A Great Night at the NBAs


photo: Miriam Berkeley

This is my much belated report from the National Book Awards. As you may know, I try to make the dinner every year. I think of it as the Nerd Prom. As you remember from high school, prom can be everything you ever wished for, or it can be a nightmare ala Carrie by Stephen King. For me, the NBA have visited each end of the spectrum. Last year was a total nightmare and this year was a little bit magic.
I can’t even say for sure which was the highlight. Of course, Terrance Haye’s win in poetry was a super-duper thrill. Terrance is a friend and a genius. I just KNEW he had won when Cornelius Eady, chair of the poetry committee practically ran to the stage to announce the results. Now, usually the poetry chair gives this sober statement about how all the writers are brilliant and how hard it was to choose just one. Cornelius said all that, but I noticed that he was bouncing a little bit on the balls of his feet like it was all he could do to keep from breaking out in a little jig. It was a beautiful moment indeed.
But who couldn’t help buy cheer Jaimy Gordon whose book was published by a press so small that they weren’t sure they could afford to print enough copies to accomodate demand. And Patti Smith? Swooon. And why was “Because the Night” swimming in my head all night?
On a personal level, it was lovely to be seated with my colleagues Jayne Anne Phillips, Rigoberto Gonzalez and Alice Elliot Dark. Also at the table was my favorite virtuoso, Tiphanie Yanique– eight months pregnant and being honored as one of “5 Under 35.” I also connected with some old friends, squashed an ancient beef, and drank a whole bunch of bellinis.
It was a beautiful night all the way around.

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It’s MFA Application Season

Several folks on twitter have asked me for advice regarding applying for an MFA program. Here is the best advice I have.

  • Ask yourself is it really time for you to seek a terminal degree in creative writing. The MFA is really the last degree for a writer. When you have it, you should be ready to consider yourself a professional. You want to be a pretty good writer before you start any program. The MFA is about putting the finishing touches on an apprentice writer, not about teaching the basics.
  • Look at lots of programs. Don’t fall in love with a city or a particular brand-name of a a program. Look around. Do some reasearch. Consider places you have never heard of. (I reccommend cruising the ads in the AWP Writers Chronicle.)
  • When evaluating schools, really think about which writers you would like to work with. This is hard to do because just liking a writer on the page doesn’t mean you will find her easy to work with as a mentor. Google. See if her students are raving about her. Get on twitter and ask for the skinny. Also, if that person is really famous, she may be on the faculty in sort of name only, or she may teach a class just once every couple years. Ask former students of the program because the people in charge of recruitment may not be enitrely straight with you.
  • Money matters. Do not go into a lot of debt for your MFA. If you get a full ride and it’s out on the prairie somewhere, pack your bonnet and go. The MFA is about time and you don’t want to be working like a dervish trying to pay bills and when you get out, you don’t want to be buried in debt. Try and figure out programs that have good odds of providing aid.
  • Don’t go to the prairie if you feel it will cause you to be depressed. I know this seems to contradict what I said before, but the sticks ain’t for everybody. Really weigh how important environment is for you. Don’t expect to have *fun* getting your degree, but don’t go to a hellhole either.
  • A special note to writers of color: Many schools offer incentives to recruit writers of color. These are great, but they also mean that there is some reason why the have to bribe black and brown folks to go there. Find out what that reason is.
  • Work really hard on your writing sample. This is the thing that is most important. Have someone with some experience read it over for you and get it as tight and polished as possible. You want the committe to fall in love with it.
  • Get reccommendation letters from people who actually know you. A letter from someone who can really be your champion, but doesn’t have a big name works much better than a letter from XYZ Famous person who you met for ten minutes at Sewannee who can only verify that you are alive.

    I think I’ll do another post about what to do once you’re accepted, but let’s go about this one step at a time. If you have questions, leave them in comments.

  • Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

    Weekend Links




    Tumblr Icon

    Originally uploaded by chadarizona
  • I know I haven’t been blogging lately. But I have been tumbling. Check out my page; there are ToMo quotes, Jay-Z’s Gucci coat with his book printed in the lining, cool videos, and other random Tayariness.
  • Thank you, thank you, to everyone who supported LEAVING ATLANTA: THE MOVIE. There’s still time to view the video and help up get this movie to screen.
  • Alfre Woodard reading Glorious.

  • Literary agent is seeking self-published books.
  • Sequel to “Precious” is coming to a bookstore near you.
  • When writers work together, everybody wins.
  • Not literary, but delicious. I made it last night.
  • Interview with Ntozake Shange.
  • I’m not really sure about the point of this “cliche finder“, but it’s a good way to kill some time.
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    Bent Out Of Shape: A Review of FCG




    FOR COLORED GIRLS

    Originally uploaded by ubgteam

    So, I went to see “For Colored Girls” this weekend. I didn’t really like it, but I didn’t know how to go about saying why not. But I think I have put my finger on it.

