Friday, September 12, 2008

Press Published First Book

Well, it's done. The first official title from my non-profit press, C&R Press, is out. It's Michelle Bitting's GOOD FRIDAY KISS. The press started nearly two years ago, and the journey has been eventful, to say the least. But we've hit our stride now, and have our first poetry anthology coming out within a month(BREATHE: 101 CONTEMPORARY ODES), soon to be followed by Stacey Lynn Brown's CRADLE SONG and Jon Veinberg's THE SPEED LIMIT OF CLOUDS. Did I mention that all of these will be out within the next six months? We got to the point where it was either surrender to the ongoing hiccups in starting up a press or tough it out through the problems and actually start publishing. You can see which we decided. (PS--It's the right choice).

The reason I'm writing about this all here is not to brag that I've helped create a new poetry book for the world (well, maybe a little), but to talk about the process of editing someone else's literary baby. Having honed my editorial skills over the past fifteen years at a half-dozen lit mags and a number of different university positions, I felt quite capable of the task. But like most things worth doing, it was a heck of a lot harder than I ever imagined. Knowing how short-sighted editors in the past often unjustly railed about word choice, imagery, and line breaks in my own work, I didn't want to become That Editor. You know--the one you want to chuck off the Empire State Building, only you don't because their incredible thick head would probably take out a bus at ground level.

What I finally did was go through it a couple of times, line by line, making notes on a Word document. When I was done, I went through and came up with the most pertinent pages of comments I had. Some were tough. Some were hair-splitting. Some were just plain grammar issues. A few were tough to classify--call it "listening to my own ear." But here's the part I love. Bitting was gracious and thankful and happy for the comments which I worried might make her hate me forever. That's what C&R was based on--being an author-friendly house where we're all on the same team. I'm incredibly happy that Tom Lux picked GOOD FRIDAY KISS to be our first De Novo winner because Bitting is our type of writer--someone who cares as much about a quality contribution to the world of literature as we do. And we thank her for it

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Relationship Between Writing Poems and Writing Movies

I've been getting lots of questions about how my past fifteen years as a poet--eleven of those as a teacher of poetry--feeds into my new career as a writer of movies. Oddly enough, I'm not sure I could have had any better training. As a poet, I've always thought visually (in poet-speak, "imagistically"). This type of attention to ocular input is hugely important to a screenplay. Brevity? Same thing. Tight, focused writing that has layers of nuance? You got it. Well-thought-out ideas that have gone through some revision and peer feedback? Again, yes.

Writing a poem allows you the freedom to find your own way. 2 lines or 2,000, you can handle it however you want. Part of the challenge for me in writing screenplays is that I'm working within some fairly strict conventions. 100 pages (plus or minus a few). Three acts. Present your "hook" within ten pages. A host of other "must-dos." Since there's real money at stake in the movie business, a lot of the decision makers don't dare go with anything but a sure thing. This is why many movies are sold with a single sentence like "It's DIE HARD on a plane" (PASSENGER 57), "It's DIE HARD on a train" (UNDER SIEGE 2), or "It's DIE HARD in the rain" (HARD RAIN). With poems, there's really no money for anyone at any stage of the process, so editors are willing to take chances, go with their gut, and help support innovative work.

This isn't to say that I'm a creative genius and that Hollywood better damn well sit up and pay attention, even when I'm breaking the rules. It's just that a different mindset is required for one to be successful in writing screenplays. When writing poems, I think about making it the best poem it can be. That's job #1. With writing a movie? Job #1 is audience, audience, audience. That's not saying that audience doesn't come into play with a poem, but there are plenty of poems being published today where audience seems, at best, an afterthought. Try that with the movie business, the 21-year-old from Vassar writing treatments for $50/day will toss your work into the garbage and laugh about it over Pabst Blue Ribbons with his two dishwasher buddies.

I'd go on about the poetry/movie relationship a bit more, but Steven Spielberg is calling. No, wait--that's my neighbor on the phone to say I left my trash can lid off so the raccoons tore all hell out of everything again, and he wants me to get out there and start picking it up. "You bet," I tell him, thinking the raccoon fiasco isn't good material for a summer blockbuster, but maybe there's a poem in it somewhere. . . .