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October 10, 2014    Volume 2, Issue 9


Welcome to our Members-Only Newsletter!

If you're receiving this newsletter, it's because you've become a member or renewed your membership at some point in the past year. Thank you so much! We want to make membership in James River Writers valuable to you, and our plan is to offer a short membership newsletter containing fun and useful material once a month.

In this issue, please enjoy

Thank you again for your support. We do everything possible to bring you exceptional programming at reasonable prices, and your membership helps us accomplish that. We could not sustain this community without you!


Phillip Hilliker
Membership Coordinator


Top Shelf

In which we ask the experts to share insider tips . . .

Five Questions with Ron Smith, Poet Laureate of Virginia

Ron Smith is the author of the books Its Ghostly Workshop (2013), Moon Road: Poems 1986-2005 (2007) and Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery (1988). In 2005 he was an Inaugural Winner of the Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize and is now a Curator of that prize. His work has appeared in numerous national and international magazines and journals, including The Nation, The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, College English, Shenandoah, Kansas Quarterly, The Tampa Review, Blackbird, Plume, Puerto del Sol and Verse.

Mr. Smith currently serves as Writer-in-Residence at St. Christopher’s School, where he was chairman of the English Department for 21 years. In June 2014 Governor Terry McAuliffe appointed him Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia. His two-year term began July 1, 2014. James River Writers recently met with Mr. Smith, who will serve as a panelist at JRW’s 12th Annual Writers Conference (October 17 – 19, 2014).

Kathleen: The July 28, 2014, edition of The New York Times featured an article by Jennifer Schuessler (Is Poetry Dead? Not if 45 Official Laureates Are Any Indication) about Valerie Macon, who resigned as North Carolina’s poet laureate after her predecessors complained about her qualifications. Ms. Macon is a state disability examiner who has self-published two books of poetry. North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, who did not consult the North Carolina Arts Council when he selected Ms. Macon, said his critics “were elitists full of ‘hostility and condescension.’ ” New York State’s poet laureate, Marie Howe, could not comment directly about the quality of Ms. Macon’s poetry, but she said, “ ‘The academic establishment, which I’m very much part of, has this idea of a poem as a monument, and I bow to that idea. But there are poems that are valuable without being monuments."

As Virginia’s current poet laureate, do you think holders of this honor should meet certain standards? Who gets to decide what is art or a “real” poem? Who is “worthy” of bearing the title “poet”?

Ron Smith: I felt very sorry for Valerie Macon. It was not her fault that she was chosen. Poets I know from that area have said she was not qualified, but the governor of North Carolina did not follow the standard procedure when he appointed her.

Elitism and snobbery are the enemies of all art. People who say they love Shakespeare and read Shakespeare only because he has cultural cache don’t help art. Credentials are not important; the quality of the work is what matters. The poet laureateship is a position of honor, and it demands some basic achievements – some fundamental requirements beyond self-publishing. Some poets turn it down. They say, “I just want to write poems.”

K: “To fully understand poetry, we must first be fluent with its meter, rhyme and figures of speech, then ask two questions. One – how artfully has the objective of the poem been rendered and two, how important is that objective? Question one rates the poem’s perfection. Question two rates its importance and once these questions have been answered, determining the poem’s greatness becomes a relatively simple matter.” In the movie Dead Poet’s Society, Robin Williams’s character, English teacher John Keating, tells his students to rip out this section of their text, Understanding Poetry. He tells the boys that instead of focusing on measuring a poem’s worth, “You will learn to savor words and language.”

Is it necessary to understand meter, rhyme and figures of speech to understand poetry?

RS: No. He was right to tell them to rip out those pages. Poems want to be loved first, understood second. Just listen to poetry. Like music. You don’t stop the music when you’re listening to a piece and ask, “Was that a violin?” The more you listen to a poem, the more you understand it. My mantra as a writer, reader, teacher is not, “What does a work mean?” My question is – what does it do to you?

