Interview with Julie Wade

Born in Seattle in 1979, Julie Marie Wade completed a Master of Arts in English at Western Washington University in 2003, a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry at the University of Pittsburgh in 2006, and a PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities at the University of Louisville in 2012. She is the author of Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Colgate University Press, 2010), winner of the Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Memoir, Without: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2010), selected for the New Women’s Voices Chapbook Series, Small Fires; Essays (Sarabande Books, 2011), selected for the Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature, Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems (White Pine Press, 2013), winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series, and the forthcoming Tremolo: An Essay (Bloom Press, 2013), winner of the Bloom Nonfiction Chapbook Prize. Wade is the newest member of the creative writing faculty at Florida International University in Miami.


Julie was interviewed by Kacee Belcher for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

Kacee Belcher: Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview for Sliver of Stone. We’re honored that you would take the time out of your schedule, as well as give us a sneak peak at your new collection, Postage Due. It’s captivating and simultaneously restrained yet rebellious.

Julie Wade: Thank you, Kacee.  I am honored to be asked.

KB: What struck me at first was the balance that the adult speaker has with a younger self. It seems as if this poet, now having given herself permission to play, has broken free and is, for lack of a better word, almost exacting revenge. At the same time, this book never quite feels like a “fuck you” to the past but rather a larger, more mature, “I was never sorry.” As a poet, how did that balance arise? How can the work be so playful and yet calculating at the same time?

JW: Well, I’m glad you think there’s a balance.  This book was risky for me to write, and it was a definite departure from the way I had written poems before.  I’ve never wanted to be a “revenge writer” or to use my work to denigrate the life or work of anyone else.  The goal for me is always self-discovery and greater understanding of the various worlds I inhabit and the people who inhabit those worlds along with me.

Here’s a little background on Postage Due: All of the poems were written between 2003 and 2005, and in 2006, Postage Due served as my MFA thesis at the University of Pittsburgh.  So as you can see, there is some tremendous lag time between when I was writing these poems and the publication of Postage Due by White Pine Press in 2013.  A lot can happen in 8-10 years, and a lot has, so even the book itself is an artifact of how I confronted the past then and how I might confront it differently now.

When we first moved to Pittsburgh, I knew I wanted to write this book, and I already had the title in mind.  I had a notion that Postage Due would be a compendium of letters to the past, and I had resolved that I wanted to be more open to experimentation, to allow the poems to become significantly more “raw,” for lack of a better word, than the previous poems I had written.  I had been thinking a lot, as I still do, about the difference between art and artifact, and I think one of the main differences between them has to do with how constructed the document is—how much translating has happened between the experience itself and the representation of that experience.  When we talk about “artistic distance,” I think we mean the thing that separates an artfully made thing from the artifact it is built from or upon.  In this book, there are levels of distance.  Some poems are more sophisticated, more crafted, than others.  I tried to recreate my fan letters as artifacts more than works of art, but I wanted to balance those artifacts with more notably nuanced poems—the four poetic markers of the liturgical calendar, for instance: “Advent (Yeager),” “Pentecost,” “(Ambiva)Lent,” and “Epiphany.”

Formally, I knew I wanted to establish a different kind of relationship with the reader than I had before—a more challenging one.  If you think about the concept of “postage due,” you have this parcel that the mail carrier offers to you, but in order to take it and see what it contains, you have to be willing to pay something.  And if you’re not willing to pay, then you have to be willing to let it go.  That’s how our relationship with the past is, too—or at least that’s how I think about my relationship with the past.  When I read this statement from the feminist scholar Linda Zerilli that I use as an epigraph for one of the sections of the book, I knew she had articulated with such insight and grace what I wanted to accomplish in my book: “Because it can be neither forgotten nor changed, the past must be redeemed.”  But how do you redeem the past?  You have to pay something for it; you have to offer something in return.

I think these poems ask the reader to be open to a wide range of voices, to a kaleidoscope of stories instead of a linear narrative, to certain moments of displacement and estrangement within the text that aren’t always comfortable.  The poems don’t give you everything you want; they don’t answer all the questions they raise.  And that’s how the past is, too—how it fails to be complete even when it succeeds at being over.  I wanted to use this book to make amends with people I’m unlikely to ever see again, to break oppressive silences I was told I had to honor, and most important, to have a conversation with some of the selves I have been across time and place.  I like when you say that it seems like I am saying I was never sorry.  It’s always bothered me when people quote that line from Love Story: “Love means not ever having to say you’re sorry.”  And of course that’s not true.  This book contains many apologies, some overt and others subtle, but I’d like to revise that line from Love Story to read: “Love means never having to apologize for who you really are.”  That’s the part of my own story that I’m not sorry for, and I hope maybe that comes through in such a way that the book encourages others not to apologize for who they are but also, at the same time, to recognize that there are consequences for any way of being in the world.  No one is exempt from pain or confusion or self-doubt, and that includes some of the other people/figures I write about in the book—Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne, Vanna White, Mr. Clean, Mick Kelly, Chester Greenwood, Judy Garland, Mary Tyler Moore, etc.  Our lives are always delivered to us with postage due.

KB: Like Denise Duhamel, you seem to have a knack for injecting pop culture into your poetry. Well done! How does pop culture influence your writing? Multiple poems in Postage Due reference cultural icons from Mr. Clean to Mary Richards to George Bailey to Judy Garland. Are these personal nods or do you pop in the culture to suit the work?

JW: Just to have my work referenced in the same sentence with Denise Duhamel is a treat, so thank you for that.  Denise and her love of popular culture have had a huge influence on my writing and on what I have been willing to let into my poetry over the years.  When I first started writing poems in high school, I had the sense that poetry was the zenith of “high art,” a place to engage with universal truths and universal questions.  I thought you had to sound like Shakespeare to do that.  I also had the impression that you had to have already done that because the only real poets I knew about were dead.  So I think the first thing that revolutionized my way of thinking about allowing popular culture into my poems was the discovery that there were real live poets making poems out of the material of their life and time—even the “lowest art,” the detritus of their time—and that there was nothing less universal about their truths and questions simply because they were framed by the zeitgeist of a particular cultural moment.  Once I found out about poets like Denise Duhamel and Barbara Hamby and Cornelius Eady and Tony Hoagland and A. Van Jordan, I started to believe anything was possible in a poem and that there was no right or proper subject, let alone a single proper form a poem should take.  In fact, I started to believe that all the so-called “timeless subjects” of love and mortality and spirituality and identity might be probed even more deeply by approaching these subjects through the lens of a particular place and time.  That’s what I love about Duhamel’s book, Kinky—how she uses Barbie as the ultimate tool for cultural analysis as well as personal reflection.  That’s also what I love about Eady’s book, Brutal Imagination—how he uses the persona of “the young black man Susan Smith claimed kidnapped her children” in order to examine the messy matrix of race, class, and gender in American society and in light of a specific, contemporary event.  But notice how, in talking about these books, I start to sound like a theory head.  The poets don’t do that.  They make politically charged and socially-conscious writing available to us through sound and image and metaphor.

All my teachers advocated some version of “write what you know,” and I always thought “I don’t know as much as I want to know.”  But then I started thinking about public figures and icons that have been a touchstone for my knowing and my not-knowing.  George Bailey was revered in my family as a wonderful husband and father, a Jesus-like figure who sacrificed his dreams for his family.  And I started to question whether George Bailey might not have gotten the short end of the stick there.  In a graduate film class, I wrote a paper called “Staying Home: George Bailey and the Atrophy of Desire.”  I told a film student that I had written about It’s a Wonderful Life, and she cringed because it was a “popular film,” and she thought it was better to write about highly regarded works in the film canon (e.g. “high art”).  It turned out my film professor, Lucy Fischer, was quite receptive to the paper, and her affirmation made me realize George Bailey was valuable to me as a way of thinking about what really makes a wonderful life.  Who else was there?  I realized I thought a lot about Judy Garland and her famous statement, “If I’m such a legend, then why am I so lonely?”  I heard resonances there with being an overachieving only child, performing a lot for other people.  What could she teach me if I brought her into the poems?  And of course, Mary Tyler Moore played those two women characters who shaped my sense of what kind of future a “good girl” might expect to have—the married life of Laura Petrie or the single life of Mary Richards.  So I brought her in.  And Mr. Clean—well, the more I thought about the absence of depictions of ordinary gay lives, especially in TV commercials and on game shows, the more I wanted to possibilize the gay life of Mr. Clean, who all kinds of suburban wives and mothers, including my own, depend on to keep their immaculate homes.  I thought it was a subversive way, and hopefully an interesting way, to talk about timeless subjects like inclusion/exclusion and our notions of a phantom “normal.”

KB: In “Letter to Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale,” you urge Dorothy toward anywhere but “home.” Can you talk about the notion of home a little bit? How has your definition of home shifted, if at all, and is home something that can even be defined?

JW: I grew up with a pretty insular notion of home, and a pretty literal one, too.  I lived in the same house my whole life.  It was a beautiful house in a safe neighborhood in West Seattle with a stunning view of the water—the kind of place that, on the surface, you would never want to leave.  But it was also a stifling kind of place where everything always had to “look right” for fear of what the neighbors would think.  When I got ready to go to college, my parents made it clear that I was only allowed to apply to in-state schools and that they really wanted me to consider living at home and commuting to the University of Washington.  Long-term, they wanted me to get married and raise a family in the same neighborhood where I had grown up.  I came to understand that they viewed the world beyond our immediate neighborhood as dangerous, but the real threat wasn’t to our physical well-being; it was a threat to convention, to conservative Christianity and traditional gender roles.  I loved my house and my neighborhood, and I loved my parents the best I could, but I came to realize I couldn’t thrive there because home wasn’t where the heart was; it was where the rules were, and those weren’t my rules.

I have two friends in Louisville, Amy Tudor and Rev Culver, who talk a lot about the Jungian concept of temenos.  The word comes from the Greek, meaning “a sacred place,” but Jung used it to talk about the idea of a deep inner space where we are honest with ourselves and at peace with who we are.  I am grateful for this word because it helps me think about home less as a place I left behind and more as a place I am always building within myself.  Since I left for college in 1997, I have lived in six different states and dozens of actual domiciles, but home is a much more flexible and multi-valent term now than it could have ever been then.  This is what I was referring to in the Judy Garland poem and also in “Advent (Yeager),” where I write that “home is a fault line that strikes the earth differently now, ruptures the pen’s smooth line like a polygraph.”  There’s the home I come from, and the home I am always striving to make within myself, and there’s the home I’ve been making with my partner Angie for the last nearly-eleven years.  Our daily life together is where I feel most “at home” in this world.  Because of that sense of home in my life with her, I find I don’t have any desire to pursue other places to write, any desire to “get away” in order to do my work.  I’ve never applied to a writer’s colony or residency because wherever Angie is, that’s where I want to be, and I think that’s also the place where I’m most likely to be my best self and produce my best work.

