“The World To Me Was A Secret, Which I Desired To Discover” A Tribute to Frankenstein On Its Bicentennial
Let’s start with the text itself. How would you define your relationship/history to Mary Shelley’s canonical text, with regards to your work, be it creative, academic, and so on?
ADDIE TSAI: This answer, for me, is complicated. I first was introduced to the text when I took a Romantics Literature course in college. I was young, and I had just moved out of my father’s house. I had never, up to this point, ever read a novel that felt addressed so many parts of my identity—my biraciality as both White and Chinese, my splitting and joining around my identity as a mirror twin, and my experience with being raised by a narcissistic father and an abandoning mother. But, after the course, I let the novel go, and went about my business. Roughly ten years later, I began to explore it creatively as a text—the epistolary framework, but also the ways in which Shelley interwove into the text her personal life, her political views, and ideas around creation that were occupying the public imaginary at the time. Around that time, I co-created a dance theater adaptation of Frankenstein and its connections to Shelley’s life with a contemporary ballet company, Dominic Walsh Dance Theater, Victor Frankenstein, and I also began writing poems and hybrid nonfiction with regards to my own relationship to the text and to her life. I have also taught courses on the popular impact of Frankenstein.
EMILY AUGUST: I first began to engage in depth with Frankenstein during my Ph.D., when I was reading my comprehensive lists and taking my exams. My subspecialty is in medical humanities, and I was specifically looking at how surgery is represented in 19th-century literature, and how its discourse is used as a lens to grapple with ideologies about the human body. I was drawn to the way Shelley’s text registers contemporary anxieties about the body and its anatomical parts. The sewn-together, reanimated body of Frankenstein’s monster is an analogue for the social body that sits at the heart of my current academic book project.
DOUGLAS RAY:Frankenstein became one of those texts I often turned to when I started teaching in boarding schools. As I started to re-read the text in order to prepare to teach, I kept seeing moments of queerness, as the story questions fundamental or normative boundaries. I’ve also thought that the novel inspires great conversations about teaching and learning, the process of education.
JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: Frankenstein was a book that I first read as an obligation, before I really knew how to read. I read it as an engaged but sheltered high school student in an English course where many of my peers struggled with literacy. There were texts that engaged me at this age; I was obsessed with Antigone. Frankenstein actually wasn’t one of them.
I returned to the book in and after college and found an entirely different world. I returned to the book again after I started writing seriously, and I found a book that taught me about narrative structure, about craft. It’s a text that, like human bodies, grows and changes and shifts over times. It depends on how we look at it, on our structures for seeing, which, of course, are made out of bodies and culture, both.
For those of you who bring Frankenstein into the classroom, please speak to the ways in which you do so, and to your pedagogical experiences when teaching this text. What interventions do you attempt when teaching this text in new ways? Do you teach this text alongside other texts, be they historical or contemporary? What texts, and how are those intersections received by your students?
ADDIE TSAI: I have taught Frankenstein in two literature courses – one that aims to think of the cultural and popular impact of Frankenstein and a Western World Literature survey course that uses a particular annotated edition of Frankenstein, titled Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds (MIT Press, 2017) as the central text and aims to look at the many texts that informed some of the ideas in Frankenstein, or texts that Frankenstein inspired. Some of the academic intersections for that course vary from Aristotle and Plato to Freud’s case study of hysteria and psychological works on narcissism. The conversation that seems to resonate the most with students is that which centers around hysteria—not only the problematic hysteric studies that were performed on women at the time, but also the ways in which Shelley casts both Frankenstein and the Creature as male hysterics themselves. One of the voices useful for this conversation is Juliet Mitchell, who rather defines hysteria as the external pathological that occurs when the subject is caught between love and hate towards their object of attention. This is a state of mind you can see in both Frankenstein and the Creature, albeit from different energies and contexts.
EMILY AUGUST: I teach a British literature survey that covers the literary movements of Romanticism, Victorianism, and Modernism, and I use Frankenstein as the keystone Romantic text. It’s so useful because it encapsulates almost everything the Romantics were obsessed with: brooding, tortured geniuses; forbidding natural landscapes that produce states of sublime emotion; the ways in which science and technology were reshaping what it meant to be human; &c. In ways both explicit and nuanced, the text is also rife with Orientalism, so it provides a rich conduit into discussions about race and empire in the Romantic period. My students learn to identify the ways that whiteness structures the Romantic encounter with bodies; etched into their memories of the text are our discussions of the pale, aristocratic Elizabeth, with her blond halo-like hair, who possesses a natural superiority over her darker-skinned playmates. We also critique the character Safie and her refusal of her Turkish identity on feminist grounds. Safie waxes poetic about how much more liberated western women are than eastern women: she “aspire[s] to higher powers of intellect and an independence of spirit forbidden to the female followers of Mahomet,” and she “sicken[s] at the prospect of again returning to Asia and being immured within the walls of a harem.” I ask students to draw parallels to the ways in which 21st-century feminist discourse has inherited these Islamophobic tropes about the perceived liberation of western women, and how certain performances of white feminism talk over or at Muslim women rather than listening to them and learning from them. I love this text, and I deeply admire its author. But to think about an English woman occupying the subject position of an “Arabian” who praises the superiority of western society? It’s troubling, and it’s an excellent opportunity for guiding students to more nuanced levels of cultural criticism.
DOUGLAS RAY: I have taught the novel several times at different independent boarding schools. I typically teach it to sophomores early in the year. Through the study of the novel, I want the students to ask several essential questions: What are the limits of human exploration and creativity? How do we use science and technology (and knowledge) ethically? What qualities make something / someone monstrous? Who gets to decide what’s monstrous and what’s civilized or ‘normal’? What is the best way to learn? I want the students to interrogate themselves–applying these questions to their own lives and opinions as well as to the novel.
To start the conversation, I usually show my students Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer Above the Sea and Fog (1818) to introduce students to ideas of Romanticism, exploration, and reckoning with the unknown. As we conclude our study of the novel, I always remind them that this particular text is one to revisit at different points in their lives.
How can the themes of Frankenstein (and Shelley’s engagement with those themes) give insight to the current political climate?
ADDIE TSAI: Certainly, I think that Frankenstein is one of those timeless texts because the issues that the text gives birth to continue in our culture—the ethics of creation, the dangers of narcissism, how the ego is reflected onto the child from a parent. Another important issue that the text addresses is that of alienation towards the strange or the unfamiliar. When I first read the text as a young woman, I remember how strongly I related to the Creature’s plight. What I found most striking was what Shelley does with the Creature’s name (even as nameless he remains) once the family he tries to care for and the outer world turn on him. From that point on, the Creature begins to be referred to by names that reflect how the world sees him—the Wretch, the Fiend, the Ogre, the Daemon, etc. I think it is a brilliant and beautifully-made point of how one can become a product of the world’s rejection. It is an interesting dynamic to think of in these times when immigrants, people of color, queer and trans people, and so many others find their lives and what they need to thrive threatened in this new divisive world. Or, perhaps it is not new, but only that the exposure to what this word is, in fact, is clearer than it has been before.
EMILY AUGUST: Most of the highly politicized questions with which Frankenstein engages are still very much a part of our current cultural conversations. Thus, the novel provides such a great opportunity for readers to think of these questions as perennial rather than fixed, and it enables us to historicize our own political moment.
Related to its rehearsal of Orientalist tropes, which I mentioned above, I think the novel also stages some really interesting questions around immigration and “the foreign”. I think about the different groups of people who engage in movement and travel throughout the novel, and how each group experiences travel so differently. I think of the Frankenstein family, whose members traverse Europe, from Scotland to Italy and several countries in between. I think of Safie and her father as fugitives or refugees. And the De Laceys, forcibly exiled from one home and then another. Which of the text’s characters can travel freely through Europe, and which characters’ movements are policed?
I think there’s also a lot to be said for Victor’s immense privilege, and its similarities to how privilege works in today’s society. Victor is, essentially, a very bright guy who’s doted on, petted, and placated. He persistently abdicates responsibility for his crimes and suffers virtually no consequences. When he does manage to briefly get tangled up with the law, the judicial system is shockingly easy on him—students get a lot of mileage out of discussing the differences between the two criminal trials in the text, and how Victor’s position as a white, upper-class male works in favor of his exoneration.
Finally, the novel is very invested in thinking about the dangers of science and technology; it is, in some ways, a parable of how science and technology become weaponized. And it’s a dirge that mourns the fallout from that weaponization: the human cost, and the abdication of responsibility on the part of those who manufacture, distribute, and preserve access to those weapons. I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a topic more relevant to today’s political climate than that!
JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: I absolutely agree that the work hasn’t become less pertinent to politics and culture, both. The questions it asks are central ones, not just to a time and place, but to our shared condition. What makes a body? Does a body make a spirit? What are the consequences for experimentation? Can one and should one create, or alter, life? Where are the boundaries between human and non-human? Conscious and non-conscious? When does a hybrid cease becoming a hybrid at all? What characteristics define being inside (being alive, being human, being sentient), and who, in the end, gets to decide?
As a working scientist, I see this playing out more and more. New technologies are creating – for the first time – the very real possibility of human hybrids. The CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technologies allow us to literally cut and paste DNA inside an egg or embryo. We can use this technology to humanize pig organs for potential transplant. CRIPSR has been shown to be (somewhat) effective in human embryos that are pre-programmed to die, although this technology remains outlawed in most countries and won’t be published by leading scientific journals.
So, the central questions of Frankenstein are being (re)considered now, here, in 2018, and the text still can guide us to and away from possibilities.
How does/has Frankenstein inform/ed your creative work? Has that influence changed over time? If so, what would you attribute that change to? In other words, does your impression of the text change over time and in what way does it?
ADDIE TSAI: There a number of ways that Frankenstein continues to inform my creative work. In the beginning, it was the content that stuck with me and the themes I saw that connected with my own feelings about my hybridized identity. From there, I also began to be struck with the power of the epistolary, of the address to the second person. At some point, however, the way the hybrid body of the Creature (as well as the text) speaks to the way in which I choose to form my work. I am a cross-genre artist—I work in hybrid forms and I also work with both image and text. In that regard, Frankenstein continues to be an influence on the way collage, just as Frankenstein collaged his Creature, just as Shelley collaged her text, informs everything I make.
JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: For me, I can address this in one word: hybridity. I still look to Shelley’s work when I think not about what type of story I want to tell, but how I want to tell it. The monster in the story is pieced together, and the narrative is too; it’s told from different points of view and through different media. As a writer, this has long guided how I think about craft, how the story I want to tell can be reflected in how the essay or book or poem is built.
Addie Tsai teaches courses literature, writing, and humanities at Houston Community College. She has collaborated with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater. Addie received her MFA from Warren Wilson College, and she is currently pursuing a doctoral candidate in Dance at Texas Woman’s University. Her queer Asian young adult novel, Dear Twin, will be published by NineStar Press in 2018. Her writing has been published in BanangoStreet, The Offing, The Collagist, The Feminist Wire, and elsewhere. She is the Nonfiction Editor at The Grief Diaries, and Senior Associate Editor in Poetry at The Flexible Persona.
Emily August is an Assistant Professor of Literature at Stockton University, where she teaches courses in British literature, medical humanities, and creative writing. Her academic research focuses on depictions of surgery and theories of embodiment in 19th-century literature and art. Her poetry has received a Pushcart Prize nomination, and has appeared in Callaloo, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Southern Humanities Review, Quarterly West, and elsewhere.
Douglas Ray is author of He Will Laugh, a collection of poems, and editor of The Queer South: LGBTQ Writers on the American South, which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. He is currently editing Supporting Transgender Students: A Guide for Schools and Teachers. A graduate of the MFA program at The University of Mississippi, he teaches at Western Reserve Academy, an independent boarding school in Hudson, Ohio.
Joe Osmundson is a scientist and writer based in New York City. He has a PhD from The Rockefeller University in Molecular Biophysics. His research has been supported by the American Cancer Society, published in leading biological journals, including Cell and PNAS, and he’s currently a Clinical Assistant Professor of Biology at NYU. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Gawker, The Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, The Lambda Literary Review, and The Feminist Wire, and elsewhere, too. His book, Capsid: A Love Song won the POZ Award for best HIV writing (fiction/poetry) and was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. His second book, INSIDE/OUT is now out from Sibling Rivalry Press (January, 2018). He is represented by Katie Kotchman at Don Congdon Associates. With three other queer writers, he co-hosts a podcast, Food 4 Thot.
Joan Didion, Maya Angelou, Alex Haley, Stieg Larsson, Charles Dickens, Edna Buchanan, and Mark Twain (among many others) created memorable fiction largely as a result of the skills they honed as reporters. Journalists churn out hundreds of words every day (without the luxury of waiting for inspiration), write to a word count, write to deadline, learn to work with editors, and develop an eye for extraneous words, authentic dialogue, and telling details. They also tend to have pretty solid grammatical skills and a keen sense of story. Is it any wonder they often make brilliant novelists?
A reporter’s toolkit can help novelists and storytellers of all kinds write gripping first lines, create memorable characters, and imagine authentic worlds in their fiction. There are stories in the world far more important—and far more interesting—than those drawn merely from our own experience. With global tensions intensifying, it feels urgent to tell stories that reach beyond our own borders and engage us with both the broader world and other humans.
Jennifer Steil (Moderator): Why don’t we each start off by talking about how the skills we acquired as a journalist are reflected in our own fiction writing?
Jo Piazza: Speed is the first thing that comes to mind. I started out as a newspaper reporter for the New York Daily News right before the Internet completely changed newspapers forever. But even when I was on a daily deadline instead of an hourly deadline I was still crunched to churn out clean, well-crafted copy on tight deadlines.
The Internet has only made those deadlines faster. What that means is that I have never had the luxury of fretting over my words. I just had to write. I do the same thing with my fiction writing. I can get a first draft on paper fast as hell. Then, once the whole thing is written, I take the time to go back and massage it and make it beautiful. I credit my work as a reporter for never getting writer’s block. I laugh when people talk about writer’s block. Who has the time for it?
