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The Work, the Reader,
and the Longing to be Read

by Bruce Bond

The world of literary contests can be confusing, if not humbling, intimidating even, particularly to a young writer encouraged by mentors to submit their work to book-manuscript competitions that typically receive hundreds of entries out of which one will be chosen, promoted, and published, thereby raising a writer from relative obscurity into some measure of visibility, depending on the prize. The odds against any one submission winning are so formidable and the process of literary judgement and evaluative conversation so shrouded in mystery and rumor, many younger writers find themselves spending fortunes only to give up, losing faith in either their work or the perceived politics of assessment. I recall my first book won a prize that a famous poet blurbed in hyperbolic terms, though she said to me in private, “Congratulations, thus you drop another feather in the Grand Canyon.” Indeed, I had done precisely that, but then, I was not sure I wanted a lot of people to read my book. Perhaps my endorser thought I needed a little help maintaining perspective, or maybe I heard her sigh a bit of self-lamentation. Doubtless the winning of a contest can feel liberating, validating, if not exonerating, and well worth the money spent on submission fees, if one has the means and a “worthy” manuscript. But I had doubts about the worthiness of my work. If the prize blew a little wind in my sails, it likewise urged me to do better. It whispered, “Keep going.” And I did.
 
Perhaps the greatest sensation for any writer is receiving some evidence that your work has actually been read and, better yet, slowly, closely. Sometimes the smallest evidence is enough for us to carry on. What this articulates about human nature is two things: we are all fundamentally lonely and scared — scared of death, of course, but perhaps even to a larger degree, the absence of meaning, value, and connection. Did I mention my prize was minor? It was. I must have left that out for a reason. I have won other more visible book contests since then that indeed have eased the burden of creative solitude. And yes, creativity tends to be haunted with narcissism — I call my writing “mine” after all — but when a writer does her best work, she might experience a different sort of “death,” a clarification of concerns, and sense of the poet, as Keats claimed, as a “no one,” or rather a little of all, a “chameleon” bearing the colors of its context. The “work” of art owes its power to the embodiment of priorities. Every decision a poet makes — every line break, figure, register of diction, speed of syntax, phrasing, point of view, you name it ­­— says something about what that poet values, what contributes to the sense of the necessary, the sense of a poem’s calling. When an artist is working so closely with the medium, so intuitively, attentively, musically, viscerally, playfully, paradoxically, rebelliously, and yes, even intellectually, with the three dimensionality of multiple resonances of meaning and tone, when an artist is embedded in the process of unfolding words in ways that defy paraphrase and judgement, we have ventured far from the concerns of the careerist and the literary contestant.  We are inviting body, mind, and heart all into the same room where they lose track of just who is who. The irony remains that such focus can lead, if we are lucky, to a career, an identity, a prize. 
 
This is not to say, however, that we are any less an artist if concerns about a reader’s judgement inflect our process. Quite the opposite. Such concerns are endemic to the medium of language, which is both private and public, for the simple reason that it is made up of relationships — both dynamic and individual and, conversely, cultural and historical. Moreover, words mark the place where the tension between the individual and the collective becomes most heated, beautiful, and problematic. It is not productive for a writer to deny any reality, let alone those associated with ego. I find it far more useful to approach the ego as a drive rather than a construct. In this way, it resembles a sex drive insofar as it creates illusions but does not constitute one. It comes and goes as a part of our nature. I tell my students that it is unrealistic for them to simply “check their egos at the door.” The trick is to have your ego work for you and not against you. In a pedagogical context, I am thinking about the non-productive features of attachment and a fear of influence and change. But the ego participates in creative life quite productively in other ways. I have no problem with the idea of self-interest haunting elements of gift-giving and communal literary participation. A little shadow ghosts everything we do. What is the purist if not the greatest narcissist of all? So, in our work, if we want it to function in the world, to truly “work” out there, there comes a time when our poems must leave home. They must find their way, on their own terms, without our bodies in the room. For the most part, contests are judged anonymously, and that practice has a beauty about it. It suggests attention has a better chance of falling deeply into the text, into the authority of feeling and idea born of one word following another. 
 
