Friday, November 21, 2008

Lucille Lang Day - Living With A Writer

You are a writer. Imagine that in the next room is someone who has read a lot of your work, perhaps more than anyone else, and that although this person is not available 24 hours a day to read your new work, you never need wait more than a few hours for an opportunity to say, "Would you read this?" He or she, being a writer too, has come to you many times with this same request. Each of you knows that at worst a short wait will follow: the answer will always be "Yes."

My husband, Richard Levine, writes mostly prose; I write mostly poetry. I have absolutely no sense of competing with him. Our work is so different from each other's that the idea of competition seems as remote to me as the idea of competition with someone who practices a different art form, say music or painting. Yet, since we both work with words, we are able to respond critically to each other.

We are honest when we read each other's work: we don't automatically say the things ("Brilliant!" "Incredible!") that the other longs to hear. I am friends with many writers, and I often share unpublished work with them. There are only a few, however, who've ever ventured to say anything downright negative, such as "That image is a cliché" or "The ending of that poem is really unsatisfying." Every writer needs someone who will do this, and I am grateful whenever I hear it from my spouse instead of embarrassing myself by showing my pimply young poems to other friends.

Richard's feedback is the most detailed I get from anyone. He seems to consider each word in my poems as carefully as if he'd written them himself. He even comes up with alternative images for me. For example, in a poem I wrote about the war in Iraq, I had the lines "fear gathers like clouds/and saturates the earth—unwelcome rain." Richard, bless his directness, said, "That's a cliché." He didn't stop there, but went on to generate a list of alternative images, including "fear falls like feathers of birds/shot from the sky." This inspired me to work more on these lines, and eventually I came up with "fear rises and swirls like a dust storm/engulfing the streets." To get from the clouds to the dust storm, Richard and I considered 15 versions of these two lines—three of his and 12 of mine. Who but your spouse would put up with this? Afterward I asked him if it bothered him, when, after he'd put so much time into the poem, I didn't use one of his images. He said "No," that he understood my need to make it my own.

Both of us feel that giving feedback to the other is helpful to our own development as a writer, that the process gives us experience that enables us to look more critically at our own work. After all, both poets and prose writers use images, are concerned with voice, and need to get rid of unnecessary words. I have to admit, though, that responding to Richard's stories would be a lot less rewarding if he weren't such a good writer and I didn't enjoy his work so much.

If Richard is disgruntled for any reason when I give him a poem to read—e.g., if he's feeling frustrated with his own work or annoyed with me—he waits until later to read it. He says he's harsher when he's not in a good mood. I don't think his mood affects his ability to evaluate a poem, but it definitely has an impact on how he presents his criticism!

When we work on one of his stories or my poems, it's always clear whose piece of writing it is, and who will therefore have the last word. I'm not sure Richard and I could co-author something unless we were writing separate chapters of a book or separate sections of an article. We once spent an hour working on a single sentence for the guest book at a bed and breakfast inn: "It was lovely to stay in such a personal space, watched over by the mermaid—a magical eyrie." Richard preferred "the Motel 6 of our dreams" to "a magical eyrie." He finally threw up his hands and said, "I'm taking the suitcases to the car. Write whatever you want."

It would be dishonest to leave the impression that the bed-and-breakfast incident was the most serious disagreement Richard and I have ever had over writing. A worse one that stands out in my mind (and I am sure there are others in his) was the night I wanted to work on a poem when he felt that he needed my help because all he could get was snow on our new television set. I will leave the details of this one to your imagination. We survived it, we are still married, and he is still my best editor and my best friend.

In addition to discussing our own writing, we talk about poetry and fiction we've read, as well as theoretical issues such as deconstruction and reader-response criticism, and the aesthetics of schools of writing such as Language Poetry and New Formalism. We often revisit the question, "Is an interpretation of a story or poem valid if the author didn't have it in mind?" I would say "Yes"; Richard would say "No." There doesn't tend to be a winner or loser in these discussions; we just get clearer and clearer about what someone else thinks.

