaborators, and become angry at them when they leave the page.
The delight is in wondering what comes next. Preparing, poised, for the bright thing thrown. This has expanded my understanding of what’s possible as well as probable.
An ex-lover once told me I don’t share very well. But to send someone half a story is to share the best and most vulnerable parts of myself: not just language, but process, interrupted. To stand half-clothed and say, this is what it looks like when I think.
Secretly I always think their words are better. This means I have to reach for a stronger line.
Initially, my biggest fear was that collaboration was cheating – that the finished piece would not be mine. That taking credit for it, even shared credit, was stealing. That working alongside another artist would cancel out the pleasure I take in pronouncing, “I made this.”
This feeling was gone by the time I finished the very first poem I wrote in collaboration. It literally disappeared, replaced by delight in the playfulness and surprise of sharing. Because what had been missing from my work for so long was play. After my MFA, after publishing several books, after teaching countless students and mentoring so many young writers, after hoop jumping and the long road to tenure, I was burned out. Writing stopped being fun during my MFA program, and by the time I had tenure around 8 years later, it felt like a chore, like part of my job.
When I began collaborating, I noticed that my writing got funny again. Sound returned, and musicality, but best of all the will to write.
Collaboration occurs with a gap in time. The risk is in that gap.
To collaborate is to refine your ambition, angling it so as not to wound the other person.
With every collaboration, you expose your weaknesses and vulnerabilities to your partner. A good collaborative partner notices these weaknesses, but never alerts you. The best partner views your weaknesses as strengths.
Collaboration is sexy – give and take, release, the pang of the unexpected.
When you collaborate, you both create space, and you both create structure, so what emerges, even if you haven’t written it, comes from an atmosphere you had a hand in creating. You learn to take joy in someone else’s success, in their happiness. It’s anti-capitalist. It’s generous. It feels good to want someone else to succeed.
When a collaborator takes a project in a very wrong direction, it can be acutely painful to see your words twisted, especially in relation to aesthetic or political ideologies you don’t believe in.
Collaboration is easier when you actually like the person.
Collaborating across identities feels complex, often risky and difficult. Most of my collaborators have come in the bodies of queer creatures, female identified at birth, white and middle class, and this has made identification part of our language. Of course I wonder whether that identification cancels out elements of imagination. What can happen in a collaboration that sets identity in contrast, rather than in control? I’m scared to collaborate across racial lines because my racism – it’s there, you can see it through my skin – will pulse through, and then my collaborator will know the worst things about me. Whatever unconscious beliefs I’m holding will bleed to the surface, and then bloodbath. When I collaborate in a non-queer context, at least so far, I’m surprised by how quickly the standard heterosexual romance narrative shows up. It’s disappointing. I don’t want to disappoint anyone, but I don’t want to teach my collaborators stuff, either. Collaborating is not teaching, not the place for teaching. You need to feel like a peer.
So far I’ve played it safe with my choice of collaborators, but I’d like to take risks, even if that means mess.
It’s harder to publish a collaboration than a single author collection, especially in poetry. This doesn’t matter, but I thought you should know.
Alphabetical order is always the way to go when naming names. We’re not in a lab, no one’s lead author here.
Working solo, I’m precise. I craft every line, tending to each word, spending weeks, months, years getting the music right. As a collaborator, I have to move fast or I get scared. I think the seams should show. There should be a few loose ends.
Collaboration is always already happening – with whatever you’re reading, the street you live on, the person who shares your bus or your bed. Talk to someone. Wait for a reply. Let their voice resonate, let collaboration start with listening.
Carol Guess is the author of numerous books of poetry and prose. A frequent collaborator, she teaches in the MFA program at Western Washington University.