The Mark Blog

Writing and Cupcakes by Mehnaz Turner

So this Saturday from 3pm to 6pm, I attended a poetry workshop with Elline Lipkin through Writers Workshops Los Angeles. I decided to go because it was a long weekend, and I’d taken another workshop with Lipkin and enjoyed it. I was also down for some structured time to write.

As a workshop junkie, I’m often signing up for classes around town, but I’ve never taken a class that focuses entirely on generating work. This was a new experience for me, and I was a bit daunted by the idea of participating in the three-hour marathon. What if the seating was uncomfortable and I couldn’t focus? What if I wasn’t able to write around others? What if my pen ran out of ink?

But Lipkin’s workshop turned out to be awesome. There were about seven students in the class and the meeting took place in a comfortable setting—in someone’s living room in Studio City. All in all, we were given about twelve different writing exercises over the course of the three-hour period, and we also took a couple of breaks to recharge for each segmented hour of writing.

Not every writing exercise generated a poem I think has potential. In fact, I am only interested in typing up and revising two of the poems from the bunch. But still it was fun to fool around with words and play on the page for hours. My favorite writing exercise was where we had to write about “one in a set or group of something” (for instance, one bird in a flock of seagulls or one key on a bunch of keys). I liked the idea of exploring individuality amid unity, and I ended up writing about one of the dishes in my kitchen cabinet. The poem wandered into meditations on emptiness and existentialism and surprised me.

Writing for three hours was challenging at times, but overall, the class was inspiring and galvanizing. I’d do it again. I wish there were more opportunities like this around town. But still this experience has made me think about organizing a workshop like this in my own apartment—a writing marathon in cahoots with others. There’s something jazzy about the writing group that writes…where talking is checked in at the door and the only sound in the room is the swirl of a pen or the click of a keyboard. And because others are present, there’s the group pressure to stay engaged. One can’t randomly begin reorganizing a sock drawer, for instance. There’s the social expectation to follow through.

I also think it might be fun to pair up with just one other person to do a writing marathon. Each person could bring a couple of exercises and lead part of the workshop. Sharing what is produced doesn’t have to be mandatory. The idea is to motivate each other to stay focused on the page. This could be a great way to combat writer’s block and combine socializing with creativity.

After the writing workshop was over on Saturday, I drove to a bookstore on Ventura and perused the aisles briefly. I was in an excellent mood, feeling the high I feel after I’ve been able to get some work done on paper. It was sunny out and the Boulevard was crowded with locals and visitors swagging away. I didn’t buy anything at the Barnes and Noble, so I headed down to a small cupcakery nearby instead, where I let myself get tempted by the sweets and accessories on display. After a bit of meandering and debating, I bought an Oreo cupcake and a cute blue and white apron.

When I got home, I ate the cupcake in my tiny kitchen standing up, listening to Morrissey’s "Bona Drag." It was chocolate and frosted in white with an Oreo cookie garnish. This was my reward for all that writing. I decided I would take out my old cupcake cookbook and do some baking soon. I thought about how immersing myself in one type of art inspires creativity in another. And cooking makes me want a write—writing makes me want to cook. So I would bake: maybe some strawberry cupcakes—maybe some vanilla ones. I would busy myself with a sugar and flour sifting workshop in my kitchen. Then I’d write some more poems. Maybe I’d call up a friend for writing and dessert later in the week, and we’d exchange recipes and metaphors & sweet away an afternoon…

Weekend Literary Roundup: Labor Day Edition

"The French Knew How to Wave" by Mark Fiction instructor Diana Wagman (Web Conjunctions, August 30, 2011)

"We Others" by Steven Millhauser Reviewed by Jonathan Lethem

When Words Die by Robert Fulford (National Post, August 29, 2011)

Critics Notebook: In Pursuit of the Great 9/11 Book by David L. Ulin (Los Angeles Times, September 4, 2011)

