Category Archives: The Process

The Second Chapter, or I’ve Been in San Francisco for Five Days



I moved to San Francisco five days ago. When my flight broke through the fog and touched down, I made my way to Mission Street with a roller suitcase and manbag. The rest of my possessions – six boxes of books – are being shipped. I’ve come here to start over knowing full well there’s no such thing as starting over.

At night, I sleep on the floor of my friend’s Isaac studio apartment and dream my way through scenes of the book I’m writing. Dreaming is how most of my writing starts. Obsessed over whatever paragraph I was working on the previous day, I dream about the paragraph on a loop, my ghost self locked in the paragraph’s room.

I wake up at 6:12 am because I have to pee. I lay back down to sleep and my head lands on my macbook which I keep beside my pillow. So, I start to write. I’m only five pages into a new draft. I write in false-starts, writing and erasing the same paragraph until words start to jive, until the sentences say that they don’t want to be erased.

They almost always want to be erased. So, I write a page or two a day. The following day, I re-write most of those pages and maybe walk away with three pages. It’s a weird dance.



Poet Cynthia Cruz on Madness, Bodies and Bodies of Work

I was fortunate enough to be able to study with poet Cynthia Cruz at Rutgers -Newark while completing my MFA. She’s a generous teacher and her poetry rattles me in the best way possible. (Her first collection Ruin is what I consider to be “required reading.”) Anticipating the release of two new poetry collections, Cruz sat down with Lisa Wells from The Rumpus for an amazing interview. Here’s an excerpt:

Lisa Wells: Can you talk about the madness in your work? Or is it religiosity operating there? Some marriage of the two?

Cruz: To begin with: we are all mad, it’s simply a matter of where we are on that continuum. My mind is what saved me, as a child. Thank God, I was able to vanish into the world of my mind. But, conversely, it can also be a dangerous thing. The mind can play tricks. Was Joan of Arc mad? Simone Weil? Glenn Gould? Where’s the line between bravery and honesty and genius and madness? Sometimes it overlaps. I suffered from anorexia for many years (from the age of eleven) and that is quite certainly a kind of madness. My mind told me things that quite simply were not true. I had to fight against my mind.

And then, as you say, there is the spiritual. Back to Joan of Arc and Simone Weil: mystics or mad women? Virginia Woolf? Was she “mad” or driven mad? Finally, I am not content with the idea that people who suffer from madness of any kind ought to be marginalized. Nearly everyone I know in New York City is on one kind of medication or another for anxiety or depression or what have you, so again, it’s a matter of where we fall on the continuum which is really, in the end, just luck.

And later in the interview, Cruz gives a response that I’ve been reading and re-reading.

I was anorexic for many years (from eleven years old well into adulthood), and it has not gone unnoticed that the entire “project” of anorexia is not dissimilar to the act of making poetry. Both are a kind of miming, a kind of spectacle, a way of enacting how one feels. With anorexia, I, for one, was, of course without being conscious of it, performing as a means to show the world how I felt. I wanted both to be noticed (I felt invisible) and I wanted to not be seen (I felt I was too intense.) Anorexia served its purpose. It was a deliberate translating of experience, a means of communication: by compressing all my feelings, which were overwhelming for me, I made a kind of porcelain figurine of myself. I became a symbol, a code. Anorexia was a whirring machine into which I poured everything and, as a result, through anorexia, I was able to survive these feelings and experiences. With poetry, I do much the same thing: it is also a whirring machine I put all my thoughts, feelings, and experiences into. I compress and revise compulsively (again, like anorexia, a kind of compulsive repetition and deletion of parts of the self {the self being poem or self}) until I have a perfect box of words that then stand in for experience, feeling, thought, a kind of perfect diorama, a world in miniature. I would not be alive today were it not for both anorexia and poetry.

Read the interview in its entirety here.

New Author Photo

Photo by Christine Zilka

What do you think?

