Poets and Musicians Discuss Collaboration, Creation

 

On Monday, November 14, the Humanities Center, Creative Writing Program, and Miami University Press sponsored the panel “Collaborating Across the Arts: A Conversation” featuring Miami University Press poet and musician Janice Lowe, acclaimed poet Tyehimba Jess, and musician Yohann Potico. They spoke about the importance of respect in collaboration, their creative processes, and their current projects to a rapt audience.

Lowe, author of Leaving CLE: Poems of Nomadic Dispersal, is a poet, composer, and performer. Her poems have appeared in the American Poetry Review, Callalloo, and other journals. She has composed music for numerous plays and musicals, and is currently working on an album while also collaborating with both Jess and Potico to set some of the text of Jess’s 2016 collection Olio to music.

Jess, newly announced winner of the prestigious Lannan Foundation Award in Poetry for Olio, is an associate professor at the College of Staten Island. His first collection, leadbelly, won the 2004 National Poetry Series and was named one of the Best Poetry Books of 2005 by both The Library Journal and Black Issues Book Review. Many anthologies and journals have featured his poetry.

Yohann Potico, a multifaceted musician, composes, plays, and produces music. A talented bassist, he has been active in the New York City music scene for the past eleven years. He has recorded with an impressive list of artists and ensembles, and for the past four years has worked closely with Lowe, a collaborative relationship which has allowed him to explore unusual sounds and musical textures.

The panel was moderated by poet and Miami professor cris cheek, described by presenter Dr. Keith Tuma as “a distinguished serial collaborator, musician, visual artist, performance writer, and poetic collaborator.”

cheek: I would be curious to start off hearing Yohann talk a bit before we come to the interdisciplinarity, about how musicians even work together. How do you start playing together?

Potico: For me, for example, being in an indie rock band for years—someone comes up with a simple idea, like for instance a drumbeat. We mostly jam, just playing around, and the song forms by itself. ‘The band’ becomes the fourth character. We all bring an element to the table but in the end, what we create is bigger and so much different than what we are individually. Sometimes you listen back to the recording and don’t even recognize yourself. Like if I’d tried at home and recorded it by myself, I would have come up with something completely different. But the energy that’s in the room triggers something in me that I didn’t even know [I had]. It’s very interesting to discover yourself musically, artistically speaking. It’s interesting collaborating when the others get something out of you that you didn’t even know existed.

cheek: What kind of collaborations have you done, Tyehimba?

Jess: I’m not a serial collaborator. [Audience laughs.] I think the first time I did collaborations was back in the ’90s, I did this [performance ensemble] called Drapetomania, which was a disease slave owners said slaves have when they’re trying to get free. I’d be on harmonica, and Glinda Baker would be in singing, and it was like we would compose these poems, and develop a flow around them. With Janice, that collaboration was more like constructing an object then saying, to a certain degree, run with it. Going over the various permutations of the object, it’s like an act of release. And participation and consultation, a conversation back and forth, and then standing back in awe of what’s been created.

cheek: So giving some parameters, but not being too [structured]?

Lowe: I really like to compose and get my compositional ideas out there. When I start hearing things, I start notating them, or recording them somehow. Sometimes I work words first, sometimes music first. I’ll compose something, and that definitely doesn’t have to stay, because in the true spirit of collaboration, you know, collaborators have to work together and think about it and how it should grow. When Tyehimba came to me and asked me about considering setting some of this text to music, I felt like I had no time to do this, but I’m literally doing this to save my creative life, to remind myself that yes, I love collaboration. Maybe I should be focusing more on ‘me, me, me,’ or ‘book, book, book,’ or ‘Leaving CLE, Leaving CLE, Leaving CLE,’ but I love so much to collaborate, so that’s how we [started].

cheek: So how are you and Yohann working together?

Lowe: I really love and respect working with Yohann because he looks at my compositional ideas and will play them as written and lift off of them, when I want the music to open up. Creatively, it’s really exciting. When we’re talking it’s artist to artist, it blurs the boundaries of what kind of artists we are. We’re both musicians—I write as well—but I like being able to go back and forth. We talk in images. As instrumentalists we discuss and experiment with how sound effects are made.

cheek: So there’s a kind of language that develops to talk about what’s working?

Potico: You kind of have to. Collaborating with a musician is one thing; with writers, something different. Poetry—that form of writing seems more technical than others, and I think there’s some kind of inherent melody and rhythm that other forms of writing don’t have, so it can be easier for me to rely on that. It’s also difficult at times, the concepts she wants to hear; she’ll say, “I want to hear water,” but I’ll say, “Okay, I’m playing bass, I don’t know how I’m going to do that.” So it’s not easy, but it was great practice and she’s an amazing writer. It’s a fine line, respecting her work—it’s really personal—but to bring in my vision and my understanding to it.