Our bookshelves hold many volumes by authors that one of us wouldn't have read if it weren't for the other. To name just a few, I wouldn't have read novels by Charles Baxter and Ann Patchett if Richard hadn't said "I think you'll like this," and he would probably have missed the poetry of Pattiann Rogers and Ruth Daigon if it weren't for my enthusiastic oral reviews. Every Friday evening before dinner, we light candles, say blessings over the bread and wine, and read a poem to celebrate the cycle of the week.


Lucille Lang Day's poetry collections are Infinities, Wild One, Fire in the Garden, and Self-Portrait with Hand Microscope, which was selected by Robert Pinsky for the Joseph Henry Jackson Award in Literature. She has also published three poetry chapbooks, most recently The Book of Answers (Finishing Line, 2006) and God of the Jellyfish (Cervena Barva, 2007). She is the founder and director of Scarlet Tanager Books (, and the director of the Hall of Health, a museum in Berkeley.



Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Comments - "A Random Reader"

Just wanted to drop a note to let you know how much I am enjoying the series 'On the Nature of Literary Friendship'. I stumbled upon it, and am delighted with the diversity of both the writing and the perspectives offered. Thanks for compiling it.

--Valerie Polichar (a random reader & editor of the journal Grasslimb)

Comments -Good job!

Hello Robert!
My name is Jalina Mhyana. I was just reading your
article about writers' friendships and was completely
engaged by the idea and the honesty with which you both
approached it. Wow, great stuff! Most writers are so damn
irritatingly appropriate that they would never admit to such
feelings. For instance, in my MFA program, all of the
students agree with whatever the guru-writer of the day is
saying, without question, wagging their tails and nodding
their heads. Gee whiz! I love this honesty stuff you're
giving us. Let's have more humanity, less phony
graciousness. Good job!
My Best,
Jalina Mhyana


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

J.J. Webb remembers Michael McNeilley, 1947 - 2001


In Memory - Michael McNeilley
So the computer screen passes writers at me on a constantly evolving Internet and this one blues piece, in '93, holds my screen a long time with its intricacies. I ask, "who the hell is this guy McNeilley?" The screen says, 'editor of the Olympia Review, in Olympia, Washington.' Within a few days there is an introduction. Within a few more days there's plotting. A few more, collaboration. And one day, friendship.

The collaboration started on one of the Internet's first Ezines. An Art and Literary Ezine called 'The Hawk' had started in '93. Michael became the fiction editor of 'The Hawk' just before its second issue. When the Ezine became 'poetry only' in '95, its name was changed to 'ZeroCity'. And Michael and I became its co-editors.

A recluse, I know friendships with other reclusive men and women who do the same kinds of things with their reclusive natures. Write. Carve. Sculpt. Paint. They want to be alone, mostly, to examine the insides of their imaginations and to distort time, or so some have told me. Some of those friends, when called to oppose their natural, comfortable routines, come out of their seclusion gregarious, self-assured, eager, even arrogant in their approach to their friends. Demanding. Imposing. Exciting. Provocative. That friend is the most stimulating and dangerous kind of friend. Including major investments of time in revelation of naked spirit to another. And fear, too, of being overwhelmed. Of being too influenced.

Michael McNeilley pushed writers at me faster than I thought possible. Where he found them didn't matter
to me. We'd decided to do an Ezine and the fact he was three times faster than me at finding writers only
bothered me a little bit. Eventually, I told him I felt like we were in a competition and I was running second.
He said, "Great! You are the man with the perfect life AND you want to come in first in everything you do, too?
You greedy thing. So, when did this become a competition?"

"You think I have a perfect life?"
"You think you don't?"
* * *
A few weeks ago, during a discussion on the history of poetry on the Internet, Robert Sward informed me of a 1996 magazine article on Internet Ezines. He said the Ezine Michael and I had edited was mentioned favorably, though only Michael had been listed as editor. Grrrrrr. And the article was written a decade ago.

* * *
"Tell me again, why did we agree to release tomorrow?"
"We thought it would be less work?"
"At least there's only Virg and three others left to format."
"Michael, your buddy Virg is a dick. You know that?"

