Jack Collom, Force of Nature

Jack Collom, poet, teacher, friend and lover of nature, died last month. His memorial is held at Naropa today, and I’m sorry not to be there in person. I am sure many will be in attendance, and also there in spirit. Jack was a much loved and profoundly good teacher, one of the best I ever had, and his influence is felt far and wide and with great affection.

My first experience of teaching in fact came when I took Jack’s Project Outreach class at Naropa in the fall of 2002. I volunteered one morning a week in a Language Arts class at Fairview High School (which was every bit the archetype of the American school that I hoped it would be). Then every Friday at 4p.m. our Outreach class would reconvene in one of the Upaya classrooms and compare notes from the week, listen to Jack’s guidance, and do some writing exercises of our own. And with Jack, there were always tons of writing exercises: acrostics, sestinas, recipe poems, odes, Q&A poems, I Remembers, pass-arounds – lots of pass-arounds.

One form I was introduced to was the haiku-like lune. The variant the Collom lune is even named for Jack. Counting words rather than syllables suits makes this poetic form more robust and suitable than the haiku itself for the English language, I reckon. Like many good things, it was an accidental (but naturally arising) invention; Jack had no embarrassment in describing how he had misremembered the form as a verse of 3-5-3 words rather than syllables.

Over two weekends I also took the weekend practicum Designing A Writing Workshop that Jack co-taught with Lee Christopher. It offered tons of practical advice as well as some of the most fun I ever had in a classroom. We did lots more writing exercises too. The lack of self-consciousness that Jack fostered among writers was shown in his classes when, in response to the prompt ‘How I Write’, I penned a day-in-the-life poem about my tendency towards procrastination, which included rather Too Much Information about certain activities other than writing. And it must have been a classroom wholly lacking in self-consciousness that Jack fostered, because I then read this TMI piece out loud. And then, once I’d read it, I blushed, and laughed a lot with everyone else. I laugh again as I remember this, and think that doing what comes naturally and what feels like fun is so often (always?) a requisite of the best writing.

It is ironic that we often need to learn how to do what comes naturally, though. Fostering an instinctive approach to writing (and learning in general) was at the heart of Jack’s teachings. He worked a great deal in the school system, especially with the Poets in the Schools programme, and he often shared his particular joy at writing poetry with elementary schoolchildren.

Poetry Everywhere, the book on teaching poetry Jack co-wrote with Sheryl Noethe, is one of the richest resources a teacher might have. Among the hundreds of poems it uses as examples, poems by William Carlos Williams and Pablo Neruda sit beside poems by first grader Lacy Wiley and twelfth grader Ann Jankowski and many of the thousands of other students whose work Jack published in class anthologies at the end of every semester.

Such an honouring of children’s voices is not only an exercise in democracy in the classroom, but a reminder that writers often need to rediscover things we have lost: our true natures. In On Sound and Rhthym, an essay that shines brilliantly not only on the teaching of poetry but on the whole idea of learning, Jack describes how children:

have the potential for art right on the tips of their tongues. It is important that we recognize this “little genius” for poetry that children have—and not try to “muscle” them into adult standards of poetic discourse. Yes, they should develop mature language skills—but gradually, organically, while as much as possible maintaining (and developing and transforming) their own fresh poetic talents.

Good writing comes naturally. Second Nature is the title of the book of poems and essays of Jack’s that won the Colorado Book Award in 2013.

Jack taught us that an important way to develop this instinct for writing was in having fun. He sometimes taught summer workshops on comedy and writing. And his good-humoured and graceful presence in any classroom was the ultimate lesson in how to be a teacher: funny, inquiring, big-hearted, listening, patient, unafraid to challenge, praising occasionally, sharing always. And Jack always (always) joined in the writing exercises himself, scribing away at a yellow notepad with a ballpoint pen. Theories of education seem dry when set against such an example.