Vladimir Nabokov: The Psychologist by Bryan Boyd (The American Scholar)

9/11 Stories: "Temple of Tears" by Geoff Dyer (The Guardian, September 5, 2011)

Dirty Laundry: Sex, Lies and Indulgences at the Mandrake (PEN Center USA Show Video by Danny Corey, August 27, 2011)

Excerpt: "The Getaway Car" by Ann Patchett (Byliner)

 

Poem of the Week: "To You" by Kenneth Koch

TO YOU
I love you as a sheriff searches for a walnut
That will solve a murder case unsolved for years
Because the murderer left it in the snow beside a window
Through which he saw her head, connecting with
Her shoulders by a neck, and laid a red
Roof in her heart. For this we live a thousand years;
For this we love, and we live because we love, we are not
Inside a bottle, thank goodness! I love you as a
Kid searches for a goat; I am crazier than shirttails
In the wind, when you’re near, a wind that blows from
The big blue sea, so shiny so deep and so unlike us;
I think I am bicycling across an Africa of green and white fields
Always, to be near you, even in my heart
When I’m awake, which swims, and also I believe that you
Are trustworthy as the sidewalk which leads me to
The place where I again think of you, a new
Harmony of thoughts! I love you as the sunlight leads the prow
Of a ship which sails
From Hartford to Miami, and I love you
Best at dawn, when even before I am awake the sun
Receives me in the questions which you always pose.

Kenneth Koch

Writing Prompt Thursday: Two Fun Prompts from Poets & Writers

 

The Write Now poetry prompt on August 8 was a great exercise for the imagination:

Find a map—of the Earth, the United States, or your home state or city—or visit Google Maps, pick a town at random, and write a poem about daybreak in that specific location, inventing any pertinent details.

And the prompt the next week on August 15 continued the challenge:

Transcribe five sentences that you find interesting from a book or a magazine or newspaper article. Send the first half of each to a friend via e-mail and ask him or her to finish the sentence and send it back to you. Use the responses, or portions of them, as the beginnings of poem.
 

The Truth About Writing by Mehnaz Turner

Participating in the Mark Program has encouraged me to think more deeply about my writing habits and goals. What makes the writing life worthwhile for me? Why did I choose it and what keeps me choosing it? These are a few questions that I’ve been pondering lately.
Here are some answers that come to mind (in no particular order):
 
1) I’m a stationary junkie. I love notebooks, pens, and the smell of ink. I need an excuse to be wedded to these materials routinely.
2) Words give me pleasure. I can get drunk on words without having a hangover.
3) I enjoy socializing with other writers as a writer. I find solace in forging connections with intellectuals.
4) I want to live twice.
5) I am my most audacious self on the page.
6) Literature is my religion and writing is my form of ritual worship.
7) I aim to see the world symbolically, not literally.
8) I enjoy making sense of the randomness of my experiences by giving it shape in my writing.
9) I covet the liberty of taking unexpected leaps.
10) Being a writer makes me feel like I’m a detective investigating the mystery of being...exploring a question that remains forever open–making the possibility of answers infinite.
11) I’ve always thought writers wear excellent inexpensive shoes. I aim for shoe excellence & bargains.
12) And finally, if someone were to put a magnifying glass up to my heart, they might find, metaphorically speaking, that it is imprinted with the alphabet of two languages: English and Urdu. I am bilingual, and the meeting point of the two tongues I speak can be a source of friction sometimes. In his book, Of Water and the Spirit, author Malidoma Patrice Some notes that "When cultures of two seemingly contradictory versions of reality collide, children are often the casualty of that contact." As the child of immigrant parents, my teens and twenties were marked by making sense of the competing demands of two cultures...two languages. I wrote and still write in some ways to alleviate this friction–to woo and placate my Urdu speaking half. This language is part of my consciousness, but I am rarely called to use it. I haven’t even visited Pakistan since 1998. In my English poems, I negotiate the loss of my intimacy with Pakistan.
 
