Read the announcement in The College Today.
By Hailey Williams and Jammie Huynh
Dr. Jason Koo visited the College of Charleston on January 20 to kick off the Spring semester’s Dorothea Benton Frank Writing Series with an Industry Talk. MFA Director, Dr. Emily Rosko spoke to a large gathering of CofC’s student-writers, saying she was “delighted to have Jason Koo here to speak today about his experiences and the challenges with starting and growing a nonprofit literary organization.”
With the 10th anniversary of Brooklyn Poets approaching (on Walt Whitman’s birthday), Koo said he has “much to celebrate, not the least of which is the opening of our first brick-and-mortar space at 144 Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights.” Despite this, the sense of achievement is still difficult to grasp. There’s so much left to do.
He painted us a picture of Brooklyn Poets’ new home: “The landlord hasn’t bothered to clean the place. Someone’s iced coffee from Starbucks is still sitting on a ledge inside, unmoved since my first visit last September.” With much to do for the new space, the balancing act of serving as Executive Director of Brooklyn Poets while also working as an English professor at Quinnipiac University, and a baby on the way, there is an urgency to get things done. Koo reflected on the big picture: “When I think about all these costs and the new management skills I’ll have to learn on the fly, I think it all seems a little crazy.” The room lightened with this touch of levity. He felt it might be useful to give us a “a sense of the furious what-the-fuck-was I-thinking thinking that goes into a venture like Brooklyn Poets.”
Though Jason Koo admired CofC’s MFA program for offering an Arts and Cultural Management emphasis alongside the Studio track, he admitted that “if faced with a choice between that and the Studio emphasis when I got my MFA, I would have chosen the Studio option.” He described himself as “a poet who grew up completely impractical and backed into the business of arts management more out of necessity than desire or any sense of calling.”
Jason Koo clarified that the literary nonprofit experience isn’t exactly a simple alternative to the traditional academic route for poets: “I wish I had a DIY playbook to offer you and could recommend building your own arts organization as a sexy alternative to landing one of these jobs, but I don’t, and I can’t. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Brooklyn poets began as a Tumblr blog in 2012. “Remember Tumblr?” he chuckled. “At that time, I had little more than a name, a logo, and a couple of promising ideas.” He imagined generative small-group workshops of ten students in his own home and created a 40-week curriculum for his ideal poetry school. He also imagined cool T-shirts.
For the first five years, Koo didn’t earn a salary from Brooklyn Poets. After creating inclusive workshops, open mics, reading series, and retreats, the company started to become profitable in 2017. Even so, to keep the company profitable he could only pay himself a part-time minimum wage.
Despite Brooklyn Poets absorbing all his time and savings, he stuck with it. To give some context, Koo spelled out the challenges he’d faced in academia. Since getting his PhD in 2007, he had “only landed jobs as a visiting assistant professor or adjunct or as a ‘substitute professor’ though it wasn’t clear who I was substituting for.”
The choice to keep building Brooklyn Poets came from seeing the affect his labors made on the world around him: “It’s harder to change existing institutions if you’re not in power than it is to create a new space you have the power to shape. I’ve worked like a dog for Brooklyn Poets, as I have for Quinnipiac, but the difference is that I can see my work for Brooklyn Poets having a real community impact.” With the physical location and the wide-spread use of online platforms, Brooklyn Poets will be able to expand their customers in Brooklyn as well as world-wide.
For those of us looking to start a nonprofit or other venture, Jason Koo gave the following advice: “I urge those of you dreaming of alternative spaces, and perhaps just quixotic enough to try to create them, to bank on your own work ethic, and the worth of your ideas. Don’t be discouraged by the many ways you’ll have to exploit your own labor, because that’s what it’s going to take. There might not seem to be a whole lot of self-care in this, but I assure you there is. I’ve learned over these ten years that all the sacrifices I’ve had to make and commitments I’ve taken on because of Brooklyn Poets have made me happier.”
By Sam Hann and Amanda Tigar
On a pleasantly bright and warm February afternoon, around thirty students and faculty gathered for the Spring semester’s second installment of the Dorothea Benton Frank Writing Series’s “Industry Talks.” Senior Editor for Bloomsbury Publishing, Callie Garnett, prepared to discuss her previous editing work which includes T Kira Madden’s memoir Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, Rachel Louise Synder’s No Visible Bruises, and the New York Times bestseller Outlawed by Anna North. Garnett sat behind a sturdy gray table, laughed at the present circumstance, and said, “It’s so great to be here and so weird to be in a room with a mask at a microphone. Haven’t done that particular thing yet.”