 

The discussion moved on to explore Lowe’s current project, which is setting pieces from Jess’s collection Olio to music. Lowe played an early version of a song, calling it “the beginning of a compositional idea” of her interpretation of Jess’s poem “Millie and Christine McKoy.” Born into slavery in 1851, the McKoy sisters were pygopagus twins, meaning they were conjoined from the bottom of the ribcage to the top of the pelvis. Jess wrote the poem in three voices: Millie’s, Christine’s, and the two combined. It is a multidirectional, syncopated sonnet—the reader can choose to read the poem starting at the top or bottom; on the left side (Millie’s voice), right side (Christine’s voice), or  in the middle (their combined voice); and can read straight through or diagonally.

 

cheek: What do you think when you hear Janice singing your words?

Jess: First off, I think it’s like seeing your characters finally breathe for a minute. I imagine them in my own head for so long, but then to hear them liberated through Janice’s voice… One was contralto and one was soprano; that kind of mastery is astounding to me. In hearing her interpretation, it makes me think about that kind of syncopation between the piano parts and the voice and how it matches what’s going on in the poem. It makes me feel like it got lifted to another dimension.

Lowe: I can’t wait until we have… more people, more collaboration. I’m talking about the instrumentation, stretching it, growing it, continuing to add. It’s going to be wild—the sounds of their organs basically. These are nineteenth century people, maybe bringing some guitar shredding into the nineteenth-century-ness of it… Part of the music could be what they heard inside themselves. We can’t stop until we hear all kinds of sounds.

cheek: How did you write this poem?

Jess: A pencil, a blank piece of paper, and a bottle of bourbon. [Audience laughs]. This one was the first one of its kind. This was first line, second line, third, fourth, etc., going straight down. Others were composed straight down and then they were flipped. It’s about thinking about their story, thinking about trying to maintain that rhyme structure (abab cdcd efef gg—that’s the Shakespearean sonnet), and also thinking about the integrity of the poem in every direction. The first two lines are the easiest and then it starts to get steadily more and more difficult as you go down.

cheek: Tyehimba, obviously you are doing the layout of these pieces as you’re working on them. But there is this other aspect of collaboration, collaboration with the publishers, the designers… Is there something that you can share about that? Especially with [Olio]?

Jess: That book has four foldouts in it, and all four of them are perforated to tear out of the book, which is highly unusual for a publisher—to want to engage in that kind of bookmaking. I happen to be with a press that is more vested than most presses in the idea of the book as an object unto itself, as a piece of art, or as a tool that can have multiple dimensions. Very few presses have the skill and the desire to do that, and Wave is one of them. They had a really good idea of what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it; there was a lot of back and forth. They got [the book] a little better than I thought it was going to be. That’s very rare. You hear a lot of bad stories about publishers, and their relationship with their authors, and this is definitely not one of them.

Jess: [I have] a question for Janice about playing an instrument and its effect on your writing, your poems. Do you see a link between your music—I mean obviously, there is—but how does music affect your view of poetry?

Lowe: Everybody who performs works with tempo, and there’s a person’s natural tempo—like I
have a very calm exterior, but it’s very fake, I’m very jumpy—so when I get to play or sing really, really slowly, that is something that takes a lot of effort. Every tempo is a world; every tempo is a character. The bulk of what I’ve been doing is setting the work of other writers [to music] and almost working in two different head spaces. Something that’s new is actually working with my own text as a musician and going, “Oh, I hear music in that, too! What am I going to do with that?” I’m blurring those lines in myself and you’ll see some of that tomorrow.

 

Prompted by cheek, Lowe treated the audience to a preview of the following night’s performance, playing a recording of herself and Potico performing her poem “Resistance Girl T.” It began with Potico on bass, perhaps improvising, staccato and meditative, before becoming lighter as Lowe joined in, her voice mixing with her keyboard playing in a way that was imploring and disorderly, building urgency throughout the song.

 

Cheek: There are many, many voices inside that piece. How do you see that in relation to the spatiality of the text? There’s a kind of Sprechstimme, a kind of speaking-talking-singing happening inside that piece which I really like, that feels as if it’s trying to discuss the interrelationship between poetry and music.

Lowe: Yes, there are a lot of voices in Resistance Girl T – speaking, singing and speak-singing and a lot of experimentation. So Yohann and I talked about the feel, and experimented on that… Now I’m performing the book with three other musicians besides myself and look forward to adding more musicians into the mix. It’s different every time. Though composed and notated, this is one of the more improvisational pieces that I’ve ever done, specifically in the stacked up layers of vocals in the end of the piece. Those weren’t planned.

 

In answering questions from the audience, Jess acknowledged the “fundamental importance” of speaking a poem out loud during its creation: “You hear things that you don’t ordinarily hear when you read it out loud. That’s just generally true, and you’re getting closer to the voice other people will have in their heads when they read it.” Lowe further presented another benefit of collaboration, a benefit that is also perhaps one of the most important processes a writer: “Collaboration forces me to engage in a dialogue, and forces me to interrogate the choices I have made on the page.”