Although poetry is a written thing, the spoken form is where it lives. Still, I am beginning to care more and more about the way a poem looks on the page. If it looks orderly on the page, but sounds chaotic, there’s probably a problem. If the poem looks like machine parts on the page, it should sound, in some sense, like a machine.

If I had attended a different high school, I probably would have become a visual artist. To me, a poem on a page is a made object and it has to look right.

The best way to study poetry is to write it. Write a sonnet. To understand something, it’s best to try your hand at it.

K: Ernest Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed,” but you told Style Weekly (“The Poet’s Poet,” by Brent Baldwin, July 8, 2014) that “raw life is not polished art. You have to be artist enough to make us care.” How do you teach people to write good poems? Can you teach them?

RS: Everybody has at least one good poem in them. Flannery O’Connor said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” One of the best poems I ever read was written by a fifth grader at St. Christopher’s. It was just beautiful and it was the perfect poem for that person at that time. No matter your age, you’ve had dreams that didn’t pan out. You’ve been humiliated. You’ve experienced joy.

Your poem needs to say certain things, but you must omit needless words. How do you know they are needless? You need to know your audience. For whom are you writing? This is the best advice I received from a writing teacher – you should write for someone like yourself at your best.

If a young person asks how he can fix a poem, I tell him I can offer a short term solution and a long term solution. Short term, change that line. Get rid of that word. Long term, travel to Italy, pay attention when your dog dies.

If a student is trying to write in a certain style – like that of Allen Tate, for example – I give him some poems by Allen Tate. Someone who is learning to play the guitar tries to copy other musicians, and poets work the same way, but then you have to make the style your own. If a poet moves you, you say to yourself, “My God, I want to do that to somebody, too!”

Reading is essential for any type of writer. An interviewer once asked author Francine Prose which she would give up if forced to make a choice – writing or reading. The question scared her to death. It was terrifying because she realized she would have to give up writing.

If you are not using everything you are and everything you know about human nature when you write a poem, you’re not doing it right. And you’ve got to enjoy writing – the way you enjoy, say, training for a marathon. It hurts, but it’s satisfying. 

K: You told Style Weekly (“The Poet’s Poet,” by Brent Baldwin, July 8, 2014) that, to create art, “Facts might have to give way to invented details. Truth is more important than fact. Tell the truth and make it sing.” Can you please discuss truth versus fact?

RS: It’s hard to be truthful about your life and your experiences, but making good art means telling the truth. Writers invent stories not just to entertain, but to tell deeper truths. I appear to write about my family, but the people in my poems are not exactly me or my relatives. More than once I’ve gotten choked up during a poetry reading I was giving – and this was with poems that weren’t factual, but which were moving because they were metaphors for something that really happened. I find it very liberating that even when I am writing about myself, I am not writing journalism. I am creating art. With photography, especially now with Photoshop, you can move a tree five feet, and no one cares. Why should they care if you change things around in a poem? Poems are not nonfiction. They are something much more important than that.

Margaret Baldwin, the playwright who wrote Night Blooms, went to St. Catherine’s [Class of 1986]. She said that you have to write as if your parents are already dead. She’s right that you can’t worry too much about how your friends and relatives might react to your work. Of course, you don’t have to publish everything or show everything you write. When I give a reading, I ask who will be in the audience because there are certain poems I won’t read if I know children will be present. It is possible, I think, to be a good artist and a proper human being. Or you can try to, anyhow.

K: Can you please discuss ways to overcome writer’s block when creating poetry?

RS: The good thing about being a poet rather than a novelist is the fact that you can stop working on one poem that is troubling you and work on another. Sometimes you’re working on a comic poem, and you get an idea about how to fix a lyric poem. You’re still writing. You get stuck on this one, so you turn to that one until your subconscious helps you figure out how to fix the first one. You have to learn to trust your subconscious. You have to know when to let go and when to stop. Some days you do need to pound it out. Sometimes you need to wait for more so-called life experience. Have you seen the movie Black Swan? Art does not kill. Perfectionism kills. Herman Melville said, “Failure is the true test of greatness.” It’s hard to write anything perfectly. If you succeed at perfection, you didn’t try anything hard enough. Moby Dick’s not perfect; but it is great. With a poem, every sound counts. Every vowel and every consonant count, and poetry even at the highest level has errors. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” contains a terrible rhyme [“what thereat is” and “window lattice”]. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is flawed. This is liberating. You do your best, then let it go.