The Director of the MFA Creative Writing Program, Prof. Emily Rosko, introduced Garnett. Rosko recalled how in a recent interview Garnett said, “Publishing runs on a sense of urgency. You want your submission to feel a little like a hot potato, not in the sense of something to get rid of, but something that will gather publishing colleagues around, get them interested, get them into a game of toss.” Rosko praised Garnett’s impressive resume as an editor.
Garnett began the talk stating she hoped “to demystify how publishing is set up to bring books out into the world.” Her interest in providing a clear explanation of the workings of the industry came from her own education where she learned little about how to apply her skills to publishing.
“I never thought about being an editor when I was young,” Garnett revealed. “I don’t think I knew what the job was. If I did picture it, I pictured a kind of well dressed man with nice shoes who sits at a desk with piles of paper and his red pencil.” She laughed at the fantasy of such an image because: “very little of that reading and editing actually happens during the day, like during working hours. That happens mostly after hours and on weekends.”
She described how most of her day revolves around communicating with her team, other departments–such as marketing, art, and sales–and the author via email, over Zoom, through a phone call, and even face to face. Garnett had not envisioned herself as a mediator, nor did she ever imagine herself enjoying the role, yet she said she loves acting as “the communicator back and forth between people who are being very blunt and sometimes upset” since she softens the potential blows by asking questions like, “Where can we go? What’s the best path forward?” She said, “I have to be positive and a cheerleader.”
Sifting through a pile topping seven hundred manuscripts high requires a careful eye and a text that stimulates and excites. Garnett described her process: “If the first page doesn’t keep me, I’m done. If you, the writer, haven’t earned my attention, I’m done.” For a work to grab her attention, it “needs to feel urgent because like anything that’s for sale, if it doesn’t feel urgent, it won’t sell.” The urgency of a work can be difficult to manage in an industry that has several moving parts.
Garnett illustrated how slow moving the industry is since she was currently working on manuscripts which will not be published until the winter of 2023. With a chuckle, Garnett mentioned how she recently acquired a book that would come out in 2025. “I like the slow pace, even though it can be infuriating, because it really does leave time for more considered thought,” said Garnett. The publishing industry has to battle the wealth of everyday language readily available; as Garnett acknowledged, “There’s so much writing. It’s so undervalued. There’s writing all over, every day text in your face. I really like the time that it takes to create a physical book.”
Due to the extended timeline required to get a manuscript from acquisition at the publishing house, to the shelves, and in a reader’s hand, publishing rejects trends. By the time a book has gone through the long process required, whatever was trendy has faded. Thus, as she claimed, “[the work] has to be more abiding.”
Garnett went into detail regarding her work on Rachel Lee Snyder’s No Visible Bruises and the tedious work of creating book covers. In the midst of designing a cover, there is often a split between the art department and the author, forcing the editor to be a spokesperson for the project. By putting the project first, says Garnett, you successfully “work at the intersection of art and commerce.”
She then transitioned to her own personal editing style. When considering a manuscript, “you have to always be asking yourself, what’s the big picture here? Does the structure work? Is there anything at stake if it’s a novel, and if it’s nonfiction, do I read this book and understand the content?” Garnett explained editing as an art, since too much editing may turn off a writer and not enough will hurt the book.
For instance, Garnett originally cut an em dash in T Kira Madden’s memoir in the sentence, “my hands–they are never not shaking.” Garnett’s reaction was to “cut the fat,” but Madden didn’t take the suggestion, “because she’s smart… as a writer, you have to know what the heart of your book is and what makes it pulse. And she knew.” When the New York Times wrote their rave review for Madden’s memoir, they pulled that exact line. Garnett laughed and admitted she “hoped she helped in other ways” with the manuscript.
Garnett concluded with valuable advice to everyone who may approach a manuscript as an editor: “The most useful thing I can bring to a manuscript is curiosity. That’s my number one role.”
Learn about the challenges with starting and growing a successful nonprofit literary arts organization. Check out Brooklyn Poets.
This event is open to all CofC students. Cougar card required for entry into Addlestone Library.
Amanda Tigar was able to interview Jammie Huynh, our new Woodfin Fellow in Poetry, and to learn more about her passions and writing inspirations. Besides reading and writing, Jammie enjoys skateboarding and playing volleyball on the weekends.
I mostly grew up in Hartsville and Florence, South Carolina, but moved to Columbia for high school. I went to Winthrop University in Rock Hill for undergrad and graduated with a double major in Spanish and English and minors in sociology and political science.
How did you find poetry, and when did you know you wanted to pursue your own poetry?