Alison Block
MU Press Intern
English Department Ambassador
Professional Writing ’17

Inventive Translation: Poet Trevor Joyce Returns to Miami

On Wednesday, October 12, poet Trevor Joyce drew an impressive crowd for a reading in Irvin Hall. Joyce has published fifteen volumes of poetry to date, including poetry he translated from Chinese, Finno-Urgic, Hungarian, and Old Irish. Currently, Joyce is working on an English-English translation of the Mutabilitie Cantos from Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene, and though he did not share any parts of that upcoming work, he kept the audience engaged with readings of his work spanning many themes.

In introducing Trevor Joyce, Dr. Keith Tuma of the Department of English praised him, calling DSC_2776him a “friend of the program.” This is Joyce’s third visit to Miami over the past fifteen years, and that familiarity shone through his comfortable presence addressing the audience and in Dr. Tuma’s brief account of Joyce’s history: “Trevor’s career is kind of odd… and just plain odd biographically. He started in the 1960s…and began a magazine that promoted modernism.” For about twenty years, Joyce did not publish any poetry, and then “came back in a big way” with stone floods, which Tuma called “fascinating” and “unprecedented.”

Joyce began with a lyrical poem in translation titled “Capital Accounts.” The original 1200-year-old Chinese poem from the Tang dynasty gives an “extraordinarily urban” account of the capital city Luoyang. Joyce read his “fairly literal” translation deliberately, occasionally puncturing the lines of the poem with a snap of his fingers. Hearing the poem aloud was an interesting collision of cultures: the English words of the poem brought to life the ancient Chinese city, articulated through Joyce’s Irish accent.

Joyce also read 36-word poems. “[These are from] The Immediate Future, which is now the recent past,” he quipped. “The strains [in these poems] are a combination of financial speculation written in the years following the ’08 crisis and Chinese divination.” The futility of trying to divine the future was thematic in the set, and Joyce followed with a sorrowful topic: a translation of a poem that records the lamentations of Irish queen Gormlaith after her husband Niall Blackknee dies in battle. “Love Songs from a Dead Tongue,” as the poem is called, is “a wonderful creation; the closing phrase [of a verse] echoes the opening,” explained Joyce—so each verse ends and begins with the same word or phrase. “[The original] is in delicate condition, so some text is missing and I try to preserve that, but they know the last word of the poem.”

Joyce also read from his most recent publication, Rome’s Wreck, which is an English to English “translation” of Edmund Spenser’s work The Ruins of Rome, which itself was a translation of French poet Joachim du Bellay’s Antiquités de Rome. Joyce gave a brief history of Spenser’s violent past, explaining how Spenser shared the responsibility in the massacre of Irish rebels in the Battle of Smerwick during the Second Desmond Rebellion. “They were given the opportunity to convert, and those that didn’t, which was the majority, were hanged. I thought it was a little ironic to give [his poem] back, transfigured,” explained Joyce, who transformed Spenser’s overtly elaborate version into monosyllabic words.

Joyce finished off the night with an enlightening question and answer period with the crowd. Dr. Cathy Wagner, Professor and Director of the Creative Writing Program, asked Joyce, “You said you like things that are planned from the beginning. Can you say why you like them?” regarding “Love Songs from a Dead Tongue.” Joyce responded, “The spontaneous element is evident, but [the end is known from the beginning]. I love that, I like the way the even the most artificial of poetry is always reliant on some level on the transaction of ordinary speech and ordinary human materials.”

When asked about how he became interested in translation, Joyce responded with a story. “When I was too young to know better, around eighteen or nineteen or something like that, this guy who was older than me, Mike Smith, he gave me a dual language text of the DSC_2775famous Middle Irish text, Buile Shuibhne, or The Madness of Sweeny… He just said, you know, ‘You need to read more, you need to try a little harder in this poetry you’re writing.’ So he made me work at it you know, ‘Try translating it, just try.’” Eventually, Joyce’s translation was published. “That showed it was possible that I could, even without a very extensive knowledge of languages, do [translation]… and everything is translation. You’re in conversation with somebody, you’re translating in your head, you’re explaining what they said to somebody else… It’s part of what we do. There are various degrees, there are various degrees of our faithfulness, but I like inventive translation.”

An audience member who noticed that Joyce is now working on his second translation of Edmund Spenser asked, simply, “Why Spenser?” Joyce responded, “Spenser wrote most of The Faerie Queene in Ireland… and my father’s people came from just on the other side of [Spenser’s castle] back around 200 years ago. My great grand uncle was the first person to locate Spenser’s landscape in The Faerie Queene as being actually the landscape of Munster and southern parts of Ireland, so that gives me a connection with him… But also that he was writing this great English poem… in Ireland, so I thought it was worth responding to.”

Joyce’s translation of the Mutabilitie Cantos from The Faerie Queene is forthcoming from the Miami University Press. His reading was sponsored by the Creative Writing Program and Miami University Press.

