Saturday, March 26, 2016

Setting up readings is hard

           I have a book coming out—and then I have another. Pinch me! At the age of forty-seven, I’m late to the party, and at the party, in the corner, I’m the one wearing sensible sneakers and asking if it’s hot in here.
            It’s typically not hot in here. I’m starting to quit asking.
            Because I happen to be about twenty years older than my fellow emerging writers, this shit is serious. I’m not fooling around. That first book comes out in late May, and I’m e-mailing like a mad woman, trying to set up readings to find audiences for my poetry. (I’m sorry, poetry—my neglected children I tardily set out to nurture in their teenhood.)
            I even put a post on Facebook yesterday, asking anyone with a spot in a reading series to drop me a note. I’ll do my best to drive there! I’ll work—teaching, meeting with students, a publishing talk! I’ll sleep in my car! I’ll dine on those little cans of Vienna sausages and packets of cheesy crackers!
            Desperation is so attractive, and such an effective marketing strategy. Still, I got some nibbles—a few friends with programs who are interested in working something out. Even one reading resulting from a desperate Facebook post is a good thing, and I’ll take it. I’ll read the hell out of those poems. I’ll talk poetry with students and let them see how magical they are for putting themselves out there and doing such important work. I’ll fill them with a fiery hot fervor for the word.
            And you don’t have to pay me a thing.
            That’s the weird part of my offer. I don’t actually believe in bringing in writers and not paying them. I believe in respecting the profession and the art, and in demonstrating with my actions that poetry has value. I have coordinated readings many times, and I have always considered it crucially important to make every guest feel special and valued—to feed them and make them comfortable, to not work them too hard, and to send them away with compensation in their pocket or, more often in the university setting, on its way in the mail.
            But here I am, offering up my services for Vienna sausages, and the Vienna sausages are negotiable.
            Ordinarily, when I write about the writing and editing life, I’m writing from a position of experience and knowledge. I have a set of experiences and I want to share them with readers to give them insight into, particularly, an editor’s thinking. I know what I’m talking about, and if I don’t, I know enough to say so in the spirit of creating dialogue on important issues. I make mistakes and I get carried away with the writing at times (an editor friend called me out recently on a tremendously disrespectful phrase I included in a post, when I chastised editors, like I often do, but included the words, “Buck up, Spunky!” Guess I liked the assonance of the expression, but I kind of made an ass out of myself).
            But I’ll go ahead and say it—my information is typically solid, and my opinions are based on years of experience and observation and, yes, mistakes. I think I have something to offer on these topics.
            When it comes to setting up readings for a forthcoming book, though, I’m lost. I’m hunting with a blunderbuss, rather than taking aim with the cool eye of a sniper. (I’m so lost I’ve resorted to rhetoric that glorifies guns.) Maybe this post is itself a cry for help. It’s certainly intended as a not-so-subtle plea for invitations to read in the next year or so (Write me! ! Will work for sausages!).
            In the back of my mind is the notion that someone needs to do something to make it easier for reading series planners to find poets and writers. My friend Neil Aitken, taking pity on a fool, wrote me to tell me about just such a service, one that he recently launched called Have BookWill Travel, which links reading opportunities and writers. Expect to see my ugly mug up there about fifteen minutes after I post this. (Neil posts headshots. The can of Vienna sausages will be just out of frame.)
When I write my posts for Better View of the Moon, I frequently offer advice, and while I appear to be writing it for an audience, sometimes I’m writing it for me. It’s a way of keeping myself focused and centered. I’ve hosted dozens of readers over the years, and I know a bit about how it goes. So here are some thoughts on the right way to try to set up readings. Karen Craigo, if you’re reading this, take a memo:

• Consider your value. What do people pay writers at your career stage? (More books can mean more money.) What’s the going rate for readings in your genre? (Fiction writers frequently get paid more than poets, which sucks, but is nonetheless true.) What are people paying in your area? What are they paying in the area you are targeting? Find that information and think about where you belong on the scale.
• Bear in mind that you are trying to set up a book tour. There is a different price point for the person who comes asking for a reading than there is for the person a program or reading series targets with an invitation. Sometimes, when you’re the one asking to come, it is a good deal to receive travel, food, and accommodations in exchange for a reading. If you’re asking to be part of a regular standing reading series, though, you may be tacitly asking to read for the regular rate of pay. If the reading series is in a university, there is usually a payment. If the reading series is at a bar or bookstore, there generally is not.
• Keep in mind your purpose in trying to set up a reading. My purpose at the moment is to get books into the hands of readers. As this is my first book, promotion is everything. I will not judge the success of my effort to set up readings by how much money I make; rather, I am looking to do justice to my poems and to build my reputation as an artist. This will undoubtedly increase my value—including my monetary value—for the future.
• Prepare a pitch with a bio. Have a website. Show people you approach that you are not a crazy lady—that you are legit. Be specific about the services you can offer. An angle I have to offer is expertise in literary journal publishing—a subject most writers are curious about. Emphasize what you can offer to audience members, as well as services you are willing to provide aside from the reading. (If you are ever asked to read somewhere and to do a talk or judge a contest or meet with students, you have the right to expect more compensation—but if you are trying to set up your own reading, you can throw in side offers as part of the package, to sweeten the deal.)
• Pinpoint the series you know—ones, ideally, you have attended. (I have a reading in the fall at the Writers Place in Kansas City—a place I know because I’ve gone to several events there, even though Kansas City is about three hours from my home.) Contact these series first. Then look within driving distance, because airfare drives up the cost to whomever is paying. Pinpoint universities and longstanding series. Go to where people are studying and writing poetry.

That’s all I’ve got. If any readers have good advice, I could certainly use it. Please post it in the comments. I offer you virtual Vienna sausages as a reward.

Friday, March 25, 2016


           I’ve attended the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs quite a few times over the years, usually to staff a table for the journal I edited, Mid-American Review. It’s an excellent conference, and I’m a big fan.
            The first time I went to the conference was 2000, in Kansas City. I was thirty-one years old and I had a newly minted MFA, following a decade-long stint as a journalist.
            Previously, I had attended (sporadically) journalism conventions, and I knew them to be somewhat serious affairs, with discussions of weighty issues about a rapidly changing field and of the role reporters would need to take on in order to stay relevant. New ways of investigating and new ways of responding to the public were fascinating, but they were unfamiliar and a little scary. Difficult times led to difficult and contentious conferences, and although I relished each learning opportunity, if I offered ten descriptors of the typical journalism conference, “fun” wouldn’t make the list.
            The AWP Conference was a whole different scene. That Kansas City conference was sort of a small one compared to those that would follow, but it seemed huge to me, and the bookfair was an orgy of free stuff. Famous people were walking around among the mortals as if they, too, flossed and pooped and did all the normal things. Some of them even returned a bug-eyed stare with a smile.
            I tried, then, not to miss a single session. I took copious notes (that I never referred to again—it’s my practice to take notes to sort of root ideas in my memory). I went to the front of the room to thank presenters afterwards. I asked questions. I talked incessantly to my friends about the ideas I had encountered and the things I had learned.
            In those days the nametags had ribbons for special people—presenters, board members, sponsors—and I wanted some. I wanted a role. I somehow scored an invitation to a VIP penthouse reception that year, and it earned me distinction downstairs, where friends were nursing ten-dollar beers while I enjoyed free mixed drinks and cocktail weenies. Of course, upstairs, no one knew who the hell I was, but my MIFs, marginally important friends, didn’t need to know that.
            That first year took me by surprise in many ways, and in subsequent years, I tried to prepare myself a little better. From the very start, I saw the stratification in the conference—the famous versus the unknowns, the people with important roles versus the regular conference-goers, the faculty versus the students, right on down the line.
            When the conference was in New Orleans, I remember putting a lot of advance planning into making a splash, and I bought five hundred business cards with my name and title on them: Karen Craigo, Editor-in-Chief, Mid-American Review. Those should open some doors, I figured.
            The door they opened turned out to be that of the cabinet where I stored the 495 cards that remained after the NOLA conference. Handing out cards wasn’t something I did naturally. Some people can pull this off; they have them at the ready and they very naturally offer one when they meet a new person—just a friendly way of keeping in touch. I had a clumsier card hand, though, and the act never felt anything but self-aggrandizing to me. I gave up the card thing as a bad deal.
            Yesterday, my good friend, the author Matt Bell, posted some excellent advice on Facebook about “networking” at AWP or elsewhere. Since it was a public post, I hope he won’t mind my quoting him here, as it’s information that bears repeating:

Since it’s that time of year again, here's the only AWP advice I have to offer for anyone nervous about meeting new folks or “networking,” which will also work for literally any other social situation: When in doubt, just be more interested in other people than in yourself.

In other words, when you meet someone you admire, tell them so. Talk about the books you’re reading more than the books you’re writing. If you go up to the table of a favorite magazine, talk about what you loved in a recent issue or ask them what’s best in the new one, instead of checking on your submission. Ask editors of interesting presses which of their books you should read next, instead of telling them about the book you’re writing. In every one of these situations, you’ll have a better conversation than you would have, and you’ll definitely still get to talk about yourself, too, because other humans respond to curiosity and interest with curiosity and interest of their own. Easy!

Matt is one of those people who just simply is interested in others. It’s part of what makes him special as a fiction writer. And his advice is solid, and truly does apply to every situation that involves meeting new people.
            There is a reason both Matt and I put the word “networking” in quotes. A term that makes perfect sense at another professional conference comes off as a little smarmy in a giant get-together of writers.
            I imagine that, say, high school counselors or hospital lab technicians or history museum directors take pride in their profession. Some may even think of it as a calling. But being a writer—that feels different. The hospital lab tech leaves the lab, goes home and has dinner, bowls on Thursdays, enjoys quilting. The writer may leave her desk (or couch or coffee shop or kitchen table), but she doesn’t leave her writing work behind. It happens all the time—as she makes dinner or straps on a jet pack or teaches a yoga class. We are always writing, even when we aren’t in front of our computers and we don’t have a pen in our hand. Thinking is a part of writing, and everything we take in lends itself to our work—sometimes very directly.
            The phlebotomist doesn’t network as he takes blood from your vein. And writers don’t typically network, either. What we do is so much deeper than that. We are all on similar journeys, and we forge bonds with one another along the way, we might say. And a business card is a paltry tool for forging bonds.
            Something I learned as I continued in my growth as a writer was that there is no outward indicator, no publication history, and no vita item that will reveal a certain class deserving of the title of VIP in writing, fancy parties notwithstanding. When we apply ourselves to our art, we are all doing urgent work. Transcribing the spirit, laboring after truth—this work is crucial, and the people who do it are Very Important. (And while we’re on the topic, every single person we encounter is Very Important, too—even if they never jot down a word.) When we are committed to the task and dedicating ourselves to the work, we deserve a ribbon on our nametag—whether anyone passing by knows our name or not.

            My networking advice? Write your ass off, even when it’s hard. If you’re in the struggle, you belong. Someone should throw a party for you. Someone should hand you a weenie.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

An Appreciation of ANGLES OF DEPARTURE by Marcene Gandolfo

“I keep a row of old coats in my back closet. I can’t say why. I haven’t worn them in years. Maybe someday in an unexpected rain I can offer them to a lost traveler, though a lost traveler has yet to knock on my door.”

These prose lines from the poem “Kept” are indicative of the world found in Angles of Departure, Marcene Gandolfo’s beautiful debut collection (Cincinnati: Cherry Grove Collections, 2014).

I have been reading a lot of electronic versions of poetry collections lately, but Gandolfo’s was one I could hold in the hand. This was a special pleasure because of the nature of these poems—close and contemplative and rooted in home. I dog-eared several favorites. I underlined lines. There are arrows and stars.

Gandolfo writes poems that approach pain—familiar sorts of it, easy to recognize and palpable in memory. I think the ache is keener because her poems happen in rooms that, when I look up from the cracked spine of my book, seem indistinguishable from my own.

