The Mark Blog

Mark Participant Interview: Spotlight on Mehnaz Turner

Mark Program: Can you give us a short synopsis of the project you are working on?

Mehnaz Turner: I am working on a collection of poems that I began organizing as an Emerging Voices Fellow in 2009. Many of my poems are autobiographical and focus on my experiences as a multi-lingual Pakistani American. Collectively, the poems explore themes such as alienation, cultural hybridity, irreverence, and religiosity.
MP: How did you know that this was the right time for you to apply to the Mark Program?
MT: I realized that I had enough poems to make a book, but I had no idea how to go about organizing my body of work into a sustainable manuscript. I needed mentors to help me understand what crafting a poetry book is about. I also needed writers in the field to review my work and give me feedback on the project as a whole.
MP: You are mid-way through the program. What has been your biggest challenge in the Mark so far?
MT: My biggest challenge has definitely been carving out the time and space for revision. I work full-time as a high school English teacher, so balancing the program with the demands of my job hasn’t been easy. However, this has forced me to think of creative ways I might reorganize my schedule.
MP: One of the new elements of the Mark Program is the Mark Blog that lists resources and inspiration for writers in addition to your weekly postings. You also kept a personal blog before the program started. What do you think poets and writers can gain from sharing their work in a public space such as a blog?
MT: Blogging, overall, is an excellent way to process your own experience as an artist while developing a working relationship with an audience. It’s a space to explore one’s personal philosophy and aesthetic.
MP: What is the most significant transformation of your manuscript thus far?
MT: At the start of the Mark program, I had roughly 100 pages of poetry. These poems lacked a carefully constructed sequence and several poems did not “fit” the book. I have eliminated several poems and organized the book into the four sections. Now the book feels more focused and thematically unified.
MP: Can you share with us a brief “before and after” section of a poem that underwent major revision?
MT: I’ve mainly been working on re-organizing my manuscript as a whole, and I’m just beginning the process of revising individual poems. My goal will be to compress the language, fine-tune my endings, and make the pieces as clear as possible.
MP: Can you leave us with one writing tip you have learned from the program?
MT: I have learned that artists writing today are not only expected to publish high quality work, they are also expected to speak articulately about their process. Therefore, it can be helpful to develop an editorial eye for one’s work. 
MP: What advice would you have to an EV that was thinking of applying to the Mark?
MT:I would say, think carefully about the demands on your schedule vis à vis the demands of the program. The Mark is a rigorous finishing school including reading assignments, revision expectations, and formal conversations about your work. While this opportunity is exciting, it is also demanding. Provided you have the time and space to invest in the program, you will see your work evolve in extremely positive ways. Apply, apply, apply. It’s a challenging but extraordinary experience.

Writing Prompt Thursday: Stanzas, Mettle, and Vowel Sounds

The following poetry prompt comes from the Poets & Writers series, "The Time is Now." This prompt is a very specific challenge to write a poem that adheres to a set of formal rules.

The prompt then prescribes how the last line should sound. But don't assume that attention shouldn't be paid to how every line sounds... The prompt also gives you a heap of nouns to toss around.

Compose a poem of five stanzas with four lines each. Use five of the following words: promenade, mettle, flap, azimuth, arbor, heap, mast, foxgrape. Write the final line of the poem using words whose vowel sounds contain a, e, i, o, u, in that order (for example, "The stay between window and room").

Conquering Hero or What I Saw From the Train by Gabrielle Calvocoressi

Back when I lived in New York and worked at a job I didn’t love I’d get off the train at Bergen and walk home and think about all the things I’d do once I didn’t have to work that stupid job anymore. Usually by the time I got to Berkeley Place I’d have crafted a narrative that included a lovely house, a dog, another lovely house and shelf of books with my name on the spine. I’d turn the corner and look at the red lights on top of the Twin Towers and marvel that I lived in New York. Then I’d make my way to our brownstone apartment and the beginnings of my marriage and sometimes I’d even be grateful for everything I had right at that moment in my life. 