"Easy now, Virgil and I go way back. What's the problem?"
"He's a lawyer. Let's start there. That alone's enough, but
he's a 'know-it-all' too, and he thinks he's a better writer
than me ..."

"Well, that's probably true .."
".. hell, he thinks he's a better writer than you."

"The dick! You think we should can his pieces from the issue?"

* * *
On the next to last day of June, 2002, we spread Michael McNeilley's ashes around one of the trees in the redwood cathedral here at the Poetry Grove. Stephanie and Thom, his ex-wife and son, Jeff, one of his boyhood friends, and I scattered the ashes. My wife and daughter watched. We read poetry by Auden and by Michael. We talked about heart attacks and dying young, about turtles and Napoleon. We talked about Michael, his brother, his wives, his sons, his daughter, his poetry. We remembered him with his friends and his acquaintances. We drove out to Big Basin and Stephanie spread some of his ashes around one of the trees near 'the mother of the forest', a spot he'd taken a liking to when he visited in '99.

There were stories of Washington, New York, New Mexico, Texas and a dozen other places. Stories of drum beats on wooden legs and reckless ramblings in a gold convertible. There were conjectures on how many lives he'd saved, how many wars he'd settled, how many he had waged.

We ate steak and corn and baked potatoes on the balcony under the oak tree where Michael spent time staring out at Empire Ridge in the distance. No one can look out at these huge trees, this beautiful forest, these Holy Cross Mountains and not see heaven. And certainly, heaven is where Michael McNeilley belongs.
--Beau Blue

McNeilley was founding director of the National Student News Service; worked as a reporter and correspondent in Washington, DC; His stories and poems have appeared in hundreds of magazines, Ezines, anthologies and broadsides, including the New York Quarterly, Poet, Chicago Review, Oyster Boy Review, Cross-Connect, Mississippi Review, Chiron Review, Poetry Motel, Minotaur, Slipstream, Cafe Review, Pink Cadillac, and many others. He was editor of the Olympia Review in Olympia Washington, publisher & editor of the 'Olympia Review Anthology'. He was co-editor with JJ Webb of the online Ezine ZeroCity from 1994 to 1998. His books and broadsides include 'Love & Beer', and 'My religion is your ass' (with Mere Smith) from Techline, 'Situational Reality' from Dream Horse Press, 'McNeilley's Monsters' & '10 by mcn' from Cruzio Communications.


Beau Blue (JJ Webb) - Blue's books & recordings include 'Appalachian Canticles' (Jarus Books, 1979), 'Human Tricks' (A Little Licks Record, 1981), 'in the Electric Shadows' (A daVinci Media publication, 1994). He was co-editor with Michael McNeilley of the online Ezine ZeroCity from 1994 to 1998. A performance poet and storyteller, Blue has performed extensively in Northern California, Oregon and Nevada for the last 30 years. He lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Beau Blue Presents -


Catherine Graham - Grief, Poems & Friendship

Grief, Poems & Friendship

Grief is like waiting for fifty giant black kettles to boil.

    For whatever reason deep literary friendships have eluded me. Perhaps this is due to my current geographic location as I live in the suburbs, away from downtown Toronto - the centre of Canada's literary scene. Perhaps this is due to my solitary nature - an only child I'm quite comfortable spending time by myself. Or perhaps this is due to my social shyness - I often feel more alone during literary gatherings than I do when I'm actually alone. But having said that...

   Myna Wallin and I were introduced during an Art Bar reading at The Victory Café on Markham Street in Toronto. The affinity was immediate. We had much in common, budding poets living the freelance life. But we soon discovered we shared more than that, we'd been through the loss of both parents. We were both adult orphans.

    "I think about you," Myna said. Another Art Bar reading had just ended. We stood at the corner of Bloor and Bathhurst, Myna beside her bicycle, I beside my car, about to say goodbye. The fact that my brief presence had had an impact on Myna made me feel special, appreciated, seen.

     That fall after my first book of poetry was published, Myna came to the Toronto launch at the Mockingbird on King Street.

    "I have something for you," she said. She handed me a long white box. "I saw it today and got it on impulse. I hope you don't mind."