KB: I only noticed a few explicit places in the book. It often feels as if you’re writing around sex rather than plowing right into it. “Arthur Dimmesdale, Alone in the Closet with a Bloody Scourge,” opens, “I remember when all I wanted was to fuck:/the urge curdling every cultivated propriety.” My question is why don’t we get the sounds of the speaker’s headboard hitting the wall? Is that something readers can expect in the future or is that maybe not something you want in your writing?

JW: Ha!  There is a big split in how I approach sex the subject versus sex the experience.  I’m pretty invested in both of them of course, but I tend to focus on the former in my public work and the latter in my private life.  I completed a Master of Arts program before I started on my MFA, so my first full-length collection of poems is actually my Master’s thesis, a book called The Lunar Plexus.  That book is, in essence, a collection of lesbian love poems.  I started my MA program engaged to a man, and I left it two years later partnered with a woman, and as you can imagine, the change in my life-circumstances had a pretty profound effect on the content of my work.  I couldn’t stop writing from and about my direct and immediate experience falling in love with Angie, and that included a lot of sex poems.  But after I wrote the book in all my joy and elation at having found the person I wanted to spend my life with, some ethical questions began to arise.  Did I want to go on writing explicitly about my sex life, or was that an invasion of mine and Angie’s privacy?  Was it fair to Angie as a long-term partner to be exposed in that way?

Tom Campbell, my English professor from college and one of the most important mentors of my life, remarked once that there’s a difference between secrecy and privacy, and we have to figure out for ourselves where the dividing line is.  I think at first I conflated the two terms because I thought part of being “out” was giving up my privacy—that I had to be a kind of open book about all aspects of my life in order to be sure that I wasn’t slipping into the closet.  But Tom helped me see that all people are entitled to their privacy and that isn’t the same thing as denying any essential truths about who we are.  So since about 2003, I’ve been writing love poems to Angie that may hint at sex but are no longer so explicit about it.  One example is my ekphrastic poem in Postage Due responding to Magritte’s “The False Mirror.”  I like to give myself the challenge of making a poem sexy without depicting any actual sex.  This makes me rely more on the power of sensuous diction, on euphemism and indirection, on connotation rather than denotation.

On the flip side, when I’m not writing about sex the experience but I’m looking at sex the subject, as in the Arthur Dimmesdale poem you referenced, then I have a different sense of what’s appropriate and even what’s useful to bring to the poem.  I thought it was shocking and fascinating when I first read The Scarlet Letter in high school that the book was really all about sex, but we as readers never saw or heard or experienced any of it along with Arthur and Hester.  For such dire consequences as those two characters went through, I thought the reader at least deserved a glimpse of the deed that set it all in motion.  In light of fictional people or speculative accounts, the distinction between privacy and secrecy doesn’t seem to apply.

KB: Another device your book uses is poetry via postcard. First of all, I’m totally jealous that you’ve beaten me to this! But really, what prompted you to pump up the postcard form into the poetry book? Obviously the title gives us a hint, but as a writer, how have postcards influenced you and your work?

JW: For me, I think the postcard is an analogue to the micro-essay.  I’ve always been a long-winded person, and both my poetry and prose tend toward longer forms.  With these postcards, I wanted to challenge myself to extract the essence of an experience or situation or emotion, just as I have recently started to push myself to write more compressed creative nonfiction as well.  In the poem “As We’re Told,” Rae Armantrout makes a powerful statement that I reference often as a kind of creative mantra: “At the beginning, something must be arbitrarily excluded.”  The postcard imposes that necessary exclusion.  It rules out the possibility of more space than what a small piece of cardstock will allow.  I don’t think all exclusions are arbitrary, however, and formally speaking, I think they very rarely are.  The postcard reinforces my interest in the epistolary, which is obviously quite important to the larger structure of this book, and it also highlights the choices we have to make if we only have a postcard’s worth of space to capture somewhere we’ve been, literally or metaphorically.  And in relation to the idea of home, postcards are usually sent back to where we come from when we travel somewhere else.  These literary postcards operate across place, since the present of the book is Pittsburgh and the past of the book is the Pacific Northwest, but more important, I think, they operate across time.  They are sometimes addressed to people of the past from the perspective of the present, and sometimes to people of the future from the perspective of the past.  I find the postcard is also an exciting way for me to play with prolepsis and analepsis, my favorite, fancy way of saying to “flash forward” and “flash back.”

KB: Once, when we were discussing you participating in this interview, you told me about a teacher who asked you if you would rather be a horse, a bird, or a muffin. I still find this an intriguing question, so Julie Wade, I’d like you to let the readers know what you would pick, which kind/breed, and why.

JW: Ah, David Seal, that incomparable, provocative teacher and poser of questions!  Back in 1998 when I was a student in Dr. Seal’s “Autobiographical Writing” class—my first official foray into creative nonfiction—he did indeed ask us to describe ourselves as a horse, a bird, or a muffin.  I remember that I said I was a muffin, thinking by way of analogy that I am soft (-bodied, -hearted) and also that my brain, like the top of the muffin, is the most important and desirable part—where the real work of my life gets done and where I live most of the time.  Dr. Seal challenged me to be less cerebral, to find a balance between the intellect and the senses.  I’m still working on that, in my life and in my work, but I think my writing became more sensuous and visceral as a direct result of Dr. Seal’s class and ongoing mentorship.  At any rate, when I told him I was a muffin, he said, “Yes, but there’s some horse in you, too!”

It’s funny and fitting that you should ask me this question in relation to Postage Due because I think in many ways, it’s the work of a muffin-horse hybrid.  I didn’t realize that of course until just now.  The tender, vulnerable parts are the muffin, and those flashes of wild, rebellious energy, of a person wrestling with how to wrestle with anger and not let it win—that’s the horse in me.

KB: You write in multiple genres, especially nonfiction. How do you decide when a piece you’re working on is going to be a lyrical essay or a long poem? What’s the difference?

JW: Here I want to invoke another important teacher from my past, the poet Bruce Beasley.  I took a class in experimental poetics with Bruce during the second year of my Master’s program, and that class, combined with Brenda Miller’s concurrently offered class in the lyric essay, exploded my sense of what was possible in and beyond the genre of poetry.

One day in class Bruce pronounced, “You will only write about six things your whole life.”  It was a daunting statement, and at first, I misunderstood him to mean that we only had six good works in us—maybe books, maybe even individual poems.  But what he went on to convey is that, while much of our content is pre-determined in some sense by the events of our lives and our resident obsessions, our formal practices are free, flexible.  Formal innovation leads the way to keeping our content fresh and to keeping our explorations of our content thoughtful, bent on new discoveries and inevitably, new questions.

If you think about it, it’s the difference between redundancy (hackneyed repetition, or repetition that serves no purpose) and anaphora (deliberate repetition that exposes the multi-valence of language, the complexity of subject position, etc.).  Bruce wanted us to explore our “six things” from every possible angle, and if that meant crossing or merging genres, so be it.  Form is the varied key to content’s stolid door.

All this is a way of saying that I am following my resident obsessions where they lead.  They turn up in/as lyric essays and in/as long poems.  They turn up in/as short poems, too, both lineated free-verse and prose poems.  I tend to write from a place of uncertainty, and as I find a focus, I start to make structural decisions that move the content into what I might think of as a lyric essay or what I might think of as a poem.  But very often the thing I am making leaves my hands and is called something else by the editors who publish it.  That used to bother me quite a bit until Rebecca Brown, a multi-genre writer I’ve long admired, wrote a blurb for my memoir/collection of lyric essays/book of creative nonfiction, Small Fires.  In it, she articulated something essential to my own sense of myself as multi-genre writer: “I don’t really care whether this book will be called a memoir, a group of lyric essays, or a bunch of nonfiction prose-poems. Whatever it’s called, it is exquisitely made and cuts right to the heart.”

That’s what I want to do with everything I write, regardless of genre: make something exquisite that cuts right to the heart.

Read poems by Julie Wade here.

Ground Zero: An Interview with Steven Church

Steven Church is the author of The Guinness Book of Me: A Memoir of Record and Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents. His essays have been published or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, AGNI, and Passages North; and his piece, “Auscultation” was chosen by Edwidge Danticat for inclusion in the Best American Essays, 2011. He is a founding editor of the literary magazine The Normal School and he teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State.  His latest book, The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst, blends essay, memoir, and fictional passages as it describes the effect the 1983 made-for-TV movie The Day After–a depiction of the effects of nuclear war with the Soviet Union–had on him, his hometown of Lawrence, Kansas (where the movie was filmed), and a whole generation of Americans who grew up scared.

S.Church headshot

Steven was interviewed by Nicholas Garnett for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

Nicholas Garnett: How do you think your training as a fiction writer has influenced your nonfiction writing?

Steven Church: Well, I guess I feel like regardless of genre, what you learn (if you’re paying attention) is the fundamentals, just the basics of how to use language and how to structure a narrative or follow the evolution of a thought. You learn how to read, hopefully. I think this is one way my training as a fiction writer influences my nonfiction writing. But it’s also about tapping into imagination, creating characters, and exploring, or essaying, by using techniques traditionally associated with fiction. Though I’m somewhat less interested these days in overt fictionalizing, it still seems to me a valid way of essaying an idea. To be clear, I’m not advocating for doing anything that the reader isn’t clued in to; but I do believe readers, if you ask them nicely, are surprisingly generous and will let you take them down paths of imagination, fantasy or fiction, even within a fairly straightforward essay. Sometimes nonfiction writers need to venture down those paths in the name of exploring and thinking on the page.

NG: You’ve written about the effect that Capote’s work of narrative nonfiction IN COLD BLOOD had on your father and on society in general.  You dad called it, correctly I think, a game changer.  That story, published in 1966, seemed to present a new kind of terror and angst to that generation of Americans.  Do you see any connections between IN COLD BLOOD and your work, either in terms of the story or the way the story is presented?

SC: You’re talking about one of the great works of nonfiction. At least in my opinion. People don’t often realize how that book completely changed the way people thought about telling true stories. That book invented “true crime” as a genre. And sure it blurred the lines and flirted with outright fabrication, but in the end I’m not sure any of that really matters. I think, like Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, In Cold Blood is a book that transcends classification and controversy. It’s just too good to be narrowly defined. Given all that, I’m not sure I have anything in common with Capote. Perhaps one thing my work has in common with that book is the way a subject or a landscape overtakes you, how it lives and breathes like the best characters in a novel. And I suppose I share with Capote an interest in the meaning of Kansas as a place and as a setting in a larger story. I also argue that The Day After, much like the Capote crime/book/movie was a revolutionary media event, a kind of “game changer” that also featured Kansas prominently as a character.

NC: THE DAY AFTER THE DAY AFTER is structured as a kind of collage:  chapters move back in forth through time and subject matter and others contain fictionalized passages.  At what point in the process of writing that book did you decide that this was the way your story would be presented?