Keeping with that theme of nature, Jack also taught Eco-Lit, a pioneering Naropa course that was one of the first (if not the first) to focus at college level on writing about the environment and nature in such a way. The reading list amounts to an artfully curated anthology of poetry, science writing, oral history, essays, creative prose, and other forms, ranging from Stephen Jay Gould to Rachel Carson to Elizabeth Bishop to Herman Melville to Aztec poetry. I hope someone is carrying on that lineage at the Kerouac School.

Another memory: during readings of his work, Jack would indicate quoted matter by drawing bunny ears in the air with his index and middle fingers.

I don’t think Jack was a Buddhist, and (other than birdwatching?) I am not sure if he had an obvious contemplative practice. Yet he was one of the few I encountered at this Buddhist-inspired school who genuinely seemed able to put his ego to one side to get down to the work in hand. He was serious about the Big Issues in writing, but he never took himself too seriously.

Beyond his work as a union organiser, Jack did not strike me as overtly political either. Unlike many activist writers, Jack was never patronising or carping in his writing. But his poems often possess careful acts of observation, and when you are observing the truths of nature and everyday life there is little that is more political.

And how many other poets have had their hometown honour them with a specially named day, as Boulder did with Jack Collom Day in 2001?

Poet, birder, veteran, yodeller, environmentalist, father, husband, teacher: Jack Collom was a force of nature. No, is a force of nature. Because the best teachers never die. We ‘watch them grow from was to will be and will be to was’: like the Old Woods of Jack’s poem, their teachings will last.

 

Poetry Everywhere by Jack Collom and Sheryl Noethe

From Nature to Nurture: Ecology and Pegagogy Inform Two Long-Running Writing & Poetics Courses from Naropa University

An Ecosystem of Writing Ideas by Jack Collom (every writing teacher should read this)

On Sound and Rhthym, by Jack Collom

Jack Collom (1931-2017) from the Allen Ginsberg Project  (includes video links)

Jack Collom, Boulder Poet and Educator, remembered in the Daily Camera

I Wouldn’t Be Here If It Weren’t For Jack Collom by Jonathan Montgomery

Interview with Jack Collom by Elizabeth Robinson

And my favourite poem of Jack’s (one of my favourite poems): The Old Woods

Editorial critique for #authorsforgrenfell

I’m offering an editorial critique via the online auction Authors For Grenfell Tower. The money raised will be paid to the British Red Cross and will be going to residents affected by the Grenfell Tower fire.

I’ll read and report on up to 15,000 words plus a synopsis or proposal for your novel or work of narrative nonfiction.

More details on this specific offer here, and more info on how to bid here. Bidding is open until Tuesday 27 June, and this particular offer is available to writers worldwide.

And there are many other offers too – critiques from editors, lunches with agents, signed copies from authors, and many bookish giveaways. If you are a writer, these could be excellent opportunities. If you are a reader, you can never have enough books on your shelves, right?! And you might have chance to meet your favourite author in person too.

Bid, and bid generously – on as many bids and as much as you can afford! I can’t think of a better cause than helping people rebuild their lives. And if you’re unable to bid, perhaps circulate on social media to people who can.

Rejected, Or Declined?

Something that all writers have to deal with at some point or other is rejection. Your manuscript gets turned down by that agent who’d expressed such enthusiasm about the opening chapter at a writers’ conference. Or an editor says no, stating that they’ve just taken on a work in the same vein. Or you get a standard rejection letter. Or you wait and wait and wait, but just don’t hear back.

This is going to cause disappointment. Sometimes writers seem to take things personally, and self-pity and blame arise. I’ve heard writers who’ve had dozens of rejections say, ‘It’s not worth bothering – publishing is a closed shop.’ But no, that’s not true. Connections and an established profile can certainly help you get your book read, but I can cite plenty of instances of well-connected writers with profiles who have not got a deal from a publisher. And I can also cite plenty of instances of writers who’ve put in the work (which can include making connections from the ground up), and been discovered via the submission process.