Alison Block
MU Press Intern
English Department Ambassador
Professional Writing ’17

 

Spotlight on erica lewis

Lewis

I stopped erica lewis (author of multiple books, curator of the John Oates House reading series, and a fine arts publicist who will visit Miami this Wednesday) with some questions about her process, recommendations, and life soundtrack. (Read Lewis’s daryl hall is my boyfriend (2015), murmur in the inventory (2013), and new poems from the forthcoming mary wants to be a superwoman.)

  1. What’s your process like?

It’s very organic. It’s structured, but only in the sense that once I think about doing a project, once I work the logistics out in my head, realize how the poems need to move from point a to b to c, then I can start writing them. They are structured before they are even written. When I write the pieces, I write them in order, so I basically write a poetry book straight through from beginning to end; it’s not a poem here and a poem there and then piece things together. It helps to keep the individual poems working with each other and advancing the story I want to tell. It keeps the whole book moving.  I used to be more rigid and create all sorts of rules for projects, constraints that didn’t let me really deviate from what I was doing or explore other things I wanted to do in the work. Those books were very very different than what I’m doing now with the box set trilogy.

 

  1. What are some influences on your work, and how have they manifested in your writing?

Visual art, music, history – they all influence my work in both content and style. If you read through the box set trilogy books, you’ll find references. If you look beyond the literal influences, you can see it in the language and visual formatting of a page, or the way a poem flows, how the language works with the visual and the lyrical. It’s all interwoven. And then, of course, you have to know your lineage in order to put it all together. The writers who came before you, you have to learn the craft of what they were doing before you can mess around with it and flip it and make it your own and create something new.

 

  1. What would you tell your undergrad self about the literary world that you know now?

The people that love your writing and get your work and champion and support you are not necessarily the people in your immediate surroundings. Sometimes you have to find your people. You have to go outside of your immediate community to be accepted and supported. If you stay within the confines of what one writing community is doing or offering you then you are limiting the potential of your work. Find your people.

 

  1. Do you have any literature or poetry recommendations?

Read everything.

 

  1. If your life had a soundtrack, which song would you pick for it?

Ha ha, my life does have a soundtrack. The “box set” trilogy uses the music of Hall and Oates, Stevie wonder, and Diana Ross. It takes the concept of sound tracking your life and explores songs as memories and triggers. Now, if I had to pick one artist right now, I couldn’t. One song, I couldn’t. And that says something about all of the music that makes up our lives, all of the people, energy, influences, art that makes us whole beings. That soundtrack should never stop.

Brie Moore
Editor-in-Chief of the Creative Writing Department Blog and English Department Ambassador
Creative Writing and Biology ’18

Get It In Your Body: Alumni Open Up at Leonard Theater Talk

Three graduates of Miami’s Poetry MA program—alumni Darren Demaree, Daisy Levy, and Chris Michel—visited the Leonard Theater in Peabody Hall on Tuesday to participate in a roundtable discussion. Each took radically different paths after their MA program, leading to a richly diverse conversation connected by the transference of that passion. They explained how their experience here influenced their present literary identity, with special relation to the talk’s subjects: poetry, translation, journalism, and rhetoric.

Darren Demaree is a widely-published poet with 5 collections and is the managing director of the Best of the New Anthology web magazine. Chris Michel is a personal essayist and editor for RunnersWorld.com and a former Fulbright scholar to Georgia. Together, Darren and Chris founded Ovenbird, an online poetry magazine.

Daisy Levy, a PhD in Rhetoric, is Associate Professor and Composition Coordinator at Southern Vermont College. Her studies focus mostly on dance and embodied rhetorics.

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The three were brought on stage by Western Program coordinator Zackary Hill, who prefaced their discussions with an introduction that set the tone for the evening: “After they left here, each of them found ways to make language an important part of their lives, and they pursue life with such passion.”

Though their fields and interests vary widely, their conversation converged on the topics of bodies and myths.  “There is the mythology of poetry and the practice of poetry, and they are often in conflict with each other.” Daisy said. “The mythology of poetry is that the mess is absent”.

The panelists shared their true “practice” of poetry, without romanticizing or leaving out that mess. Chris noted that before his time at Miami, his “practice used to be monastic. I thought that you secluded yourself you sweated blood if you needed to and you came out with something pure, but what I really wanted to do was tell stories.”

“Coming here did a lot to open up my understanding of what poetry was,” he added.

Darren described his practice as “obsessive. In school I had all of the energy directed into poetry and no language. I was fueled by hormones and substances and I had to learn to incorporate my process into it all.”

 

Daisy, wearing two pairs of layered glasses to substitute for bifocals, expressed a discomfort with the capital “P” serious poetry that she was always “trying to fit into.”

“The idea of it ever being a safe space is a fantasy,” she said. “I was intimidated by the capital letter Serious Poetry, and I continue to struggle to fit my body into that story.”unnamed-1

Most of the time, said Chris, he’d worked on fitting story-telling into his poetry, but his practice opened up when he found himself working for months on translating a piece of Georgian poetry into English.

“I had been so focused on narrative. All of a sudden I was working in a language that was all about emotion in sound,” he recalled. “I read it out loud, I read it quietly. I sang it. I paced back and forth.”