My work as a journalist has also taught me to take meticulous notes. I used to carry three or four reporters’ notebooks with me all the time to write down my interviews. Now I carry much smaller notebooks that can slip into my back pocket. I am constantly writing down descriptions of things or bits of dialogue and then stashing them away as inspiration for my fiction.
Tom Zoellner: I believe the top trait demanded of a reporter is the ability to listen. You must ask probing questions and not accept superficial explanations. You must develop the ability to understand inference – to understand what is left unsaid. The art of writing fiction is about “listening” to your characters as though they were interview subjects.
Michael Downs: What Tom said is really important – for journalists, novelists, everyone. There’s a quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez – another journalist/novelist – that I often mention to students in which Marquez chides interviewers for relying too much on technology and recording devices and paying attention only to a person’s words. But those things, he says, don’t “hear the beating of the heart, which is the most important part of the interview.” He’s talking about empathy, and I think journalism teaches that. Journalism helped me become a person who knows how to pay attention to another person. It’s empathy, it’s listening, it’s openness to the world and experience. That was a great gift.
But as for skills, I’d say the ability to research and report have primarily helped my fiction writing. I’ve set a lot of my work in other decades – my forthcoming novel is set in the 1840s, and it’s about the early days of anesthesia. It took a lot more than Google to understand the world and the science and my characters’ lives. I had to know where to search, how to search, and why to search. Journalism taught me a lot of that.
Sophfronia Scott: At both Time and People magazines I frequently had to write short articles, like 500 words and less. Those short articles still had to be packed with information and the prose had to pop. Writing like that taught me to respect words. Every word has to pull its weight when you write short, every verb has to be on target. I’ve carried that respect into my fiction writing. My novel may be over 100,000 words but none of those words are throwaway words.
Jennifer Steil: You’ve all made really important points. Like Jo, I don’t have time to sit around waiting for inspiration. I’m very good at writing to deadline. I also carry a notebook everywhere because if I don’t write down a thought the minute I have it, it floats up into the ether. My experience scribbling interviews in my reporters’ notebooks, making sure to record the exact words, was terrific preparation for writing convincing dialogue. Reporting also brought me in contact with people I would never otherwise encounter or get to know. They made me aware of very different lives, different stories. Perhaps among the most important things I learned as a reporter was how to ask questions of the world and how to listen closely to the answers.
My journalism background is also entirely responsible for my career as a novelist. Before 2006, I had written many stories and one entire novel, but none of them felt urgent. When I moved to Yemen in the summer of 2006, I finally found a story worth telling. I became the editor-in-chief of a Yemeni newspaper, which was the hardest and most fascinating thing I had ever done. It felt urgent to tell the world the stories of my reporters, to tell the world that Yemenis are nothing like their portrayal in the media. Thus my first book ended up, to my surprise, being a memoir. After publishing a work of nonfiction, it was much easier to sell a novel. I already had an agent, an editor, and a publishing track record.
Jennifer Steil (Moderator): If you were teaching a masterclass in using journalism tools for fiction writing, what one journalism tool would you teach, and how would you do it? What have students or colleagues really responded to?
Michael Downs: I’ll return to what Tom and I alluded to above: the interview. Becoming a good interviewer requires that you as a writer learn how to move from an answer to a question, to discover in an answer a new question –and isn’t that the direction literature takes? Also, interviewing skills help at parties and receptions and the like. Strangers, it turns out, are more interesting when you ask them interesting questions.
Sophfronia Scott: I would teach the power of detail. We tend to think of description as telling what something or someone looks like—his hair was gray, the sky was blue. But I would teach to choose detail that does more, detail that tells you someone’s situation or state of mind or provides a stunning contrast. I once reported a story about a middle school age student who took a knife to school in her backpack with the intention of harming her teacher. My editor wanted me to try to find out what else was in her backpack: pink lip gloss? Math homework that had been left undone? A crumpled bus pass? She wanted to play off that contrast of a violent instrument placed among a pre-teen’s school things. Detail is so important. I would want students to open their eyes to see more than what they may be taking in now.
Jennifer Steil: Absolutely. That’s a terrific example of evocative detail, Sophfronia.
One exercise my students consistently find useful is a lede-writing exercise. While there is a lot more to writing a good book than crafting a riveting first sentence, a riveting first sentence never hurts. I talk about 13 different types of journalistic ledes, giving several examples of each type. (Many of my favorites come from Pulitzer Prize-winning Edna Buchanan, who wrote memorable ledes such as, “Bad things happen to the husbands of Widow Elkin” and, “His last meal was worth $30,000 and it killed him,” but I also include examples from novels, such as, “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet,” from Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.) After we read dozens of brilliant first sentences and learn something about what makes them work, I ask my students to interview each other and write a profile of their partner, starting with one of the lede types we discussed. They do not need to stick to the facts (fiction writing!) but can freely spin off from the material. The interview is just a starting point. Students always come up with some great stuff. Even seasoned authors have let me know they went home and rewrote the first sentence of their book after this particular lecture.
Jo Piazza: Writing on deadline. I guess it’s something I can’t emphasize enough because I keep mentioning it. Right now I’m working on a very quickie project for my publisher. It’s a 75k word novel, and I need to bang it out in about three weeks. Yeah, an entire novel in three weeks. The exercise is daunting every day. I go through the complex emotions one usually experiences writing a novel over the course of a year or two in a single 24-hour span. While you’d think this would dull my writing skills, it has actually done the opposite. It’s forcing my brain to work in different ways. I’m doing a constant sprint now instead of a marathon, and I think the exercise will serve me well on my next big book project. I think reminding people that time is a luxury is really important.
Tom Zoellner: This one is hard to pull off in the classroom except by exhortation, but what helps journalism immeasurably is the simple act of “showing up” – traveling out to see the coal mine, the hospital, the city council chamber, the family home. You are exposed to ten thousand sensory elements and organic connections – the grist of life – that you would never get from reading about it or a phone conversation. Establishing a physical presence first in the places where we seek to create literature is a journalistic habit that fiction writers would do well to imitate.
Jennifer Steil (Moderator): How do you encourage other writers to think beyond their own lives and experiences?
Jo Piazza: I tell everyone who wants to be a writer to set a writing goal every day and make sure to meet it every day for the next month. Mine is between 1,000 and 3,000 words depending on what I am working on. You’d be amazed at how many people come back to me and say they didn’t make it even three days. That’s when I remind them that writing is hard. It’s a craft. It’s a habit. It takes real work. I think from the outside writing looks really easy. Everyone thinks they can be a writer. But when it comes to putting pen to paper on a regular basis (I still say that because I write almost everything long-hand before I type it out) the reality is very different.
I tell people to talk to as many people as possible in a day, but to make sure they’re really listening. Writers are essentially thieves, stealing bits and pieces of other people’s stories and dialogue. I’ve gotten some of my best dialogue from Uber drivers around the world. It’s the listening that is key…and the writing things down. You will tell yourself you will remember something and 99 percent of the time you won’t.
Tom Zoellner: I have never bought into the idea that writers of an assigned gender, race, religion, geography, class, etc. should be confined to only writing about their “identity” (however and by whomever that is defined). Journalism is an excellent way to break those boundaries and establish some empathetic projection – paradoxically enough, through dispassionate observation – with people who live in far different circumstances. And another paradox: getting out of your neighborhood is at once an act of hubris and an act of humility.
Jennifer Steil: I’ve always told young writers that the best thing they could do for their writing is to move somewhere that makes them profoundly uncomfortable and that challenges all of their assumptions. Such a situation is bound to force people to think outside of their own small worlds, from a less nationalistic and more global point of view. It also leads to interesting adventures and relationships, all splendidly rich writing material. One exercise I like to do with students is to have them write a travel story about their home town. Where’s the best pizza place? Where is the best place to throw a birthday party? Which bars would you recommend? What is the town known for? It gives them new perspective to have to describe it to a stranger.
Sophfronia Scott: I tell my students that creativity playdates are just as important as the time they schedule for writing. In fact, their writing time could be difficult and fruitless without them. If they find they are spending much of their writing time staring wordless at the screen or blank page, they’re in need of a creativity playdate. I say if you’re looking for a story idea, ride the subway a few stops or go sit in a park and pay attention. Your next character might step on at West 66th Street, or stroll past you wearing a top hat and walking a fluffy Scottish terrier sporting blue booties on its paws. I know my writing eye is awakened every time I travel the 65 miles south to New York City and take in the energy and movement of a different environment. Suddenly my senses have new sights, sounds, and smells to process. Really the best way to get outside of yourself is to open your eyes and start looking around.
Michael Downs: Creative playdates. I love that. I hope you don’t mind, Sophfronia, if I borrow that one.
This question of moving beyond personal experience is so important, especially for younger writers. Too often they don’t have enough narrative distance from the particulars of their own experiences to be cold about them. A newspaper columnist from California once wrote in Best American Newspaper Writing how he always wrote hot and edited cold. I tell that to my students, but they still often can’t find their way to that cold phase regarding their own experiences.
So I encourage several strategies: change the setting or change the genders of the characters. Change their ages. One thing that often works is to get them to see their particular experience in terms of its abstractions (their experience involved betrayal, or failed hope, or the strange comedy of grief). Then, they imagine a situation different from their own particular experience, but one that allows them to write about those same abstractions. So rather than the profound betrayal they felt in a love affair, they write instead about a betrayal in a workplace having nothing to do with love. That way they still write about their life experience, but the particulars belong to someone else’s life.
Jennifer Steil (Moderator): Do you still work as a journalist? How does that affect and fit in with your fiction writing on a day-to-day basis?
Sophfronia Scott: I write essays and opinion pieces for publication, but I don’t work as a reporter-type journalist anymore. I focus on my own writing now but the lessons I learned from journalism are still within me and at use every day. How could they not be? I wrote many stories, under deadline, for years and years. It’s imprinted in me at this point.
Jennifer Steil: Sometimes. I like to do freelance work when I can, it brightens up my brain. Working to a tight deadline and word count focuses me. I no longer work full-time as a journalist, largely because I find that if I am writing all day long for a paper or magazine, I don’t have the energy for my own fiction work at the end of the day. I’m better off bartending.
Michael Downs: Like you, Jennifer, I find it difficult to balance the two. It’s an analogy that dates me, but I find it’s like Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders trying to toggle between baseball and football. They’re both sports, but they require such different skills and world views. In my case, journalism is about the rush, the deadline, the ability to learn enough that I can simplify what’s complicated. Fiction, though, is more like method acting. It demands that I be quiet and go deep and concentrate, to take what might seem simple and complicate it. But I love and honor both disciplines and their crafts.
Jo Piazza: I do. Up until I had my baby six months ago I was still working full-time as a journalist and writing books on the side. Now I am focusing mainly on books and baby with some freelance assignments. I typically reserve a couple of hours every day to do the fiction writing regardless of what my full-time job looks like, be it editor of a website or a magazine or being a mom like it is right now. But I follow the quota more than I follow the time limit unless I am editing, then I can edit for about eight hours straight. But when I am in creation mode once I am done with that word count I let myself be done for the day. Sometimes I am finished in a half hour and sometimes it takes five hours. My husband is very used to me saying “I have one hundred more words…I can’t do anything until I get one hundred more words.”
Tom Zoellner: I am far more a journalist – by habit, training, and a liking for paychecks – than I am a fiction writer. But I find I am drawn to write fictional characters that embody a certain reserve and clinical distance resembling that of the journalist’s prose. A refusal to participate in the depths of life in favor of observation, much like the existential ambivalence of the protagonist of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. This is a dilemma that we don’t much like to talk about, and one whose best expression is through fiction.
Michael Downs’s debut novel, The Strange and True Tale of Horace Wells, Surgeon Dentist, is forthcoming in May 2018 from Acre Books. His other books include The Greatest Show (Louisiana State University Press, 2012), a collection of linked stories, and House of Good Hope (University of Nebraska Press, 2007), which won the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize. His recent nonfiction has appeared in AARP: The Magazine, Baltimore Style, and River Teeth. A former newspaper reporter, he has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Maryland State Arts Council, and the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. He lives in Baltimore’s Hamilton neighborhood and teaches at Towson University.
Jo Piazza is an award-winning journalist and best selling author of both fiction and non-fiction. Her novel, The Knockoff, with Lucy Sykes became an instant international bestseller and has been translated into more than seven languages. Jo received a Masters in Journalism from Columbia and has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Marie Claire, Elle and Salon. Her latest novel, Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win, will be published by Simon & Shuster in July 2018. She currently lives in San Francisco with her husband, son and their giant dog.
Sophfronia Scott is author of the essay collection, Love’s Long Line, from Ohio State University Press’s Mad Creek Books and a memoir, This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World, from Paraclete Press. She was a writer and editor at Time and People before publishing her first novel, All I Need to Get By (St. Martin’s Press). Her latest novel is Unforgivable Love (William Morrow). Sophfronia teaches at Regis University’s Mile High MFA and Bay Path University’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Visit her website, www.Sophfronia.com.
Jennifer Steil is an award-winning author and journalist. Her novel, The Ambassador’s Wife, published by Doubleday in 2015, won the 2013 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Best Novel award and the 2016 Phillip McMath Post Publication book award. It was shortlisted for both the Bisexual Book Award and the Lascaux Novel Award. Jennifer’s first book, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (Broadway Books, 2010), a memoir about her tenure as editor of the Yemen Observer newspaper in Sana’a, was praised by The New York Times, Newsweek, and the Sydney Morning Herald. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune chose it as one of their best travel books of the year in 2010, and Elle magazine awarded it their Readers’ Prize. National Geographic Traveler included the book in their 2014 recommended reading list. It has been published in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey, and Poland.
Her freelance work has appeared in the Saranac Review, World Policy Journal, The Week, The Washington Times, Vogue UK, Die Welt, New York Post, The Rumpus, Time, Readers’ Digest Version, Irish National Radio, France 24 (English), CBS radio, and GRN Global Reporter Network Service.
Tom Zoellner is an Associate Professor of English at Chapman University and the author of four nonfiction books, including the recently published Train as well as A Safeway in Arizona, Uranium, and The Heartless Stone. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, Time, Harper’s, Men’s Health, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and many other places.