SC: I struggled for years with how to structure and organize this book. Oddly enough some of the first things I wrote were the fictionalized passages focused on Danny Dahlberg. These ended up operating as “inner chapters” that explored a kind of extreme reaction to the film, an experience that wasn’t my own but one that I wanted to essay because it was the kind of reaction that many people feared. These sections also work as bridges, or interludes between other sections, and they’re designed to echo the blurring between fiction and reality for which the movie was credited (or blamed). I tried to write a more linear book where the movie operated as a kind of narrative crisis point, but I found that this structure limited my ability to reflect and to include all the other threads that I wanted. It limited the scope of the book. So I finally gave myself 70 pages to establish the 3-4 main narrative threads in the book and then I tried to run each thread throughout the entire book, bringing all of them together in the final chapters. This meant I had to juggle 3-4 different present-action threads and I think this ends up making it feel like a collage.

NG: In another interview, said that you had tried to eliminate genre classifications in the prose you published The Normal School, but felt you had to revert back to classifying the work, partly because readers needed some grounding frame with which to approach it.  What are some of the expectations readers bring to nonfiction?

SC: The main reason we decided to include some subtle genre markers is because an essay I loved dearly was being read as fiction. And it could be read that way. The piece lent itself to such readings. But part of what made it an interesting essay was that it was using tropes and techniques of fiction to explore an idea. It was more interesting, more compelling when the reader understood that he was engaging in a thought experiment driven by the author’s consciousness and a kind of real-life conversation with the author. Our goal was to force readers to just read and not settle into their genre camps. But what we found was that readers did that whether we helped them or not. We sort of begrudgingly indicate genre now… But to address your question about the expectations that readers bring to nonfiction, I guess I’d say they expect everything they would expect from great poetry or fiction, but that they also expect it’s coming from the author’s actual subjective consciousness, that they’re engaging in a conversation with a writer’s mind rather than a character’s mind. I think they expect an honesty of intention. Nonfiction is art and, as such, should be afforded a certain license; but it is a license granted by a contract between reader and writer, an agreement entered into with a mutual understanding of assumed risk and reward and a shared respect for each other’s position.

NC: You’ve been editing The Normal School for five years.  Is there a new normal?  Have you noticed any change in the kinds of submissions you’ve received over time?

SC: The submissions have definitely changed, both in terms of quantity and quality. It’s not that we got bad submissions before but now we get a greater quantity of high-quality submissions from both emerging and established writers. It’s pretty exciting, actually. We can afford to be selective. For some obvious reasons some people think of us as being “quirky,” “eclectic,” or “experimental.” We publish some stuff that other magazines might not publish. But we also publish very traditional narrative forms, realistic fiction and image-driven poetry. The magazine was conceived as a conversation amongst genres, styles, and forms, and we’re still striving to keep it that way. The goal for us was never to create a magazine that only published things that fit our aesthetic but to publish a variety of pieces from a variety of aesthetics, believing that in the intersection we come close to some kind of eternal truths about literature and the larger world.

Read an essay by Steven Church here.

John McNally: Who’s on First?

John McNally is the author of three novels: After the Workshop, The Book of Ralph and America’s Report Card; and two story collections, Troublemakers and Ghosts of Chicago.  He is also author of two nonfiction books: The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide: Advice from an Unrepentant Novelist and Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction, both published the University of Iowa Press. He has edited, coedited, or guest edited seven anthologies. John’s work has appeared in over a hundred publications, including the Washington Post, The Sun, San Francisco Chronicle, and Virginia Quarterly Review. As a screenwriter, he has a script in development with the producer of Winter’s Bone. He’s an Associate Professor of English at Wake Forest University and on the Core Faculty of Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program.

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John was interviewed by Fabienne Sylvia Josaphat for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

Fabienne Sylvia Josaphat: I’d like to start with humor, as it seems to be the connective thread in your novels. Did you start writing with humor in mind? Or did that inject itself in the writing process after you started?

John McNally: I never write with humor in mind. If a story or novel ends up being funny, my hope is that it’s an organic part of the work. I tend to think that humor is part of a person’s worldview. In my case, I grew up watching and listening to anything and everything that was comic – Charlie Chaplin movies, Abbott and Costello movies, George Carlin and Steve Martin albums, cassette tapes with old vaudeville routines on them…you name it. I even owned a Bloopers album! I memorized the famous routine “Who’s on First?” I was serious about my comedy. When I started writing, it was only natural that it would seep into my work. I’d internalized that for years, but I’d internalized it because, even as a kid, I saw something in a comic’s worldview, a kind of absurdity, that matched my own.

FJ: What I also find interesting is how popular culture seems to find its way organically in your writing. You’ve said the first word you’ve ever spoken was “Batman.” How has popular culture (television especially) influenced you along the way? How do you see pop culture influencing contemporary fiction?

JM: I have a chapter about pop culture in my new book, Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction. In it, I admit that I’m a hypocrite. On the one hand, I warn my students about saturating their work with it; on the other hand, I acknowledge that you’ll find in my novels and stories Peter Frampton, Planet of the Apes, Cheap Trick, Yes’s “Roundabout,” Farrah Fawcett-Majors, and hundreds more. I grew up absorbing pop culture, but I do think it’s a tightrope walk using it in fiction. For myself, I have three criteria: 1) Does it make sense in the context of the moment, which would be a good thing, or is it there simply for the sake of being clever? 2) Where is the reference coming from – the consciousness of the character, as it should, or the author? 3) Is the reference appropriate to the tone of the story? The fear, of course, is that your story will be dated in a year or two, and I’ve seen this happen with some of my students’ work, which is why I think it’s good to choose references that have already stood the test of time.

FJ: “After the Workshop” puts your character Jack Hercules Sheahan in a string of hilarious predicaments. How did this character come to you?  How much of this is personal experience? How much is your experience as a writer with a media escort?

JM: Many of the situations grew out of actual incidents, but then I would let the scenes veer away from autobiography once I had set it in motion. The characters, in some instances, were composites of writers I’ve known, or they were inspired by individuals with strong personalities. My friends who studied with the late Frank Conroy, as I did, will recognize characteristics of him in Gordon Grimes. And yet Gordon Grimes isn’t Frank Conroy. It’s tricky, though, because I wanted those characters who were inspired by actual people to be charming and sympathetic, if flawed. As for the parallels between the book’s narrator and myself, well, he had a kind of early success that I didn’t, but twelve years after the workshop, I certainly had all kinds of doubts about what I’d chosen to do, and there were times I considered hanging it all up. The reason I didn’t was because I’d get some small sign of encouragement – a publication, an award – that would keep me in the game. Unlike the narrator of the book, I never quit writing altogether. In order for the book to work, my narrator’s situation had to be more precarious.

FJ: I usually don’t tend to ask writers about their process, but I’m very curious about your construction of this story. How was the process of plotting this story? Did you have a clear vision of how one scene would lead to the other? Or did everything happen organically?

JM: After the Workshop evolved organically. Once I had put the narrator in the situation he finds himself in, I let the story carry itself forward, day by day. At a certain point – maybe three-quarters of the way into writing it – I started to see how it might end, but until then I had no idea how it would all pull together.

FJ: What I admired about “After the Workshop” was your ability to infuse back-story into your chapters so the reader really gets to know the character. How did you manage to do this? This is another “process” related question, but is this planned out in your mind? On paper? How do you decide when and where back-story comes in?

JM: I didn’t plan any of it, and the first draft of this particular novel is pretty close to the final draft. I cut a few of the back-story scenes in the final revision because I was still introducing the narrator’s past in the last third of the book at a time when the narrative really just needed to move forward and not backward. By and large, the scenes appeared in my head when I sat down to write. The few times I’ve tried to plan a book or outline, I’ve failed miserably.

FJ: Another relationship in the book that I was drawn to was that triangle between Tate, Vince and Jack. It was authentic, real, and at times uncomfortable for readers rooting for Jack. What did you want to convey there?

JM: Jack is a deeply flawed character, but when you put him alongside Tate and Vince, you can’t help but feel bad for him. I never have an agenda. I just let the characters be. Some readers find Jack to be a “loser,” but that’s definitely not how I thought of him. I saw him as someone who didn’t come from a background of privilege, and at the point that we meet him, he’s had a twelve year streak of bad luck. But he’s trying to dig himself out of the pit that he finds himself in, and I see that as an act of courage. But that’s my own interpretation of who Jack is.

FJ: How does place affect your writing? “After the Workshop” is set in Iowa, but your other pieces take place in cities like Chicago. Do you find it challenging at all to tackle a new place with all its authenticities?

JM: Once I discovered the importance of place, other things began to click in my work, most notably voice and vision. I’m referring specifically to the stories that make up my first novel-in-stories, The Book of Ralph (a few of which appeared in my first book, Troublemakers). Place and character are inextricable because characters are products of place. And so place – very specific places, in fact – became the tunnel I crawled through in order to enter my narrator’s consciousness. What a revelation! And yet it’s so obvious. Faulkner’s novels couldn’t take place in Alaska. Louise Erdrich’s novels couldn’t take place in Manhattan. I’m always urging my students to think about place – or, more specifically, to think about neighborhoods, since there’s always a place within a place that’s even more specific, more defining. There are tens of thousands of different Chicagos, but there is only one corner of 79th and Cicero, and I know that corner well.

FJ: One theme I notice in “After the Workshop” is that of fear, and self-doubt. Are those normal for a writer, you think? What are your fears as a writer? What is your way of tackling those emotions that keep writers from writing?

JM: I think self-doubt is healthy as long as it’s not crippling. When I work, I keep next to me John Steinbeck’s book Working Days: The Journals of “The Grapes of Wrath.” His journals weren’t written to be published, so they’re brutally honest. One week before finishing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck wrote this: “I only hope it is some good. I have very grave doubts sometimes. I don’t want it to seem hurried. It must be slow and measured as the rest but I am sure of one thing – it isn’t the great book I had hoped it would be. It’s just a run-of-the-mill book. And the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best I can do.” If John Steinbeck felt that way about The Grapes of Wrath, one of the greatest American novels ever written, I think we can all, each and every one of us, afford to be more humble.

FJ: What’s next for John McNally? Are we expecting more fiction? Novels? Memoir?

JM: I just finished a long historical novel, which was the most challenging thing I’ve ever written. What’s next? Good question. I don’t know. A YA novel, maybe? New stories? Another satire? So much to choose from, it’s hard to say. Maybe I’ll spend some time catching up on TV. I’ve never seen The West Wing. I can’t tell you how appealing that sounds.

Read a deleted chapter from John’s novel here.

Denise Duhamel: “I confess that I’m a poet.”

Denise Duhamel is the author, most recently, of Blowout (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013), Ka-Ching! (Pittsburgh, 2009), Two and Two (Pittsburgh, 2005), Mille et un Sentiments (Firewheel, 2005), and Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems (Pittsburgh, 2001). She is the guest editor for Best American Poetry 2013. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, she is a professor at Florida International University in Miami.