“You got it into your body,” Daisy commented. They all agreed.

 

The panelists mulled over the relationship between physicality and poetry, trying to reconcile themselves with the realities of their own practices. Their stories were not neat, they were not solely triumphant, and they didn’t present poetry as beautiful so much as they discussed its centrality in their lives.

“Poetry is a daily thing for me,” Darren said. “Nothing keeps me going more than that I get to go home and write some more Thursday.”

Deanna Krokos
English Department Ambassador
Political Science, Rhetoric, Ethics ’16

Spotlight on Alumni Darren Demaree, Daisy Levy, and Chris Michel

Three Miami alumni will be giving a talk this coming Tuesday English Department Ambassador Deanna Krokos had some questions for the three former Redhawks.

  1. What would you tell your undergrad self about the literary world that you know now?

Christopher- Oh I don’t know that my undergrad self would have listened to me anyway. He was pretty headstrong in his ideas about the literary world. I think I’d just leave him to figure it

out on his own terms–which is what I’m doing.

Darren– I would tell my undergrad self that it’s okay to read constantly, write constantly, and ignore anyone that fusses with the tether you hold on your artistic pursuit.

Daisy– I would say “Hey. You have time to read stuff. Slow down a little bit, and pay closer attention. Don’t worry about what other people think about what you’re reading.”

 

  1. What are the top two influences on your work (literary or nonliterary), and how have they manifested in your writing?

Christopher- Two is such a stingy number! I’d rather list twenty or none at all. Some of the biggest influences–David Foster Wallace, and George Saunders, have ultimately been dangerous for me, and I’ve had to work to shake them off so I don’t sound like bad imitations (which, in my worst moments, I still do). Some of my favorite influences, like the essayist Tom Bissell aren’t particularly famous–they’re like secret friends. But a lot of them—maybe the most influential of them—are the ones I met at a really early age. So Robert Frost is still one of the most serious poets in my life, and the one I’m always judging poems against. And Roald Dahl’s stories are so fundamental they’re almost beyond conscious inspection. But tomorrow I’d pick a different handful of writers to name.

Darren- Robert Creeley and Aase Berg would be the two poets I appreciate the most.  One is old, one is newer, but both of them challenge me in very important ways.

Daisy- Probably mid-20th c. American Modern Dance and um, if I can only pick one more, I’d say Toni Morrison. The Dance part is connected to what I said above about my connection to thinking about language and movement, but also, many of the choreographers, dancers, and performers of that era were really powerful thinkers too – about what art is, or can be, and why bother with it as a social phenomenon, as well as personally and individually expressive. Morrison? Well, I started reading her novels when I was in college in the late 80s, and her intensity of language just pulled me in. I also got to hear her speak once at that same time, and I was really impressed with the quietness of her voice at the same time that she was unquestionably fierce.

 

  1. What’s your process like and why does it work for you?

Darren– I write constantly.  Writing at much as I do gives me elbow room to experiment, to fail, to write differently than I have in the past about different topics.  It gives me the room to play with language guilt-free.  I write poetry all of the time because I enjoy the challenges that accompany the pursuit of the confluence of ideas, music, and language.  This is a challenge I believe to be unique to poetry.

Christopher- Lately, I’ve been writing articles and essays while at work, and I generally have to squeeze the writing in between more pressing activities. In that way, actually, it’s not that much different than when I was in college. Generally I do the necessary research, and try to have some brief, raw material on the topic in front of me, and then I start writing at what feels like the most interesting place, and keep writing until the idea seems to be worked out. If I need to go back and write an introduction, I’ll do that, but I’ll keep it as short as possible. Then I edit, edit, edit.

I’m always thinking about what’s going to make and keep a reader interested, and I try to gauge that by what keeps me interested.

Daisy- Messy. It involves a lot of doing of things that don’t necessarily look like writing. Sitting quietly, running, walking around my home, knitting, reading, cooking. Talking to other people. A lot of that, both casually, but also interviews, so as much talking as I might be doing, I spend a lot of time listening too. Journaling. Getting frustrated, and then writing as a series of questions. And at some point, I have to push myself to stop asking questions, and try answering them. For a long time I thought this didn’t count as a process, until I realized that writing and language is intimately connected to movement and then I felt a lot better about how I get ideas into written/shareable form.

 

  1. What should we be reading now?

Christopher- You should be reading something surprising and delightful, that’s such fun it’s hard to put down. Especially if it’s literature, books are better at enchanting than edifying. But you want names! If it’s fiction, I’ve liked David Mitchell for a while now, but go back and read Cloud Atlas before his new one, Bone Clocks. If it’s poetry, I think more people should read Jack Gilbert — A Brief for the Defense, to start. If you’re into comics, I’d say Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga is just amazing. It’s really good. If you like magazines and running, I’ll recommend Runner’s World

Darren– Aase Berg, Maggie Smith, Ross Gay, Terrence Hayes, and Claudia Rankine.