I found poetry in a high school sophomore lit class with a professor everyone hated. It was one little assignment where we had to write a poem in 30 min and after you finished, you could volunteer to read it out to the class. I felt brave and read mine. I didn’t think anything of it and thought it wasn’t terrible, but my teacher who never spares a compliment unless he means it, told me it was good. Ever since then, I was drawn to poetry. Before that, I had always wanted to write but I didn’t think I was good enough. I was going to become a doctor or biologist, but those few words from that one teacher gave me the confidence I needed to write and pursue what I loved.
What do you notice yourself constantly writing towards?
Poetry has become a really good outlet for me to explore and navigate my identity and my past. My work tends to revolve around my family and my Latine and Vietnamese identities. I think I write towards understanding; understanding my culture, understanding my parents and understanding me.
Can you describe the piece you are currently working on?
I am currently working on a poem that encapsulates the feelings I had during the rise in Asian hate crimes. I am specifically trying to write about how I felt after 6 Asian women were murdered in Atlanta. I grew up in a small town where we were the only Asian/Latine family around. I was always aware of how different we were, people never seemed to tire of pointing it out. In this work I try to write about how even though I was raised in South Carolina almost my entire life, my existence here will always be questioned. Even if I tell people I grew up here, they always need to know exactly where my family comes from.
Who are your biggest inspirations?
My biggest inspiration is my mom. We grew up in a tough environment and I know without my mom, I would not be where I am today. It is because of her sacrifices that I was able to succeed and pursue my dreams. My mother loved writing poetry but she couldn’t afford to go to school and no one ever encouraged her to continue writing. I get to have the opportunities she didn’t and I refuse to let those sacrifices go to waste.
Who is your favorite poet? Why?
Hieu Minh Nguyen is my favorite right now because he’s one of the first Vietnamese-American poets I’ve ever read. I finally saw someone who looked like me doing what I’ve always wanted to do and it was after stumbling on a video of him on Youtube performing one of his poems that I seriously felt like I could do this. I can also relate to a lot of his writings about culture and family and I just think he has such a fantastic voice and imaginative poems.
Jammie Huynh was able to interview Amanda Tigar, our new Woodfin Fellow in Fiction, and to learn more about her passions and writing inspirations. Besides writing and reading, Amanda enjoys brunch, reality television, and listening to true crime podcasts while driving home in the dark.
I was born and lived in Chattanooga, TN until I moved to Nashville where I attended Belmont University. During my time as an undergraduate, the English department introduced their new creative writing track, and I became one of its first students.
What is your favorite part of Charleston so far?
I love the trees here! Is that a dumb answer? But I can’t stop staring at the old oaks with twisting limbs and true green leaves. I’m currently working on a piece inspired by the Southern Gothic so these ancient trees and historic buildings provide a lot of inspiration and atmosphere while writing.
What kind of fiction do you enjoy writing?
I tend to write things that are a little strange. Whether it be a magical world or people who are a little odd and unusual, I write the weird. Also, I write women’s stories. I like to say that I write terrible women, and what I mean is, the women in my stories are often messy and rough. They hurt people around them and themselves. They aren’t always likable. These are the stories I like to tell.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your stories?
Inspiration is such a tricky thing and even harder to nail down, but I will do my best. I would say I often get inspiration from jealousy. Whenever I read something and I come across a sentence or phrase that makes me slam the cover shut because I wish I had written something so good, I feel inspired to try.
What is your writing process like?
Usually I will hear a voice first. A sentence will come to me and I get an immediate sense of the character and the beginning of the story they want me to tell. The first sentence becomes the jumping off point, and while I typically cut it completely, it helps me to hear a voice and the rest follows.
What book have you read that you absolutely loved?
Before moving to Charleston, I read the novel The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires because it was set in the city. I reasoned that reading Grady Hendrix’s book was the same as doing research or packing boxes. This book was truly terrifying and creepy but also empowering. I believe I was well prepared for life in Charleston and I have my eyes peeled for any blood suckers that may try to invite themselves through my door.
origin story outlines a family history of distant sisters, grieving mothers and daughters, and alcoholic fathers. These poems take us from Kansas to Korea and back again in an attempt to reconnect with estranged family and familial ghosts divided by years of diaspora. An interrogation of cultural and personal myths, origin story wrestles with the questions: Who will remember us? How do we deal with the failures of memory? Whose stories are told?
Prof. Jackson will read from his new book on Thursday, October 7 at 7:00 pm in Alumni Memorial Auditorium, Randolph Hall (College of Charleston).