The year 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, or the end of World War I; and 90 years since the first publication of the most famous novel from that war, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Alternately praised by pacifists and condemned by patriots, Remarque’s work was eventually banned by the Nazis as they revved up their war machine for what would become World War II. But did they have reason to fear Remarque’s words? Has any one book—not to mention poems dating back from Sappho–or the thousands that have since been published during a century of armed conflict, stopped any war? Or have they had the opposite effect by celebrating the triumphs of soldiers along with the cost of those triumphs?
As if in response to these questions, the field of war literature has expanded mightily since Remarque to include graphic novels (It Was the War of the Trenches by Jacques Tardi), books by and about women at war (Girl at War by Sara Novic); both realistic and magical investigations into the lives of refugees (Exit West by Mohsin Hamid; Loom by Therese Soukar Chehade); stories told from the point of view of America’s enemies (The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen); and the resurrection of Greek myths (The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya) to recast the narrative of the ever unfolding and potentially endless War on Terror. This discussion focuses on why and how we write about war, and whether we have been meeting our responsibility as writers and human beings to somehow put an end to this recurrence of the “decisive human failure.”
Jane Rosenberg LaForge (JRL): Why do you write about war the way that you do? Each of you has carved out a particular approach, locus, or specific time period, in your books. I’m asking this question in light of innovations to the genre, such as those mentioned above, and any others you can think of.
Helen Benedict(HB): I first approached my cycle of writings about women in the Iraq War – my recent novels, Wolf Season, its predecessor Sand Queen, the nonfiction book, The Lonely Soldier, and the play, The Lonely Soldier Monologues – with the mission of finding out from soldiers and civilians themselves what they were experiencing in this war, and what they thought about it. I knew what politicians were saying, and what pundits, journalists and my friends were saying, but in 2003-5, we were hearing precious little from those actually in the midst of the violence.
I also knew that more American women were serving in the Iraq War than in any other war since World War II, and yet were receiving precious little attention for it. I wanted to know why they, as women, had joined, how they felt about the war, and what was it like to be a woman in ground combat, even as it was still officially banned. Thus, I set out to travel the United States for roughly three years, from 2006-9, interviewing women veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Some I spoke to for an hour or two by phone, others I talked with for many months, visiting their homes, touring their towns, seeing their high schools, and meeting their families. In the end, I interviewed some 40 women from the Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force.
These women opened their hearts to me in ways I found extraordinarily courageous and moving. Some were proud of their service, others loved the military but opposed the war, and yet others had turned against both the military and the war – but they all wanted to be heard. I wrote The Lonely Soldier based on those interviews, and later the play, which was all in the words of the soldiers themselves.
Yet, I was not satisfied.
All these women had endured war, and most had suffered trauma, not only as a result of being in battle but because some 90 percent had been relentlessly sexually harassed, and some 30 percent raped or sexually assaulted by the very men who were supposed to watch their backs in battle – their so-called brothers-in-arms. Sometimes, during our interviews, the women would fall silent, their hands shaking, their eyes filling with tears; at other times they would deflect my questions with humor. Those moments haunted me until I came to see that, as open as these women were with me, another story lay in those silences and jokes – the private, internal story of war hidden deep inside every soldier’s heart; the real story of war.
I wanted to tell that hidden story, but I knew much of it lay beyond what these women were willing or even able to say aloud. Some couldn’t speak because they didn’t have the words, some were too afraid, others too proud, yet others too ashamed. Military culture is fiercely secretive and self-protective, and soldiers who criticize it are usually treated as traitors. Even whistleblowers tend to internalize that accusation, and eventually retreat into self-loathing, shame, suspicion, and silence.
So I turned to fiction, where I could combine my interviews, research and imagination to fill in those silences and get to the uncensored story of war — to how it really feels to be in a war day in and day out, from the long stretches of boredom to the worst moments of violence, and all that happens in the minutes, hours and months in between.
But soldiers’ experiences are, of course, only one side of what is going on in Iraq. I wanted to tell the other side, too — that of civilian Iraqis – a side that has been missing from American public discourse for 15 years by now. Thus I found some Iraqi refugees and talked to them for hours, just as I had the soldiers. They, also, were generous, courageous, and eager to help me. They, also, wanted to be heard. And once I explained that I was writing a novel with an Iraqi character in it, their eyes brightened, their enthusiasm kindled, and they offered all the stories and advice I needed.
This is how I came up with my novels about women on both sides of the Iraq war, novels that reflect what I found in the silences, tears and jokes of soldiers, and in the lonely eyes of Iraqi refugees; those secret places in the human soul that have always been the territory of novelists.
D.H. Lawrence once said, “…war is dreadful. It is the business of the artist to follow it home to the heart of the individual fighters.”
I wrote about war the way I did because I, too, wanted to follow the war home.
JRL: I’m wondering if the #MeToo movement is going to change anything in the military, and if this will eventually translate into literature. Do you care to make any predictions about it?
HB: In a sense, military women have been having a #MeToo movement for many years now. And military sexual assault and harassment as a subject has already entered some literature — for example in both my novels, Sand Queen and Wolf Season, as well as in memoirs, such as Caged Eyes by Lynn Hall. Several closed Facebook groups for survivors of military sexual assault exist as well; forums for just this kind of discussion. Women have also spoken out to journalists, as they did in my book, The Lonely Soldier, and the documentary that came out of that work, The Invisible War. But this is not to say that it isn’t incredibly difficult to speak out about sexual persecution in the military, which is an intensely victim-blaming and shaming culture.
Only two years ago, Human Rights Watch released a study showing that a woman who reports a sexual assault in the military is TWELVE times more likely to be punished than a man who commits one. Retaliation, cover-ups, and victim blaming are still far too rife in the military. Investigation and prosecution must be taken out of military hands and the chain of command, and moved to neutral, non-military courts, as they are in Canada and Britain, if true change is to be made. I do hope the #MeToo movement will make that happen.
JRL: Returning to the original question of why each author has approached a particular time period, or aspect of war:
Jesse Goolsby (JG): I’m most interested in the nuance and uniqueness of human desire in all of us. The reason I write about war and its infiltration beyond combat areas and into the side streets and livings rooms everywhere is because war, for veterans and civilians in war zones, is only one experience in a life, but such an impactful one that it very well may tinge all that occurs after. But, of course, that may not be true at all. I know many combat veterans that do not showcase the expected physical and moral wounds of war, and abhor the assumption that they must be haunted or hurt. My novel and many of my short stories work imaginatively to privilege the sanctity of the individual experience and the vast responses to conflict one might image. While that’s my goal, I must acknowledge that as an active-duty Air Force officer, the proximity of war, or the threat of war, is never far from my day-to-day consciousness. How that affects my writing, I’m not sure, except to say, when I write about war or the consequences of war, it feels urgent and close. And at the same time, I find it a great joy to explore human courage, loyalty, and fortitude well beyond the battlefield. Of the 13 chapters in I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them, two take place in Afghanistan. My “war” novel is more at home in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Chester, California than in the Middle East.
Samuel Snoek-Brown (SSB): I’m an absolutist in my pacifism. This isn’t just about war; it’s about violence of any sort. I’m that guy who literally wouldn’t hurt a fly—I have a little bug vacuum that I use to suck up insects and carry them outside. I’m that guy. So, nationally speaking, I’m against any war for any reason. But I’m also what one might call a pragmatic idealist; I know how unlikely it is that we’ll ever eradicate warfare altogether. So how do we live with it? Not the warriors but the civilians, the people who have no interest in fighting someone else’s war—how do these people cope when war sucks them in unwillingly? That’s what I was trying to wrestle with in Hagridden. Which seems strange, considering how easily the women in my book fall into murder during the Civil War, but that is their coping mechanism. Historically, culturally, regionally, this all rings true. We tend to think of the South as a monolith, racist Confederate rebels the lot of them, but in truth, poor whites in the South—even the racist ones—had little at stake in the war. They knew it was a political and economic fight, and a lot of folks, especially outside the heart of the slave economy, knew they were just being used as fodder in a war for rich white people. This was especially the case in Louisiana, and the bayou there became notorious as a place where people could avoid conscription or hide out from home front soldiers hunting deserters.
Seth Brady Tucker (SBT): This is an interesting manipulation of a very common question: “why do you write about war,” which I’ve been basically answering at every reading or guest lecture I’ve done since 1996. It is a tiresome question; so tiresome, that I actually misread your question to begin with (I don’t bring this up to criticize, but it made me think about why the first version is so annoying and the second version, yours, is so compelling). Of course, if one is a veteran, it is likely they will write about what they know, as many fiction writers do, as many poets do, as certainly most nonfiction writers do. Personally, I feel strongly that I don’t choose what I write, but listen for the next piece by paying attention to the world. The way I write is significantly more complicated; I write the way I do (fiction, poetry, and currently a novel) because of all those veteran writers who came before—I write short fiction because Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried challenged me to write a “true war story.” I write poetry the way I do because I early on fell in love with those poets who could communicate a life and an idea in just a few simple images. I write the way I do because I literally found poetry (William Carlos Williams and Mary Oliver) in a foxhole in the Persian Gulf. In my mind, we are all paying our respects to Heller and Sassoon and Remarque and and and… And then it is our turn to speak a “truth the stomach believes,” as O’Brien wrote in “How to Tell a True War Story.”
My poetry is what I would consider imagistic lyrical narrative (yuck, what a mouthful), so much of what I write takes small moments and endeavors to expand it in such a way that the reader is given a stake in the subject, right there along with the humans who are speaking or experiencing it. Almost all of my poems tell tiny stories, which is why my short fiction will sometimes lapse back into flash fiction or prose poems. And no. I don’t believe we have been matching our duty when it comes to “our decisive human failure.”
JRL: In 2015, Roy Scranton, the author of War Porn (Soho Press), wrote an essay in which he criticized “the myth of the trauma hero.” He traced the origins of this myth—mild-mannered men go to war and are forever changed by the monstrosities they witness but cannot articulate—to demonstrate how most war literature fails, particularly in terms of illustrating the social forces that propel nations into war. (https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/trauma-hero-wilfred-owen-redeployment-american-sniper/ ) He indicts Wilfred Owen into this category, along with Hemingway and Phil Klay. What do you think of his criticism of war literature and in particular, his idea of the “trauma hero?” I think this myth is necessary, if only so we can believe in the exceptional or fragile nature of our own humanity, and as war as an inhumane, worst-case scenario. Does this myth preclude explaining the causes of war in the midst of combat?
HB: Yes, American soldiers are too sorry for themselves. And yes, it is tiresome. And yes, we selfishly pay more attention to our own problems – those of the occupier – than those of the occupied, the civilians whose lives we have destroyed. And finally, yes, too much of American war literature, and too many American war movies, glamorize and lie about war without addressing the deep corruption of its politics and the horror of its results.
But the study and discussion of moral injury is essential, for the deeper it goes, the more it reveals that, in fact, most humans are not comfortable with killing and torturing, and that most killers suffer for their actions. I refer readers to a forthcoming anthology called War and Moral Injury, edited by Robert Emmet Meagher and Douglas A. Pryer (Cascade Books), in which the findings about how deeply killing and torturing destroys the killer and the torturer are beautifully explained. I consider this a ray of hope for humankind. We just might not be quite as savage as we think. The traumatized soldier is not a myth; it is merely overdone.
The root of Roy Scranton’s critique, I believe, lies in the difference between a war that relies on a draft, and one that relies upon voluntary enlistment. It is much easer to muster sympathy for the trauma and moral revulsions of young people sent to war against their wills than it is for those who voluntarily joined up, only to express bewilderment and horror once they are sent to war.
This is an argument that Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried) has also made. But both he and Scranton have lost sight of a few facts that challenge their point.
First, many young service members who deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were, in fact, bamboozled into war. This was certainly the case for those who joined the National Guard, which hadn’t been sent to war since Korea, just so they could serve the country, get their paychecks and escape their hometowns without going to war. As one soldier said to me, “National. That means inside the country, right?” Wrong, it turned out.
Second, many recruits were conned into enlisting by lies. Under President Bush and the pressure to fill the ranks for the post-9/11 wars, recruiters were lying in droves. I document this in The Lonely Soldier, so will only say here that the prevalence of lies told to high school kids to get them to enlist was widespread, well-covered, and shocking. They were told they wouldn’t go to war, that the chances of dying in war if they did go were lower than being killed by a car, that the war was almost over, and that it wasn’t really a war but a liberation of the people, especially the women, of Iraq. (In fact, we took away the rights women had held under Saddam Hussein and joined with fundamentalist Imams to drive women back under Sharia law.) Under the “No Child Left Behind Act,” public schools were mandated to give the names, addresses and phone numbers of students to the military in exchange for Federal funding, so that the military could reach into students’ homes, visit them, court and hound them.
Then, of course, there’s the argument that poverty is a back door draft. And, I would add, half the recruits in the Marines and Army came from violent, dysfunctional families and had suffered abuse as children, according to two seminal studies, also cited in my book. This means that some 50 percent of those enlistees could well have joined up to escape, to feel strong, and to turn themselves into warriors instead of victims.
In short, many of the soldiers I interviewed over the years were young, ignorant and naïve, yes, but they were also idealistic, good people who truly thought they were going to do something noble. Most had enlisted at 17 or 18. They were children, and in my view, they have as much claim to trauma and moral injury as any draftee in Vietnam.
JG: I pray no author genuinely interested in the imaginative arts ever considers what Scranton or any other critic has to say about the potential failings of his or her art. Hemingway, Owen, Klay, and many others have tapped into fictive consciousnesses that experience trauma in war. The vast majority of their work is very well written. There are blank pages in front of all of us. If one wants a different war story then go write it, and I wish you well.
SSB: A few decades ago, when I had a job cooking meals in a senior center and eating a daily lunch with members of the Greatest Generation, I confessed to a woman that I once thought about joining the military but had decided against it because I didn’t want to go to war.
“You wouldn’t be willing to die for your country?” the woman asked, incredulous.
“I would absolutely die for my country,” I said, “but that’s not what they send you to war to do. They want you to kill for your country. And I’m not willing to kill anyone.”