Daisy- Things that set you on fire. Things that make you want to do something. Not necessarily “DO” like in the socially minded, civic consciousness way, though that’s not a bad thing either. But read things that make you wanna MOVE.

 

  1. Do you mismatch your socks? Why or why not?

Christopher- Not often anymore–it gets too confusing to keep track of them all. But I let my 5-year-old dress herself, and she mismatches socks all the time, on purpose. She’s a regular Punky Brewster, that one.

Darren- I rarely wear socks at all.  Only if I’m headed to work do I wear socks.  They normally match.

Daisy- I do sometimes mismatch my socks. Though I guess the real question is “what is ‘mismatched’?” Right? I mean, if they don’t look the same, but you intended to put them on at the same time, isn’t that a match? IDK. Similarity is generally overrated. But I’m a rhetorician. I’m more into INTENTION and PURPOSE, when it comes down to it.

 

Come to their Reception in the Bachelor Reading Room 9/26 at 7 pm, and come back to the MU Bookstore Tuesday 9/27 for their talk at 7:30!

Alum Tom Dever Talks Screenplay-writing on a Shoestring in First Event of Year

On Thursday, September 15, nearly every seat of the Bachelor Reading room was eagerly filled to hear the insights of a recent Miami grad. Tom Dever earned his BA in Creative Writing here in Oxford before moving to California in pursuit of his MFA from the University of California and launching a successful career in the film industry. He walked up to the podium with a smile, sharing his excitement to be back on campus.

Dever, whose talk focused mainly on the secrets and tips that he’s discovered in his time as an independent, “microbudget” filmmaker, began by telling a story about his start in Hollywood. Frustrated with a lack of time to pursue his own passions and ideas while working for established production companies, he made the decision to pursue independent work.

“There are a ton of resources for making a film, it’s actually easier now than ever before,” Dever says about the route of independent production. Then, acknowledging the intimidation that deters many from the process: “what is the one thing keeping people from trying to make their own films? Money.”

Money is the biggest intimidation factor. However, if you know the right ways to budget out a film, the independent production route can be extremely rewarding. As Dever attests, making your own film allows you to carry out your vision as a writer to its maximum extent.

The rest of the talk was then devoted to revealing some of the wisdom and tricks that Dever has discovered in his leap down the rabbit hole of producing films on a “shoestring” budget.

The majority of his tips centered around what a screenwriter can do before hiring even a single crew member to reduce the potential costs of production—this includes acts as simple as setting scenes in a limited number of locations or limiting the number of actors who have talking parts. Other advice came from Dever’s personal experience in the field, such as the suggestion to avoid writing too much movement into a scene: the more a character moves, the more cameras and set-up—and thus money—are required to follow their actions around the set.

The biggest statement of the afternoon, capturing the spirit of Dever’s advice, was simple. What costs the big bucks is not the price of hiring a crew or a cast or renting equipment. All of these are in high supply and relatively cheap on a per-day basis. What costs money is retaining these production assets for long amounts of time over the course of a shoot. Dever verified that time is definitely money in the film business.

In the end, he left his audience with a few final pieces of advice.

“Work with people you trust, not necessarily people you like,” he says, earning laughs with his comments about how true this mantra becomes in the foreign land of LA. A film is made by the hard work of people you can tolerate, not the lazy work of your friends.  

The next statement earned a laugh and a few head nods of agreement: “Never underestimate what free food will get you.” Dever swears that there are many very talented actors and crews who will work for free if the food is good enough on set.

Finally, Dever administered the most stirring advice of the afternoon: “Pick which hill to die on.” As a writer, it is easy to become attached to your original vision for your screenplay, but in reality, many little aspects will have to change in order to make the paper script into a filmic reality. It is important to pick only the most essential elements to fight for and to learn to let go of the unnecessary.

Dever ended the hour with a statement that surely struck true for many of the creatively driven attendees in the audience. Yes, all of these tips might help to alleviate some of the fear associated with plunging into the creative yet uncertain industry of film, but fear will persist when there are so many unknowns. Dever’s final words of encouragement resonated as the room applauded: “But what’s the alternative? You’re artists; you’re writers. Would you rather have just a day job?”

 

Anna Jankovsky

English Literature ‘19

English Department Ambassador

 

Summer dreaming: graduate school

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It’s summertime and we’re taking a break from the blog for awhile. Wish all of us luck with our summer writing! But before we skedaddle, one last post. As Director of Creative Writing , I receive a lot of messages over the summer asking about our MA and MFA programs, so I suspect there are many smart, proactive students doing summer research on creative writing graduate programs who land on this blog. If you’re one of them, read on for a thumbnail sketch of Miami’s programs.

Miami offers two graduate degrees in creative writing:

  • A robustly funded Residential MA that offers the chance to teach creative writing every year, summer stipends, a distinctive commitment to mentorship, and a storied tradition of alumni success.
  • A Low-Residency MFA with a diverse group of brilliant mentors such as Porochista Khakpour, Hoa Nguyen, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, and Peter Orner, who work one-on-one with writers to help them hone their work and sustain their practice.