Denise Final

Denise was interviewed by Marina Pruna for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

Marina Pruna: I’d like this interview to be centered on your new book, Blowout (Release date February 17th). I am so honored and excited to be one of its first readers!  I will tell you that my experience when reading this collection of poetry was very much alike to that of reading good fiction.  I found myself forgetting about form or lines or even the words on the page.  Instead, I was swept away into the story.  The speaker in this collection is me!!  I’m not divorced or even married, but she’s me anyway.  The second-guessing, the constant self-evaluation, the lack of patience, the too-much patience, the feeling of being the last one to know, the feeling of being the one who knows something’s wrong, but can’t bring herself to do anything about it, the resentment, the rediscovering, the new love—all of it. 

Denise Duhamel:  Thank you!

MP: When reading William Archila’s book, The Art of Exile, I remember thinking, “Wow, this book is tight.” When I got your new book, Blowout, I read it cover to cover in one sitting.  I had the same feeling!  Every poem in the book is necessary.  When putting this book together, what did you leave out? How did you decide?

DD: Thank you, Marina.  I struggled with what poems to put in and what poems to leave out, what narratives would work best in light of the others.  I wanted to write about betrayal and implicate the self/the speaker, but I was also aware that a little bit of “love lost” goes a long way.  I didn’t want the reader to keep turning the page to find, “Jeeze, she’s still there depressed and alone,” or “What’s her problem?  I wish she would just get on with it…”  I wanted to pace the book in a way that showed healing and discovery faster than it can occur in “real life” but yet not seem glib or dismissive about the end of a long marriage.  I wrote many more poems about the end of love and the beginning of new love than appear in the book, so a lot of my time was spent culling.

MP: Blowout almost feels like a novel!  It tells a story, the characters seem to develop, and there’s even what I consider a turning-point moment. Section One is centered on the act – the divorce, Two is the reflection and aftermath, and Three is new love.  How did you go about ordering this book?  Do you feel that there’s an arc, and if so, was this arc intentional?

DD: I have always wanted to write successful fiction, so to hear that my book feels like a novel to you makes me happy indeed.  I was very aware of the arc and the three sections—and I also used “flashbacks” to young love to bounce the timeline a bit.

MP: So, to me, Blowout is very much a collection about leaving a marriage.  And I mean leaving as in, the husband has left the marriage, and the speaker has too.  It’s a book where the situation is divorce, but perhaps the story is abandonment. These issues are life-changing, private, and intimate.  When preparing for this interview, I found myself almost unable to formulate questions without getting too personal.  Finally, it dawned on me to ask what this was that kept me in this private space with the book.  My question to you is about the reader.  Where is the reader in this book? How did you envision her/him?

DD: In the United States, more than half of married people will divorce and almost everyone, married or not, will get her heart broken sooner or later and probably multiple times.  So while Blowout is intimate and specific in its details, I envision the reader as anyone who thought she knew someone and then didn’t.  Or anyone who thought she knew herself and then didn’t. I envision a reader who is tying to live an authentic life.  This is odd, but sometimes I envision Tony Hoagland as my reader as I wrote many of the poems in Blowout because of his knockout poem, “In Praise of Their Divorce,” which appears in his book Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty (Graywolf, 2010).  It first came out in American Poetry Review in early 2007, and I’ve carried that poem around with me ever since.

MP: To keep with the personal for a minute, let’s talk about breaking taboos.  In an interview you did a while back for Bomblog, you said you were interested in breaking taboos in your work.  Your writing in books like Two and Two, Ka-Ching!, and the entire Barbie series is a testament to your commitment to this endeavor.  While others breach these taboos in prose, you’ve successfully torn open these barriers with poetry, and especially with humor.  Even in your most serious poems, you seem to acknowledge a greater perspective, one that includes the absurd, the other, and even forgiveness.  This inclusionary aspect of your poetry is what I think makes these difficult subjects accessible, palatable, and effective.  When you are writing about your own pain and vulnerability, does humor help to communicate a truth or can it shield or protect from having to face it (even though I don’t think Blowout contains too many overtly funny poems)?

DD: The short answer—yes.  I think humor can simultaneously put me at a distance enough from my own difficult material to face it and also bring me closer by seeing “the big picture,” rather than my own particulars.  Mel Brooks is often misquoted as saying, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger; comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die,” suggesting that only the pain of the other is funny.  But he really said, “Tragedy is if I cut my finger—comedy is if I fall in an open sewer and die.”  In his original quote, misfortune happens only to himself and he does not laugh at the suffering of others.  What he is getting at is this—the bigger the tragedy, the more ironic and awful the mishap, the more potential the situation has for humor. Breaking taboos is a bit more acceptable with humor, but some poets have broken taboos without much humor—I’m thinking here, most recently, of Sharon Olds and Ai, who, while having some funny poems, write in a predominantly serious mode. My previous use of humor helped me write the poems in Blowout, even though the humor doesn’t appear as fully as it might have in previous volumes. The TV host Steve Allen wrote that tragedy plus time equals comedy.  This statement has always comforted me, that no matter what happens, some day in the future we will, perhaps, be able to laugh about it.

MP: One of the aspects I love most about this book is the tenderness and honesty of the speaker, though now and then, I don’t like her.  I feel that she sometimes gets what she deserves – like in the poem “Fourth Grade Boyfriend” or in “Loaded.”  In both of those poems, I think that the speaker is a little mean or even callous.  But, then I get to a poem like “A Different Story,” and I realize that I’m the one being naïve or revisionist.  “A Different Story” contains within it a sense of urgency that is pulsating. And, it’s urgency for self-reflection, as though the speaker has to show us the underbelly of the poetic beast.  I also read it as an ars poetica because it says this urgency is part of the process, as is stealing, and escaping, and facing a truth.  Why did you include this kind of poem in a collection that is so tight around a narrative?  How do you view this poem?

DD: Actually, I don’t think you are being that naïve.  I was well aware of the speaker’s own culpability in the poems you site, and I found myself leaving in work that allowed her vindictive thoughts.  I didn’t want her to be too much of a victim.  Sometimes if characters are too goody-goody, I wind up rooting for the villain.  I never thought I would quote Zsa Zsa Gabor in a literary interview, but here goes…She said, “You never really know a man until you have divorced him.”  Leave it to Zsa Zsa to be profound!  We don’t know the cruelties of which we are capable until we are pushed into severe abandonment and rejection.  Our underbellies, of shadow sides, are not particularly pretty. “A Different Story” addresses this—the speaker calls herself “cheap, / fearful, controlling, duplicitous, a dunce.”  The stories within “A Different Story” include two women who were written about by others in an unflattering way. One appears pathetic in a self-help book; another killed off by her ex, a writer of thrillers.  I see this poem (as well as “You’re Looking at the Love Interest”) as gestures to concede that the speaker in Blowout is only telling one side of a story or a very incomplete story.  I was also thinking of the phrase, “Well, now that’s a different story…”

Your observation of this poem as “ars poetica” is also quite helpful and insightful—poets often steal the experience of others, and there is an urgent negotiation between experience and getting that experience down on the page.

MP: Section Two for me is key to seeing the speaker begin to understand what’s happened, reflect, and regain her strength.  In the poem, “You’re Looking at the Love Interest,” you have a line that says: ‘I confess that I’m a poet.’  For me, that line is central to this poem and to the entire book.  At every crucial moment, I feel that we are reminded of the speaker’s dual role – as poet and confessor.  Did you feel that you had a responsibility with this book to tell your side of the story?  Or even to tell a story.

DD: I do indeed see Blowout as “confessional,” both in the Catholic sense (the telling of one’s sins) and in the confessional or post-confessional poetic tradition.  I didn’t feel so much a need to tell “my” side of a story, but I did feel the need to tell a story.  The story is nothing new—girl meets boy, girl loves boy, boy loves girl, boy and girl disappoint one another.  While these poems are extremely narrative, I also think they are like love songs—wrenching and maybe a little cornball even.  In “You’re Looking at the Love Interest,” I wanted to point out that while “real people” may inspire poems, there is also fabrication.  The Love Interest, who has become the basis of a character in a memoir, is very cool about it, even a little proud:

But, hey, no hard feelings—he says he understands

why Meghan had to make him out to be a little bit of a jerk.

No conflict, no story, right?

MP: Let’s talk titles! How in the world do you come up with titles for poems?  Do they come first?  Or does the poem?

DD: I almost always come up with my titles after the poems are written.  I am a fan of long titles and provocative titles and the occasional exclamation point.

MP: And talk about titles, though I’ll probably change my mind right after I type it (because I can’t actually choose one!), “Little Icaruses” is my favorite poem in the collection.  It represents a starting over that I want so badly for this speaker who’s been through so much.  But, this poem is also my favorite because it’s so different from the others.  In very short and tight lines, this small poem delivers quite the punch.  And in its title, we know that this speaker is armed with new knowledge, and also the awareness that there is danger in returning to that great big world.  Please tell us all about how this poem and its fantastic title came about.

DD: I hope I don’t take the magic out of this poem for you when I say that I wrote it shortly after changing an actual light bulb—one of my least favorite household activities.  The dead insects inside the globe always make me a little melancholy and, this particular day, made me extremely melancholy.  As far as placement in the book, I wanted the opening of the third section to be a reprieve from the long poems, so there are three short poems in a row.  The insects are drawn to the light that will kill them is one way to read this poem—the speaker’s throwing away of the insect bodies also allows her to shake away, at least metaphorically, her past.  The poem, of course, also acknowledges the potential danger of moving forward.

MP: In my reading of Blowout, I see “Ten Days Before We Meet, I Dream You” as the turning point in the book. It’s the poem that first introduces the “you” as new love.  Even though this particular poem is difficult to stomach because of the violence at its core, I love the way the speaker now can view this memory with a different lens.  She is older and wiser, and she is in love.  From this poem on to the end, we are in the land of love poems.  As a fellow writer, I know how hard it is to feel and write at the same time. What’s more difficult for you to write: a poem of pain when you are in pain?  Or a love poem when you are in love?  Do you need a cool middle for revision?

DD: I can write in extreme states—pain, joy, anger—and that is how many of the poems in Blowout began.  I use the “cool middle” for extensive revision.  Much of “Ten Days Before We Meet, I Dream You” was in my journal (without a title, of course) before I knew what any of it meant.  I also wrote “How It Will End,” the first poem in Blowout, years before the more harrowing poems or the events that brought them about.  I think sometimes a poem knows more about its speaker than even the writer knows.  Or at least that has been true in my case.  It’s easy to manufacture details of a poem, but harder for me to manufacture emotion. “How It Will End” is about projection to a certain extent, who we think people are rather than who they truly are.   I guess in this poem, comedy plus time equals tragedy.  Yet the humane thing about extreme emotions is that it is impossible to live in these states very long as any one extreme emotion will eventually exhaust us.