Tough Love from Hemingway to Fitzgerald to Us

by Lee Eunyeol

After the publication of Tender Is The Night, Fitzgerald asked Hemingway what he thought of the novel. Hemingway’s entire letter is a must-read, but if anything, get into this excerpt:

Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it—don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist—but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you.

About this time I wouldn’t blame you if you gave me a burst. Jesus it’s marvellous to tell other people how to write, live, die etc.

Getting Out of the Way of Our Stories

by Anna Schuleit

I’ve been reading sections of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and when I got to this part of “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” I knew I’d have to share it here on the blog:

Whenever he told the story, Rat had a tendency to stop now and then, interrupting the flow, inserting little clarifications or bits or analysis and personal opinion. It was a bad habit, Mitchell Sanders said, because all that matters is the raw material, the stuff itself, and you can’t clutter it up with your own half-baked commentary. What you have to do, Sanders said, is trust your own story. Get the hell out of the way and let it tell itself.

As Adrienne Rich has been on my mind a great deal lately, Sanders’s advice brings  to mind the lines “the thing I came for: / the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth…” 

Of course, getting out of the way of our stories is easier said than done. And truth be told, we never actually get all the way out of the way, do we?

Briefly: Kevin Prufer On the Uses of Narrative

by Joeri Bosma

Every year at the AWP book fair, I happen across a poetry collection that was published several years before and I’m outraged (outraged! I tell you) that it has taken me so long to encounter this poet’s work. Last year it was Rough Cradle by Betsy Sholl. This year, I’ve consider calling several friends and leaving threatening voice messages regarding the fact that nobody thought to say “Saeed, Kevin Prufer’s work is stunning. You need to read everything he’s written and then get some of his lines tattooed on your forearm in Palatino font.” Seriously, National Anthem is painfully beautiful and isn’t that all I’ve ever wanted from a poetry collection? The mere thought of reading his most recent collection makes me want to moonwalk.

Anyway, expect that I’ll be mentioning Prufer quite often from here on out. Let’s start with a quote from his micro-interview for the Kenyon Review, shall we?

I’m not uninterested in communicating “emotional concepts” – but I like to imagine that poetry is also a very subtle, powerful vehicle for the communication of ideas that might extend beyond what is felt.  I like the notion that we know who we are (as individuals, as members of a larger society, as part of a culture) through our interaction with narrative and our imposition of narrative on our lives—and that poetry might participate in this.

Deciding When a Poem is “Finished,” or Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

The notion of a “finished” poem gnaws at me sometimes. How exactly do we know that a poem is finished? When we’ve run out of ideas? When we’ve read it to enough people? When enough people have told us it is “finished”? Sometimes I have waited for months to submit “finished” poems  to literary journals. It wasn’t that I worked on the poems during that time. I just felt like they needed a kind of limbo. Other times, I have literally sent out poems the day after “finishing” them because I knew — I just KNEW — they were ready. Sometimes, but not always, I’ve been right. And when I was wrong, I happily took the rejection as a cue to get back to work and get beyond my ego.

Now I put poems to the Morning After Test. You see, I mull over the ideas for poems and start writing them in my head (and sleep) in the weeks leading up to me actually writing the poem so the time spent at my computer is typically an intense 1-3 hour period. Last night, I had such a session with a new poem and by the end, I felt good. Really good, in fact. Not that I wanted to submit it right away (really — what’s the rush for getting poems published in lit journals anyway?) but I had a feeling it was “finished.” In spite of that feeling, I decided to put the poem to the test. I went to sleep and forgot about it. This morning, I opened another word document and tried writing the poem again to see if it still felt right. For some reason, I kept writing the first couplet over and over again. I couldn’t move on. Something wasn’t working.

I noticed that I had built an unnecessary frame story in the poem to protect myself from what I was really trying to say. This frame was sleek and had some interesting lines that I might use elsewhere, but ultimately, it was just in the way. I discarded the frame and started a new draft that immediately cuts to the meat.

If I wake up tomorrow and the poem survives this test one more time, I think it might be a keeper.