  Sandwiched between two long cotton strips I pulled out a finely carved wooden butterfly. Myna fastened the choker around my neck. Not only did I wear it that night I chose to wear it for subsequent readings; a fitting image as my first book of poetry was titled Pupa. Myna's intuitive and impulsive gesture moved me deeply. I had myself a friend.

    During the months that followed I was booked to do a series of readings and radio interviews. One of the interviews was with the University of Toronto's campus station CIUT, a Sunday afternoon hour-long program with hosts Nik Beat and Nancy Bullis. After climbing the narrow, rickety stairs, I was ushered into a waiting room and introduced to the poet I would be sharing the program with. Dark-haired like Myna, she too had kind, warm eyes. Sincere smile.

    "I'm Merle Nudelman. Do you mind if I go first? My husband and I need to attend a wedding reception."

    "No problem," I said. We exchanged cards.

    Before readings and interviews not only do I experience the flutter of butterfly wings in my stomach, my listening abilities go out the window. This is normal, so I'm told, but unfortunate, for it means that I'm incapable of enjoying any presenter before me. My mind is brim-filled with questions. What will I say? Which poems shall I read? So when Merle sat across from Nancy Bullis I assumed I would not be able to listen. My mind would be too muddled.

    This was not the case.

    Like my first book of poetry Pupa, Merle's first book Borrowed Light contained poems that captured her personal grieving journey after the loss of both parents. I couldn't help but listen. The poems she read were tight and effective, humorous and gut wrenching. She'd traveled that flat black landscape I knew so well. And like me she'd made her way through it.

   A few weeks later Merle and I met up for a coffee and chat. Because Merle had to leave right after her interview she hadn't heard mine. A look of amazement washed over her face when I shared my story of how I'd come to write poetry.

    "That's my story," she said. We've been friends ever since.

    When grief hits us it slams doors shut. But it if you look closely, very closely, it also opens them. After the deaths of my parents the door to poetry opened to me. Grief acted as the catalyst towards the creative life. Once I became conscious of this - journal outpourings were more than emotional release - I began to take the craft of writing poetry seriously.

   Perhaps deep literary friendships haven't eluded me after all.

Catherine Graham is the author of The Watch and The Red Element. She teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto, designs and delivers workshops on creativity for the business and academic communities, and is Vice-President of Project Bookmark Canada. Visit:



Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Rochelle Ratner - COMPETITION: A Tale of Two Friendships

Let me begin with two anecdotes. Both took place in the early 1970s:

1) A poet-friend calls me to read me his new poem, a ritual we must have gone through two or three times a week (often with my calling him, new poem in hand). This time, however, I don't like the poem. He goes into an unbelievable tirade about how stupid I am. I try to defend my views. We hang up. I feel defeated, depressed, worthless. An hour later he calls again, wanting to read me the revision of the poem. It's much, much better, mostly because he's taken much of my criticism to heart. I bemoan (or maybe whine about) his having attacked me. His response is that my criticism wasn't specific, and if he hadn't pushed me I'd never have gotten to the roots of the problem.

2) I write to a poet-friend who recently left the city to tell him that my first book has been accepted for publication. Now, this is going to be a tense situation – I know that before I write him. He's the one who suggested I try my manuscript at this press, for one thing. And he did so with a sort of backhanded compliment – "these all seem like formula poems, why don't you send it to New Rivers, he likes this sort of writing…" So in my letter I try to play down my excitement. After telling him about the book, I go on to talk about looking for a larger apartment, and mention I'd briefly considered sharing an apartment with this mutual friend of ours. The letter he sends back begins as a dream might: "When you're thirty years old, it won't make any difference if your first book was published when you were twenty-three or twenty-eight, but I know it makes a lot of difference now. Congratulations." But from that point on he launches into attack mode, telling me I'm "selfish, selfish, selfish" for not wanting to share an apartment with a perfectly nice woman. "You're so selfish I don't even want to know you. I'm going to write the rest of this letter to somebody else." Luckily, I was meeting another mutual friend for lunch that same day. She took one look at the letter and summed it up with a clarity that was eluding me: He's just jealous.