If admitted to our program, you will join a small and intimate creative writing program at a university that regularly ranks in the top five in the country for commitment to teaching. Our faculty writers are well-published, widely networked, and deeply committed to teaching and individual mentorship. Miami alums include a Pulitzer-nominated playwright (Rajiv Joseph), a Pulitzer winner (Rita Dove), a Director of the Academy of American Poets, and many other literary notables. Students go on to careers in university teaching, public service, editing and publishing. They are regularly awarded fellowships at the most prestigious MFA and PhD programs. Alumni writing has been included in the annual O. Henry Prize Stories collection and other anthologies, received Intro Awards from AWP and Honorable Mention in the Atlantic Monthly Young Writer’s Competition, and been published widely in literary journals. In the past few years, recent graduates have sold first books to Alfred A. Knopf, Random House, Harcourt, and Penguin USA. (Check out our Twitter feed and Facebook community page to find out about recent alumni publications, and follow us if you’d like to see the publishing and other opportunities we post there for students, alumni, and friends.)

Residential MA students enjoy unusual opportunities and support. All our students are

  • awarded substantial teaching assistantships that include a summer stipendteach a creative writing course every year
  • focus on fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction (or a combination of their choice) with award-winning faculty
  • work closely and individually with a distinguished visiting writer during annual Sprint Workshops (this year, sprint visitors included Chris Bachelder, Erin Moure, and Jenny Boully; recent visitors have included Fred Moten, Bernadette Meyer, Tom Raworth, Cary Holladay, Erin McGraw, and Rae Armantrout)
  • benefit from the nationally recognized teaching mentorship provided by our cutting-edge composition and rhetoric program
  • have the opportunity to spend a winter holiday on an internship in China (travel and lodging costs covered)
  • gain editing and publishing experience through Oxmag & Miami University Press
  • attend readings by a score of visiting writers—emerging, famous, and in-between—each year; the 2015–2016 series included Claudia Rankine and Kathryn Davis as well as our annual Symposium on Literary Translation

Low-residency MFA students design their own programs and learn from the best mentors in the business; all are able to

  • work closely and individually with master-writers including Porochista Khakpour, Emily Rapp, Hoa Nguyen, Peter Orner, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Dana Ward, Josip Novakovich and others
  • create individually guided reading projects around themes and craft issues relevant to them
  • participate in on-campus residencies with well-known writers, agents and editors
  • mix with our residential faculty and graduate students over the course of four residencies, becoming part of our community

Miami’s campus is lovely and park-like, with woods and trails on one side and a busy brick-streeted small town on the other. Robert Frost called Miami “the most beautiful campus that ever there was.” Prospective applicants can visit our website, Facebook page and Twitter feed, or write me, Cathy Wagner, at creativewriting@miamioh.edu with questions. Applications must arrive by January 1 for the MA and are accepted on a rolling basis for the MFA.

Till fall,

Cathy Wagner

The Writing Process: Finding What Works

When I sit down to work on a story I think, “Wouldn’t it be nice if I could just write a draft from beginning to end and be done for a day, then return to the thing, plow through another draft like a farmer tilling a field?” A field would be good. A field has finite boundaries that are usually pre-established by zoning laws or property lines. A lawn would be even better. More manageable. A story knows no bounds. I like to imagine a day when I can plan the time I will invest into a story, from the idea’s inception to the final polish.

Ask different writers about process, and you’ll receive almost completely different answers. Here are some of the most memorable:

Stephen King works on two stories at once, usually a novel and a short story, or else two novels. He writes in the morning, then goes about the rest of his day in what I imagine to be a blissful state of fulfillment and productive thought before returning to edit something he worked on the day before. He takes an idea and runs with it, never knowing the ending in advance.

Margaret Atwood compares her compositions to a running “barrage” at the edge of a battlefront: sentences she’s already typed springboard her forward and then she must continue to write to catch up to the place a particular idea has landed. Not ideal, but somewhat linear. There is at least some semblance of forward motion.

Bonnie Jo Campbell looks to the news—usually stories from her native Kalamazoo, Michigan, which is as unpredictable as its name—for inspiration. She writes for three hours each morning until she completes a full draft and then revises, revises, revises.

Katherine Karlin envisions an occupation, or a lifestyle, for her characters and works towards an ending of which she knows only the emotional timbre or else an image freighted with deeper meaning.

Haruki Murakami writes for three to five hours in the morning before he runs six miles and swims a mile, claiming that the physical strain accompanying exercise builds the relentless work ethic necessary for writing novels. I wonder if the endorphins are at the root of his motivation.0TW4AS1G7D

I’m not necessarily wishing for my writing to come easily, just to find some way to work in a predictable manner. I’ve heard establishing a routine helps. Everybody who’s anybody has a routine that usually involves writing in the morning. The only routine I am familiar with is procrastinating. I’ve never been one for routines. “I’ll write every morning for two hours,” I tell myself day after day, week after week. And I might do so for three or so days on end. Then I
won’t be able to sleep the night before a day when I have to teach or do something else that requires me to function as a semi-coherent human being, and I talk myself out of rising and into sleeping or at least laying and resting. Because dragging myself out of bed would be hard, and laying here is so much easier. Instant gratification.

