An Old Poet

That’s part of John Knoepfle’s e-mail address – “old poet” – and that’s a fitting introduction to his poem, “thinking back these eighty eight years,” which I discovered in the current issue of New Letters.

I’m neither a poet nor qualified to review poetry, but I fell so deeply in love with this poem that I’ve been thrusting it into other writers’ hands, commanding them to read it.

Perhaps I love it because I’m from the Midwest, and one of John’s awards is the Mark Twain Award for Contributions to Midwestern Literature.

Or perhaps because “thinking back” is written the way memory works – “what do you remember old fox . . . what else quarterback sacked punt blocked/failed promises factory work” – and I write about memory and identity.

Or perhaps because he is a witness to history in this long, six-page poem – “and one sundays awesome silence/steaming the straits of solomon . . .I can tell you about shrapnel/how it drowns you in your own blood” – and I tell members of my Over-50 Writing Workshop that they must record, and pass on, the history they witnessed.

On his web site, John says, “I try to reflect a common quality that I have found in persons   . . . This quality does not reveal the aesthetically beautiful or the diamond-like intellectual fireworks that man is capable of, but it does reveal something basic and handsome about him.” In “thinking back” he reflects that quality in an old pastor, a clairvoyant, a hindu surgeon, the woman in selma, the kennedys, doctor king, the bus driver, and many more.

I would, if I could, thrust the entire poem into your hands. If you can’t find a copy of New Letters, let’s hope that “thinking back these eighty eight years” will appear in John Knoepfle’s 21st book of poetry.





Writing an Enticing Cover Letter by Arlene Mandell

I smiled, with both appreciation and recognition, as I read Arlene Mandell’s guest blog. I, too, have been amazed that people in my workshops have not given thought to their cover letters. Take a good look at her #4. And remember that you’re writing to human beings, people who want to be appreciated for their journal/website/whatever as much as you want them to appreciate the work you’re submitting.

Thanks, Arlene, for being our guest blogger this week.

Writing an Enticing Cover Letter by Arlene Mandell

Groan. I have to write a letter? Can’t I just email this brilliant essay? Or squander a 44-cent stamp and add a perky Post-It with “Please publish ASAP”? No, you cannot.

Having written 3,200 cover letters in the past 20 years, I haven’t wanted to spend too much time crafting each one, yet I want the editor to feel acknowledged and respected.

1. Create attractive letterhead on your computer. Don’t embellish with little feather pens or winsome kittens. Save it.

2. Write a basic bio of 50 words in third person, another of 75 words. Save them. Unless you’re applying for a scholarship, you need not mention where you went to college. If a publication specializes in the domestication of wild animals, you may add, “Onoria Jones raises Bengal tigers on her quarter-acre estate in Petaluma, CA.” Revise annually, adding more impressive credits, i.e., Winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize.

3. Reread the submission guidelines, underlining key elements: genre, number of poems, and, most importantly, the deadline.

4. If you have actually read the publication—a really good idea—mention specifically what you enjoyed before stating: “Thank you for considering ‘My Little Margie,’ a 700-word essay for your fall issue. If you are submitting several works, list them in a column. And if you’re submitting for the spring issue of Conifer Quarterly, don’t send photos of snow-covered cedars.

5. Now assemble the components: letterhead, introduction, specifics, and third-person bio. This should fit neatly on one page. As a postscript I always add: “Please recycle” since a coffee-stained, rumpled poem cannot be used again. Print two copies. One is for your files, as you will rarely remember the specifics of the submission. Proofread. Enclose SASE.

And now, I invite you to return to your writing, confident you have behaved in a responsible, professional manner.


Arlene L. Mandell, who lives in Santa Rosa, CA, has published more than 500 poems, essays and short stories. Her chapbook, Scenes from My Life on Hemlock Street: A Brooklyn Memoir, is available free at



Susan Surman: From Actor to Writer

Susan didn’t intend to be a writer. She trained to be an actor and, as Gracie Luck and Susan Kramer, Boston-born Susan had a 25-year career in London’s West End, The Fringe in Edinburgh, and the Sydney Theatre Company at the Sydney Opera House.