This past week I went back to New York. I go back a lot but this time it felt different because I seemed to be bringing all the ghosts out as I walked down the street. I’d come to read at KGB bar with Timothy Donnelly and then I headed to Albany and then back to New York where I taught a class about haunting and was interviewed about faith. On my last day in New York I sat next to Matthew Dickman and Cate Marvin and we talked about regionalism in poetry at this year’s Poets Forum hosted by the Academy of American Poets. Then I headed to Hudson to tell ghost stories at a friend’s artist’s salon. All week long I seemed to turn around and see the part of myself that worked that lousy job and would walk to the train in the morning weeping with frustration about having to spend my whole day doing something I didn’t love that made me feel so bad about myself. It wasn’t even a terrible job. I was a secretary at a private school. But it wasn’t me. I wasn’t particularly good at the job and I didn’t look the part. I remember being pulled into my six month evaluation and asked why I wouldn’t wear a skirt and trying to explain that I wasn’t the kind of girl who wore a skirt and weren’t my suits perfectly fine? “No.” No they were not.
I saw the ghost of that young girl on the subway and in the line at Whole Foods, barely looking up at me from the cash register. I saw that girl in the body of a man yelling at a couple of young people at Occupy Wall Street, telling them he paid his taxes and why didn’t they just shut up and hook him up with some weed. It’s amazing the things we do to each other when we can’t find the right form for ourselves. It eats us alive. I got saved. I saved up my money and during the first summer of my lousy job I went to Provincetown and studied with Marie Howe and then I got the courage to apply to the MFA program at Columbia University and by some miracle I got in. I worked really hard and for awhile I worked at the private school and went to Columbia at the same time. And then I left the private school and decided working three jobs was better if they related to poems.
And so I ended up at the Academy of American Poets. I was possibly the most enthusiastic and worst qualified intern in the world. Phone calls got misdirected, letters got returned, one time John Ashbery asked for the restroom and I led him directly to the coat closet. I gave Adrienne Rich and Lucille Clifton the wrong directions during a fire drill. And yet. I worked really hard. I spent my afternoons around people who loved poetry and worked for its health. I learned how hard arts administration is and what a wonder the people who work in that world are. Once an older poet got sick and the day was spent figuring out how to help. More times than I can count poets had their lives changed by prizes that the average investment banker wouldn’t consider worthy of a day’s pay. I learned about gratitude and proportion and kindness. I learned that there are investment bankers who love poetry and will also fight to protect it. I learned that I am the one poet who cannot have more than one cocktail and that The Academy of American Poets was there to walk me home.
Which is where I found myself this past week: home in New York. I wasn’t back in Brooklyn, though I spent practically every day with my dear friend who lived round the corner from me before we knew each other. I was in the beautiful apartment of a friend from Columbia who has given me the gift of peace and silence in the midst of a great city. I’m not rich but the gifts I’ve gotten since I made the decision to leave the job that was killing me have afforded me a life of such wealth. I thought about it as I walked to the Poets Forum with Matthew and as I sat on the stage. How do you explain that to a student? That it all comes out okay in the end but not in a way you might ever expect. And that it has to do with talent and writing well but it’s also about enthusiasm and kindness and being a good citizen. I’m really glad I had that lousy job because I know what it is to make someone copies at the last minute and to be told the coffee is too cold. I know what it’s like to be so proud of the suit you bought at J. Crew and then hate it after you’re told you don’t look the part. I know why those folks are occupying Wall Street and streets all over the world. Lewis says, “Yet why not risk joy?” It’s true and it’s such a hard thing to do. How do you tell a student like Mehnaz Turner, who I am advising for PEN, that risking joy is as hard and essential as any linebreak one can wrestle with? That maybe it comes from the same place.
I stood at the train station in Hudson and watched my friend head back to the city. I felt so sad and empty for a moment, my week’s companion heading back home to hometown that wasn’t really mine anymore. Then my other friend and I walked up the hill. We passed empty shops and we looked in the windows of an office that was for rent. “What could you do here?” one of us asked the other. Finally we made it to a gallery that was showing her work. Like O’Hara my friend is a painter and I am not. We walked through the rooms and I stared and marveled at all the things I still don’t know. “Are we late? I asked her and she said, “Not yet” but we better get going and head to the plane.

"Meeting Deadlines" by Mehnaz Turner

Something I’ve been struggling with lately is meeting deadlines: deadlines for revision of my work, blog posts, & sending out material. Balancing life and work and writing isn’t easy, and these days, I’ve somehow lost my ability to practice the art of juggling it all.
There was a time I fantasized about leading a writer’s life full-time. I felt my goal in life was to make it possible for me to make my living as a poet & in service of poetry. But practically speaking, this is not always possible, and emotionally speaking, I’ve grown to distance myself from this goal. At my core, I feel the self I most identify with is my writing self. Writing is my religion, my routine, and approach to life. My goal is to live twice and bend my experiences through the artful lens of line breaks and stanza-making. But there are bills to pay, friends to call back, and laundry to do. Life, for better or worse, is about comfort as well as aesthetics. I’m in my thirties now, and sometimes I find it hard to open my journal after an exhausting day and formulate a haiku. It’s easier to cook pasta for dinner and click buttons on a remote control.
That said, I want to find a way back into centering myself. I want to find a way to do it all and do it honorably. This means that I’ve got to take a look at the way I’m spending my time, particularly my teaching work load, and figure out how I can give my writing the space it deserves.
So my goal for the coming month is this: I plan to give my writing life one hour per day. I’m going to treat this hour as a daily sacred ritual to get the work done–blogging, revising, and writing. This does not include attending readings or performing. It’s about interacting with the page. I could do two thirty-minute sittings or one hour long stint at a coffee shop. But I’m going to find my way back to center.