When I’m tired or feeling uncreative, I do easy things, like brainstorming. I love bulleting. Procrastinators love to make lists (see above). I’ll complete other less important but required tasks in order to procrastinate the real writing—the hard writing (as I write this blog post, I’m procrastinating work on a story that is due on Tuesday and wonder how my writing would survive without due dates). For example: sending an email is a concrete accomplishment whereas spending the same amount of time writing may just result in something you’ll throw out at the end of the day. Then I’ll write three to five sentences and decide I need to do some “research” in order to continue—I’m writing about lilacs, so what does the flower mean, symbolically? Or, what’s that word I’m forgetting? Search: synonyms for “unsure.” Maybe I can’t focus because I’m hungry. I eat a cucumber. Or a doughnut. Look up “calories in a cucumber” and “calories in a frosted doughnut” and decide based not on my research but on how quickly my blood sugar will spike and how the frosting will taste.

I have realized I need to establish a routine during my second semester working towards a graduate degree in creative writing. I haven’t yet been able to count on a time of day, but I’ve taken to writing on paper, where crossing out too much is unsightly and writing too fast is illegible and too many arrows and circles make things confusing. No quick trip to the internet to confirm a fact or a definition is available. The ink of a pen cannot be quickly backspaced on a whim. Unnecessary words are left out because to write them all would cause one’s hand to cramp up. Just write a page. Then turn the page. You’ll probably keep going.

Carly Plank
Creative Writing MA student

Antiwar, Feminist, Environmentalist, Cat Lady: Marge Piercy Visits MU

On Friday, April 15, respected novelist, poet, and memoirist Marge Piercy filled the auditorium in McGuffey Hall with her commanding presence. Piercy is the author of seventeen novels including the New York Times Bestseller Gone to Soldiers, nineteen collections of poetry, and most recently a critically-acclaimed memoir entitled Sleeping with Cats. To an audience of all ages, Piercy read a series of her poetry encompassing social commentary, family relationships, cats, and sex.

In her introduction, Ann Fuehrer of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Program referenced Piercy’s history as an activist in the antiwar, feminist, and environmentalist movements, which have influenced her writings greatly. “She would say she identifies as a cat lady, after our conversation at dinner,” Fuehrer joked.marge piercy

Piercy began the reading with what she referred to as “the oldest poem I read regularly,” entitled “To Be of Use.” It was familiar to the older generations of the audience, but most of all to Piercy herself—she barely glanced down at the text in front of her, instead looking around at the audience.

This was the case with most of her poems—it is more truthful to call Piercy’s event a performance rather than a reading, given the emotion and confidence with which she read. Throughout the night, she played with the audience’s emotions, reading light-hearted poems interspersed with more tongue-in-cheek poems centered in social commentary. Amongst all the laughs, Piercy would also get serious, with poems contemplating friends passing away from AIDS during the 1980s epidemic, grief, and poverty.

The common theme throughout most of Piercy’s poetry is what it means to be a woman: “The Scent of Apple Cake” and “Our Never Ending Entanglement” ask the question what it means to be a mother, while “Contemplating My Breasts” and “Tracks” amongst others confront the experiences and various roles of being a woman.

During the question and answer portion following the reading, an audience member asked Piercy the quintessential question: what in your life has deeply influenced your writing? Her response was riveting: Piercy grew up in a primarily Black neighborhood in Detroit and witnessed the first race riots in the 1960s. She was a member of a gang for a while, and she had dear friends die of heroin overdoses and AIDs. These experiences throughout her life have had a profound effect on her activism, which has in turn shaped her writing.

The last person from the audience to address Piercy did not have a question, but instead a heartfelt story. He told her, and the audience, how nineteen years ago his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, and Piercy’s poem “On Guard” was what brought them through the tough times.

Her response? “I’m so glad I could help you.”

This reading was sponsored by The Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program, the Department of Global and Intercultural Studies, Department of Family Studies and Social Work, the Women’s Center, the Humanities Center, and the Creative Writing Program.

Marissa Lane
English Department Ambassador

Jenny Boully Takes Campus By Storm

English Department Ambassador Tim Thomas took to the Department of English website to talk about Columbia College Chicago professor Jenny Boully‘s time at Miami with both the graduate English program in a four day intensive creative nonfiction sprint course, as well as a reading held last Wednesday in Shriver Bookstore.jboully

Boully was quick to compliment the students she met with and led. “The students at Miami University, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, were a joy to work with and an impressive bunch. I think that kind of diversity is crucial to creating a stellar creative writing atmosphere.”

For more information on the creative nonfiction sprint course and Jenny Boully’s Wednesday night reading, click here to read the full article.