Her transition from acting to writing came about in the 70’s. She was in rehearsal for a TV show and, with her lunch in a brown paper bag, had to take the train from Waterloo Station in London to a church hall in the countryside. That same week, she was to meet a producer about a screenplay she had just completed. She was picked up at her flat by a chauffeur-driven, white Rolls Royce and taken to lunch. Writing was where it was at, she decided.

Susan Surman

In between acting gigs, Susan wrote screenplays, plays, and revues, some of them optioned, some of them produced. Her first book, Max and Friends, was based on a cartoon about a rabbit that she had written years earlier in Australia.

Her next book was about a dog, Sacha: The Dog Who Made It to the Palace, inspired by her own dog’s visits to Buckingham Palace with a friend who was the royal florist. Susan offered a copy to the Queen Mother, an offer accepted by one of her staff, with specific instructions as to what time she was to arrive at the Palace, which door she was to use. Susan says that when she herself “made it to the Palace,” she went by bus to a side door, but still . . . A few days later, she received a thank-you note: “Her Majesty was interested to learn that the book tells the story of Sacha’s adventures that finally led the little dog to meet Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.”

Susan’s later novels have people for characters, not animals, and draw upon her extensive travels and her show biz experiences. Acting proved to be great training for her writing – learning to “be” someone else, to imagine that person’s life before she comes on stage, to know what she is thinking, why she moves and talks as she does. Dancing at all the Weddings, her latest book, follows an actress for 28 years from Boston to New York to Hollywood.

Our first meeting was over lunch, and we didn’t stop talking until mid-afternoon. When it became obvious that the restaurant would like to get rid of us, we walked across the street to a park. A cool May day, so we sat down on a bench in the sun. And immediately stood up, both of us laughing uncontrollably. We had never intended to be “old ladies” sitting on a park bench in the sun. We’re thinking now of collaborating on a play in which that stereotype is challenged.




Remarkable Writers over 50: Shirley Deane’s Story

I’m not sure where this new blog is going, but how I want to begin is with stories, the stories of remarkable writers over 50. I’ve always been an observer—watching, listening to people I see in bus stations or on the street, and making up stories about what I see. Then, four years ago, I moved to North Carolina where I found that people were willing to tell me their stories. While we looked over the meat section at Harris Teeter, a woman told me about butchering on the farm where she grew up; waiting at a Kinko’s counter, another woman told me about establishing a foundation after the death of her child from SIDS; I heard two generations of stories from a woman I met at a museum.

My first story is about my friend Shirley Deane. (Shirley is her birth and authorial name, but her friends know her as Dalia, a name she acquired while in India.) In 1956, at the age of 27, she was a young jazz accordionist in New York. She had a recording contract and the offer of her own television show, but then one night, after a nightclub appearance, she decided she would rather tour the world. Shortly after, she packed and set sail. She played her way through Europe and Africa, and then decided she wanted to see India. Why not go by car? Never mind that no one had yet driven from Europe to Asia alone, and that no woman had been included in the two previous groups. She had a Land Rover modified to her specifications, went to mechanic school, and began another of her amazing journeys. She was kidnapped and questioned by the Turkish police; the Shah insisted on arranging an escort for her through a dangerous area of Iran; alone in the desert, her engine became clogged with sand, but she pulled out her notes from her mechanic’s training, and was off again.

While she was living and teaching in South Africa, she saw that the Who’s Who of South Africa had no entries for blacks. She set out to right that wrong. Despite death threats, despite the theft of her recorded interviews and notes, she persevered and published, through Oxford, the first ever Who’s Who of Black South Africans. 

When she attempted to publish her memoir, no agents or editors believed that her story wasn’t fantasy. So when Kevin Watson, of Press 53, contacted her after hearing her interviewed on our local public radio station, the manuscript she sent him was accompanied by scrapbooks, newspaper clippings from around the world, and photos. The result is An Unreasonable Woman. (Go to

When I asked Dalia for a quote for this story, she said, “I’ve always believed in living from the inside out.”