But some reasons given for rejection can feel wrong-headed.

Sorry, there is a glut of Victorian crime fiction. (Until the next one comes along.)

Sorry, there have been a lot of books about witches lately. (Yes, and there always will be.)

Sorry, this subject matter is too American. (Well, maybe it’s time to try this idea in the UK? And maybe this British author might help translate it for the UK readership?!)

Sorry, the author of this book set in Spain isn’t Spanish. (!!!)

Sorry, the writer doesn’t have enough Twitter followers. (Piss off!)

Maybe I underestimate the power of the marketing department (as my friends who work in-house warn). But I know that any editor who loves a book enough, however criminally Victorian, witchy, American, un-Spanish, or tweetless, will make a case for it. So such explanations can seem fundamentally unimaginative, and even a bit hollow. Cue: the frustration of the rejected, whose mind goes into overdrive cursing the dishonesty of the industry.

So let’s be honest with ourselves, and with clear thinking cut through some of the disappointment.

There are tons of manuscripts for Young Adult dystopian fantasies, for example. That glut is not necessarily a cause for despair. This could also be read as a sign that a particular category is popular. A lot of YA fantasy gets published, and read and enjoyed, and new books will continue to be published and read and enjoyed.

But we do have to be sensible, and acknowledge that too much of a good thing often leads to a saturation point. When I attend writers’ events, a large proportion of the audience often seems to be writing YA fantasies. I’m also thinking of the wide eyes and raised eyebrows of a bookseller I know when I asked her about the market for YA dystopian fantasy. Beautifully plucked, but raised very high. Your book might be good, but someone has to sell it to a crowded market.

What this means is that your book has to really stand out, to really click with someone, and in the case of YA dystopian fantasy, the emphasis is on really, as this genuinely does seem to be an oversubscribed category at the moment.

I have seen many writers, through their application in drafting, reach a stage where their craft and technique are highly professional and their manuscripts are publishable and ready to submit. We’ve read books that do get selected; we know that this one is certainly good enough.

Hereon, taste dictates what happens: finding an agent and then a publishing deal and then the success that comes with a readership. Such matters are (thank the god/dess of imagination) unpredictable. Something has to click with the reader, and feel very special, and that comes rarely. There is no blueprint – it really is an X Factor. Professionally produced manuscripts can sometimes still be a bit dull for some readers, and there are a lot (LOT) of manuscripts out there. And if that spark isn’t there for that particular reader, a writer has to move on until that reader is found.

The agent Jo Unwin expresses it graciously on her website:

Please do remember that the relationship between an author and agent is very personal, so you may write something fantastic that just isn’t for me. There are so many brilliant books that I’ll never read, bookshops are heaving with books that someone loves, but I’ll never get round to. So be as professional as you can, and try not to take rejection personally.

I think that’s a great analogy. My own bookshelves (and floorboards) are heaving with plenty of books waiting for me to read. And there are many I’ve started, and where my bookmark remains at page 10/30/70.

Something that I don’t think that helps the process of submission is the word rejection. (Slush pile is little better: it conjures up a pile of mush.)

Rejection: ‘the dismissal or refusing of a proposal’.

I am just dressing things up, perhaps, but I do prefer the idea of a book being declined. Maybe think in terms of someone declining a request to go on a date, or accompany you to the prom. (But maybe don’t think about declining marriage proposals. A realistic marriage proposal is, after all, made some time after a couple have got together and worked out their compatibility.)

Decline: ‘politely refuse an invitation or offer’.

It’s a subtle matter, but most of us prefer to be politely refused than to be dismissed. And on the whole I think agents and editors do refuse politely, even if it’s a standard letter that comes months and months later.

Some agents never acknowledge or respond, of course, and are clear about that in their submission guidelines. Ideally, I’m sure they would like to answer, and I’d like to think that if I were an agent I’d at least be able to decline a book with an email. But the sheer quantity of submissions and their commitments to ongoing authors mean they have to prioritise, and they really can’t spare the time. They are under no obligation, until a contract is signed.

