Category: writing

The Poetry Machine

The Poetry Machine

Whoever Bert and Frank are, their little poetry machine is genius.

A friend of mine just introduced me to this cool toy: The Poetry Machine. It sounds a little dystopian, I know. A machine that takes over writing all the world’s poetry. All the poets sent to dungeons where they spend their days counting rocks or some equally mind numbing task. But no, this poetry machine is nearly perfect in that it requires human creativity to make the poems. What makes this machine great is that it provides a series of prompts in the form of images and questions, and the machine operator has to insert their original brilliance. After doing this five times, the poem pops out, and the poet gets to edit it and add a title before it’s all over.

Try it out and post your Poetry Machine poems in the comments.


What would you agree to for a writer’s residency?

Image of Denver Platform and Amtrak  Train

Denver Platform View, copyright Kathleen Crislip

There is a lot of chatter around the Amtrak Residency Program for writers. Free long-distance train ride with a sleeper car equipped with a bed, a desk and outlets. Countryside views unattainable from any other type of trip. Inspiration.

Writers flooded Amtrak with applications—8,500 in just the first week. Twitter is ablaze with the hashtag, #AmtrakResidency. This tells me that for many this opportunity is worth the cost. By cost, I don’t mean an application fee because there is none. The cost is giving up all rights to application materials, which includes a writing sample of up to 10 pages.

In legal-speak, the Official Terms of the program include provision 6, “Grant of Rights,” as quoted below.

In submitting an Application, Applicant hereby grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy Applicant’s Application, in whole or in part, for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing, and to sublicense such rights to any third parties. . . . Applicant grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy the name, image, and/or likeness of Applicant and the names of any such persons identified in the Application for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing. For the avoidance of doubt, one’s Application will NOT be kept confidential (and, for this reason, it is recommended that the writing sample and answers to questions not contain any personally identifiable information – e.g., name or e-mail address – of Applicant.)

Critics have come out against the program for this reason. Dan Zak calls it a sham in his Washington Post article. Mr. Zak points out the media coup this is for Amtrak, now getting crazy publicity for their long-distance trips, which are reportedly operating in the red by millions. Ben Cosman, writing for The Wire, shares parts of an email from Julia Quinn, Amtrak’s Social Media Director, written to The Wire, clarifying Amtrak’s intentions: Read more »

Hostel Lessons



10 Things I Learned By Staying in a Hostel During AWP

  1. Not only do I talk in my sleep, but I also yelp, so there goes any sense of moral superiority I might have had about not snoring.
  2. That new guy from Austin may seem nice, but when he asks for a favor, it’s OK to say no, especially when he says, “Can we go out into the hallway so I can ask you?” At that point, it’s a relief when he only asks to use my laptop.
  3. Next time I forget my key card, I should check inside my boot before paying $10 for a replacement.
  4. Stashing the replacement key card inside my laminated AWP ID badge is easy and convenient. Inadvertently displaying my room number to thousands of AWP attendees in no way makes it look like I’m trying to lure men back to the hostel.
  5. Some people go to AWP and wake up next to strange men. I wake up next to strange phones. It was not because I had sleepwalked my way down the ladder and stolen someone’s phone. Nope, I’m too busy yelping in my sleep for that. Instead, the sweet girl in Bunk E heard a phone going off on the floor next to the bunk and assumed it was mine. I appreciated her thoughtfulness, even if I did glance at the phone while half-asleep and wonder exactly when I had switched to Verizon.
  6. Fitted sheets will always hate me, regardless of if I’m making a full-size bed in Spokane or a twin bed in Seattle.
  7. That guy in Bunk D with the hipster mustache? He’s not here for AWP. He’s “just hanging out.”
  8. Creepy hallway requests aside, people possess a remarkable ability to be nice to strangers who just happen to be sleeping in the same room. Yes, even writers have this strange and mysterious power.
  9. Always leave the window open. Sure, the view is nice, but not waking up in a puddle of sweat is even nicer.
  10. Rooming with fellow writers means thoughtful, reasoned discussions on the nature of writing, grad school, and funny euphemisms for, you know, sex stuff.


Trying to fit in can be hard sometimes

Trying to fit in can be hard sometimes.


I was embarrassed of my skinny legs. Starting in first, maybe second, grade I started wearing black leggings to school. Almost daily. It’s okay, I had multiple pairs, so it wasn’t like I was wearing the same pair every day to school and I figured everyone else knew that. In my childhood mind those black leggings hid my skinniness from the world. It didn’t occur to me until years later that leggings cling to your body. Reveal every bone. I imagine my legs looked like stilts.
My leggings were a little loose on me. Maybe I got by.

- – -

Since graduating from my MFA program with a degree in creative writing I have felt lost. I found what I wanted to do in the world. I loved it. I felt full. Since drifting from my community of like-minded people and program-established friendships I can feel myself emptying. Curling up like a flower touched by evening frost I am allowing myself to believe I am defined by bills, by a need to be responsible, by acting my age, figuring it out. I feel unsteady. Like I’m learning to walk again. And I’m doing a terrible job remembering my determination and my ability to adapt. Sometimes I worry I’m falling on purpose.