MP: It might just be me, but I think that after a big project, I feel that I’m somehow different.  So, I’m curious about how you feel now that this new book is written.  What did Blowout teach you?

DD: Putting together the poems in Blowout taught me perhaps that I don’t always need to be the clown or jester, as much as I have been comfortable in that role for some time.

MP: There’s an interview you did with Cesca Waterfield a long time ago where you said something that I think is very true about poetry.  You were talking about how we must read contemporary poets if we are going to write poetry today. You said, “Poems are conversations with other poems,” and it made me wonder: Who were you in conversation with when you wrote this book? Who do you think Blowout might be in conversation with now that it’s out?

DD: When I handed in Blowout to Ed Ochester at Pittsburgh Press in the fall of 2012, I had no idea that two other contemporary poets, Sharon Dolin and Sharon Olds, were about to publish books about the ending of long marriages.  Dolin’s book Whirlwind and Olds’ Stag’s Leap are very different in tone—Dolin calls down the furies while Olds laments with an early forgiveness—so I like to think that these writers were paving the way for me without my even knowing it.  I was also always writing in response to Tony Hoagland’s wonderful ode.  Frank O’Hara and Elizabeth Bishop also were constant poetry companions—in particular Bishop’s “One Art” and O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You.”

MP: Last questions – and THANK YOU so much for taking the time to do this!  We are so lucky to have had the opportunity to really dig into this book and pick your electric brain about it! – Denise, what’s your job as a poet?

DD: My job as a poet is to say what is too hard to say in everyday conversation and to try to say it as beautifully and urgently as I can.  Kathy Griffin has written a theme song “I’ll Say It” for her new show Kathy, the lyrics of which are “I know what’s in your head, but if you turn red when you say it, well don’t you worry cuz I’ll say it, I’ll say it for you…”  Her show is pure fun and fluff and about celebrity gossip, but I think her song is saying something quite profound:

Or, to quote the beloved Muriel Rukeyser, my job is to “breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry.”

Read some of Denise’s poems here.

Dinty W. Moore: Of Idle People who Rove About

I arrived in Boca Raton as naïve as Christopher Columbus when he first stumbled off the Santa Maria thinking he had landed on East Indian shores.  I had visions of walking along serene Boca beaches, of pearly shells crunching under foot, of dolphins leaping in a golden sunset, and of encountering the occasional native Floridian under a palm tree to exchange pleasantries about idyllic life in a slow-paced beachfront paradise.

Of course, I knew nothing.

And as for paradise, I hope never to return.


Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see.


My first full day in Boca, a Monday, I set out early to meet my afternoon class at Florida Atlantic University.  I was the guest writer for the week, and eager to make the acquaintance of my new charges.

The evening before, I had dismissed a possible warning from Nicole, the graduate student who kindly rescued me at the Ft. Lauderdale airport.

“I enjoy a good walk,” I insisted when she offered to retrieve me from my hotel lobby each morning and deliver me directly to campus.  “It’s only about a mile, right?”

“But I’m happy to pick you up,” Nicole repeated, an almost sad tone in her voice.

“I’ll be fine,” I offered breezily.  “Just fine.”

The simple mile, a mere stroll for someone who enjoys walking, ran almost entirely along Glades Road, a six lane highway whose main purpose, it turns out, is to funnel thousands of automobiles every fifteen minutes or so onto, off of, and over I-95.

The storied interstate runs from the northern tip of Maine to just south of Miami, passing through fifteen states, skirting major metropolitan centers such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, finally bisecting Florida like a rigid spine of concrete and carbon monoxide.

At the point that I-95 runs under Glades Road, passing through the heart of Boca, the interstate has ten lanes, and for most of my walk that Monday morning I was dodging entrance ramps, exit ramps, and scores of impatient drivers scowling behind tinted windows. They were clearly annoyed that this man, this pedestrian, this fellow without enough sense to find a proper gas-powered vehicle, was slowing everything down.  Some drivers gave me the right-of-way, most did not, but it seemed as if none of them were pleased, or for that matter, accustomed to someone crossing the off-ramps on foot.

But being made of stronger stock than most, instead of curling into a fetal ball alongside the fourth on-ramp, tucking myself into the bushes with the discarded fast-food wrappers, beer cans, and condoms, I plunged forward, across the concrete-circles-of-hell, toward what my map told me would be the entrance to the FAU campus.

I had pictured – being the sort of fellow who visits college campuses with some regularity – that I would hit upon a more foot-friendly territory near the campus, a lively area, perhaps, peppered with carefree undergraduates, a few hackie-sacking slackers, some engineering majors staring into laptops outside a coffee shop, and a bar, certainly, or six of them, since students tend toward Herculean thirst.  Along with this, I imagined a campus gate, a red-brick sidewalk, some sort of feline mascot in stone, and some easy, inviting way for those of us inclined to perambulation to find our way onto the campus grounds.

Poor naïve me.

Instead, what I found, in the bright white heat of Florida in April, was perhaps the most difficult intersection of all.  I literally had to sprint across ten lanes of Glades Road (expanded at this point to allow for multiple turning lanes) in the small amount of time allotted in the red-yellow-green light system, and still, I was the only poor soul on foot.

I survived, to find a campus – not surprisingly, in retrospect – ringed by parking lots, one after another, after another.

We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms.

Having grasped that the I-95 overpass was not pedestrian-friendly, I secured a bus schedule and a better map on Tuesday, and planned an outing to the Atlantic Ocean, about four miles down the road.

Did the bus run to the Ocean?

Of course not.

Boca’s bus system connects shopping mall to medical complex to shopping mall, and not for the patrons mind you, because anyone who can afford to shop at the high-end stores of the Boca Raton Town Center Mall obviously owns more than one car.  Judging from the weary looks of my fellow bus patrons, the bus system exists exclusively for those hard-working folks who wash the floors, empty the trash, and watch the night for the various commercial establishments along the way. The closest the bus would take me to water was a stop at the Publix Super Market, about 1.2 miles away.

Late that afternoon, I cheerfully stepped off the bus and headed east, toward the smell of water and the shriek of gulls.

And what I saw were homes, beautiful homes, walled homes, windows closed, shutters drawn, the occasional Cadillac Escalante parked in an immaculate driveway, manicured shrubs, ornamental bushes, warning signs on every lawn – “Alarm System installed” – and cars, whizzing past in every direction.

What I didn’t see: birds, squirrels, children, elderly folks out for a stroll, people in their driveways, people on porches enjoying the day, folks walking to the corner market for a quart of milk, or anyone on foot.

Except when I reached the causeway, a drawbridge set in place to let the massive yachts and sailboats into Lake Boca Raton, where I saw a young man of 20 or so down by the water with a four-foot iguana on a leash.  The iguana was swimming, and the young man was holding the lizard’s tether along the bank of the inlet.

I couldn’t get close enough to the young man to speak with him, so I waved.

He waved back with his free hand.


I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre,” to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander.

“You walked?  You actually walked?”

My students were incredulous.  One or two gave me a look suggesting that I had a screw or three loose in my head.  I had not only walked from the Publix to the beach, maybe twenty minutes past those desolate mansions, but then I walked from the ocean back to my hotel, another 90 minutes or so.

This was after some difficulty actually finding the ocean, because it was hidden behind high-rise apartment building and condos, all of which announced: “Beach Access for Residents Only.”  The beach, by law, is free for everyone.  You just aren’t allowed to cross anyone’s property to get there.

“No one walks in Boca Raton,” my students laughed, when I told my story.

“You could have been killed.”

“I sure wouldn’t walk here.”

“Damn.  I wouldn’t live here.”

And it hit me then, in the wonderful way that hindsight suddenly makes sense of disparate confusions: none of these students lived in Boca.  FAU exists only because I-95 provides such easy vehicular access to a student body spread up and down the Miami-Port St. Lucie corridor.  Boca is just a resort town for the wealthy and the retired.

My FAU student friends live wherever they can afford to live, and that’s some distance away.  They drive in to campus every day, take a class or two, and then rush off to (often full-time) jobs, twelve or twenty exits up or down the interstate.  No one but the fool that is me would actually imagine walking to this campus.

My vicinity affords many good walks; and though for so many years I have walked almost every day, and sometimes for several days together, I have not yet exhausted them. An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this any afternoon.

Like all deeply-ingrained habits, my sauntering began early, in grade school.  I didn’t walk twenty miles through chest-deep snow in bare feet, but I did walk a half-a-mile each day, rain or shine, and we lived along the Lake Erie snow belt. There was, indeed, a candy store along the way, and though the Sisters of St. Joseph would not allow us to eat penny candy during class, you could circumvent the prohibition with a five-cent box of Smith Brothers cherry cough drops and a fake cough.

Walking home was even better, because there was no time limit, no opening bell, so I could wander, up and down the odd avenues, past the excitable dog behind the rusted fence, into the woods that bordered Sixth Street, down to Frontier Creek to float leaf boats, or past the house that contained a feral, hair-covered, criminally-insane thirty-year-old “wolf man” chained to a wall.  We spent a fair amount of time trying to catch a glimpse of this poor fellow in the tiny attic window, but oddly, no one ever reported a credible sighting.

These walks, to and from school, are how I learned the patterns of my neighborhood, the habits of the people, the comings and goings of the man who actually wore a suit to work every day, the family that gathered around the piano to sing songs before dinner, the foreign woman whose front porch smelled liked cooked cabbage, the housewife who was always rushing off in her car with an angry look in her eyes, the young couple with what we then called a “retarded child,” the elderly man who took ten minutes just to walk up his own driveway.

You come to care about a place when you know it this intimately, when you see the patterns, and discern the subtle changes.  One day the elderly man was no longer taking his morning walk.  The poor family in the ratty duplex disappeared overnight, the front porch littered with whatever didn’t fit into the back of the truck.  There was a window broken on the angry women’s car, and two weeks later she was gone as well.

Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.

I live in a small college town in Appalachian Ohio, and I often walk to work. It takes me forty-five minutes, which can be tiring at times, but the more I do it the quicker the time goes by.  For a while, I thought: you could get more work done, write more essays, clear more e-mails from your inbox, if you didn’t spend 90 minutes walking to and from campus.  But then I realized I did get more work done on the days that I walked, because I was sharper, clearer, had used some of the foot-time to sort the detritus from my brain and identify the daily to-do list that actually mattered.

But what I really like about walking to work is that I see people.

There is a women, a nurse who I imagine works the overnight shift, because I see her in her front garden often in the late morning, still wearing her medical smock.  I complimented her on her roses one day, and she beamed.  Now we wave and smile every once in a while.

Two weeks back, I spotted a bird, obviously young and just fallen from a tree, on the front lawn of a student apartment house.  Two college kids – modern day hippie types – were sitting on the porch, so I pointed out the bird to them.  The young man, dreadlocked and tie-dyed, stopped everything, tied up his dog who was suddenly curious as well, and rescued the bird.