I think Scranton makes some good points about the mythology of the “wounded warrior,” but the truth is, the trauma isn’t just in the violence a veteran soldier witnesses—the greater trauma is often in the violence the veteran soldier has been party to. That’s one of the things I was trying to address in my novel. My characters are all more or less willing participants in the often horrific and intimate violence they commit, but most of the characters also feel forced into committing that violence, and some of those characters are more damaged by what they’ve done than by anything they’ve been witness to. All of my killers are victims, but none of my killers thinks they are heroes.
If anything, I think that’s the new mythology that good war literature is trying to portray these days. We still have “patriotic,” jingoistic stories like those Scranton indicts, but I would suggest that since at least Vietnam, we’ve been far more willing to also tell the stories of the violence that we do ourselves in war. That in some respects, every wartime soldier is their own enemy, brutalizing themselves on behalf of someone else. That is especially more prevalent in the midst of America’s longest war, which we’ve been fighting on at least a few different fronts for going on sixteen years now. Soon, children who were born just before we went into Afghanistan will be able to enlist and ship out to a war that has been smoldering their entire lives. When they get there, what will we ask them to do? How much violence will we ask them to commit?
I wrote my novel about the U.S. Civil War, arguably the world’s first “modern” war and one of the most intimate and intimately brutal. But it was about this question of what wartime—not just warfare but a national period of war—does to the psyche of everyone living through it. Because these days, even civilians are “veterans” of the wars we’ve been fighting, and maybe that’s always been the case. In one of my current novels, I’m writing about the Reconstruction, and the characters in that novel are all veterans of the Civil War, returned to a home and a peace they don’t know how to inhabit, not because they are victims of the trauma of war but because they were perpetrators of war—they engaged in vicious, brutal violence, and they don’t know how to stop. That novel is rooted in several true stories from the period, but as I’ve been writing it, I’ve also been thinking about a student of mine a decade ago who gave a classroom presentation on video game violence. His older brother had deployed to Iraq and when he came home, all he wanted to do was play the wartime first-person shooter “Call of Duty.” My student and his brother would spend hours at the game, engaging in mission after mission. My student explained that his brother needed to play the game because that was the only way his brain worked anymore. He had to engage the enemy, accomplish the mission, juice his adrenaline. The only place he felt comfortable was on the battlefield, even if it was a virtual one. But then one day, as my student and his brother played a desert-battle scenario, the game stopped and my student heard a crack—his brother had broken the game controller in his hand. He was standing in the living room, his fists mottled red and white as he crushed the controller, as he struggled to breathe.
“Are you okay?” my student asked his brother.
“I can’t play this anymore,” his brother said. “I need some air.”
“Are you okay, though?” my student repeated.
“It’s too real,” his brother said.
The soldier, returned home, couldn’t handle the video game anymore not because it reminded him of what he’d witnessed, but because he’d gotten too wrapped up in the digital violence, and he was worried it would carry over into the real world. He was worried he would carry into civilian life the violence he had committed in war.
That’s not a myth. That’s not fiction; it’s not a film or a video game. That’s our current reality.
I think that’s what war literature today has to be about.
SBT: I think the myth is necessary and inevitable and will always exist—it is our job as artists to render that trope into obscurity with our own approaches to the forms we take on in our writing—to create a new vision of the trauma hero that is basically unrecognizable—it is true that we create archetypes and always will, but it is also true that great literature obscures and masks them. To criticize the “trauma hero” is akin to criticize the “broken husband” or the “bitter wife” or any archetype in modern and contemporary literature. What Scranton was really pushing back against, in my opinion, is the wild and irresponsible chase for war writers by publishing houses.
It just happens that there is a push for war literature that wasn’t there when I began writing, or, I should say “war porn” for those legions of Hoo-wah pulp novels that treat war in the same way romance novels treat sex. I like to think that the great writing being done by our contemporary war writers (Andrea Williams, Brian Turner, David Abrams, Kayla Williams, Tim O’Brien, etc.) are actually working against this archetype, and doing it well, just as contemporary domestic writers like Donna Tartt, Michael Chabon, and new writers like Anne Valentine and Kirsten Valdez-Quade, are morphing the archetype of the embittered homemaker.
JRL: Are there certain features war literature must have—and is this part of the problem we’re discussing? I’ve read every war novel I could get my hands on in the past year, and most pay attention to terrain or physical conditions, the before-and-after of leaving civilian life for military service (or of leaving one’s homeland as a refugee, or the difference between war time and peace time), and the whiplash between boredom and intense, even cataclysmic peril that frames life on the battlefield. Is this not enough to de-glamorize war? Are there other ingredients that war literature does have, or should have?
HB: The ingredient glaringly missing from most war literature is the voice of the victims: The occupied. The civilians. The women and children and non-combatant men whose deaths the military so chillingly describes as “collateral damage.” In today’s wars, more women and children die than men, according to the UN. So to tell war stories only from the point of view of the invader is a distortion so grotesque it would be laughable were it not so prevalent.
There is another ingredient missing too: diversity. Almost all the stories of American wars, past and present, have been told by white men. Even contemporary veteran writers have, for the most part, been former officers with MFAs and all white and male. Where are the female veteran writers? A couple of memoirs, a few poems and short stories – but so far, no novels. And where are the writers of color? Where are the novels by African American, Latino, Native American or Muslim veterans? Even among civilian war writers like myself, there are only four or so women who have written literary novels about war, and all of us are white. (The two exceptions to this that I know of are playwrights: Maurice Decaul, a veteran; and Cassandra Medley, a civilian.)
And finally, we need more literature by Iraqis and Afghans themselves. There are a few out in translation, mostly published by tiny presses her or by presses in other countries. But in the U.S., the dearth of translated literature by those who have suffered our wars is shameful. I have written about these books here: https://lithub.com/the-best-contemporary-iraqi-writing-about-war/
In short, if we are to deglamorize war through literature, which we are duty bound to do if we wish to be honest, we must stop looking at war through the very narrow lens of the white man, and look at it instead from the view of those we hurt the most. I have written more about this: https://readherlikeanopenbook.com/2017/10/11/why-i-write-about-iraqis/
JG: I’d never prescribe required elements in war literature, or any type of literature, but something we often encounter in art that deals with war is an explicit human yearning for connection. But isn’t that true of most or all literature? What I love about literature, and even murky genre distinctions including war literature, is that I feel artists are always pushing the borders outward, in a more inclusive direction. Consider the work of—just to name a few—Siobhan Fallon (You Know When the Men Are Gone), Kim Garcia (Drone), Suzan-Lori Parks (Father Comes Home from the Wars), Brian Castner (All the Ways We Kill and Die), Elyse Fenton (Sweet Insurgent). All of these writers have taken contemporary war literature in new, and often unexpected, directions. Notably, many of these works possess very few commonalities or traditional, battle-focused war literature markers, and yet conflict always hovers somewhere: in memory, on a drive through the Nevada desert, in a pressed uniform hanging in a dark closet, on a quiet sidewalk outside a 7-11.
SSB: I think the most honest—and the most necessary—ingredient of war literature is violence. Brutal, soul-rending violence. Whether it’s committed amid screams and blood spurts at the end of a saber or bayonet, or from a dark arcade where children fly robots to bomb wedding parties, war is about violence. Most of it horrifying.
I was talking to a creative writing class once and they asked why so many people in my novel get their throats slit. It’s not something I was conscious of at the time, the fixation on blades against throats, but the part that was intentional was the cold intimacy of those deaths. Violence committed up close, face-to-face. Blood literally on my characters’ hands. In my current project, one of the characters is a sharpshooter, what we’d call a sniper today, and he serves in that position not because he’s a crack shot but because he prefers to keep his distance from the killing he does. Except the distance is just an illusion, and he knows it. He feels it.
You mention terrain, and a lot of people point to my attention to landscape in my novel. Some readers have described my novel as post-apocalyptic even though it’s set 150 years ago, because the terrain is so desolate, my characters’ subsistence so tenuous. That’s on purpose. I had this idea that warfare, even distant warfare (my novel is set in the Louisiana bayou, where only a few battles occurred over the whole Civil War) traumatizes the land as much as it traumatizes the people. Or, at least, the landscape reflects the trauma of the psyche.
I have a pretty grim, unglamorous view of war, so yeah, I think those elements are crucial to any honest portrayal of war in literature.
SBT: I like to think that war literature should humanize war, rather than glamorize (in the case of “war porn”) or perhaps even deglamorize it, the way Brian Turner has done with his poetry and his creative nonfiction. Personally, the war literature that sticks with me, that fascinates me, that changes me, is the writing that presents the soldier and even the “trauma hero” in ways the show us their individual humanity, their value; maybe even teach the reader to quit sending them out to break up any squabble our Idiots in Office start … Yes, the pulp fiction out there, masquerading as literature (American Sniper, etc.; just Google “War Fiction” and there is a list of some truly atrocious and ethically bankrupt books out there that do glamorize it for us), is probably winning right now, but I have to believe that great literature wins out. Otherwise, what the fuck am I doing? Perhaps that is my own confirmation bias at work, but here’s the thing: I think we are only scratching the surface of what a war novel or memoir or book of war poetry can do—satire, humor, speculation, political theory or philosophy, etc., and even war literature that just teaches us it is time to see one another as human, no matter our background or genetic makeup. The lessons are out there, waiting for us to apply to our work. Why haven’t we seen more? Perhaps the almighty dollar? Publishers unwilling to put out another Slaughterhouse Five or Catch-22? That, I cannot answer, I don’t think, without assuming the worst about too many people
JRL: I’ve noticed that you have twice chosen the word “intimate” to describe the violence that takes place during a war. I’m very struck by your use of that word; of course we don’t usually use it in conjunction with “violence.” War is such a vast undertaking and therefore we might not think of it as that personal. Could you tell us why you’re using it and what that word means to you?
SSB: I do think about this a lot, especially as I’ve been wrestling with my current historical/war novel project. I think we too easily dismiss the violence of war when we think of it in global, political terms, and the novel — or, at least, the kinds of novels I know how to write — are deeply personal. And when I listen to my veteran friends describe their experiences of war, or when I read accounts of combatants and civilians who’ve lived through a war, I’m always struck by how . . . well, “personal” isn’t quite the right term, because the inhumanity of war demands that we strip it of the personal. But it’s certainly close-in. It affects each person individually, in a visceral way. The war that human beings experience directly — the soldiers, not the politicians — they don’t experience it in an impersonal way.
It crawls inside them. They carry the violence with them, in their nightmares and in their hearts and in their muscles. Experiencing violence in that way—and this isn’t confined to geopolitical warfare; people engaged in socioeconomic warfare right here in America experience much of this, too—it’s one of the most intimate things I can imagine. It’s certainly the thing I’m most interested in. I’m curious about the geopolitics of war, too, which is why I enjoy reading history. But fiction is about the human, about the internal, about the intimate, so that’s where I go when I write fiction about war.
JRL: Finally, the responsibility question. As writers—whether as historical novelists, veterans who now write, journalists who have covered war and related issues, for instance—do we have any particular responsibility beyond that of other writers, or artists? Must we be resolutely married to any particular ideology or goal in our work? Must we always think of de-glamorizing war when writing? What would that look like? Is depicting the truth of war as it is experienced by soldiers and their spouses, civilians, refugees, and even politicians, enough? Or will it never be enough?
HB: Any work of art that depicts war as glamorous is a lie. And any artist worthy of the name must be honest. The conclusion is obvious. And yet, throughout the history of war literature, from the ballad to the movie, the warrior has been revered, war glorified, patriotism sanctified. Even today, to write about war—or paint or film or photograph it—in its true horror is an act of rebellion. Look at the Bush era censorship against pictures of soldiers coming home in coffins. Look at films such as Hurt Locker and American Sniper, which so glamorize violence and American machismo that any anti-war message is undermined. Look at all the novels about the Iraq and Afghanistan War that either fail to offer Iraqi or Afghan characters at all, or depict them as only background blurs, villains or clowns. And look at the hysterical trolling of writers who dare criticize our invasion of Iraq. I myself have been called a traitor because of what I write.
So yes, when we write about war, or any atrocity committed in our name, we do have an extra responsibility not to join in the lies and propaganda that always surround it. We pay taxes for the killing. We cannot hide from that. Every citizen is responsible for our wars, no matter how remote those wars may seem, so the artist who brings war into people’s homes and heads does, indeed, bear a special responsibility to be honest, unpleasant though that may be.
As for the question of whether writing critically about war is enough, of course it isn’t. Nothing one person can do is ever enough. But we can only do what we can, and as guilty as we might feel most of the time, perhaps the most valuable thing we can do is do what we do best – write.
JG: We will each choose our own path and our own brand of responsibility. Hopefully for our art, our individual artistic sensibilities will lead us in ways we find valuable and worth our precious time and energy. We should never censor our imaginations when our characters act, speak, think, and look different than -. This goes for our feelings about war as well. I’m not interested in obtuse polemics or simple “lessons learned” in my art. But personally? My God, I hope we all agree that war is a horrific thing, and we should do everything in our power to live peacefully.
SSB: I think if we have any driving ethos in our work, it has to be to convey the truth. As we see it. In that sense, I would say we aren’t de-glamourizing war but more re-de-glamourizing a long-glamourized portrayal war—we’re un-varishing a reality that others have varnished.
I think we have to be honest about our ideologies, too. I didn’t write my novel as an overt anti-war novel, but I am anti-war. A former professor of mine remarked that while my novel expresses a wide range of attitudes toward war, in the voices of my various characters, and while I neither shy away from nor linger too glaringly on the violence of war, the overall impression was that my novel feels “anti-war” in the sense that it’s not something anyone would want to live through. Who was it that said every war novel is an anti-war novel? That’s pretty much my view, and while I try to avoid pressing the issue in any didactic way, I also think it would be dishonest to pretend that I don’t hold the views I hold as I’m writing.
But personally, I also want to remember that I’ve never been to war, and while America has never known a generation where we weren’t at war somewhere, I’ve never lived in or even near a warzone. That’s a particular perspective I lack. So I try to remember that there are other truths about war, too.