- – -

My sister was taller than me. Stretched. She was thinner. More shy. When I was a little older it started to sink in what my mom meant when she said my sister was teased. Would come home crying. People were mean to her. She had braces on her teeth, headgear for a while, so did I, but then again, people didn’t tease me. Or if they did I don’t remember.  As a younger sibling I never assumed the role of protector. But now, as an adult, I find myself feeling fiercely protective over her and how the people around her are treating her.

- – -

When I go on job interviews, for jobs I’m uncertain I’m qualified to do well, I’m often asked about my personal and professional goals. For me, they are the same. I want to write. I want to find time to write. I want to be engaged with the world, to learn and educate myself, to explore and grow and have a lot of time for silence and stillness. But I always feel weird saying this in an interview, like I should be more driven. Or more defined. Or more or more or more or more.
I want to make sure I’m growing, pushing myself to do more.
I want to “be successful.”
I want to make my family proud.
When interviewing for jobs I often feel like a round peg trying to fit in to a square hole. Read more »

Imagining Will Burns

Will Burns, a tall skinny white boy who dipped in, and dipped out of our MFA program between our year one and year two. Will Burns of the perfect bedhead, Will Burns of the grey smoke, Will Burns of the vacant stare, the smirk. I haven’t told anyone, but after he left one summer night between first and second year of grad school, I kept seeing Will around town. And even after I left Spokane, moved to Arizona, and eventually to North Carolina, I kept seeing Will.


  • In Roseaurs, the Spokane grocery store, from behind, heading down the cold pop/warm pop/chip aisle. I called his name, and the man who turned around happened to be a Will, too, but he was not Will Burns.
  • Riding a bike down Spokane Falls Blvd in the middle-to-left lane with no regard for drivers in cars behind him losing their shit, flipping him the bird, and riding his bumper. As I drove by I saw it was not Will Burns, but instead a woman, and she was smiling.
  • In the reflection of glass in the lobby of our Riverpoint campus building. I kept looking, and looking. He had on a sweater, he was there, but I knew when I turned around he would be gone.
  • Standing at the top of the Big Red Wagon in the middle of Riverside Park surrounded by children.
  • As I was leaving the Phoenix municipal courthouse, he was across the road looking west up Washington street. How did he find me? Did he know what I’d done?
  • Coming down the trail in running shorts, scrawny legs eating up the distance between us. The sun was at his back, and I turned to TJ to say, “Look, it’s Will.”
  • Sitting at a table in the Wendy’s in a small town outside Oklahoma City.  I was driving round the side to the drive through, the first meal I’d be eating all day, but I kept going round and then out. I could not eat there.
  • Gazing into the driver’s side of my car where it was parked in my mother’s driveway. He must have felt my stare, because he turned to look up at me. I moved away from the window.

Anything Other Than Writing

My brain is a kind of synapse soup leaking out of my ears after two terrific conferences, one odyssey in Denver, a delivery of files to the printing press, and the mere suggestion of grading scientist profiles. So, in lieu of a thoughtful post, I will offer you several games.

1. Pick up the book nearest you.
Turn to page 45. The first complete sentence describes your love life.

Here’s mine:
“Rather than simplifying and unifying, he is revealing the complexity of the Japanese ‘natural’ world and opening a space in the cosmology for native yokai.”

from Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai by Michæl Dylan Foster

(Har har har, sounds supernatural, huh?)

2. Make a book spine poem by arranging books on your self.
Here’s mine:


The hummingbird’s daughter
falling up
in the wilderness
skinny legs and all.
Read more »

The Making of Good Writers

WriterLeslie Jamison thoughtful and smart essay “Which Creates Better Writers: An MFA Program or New York City? examines the issues brought up in MFA vs. NYC, an essay collection edited by Chad Harbach. The collection is an extension of the questions Hardbach asked in his 2010 essay by the same title, which was written in response to Mark McGurl’s  2009 book The Program Era.

I remember some of the arguments debates that heated up the internet four years ago, and it seems like the collection continues those discussions.

The Los Angeles Times thinks the book ‘ponders whether getting a master of fine arts degree in creative writing is a good idea.’ Though in the article that follows this headline, reviewer Carolyn Kellogg broadens the issue: ‘The larger question is whether institutionalizing a creative endeavor benefits our culture.’ In the New York Times, Dwight Garner calls it a ‘volume that asks whether fiction writing can, or should, be taught.’

Jamison expands these questions in her essay and clarifies why the debate will probably never be settled.

“Not so much whether writers can be taught but what it means that they are getting taught, and what it means that we keep asking this question about the legitimacy of the discipline; what our anxieties about the institutionalization of writing might teach us. The volume asks who pays the bills, and how; and also how these flows of money—the pressures they generate and the institutional affiliations they produce—affect the work itself.”