But there are myriad sensibilities that defer to an authority so broadly defined. Doubtless the phrase “worthy manuscript” can conjure anxieties about both the power of a work and the work of power. The “power out there” that reads and judges us is, of course, an imaginary construct, but somewhat inevitable, if not necessary, for the working writer to consider. The first task, in sending out a manuscript to a particular press or editor is to do a little homework, to read poems by those who might be judging a book. The poems of general editors, screeners, or final judges are, if available, the best indicators of what a press most likely values. My best advice to young writers is to cultivate a community based on what it is you love, what challenges you, what makes you want to write. Send a writer an email of appreciation if you read something you admire. Do not concern yourself with who is deemed important or not by someone else. You are on the long path. Find the writers and editors you respect. Send them your work. Send work to contests judged by your favorite writers. Do not worry about emulating the work of those who win prizes, unless their prizes mean nothing to the quality of your attention and affection. Forge a trustworthy bridge between your private work and your public aspirations. The lasting and most valuable relationships in your career evolve through a mutual exchange built on respect and a sense of shared adventure, the sense of a language so deeply embedded in the seer and the seen none can find its beginning or end.

Bruce Bond is the author of twenty-seven books including, most recently, Blackout Starlight: New and Selected Poems 1997-2015 (L.E. Phillabaum Award, LSU, 2017), Rise and Fall of the Lesser Sun Gods (Elixir Book Prize, Elixir Press, 2018), Dear Reader (Free Verse Editions, 2018), Frankenstein’s Children (Lost Horse, 2018), Plurality and the Poetics of Self (Palgrave, 2019), Words Written Against the Walls of the City (LSU, 2019), and The Calling (Parlor, 2020). Presently he is a Regents Professor of English at the University of North Texas.

New Releases from Etruscan

We are thrilled to announce the publication of Diane Raptosh’s third collection of poetry with Etruscan Press, Dear Z: The Zygote Epistles.
 
Dear Z collects verse-letters to a newly fertilized zygote—not quite a person, nor even an embryo—but rather, the great human maybe. The speaker delivers the “Z” a taste of what this might mean in poems whose topical range traipses from AutoFill to Idaho, New Zealand rivers to the zombie apocalypse.

We are proud to welcome Alex Stein’s Variations in the Key of K to the Etruscan Press family.
 
Variations in the Key of K begins where history leaves off, delving into imagined lives of Kafka, and other great artists, including Picasso, Blake, and Artaud. Part scholarship, part novel, Variations in the Key of K is a wry critique and a celebration of the creative life.


 

Etruscan Interviews and Readings


During January and June each year, the Wilkes University Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing holds an eight-day M.A./M.F.A. residency that includes a publishing module led by Etruscan Press co-founder and executive director Phil Brady. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the June 2020 residency was held completely online for the first time in the history of the program. In preparation, Dr. Brady prerecorded a series of interviews with and readings by Etruscan editors, authors, and advisors for students to view (in place of face-to-face visits). We are excited to share these recordings with you.
 
From the home page of www.etruscanpress.org choose Interviews & Readings. From there, you can choose either Editor/Writer Interviews or Etruscan Author Readings.
 
Editor/Writer Interviews include: Laurie Jean Cannady, author of the memoir Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul, a Foreword Reviews Book of the Year finalist; J. Michael Lennon, Etruscan Press board member, Wilkes University Maslow Family Creative Writing Program co-founder, and Norman Mailer biographer; Tim Seibles, Virginia poet laureate, author of the poetry collection Fast Animal (winner of the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize and National Book Award finalist), and the poetry collection One Turn Around the Sun; Bill Schneider, Etruscan Press Managing Editor; Lenore Hart and David Poyer, Wilkes University Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing faculty members, authors, and founders of the publishing enterprise Northampton House Press; Kaylie Jones, founding faculty member of the Wilkes University Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing and the force behind Kaylie Jones Books (an imprint of Akashic Books); Albert LaFarge, a literary agent and founder of the Albert LaFarge Literary Agency; Johnny Temple, founder and editor-in-chief of Akashic Books and advisory board member of the Wilkes University Maslow Family Graduate Creative Writing Program; and Donna Talarico, alumna of Wilkes University and founder of Hippocampus Magazine and Books.
 
Etruscan Author Readings include the following: Laurie Jean Cannady, Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul, a coming of age memoir chronicling the author’s journey through abuse and impoverishment; Sheryl St. Germain, 50 Miles, a memoir in linked essays that addresses addiction and alcoholism by tracing the life and death of the author’s son, Gray, a talented but troubled young man; Peter Grandbois, James McCorkle, and Robert Miltner, Triptych, three books between two covers that reestablish the communal aspect of poetry; and Karen Donovan, Diane Raptosh, and Daneen Wardrop, Trio, another publication featuring three books of poetry between two covers.
 
We hope you enjoy these very special presentations.

About Etruscan Press:

Housed at Wilkes University and partnering with Youngstown State University, Etruscan is a non-profit literary press working to produce and promote books that nurture the dialogue among genres, cultures, and voices.

For the latest Etruscan events, please visit our website.
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