SBT: I don’t know if I would say we have a responsibility—flatly—anymore than someone who goes through a car accident is responsible to write about auto fatalities. We need more women writing about war. We need more writers and poets of color writing about war. My first two poetry books were not necessarily books I consider “war writing” until I started to put them together; Mormon Boy was my attempt to investigate my own heritage and struggle, and then the strict nature of Mormonism started to speak a bit to the strict nature of the military, and what happens when those tight routines are lost. We Deserve the Gods We Ask For was originally going to be about cartoon heroes once the “cameras” were turned off, but then it began to morph into a book that investigated what we do to our heroes once we stop thinking about them. What happens when Superman/Wonder Woman are no longer called to save the world? What happens to that sense of responsibility? Perhaps that was really my way of looking at the early part of the century, when I began to feel the public’s renewed zeal for war after getting a big bad mouthful of it in the nineties with nothing to show for it. My current project is a novel that follows a troubled youth, who loses his twin brother, into drug and alcohol addiction, then the military as a way to escape it. My hope is that it will show the reader a different type of soldier; one who has no patriotism or love of country driving their military experiences, but who uses the military to simply escape poverty and the great nothing vortex that can often spiral in the middle of rotten little religious towns. That has long been one of my deepest concerns when it comes to our military and the military industrial complex—we ask nothing of our wealthy—and we send our poor and destitute out to do our bidding under a patriotism that is really nothing more than nationalism. It is an ugly habit we have, here in the States; this need to ship out soldiers at every provocation. I keep thinking the poor will rise up, say no to our plutocrats, but the current situation in the White House seems to be showing me that I might be wrong out that. I am an optimist, but even my optimism has limits.
Helen Benedict, a professor at Columbia University, is the author of seven novels, including the just published Wolf Season, which Elissa Schappell wrote should be “required reading” and which received a starred review in the Library Journal; and Sand Queen, named a “Best Contemporary War Novel” by Publishers Weekly and reviewed by The Boston Globe as “The Things They Carried for women.’” A recipient of both the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism and the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism for her exposure of sexual predation in the military, Benedict is also the author of five works of nonfiction, such as the award-winning, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women at War Serving in Iraq, and a widely-performed play, The Lonely Soldier Monologues. Her writings inspired a class action suit against the Pentagon on behalf of those sexually assaulted in the military and the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary, The Invisible War. She lives in New York. More information is available at www.helenbenedict.com.
Jesse Goolsby is an U.S. Air Force officer and the author of the novel I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), winner of the Florida Book Award for Fiction and listed for the Flaherty-Duncan First Novel Prize. His fiction and essays have appeared widely, including The Literary Review, Epoch, The Kenyon Review, Narrative Magazine, Salon, and Pleiades. He is the recipient of the Richard Bausch Short Story Prize, the John Gardner Memorial Award in Fiction, and fellowships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences. He serves as Acquisitions Editor for the literary journal War, Literature & the Arts. Goolsby holds an English degree from the United States Air Force Academy, a Masters degree in English from the University of Tennessee, and a PhD in English from Florida State University. He was raised in Chester, California, and now lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado. More information is available at http://www.jessegoolsby.com.
Samuel Snoek-Brown teaches and writes in the Pacific Northwest. He’s the author of the Civil War novel Hagridden, the flash-fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin, and the forthcoming collection of stories There Is No Other Way to Worship Them. He also works as a production editor for Jersey Devil Press. He’s the recipient of a 2013 Oregon Literary Fellowship, has been shortlisted twice in the Faulkner-Wisdom competition, and was a finalist in the 2013 storySouth Million Writers Award. More information is available at snoekbrown.com.
Seth Brady Tucker (S. Brady Tucker) is a poet and fiction writer originally from Lander, Wyoming. His second book won the Gival Press Poetry Award (We Deserve the Gods We Ask For 2014) and went on to win the Eric Hoffer Book Award in 2015. His first book of poetry won the Elixir Press Editor’s Poetry Prize (Mormon Boy 2012), and was a finalist for the 2013 Colorado Book Award. He is currently a teaching Assistant Professor at the Colorado School of Mines, and is the founder and co-director of the annual Longleaf Writers’ Conference in Florida. Recently, his fiction won the Bevel Summers Fiction Prize from Shenandoah; was a finalist for the Jeff Sharlet Award from The Iowa Review; and won the Flash Fiction Award from Literal Latte. His work has recently appeared in the Birmingham Poetry Review, Southern Humanities Review, North American Review, December, and Epiphany. Tucker served as a paratrooper the Army 82nd Airborne in the Persian Gulf. More information is available at https://sethbradytucker.wordpress.com/.
Jane Rosenberg LaForge (moderator) is a poet and writer living in New York. Her novel, The Hawkman: A Fairy Tale of the Great War, will be published by Amberjack Publishing in June 2018. Her most recent full-length poetry collection is Daphne and Her Discontents from Ravenna Press; and her experimental memoir is An Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy/A Fantastical Memoir, from Jaded Ibis Press. She has been nominated for a storySouth Million Writers Award, the Pushcart Prize, and the Best of the Net collection. More information is available at http://jane-rosenberg-laforge.com/.
“Baby Steps: How to Nurture a Great Writing Career after Having a Child”
“Motherhood is a great gift to a writer,” Amy Bloom has said. Parenthood provides rich experiences, but can impact writing practice, subject matter, and publication. How can a parent find time to write, let alone publish? Will serious journals publish work about parenting? What are parent-centric publications interested in? Is it possible to manage readings or a book tour? The panel, leaders of organizations that support parent writers, discusses strategies for creative and professional growth.
What are some stereotypes of parents as writers, external and internalized, and how can writers counter them?
J.P. Howard: Stereotypes about parents as writers often come from those who may not be parents themselves. People may assume we are not as dedicated to our writing, since we are busy raising our children. Folks may view us primarily in our caretaking roles, more so than in our role as writers. It may even affect opportunities depending on our schedules. Of course, the truth is parent writers are simultaneously dedicated to both our children and our writing. The two things are not mutually exclusive.
An internalized issue that writer parents sometimes experience is guilt; here, I’m definitely speaking from my own experience. We may struggle to find a “balance” in our lives, as parents and as writers. The constant struggle between being dedicated parents and dedicated writers can leave us questioning ourselves. Am I a good enough writer? Shouldn’t I be spending more time on my writing and art? We may compare ourselves to writers who don’t have families and can be too hard on ourselves when we do that. Of course, the flipside can occur when we put in extra time on our craft. Doubt can creep in and we may ask ourselves, am I spending enough time with my family? I find that collaborating with parent/writer friends and colleagues is incredibly helpful. Many times that extra support is crucial and can help us realize we are not alone in our struggles. Writing circles, literary salons, online writing groups, and writing residencies are all ways we can move beyond those stereotypes (internalized and externalized) and ensure we are part of a larger writing community.
M.M. DeVoe: It seems to me that it is less the stereotype of a writing parent than the stereotype of a “great artist” that is dangerous. If there is a common negative stereotype of parent-writers, I would say it’s that of the “mommy blogger” writing exclusively about the ups and downs of parenting and considering their blog the equal of someone else’s novel. At Pen Parentis, we don’t judge the writing produced by a writing parent, we celebrate that anyone can write anything, frankly! It’s terribly hard to balance the demands of children with the demands of a creative career.But to get back to the question at hand: the stereotype of the writer who is a “great artist” is always portrayed as a solitary creature typing late into the night, surrounded by cigarette butts and whiskey bottles—never by permission slips for field trips, toys, or pacifiers. Pen Parentis tries to change that stereotype by telling the world which writers have kids. It’s heartening to know that many recent award-winners have kids instead of drug addictions! Honestly, the dedication it takes to maintain a creative career while also parenting is a dedication that should be celebrated and admired.
Julianne Palumbo: Perhaps one of the most common stereotypes about parents as writers is that parenting writing is often sappy. Some readers might think that there will be nothing interesting to read when someone is simply writing about their own child. Another expectation is that this type of writing can be judgmental and preachy. Because parenting produces experience, the impulse is to pass on that experience through parenting advice in order to save new parents the trouble of figuring things out for themselves. The prevalence of these ideas can have the effect of making parenting writing self-conscious.
Writers can counter these stereotypes by not focusing so much on teaching from their experiences or providing judgment through them as on just relaying their stories in a way that speaks to their audience. Strong writers of parenting material tell us their personal story but then take the important step of universalizing that story so that all of their readers can relate. The stories should show us how parenting simply is, not tell us how anyone might think it should be. Told well, readers will relate to the experience itself and will pull from the writing whatever message might speak to them.
Marjorie Tesser: In an ideal world, the profound, diverse experience of mothering would be believed to be of the highest importance for literary consideration. Unfortunately, it seems some publications are happy to have women write about sex but less so about childbirth and other gritty realities, and there are those that give work about war, politics, etc., precedence over the domestic. Some employ a double standard—writing by a man about parenthood is praiseworthy, but by a woman, clichéd. But there are many publications, both general and mother or women-centric, that are interested in your fine work about aspects of motherhood. When submitting for publication, seek out venues where you find work that harmonizes with your own writing esthetics and style. And do keep sending those mother poems to less friendly venues—the literary landscape is evolving, and changes are occurring in even the most hidebound journals.
In a recent VIDA blog, writer Rachel Richardson relates the experience of an academic colleague cautioning her against being pigeonholed as “one of those mommy poets” (Report from the Field: To Go To Sea: Making a Place in a Male Literary Landscape). I believe no one can dictate what you should be writing, nor what your concerns as an artist should be. As for being pigeonholed, you are the curator of your own bio; you might decide to tweak a particular bio to list prior publications that are in the same “club” as the place you’re submitting. Others feel that the only way we’ll change things is to let our mother flag fly. Any decision you make is fine—mothers who have chosen either path enjoy healthy writing careers.
M.M. DeVoe: Here’s a thought: instead of dropping the kids off the bio as soon as the first major literary prize is attained, we wish that writers would acknowledge their families. One of the things we have discovered is how rare it is for writers to be able to talk about their families, because they think it somehow makes them seem like a less “serious” writer. Why would a writer seem less serious if they are fighting the urge to go play ball with their kid rather than fighting the urge to give it all up, burn their manuscript, and hide under a blanket for the rest of the day? Unknown. But somehow depression is entwined with our stereotype of a working artist, and that, I think, more than anything is damaging to the expectation that we can continue to be great writers if we are also parents.
What actions can parents take to support their own writing? What are some practices to sustain vibrant creative work while actively parenting?
M.M. DeVoe: Obviously, keep writing. That goes without saying. It’s harder than it sounds, especially when you’re battling the guilt of needing to be away from the kids in order to do your best work—though many parent-writers learn to work, even with their kids nearby.
Other, more specific suggestions? Find a community. Even if it’s just three or four other writers, and only one of them has kids, you need someone who understands what you’re going through. Writers who are part of a community are more successful than those who try to go it alone. Make your own workshop, go to a colony for two weeks if you can, treat your writing as you would any day job that earned money. Put it first, make it a priority—for as much time as you are able to devote to it. Then put it away and enjoy your family. Learn to schedule, learn to multitask, and learn to use time wisely. Love the time you’re able to write. Cherish it. Use it.
Julianne Palumbo: One of the most important actions a parent writer can take is to make time to write daily. Often, when the children are young, writing time and sleep come out of the same pile. But writing is learned only by writing, and spending time on writing is integral to improving one’s craft. Write every day, even if it’s just a sentence.
Another important practice is to keep a notebook or journal handy to write down the fabulous things that children do and say. We parents think we will remember them, but in the craziness that can be parenting, they are soon forgotten. As a young mother, I kept a notebook beside my bed and before I went to sleep each night I would write the fantastic happenings of the day. Now, with my children in their teens and twenties, the notebook is full of gems I would never have remembered. Some of these gems have turned themselves into poems and stories.
J.P. Howard: Parents can make attempts to carve out time for our own writing; often this is successfully done when we partner with other parent-writer friends who understand our time constraints and limitations without judgment. This can play out in multiple ways. I find it most helpful being proactive and seeking out other writing communities, made up of both parents and non-parents. I think we each have something valuable to offer the other. Parents can be great at prioritizing, because we know that raising our children and tight time management is something that is automatically built into our schedules. Writer friends without children can learn from our own successful structures and time management. Collaborating in writing salons and virtual online communities makes sure our work stays vibrant and relevant, while keeping us connected to writers and artists beyond our own immediate circles. Parents have to make sure to practice self-love and self-care. This is sometimes our biggest challenge, but I think it is truly life saving when we make those efforts. We can select specific times during the week, month or year to just do something for ourselves (no children included)! This includes attending local writing workshops, writing retreats and residencies away from our “home-base.” When I go away to these spaces, usually without my children, it’s invigorating and often allows me to come back home more focused. Parents, especially women, have to give ourselves permission to put our needs as writers, women, and vibrant beings first. This kind of self-love/self-care also helps us ultimately become a better parent.
Marjorie Tesser: If you want to write and you’re not, or if you’re not writing or publishing as much as you wish you were, you basically have three choices.
Feel frustrated and guilty—Not the best choice!
Write! The best advice is making a habit of it (novelist Lore Segal defines a habit as something it’s easier to do than to not do). Segal wrote mornings. Poet Marie Ponsot wrote without fail for ten minutes each night after putting her seven children to bed; no matter how exhausted she was, she made herself write for those ten minutes, and it often ended up stretching to more. Use the time not only to write seriously but also to play—write personal stuff, make lists, play with ideas.
Relax! As with motherhood, you’ll get disparate advice from random sources about writing. But ultimately, you’re the judge of your own situation; your own mothering – work seesaw finds its own balance on the fulcrum. Each family has its own challenges and requirements; each muse has her own strength, conviction, urgency, and vision. Whatever balance you work out now is not permanent, nor is it binding on the future. I only wrote in fits and starts, privately, when my kids were small, but developed a more steady writing and publishing practice later in life. Do what works for you.
How do our organizations support women’s and parents’ creative work and validate their experiences? Which other publications, presses, retreats, and organizations support and develop the skills and creativity of parent writers?