When, in a century long ago, I was an in-house editor I did sometimes give a sentence or two of feedback to agents (mostly) or authors when I turned down manuscripts. I think I was being dutiful in offering a reason, but, looking back, I’m not sure such explanations are always helpful either. A proper editorial conversation takes time, and, unless the offerings are really shrewd and specific, scraps of advice can confuse as much as help. They can sometimes give false hope, too, in that we latch on to possible fixes. (Perhaps, if I drop the present-tense narration he doesn’t like, he’ll take my book on?)

And besides, someone else might like it, present tense and all, and, sharing your vision, have specific advice that will be more helpful.

If I were an agent or publisher today, I suspect that the best approach to declining a manuscript would be to say some version of: I just didn’t love this enough to want to take it on. Or: I just don’t feel confident/passionate enough about the idea of selling this. Another possible reason: I’ve recently taken on something similar, and I don’t think I can do justice to both books/authors (another version of not being able to sell something, not least as you’d be competing against yourself). Or maybe, and specifically: collections of short stories or essays are a hard sell – at least in book form. (Which is kinda true, and kinda sad, because they are often my favourite books. But at least the writer can try literary journals for individual stories or essay; the book or the collection is always not the ideal receptacle for a short story. If I worked in-house again, I’d like to think I’d put in extra effort for good short fiction, because that is so often what I love.)

But really, these are pretty much the only answers. There are other reasons (like, the writer seems unrealistic, or a bit of an arsehole), but I might keep those to myself, because I’m not sure how that would help.

But if an agent or an editor sees something that they love, even if it’s a hard sell, they will take on a book, and find a way. If they don’t love it enough, that’s that. And if someone sees something that they think is shite, or simply unaccomplished, it’s entirely possible that someone else will love it. Just check out bestsellers on Amazon that get tons of five-star reviews as well as tons of one-stars. (There is a lot of shite on Amazon. But a lot of shiny stuff too.)

Yes, I am probably being pollyanna-ish, or maybe Moomintrolly. Declined or rejected, you end up in the same place. But I do think future success can be helped by the right attitude – or prevented by the wrong attitude. You do have to create your own luck.

If you are in the position of sending out work right now, and not hearing back what you want (or at all): don’t get down-hearted. Maybe replace the idea of rejection with the idea of being declined. Allow yourself a little time, but sometime soon pick yourself up, dust yourself down, make a cup of tea or pour a glass of bubbly, and send the book out again to someone else. Hold on to your own vision. It’s hard to do both things at once, but be hopeful, as well as realistic.

(And try not to be an arsehole. Nobody owes any of us anything that isn’t earned, really. If you act like an arsehole, karmic return may come back and bite your own. Bitterness is unattractive, and rots the soul, and nobody wants to work with an arsehole.)

(And yes, agents and editors as well as writers can be arseholes too. No names, but. They are found in every walk of life.)

Also remember that editing a book until it’s in the best shape for submission is a process that could go on forever. (Here is another post on receiving feedback on your work.) Sometimes it’s a good idea to make a start on a fresh work. 

If you are a writer, don’t be deterred. If you are a writer, you will/should carry on writing anyway. If not right away, later.

But maybe, too, invest some time in doing other things that can raise your chances of success. Network, join genre organisations, continue to improve. Research agents further, perhaps. (I will do another post on submitting writing in the future.)

And there’s always self-publishing, which is not second-best, though it can be a lot of extra work. There are many, many books out there. I think self-publishing authors facing the challenge of getting noticed can start to understand some of the challenges faced by authors and editors selling books – though at least they are taking charge of many of their own decisions.

And also note that a lot of perfectly good books that are published the traditional way disappear from view shortly after publication – or even before, it seems. They are published without trace. Sometimes authors feel that their publishers didn’t do enough marketing, but that sort of resource has real costs, and there are limits to what anyone can do.