The truth is, I can’t help wondering if all the stories and poems we craft are ultimately about loss. And by loss I mean negotiating the ever-changing nature of reality by "photographing" emotions and experiences with words. No matter how funny, ironic, bizarre, or contrary–I believe shaping words is a way of grappling with impermanence. Even fairytales, which play up the "happily ever after" myth, seem to emphasize permanence as a reaction to loss.
 
So maybe the big because in response to the "why I write" question is that to live is to be constantly humbled by having to let go–again and again–of experiences, people, attitudes, and definitions of self. Writing, I suppose, is a way of bearing witness to this cryptic universal truth—working toward transforming it into something symbolic...even beautiful.
 
Perhaps the only affirming response to the "ugly" truth of human suffering is to create art. Perhaps the only logical response for the writer is to work toward honesty and excellence on the page. When we are courageous enough to express ourselves authentically, we give others permission to embrace their own flawed and unpredictable selves. Between perfection and imperfection, it is the latter that the sages claim is the more beautiful, and I think I'm coming to understand why: it drifts closer to the truth. John Keats said it best: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all you need to know."

Weekend Literary Roundup

The Bell Jar at 40 by Emily Gould (Poetry Foundation)

Scholarmatch.org - A new 826National Project

What Killed American Lit  (Wall Street Journal, August 27, 2011)

Martin Amis on poet Philip Larkin (Financial Times, August 19, 2011)

What We Do to Books by Geoff Dyer (Sunday Book Review, August 27, 2011)

 

Poem of the Week: "All Her Life" by Raymond Carver

 

 All Her Life

I lay down for a nap. But everytime I closed my eyes,
mares' tails passed slowly over the Strait
toward Canada. And the waves. They rolled up on the beach
and then back again. You know I don’t dream.
But last night I dreamt we were watching
a burial at sea. At first I was astonished.
And then filled with regret. But you
touched my arm and said, "No, it's all right.
She was very old, and he'd loved her all her life."

- Raymond Carver

 

Up the Ante Wednesday: Apply to the VCCA

The Virgina Center for the Creative Arts opened in 1971 and is "the only artist community in the nation directly associated with an institution of higher learnning." Located on the campus of Sweet Briar College and nestled in the Blue Ridge farmland, VCCA gives its Fellows access to the College's many facilities and services, including libraries, computer labs, and walking trails.

The Breakdown
Admission to VCCA is highly selective, based on a review of applications by panels of professional artists. There are separate panels for each category (poets, fiction writers, nonfiction writers, playwrights, performance, film and video artists, painters, sculptors, photographers, installation artists, composers and cross-disciplinary artists) with over fifty panelists serving at any one time. The basis for admission by an application is professional achievement or promise of achievement.

Residencies last from two weeks to two months. Artists stay in a private room in a comfortable, modern residence building. To promote a sense of community, and to provide the opportunity to meet and talk with other artists, breakfasts and dinners are served to the Fellows family style in the residence dining room. Lunches are brought to the studio barn.
 

DEADLINES

June to September Residencies 
Deadline: January 15
Notification: mailed by March 31

October to January Residencies
Deadline: May 15
Notification: mailed by July 31

February to May Residencies
Deadline: September 15
Notification: mailed by November 30

More than 4,000 artists have benefited from residencies at VCCA over the years, many of whom have gone on to receive fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Academy in Rome, as well as the MacArthur "genius" grant.

Among those writers accepted by VCCA is our very own Natashia Deón, 2010 Emerging Voices Fellow in Fiction. Natashia is one of 25 applicants chosen to work at the retreat in the coming months. Congratulations, Natashia!

 

Toward Constructing a First Poetry Collection by Mehnaz Turner

 

The Mark Program is underway, and I recently completed my first round of readings for the poetry workshop with Anna Journey. The first reading assignment was poet Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s numinous collection, The Book of Accident, and an essay on manuscript-building by the same author entitled, “Order and Mojo: Informal Notes on Getting Dressed.”
 