M.M. DeVoe: At Pen Parentis, our mission is to provide resources to writers to keep them on creative track after they start a family. We offer free monthly literary salons that celebrate the creative diversity of writers that are also parents by bringing three or more such authors into a room and hearing their new works, then discussing the many ways they balance an active family life with a creative career. We offer an annual merit-based fellowship to a writer parenting a child ten or younger. We offer occasional classes to develop particular skills in NYC and we are working hard to develop online communities of writers who are also parents that we hope can turn into in-person communities as we reach a critical mass of participants. We value inclusiveness, professionalism, community—we strive in every way to inspire writers who are parents to dedicate themselves to their writing careers.
Other than those represented here on this panel, we hope all writing parents know about the Sustainable Arts Foundation. Based in San Francisco, they give generous individual grants to writers and visual artists that are also parents. They also keep a list of writing colonies and residencies that they fund to make them more accessible for writing parents, in researching what is available, that’s a great place to begin. Magazines that are excellent for creative, thinking parents are Brain, Child and Mutha Magazine, as well as Brain, Teen. Also, Marble House Project has a writing residency that you can bring spouse and kids to (this is what writing-parent communities are best at: sharing vital information like this!)
J.P. Howard: Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon (WWBPS) supports women’s and parents’ creative work by bringing primarily women of color and LGBTQ communities together each month for a free potluck poetry workshop, featured author reading, Q & A session with our feature and a multi-genre open mic. Our salons meet once monthly over the weekend, often in someone’s home or donated community space. People bring delicious home-made dishes and the wine flows freely. These literary salons last between 4 ½ to 5 hours minimum. We write, we collaborate, we laugh, and often we cry as we use writing to explore so many personal and political issues. Our Salons literally and figuratively nurture us. A number of us are parents and having time to share our experiences as writers is empowering and helps to validate our experiences in the world.
Mom Egg Review is a huge supporter of parent writers, creating a space for us both in print and online. I have been a part of writing communities and retreats at Cave Canem, Lambda Literary and VONA. Each of these spaces includes many writers who happen to be parents, though that is not what brought us to the retreats. These safe and supportive spaces allow us to speak freely about missing our children when we are in residency, while simultaneously celebrating our roles as writers in collaborative and supportive environments. Ultimately these organizations help us develop our skills and remain creative by creating and providing these welcoming spaces.
Julianne Palumbo: Mothers Always Write supports the mission of motherhood by offering poetry, essays, book reviews, and columns intended to speak to parents and parent writers. We support our writers in a number of ways. We created and maintain a contributor’s FB group where writers can expand the readership of their pieces, find writing partners and friendships as well as read other great writing and learn of publication opportunities. We promote our writers by sharing their pieces written both for MAW and for other publications on our social media. We afford our writers the opportunity to participate in critique groups, pairing our writers with others with similar writing interests. We also provide an opportunity for our writers to publicize their relevant works on our site through book reviews and column writing. Finally, our editorial staff often selects at least one new writer for each issue who is then given the opportunity to work with us to bring an often very rough piece of writing to publication quality.
Marjorie Tesser:Mom Egg Review is a literary journal about motherhood. We support mother writers and foster motherhood literature through publication and through live and online community engagement.
We publish an annual print journal of fine, sharp literary work centered on motherhood (in its 15th year) and we recently started a quarterly web-based journal that additionally focuses on general women’s issues. Our website, http://www.momeggreview.com, contains literature and art, craft tips, interviews with established mother writers, reviews of books by mother writers, and relevant news. We sponsor our own readings and workshops, and participate in festivals and panels to help connect in person to mother writers.
In addition to the Mom Egg Review Group, in which contributors and readers can share their own news and concerns, we sponsor genre-based Facebook groups #takepoetry and #febflash. We actively collaborate with other groups interested in mothers’ and women’s experiences, including the Museum of Motherhood, ProCreate Project (a UK-based artists collective that recently sponsored Mother House, an art residency for mothers with children), and others, and we do our best to disseminate information about publications and opportunities friendly to mother artists. We celebrate and value the work of our co-panelists, Pen Parentis, Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon, and Mothers Always Write in nurturing mother writers, and the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses, in supporting writers and mother-friendly small presses and litmags.
M.M. DeVoe is the founding director of Pen Parentis, a 501c3 nonprofit that provides resources to writers to help them stay on creative track after starting a family. She has an MFA from Columbia and is an award-winning writer of short fiction (with two kids). M.M. co-hosts a series of monthly literary salons in lower Manhattan featuring small groups of diverse writers who are also parents. Pen Parentis also runs a fellowship for parent writers.
J.P. Howard is the author of SAY/MIRROR (The Operating System), which was a 2016 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. She is the recipient of a 2016 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award and has received fellowships from Cave Canem, VONA and Lambda Literary. JP curates Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon.
Julianne Palumbo’s poems, short stories, and essays have been published many literary journals. She is the author of Into Your Light and Announcing the Thaw, poetry chapbooks about raising teenagers. She is the Founder/Editor of Mothers Always Write, an online literary magazine about motherhood.
Marjorie Tesser is the author of poetry chapbooks THEIMPORTANT THING IS (Firewheel Chapbook Award Winner) and The Magic Feather. She co-edited the anthologies Bowery Women and Estamos Aquí (Bowery Books) and Travellin’ Mama: Mothers, Motherhood and Travel (forthcoming from Demeter Press). She is the editor in chief of the literary journal Mom Egg Review.
So maybe you’ve started a literary journal or a podcast? Maybe you’ve been rejected by presses and feel that it’s time to start a place that reflects your thoughts on contemporary publishing? Maybe you’re working in an English Department that’s looking to expand their scope? There are lots of reasons for starting a press, but before you do, check out Sundress Publications’ roundtable discussion with independent press editors about the highs and low of indie publishing.
Why did you found your press?
Carly Miller: I think one of the main reasons was to figure out a way to be a literary citizen outside of being writers and past literary magazine editors. When my cofounders and I started the press, we were five MFA graduate students sitting in a deli asking ourselves what books we love and why we love them. We found ourselves discussing literary theory in conjunction with how our favorite books “work” in their engagement with the reader, how we wanted to engage in this idea of “the creative act as critical act.” Poetry engages with so many different tensions, from subject matter to craft, and we wanted to create texts that could allow the conversation to become wider through the poet’s own voices and how they engage with various tensions. So, we founded a press to engage in these moments of tension, a.k.a. contemporary poetics alongside contemporary criticism, with hopes to contribute to this larger conversation.
Margaret Bashaar: Masochism? I mean, I have always found a deep sense of emotional fulfillment in promoting the art of others. There hasn’t been a time since I was 14 that I wasn’t editing some kind of literary publication. Little in life genuinely makes me happier than finding poetry that I feel merits an audience and working to connect that poetry with an audience. So masochism, definitely. And I like making things with my hands, and books of poetry seemed like as good a thing as any to make with my hands.
M. Mack: The phrase we use is that we wanted to fill a gap in the publishing landscape. At the time, in 2012, there was a real shortage of markets that both called themselves feminist and welcomed work from folks who did not identify as women. So we created Gazing Grain Press as a place for feminists of all genders. The landscape has changed a lot since then, which is really exciting, and we now have a number of contemporaries.
Juliet Cook: I started my Blood Pudding Press close to ten years ago now, so it’s hard for me to remember the exact details of how I felt at that time, but I know it involved a strong and genuine passion for poetry and a realization that it was mostly poets who published other poets. I had been a big fan of ‘zines in my late teens through mid twenties, then indie literary magazines in my twenties all the way until now. When I was in my early thirties, I became a big fan of frequent blogging for several years. My blog site was Xanga and my blogger name was candydishdoom. I met a few creative writers there (some of whom I’ve remained connected with ever since), right around the time when they were initially starting their own online literary magazines and/or small presses. For example, Rachel Kendall, who started Sein und Werden not long after we met and has kept it going for years now and Kristy Bowen, who started Dancing Girl Press around that time. I loved how small indie poetry presses seemed like unique artsy poetic variations of ‘zines and I loved the individualism of our Xanga blog style communication and I loved poetry and poetry chapbooks.
I think I’d had a little back burner of an inkling to start my own itty bitty press for a year or two before I actually did it, but I felt overly nervous that I’d somehow screw it up. But in late 2006, I had this sudden spurt of finishing a small series of Twin Peaks inspired poems that had been sitting unfinished in the back of a folder for about 10 years, and I felt really strongly about the poems, and thought they worked best together instead of individually, and so I decided that would be a great time to start my own small press and publish my own chapbook first, because if I had trouble with formatting, design, or anything else, I wouldn’t be affecting another poet with my fledgling difficulties. Kristy Bowen gladly shared information with me about how she formatted her Dancing Girl Press chapbooks, I followed her formatting tips, I designed my own cover art, and I took it from there. After I got more comfortable with formatting and design, I shifted away from publishing myself with my own press and started publishing multiwriter collections and individual chapbooks by others.
For years, I felt so passionately excited about choosing chapbooks, designing chapbooks, and uniquely hand-crafting chapbooks. I loved being a part of the poetry community who was not only focused on herself, but also helped support others too.
What were some of the early pitfalls you found?
Carly Miller: We’re only two years old, so we may still be in the early pitfalls stage. One of them is definitely funding—we started the press as grad students, who don’t make a lot of money in the first place, and we’re all trying to find jobs and stability in the real world. But we rallied, and we’re working on ways to figure out funding (a.k.a. we’re finalizing our Indiegogo campaign to run sometime during the summer).
Margaret Bashaar: Time. In the past I have over-committed myself, time-wise, and it’s been a huge problem. Essentially, Hyacinth Girl Press is two people—Sarah Reck (who is our prose editor and does all our layout and design work and runs our website) and myself. It was a struggle for us to find a balance with the number of projects we could realistically take on without overwhelming ourselves, and the chapbooks we put out suffering as a result.
Juliet Cook: I honestly don’t remember many EARLY pitfalls, aside from my initial nervousness. I remember feeling extremely drawn to, excited, and passionate about what I was doing for quite a few years.
Reading the responses above mine, about money and time, I agree, BUT I don’t remember those being major concerns of mine when I first started my press. As far as funding, I don’t expect nor do I want anyone else to help fund my press (other than buying the created chapbooks). I am an ANTI-fan of how much crowdfunding has grown in recent years. As far as time, that can certainly be a challenge, but I’ve tried my best not to take on more than I can reasonably handle.
For me personally, the pitfalls came later, when I started to feel as if my press was inundating so much of my time and creative energy, that I didn’t have enough time to read things not related to the press, to write and revise my own poetry, to submit my own poetry, and so forth. I think I have a high drive but a moderate to slow process of accomplishing certain kinds of things. I’m not a good multitasker; I’m a one focus at a time sort of person; and for various reasons, it seemed to be getting harder for me to split my focus in all the directions I wanted to and it got to the point where I sometimes started to feel bothered by my own brain’s slow pace. Over the years, I’ve heard quite a few small press editors/writers express that their press started to take precedence over their own writing—and that’s fine, if you WANT that to happen—but ultimately, I DIDN’T want anything to take precedence over my own writing, at least not on a long term, ongoing basis.
Some other pitfalls that came later for me were partly generated by social media and/or my own brain’s interpretation of certain aspects of social media. Social media, especially facebook, is so up-to-the-minute that it can rather easily cause you to feel like if you’re offline for a few days, then you’re not going to stay up to date and you’re not going to stay on top of things that are going on in poetry land. Plus sometimes on social media, certain poets or presses suddenly seem to get lambasted by a whole group of others and if you were offline for a few days, you don’t even know what generated the lambasting when you get back online, and even if some of the lambasting was deserved, it seems to quickly reach the point of fast-paced attack mode, like people are flinging an arsenal of pies at other people’s faces and the pies have weapons loaded inside and people seem to launch too quickly into taking the side of this weapon-loaded pie or that weapon-loaded piece.
Another social media related pitfall for me is that I feel like I see other small presses talking about their big influxes of chapbook sales and then I start wondering why is my press barely selling enough chapbooks to break even when other small presses sound like they’re selling more than double the amount I’m selling and so what am I doing wrong, etc. . . .
When I started to question my own way of doing things, that’s when I also started to reconsider my press—because I don’t want poetry to feel like some sort of competitive popularity contest, yet part of my mind felt as if it was starting to warp itself into that way of thinking.
Like one part of my mind couldn’t care less how I compare to others; but the other part of my mind was some mutant cheerleader doing little splits and wondering why this press’s splits and this press’s splits appeared to be spreading much further than mine, even though I didn’t necessarily want mine to spread that much further.
M. Mack: One of our favorite early pitfalls happened when we took on Meg Day’s chapbook We Can’t Read This in 2013. We had to (quickly) get permissions to print ASL sign images in the chapbook and then redesign the book with the images we got permission to use. We wrote many carefully worded queries to publishers of ASL dictionaries and spent many hours scanning and erasing backgrounds in Photoshop. We got outstanding images to use from the University of Alberta Press, for free, and that worked out great. The thing about running a press is that you never really know what is going to happen. Things happen, and you figure out how to respond. Often, you figure out that the response involves a carefully worded query.
This isn’t exactly a pitfall, but it’s important to remember that everyone involved with your press is volunteering their time and attention and energy because they believe in the work. One thing that often surprises people I talk to is that expanding a staff takes time. Expansion isn’t as simple as bringing more people on to handle a growing workload. We expanded our staff from two to ten in 2014, following six months of preparation, trying to make our processes as transparent as possible and making all of our policies and procedures as open to revision as possible, and preparing ourselves to let go of some control of our precious literary baby. Even with six months of preparing for expansion, it was a healthy learning curve for all of us. We operate as a feminist press, and it is difficult sometimes. It is important to be open about how much work is required to run a press.
How much marketing is a new indie press expected to do for its authors?
Carly Miller: I think we’re expected to do just as much as older presses! I mean, we definitely have to hit the ground running with promoting our books to the best of our ability, and finding ways to get the book in other people’s hands.
Because we’ve mostly created anthologies, we’ve taken advantage of Twitter by tweeting lines from the anthology. We’re always keeping an eye on our contributors, too, helping to promote a new poem or a new book of theirs. We also connected with a few reviewers and teachers who reviewed or taught our books in their classrooms. We’re also wanting to host more readings, whether they’re in San Diego (our hometown/location) or not. These examples lead me to say that we’re so lucky that our contributors want to help us in terms of marketing efforts—Angela Veronica Wong set up a Spotlight feature on Coldfront (here’s the link: http://coldfrontmag.com/spotlight-locked-horn-press-part-1of-8/) and Krystal Languell hosted a joint reading for us in New York when our first books came out.