    When I was first exposed to the play by Ntozake Shange, I was a young girl. My mother had gone to see it, which was unusual. I have very few memories of my mother getting dressed to go out, so I knew that this was an important event. I didn’t go, of course, but I have a vague memory of Mama coming home, impressed, or maybe emotionally spent.

    I read the play and saw a production of it when I was a student at Spelman College. I remember feeling moved by the tragic scenes, but also amused by the more light-hearted monologues, and ultimately SEEN by the story.

    Although I was about seventeen years old and didn’t know much about such heavy business, I could empathize with the actors’ emotions. At the time, one of my biggest concerns in life was Not. To. Get. Pregnant. So the abortion monologue represented my greatest fear come to life. At the understatement, “I was pregnant and ashamed of myself,” I wanted to run on stage and give the actress a hug.

    And the monologue about the little girl who discovers Toussaint L’oevuture in the library- that was me! And the little hard-headed boy she met afterwards, Toussaint Jones- I had a little boy like that in my life. His name was Roy. (And I loooooved him like only a ten year old can.)

    And, to be honest, I am sure the production of the play I saw couldn’t have been very good. Teenage actors reading “Beau Willie Brown?” We really didn’t have much “stuff” for somebody to run off with. But still, there was something of US in there and, as the play said, “we loved her fiercely.”

    Flash forward twenty years and I am going to see “For Colored Girls”, the movie. In theory, I should be even more affected as I have enough miles on my personal odometer that some of the experienced in the play are my own, too.

    But, something about this movie locked me out. I wasn’t able to identify with anyone. All I could think was, “That’s not me.” Janet Jackson’s type-A career woman looked like what people who wanted to keep me back warned me I would become if I kept achieving– hard, unlovable, emasculating brothers left and right with all that scary accomplishment.

    Maybe it was the hyperbole that got me. Who gets a back-alley abortion in 2010? The back-alley-ness eclipsed any thoughts about what it means to be a pregnant teenager “and ashamed of myself.” Terminating a pregnancy is plenty serious and plenty scary even when performed in a clean, well-lighted clinic– which is most women’s experience.

    Ntozake Shange made being a “colored girl” serious business, a dangerous proposition, a “metaphysical dilemma” to be conquered, but a rich life if you worked on it.

    Watching this movie, I felt like the film makers were saying, “Black girl, it sucks to be you.” (Side bar: Dear Whoppi, in the name of Pecola Breedlove, please stop accepting roles that require you to describe yourself as “ugly”.)

    And don’t even get me started on the men! Y’all know I am a black woman of nearly 40 years, so I have seen some thangs. But the men in this movie are the low-downest, dirtiest, no-count– yet preternaturally sexy and shirtless– men I have ever heard of. I couldn’t help but think, “Why don’t I ever get dogged out by somebody that looks like that!”

    But seriously, I vote with Linda Villarosa here. This production reduced the men to menaces with six packs. I am no apologist for men and their misogyny but this was way way over the top. If I didn’t see myself in the film, Lord knows I didn’t see my daddy, my brothers, or even my trifling ex boyfriend. (Not calling no names, but if he reads this, he’ll know it’s bad that it didn’t even remind me of him!)

    It’s an amazing and affirming thing to see yourself in art. That mirror can be the things that convinces you that you really exist, that you really matter. But with this movie, it was like looking into a funhouse mirror– and despite some gorgeous performances by the actors– I saw myself and everyone I love pulled stretched and bent until I couldn’t recognize us anymore.

    Posted in Bookshelf | 4 Comments

    Get Your Groove On, Beautiful Genius

    Go Jimmy, Get Your Groove On
    1963, by Steve Schapiro
    Just a sweet counterpoint to the moody, dark, James Baldwin we love so much. It made my morning to see this photo of him shaking a tail feather with a CORE worker. You can almost hear his friends just outside the frame, calling him “Jimmy” and egging the brother on.(h/t MDot)

    Posted in Travels & Rambles | Comments Off

    NaNo Hell No?

    My new post is up at She Writes. I am not a fan of NaNoWriMo. I believe that writing is like love– you gotta listen to the SOS Band and “take your time, do it right.”

    To my mind, NaNoWriMo is almost like going on a crash diet to fit into a special dress. You spend days eating nothing but cabbage soup and Dexatrim and feel proud of yourself for dropping ten pounds in ten days or whatever. But have you been properly nourished? Have you learned any new sustainable habits? Nope. Why not? Because you made the whole enterprise about fitting that dress, not about changing your life.