I like the poem “Why the Kiss Good-bye,” which shows the speaker leaving a beloved house for the last time, keys in hand to be turned over to new owners outside, but first spending a few moments seeing and touching those flaws she knows exactly where to find:

Don’t ask why I wanted
to walk into the empty,
feel my feet creak against
the hardwood floors.
Why I leaned against
bare lemonade walls
and listened to the kitchen
faucet drip. Don’t ask
why I cruised the hallway
like when I was six.
Why one last stare
at the breaking fence
outside the bedroom window.
Why clip a piece of thread
from the withering drape.
Why one last smell of yellow
linen closet. Why one more
thumbprint against a crack
in the bathroom mirror.

That’s a longish snippet, but I offer it because of that slow tour through memory and the suggestive quality of it—how it is sepia-toned and aching, and sometimes there is no clear sense why. The twinge of these lines didn’t leave me through the book.
On other occasions, though, Gandolfo is frank about the source of pain, like that of a stillborn child whose loss never stops hurting. Writes Gandolfo in “Hold,”

If you stare at anything long enough, you will see its face. See the profile in the door before you. See its features take shape in the grain.

I like Gandolfo’s work best when the pain it records comes from an unexpected source, but one that shows the wisdom of the poet, who does not overlook it. The title poem is such an example:

I believed even the least
light could flood the darkness.
Once a stream of fireflies
led me off a broken
highway. I believed
in the map’s veracity,
destination’s promise,
the window’s candle
whispering me home.

It’s nearly impossible to see past that black scrim; as Gandolfo writes,

Tonight we enter
the blackening desert.
Our headlights are useless
against this thick
shadow ache. It’s too late
to turn back.

I’ve driven that road. Sometimes a book of poetry can transport us, and Angles of Departure seems to bring me back to this precise place. I know the feel of it, and while it’s not always a comfortable place to be, it’s gratifying to have a wise guide.

The lesson to the poet-reviewer: Normal life contains both gravitas and grace. My experience is enough for poetry.

Marcene Gandolfo’s debut book, Angles of Departure (Cherry Grove Collections, 2014), won Foreword Reviews’ Silver Book of the Year Award in Poetry. Her poems have been published widely in literary journals, including Poet Lore, Bellingham Review, Bayou, DMQ Review, and Paterson Literary Review. She has taught writing and literature at several northern California colleges and universities.

An Interview with Marcene Gandolfo:

1.     What did you want to be when you grew up, and why?
I wanted to be a singer. I’ve always loved music, and in high school, played guitar and sang with a folk group. But in college, I fell in love with the sound of words and the music inherent in language itself.

2.     What is the very best word in this collection? Explain.
I can’t think of a particular word. But one expression, “I am bare feet on weeds,” defines the collection for me. These poems emerged from my reflections and meditations on grief. I recognize that I’m no expert on surviving grief; many have endured losses far more cutting than mine. But I did learn that grief strips us of our protective garments. We walk nakedly through a wild garden, where each step is unpredictable, even ominous. And we may stumble at times, but for the most part, we remain upright, move forward. We survive.

3.     Describe your worst poetic habit.
I’m not a poet who writes every day at a certain time. I wish I were … I can go days, weeks, even months without writing a poem, and sometimes I think, that’s it. Poetry has left me. But if I’m patient, I realize the poetry has been there all along; I just became too distracted or preoccupied to listen.

4.     It’s time someone put out an anthology of poems about ___. Explain your reasoning.
An anthology exploring women and ritual. While traditional religious ritual could be a part of this, I’m more interested in the domestic. Because women, in most traditions, have been the primary caretakers of the family and home, these rituals, often passed from mother to daughter, shaped how the community embraced birth, death and major life events in between. These women were the first midwives. They were, most often, those who practiced end-of-life care. Even if these rituals are no longer formally practiced, they still influence cultures, communities, and families today. And I’m interested in how we can connect language to ritual.

5.     It’s your poetic obituary! Sum up your writing life with an essential (past-tense) statement about your poetry.
Marcene Gandolfo was a poet who loved words and tried her best to help them sing to each other.