Basically, I think authors are expecting marketing efforts, but are also willing to help with marketing because that is the landscape of indie press publishing today. We have our own set of people we contact to help us get a review or something, but we’ve also seen the power of what happens when contributors promote their own work—literally, one contributor shared our newest collection on their social feed, and one of their friends immediately bought the book. We hope our contributors want to share the book with their friends, but we’re focused more on our efforts to get the books where they need to go.
Margaret Bashaar: I think a tiny indie press is expected to do as much promotion and marketing as that press promises to do. I know some presses don’t send out review copies, some don’t bother to try to get their books in bookstores, some don’t maintain their websites with a page for each chapbook, some don’t do promos for their chapbooks, some don’t do pre-sales, some never attend AWP, some only attend AWP and eschew all other fairs and conferences, and some do all of the above and more. I think it’s a case by case basis, and I feel that as long as you are upfront with what you as an editor are capable of and willing to do, then you’re doing great. Be honest. Do what you can.
Juliet Cook: I think this is variable and largely depends on the press. The size of the press, the money of the press, the number of editors of the press, the time constraints of the press, the location of the press, the brainwaves of the press and what those waves are aiming to do.
My press doesn’t do a great deal of in-person promoting, overall. I’ve been to AWP a few times, but certainly can’t afford that conference regularly. I’ve been to smaller, more local conferences and events in my general area. But I’m limited because of location, my brain flukes, and other reasons.
I do promote new chapbooks quite a bit online (via facebook, twitter, my personal blog, my Blood Pudding Press blog, and my website), I do have an online shop offering my Blood Pudding Press chapbooks (https://www.etsy.com/shop/BloodPuddingPress), and I do send out quite a few review copies of each chapbook. I appreciate it when the authors help to market and promote their work too.
One positive thing about social media for presses is that it’s a widely available promotional tool.
One not so positive thing is it can shift your attention all over the place, looking at a little bit of this and a little bit of that and wondering how in the world you’re going to find time to focus on everything that interests you.
With everything that’s going on in social media, all at the same time, even though posts can direct attention towards your press, they don’t necessarily increase the sales of your press. Just because people like a bunch of things on social media doesn’t mean they’re going to buy all those things they like.
Margaret Bashaar: I completely agree with what Juliet says about social media—popularity on social media does not necessarily translate to chapbook sales. My top five selling chapbooks I could never have predicted. There doesn’t seem to be a very set formula for “this is what will make a chapbook sell,” and I do my best to not worry about that. I hope that if I feel passionately about a book that will translate to others and they will want to read the book.
Sometimes something totally unexpected and ridiculous happens that you could never in any way control—a chapbook that I published in 2013 was featured on Jen Campbell’s book vlog as her favorite book she read in 2015, and sales of that chapbook skyrocketed as a result. There was no way for me to control this, for me to make this happen, other than to publish a bunch of chapbooks and for them to somehow make their way to her and for that particular chapbook to speak to her.
I think it’s easier to say what will make a chapbook NOT sell. If the poet is non-present on social media, if you release the chapbook on a holiday, if the poet or editor is non-present in promoting the book. Things like that.
M. Mack: All of the marketing. (I’m kidding, kind of.) If you want to publish a book, you have to market the book. That said, you’re probably volunteering your time to publish books. Marketing is a very important collaboration between the editor and the author. Make the workload more reasonable by being smart about where you send materials. Ask your authors for ideas and feedback. Make sure you are sending materials to meaningful places. See who will accept digital press kits and digital review copies; more and more markets will. It’s often easier and more economical (and less risky, especially if you make your books by hand) to distribute digital marketing materials. That said, especially if you make your books by hand, you want to represent your books accurately in digital form by including photos and descriptions of how they are bound.
What are some of the differences between online chapbooks and print chapbooks? What are the benefits of each?
Carly Miller: While my press hasn’t ventured into chapbooks yet, we’ve had these conversations. Online would allow us to reach a larger audience, especially if the chapbook is available for free (think H_NGM_N Books and Sundress’s e-chaps). Printed chapbooks are such an experience, since the ones I own are that perfect size that fits so easily into my purse and make for that perfect lunchtime read. I know we’re leaning towards more of a book-arts approach with the chapbook, which isn’t currently possible with how large our anthologies are. We haven’t fully done the research to see what would be cheaper in terms of the printed chapbook to go with POD, or figured out the book-art approach, but we’re getting there.
Margaret Bashaar: A print chapbook will exist forever as an artifact. It will be a thing you can hold and touch and re-read and nibble on for as long as you want to. There is more freedom of design and obviously of material in a print chapbook. A print chapbook can be thrown at a rowdy audience member at a reading. As human beings in our current form, we read better on paper than on a screen. Can you tell I deal exclusively in print chapbooks?
An e-chapbook can be much more widely distributed. E-chapbooks have a much smaller overhead. E-chapbooks, once designed, do not need to be re-printed. They do not need you to spend hours and hours folding and binding them. There is less restriction on length with an e-book because you don’t have to force a staple through 13 sheets of paper.
I think we are still in a place where people take print chapbooks much more seriously than e-chapbooks, and while I don’t know if I agree with that notion, I do think it shows a certain commitment to a book to bring it into physical existence. Though if I’m being honest, I used to take that much more seriously than I do now, because lately a lot of presses are being funded by crowdfunding campaigns, and so it’s less a mark of willingness to put your ass on the line to put out a book in print now.
Juliet Cook: I personally prefer print chapbooks, visually and on a sensory level. I think they look and feel more unique and extra-special and one-of-a-kind and you can touch them and smell them and flip through their pages at your own pace.
I’m a big fan of online literary magazines, but when it comes to chapbooks, I definitely tend to be more positively drawn to print.
However, online chapbooks are more easily and widely accessible and thus could have a significantly wider potential audience.
M. Mack: We don’t publish e-books at Gazing Grain, but I teach them in my chapbooks courses. I think e-books can do really exciting things with design, and different people can have access to them. E-books are really great for use in classrooms. (If you want your print chapbooks to be used in classrooms, consider ISBNs or an ISSN to make bookstore ordering easier.) Print chapbooks can also do amazing things with book arts, of course. I consider chapbooks to be extremely intentional handmade objects. My favorite is when publishers make e-books of their sold-out limited edition handmade chapbooks, like Bloof and Big Lucks do.
What tips do you have on designing the layout of an issue or book?
Margaret Bashaar: So, you make friends with this really nice girl named Sarah when you’re both in 2nd grade and you stay friends for like, twenty years. And then it turns out that she is working for Hachette Book Group and wants to try her hand at book design, and you’re starting a press and she’s like “hey, can I do your books’ design?” and you’re like “that’s cool—I was just going to do it in Word or something” and then it turns out she’s amazing at it and that’s my advice.
Juliet Cook: I don’t have the best tips to offer. I’m a one-woman old school designer, who uses Microsoft Word to design my chapbooks’ innards AND covers and I’m not good at explaining how I do it, I just do it how I do it.
Margaret Bashaar: Okay I figured someone else might have some tips, but now that I see that we’re all sort of in the same position I’ll try to some up with something more practical.
1. Teach yourself Microsoft Publisher. It’s not the best program, but if you have the Microsoft Office suite, you’ll have Publisher and you won’t need to spend any additional money on a special program. Plus, unlike Word, it’s a program that is actually meant to be used for things like pamphlet and book layout. It is not a difficult program to figure out (I figured it out on my own in like, an hour).
2. If you have some extra scratch, spring for Adobe Illustrator/InDesign/Photoshop. They are expensive, but I am told also totally worth it if you have the money.
3. Don’t be afraid to do things simply or with old school methods. Sometimes a clean, simple, text-based cover design is better than a fancy pants crowded looking one, and sometimes photocopying is totally the way to go.
M. Mack: I’m also not that helpful here, because I have been designing magazines and books since I was in high school, and for a long while I designed publications sort of professionally for a nonprofit. But, along that time I had to learn new programs and new ways of doing things, and it is possible to teach yourself design programs. If you’re starting from scratch, look for elements in books you admire. Choose a program and learn it. The internet is amazing. I once taught myself to code an e-book with Lynda.com in a weekend. Margaret makes a good point about affordability. I use Adobe because it is what I have always used. Try out different programs that are available to you. Think about what will suit your needs. Adobe has pitfalls not only in cost but also in availability (which is related to cost). Our editors are all over the United States, and sharing design files is nearly impossible. So, think about what your needs are (and will be) before committing to a program.
How do you determine fair pricing for cover art?
Margaret Bashaar: I figure out what I can afford, and fair price is probably like three times that. Honestly, Hyacinth Girl Press is infinitely lucky in that Sarah Reck, our co-founder, is such an amazing designer. When I’m dealing with an outside artist I am as up front with them as I can possibly be about our budget restrictions and I don’t ever try to force anyone to lower their prices for me. If it’s not a fit due to finances, it’s not a fit. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time. Often, if I really have my heart set on a particular artist I will offer to buy the original piece for my personal collection, and that usually moves things along, but that also depends on my personal finances being in a place where I can buy art.
Juliet Cook: I highly value visual art, but I can’t afford to pay an artist a hundred bucks to design a cover for me, or even fifty bucks. In my own experience, some visual artists value poetry just as much as some poets value visual art, and they’re excited enough about having their art appear on the forum of a poetry chapbook and being credited in the book and receiving a free copy of the book that they don’t require monetary payment. I’ve paid some artists a small amount (in addition to crediting them and giving them a copy of the book) to create a new piece of art specifically for a cover. I’ve also purchased an existing piece of art from an artist in appreciation for being given permission to use that existing piece of art on the cover of a book. I’ve also used parts of some of my own visual art creations as cover art for some Blood Pudding Press chapbooks.
M. Mack: Unfortunately, most of us pay what we can afford. My only advice it to make sure that you are upfront with the artist with whatever your price is. You don’t want to put yourself in the position where an artist has said yes, but you can’t afford the fee. Make sure the author knows what the budget is and can include it in any conversations they have with artists. If you’re seeking permissions to reprint artwork, have a conversation with the author about budgets and expectations before you seek them. You might get lucky, but it’s best for everyone to have all of the information.
How do you make the most of writing conferences like AWP? How can you network at a conference without going overboard?
Carly Miller: This last AWP in Los Angeles allowed us to connect directly with our contributors and give them the book right away, which allowed us to not only thank them in person for contributing their work, but save on shipping costs once we got home. For networking, it really is just remembering that people are people. I’ve been to AWPs where I’ve had to stand behind a pillar to calm myself down before meeting some of my favorite poets, but keeping in mind that people who approach your table or have already contributed to your press have some connection with you, it allows the nerves to settle. I’ve taken advantage of book signings and making my small talk there versus chasing someone down when they’re clearly on their way to something (and yes, I’ve just run into people and walked with them wherever they were going, too). Really, just be yourself and if you see that person you want to connect with, fantastic—and if not, then hey, there’s always email.
Margaret Bashaar: I’m really bad at not going overboard at conferences, but not so much with networking as with running myself ragged selling chapbooks. I tend to spend 100% of my time at AWP and other festivals/conferences at my bookfair table talking to people about my press. I honestly enjoy doing so, but I tend to exhaust myself. I’ve found that, as an editor, the best thing I can do for my press is be present at my bookfair table as much as possible. My co-editor has never attended a bookfair or festival with me, so I am the sole representative of my press at these events. I spend money to be there, so I want to make sure I make the most of it, and that means pushing myself that extra mile to be personable and chatty and helpful. I usually take a few days off from socializing afterwards to recover, and that helps a lot.
M. Mack: Network wherever you are. Always have materials for your press with you. I embroider Gazing Grain Press tote bags for our editors to carry. I think of myself as a walking book fair table. Speaking of which, walk around bookfairs where you are exhibiting and introduce yourself to your contemporaries. If you’re walking around with everything you need if a conversation comes up, it is easier to enjoy the conference as an individual as well as an editor. I don’t think staying static at a table is necessarily the best way to promote your press. You’re also (most likely) paying your own way to the conference, so I think it is just as important to set boundaries and make sure that you are fulfilling your own goals for the event (such as seeing panels related to your latest poetry project) as it is to promote your press. Often, these things can go hand in hand. I like to introduce myself to judges of our contests after they speak on panels. I get to hear the panel, and I get to say, “Hi, thanks so much, you’re great.”
What would you say writers expect from the editors of a new press?
Carly Miller: I think writers expect professionalism in all forms. Each interaction needs to be professional and show that the work is being handled with care. I think writers want to see that the press is making an effort to get their work out into the world, and having the work presented in a way that is really beautiful (as in the physical object of the book via design, even when it’s online) and shows a sense of community-building via reviews and marketing efforts.
Margaret Bashaar: I feel like expectations of new presses vary, and I feel as though editors more or less drive that expectation with how we present ourselves on our websites and in our initial communications with writers who want to work with us/we want to work with. It’s hard to say “this is what writers expect across the board.” I mean, I know what I, personally want from a press—I want the editor to reply to my communications in a decently timely manner, I want to be kept updated on the potential timeline for my book or chapbook’s release, I want to have open communication and conversation about my and the editor’s expectations and plans for the book and its release and promotion. So I would say the most important thing is communication. Juliet Cook: I think that depends on the writer and the press. For me as a writer, I’m fairly open, but I would like a press to offer me a tentative time frame of WHEN the book will be published (and offer me updates if that time frame changes), a reasonable amount of free copies of the book with additional copies at a discount rate, and a reasonable amount of help promoting the book. Since that’s what I desire as a writer, that’s what I aim for as an editor too.
M. Mack: Excellence. Writers should expect excellence and respect. If you can’t prove yourself with an existing catalog, you have to prove yourself with the way you treat your authors and your books in process. I think the best way to do that is to be lovely to work with while you create lovely books.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of beginning a new press?
