Wednesday, April 15, 2015

From Volume 35: A poem by B.J. Ward

B.J. Ward


Daily Grind



A man awakes every morning

and instead of reading the newspaper

reads Act V of Othello.

He sips his coffee and is content

that this is the news he needs

as his wife looks on helplessly.

The first week she thought it a phase,

his reading this and glaring at her throughout,

the first month an obsession,

the first year a quirkiness in his character,

and now it’s just normal behavior,

this mood setting in over the sliced bananas,

so she tries to make herself beautiful

to appease his drastic taste.

In the Spotlight: B.J. Ward

Photo credit: Nancy Wegard
B.J. Ward, the judge of the 2014 WCPA Frank O’Hara Prize, co-directs the creative writing degree program at Warren County Community College in New Jersey. Read below to learn about his experience as a judge for the Frank O’Hara Prize, tips for writers, and inside information behind two of his poems that appear in volume XXXV of The Worcester Review.

As the co-director of the creative writing degree program at Warren County Community College, what has been the most rewarding part of working with students? In what ways has teaching writing helped you grow as a writer? 

My first inclination was to say that teaching has not helped me much as a writer, nor have I expected it to. Writing and teaching require different types of awareness. For me, the energy it takes to write well is an inward type of delving; when I teach, my energy is (hopefully) going outward, attempting to enter the minds of everyone else in the room with my little shovel, trying my best to make my students’ lives better in an hour and twenty minute session. In this way, teaching in a classroom is a public act. As a student, I’ve always been grateful for the teacher who looked at a book as an intellectual meeting place for everyone in the room and made sure everyone felt invited. I felt a little marginalized when a professor would be too inward with his focus, presenting the text as a personal playground we got to observe from the other side of the fence.

Just as momentum can shift in a baseball game with a couple of base runners, momentum can shift in a class session (for better or worse) with just two or three comments. Teaching well involves being aware of the energy in the room, an outward-going attention.  Writing, however, feels very private to me—at least the initial flurry of words on the page in which I’m unearthing things I didn’t know I knew.

And yet something else must be acknowledged: there’s cross-pollination between inward and outward energies after the initial act in each instance. Revising my work towards publication usually involves some kind of outward awareness, and consideration of how a lesson plan went and how it can be improved for the next presentation involves that inward energy.

So my first inclination was wrong. If I further consider how teaching has helped my writing: discussing a poem a few times inevitably brings greater insight to it. For me, that usually has to do with the poet’s crafting, which inspires me to work on my own craft more.

And beyond this, teaching gives me a way to continue to think actively about words during my day job—a luxury I didn’t have when I was a waiter or boxing stereos at the Kenwood plant in Mount Olive, NJ.

Furthermore, and to mention one of the most rewarding aspects of my jobs, my students often become friends, and their enthusiasm for their continued learning bolsters my enthusiasm for my own self-education.

What was your experience like as a judge for the Frank O’Hara Prize? What was the most interesting aspect? The most difficult?   

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

From Volume 35: A poem by Tom Howard

Rules for Telling a Ghost Story

You must have a flashlight,
and you should have a storm.
Place the flashlight under your chin,
but say nothing at first,
while they squirm a little on the couch
and start to giggle.

Giggling is not allowed (not yet),
so you wait.
Then you speak—
quietly, slowly, in a normal voice,
except that you have this flashlight
pointing up at you like a madman
(it’s the contrast that you want).

In the Spotlight: Tom Howard

“You must have a flashlight, / and you should have a storm.” So begins Tom Howard’s poem in volume XXXV of The Worcester Review. In the following post, Howard discusses this poem, “Rules for Telling a Ghost Story,” and reveals his thoughts on writing. 

How do you go about writing? What is your writing routine?

Last summer my family and I went to the Outer Banks for the week, along with our dog. The dog was sick the whole week, and my wife and I had to wake up before dawn every day to carry him outside because he was afraid of the stairs. I ended up sitting on the beach with the dog every day, watching the sunrise. And I thought: this is a perfect way to start writing every day, other than the dog being sick and having to carry him up and down the stairs.

Away from the beach and with a full-time job, I just try to find a quiet corner of the house as often as I can. I read through whatever I’m working on, try to understand where it wants to go and if it’s worth me following it there. I spend an hour or two rewriting the same lines, looking for ways to surprise myself or make myself laugh or just find something honest to say, and then I throw the lines out completely and start over. There’s a lot of that. When things are going well, I also pace quite a bit.

While “Rules for Telling a Ghost Story” is a poem, you also write fiction. Do you have a preference between poetry and fiction? Once you have an idea, how do you choose which genre to pursue?

I don’t write much poetry, but I do read a good deal of it because I’m probably way too interested in the sound of any piece of writing. When I’m working on a story I think a lot about the beats I’m hitting—not only the emotional beats but also the sounds of the words, the rise and fall, the overall shape of the thing. So there’s an intersection with poetry even though I’m not really thinking in those terms.

“Rules” is probably more story than poem, but I wrote it as a poem because it’s really about the act of revelation. You tell a ghost story by layering all these details, hitting the right beats, holding back at the right time, pausing, subverting expectation. Which kind of describes any good piece of writing but especially any good poem. So I thought that would be a fun way to structure it.

Who (or what) is your inspiration, literary or otherwise?