There is an overweight gentleman who spends every afternoon on a porch swing, and we nod and smile regularly. There are regular joggers who seem to really like that I step aside onto the grass when they come up to me, so they can stay on the sidewalk, where there is less chance they will turn an ankle.  There are these guys who have been sandblasting all of the paint from a beautiful but down-and-out Victorian house for months, and every once in a while I mention that the project is coming along well.  They seem to appreciate it.

The notion that our cities and towns are losing any sense of community, that neighborhoods are no longer places where one family looks out for another and everyone feels safe, that neighbors don’t even know the names of the folks right next door, is widespread, cited in newspaper editorials, listed as either symptom or cause of any number of social ills.  We shake our heads and sadly wonder what has gone wrong.

Hey, we aren’t helping each other here!

Get out of the damn car and walk around.

Get to know your street, the street behind you, and the people up and down your block.

When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.

Henry David Thoreau, author of the occasional quotes embedded in this essay, didn’t live to see the automobile.

That’s probably a good thing.  He was cranky enough.

Suicide, he says?  People forced to sit all day in offices, stores, and cubicles should be commended for not taking their own lives?

Perhaps he was just exaggerating for effect.  Writers have been known to do that.

Or maybe he truly believed what he wrote.  Perhaps he saw what I began to see as I persisted in my vain attempts to saunter through Boca Raton, to find some heart to that unapproachable community, to claim some small corner for the humble foot soldier against the unwelcoming intersections and ubiquitous automobile.

The fact that no one but me was out and about, that no one else was strolling along the sidewalks, working in their side yards, trimming the yellow roses, throwing Frisbees, or walking wiener dogs on their stubby little legs, combined with those grand, sprawling homes all shuttered, air-conditioned, set off by fences and inhospitable gates, put me to mind of mausoleums, or Egyptian pyramids.  These would be grand structures in which to be entombed, really, but there is time enough for that after death.

And now maybe I’m the one exaggerating for effect, but just as being shut away in one of these hermetically-sealed homes, surrounded by nothing but television and burglar alarms, seems something like a premature burial, the prospect of living your days inside of an automobile is not much to be preferred.

In death, our souls are transported, though we do not know in precisely what fashion.  In Boca, our souls are transported, by sports cars with spoked rims and tinted windows.

Either way, that’s not quite living.

My apologies to Mr. Thoreau.  Perhaps I’m the cranky one.

But here’s the simple truth:

When I’m sauntering, wandering, strolling, ambling, rambling, bopping along on two sturdy feet, I’m much more optimistic.  I feel entirely alive.


Dinty W. Moore is the Director of Creative Writing at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, a town he describes as “the funkadelicious, hillbilly-hippie Appalachian epicenter of the locally-grown, locally-consumed, goats-are-for-cheese, paw-paws-are-for-eatin’, artisanal-salsa, our-farmers-market-rocks-the-hills sub-culture.”

Before he became a writer, Moore worked as a police reporter, a documentary filmmaker, a modern dancer, a zookeeper, and a Greenwich Village waiter. He is the author of The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life; Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction; The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Enlightenment, and Sitting Still, American StyleThe Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction; The Emperor’s Virtual Clothes: The Naked Truth About Internet Culture; the short story collection Toothpick Men; and the memoir Between Panic & Desire, winner of the Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize. Moore’s writing has appeared in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Harpers, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Gettysburg Review, Utne Reader, and Crazyhorse, among numerous other venues. He is also the editor of Brevity, the journal of concise creative nonfiction.  When he’s not writing, teaching, or editing, Moore grows his own heirloom tomatoes and edible dandelions.

Debra Dean: Excerpt from The Mirrored World

Excerpt of The Mirrored World (c) Debra Dean.  Printed courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. 

The earliest memory—blackness, and in this blackness the sound of church bells clanging wildly—it is of her coming. Clambering down from the bed I share with my nyanya, a treacherous descent in the dark, I go to the window. The dusky summer sky is shimmering. Orange, violet, red—the northern lights pulse and flare—and in the street, a man falls to his knees and crosses himself. People are shouting, their words a blur but infused with unmistakable urgency.  A riderless white horse careens into view. It rears up and then races on, its tail and mane flying like ragged sails behind it. Frightened, I return to the bed and press my body against Olga’s. The next image is that of our bedroom door bursting open and through it, an enormous wolf entering. The wolf says, quite calmly, that its house is afire.

For years, I believed this to be an uncommonly vivid dream. It was only much later, upon hearing my nurse talking about events long past—as old ones are wont to do, as I am doing even now—that I recognized in her story certain unmistakable features of my dream.

There was a terrible fire late in the summer of 1736, the sixth year of Her Imperial Majesty Anna Ioannovna’s reign and the fourth year of my life. The fire was said to have begun in a stable near what is now Sadovaya Street, but it spread like a storm through the city. People fled their homes with only those few things they could carry, icons and tableware, a handful of jewelry, whatever they had snatched up in their alarm. One man was seen dragging his bed through the street. An old woman was found in her nightclothes, clutching a squawking goose to her breast. There was no fire brigade then, nor means to draw water from the canals, and in the end over two thousand houses were lost. What I mistook for the northern lights was the entire Admiralty district being consumed by flames.

What I took for a wolf was Xenia. Her mother had escaped their home carrying a daughter in her arms, five rubles in a velvet purse, and a sausage that had been hanging on the larder door. She crossed the pontoon bridge over the Neva, her elder daughter and a servant trailing behind, and walked until she came upon a house she knew, belonging to her husband’s cousin. They arrived at our doorstep in the middle of the night. The houseman carried Xenia to my bed, still bundled in a fur lap robe and slung on his shoulder.


Debra Dean’s bestselling debut novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad  was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a #1 Booksense Pick, a Booklist Top Ten Novel, and an American Library Association Notable Book of the Year. It has been published in twenty languages. Her collection of short stories, Confessions of a Falling Woman, won the Paterson Fiction Prize and a Florida Book Award. Her new novel, The Mirrored World, is a breathtaking tale of love, madness, and devotion set against the extravagance and artifice of the royal court in eighteenth-century St. Petersburg.

A native of Seattle, she lives in Miami and teaches at Florida International University. Follow her on Facebook.

Melissa Broder: MEAT HEART

Poems from MEAT HEART, Publishing Genius Press (2012)


All day long my skull
That horsey gulper

Goes braying after sherbets
Busts up ventricles

Trashes valves
But pauses somehow

Hinge open
The day falls off its reins

My brassiere goes unhooked
God walks in

And says I’m back baby
What now?

We smile at each other
Go horseless and headless

It is so god
When the voice is like wheat

Spooned wheat
In whole milk

Come closer it says
You cute little fucker

Good old god
What a hoofer

Ran around with Edie Sedgwick
Underneath her leopard skin coat

She said I love you god
God said I love you Edie

And she ate that wheat
In whole milk

Went smokeless and ginless
It was a dazzling year

Then she turned to wheat
I want to turn to wheat

Relieve me of my teeth
God loves my hair.

**Also appeared in Court Green

* * *


I controlled my words, my deeds and nothing more.
God wanted no revenge on my body.

I was afraid to do good will for my body
or I might vanish. I was a child and you were too.

Let us bathe each other and exact revenge.
Everybody needs a lot of fathers.

When I am father I will sew us curtains
made of other men’s voices, first a patch then a moan.

Sometimes the curtains will come between us.
Mostly they will be around us.

When you are father you will build me a hardhat
with a light in it. I will not be afraid of light.

I will feel my muscles under me
like good pavement. Beauty won’t kill me in the street.

Then will come a silence over every house
and every town, a year of it but up.

In the air among the insects, our first bodies
and everything we don’t know about physics.

* * *


There are 200 flavors of panic,
the worst is seeing with no eyes.
Cowboys call it riding your feelings.
I call it SUPERDOOM.
On April 5th I was 98% alive.
I saw my blood sugar at the mall
and spilled into a hall of numb light.
The earth kept coming and coming.
Every human was a baby
puncturing my vehicle.
I tried to stuff a TV
in the hole where prayer grows.
A salesman prescribed zen.
I said How long have you been alive?
He said Six minutes.

* * *


She was worshipped for her togs, all owls,
black kimono, glass swans, angel belt.

The mascara was her, but corpsy.
She’d put away her knitting.

What a phantasm said the fans.
What a honeyed reality.

They lit flames in her honor
and took an oath to turquoise.

They felt a unity like babies.
They moved their bowels in solitude.

I tried to grab the oil vial off her neck
to totem with or link our navels

but I couldn’t reach it.
I didn’t need her to spit glitter

I just wanted to plant my crib inside her head
and play with stacking blocks.

The sum of us seemed like a tiny egg.
Maybe it was.

* * *


I fleshed and fleshed on the skewers of sailors.
I kept busting onto their boats
in search of flame.

Was I an egoless starfish?
No, my needs, my needs
have always been needy.

I must have had deafness.
I could not hear my coconut phone
not ringing.

I used my mouth on them too often
and I cracked
or was cracked.

Now I stay away.
I have cabana wits.
I am a pool pearl, no waves.

I find the piggy
in my heart
and barbecue a Hawaiian feast.

I gather heat
from my skin.
I call the heat Professor.


Melissa Broder is the author of two poetry collections, most recently Meat Heart. Poems appear in Guernica, The Missouri Review, Redivider, Court Green, et al. She edits La Petite Zine.

All the poems featured here are from MEAT HEART,  Publishing Genius Press (2012).

More information on MEAT HEART and all things Broder can be found at


M. Evelina Galang: Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery

The day my father disappeared he gave me one thousand pesos. “I’ll be home in three days,” Papang said, counting the money. “But just in case. Take care of your ináy, Angel.”

It’s been two weeks. My mother is out of her mind.

This morning, St. Magdalena’s school bus pulls up to our house. The roosters crow and traffic gathers beyond Mabini Street, everyone fighting for space. Drivers honk horns, long bellows sing from diesel trucks. An old vendor rolls his heavy cart up the hill and caws, “Mais! Mais!” The lamps along Mabini shut down one by one.

We climb aboard the empty bus – my grandmother Lola Ani, my little sister Lila and our ináy. I lift two plastic supot of chicken and rice and put them on an empty seat. The driver loads our maletas into the back of the bus. We’re not sure how long we’ll be gone. A day, a week, maybe a month. The bus is so big and white and we are tiny in its space, sitting seats away from one another, each gazing out a different window.

As the bus eases onto Mabini. Lola Ani makes the sign of the cross. We pray for safe travel. We pray for good health. We pray for Papang. We bless ourselves and our family and we bless the drivers who will be traveling on these roads. My family’s voice comes together. It is the only sound I hear beyond the chugging engine.

“Angel,” my mother says. “Text your papang again. Tell him we’re coming na.”

“But Ináy –”

“Don’t answer back. Just text him, ha?”

