Monthly Archives: November 2009

C.D. Wright: 11/09/09

Report by Nicola W.

C.D. Wright recently spent an hour with Professor Cooley’s Advanced Poetry Writing Workshop.  While her work can be mysterious and surreal, Ms. Wright is herself plainspoken and unassuming and was generously forthright in her answers to our many questions. She said she got into poetry “rather late” after a short-lived try at law school, confessing that as a young adult, she was afraid of not being good at anything and that she felt “a great longing to be part of something I liked and cared about.”  As a child, she cared very much about words, in part because she did not have access to any of the arts except for literature (her father was an enthusiastic reader), and that “books were my families … words were like real things to me.”

Her fascination with language remains; Ms. Wright described poetry as “a process of faith to the language … a truth of the word.” She loves all types of language, sacred, foul, archaic – “all the different layers of language” – and advised us to learn another language, because “when you learn another language, you can see the skeleton of your own.”

When asked about her writing methods, Ms. Wright said she likes to work with phrasing, adding “I never felt I had that much control over line,” that she couldn’t “artificially exact line” on her work, and often prefers to work with internal line breaks. The nature of what she is working on determines how she goes about writing: she is “always waiting for the poem to teach me something.”

Physical location and geography exert a strong influence on the work.  (“One Big Self,” her collaborative work with photographer Deborah Luster about Louisiana prisoners was the example she gave.) Her poems often start with just fragments “of things that are giving of a resonance.”  As the work progresses, she is always looking for ways to add texture.  When writing “Deepstep Come Shining,” Ms. Wright had been very concerned about how it looked on the page, posting pieces of the poems on walls and rearranging them to heighten certain patterns and threads.  She was drawn to writing book-length work as she was attracted to “the possibilities of including everything instead of distilling,” but noted that after writing a book-length poem, one must relearn how to write a lone poem!

She addressed the issue of personal courage.  When asked about how she had been able to write her more explicit poems, Ms. Wright described herself as “afraid of everything – except on the page,” a point she reiterated at her public reading a few hours later.   She shared that the hard part is always “breaking the silence. Even though I find the prospect of breaking into the page terrifying, I have the love for the adventure.” This leads her to keep learning new things and working with different forms.  She is not “one of the poets who find their form early on and stick with it.”  She likes to turn the page – “to see what’s on the other side.”

On practical matters, she called herself “not much of a planner,” but added that she does keep good notebooks.  For us less organized beings, it was inspiring to hear such an accomplished poet call herself scattered, that she felt like “a cat who can talk,” that she “can’t reproduce yesterday, can never find her car keys, and never drives the same way twice.”

Our class readings this semester have focused on work by non-American poets, so it was also interesting to hear Ms. Wright observe that in America, poetry was still “an invisible practice,” that our poets were the “unacknowledged legislators.”

Our time with Ms. Wright went far too quickly but, for me, continues to resonate.

C.D. Wright was the 11th Florie Gale Arons Poet. This annual program is sponsored by NCCROW (Newcomb College Center for Research on Women.)

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Deborah Eisenberg 11/04/09: An evening with a genius

Report by Jenny Douglass:

Until this past Wednesday, when I thought of Deborah Eisenberg I pictured the photo on the back of Twilight of the Superheroes: a woman with rigid facial features looking at something unseen by the camera, her expression calm, her demeanor austere, and her thoughts transfixed in the wrinkles of a new story– a person whose intellect and presence would be nothing short of intimidating.

Eisenberg has written four collections of short stories since 1986 and has been the recipient of the Rea Award for the Short Story, a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was recently awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (otherwise known as a “genius grant”).

On Wednesday, Eisenberg read from “Some Other, Better Otto”, which appears in Twilight of the Superheroes (2006), to an audience crowded into the common room of Cudd Hall. Since that evening, when I think of her I think of the richness of her expressions.

As she read from her story, she raised eyebrows into deep, sympathetic angles. The words she spoke were deliberate and full, as though they had taken shape deep within her rather than simply in her mouth. When different characters spoke, her voice took on nuances with such fluidity that it was clear she had become entirely intimate with the complexities of each character. At times, her whole body would be compelled by a character’s mood and tendons would push from her neck in frustration or her shoulders would slouch in disappointment. At the end of her reading, while the audience applauded, she bobbed her head gently up and down and a smile of genuine gratitude spread across her face.

These rich and genuine expressions should come as no surprise from someone who, in the words of the MacArthur Foundation, “continues to produce elegant explorations of the human psyche in tales of increasing complexity, fluency, and moral depth.”