Sometimes, if we look at things soberly, it’s just the case that readers didn’t love them enough either. This is a more subtle form of rejection, perhaps – being declined by readers. In the olden days such books would go out of print, or lurk in stacks of remainders in the author’s garage until said author flogs them for a couple of quid at library talks. At least ebooks and print on demand can extend the life of a book now, and perhaps make it easy for the work to be rediscovered. Look at the notice achieved by writers such as Lucia Berlin or John Williams long after they’ve died. Literary immortality is no small achievement.

But many writers will enjoy success in their own lifetimes! Take heart from the advice and real-life examples offered in the following links below. Yes, as one of the links describes, all of those books in the photo above were once upon a time rejected, or should I say declined. Until someone said yes.

Rejection Letters: The Publishers Who Got It Embarrassingly Wrong… (Huffington Post)

How to Survive Rejection (The Review Review)

Best-Sellers Initially Rejected (Lit Rejections)

George Saunders And The Intuitive Swerve

I was very lucky to see George Saunders talking about his first novel Lincoln in the Bardo this week. The man is a true inspiration. His writing is hard to categorise  – good, we say! He’s not a conventional realist, and his stories are these great shots of something we can’t predict – they have strands of the surreal, the hyperreal, the dystopian, the fantastic, the satirical, the gonzo and oddball and geek. Even more impressive is the fact he’s made himself a successful career as a published writer and a highly regarded teacher of creative writing (at Syracuse) on the basis of not publishing a novel, at least till now. Yay for not writing novels yet! If only we all were so patient.

And this novel: worth the wait! It’s quite a feat of the imagination. Many screen inches have been devoted to it already, so I shan’t repeat any of that, but what I shall say is that it contains many of my favourite things in writing: ghosts, the American Civil War, voices, intelligence, daring, swearing, exquisitely carved sentences, great liberties with history, great truths, a big heart.

His talk at Goldsmiths, where he was expertly interviewed by Erica Wagner, featured an enactment of several chapters with himself and several speakers. And, of course, it also featured many nuggets of his teaching and editorial genius, delivered with great wit and warmth and purpose. George Saunders must be a strong candidate for the writers’ writer.

Something I enjoyed in particular in his discussion of writing was this sense of a great writerly intuition uncluttered by self-consciousness or overthinking. As has been reported, this was a book that was a long time in the coming, and it seems to be a book that emerged instinctively. ‘When I wanted to outline, I didn’t,’ he said. He specifically talked about writers cultivating their ‘intuitive swerve’, discussing writing as improv, and letting the ghosts speak – his ghost characters in this book, but too I think that applies to the ghost that is any character we create.

Discussing historical fiction, he said emphatically that he doesn’t care what life was like in 1862. That’s my kinda historical fiction.

He also talked about the differences for him between writing a short story and writing a novel. This novel, of serious matters (war, a parent’s grief), required earnest writing, and his short form comes with a ‘tic of humour’ that’s pretty much a hallmark. It makes me think how some of my own short stories, written for workshops and for reading aloud at events, perhaps play a little too easily to the gallery, at the expense of digging deep. I think it’s quite an achievement to have combined humour and earnestness in Lincoln in the Bardo.

George Saunders also stressed the importance of revision – important in so many ways. First (and I think he quoted Einstein here?), he talked about problems needing solutions beyond the plateau of their conception. Of course our first drafts need work, and maybe lots of it! And revision offers so many chances to rework and fix and tweak and polish –  ‘the little move is what distinguishes you’, he said. He parsed the sentence ‘Frank came into the room and sat on the brown couch’, showing how many of those words, or those sorts of words, are superfluous (we ended up with just ‘Frank’). Through pruning away and leaving some work for the reader, we grow a respect for the reader, which creates intimacy.