I look to Lola Ani. She turns away from me, arranging herself in her seat. “Opo,” I answer, pulling out my phone.

“Good girl,” Ináy says. “Tell him aalis na tayo.”

The bus idles at a stoplight like it’s waiting for me to text my father. My thumbs tap the keys, swift like drumsticks on a snare. All the while I stare at the back of Ináy’s head, the way it bobs like a blossom on a vine, gingerly holding on, as if the wind will blow her petals out the bus window. I feel the blood spinning in my belly, threatening to spoil my breakfast. Two thumbs hit send, a beep sounds. Ináy sighs. “That’s my good girl.”

When the light goes green, we shoot down narrow streets, weaving our way to the superhighway. Though it’s early, before long we’re stuck in traffic, idling behind a carabao driven cart. A mountain of hemp baskets, bags, hats and mats piled onto the cart obstruct our view. A vendor perched on top waves the heat away. His cart is surrounded by odd plated vehicles, by the smog of diesel fuel. Slowly, the sun tries to burn the vast Manila haze hovering over us.

If Papang were here we’d be riding in his van. He knows how to drive on seven thousand islands, knows all the long and short cuts. He goes ikot-ikot in the traffic like he and the car are dancing partners. He says even if it takes him longer to get there, it’s better to keep the car moving. It makes the customers think they’re getting somewhere rather than sitting still in traffic. His clients come from all over the world. Americans are loudest, he says. They talk nonstop about nothing. He pretends he can’t speak English sometimes, so they won’t talk to him. But then they just talk louder, like yelling will give meaning to their noise. Papang pretends to care how he nods his head and gets them places without a fuss, but really he’s just driving.

Driving is what Papang does for a living, but really he’s a musician. He plays rhythm and blues through the night, till the sun burns through smog.  He smokes cigarettes, drinks whiskey, and is known all over Makati as the Beat Man. “A heart that won’t quit,” she once said. “That’s what drew me to your father.”

When I was still too young for school, I’d sit in the front seat while Papang drove his clients from one end of Manila to another. He took them to business meetings and to restaurants in Makati. Sometimes he took them to resorts in the provinces. He’d drop them off and Papang and I would listen to the blues and he’d teach me how to hold his sticks and how to beat the drum. “The trick, Angel, is not to think. Just feel it. Listen to the way the tires roll, or the way the wind blows. Listen to the engine when it’s idling. You can hear the traffic breathing if you are very still. It has a heartbeat.” And then he’d thump his chest and chant, “Pintig. Toom-toom. Pintig. Toom-toom. Pintig.” I’d join him, eyes closed, hand on my heart, beating to the count, my whole body vibrating with each syllable – pintig, pintig, pintig.

*   *   *

I prop the window open and dust from the road drifts in along with traffic horns and motors rumbling. Beyond the glass the palengke sprawls with bright bushels of kang kong, green leafy spinach, and bok choy. I see mangoes and bundles of lychee, red as rubies. Before St. Magdalena’s, we used to walk through the palengke to get to class. Holding Lila’s hand, I’d guide her past the hot reds and greens of the vegetables and past the fish packed in ice. We knew everyone in the stands. Sometimes we’d get treats on our way to school. The year Papang made lots of money driving foreign clients around Manila, we stopped going to public school. We stopped sitting in crowded classrooms with boring teachers. We stopped working after school. We stopped walking all over Manila. Instead, we attended St. Magdalena’s School of Holy Angels, where the nuns take their girls to the Cordillera Mountains on field trips to get closer to God. Papang drove us to school. We ate our lunches in the courtyard gardens. Afterwards we’d stroll arm in arm with our batchmates, exchanging stories of aswangs, fairies, and other spirits.

The bus races down a boulevard, the sky lightens to gray. Behind the cityscape an orange red fights its way past the oppressive haze, colors the sky. At a stop light, a series of jeepneys with brilliant purple and orange banners rippling from the back of buses, zoom past, honking and chanting in one miraculous voice.

“Naku!” I shout.

“What is it?” Lila asks. “What’s the matter, Ate Angel?”

I say, “Didn’t you see that?” and when she says “What?” I tell her, “It was nothing.” Not a flash of white, not a van going so fast it blurred before you, not our Papang zipping through the streets of Manila, his silver blue van buried deep in the pack of jeepneys, heading off to some protest.

I see Papang’s van rushing through every stoplight, rushing past us even when traffic is still.

“Ano, Angel,” Ináy calls, “Wala pa bang sagot ang papang mo?”

Of course there is no answer. What does she think? I close my eyes, hold my breath, listen to the traffic’s beating heart. Were Papang here, he’d flip that radio on and the van would pulse with the bass of pop radio. He’d nod his head and drum the steering wheel with his fingers and reach out and tap Ináy like she was the snare on his drums. She’d roll her eyes, but secretly she’d love it and in the end the four of us would be stuck there in traffic, dancing in our seats, being our own rock band.

But not today. Today the ride is so quiet I can hear Ináy shiver when she sighs, I feel her sadness and think about ways I want to go to her, but I cannot. I look over at her, the way her body has wilted. She has thrown her legs on the back of the seat before her and her arms sprawl on either side of her, sighing like a teenager. I motion for Lila to sit with Ináy, but Lila says, “No Ate Angel, she wants you. You sit with her.”

I shift my way down the bus aisle, walking my hands across the railing overhead. Under my feet, the bus rumbles, hitting every stone and dip in the road. I fall into the seat behind her and I lay my head on her shoulder. “Ináy,” I say. “What if Papang was in that accident?”

 “Maybe he has no load. Maybe the battery has died.”

“But Ináy, it’s been two weeks.”

“Siguro,” she tells me, “those clients from Hollywood are working him too hard. Baka when he comes back he’ll have earned our passage to America.”

I shake my head and feel the tears rising, threatening to come out of me. “Pero Ináy, remember how two weeks ago, you said he was with us. You said he was there in your room. What did you mean?”

“That was a dream. But this is the truth, anak, you’ll see. He’s coming home and when he does, we’ll be that much closer to America.”

“But we’re not going to America. Papang is missing, Ináy.”

*   *   *

And that’s when she screams at me as if I am responsible for losing him. Her arms fly up, her face grows red and Lola Ani has to run to the back of the bus to hold onto her, to calm her. She fights my grandmother, pushes her and Lola Ani almost hits her head on the corner of a seat.

I pinch my arm. Wake up, I think, wake up. It’s as if I’ve gone to sleep and someone has kidnapped every single person in my family and replaced them with some stranger. Some alien being that looks like my relative, sounds like my relative, but is not my relative. My nails dig into my skin, but when I open my eyes, I am still there, sitting alone in the middle of the bus, my family scattered about like fallen fruit, my papang not among them. Wake up, I say out loud. Gumising ka na. Tama na ito.

Excerpt from Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery, forthcoming Coffee House Press, Fall 2013


Named one of the most influential Filipinas in the United States by Filipina Women’s Network, M. Evelina Galang is the author of the novel, One Tribe (New Issues Press), the story collection, Her Wild American Self (Coffee House Press) and the editor of the anthology Screaming Monkeys (Coffee House Press).  The recipient of numerous awards, including the 2004 Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Awards Advancing Human Rights and the 2004 AWP Prize in the Novel, she has worked as an advocate of surviving Filipina “Comfort Women” of WWII since 1998. Galang directs the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Miami.  Her second novel, Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery, is forthcoming with Coffee House Press in the fall of 2013.

Elmaz Abinader: Looking Inward

Elmaz Abinader’s books, Children of the Roojme, a Family’s Journey from Lebanon, and In the Country of my Dreams, as well as her play, Country of Origin, all illustrate personal lives negotiating hostile terrain.  

Elmaz recently performed Country of Origin at the Kennedy Center; Oregon Drama Critics cited Country of Origin for its excellence by awarding two Drammies to the play and to the composer of the music, Tony Khalife. Other awards include a PEN Award for In the Country of My Dreams and a Goldies Award for Literature. Elmaz has also been a Fulbright Senior Fellow to Egypt and a winner of several residencies.

Now a professor at Mills College, Elmaz’s primary concern is giving voice to other writers of color. Her participation in VONA (Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation) allows her the opportunity to make a difference in the growth of the cannon of literature of color.

Her upcoming work, The Water Cycle, is at memoir that draws from the author’s childhood experiences growing up in a all-white Appalachian coal mining community and her subsequent journeys around the world. Each story describes an encounter with the shaky concept of identity and cultural relationship.

In addition, Elmaz is a fitness instructor at the YMCA in Oakland CA where she lives with her husband Anthony Byers.

The author was interviewed by M.J. Fievre for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

MJ: Elmaz, you write in every genre. Your first book was a memoir—Children of the Roojme—and you later published a collection of poems—The Country of my Dreams—and several plays. When did you know you had stories you wanted to tell and when did you get up the courage to tell them?

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
― Toni Morrison

EA: Like many writers of color, as I was coming up, I scavenged books for an experience that matched mine. I wasn’t the typical young American girl that showed up in YA novels, or the boy learning about the world in James Joyce or Faulkner. My experience was not represented: a life of merging cultures, an identity that resisted assimilation but had to find a way to co-exist with the dominant culture. These disparities had no place in American literature yet and that absence fermented a loneliness that many can relate to. Poetry was the way I responded to this. Poetry allows the story and the emotion equal presence inside of it—I could fill a poem with the picture, pull the thread of culture and honor through it.

When I allowed myself to look inward, I recognized how I was the product of these two cultures which formed a third one that aligned me with other members of a Diaspora. The story of my life begins with the travels of my parents and when I listened to them, the history of my family–the encounters with unrest, famine, loss, civil war, and ultimately immigration–impressed me as something heroic. I realized that many people around me had similar stories—the other immigrant shopkeepers, the field workers, cab drivers—the fabric of our culture is woven with these stories. Arab-Americans had no representation in the genre in a big way.  I wanted to share the stories much like Maxine Hong Kingston did.

MJ: For the past few years, you have hosted summer writing workshops on memoir and creative non-fiction at the University of San Francisco’s Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA). The foundation is dedicated to nurturing writers of color and, when I attended the first VONA residency in Miami, my fellow residents and I discussed the struggle with being an ethnic writer—one from a distinctive culture, language, or religion—and we examined the pressure that comes from representing a specific group. Is this a struggle for you?

EA: Our people pin our hopes on the one writer or actor or artist who gets attention to be the one to tell their story. Because we are all complex and individual, we can’t possible represent the race; we can only open the door on it. The pressure is not on me to represent, it’s on me to help other Arab-American stories and the voices of other writers-of-color be present—not just one Junot Diaz or one David Mura, but the many Junots and Davids. The frustration is the industry’s satisfaction of having a small collection or a single author from an identity is enough. This was the impulse behind VONA/Voices—to push our work so hard, develop our voices so elegantly, they cannot be ignored and we can populate the shelves.

