Monday, August 19, 2013

Words With Winners - Michael Grabell

Michael Grabbel Winner of the Finishing Line Poetry Contest 2012

Michael Grabell is an award winning poet, a journalist for ProPublica, and winner of The Finish Line Press's 2012 Open Chapbook Competition.  His chapbook, Macho Man, is currently available for preorder at FLP. 

Grabell's first book Money Well Spent?: The Truth Behind the Trillion-Dollar Stimulus, the Biggest Economic Recovery Plan in History was published in 2012 by PublicAffairs.  He has been a guest on CNN, Fox News, CNBC, C-SPAN, PBS NewsHour, ABC News, CBS News, NPR's Fresh Air and the Diane Rehm Show.

Here's an excerpt from his poem Definition of Terms.  (See others excerpts at his website)
Maybe it's because my mother met my father through the kosher butcher,
kosher meaning conforming to stubbornness,
butcher meaning to walk through life with bloody hands,
& me, the bread of this affliction,
leavened with the yeast of insistent immigrant ancestors.
In The Competitive Writer's first interview with a poetry chapbook author, Michael talks about winning this contest as well as the experience of living at the confluence of poetry and journalism.

1. What did winning the Finishing Line contest mean to you personally? It came as a nice surprise and a big confidence boost. I had been sending the chapbook out to contests since completing it at the end of 2009. I'd write poetry with or without it. But it certainly inspired me to keep going and move forward with a full-length manuscript, which I'm putting together now.

2. What has been your past experience with writing contests? I've applied to several contests for chapbooks or a group of poems over the years. I won a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg prize in 2010, was runner-up in the River Styx International Poetry Contest in 2009 and was in Best American Poetry and Best New Poets in 2009. The chapbook that won the Finishing Line competition was a finalist or semifinalist in eight other chapbook contests.

3. How has winning or placing in various contests boosted your career? 
I'm not sure it has - at least not yet. It definitely inspires me to keep going. But I still have to get my butt in the chair every day and write. Perhaps it's made me feel less crazy to tell people I write poetry now that someone is going to pay me for a book.

4. Why did you choose to enter this piece to this specific contest?
I've read some great poetry published by Finishing Line and had some friends who've published chapbooks with the press in the past few years. As one of a few dozen contests that offers a $1,000 prize, it's certainly one of distinction.

5. What role should contests play in a writer's development?
I think contests play an important role in helping young poets get their work out there. Publishing poetry especially chapbooks is not a profitable business. So any writer or publishing house that takes this on is doing a great service to the poetry community and poetry lovers in the future. But in terms of development, writers should take them as a grain of salt. Applying for contests shouldn't be an end in itself. Development comes from reading more, writing more and finding a community of writers.

6. How do you balance writing for ProPublica and writing poetry? How do they overlap or influence each other?
The poet David Tucker, who is also an editor at the Newark Star Ledger, summed it up best when he said, "Journalism is about things we know. Poetry is about things we don't know." But I don't think investigative journalism and writing poetry are as far apart as they might seem. Here is what I wrote a few years ago when a former editor asked me this question: 

"I don't see the two as that far apart. Journalists and poets are cut from the same cloth, driven by an obsessive curiosity and a desire to explain the world around them. As an investigative reporter dives deep into a subject trying to uncover the truth, a poet investigates matters of the heart, peeling back layers of emotions to uncover deeper meaning and artistic truth.
"My life as a journalist has greatly affected my poetry and vice versa. As a journalist, I can be a witness to the world and have been granted access to experiences and emotions I'd never be exposed to otherwise. I've seen Einstein's brain, been there when a mother found out that her children had died in a fire and witnessed the despair and hope that followed Hurricane Katrina. All of this has found its way into my poetry. My poems often involve a lot of research, and being a journalist has also given me a good ear for voice.
"In the same way, poetry has given me a love of language and an appreciation for the rhythm of a sentence and the associative qualities of individual words. As the editors I've tortured over the years will tell you, I've been known to argue for a certain word simply because the sound mimics one that occurred in the middle of the previous sentence. When a story I'm writing is really working, every sentence builds in the same way that every line of poetry builds upon the last."
In the years since I wrote that, I've begun to wonder how well the news reflects life for most Americans. Journalists like to say that we write the first draft of history. We capture the events, the facts, the trends of our time. But how close do we ever get to the truth of daily experience? Poetry is about the stuff that's forgotten or overlooked, the things that should be noticed but aren't.

7. How do you define success for yourself as a writer?
Several years ago, I got an email from someone out of the blue saying that they were eating sushi and started to say, "someone I know had a girlfriend who thought the ginger was the raw fish on the side" and then remembered that it was line from a poem of mine. That's success for me, when a line sticks in someone's head and changes the way they see things or when a poem or a story moves them and has an impact on how they experience life.

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