Interview by Kathleen Sams Flippen, creator of the design blog A Flippen Life.
Click here to register for the conference and meet Ron Smith!

Show Us Your Drawers

In which we ask industry insiders to share the writerly
contents of their drawers, desk, or bag...

Ron Smith, Poet Laureate of Virginia and Writer-In-Residence at St. Christopher's School

This is a photo of the poetry center at St. Christopher's School, which serves as Mr. Smith's office. All of the books on the shelves are volumes of poetry.The raven is one of Mr. Smith's bits of Poe memorabilia.


NaNoWriMo is Coming!

Next month is November. Around these parts, it's also known as National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo.

Do you have a hook or a book? A hook will grab your attention, but a book will keep you writing all month long. 
If you want to be sure you have a book, use your member discount to register for Erica Orloff's Master Class on November 1st to kick off your own NaNoWriMo journey. Get more information here.

For those intrepid folks among us who are delving into this voluntary and punishing task, we have some tips and tricks from a few members who have participated in the past.

Sheri Blume says, "No delete! No retreat! No surrender!! That was my mantra." She also has a solution for any time your plot stalls: add an explosion.

Grace Robinson has these encouraging words. "DO write every day. Even if you don't hit your goal, at least write a sentence or a paragraph. Saving it all for the weekend so you can 'catch up' on several thousand words doesn't really work. But DON'T stress if all you did write was one sentence. NaNoWriMo is ultimately about just writing."

Jean Anderson, the official NaNoWriMo liason for the Richmond area points us toward a post on the NaNoWriMo blog titled "10 Reasons You Should Do NaNoWriMo". It includes this little nugget, "NaNoWriMo comes with a community of a quarter million creators like you, who will be breathing life into their characters by your side. On October 31, you can feel a collective inhale starting in New Zealand, and traveling west across the globe, and then a whoosh when November 1 hits. It is epic. It is awesome.."

If you'd like to participate in any of the NaNoWirMo-sponsored events during the month, make sure to register at their website. When you do so, make sure you select Richmond as your "Home Region" during sign-up to receive e-mails about local events such as write-ins and the official kick-off party on October 26th. 


Partnership Publishing

April Eberhardt, literary agent and recent head judge for JRW's Best Self-Published Novel Contest, contributed an article about Partnership Publishing to the latest issue of Writer’s Digest. She was kind enough to share the article with us, an excerpt of which is below. To download a PDF of the entire article, click here or see the November/December issue of the magazine. 

Partnership Publishing

If you’ve ever wished for a publishing option that blends the creative control of self-pub with the quality, curation and distribution of the traditional path, you may be in luck. Could the industry’s newest business model be the way of the future?

by April Eberhardt

Right out of the gate, Kristen Harnisch began getting great feedback from editors at major houses on her first novel submission, and it was accepted quickly by HarperCollins Canada in a two-book deal. When I submitted it to U.S. publishers in my role as Harnisch’s agent, however, things didn’t move along as quickly. They all had nice things to say, but none of them snapped it up, for vague reasons ranging from “We’re worried we can’t break it out big enough” (meaning selling thousands of copies in a short period) to “We won’t take a risk on a debut author.” As her book’s Canadian publication date approached and we still didn’t have a U.S. offer, we were feeling frustrated. We both knew what a brilliant novel she had. One afternoon Kristen called me. 

“Partnership publishing,” she said. “Let’s do partnership publishing.”

Conference registration is going on now!
JRW is grateful for general operating support from:
          Virginia Commission for the Arts
JRW's Members-Only Newsletter is published once a month and distributed exclusively to members. For general inquiries, e-mail James River Writers provides information as a service to the literary community. JRW does not endorse or recommend any program not produced or sponsored in part or in its entirety by JRW. 
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