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

I do. I did then, and I do now. Only by challenging each other, pressing each other to write nothing if not our best (however painful this might be), do we continue to grow as friends, and as writers. Though I'm not sure which comes first.

The first of those two friendships gradually dissolved. I don't think it was his fault, or my fault. I don't think either of us was aware of it while it was happening. But my own poetry started to change, I was beginning to explore longer forms and eventually fiction, while his writing ventured off in the opposite direction, forever exploring new ways to tighten his words. I found myself "cheating," as it were, praising poems I wasn't exactly wild about, claiming to be excited by some of the same writers he was learning from. Though we'd been through many arguments over the course of nearly 20 years, there was no final argument. We just more or less seemed to stop calling each other. I'd entered into an exciting new love affair, and it was probably months before I realized the lapse.

The letter-writer, on the other hand, remains one of my closest friends. We have very different, busy schedules, and don't see each other that often anymore, but when we do it's like we were never apart. He doesn't pretend to like everything I've written, but he's supportive, even if a playful cruelty becomes part of the banter (I once mailed him a later-aborted manuscript; he called the next day to ask if I was okay; the poems were so bad that he feared for my health). That sort of banter. When he read my early poems about mermaids, he commented that they never had any fun, and showed up a few days later with a drawing he'd done of mermaids exuberantly riding the crests of waves or doubled over in graceful dives. That sort of friend. Even though he'd originally "attacked" the manuscript of that first book, when the book was published and a well-known writer was checking to see if I'd be a threat to him, my friend drilled me on how I should have responded, pointing out all the unique aspects of poems that had been added since he'd first seen that manuscript.

I am, by nature, a very competitive person, probably more competitive than most of my friends. I'm not going to try to cover over that fact. But I at least had the sense to never apply for a writers colony – I can just picture myself caught up in the fact that others were producing more than I was, or gloating over how much I'd accomplished that day. And it was for similar reasons that I remained living alone, without any serious "relationships" until I was well into my thirties. Before that time, I couldn't picture myself living with someone who wasn't heavily involved in the arts. When I finally met my future husband, I felt as if I was on safe ground. Here was someone from the business world, my parents' world, who could also strangely appreciate me and my writing. Yet even now, his excitement about his work gets under my skin sometimes. Especially when I've had a bad day, or week, or whatever.

Over time I've learned to cherish my competitive nature. There are moments when it can be extremely useful, and healthy. Years ago, I recall living in an apartment where, through my back window, I could see into an apartment behind mine. I never met the woman who lived there, never learned anything about her, but late at night, often at two or three in the morning, she would be sitting by the window, typing. For all I knew, she could be addressing envelopes for a penny apiece (as I did during high school). But that didn't matter. What mattered was she was sitting there, working, typing, and as long as she was there I found it very hard to just go to bed myself.

I can't now recall what I wrote during those endless hours, but I do know that I wrote some of my best work after midnight during that period, after the events of the day had died down and I had nothing that required my immediate attention. No more distractions. No more interruptions. No more calls from friends. But I knew the friends were there.


Rochelle Ratner's poetry collection, House and Home, was published in 2003 by Marsh Hawk Press. Two poetry e-chapbooks, Tellings (2002) and Lady Pinball (2003), were published by Tamafyhr Mountain Press. Also online, Sugar Mule Magazine devoted a special issue to her writing, including poetry, fiction, memoir, translations, and articles on her writing. Coffee House Press has published two novels: Bobby's Girl (1986) and The Lion's Share (1991). An anthology she edited, Bearing Life: Women's Writings on Childlessness, was published in January 2000 by The Feminist Press. Rochelle died earlier this year.



Monday, November 10, 2008

Doug McClellan - Writers' Friendship / Writers' Group(s)

T.S. Eliot, "Shrine," by Doug McClellan

by Doug McClellan

The group had been meeting for several years when I joined as something of a wild card: I had only started writing poetry when I retired from teaching and after a full career as a visual artist. My métier had been collage and assemblage. Years spent haunting garage sales and flea markets for material to be pasted or nailed into some anti-narrative context was on all counts a seriously non-linear activity. Writing (as I saw it and practiced it when necessary) being much a more sequential business and a craft I found difficult. There are limits to paste and scissors. Only when the Macintosh entered my life did my collage instincts find their writing machine. This uncorked a reservoir of things itching to be written.