MJ: Some of my stories have been accused of not being “ethnic” enough. Evidently, it didn’t suffice that the core of my writing was about the human experiences of family, love, longing and disappointment, and individuals negotiating a life amidst the pressure of society. I felt that readers wanted me to write about specifically identifiable ethnic experiences. As far as publishing goes, do you think that a writer of color who sets himself apart from the easily recognizable cultural typecasting may find his or her work rejected or ignored because it is “not ethnic enough”?

EA: Here’s my response to this and to other worries about industry or audience: write first, write true, write with commitment and write with conscious. Don’t write to or for anyone, to be or appear to be anyone—put those thoughts away. Know that people, publishers, industry all are loaded with their own assumptions and need to the familiar. That’s not your responsibility. Your responsibility is to grow that image, not engender it.

MJ: You are a professor at Mills College. Do you think it is possible for creative writing pedagogy to take a colorblind approach?

EA: I don’t think pedagogy should be colorblind. When we interact with writing and the writer, all that is part of the work is present.  What really needs to happen is pedagogues need to learn to read and teach everyone in their room—not neutralize the responses. This means that your book would have the same elements as a mainstream book , but that’s impossible. Your education wasn’t the only contribution to your literary talent, so  were your songs, your food, your family culture, your spirituality, your languages, your relationships, your body’s geography—

MJ: As a writer of color, how do you fight the racialized assumptions, such as: writers of color are political and white writers focus on artistic quality; race exists only as political correctness; a writer’s ethnicity defines that writer’s audience.

EA: As a writer of color, I ignore ignorance and write as honestly as possible.

MJ: Growing up in Pennsylvania, your home life was very much rooted in Lebanese tradition. Can you talk about popular depictions of Lebanese women and girls, and where they fit in our popular imaginations, and if or how you see your work as a response to that?

EA: The connection between my work and identity as an Arab-American has less to do with Lebanese (in Lebanon) than it does with other writers of color. The Lebanese women are in a homogenous culture that has its own set of complexities which are quite different than the merged identities of immigrants, African Americans and American Indians and other native peoples. Lebanese women (Christian, mostly) are beauty icons of the Middle East.

In the US, most women of color who are in the public realm do have to respond to particular stereotypes and expectations about their behavior. I don’t find it a struggle; I find it boring and had hoped by now the exoticization might have dissipated. When Rima Fakih became Miss America in 2010, the anti-Muslim factions in the US did their usual smear campaigns. Simultaneously some Islamic communities took issue with her being in the pageant at all.

We are all in the unfortunate process of growing the perspective about our people through our work.

MJ: What are some writers who have influenced you?

EA: I am often tempted not to answer this question because I honor most of the writers I read by learning something from them. All the VONA/Voices faculty have been great influences, as are the program’s participants.  When I was young, Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, Isabelle Allende, Louise Erdrich, James Baldwin,  signed their names to the permission slip that encouraged me. I am moved by poets, magic realists, modern American short story, and true stories. I write to jazz, Omar Sosa, Miles Davis, Marcus Miller, Roy Hargrove, Regina Carter, Simon Shaheen and Marcel Khalife.  I love movies. I am influenced by silence and stillness too.

MJ: Tell us a little bit about your upcoming work The Water Cycle.

EA: The Water Cycle is a collection of memoir stories that take place in my two hometowns in Pennsylvania and in various countries in the Middle East.

Paul Lisicky: Mask

(an excerpt from the memoir THE NARROW DOOR)

It’s just me and Denise in her room at the hospice.  Her family has just stepped out to the waiting room down the hall, and they’ve given me some minutes to be alone with her.  I look at her sleeping face, grab her big warm toe poking out from beneath the sheet: monkey feet, she called them.  It’s not even Denise’s face anymore: it’s impersonal, a mask.  So hard to believe she was literally on her feet, out at a restaurant twenty days ago.  Just yesterday, according to Nancy, her sister-in-law, she smiled when she heard I was coming.  She said, “Paul?” And her eyes opened wider, if my coming on short notice would be the most surprising thing of all.  Why would she think that, after all this time?  Denise.

But I have come too late.  She’s not even the person I know anymore.  She’s breathing of course, head turned turned to the left, but her eyes are closed for good now.  She’s moving–I can feel it in my cells.  As awkward as it is to admit it, a part of me is relieved that we don’t have to say those final things.  Too much pressure, and how could human language ever carry us to whatever is coming next–even if it’s a blankness, a null set?  Better to hold onto her toe.  Better to think of peace.  Better simply to wish her out and away.  Her mind and body are already wanting two different things, and the fight isn’t going to be pretty.

I tell her I’ve been rereading her work all week.  I tell her I’ve gone back to Good Deeds, her first novel, I tell her I’ve read her essays.  I tell her she’s beautiful writer.  I want every single word to matter, but my words don’t ring so true without other people in the room.  Three months ago, at my mother’s hospice bed, my brothers and my father started naming family memories, not even the contents of the stories, just the headlines.  The time the boat ran out of gas at Anchorage Point and Mr. Forte came by to save us.  The time we couldn’t find a place to stay in Tennessee, and we all came close to sleeping in the car.  “Just give me some peanut butter crackers and I’ll sleep in the car all night,” my mother cried, and we all made fun of that line for years, as if that were the funniest thing.  My mother’s eyelids started moving.  So many stories, the loosest threads keeping them together: a family’s life in time.  How could she not have been happy to be among us, the head of us?   But I can’t do that with Denise, maybe because that kind of ritual needs other people in it.  This feels lonely.  We know there’s a script, and even though we don’t want the script, we feel like the script is required of us.

I go back out to the waiting room and sit in the sofa with Denise’s family.   Lights are too bright for my eyes.  We look out at the view of Center City: the modernist PSFS building, the statue of William Penn, the blocky squat Liberty Center, which looks today the beginning of some downfall: the end of tradition, dignity, grace.  There’s a huge space between where we are and those buildings.  The sky goes grayer, as if it wants to storm.  We drink shitty coffee.  We look toward the program on the Food Channel with more absorption than the show deserves.  An elaborate yellow cake is being pulled from the oven, to be iced with chocolate frosting and jelly between the layers, and one of us says, I’m just gaining pounds looking at the thing, and everyone laughs gently, as they’re supposed to laugh, but we know that the laughing has nothing to do with cake, or even the joke.

Just before six, the nurse calls us down the hall.  Now we have a job to do; now we’re helping to write the old story: she died surrounded by family and friends.  The dozen of us move one by one through the doorway, and settle on our places around the bed.  Austen closest to her mother’s head, Denise’s mother opposite.  Her ex-husband nearby, me by her feet.  All the lights and lamps are off.  Flames shudder in votives.  Joni sings from her brother Joey’s laptop, the bare-bones demo of “Good Friends.” from one of the CDs I made for her many months back.  No one knows that Denise once called it our song when it first came out in 1985, and I like knowing that it’s coming on now, as if we’re passing a secret back and forth. That’s followed by “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” which would really make her guffaw if she were writing this story.  Irreverent Denise.  No narratives of grace and comfort for her.  Her favorite writer of her final months?  A.M. Homes, where the parents smoke crack, and the children have sex with their dolls, and no one is rewarded for any good deed.

We’re watching her face.  We’re waiting for something to happen.  It’s a little like waiting for a scary but holy movie to start, and it’s unbearable, this watching, this waiting.  No group of human beings could ever be in practice for such a thing.  And we probably realize this, in our own separate ways, at about the same time.  Along with the shock that we wish the movie would get to the heartbreaking part.  Frankly, it’s not so easy to be in a position where we can’t go out to pee, or reach for our phones or eat some of that disgusting cake we saw on the TV.   Ironically, this is time without boundaries.  Time without boundaries is a little like being–we’re in a boat, little rocking boat, a hundred miles out, no trees or shorelines in sight.  But we don’t want to hurry this on.  We want Denise to feel us in her bones, her blood.  That’s why we’re here.  A part of us is going with her, and we don’t know what to do.

A nurse asks if we need anything.  The nurses.  The calming presence of the nurses.  Their human neutrality, never too concerned, never not nearby.  I can’t imagine what it might be like to be them, to live inside of such intensity day after day.   Perhaps they walk through the everyday like clear glass houses.  Or else they shut all their doors and windows down once they’re off duty.  I don’t know how else they could buy food, pay bills, wait in line at the DMV, without thinking of the ways, all the ludicrous ways, we go about distracting ourselves from the fact that we’re dying.  But maybe they’re simply in better practice than we are.  Maybe it isn’t too hard to get where they are, and it feels damn good to live with that truth.  You get a jury duty summons on the day of your best friend’s graduation: so what.  You think of that beautiful writer down the hall, the one who made you laugh every time you edged a needle inside her vein, and you think, well, if she could do that.

We’re waiting.  I wonder if Denise is aware of our waiting.  It must be hard enough to die, to squeak from the coat of your body, without worrying about the people you’re leaving behind.  There is a story of a man out on Long Island, a former neighbor, who made his exit on his own terms.  He found a good woods, mashed down the weeds like a deer, then lay down and went to sleep on the ground.  Word had it he covered himself with leaves.   The story is passed around as neighborhood legend: the saddest story in the world.  Such a gentle man.  Meticulous gardener, good friend, frozen in snow for days on end, and this is how Creation watches out for him.  Yet it doesn’t sound that bad to me.  Would we want so many faces, even if they are benevolent faces, trained on us when it’s our time to go?  No, not me.

I hold onto her toe for a little while longer.  An hour goes by; then, two.  The thunderstorm outside the window has passed.  Then, one by one, we’ve decided we’ve had enough.  Some of us wander to the waiting room; some of us wander off toward the elevator, heads down, as if we’ve disappointed someone, though we don’t exactly know who that someone is.

The elevator is falling.  I’m remembering my friend.  It would make sense that someone so attached to her writing–with the allure of perfect shape–would want to mess things up a little at the end.


The titles of Paul Lisicky’s books reveal a writer concerned with the process of building and demolition—of the self.  Whether he’s writing fiction, memoir, poetry, or, more recently, blurring the lines between those genres, Lisicky explores the process and power of identity.  He and his characters struggle to create the narratives which help them define and understand their world, only to see the wrecking ball of chaos lay them bare.  Robert Olen Butler said of Lisicky, “(he is) one of the select writers who continues to teach me about the complexities of the human heart.”  Lisicky is the author of the novels Lawnboy (1999) and The Burning House (2011); the memoir, Famous Builder (2002); and the forthcoming collection of prose pieces, Unbuilt Projects; and the memoir, The Narrow Door.

His work has appeared in Tin House, Fence, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, Story Quarterly, and in many other anthologies and magazines. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he’s the recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Michener/Copernicus Society, the Henfield Foundation, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he was twice a fellow. Lisicky has taught in the writing programs at Cornell University, New York University, Rutgers-Newark, and Sarah Lawrence College. He is currently the New Voices Professor in the MFA Program at Rutgers-Camden.