My initial encounter with Goldberg’s poetry collection garnered resistance. The work is beautifully written but also disorienting. I typically value clarity in the writers I admire. Also, I was a bit thrown off by the fictional characters that appear in Goldberg’s manuscript, characters like “Torture Boy” and “Burn Boy.” Who were these random boys? And how did they fit into this “meta-narrative,” a term my instructor used to describe the collection.
 
However, after meeting with Anna for the workshop, I got some guidance on how to approach my reading of the book. I thought about the sensuality of the poet’s language and how, despite the seeming ambiguity, the poems were clearer and more accessible than I once thought. There was a setting and there was a mood that linked the poems together. The images had a haunting quality combined with doses of irreverent humor. I found myself enjoying the work suddenly— found myself “getting it.” By understanding the work’s aesthetic sensibility, I was able to get excited about it. 
 
We also discussed the way Goldberg had organized the manuscript...The relationship between the opening and closing poems...The themes that ran through the work. I began to see the subtle intentionality in the way the narrative had been constructed, and this inspired me to think about my own work.
 
The goal of the Mark Program is to help me whittle down my ninety-five page manuscript to roughly seventy quality pages. This means I have to decide what my collection is about and which poems serve this vision and which ones don’t. I also have to work on organizing the collection in a way that is both logical and aesthetic. This has been one of the most daunting challenges I have come across as a writer—evaluating the purpose and scope of my work by taking on the creative task of manuscript-building. In her essay, “Order and Mojo: Informal Notes on Getting Dressed,” Goldberg acknowledges that “the concern with the ordering of a poetry manuscript seems to be a contemporary neurosis.” Keats, Dickinson, or Whitman, she reminds the reader, did not trouble themselves with such an obsession.
 
Goldberg’s overarching thesis is that there’s no one right way to order a manuscript, a piece of advice that is both helpful and anxiety-provoking for the likes of me. If ordering a manuscript is really about dividing the work into sections intuitively and discovering the relationship between poems, then I have the freedom to do what I want. Yet, Goldberg advises, the collection must also have a logic and “personality” of its own. And there are better and worse ways of presenting this.
 
Still I’m starting to feel something I haven’t felt in a while concerning the task of putting together my manuscript: I am feeling excited. I’ve been focusing so much on the challenges involved, the neurosis of getting it just right, the confusion of not knowing where to begin. But I’m beginning to see that manuscript building, though a formidable task, is also a poetic one. Anna Journey encouraged me to think about my entire collection as one long poem. Each individual poem might be a stanza in this seventy page book. This reasoning appealed to me because I feel more comfortable in the role of poet than I do collection-builder. Maybe the two roles are not as distinct as I once believed.
 
Still, the collection isn’t going to come together overnight. The task will take months of thinking, reading, and revising. So my plan is to peruse several poetry collections with the goal of manuscript-construction in mind. The best guide for putting together a poetry manuscript is a published book—and I’ve got plenty of them on my shelf. When I first read these collections, I didn’t read them with my own manuscript in mind, so I might revisit the collections that spoke to me most and think about them meta-cognitively.
 
And finally, I’m going to trust that my ninety-five pages of poetry have a will of their own—a distinct personality and thesis that I will come into view in the coming weeks. The work is mine, but on the page it has a life of its own. 
 
My goal is no longer to impose an artificial order on my manuscript. My goal is to discover the existing relationship between the poems themselves and acquiesce to it.

 

Weekend Literary Roundup

 If Jennifer Egan Were President The New York Times 

Poets Via Post -- An archive of postcards by beloved poets The Academy of American Poets

Aimee Bender on The 400 Blows The Rumpus (August 16, 2011)

Obama's Summer Reading List Flavorwire (August 21, 2011)

How to Pronounce Ralph Feinnes (and other tricky words) The New Yorker (August 16, 2011)