As a graduate student, and later as a budding painter, I would get together with other artists for talk but we seldom discussed our work, we kept the conversation more to the comings and goings of the art world. The macho climate of the '50s art movements had marketed a distrust of verbal analysis. Statements like, "I see you're using that new red, I hear it's crap" were as close as we got to penetrating critique.

Joining the writing group with something of a second language problem ("Sorry, I don't speak literature")––my tools for dealing with a poem when it was laid open on the table were meager. This meant that I benefited much more from the group than I felt able to contribute. At the outset I also discovered what a haphazard reader I was and that I was very close to being one of those dopes I had battled with for ages, one who could say "I don't know anything about X, but I know what I like" and mean it. Time and tolerance on the part of my peers made the transition painless and to my delight, I had finally found colleagues who were willing (yea eager) to discuss each other's work.

Before the group addresses individual poems there is a short but valuable period of tea-making, general conversation and shoptalk. As a standard procedure for new poems, the poet will read his/her new piece; this is followed by another reading by a fellow member. To me this is consistently valuable. The second physical voice often relocates the poem into another poetic voice, as well as serves to catch rough terrain and line break problems along the way. Hearing my own words read by another voice, often a woman's, is invariably illuminating in that it breaks the poem free from an internal mumble that accompanies me when I write. The 'read and then shut up' rule, though not universally observed, seems to suit my needs. To have various members quiz each other about my fresh words, and to come up with such diverse (and may I say, irrational?) readings can lead to both deflation and clarification. But it always leads to a next step.

The machinery of groups, their boons and tribulations, are well known and I can't add much that's new. Rules and protocol vary: experience levels vary. I think we all agree that it is the collective, the stock company if you will, that makes things productive. As a collection of poets we are virtually an anti-school. All over the stylistic map. This seems to have great advantages, my earlier experience in brushes with art 'colonies' that have become hothouses producing a cloned product, convinces me that our differences are a genuine strength. As critics we all seem quite able to step out of our own armor and engage the poem at hand. Some groups may be more overtly supportive in style while others may dispense with foreplay entirely; we fall somewhere in between. Individual roles derive from our individual needs-hopes-dreams-fears, whatever––obviously we all have our angle of approach to a new work. But it is a diversity that can work because of an overall quality of trust and fellow feeling that has developed and continues to develop, assisted by an occasional potluck supper.

Douglas McClellan––1950 to present: MFA painting. Exhibited nationally and internationally. Professor of Art: Scripps College, Claremont (CA) Graduate University; Univ. of California, Santa Cruz. Dean Otis Art Inst. (LA) Six volumes of poetry, largely self-published. Currently working on digital fusion of words and image. For a sample of Doug's work, T.S. Eliot "Shrine," see above.


Monday, November 3, 2008

Barry Spacks - "Reading an Old Friend's Poems"

Reading an Old Friend's Poems

The wonderings and sweetness of this voice bring to my thought the scent of
fine paper, fine linen, shirt with a white collar for the first time worn, long
evening with a new book, dwelling over the pages.

But in its sayings of loss, this voice tastes blood on its teeth, tart taste of
blood that can neither be spit out nor swallowed.

In reverence for loveliness my friend's word-music comes upon me like air
before rain: remember?

that freshness, cool, ultimately delicate;

though air so offered may lift at times into a wind carrying sand, or into a
deluge to follow.

"Where will we go," asks the poem's voice, "when they send us away from
here?" the body gone from all its familiar desirings and gone this mind that
was a savoring, while its voice alone continues, a comfort to desire.

Barry Spacks earns his keep as a persistently visiting professor at UC Santa Barbara after years of teaching at M.I.T. He's published many poems in various journals, paper and pixel, plus stories, two novels, and seven poetry collections, the most extensive of which is SPACKS STREET: NEW & SELECTED POEMS, from John Hopkins. A CD of 42 poems, A PRIVATE READING, appeared in October 2000.