Reading this article right after AWP resonated with me. It’s been four years since I last attended the conference and yet many of the panels this year discussed the same issues as the talks I attended then, including “…the legitimacy of the discipline; what our anxieties about the institutionalization of writing might teach us.” And many of the students in the audience again  brought up variations of “who pays the bills, and how; and also how these flows of money—the pressures they generate and the institutional affiliations they produce—affect the work itself.”

I’m not sure we’ll ever get concrete answers. I kind of hope we don’t, because I like the landscape of the writing market to be as fluid and diverse as I hope new writers (and writing programs) will continue to be.  And so, I’m quite happy to debate these issues, now and in the future.

Seven Years


History we can’t imagine.

I would like to apologize to my ex.

Though I never wrote about him during the four years we were together, not once, I did write about so many other boys. Names changed, details altered, but always others. I wrote countless semi-fictional travelogues featuring sexually liberated young women (my undergraduate thesis contained only that), and he rarely confronted me about it. When he did – obliquely, weakly, with a caginess for which I can hardly blame him – I told him it was fiction, fiction, fiction. I robbed him of what might be the only real benefit of dating a writer at that age: the beauty of seeing yourself rendered romantically in print. I’m sorry for that.

When I go back and read writing from that time, I am embarrassed by how obvious its references are. Read more »

Failure Comes in Many Forms

The roadtrip: a time-honored tradition.

The roadtrip: a time-honored tradition.

This past weekend, I had a plan to drive from Minneapolis to Chicago because my college roommate Alison, who now lives in Hawaii, was going to be in the city. I hadn’t seen her for a year and a half, and hadn’t even been able to go to her wedding because I’d been in Washington state. Now we were just six and a half hours away from each other. I planned to drive down Friday after work and come back late Sunday morning. I’ve driven across the country by myself. My routine drives from home to college took fifteen hours. This was nothing.

Yet everyone I mentioned this to said, “You’re driving by yourself?” as if it was not only unheard of, but downright dangerous. “Yeah,” I’d respond, with a shrug. “I like long drives.” Even my boss, after letting me leave work early, said, “You better be careful out there! Have you checked the weather?” Of course I’d checked the weather: clear skies in Chicago. This wasn’t my first rodeo. I had a printed set of directions and a working GPS. I was looking forward to watching the hills and fields of the Midwest stream by me while I sang along to the mix CDs I’d made for the occasion.

As I merged into the 3:30 rush-hour traffic, I was already rehearsing how I’d tell my friend about how uptight everyone had seemed about my roadtrip. I was both bemused and frustrated by the reactions. When I’d lived in Spokane, people had a tendency to say things like “That store is all the way out in the Valley,” which in reality meant it was a twenty-minute drive, at most. Maybe this was a similar problem: not driving a route often enough to see how manageable it actually was. I looked forward to telling them all what a great time I’d had come Monday.

After nearly two hours of driving through fog, blowing snow, and quickly deepening dark, I pulled off the highway in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and checked into a hotel. I was unbearably embarrassed. I had not checked the weather in Wisconsin, even though approximately 70% of my trip involved driving through the state. I thought about waiting to see if the snow would let up, but I still had five hours to go, and I’d spent the last thirty minutes gripping the steering wheel in semi-terror, unable to see the road signs, just trying to stay in the tracks the car ahead of me was cutting through the thin snow.

Still, I told everyone, including Alison, that I would leave early and see them on Saturday. I am a person who holds loyalty and friendship in high regard and goddamnit, if she was in Chicago, I was going to see her. This was the girl who lived with me for four years of college, proofread all my French assignments, and once ran and jumped into my arms just because I was curious if I’d be able to catch her. If I didn’t make it to Chicago, I didn’t know when we’d be able to see each other next.

Like I said.

By the time I checked the weather at 6:00 the next morning, it was clear I would not be making it to Chicago at all.

Read more »

I love you but I do not want to write about you unnecessarily.

I hate it when I am reading an essay and the writer suddenly says she has a husband or fiancé or boyfriend for no real good reason other than she thinks she must. I will be reading some perfectly good essay about stargazing or foreclosures and suddenly know whether the author lives with her boyfriend. She will be working through her thoughts, then bring in his as one line of dialogue or some other form of aside, a throwaway line that does not complicate anything and could just as easily be cut.

Why must women always have to declare they’re female and they’re taken or single, a mother or not a mother? What is that all about? It is not expected that a male writer will say how committed he is to a significant other or if he’s fathered a child, and he really doesn’t have to declare that in the first sentence.

But females still have to reduce themselves to a stereotype. What Golden Girl/Sex in the City/Designing Women/L-Word/Girls/name-a-show-with-a-female-cast character are you? The naïve one? The super-sexed-up one? The too-macho and outspoken one? The sensible one?

What if I am Southern and only occasionally feisty? Or terribly naïve but not at all innocent? What if that isn’t the point and I am not, by nature, a confessionalist?

One of the last essay critiques I got said, “Tell me your sex up front.” I had not thought my sex or gender was important to the question at hand, which is why I had not devoted any space to my anatomy or whether I am sporty or free-spirited, or if I am co-conspirator in some playful, moonly love.
Read more »

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