    Check out the article for some ideas on how to spend November becoming a better writer.

    Posted in Surviving The Draft | 1 Comment

    Swoon


    (Toni Morrison and Angela Davis)

    Posted in Toni Morrison | 5 Comments

    Leaving Atlanta: THE MOVIE




    Let’s Do This Thing!

    Originally uploaded by kleopatrjones

    Today is the first day of the Kickstarter campaign to bring Leaving Atlanta to the big screen. On Friday, I had a wonderful conference call with Aletha Spann and Karon Om Vereen, the independent film makers behind the project. They have been working on this project more than five years and it has been inspiring to see the level of dedication they bring to the project. They have made great strides, but there is still a ways to go.

    Of course the big-picture (pun intended) goal is to make a feature-length film, but for this fundraiser, we are seeking to raise enough money to shoot a trailer to show to investors. There is a teaser video up on the kickstarter so you can get a feel for the project.

    Just five minutes ago, I went to the Kickstarter page and viewed the video for the first time. (Leaving Atlanta is my first novel, but “Leaving Atlanta” will be Karon’s and Aletha’s movie. I wanted to lay low and give them some room without me looking over their shoulders like some over-protective parent) It was moving for me to hear the voice-over in a child’s voice. I almost said, “Octavia? Sweet Pea, is that you?!”

    In our phone meeting on last week, I was so relieved to see that Karon and Aletha share my vision of the story. Simply put, although Leaving Atlanta is about the Atlanta Child Murders, it is not a police procedural. In writing the novel, I deliberately didn’t end it with the arrest of Wayne Williams, because I didn’t want to judicial timeline to control the story. I wanted to write about what childhood was like for those of us who grew up in Atlanta. I wanted to write myself, my friends, and my family into history because it seemed that the world had forgotten what happened to us, and sometimes like we had forgotten it ourselves.

    This project is really important and this is why I am seeking your help. I know that times are tough, but any donation you could give would be greatly appreciated. I hope you will be able to help.

    Go to the Kickstarter page and check out the teaser and find out more.

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    Sad + Funny= Sunny? Fad? or just TRUE

    Posted in Travels & Rambles | 3 Comments

    Go To School Anyway

    I just came to my blog input page and saw that I haven’t posted in a week. That may be a record. Why have I been so MIA? Because I am so crazy busy that all I can think about is how I can get done everything that I have to do. It’s because I am a college professor and my life is hectic. This is why this crazy little video (above) gave me pause this morning.
    Almost everything said in this video is true– although there are some key differences between the MFA and the PhD, but I will get into that later. Yes, it’s really hard to get a tenure track job, even with beautiful letters of reccommendation and perfect grades. And yes, many many professor positions are out in the sticks. (You will not believe the places I have lived.) And what she said about the social life– it’s real baby! And the video didn’t even get into the nightmare than graduate school can be. It’s hazing sometimes. I regard the years that I spent in a PhD program as the worst years of my life, one of my few experiences that I truly regret.
    As you may know, I ended up kicking the whole Ph.D. to the curb. I was only doing it because my parents (Dr. and Dr. Jones) were really into it. I decided to go for the MFA because my heart was in writing. The Ph.D. can take from five to nine years, while the MFA lasts between two to three. And, of course, creative writers are much more likely to write something that is actually read by avergage people. But other than that, the analysis in the video is pretty much on point.
    So, why on earth would anyone go to graduate school in the Humanities? Because you love what it is that you’re studying. Once I got to my MFA program and was able to make writing my life for two years, I embarked upon the most satisfying journey of my life. No, grad school wasn’t a cakewalk. I had to deal with the people who called me an “affirmative action” candidate because they were jealous of my financial aid. And, it was no fun on the first day of classes when I was serving as a TA when I was pulled out of my classroom and accused of stealing an overhead projector. All of that sucked, but I loved writing my first novel under the careful direction of Ron Carlson. Graduating with Leaving Atlanta in my hand was worth all the crap I had to put up with.
    I know that I am very fortunate to have a tenure-track position at a research university in a decent city. I had to put in my time teaching in places that are so far off the map that you wouldn’t know where they are. And those years were lonely and difficult. But in every place that I have taught there have been amazing students with whom I maintain relationships to this day. I know this sounds hokey, but nothing makes me happier than to hear from a student shaing some good news.
    So, chuckle at the video above. If you’re already at a university, join the union and try and make change in the conditions under which scholars work. But if you have a passion for a subject and you want to study it. Go for it. But if you’re going to graduate school just because you like the idea of having the letters Ph.D. after your name, or because you can’t figure out what else to do with your life, get a hobby instead. Really. Becuase this life ain’t easy.

    Posted in Travels & Rambles | 5 Comments