The irony is that during the periods in my life I am writing most religiously, I tend to balance the rest of it better as well... Somehow I have more energy and greater sense of meaning. My breathing slows down and there’s less senseless chatter drifting through my mind. Without honoring the call to write routinely, I lose my focus in other areas as well.

Monday Feature: "Circle" by Victoria Chang

Today's featured book comes from Mark Instructor Anna Journey's syllabus.

"Taking its concept of concentricity from the eponymous Ralph Waldo Emerson essay, Circle, the first collection from Victoria Chang, adopts the shape as a trope for gender, family, and history. These lyrical, narrative, and hybrid poems trace the spiral trajectory of womanhood and growth and plot the progression of self as it ebbs away from and returns to its roots in an Asian American family and context. Locating human desire within the helixes of politics, society, and war, Chang skillfully draws arcs between T’ang Dynasty suicides and Alfred Hitchcock leading ladies, between the Hong Kong Flower Lounge and an all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch, the Rape of Nanking and civilian casualties in Iraq."

The glowing user reviews on Amazon speak for themselves:
"Reading Victoria Chang's poetry is like walking through woods in the fog, and every so often a branch smacks you in the head."

"Here is a poet whose sympathies are wide enough that she can find herself in almost anything -- from the cycles of a shiny KitchenAid mixer, "dancing in circles, spinning around and around," to the crack in the toilet seat of her family's restaurant. Here is a poet whose imagination is bold enough that she can inhabit the souls of characters otherwise known to us only through the impersonal narratives of history or the daily news..."

And there's plenty more where those came from.

Weekend Literary Wrap-up

George Saunders on The Book Bench (The New Yorker, October 24, 2011)

The Fierce Imagination of Haruki Murakami (New York Times, October 21, 2011)

Is Reading on the Loo Bad for You? (The Guardian, October 2011)

Staying with the Nietzsches: Count Harry Kessler's Diary (The Atlantic, October 2011)

Matthew Specktor on Joan Didion's Blue Nights (The Los Angeles Review of Books, October 24, 2011)


Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project

ROBERT PINSKY is a former Poet Laureate of the United States and this year's PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Honoree. PEN Center USA is recognizing Pinsky's important career as a master poet and poetic translator, along with the work of Honorees Dave Eggers, Charles Bowden, and Ellie Herman.

Pinsky founded the Favorite Poem Project shortly after he was appointed Poet Laureate. During the one-year open call for submissions, 18,000 Americans wrote to the project volunteering to share their favorite poems — Americans from ages 5 to 97, from every state, of diverse occupations, kinds of education and backgrounds. contains all kinds of materials that came of the Project, including a gallery of 50 video documentaries showcasing individual Americans reading and talking about poems they love.

Impressed yet?

The PEN Center USA Annual Literary Awards Festival, where Robert Pinsky will receive his Award along with fourteen genre Award Winners, is PEN Center USA's biggest fundraiser of the year. Show your support for all that PEN does and come out for a glamorous evening at the Beverly Hills Hotel. All proceeds go towards PEN Center USA programming.

Up the Ante: Apply for a Residency at the Vermont Studio Center

Founded by artists in 1984, the Vermont Studio Center is the largest international artists' and writers' Residency Program in the United States, hosting 50 visual artists and writers each month from across the country and around the world.

The Studio Center provides 4-12 week studio residencies on an historic 30-building campus along the Gihon River in Johnson, Vermont, a village in the heart of the northern Green Mountains.

VSC accepts 12 writers each month for poetry, fiction, and nonfiction Residencies. Writers working in journalism, screen and playwriting, children's literature, or translation may also apply, but are not eligible for Full Fellowship awards.

VSC Literature in Translation Program
This new program brings writers and translators from around the world to VSC.  More information is available here.
Each VSC Writing Resident receives:
  • A private studio in the new Maverick Writing Studios building, including a networked printer and wireless internet access
  • The presence of two Visiting Writers per month, each of whom gives a reading and a craft talk and offers optional individual conferences to those residents accepted in the Visitors' primary genre (cross-genre conferences will only be scheduled at the discretion of each Visitor once he or she arrives)
  • Access to the Mason House Conference Room & Library


Monday Feature: "Beautiful and Pointless - A Guide to Modern Poetry" by David Orr

Today's featured book "holds up a mirror to the poetry world itself," says Slate, and according to Tom Perrotta (Little Children), it "is a clear-eyed, opinionated, and idiosyncratic guide to a vibrant but endangered art form, essential reading for anyone who loves poetry, and also for those of us who mostly just admire it from afar."

Read more about Beautiful & Pointless and about the author David Orr.