Would you like to have your book considered for an Appreciation feature? It is eligible if it is no more than two years old or, better yet, forthcoming. You may send finished books or advanced reader copies to me at Karen Craigo, 723 S. McCann Ave., Springfield MO 65804. You may query at

You're invited to Braless AWP

Again this year, I can’t go to AWP.

AWP, shorthand for the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, happens next week in Los Angeles. It’s a huge thing, and it’s whiplash-inducing for me; I always look at nametags and whip my head up to see the face attached, because very frequently the name belongs to a social media friend, or to a writer I know through submissions to a journal, or to someone I have read and enjoyed at some point.

Social media is funny. We tend to get the curated view of a person’s life, but that doesn’t mean we could actually pick that person out of a lineup. And AWP is a lineup, a big one, of all the people I know but don’t know.

I have a writer friend who for years has had a picture of a cow leaping out of the surf as his profile picture. I have no idea what he looks like.

I have another who always posts pictures from a top view of a three-quarters angle on her face, and perpetually with lips in a duck formation. I don’t believe she actually is a very short duck, but I would have a difficult time locating her at eye-level and, say, smiling.

Many people bemoan the nametag-gazers at the conference, and they make a point of wearing theirs backwards, or of putting a weird name on it, or of trading with a friend. Sometimes a big sticker obscures the name, or it’s tucked discreetly under a hipster elbow-patched cardigan.

I get it. There is a notion that many of the nametag-gazers do this because they are interested only in names found in a Norton Anthology. They won’t bother making eye contact at all with the bookless hordes. I’m not sure if I fully believe that this archetype exists in the real world, but it’s certainly true that spotting the name of a literary titan or, at the very least, a beloved personal-favorite writer can make us look—even at the end of the conference, when overstimulation and drunkenness (on both words and ale) begin to make zombies of the faithful.

I guess my affection for the conference is obvious. Before I became a mother, I never missed, and even after I added “Mom” to my vita, I tried to attend. It was way more trouble than it was worth, though, to deal with a high-spirited kid while trying to make my way through the bookfair.

Next year I’ll have the incomparable opportunity of attending AWP with my very first book in hand—and in 2018, I’ll attend with my second. Something about having a journal or a press or a book makes it feel OK to make space in life for a conference that is more than just a professional boon, but a pleasure. I have a feeling that accountants and real estate agents and tool-and-die makers have much less energizing, fascinating, and even sexy conferences, although booze is undoubtedly a great equalizer. The annual Tool-and-Die Expo may schedule a dance party to rival the yearly AWP stomp, but I’m skeptical.

It just about killed me last year not to be able to attend the Minneapolis conference, and so I started a new tradition that is continuing in 2016. I call it Braless AWP, and it’s a Facebook group dedicated to those of us (typically parents or the underemployed—a demographic that is sadly dominated by women) who can’t afford to attend or can’t swing it without childcare.

Braless AWP offers a lineup of intriguing sessions. This year Sherry is offering “Hybrid Genres: How Do Experimental Structures Lift and Separate the Modern Form?” and Jen will present “Eighteen Things to Do While Braless Other Than Refreshing Submittable.” The conference bylaws committee has approved the attendance of the shoeless and those with useless dogs, not to be confused with working companion animals.

Also this year, because Braless AWP is so much fun, a whole bunch of folks plan to attend what we like to call “the real conference” … while also attending the annual AWP Conference in LA (a.k.a., “that other conference”). I foresee a lively week of conversation and companionship, and I have to be honest—I need it. If I could attend AWP and benefit from the in-person camaraderie, I would—writing is an isolated, isolating task, and hugging poets makes it all more bearable.

It is a shame that a set of tracks runs through the center of our field, with elite writers and permanent instructional staff on one side and students and adjuncts on the other. As with the nation as a whole, the line of demarcation between the two sides is stark, and the have-nots often have to go without the incomparable opportunity of attending the conference because the costs of travel, missed work, and childcare are simply too high.

Are you having to sit this one out? I invite you to come on over to Braless AWP with empty bra, but not with empty hands: The price of admission is a panel proposal. We never get around to the actual panels, so a title alone will get you in the door. Then it’s pretty much a full-time braless dance party, and it wouldn’t be the same without you.