George Saunders also advocates empathy more broadly as a cure for the tensions of these politically divided times. He describes Trump voters, for example, as including the sort of ordinary people he grew up among, and he met many too in reporting from the 2016 campaign trail, describing them as nice, affable, not angry. ‘How much compassion can you give? An infinite amount.’ And this gets embodied, of course, in the shining example of Lincoln in his book, as he told the Washington Post:

The main thing that I feel is — whatever you want to say about Lincoln — his empathy expanded as he lived. He was probably a typically racist Indiana boy. And then those last three years, his pot of empathy went out to include everybody: his soldiers, of course, these millions of Americans who were being enslaved, even the South. So that’s why we love him, I think because with all that pressure on him and all that hatred coming toward him, he didn’t turn to the haters and disabuse them; he actually tried to include them in his love.

Though too he cautioned about the enabling dangers of what the Tibetan Buddhists call ‘idiot compassion’, something that we perhaps need to hear more often. (I am sick of all the pandering, and I want my country back.)

Finally, Saunders also warned all writers against ego. ‘Don’t get ambitious. Don’t get elated.’

All round, a very brilliant and engaging evening. I am so lazy nowadays, one of those lazy home-working Londoners, and I don’t go out that much. But it was only the next day that I realised I’d schlepped all the way to SE and back (left the house at 4.30, got back at 10.30) without hesitating to think about it, because if you are serious about writing you don’t miss up the chance to listen to someone as brilliant and much loved as George Saunders speak.

A few Saunders links here:

* What Writers Really Do When They Write, by George Saunders – sterling advice

* Powell’s interview with George Saunders, February 2017

George Saunders interviewed in Vanity Fair, March 2017

* Who Are All These Trump Supporters? by George Saunders, from the New Yorker, July 2016

* The Anton Chekhov-George Saunders Humanity Kit: An Introduction – a real treat for syllabus geeks in the form of course paraphernalia from one of the great teacher’s courses at Syracuse

PS Sadly, I didn’t get my book signed. There were a ton of people in the queue, over a hundred surely, and it moved maybe one spot in the fifteen minutes I did wait. But I had a train to catch, and a city to cross! I did of course enter my own imagined space of how to commune with the great man among so many fanboys and -girls, and puzzled about the least smarmy way to ask if, given his interest in Tibetan Buddhism, he’d visited Naropa University during his time at the Colorado School of Mines, where he was an undergraduate. But I’d probably have only got tongue-tied and blushed and blabbed, anyway. Here’s the front of the adoring queue on my way out.

Thank You, Meryl

At the weekend I discovered this extraordinarily rousing speech of Meryl Streep accepting her National Ally For Equality Award from the Human Rights Campaign. Following her Golden Globes speech in January, it’s very stirring, and very moving.

The audience just LOVES her. My people do make for good audiences, don’t they? (The HRC is an American civil rights organisation campaigning for LGBTQ equality.) I am reminded how, when I was younger, and closety, I affected a crush on Meryl Streep. I pinned up a newspaper clipping of her above my bed. I don’t think I fooled my family or friends, really – I was just fooling myself. Alternate energies were in truth simultaneously diverted towards Harrison Ford.

Meryl is just marvellous here – an inspiration. She always has been. So big-hearted, so funny, so smart. So many great roles. Holocaust, Kramer vs Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, Out Of Africa. Postcards From The Edge, Mamma Mia, The Hours, The Iron Lady, The Devil Wears Prada. Julie and Julia. Angels In America! Always so fearless and committed.

We are so lucky that we have so many bold, smart, funny women using the power and privilege that they do enjoy to stand up and speak out right now. They could just take the cheque, and smile sweetly, and then fade away with a homily or two. But they don’t, thank goddess. I’m also thinking of JK Rowling – not only does she tell great stories, and give the best commencement addresses, and troll tyrants, but she curates exquisitely too, judging by her retweets. It’s good to have people like this on our side, as allies. As examples of artists committed to the work of the imagination.

So for International Women’s Day, let’s take their example, and be compelled. Stand Up. Speak Up. Act Up.