Following her reading, Eisenberg opened the floor to questions, adding,  “I’m willing to answer anything at all.” Many of the questions she was asked centered on her writing process and all of her answers invariably commented on the subconscious, organic nature of writing. When developing characters, she explained that uses no methods. Instead, she said, “I use my eyes and ears, let them say what they have to say, and try not to block them.” And when asked why she writes stories a certain way, Eisenberg smiles, looks up at the ceiling with her hands in the air and says, “I honestly have no idea. It just seemed right.”

In a recent interview, Eisenberg responded to being a genius with “Uh, I’m not”. But what emerged from the questions and answers was the feeling that she in fact has an exceptional ability to acutely perceive and represent the human condition. Yet rather than estrange or intimidate, Eisenberg left the audience full of creative writing students with inspiration from her own life. When asked where she was when she was our [college-student] age, she said bluntly, “Well, I was sort of in the gutter.”

Having not started writing until she was thirty, she remembered feeling “utterly useless” and that “everyone was miles ahead of [her]”. She continued, “If you find [writing fiction] hard going, don’t be frustrated and don’t think necessarily you’re unequipped to do it. It is unbelievably painstaking and takes a lot of patience.” She said she would have given up if she hadn’t been living with a fellow writer, Wallace Shawn, who explained to her, “Everyone writes like a five-legged pig at first.”

This was the first event in our new Writer’s Writer Series. The next is a reading by Edmund White on Monday, February 1st.

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Deborah Eisenberg at Tulane this week

Eisenberg

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An evening with Eric Overmyer

Report by Elizabeth Furey:

The students of Paula Morris’ Intro to Screenwriting class made sacrifices to make it to a dinner on Thursday, October 29th.  Rehearsals had to wait; club meetings were pushed aside.  Professor Morris lifted her boycott of Whole Foods for the occasion.  The reason: Eric Overmyer was kind enough to join the class for a question-and-answer session in Professor Morris’ living room.

The experienced television writer and producer talked openly to the class (as long as what they asked did not violate any terms of the confidentiality contract he has signed with HBO) about the business of writing for the camera as well as for the stage, and on the writing process in general.  Eric Overmyer mentioned the difficulty of joining the writing staff of an already established show.  He says his strategy is to stay quiet and get a feel of the writers’ room before pitching ideas and stories.  Mr. Overmyer talked about the necessity in writing to arrive at a point organically, and not to force something on to a story.  However, in television a certain point must come up in a scene, so it’s up to the writer to make that happen believably.  He also brought up the point that some background in acting could be helpful when writing for either the stage or the screen.

Eric Overmyer began writing because, he claims, he had “no other skills.” After majoring in theater and going to grad school “for five minutes” he began his life as a playwright in New York City, “barely squeaking by” for some time.  A friend who got into television was his point of entry to the business. He admits that, at the time, some part of him felt he was selling out – like Holden Caulfield’s brother, D.B.  But any fears that he had become a sell-out quickly vanished when he realized what hard work and creativity went into being a writer/producer for a television series.

Mr. Overmyer was asked about the day-to-day life of an executive producer, and he assured the students that there is little down time in his average day.  There’s location scouting, story meetings, casting, conversations with directors on changing the location of a scene and the cost implications of doing so, to name a few.

For both teaching and writing for television (and much else in life, one would imagine) “it depends on who’s in the room,” Mr. Overmyer said.  He has taught at Yale’s Drama School and NYU, and has experienced writers’ rooms on several shows, so he has had both positive and negative experiences. Mr. Overmyer is confident about the writing on his latest project, Treme. And is he excited about teaching at Tulane?  Of course.

Eric Overmyer co-created the upcoming HBO show (due sometime at the end of April, beginning of May) Treme with David Simon, creator of The Wire.  Although the show is named after Faubourg Treme, the historical African American neighborhood in New Orleans, it actually takes place all over the city a few months after Hurricane Katrina tore through – set from Thanksgiving 2005 through the first Mardi Gras after the storm.  Treme will be filming around the city for the next six months.  Mr. Overmyer said he would like to take his Advanced Screenwriting class to the set of Treme next semester for an invaluable and unique experience.

The classes Eric Overmyer will be teaching next semester (Spring 2010) are Advanced Screenwriting and Playwriting II.  Both promise to involve a great deal of writing, Mr. Overmyer said.  Placement in either class will be undoubtedly competitive.  (It should be noted that Professor Morris is the proud “gatekeeper” of the Advanced Screenwriting class. You can read course descriptions and requirements for this class here.)

Thanks to the Duren professorship for funding this event.

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