Carly Miller: It’s the moment the books fall into our hands. As soon as we have them, we’re able to send them to our contributors and say “thank you” all over again. It’s really the vision coming to life and seeing how excited our contributors are about the book, and wanting to share that excitement with others.
Margaret Bashaar: I haven’t started a new press in seven years, but I think the most rewarding thing for me when I first started HGP was probably interacting with each of my poets in person for the first time. I do my best to actually meet the people who I have published face to face, and it’s almost always a really fantastic, heartwarming thing.
Juliet Cook: Feeling like you’re being a personal part of the poetry community. Feeling like you’re creating what is meaningful to you and making a small but powerful difference to a few others.
Spending some personal time and energy and creative attention and genuine care focusing on other poets you appreciate and admire and helping their voices be heard.
Receiving meaningful tidbits of positive feedback and support directed at your press’s chapbooks’ innards as well as their design.
Having a few people who seem to actually care about and appreciate what you do and genuinely enjoy it.
Being your true creative self and helping to share a few other true creative selves.
M. Mack: The most rewarding part of running a press is directly contributing to the publishing landscape. Sometimes this also feels daunting. Pay attention when you feel uncomfortable and see if you need to make changes. One of my favorite parts is when people handle our books and ephemera and explore them. I like exhibiting for this reason—showing people how things are made. It is also really great when I bring a Gazing Grain text to one of my classes as an example of a book form and my students get excited about it. One of the most fun things for us is that Gazing Grain is a project of Fall for the Book literary festival, so we launch our chapbooks at Fall for the Book’s two annual events. Our authors and runners-up come to read, and our local editors get to present the brand new book or ephemera to the authors and get to know them. This is another good thing about going to big events like AWP, getting to see your authors and put together events for them.
Juliet Cook’s poetry has appeared in a peculiar multitude of literary publications. She is the author of more than thirteen poetry chapbooks, most recently including POISONOUS BEAUTYSKULL LOLLIPOP (Grey Book Press, 2013), RED DEMOLITION (Shirt Pocket Press, 2014), a collaboration with Robert Cole called MUTANT NEURON CODEX SWARM (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2015), and a collaboration with j/j hastain called Dive Back Down (Dancing Girl Press, 2015). Cook’s first full-length poetry book, Horrific Confection, was published by BlazeVOX in 2008 and her second full-length poetry book, Malformed Confetti, is forthcoming from Crisis Chronicles Press. In addition to her writing, Cook creates other art too, such as semi-abstract painting/collage art hybrid creatures. She is also the editor of Blood Pudding Press (poetry chapbooks in print) and Thirteen Myna Birds (a poetry focused online blog style lit mag). You can find out more at www.JulietCook.weebly.com.
Margaret Bashaar is the founding editor of Hyacinth Girl Press with co-editor Sarah Reck. Her first book, Stationed Near the Gateway, was published by Sundress Publications in 2015. She has published three chapbooks; Rungs, written with Lauren Eggert-Crowe (Grey Book Press, 2015), Letters From Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel (Blood Pudding Press, 2011), and Barefoot and Listening (Tilt Press, 2009), and has a fourth chapbook, Some Other Stupid Fruit, forthcoming from Agape Editions. Her work has also appeared in or is forthcoming from journals such as The Southeast Review, Rhino, New South, So to Speak, and Copper Nickel, among others. She hails from Pittsburgh where she co-runs the annual arts anarchy event, FREE POEMS, with Rachael Deacon, and works to destroy classism in the literary world in whatever way she can.
Carly Joy Miller’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Blackbird, Boston Review,Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. She has been nominated for a Pushcart and was a finalist for the Stadler Fellowship. She is a contributing editor for Poetry International and a founding editor of Locked Horn Press.
M. Mack is a genderqueer poet, editor, and fiber artist in Virginia. Ze is the author of Theater of Parts (Sundress Publications, 2016) and three chapbooks: Mine (Big Lucks Books, forthcoming 2016), Imaginary Kansas (dancing girl press, 2015), and Traveling (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2015). Hir work has appeared in such places as cream city review, Hot Metal Bridge, Menacing Hedge, and The Queer South (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014). Mack is a founding co-editor of Gazing Grain Press, an assistant editor for Cider Press Review, and the monster maker behind What Is Reality Plushies.
How do you place your manuscript with a good publisher if you don’t have a literary agent? Writers who have successfully done so will explain the process. This discussion will identify presses that consider unsolicited manuscripts and will explain how to use online listings to find reading periods and contests. The focus will be on submitting work without paying a fee. Panelists are fiction writers and poets who have successfully placed one or more books with a reputable independent publisher.
Publishing a book is every writer’s goal. But many manuscripts of literary merit go unread or unpublished because their authors can’t connect with the right editor or publisher. This panel will provide useful information on getting your manuscript read and accepted. We will discuss our own experiences—both the hits and the misses. We will encourage writers at all stages in their careers to act as their own agent to find the best home for their books.
Briefly describe the books you placed yourself at presses. Are they books of fiction, poetry? How did you find the presses and approach them? Was it difficult to find a press?
Joanna Sit: They are two books of poetry. The first one, My Last Century, is a collection of poems. The second book, In Thailand With the Apostles, is a book-length poem separated into parts, which can be read as “freestanding” poems as well. I sent the first book to book contests, small presses as well as bigger ones. I’d say I sent queries to more than 100 places, and the actual manuscript to about 40. This process took approximately three years, until I mentioned it to Nava Renek, who I’ve known from Brooklyn College and who had recently partnered in the operation at Spuyten Duyvil Press. She said she would take a look at it, which she did, and told me she liked it. Not long after, she showed the manuscript to Tod Thilleman, the publisher, who then agreed to work with it.
About a year later, at one of Spuyten Duyvil’s book parties, Tod and I were talking about long poems, and he told me how much he liked them. The poem, “In Thailand With the Apostles,” had been written years before, but no one was interested in publishing a long poem. So when he jokingly asked if I happened to have one in the back of my drawer somewhere, I answered, “Why, yes I do.” I sent him the manuscript, and the book was published a year later.
Meg Tuite: The first collection I published was Domestic Apparition, and I had published over two-thirds of the stories over a few years. I sent the collection out to five different publishers and waited. I got an acceptance from two of them, but chose San Francisco Bay Press, because I liked the availability and enthusiasm from this press. I had published many of the stories without thinking of any cohesion until the editor said, “Why don’t you rework this with the same family throughout and call it a ‘novel-in-stories.’ ” I realized that it had a seam that moved through it, and it was a nice and easy transition working the collection into a novel.
I published a few chapbooks with indy presses that were also beautiful and put together with deep commitment to the craft: Monkey Puzzle Press, Deadly Chaps and Red Bird Chaps. I have had positive relationships with my publishers and have always loved the final product they have produced.
My second full collection, Bound by Blue, was published with Sententia Books. This was the first time a press was able to send out to ‘small print distribution’ and send out copies for review. And I was very much involved in every part of it. Paula Bomer, who is the publisher, loved the cover artist I chose and worked with me on every aspect of this and was an exceptional editor. She pushed me to work flash stories into short stories which was an amazing experience, considering I teach flash fiction and am always working my students to condense and hone their work. Although, I was originally writing short stories that were at least 20 pages, so she brought me back to my source, which I am grateful for.
Thaddeus Rutkowski: Each of my books has its own story. I sent the manuscript for my first book, Roughhouse, to Kaya Press, which publishes work by Asian-rooted authors writing in English. I sent it cold, though I was familiar with the press. The manuscript went onto the slush shelf, but by chance someone I’d been in a workshop with was a volunteer at Kaya. He saw my name on the envelope and passed it along to the editors, who accepted it and made a big deal about publishing their first and only unsolicited manuscript.
I sent the manuscript for my second book, Tetched, to several contests. I’d won a chapbook contest in the early ‘90s—and this new full-length book became a finalist in the Starcherone Books competition. As it turned out, I didn’t win, but Starcherone was interested in publishing the book anyway. Before that could happen, one of my adult students accepted the book for a small press, Behler Publications, where she was an editor. Tetched came out in 2005.
I kept in touch with Starcherone, which means “Start Your Own.” I even drove from New York to Buffalo to read for the publisher, Ted Pelton, who was in the English department at Medaille College. A few years later, I had put together another manuscript and offered it for the Starcherone contest. The publisher said he’d read it outside the contest and he also sent it to another reader, Lily Hoang. They both liked the book, and it came out with the support of the New York State Council on the Arts—we didn’t have to do a Kickstarter campaign.
What was the publication/marketing process like? Were you happy with the finished book, as a product? Did you promote the book (get reviews, readings) yourself? Were the publishers helpful?
JS: The process was relatively simple and low-key. I prepared my manuscript complete with table of contents, acknowledgements, and pagination. The manuscript was sent first, and later, I sent the cover art and blurbs once I had them. Since there was no editing on the publisher’s part, I had to edit and proof all the contents. Even so, there were errors in both books. Overall, though, I was happy with the finished product. I would have to say that Spuyten Duyvil, as a small press, was not very involved in promoting the book in terms of getting it reviewed. I acted as my own publisher in that way, sending out copies to book reviewers. Because of my limited experience in this area, I missed the timing of sending out the book before it came out (such as Publishers’ Weekly). The publisher did make arrangements for a book-launch party for both books, and one other reading at St. Mark’s Bookstore in Manhattan for my first book.
MT: I had a friend who wanted to write a book titled So You Published a Book. Who the Fuck Cares?
I got that from the first book. The writing of a manuscript is one thing. Getting it out there is a whole ‘nother experience. I had a damn great time with my books. My book launches were parties at a kickass pizza place in Santa Fe, Back Road Pizza, that packed the house and sold many books. But, yes, I had to do my own marketing and if you are going indy, then get ready to work it in stages. It won’t come to you. You must go and find it!
Reviews are always an excellent way to get new readers. Also, GoodReads. Look it up. You can put your book up for a FREE GoodReads giveaway and decide how many books you want to gift. This is another way to get some readers and possible reviews from unknown folk from other continents.
TR: I’ve relied on publishers during the production process. They know about art, type, printing and Web presence, while I know about the text. After the book is produced, the review/promotion process begins. The publisher has often helped me with this–my first and third books were reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus and American Book Review. Personal contacts also helped. Now, I’m working with a publicist (my wife, Randi Hoffman) to get my latest book out to reviewers.
I enjoy traveling and setting up readings, and I’ve been lucky to read in several countries and many U.S. cities. I think that having a background as a slam poet also helps. I’m no slam champion, but I can do a little performance. That little show helps to promote the work on the page.
In one case, I was planning to go to Santa Fe with my family because my wife used to live there. I contacted many local writers, and I was led to Meg Tuite, who told me to call a bookstore, where I was able to set up a reading. I asked a poet in Taos (who I knew from New York) to read with me. She brought a number of people, and it was a great event.
I’ve learned that a writer should use social media. You should have a website, as well as Facebook and Twitter accounts. I don’t have Instagram, because I don’t have a smartphone yet.
Would you advise other writers to take the same path to publication? If so, how would they get started?
JS: The way I finally got published was a singular one. I’m not sure the path can always be of one’s own choosing. However, reflecting on the process, I would say that talking to other writers and trying to get the word out about the work were very important factors in finally getting my book read. My sense was that the first book was the most difficult to get published, and after that, it might get easier. Maybe not. My advice, overall, is “always be prepared.” By that, I mean, keep writing no matter what. While you’re waiting for someone to publish your book, send poems out to literary journals and magazines, put your name out there. By the time someone expresses interest, you’ll be all ready.
MT: I started by checking the list of indy presses. Believe me when I say it’s a whole ‘nother job. Get ready to spend time reading books by presses and deciding which ones are sympatico to your collection, novel, or memoir. A great way to move through this is to find those books that you LOVE and write down the name of the publisher and agent. That makes the most sense to me and you also read more books, which is always a plus. FIND THEM! They are not out looking for you. Just go to one AWP conference and find yourself surrounded by over 12,000 writers and realize how much we have in common with ants.
I am a LOVER of INDIE PRESSES! They rock it and work with the writer. They trust in the abyss!
TR: I agree with Joanna and Meg. All writing activities are related. Take classes/workshops, go to public readings, read your work aloud (this makes you write something in the first place), go to conferences (if you can afford it). And, of course, do your research. There are websites that list hundreds of literary agents and break them down by the genre they handle. Likewise, there are websites, such as ones from Poets & Writers and the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP), that list small presses, their reading periods, whether they charge a reading fee, etc.
Amid all the non-happenings, something good is bound to happen. You have to be ready for it. You can’t just talk a good game. You have to back it up with good work. Yes, this is a big job. It’s a second life.
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of the books Violent Outbursts, Haywire, Tetched and Roughhouse. Haywire won the Members’ Choice Award, given by the Asian American Writers Workshop. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in New York. He received a fiction fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He lives with his wife and daughter in Manhattan.
Joanne Sit is the author of two books of poetry: My Last Century (2012, Spuyten Duyvil) and In Thailand with the Apostles (2014, Spuyten Duyvil). Her poems and translations have appeared in Five Willows Review, Ezra, Natural Bridge, Seneca Review and other literary publications. Her “Mickey Rourke Rondelets,” appears in the anthology Wreckage of Reason II as “July 7” (2014, Spuyten Duyvil). She is working on a new book of poems, Track Works, and a ethnographic narrative, The Reincarnation of Red, about Chinese immigrants and Cantonese Opera.
Meg Tuite is the author of Bound by Blue, Domestic Apparition, Disparate Pathos and Reverberations. She has been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize and is the fiction editor of the Santa Fe Literary Revew and Connotation Press. She lives in Santa Fe with her husband and many pets, and she teaches at Santa Fe Community College.
Welcome to our first Sundress Roundtable, a celebration of exceptional, not-so-lost AWP panels which did not make the AWP final cut for 2016.
Our first roundtable is comprised of J.R. Dawson, Minda Honey, contributors, and Caitlin Neely, founder and editor, of The MFA Years, a blog which follows first and second year MFA candidates and explores their experiences.
How has blogging for The MFA Years affected the way you perceive and experience the MFA?
J.R. Dawson: I guess that when I’m going through my program, I’m not just thinking about me. I feel like I’m thinking about the whole culture, my other friends in other programs, and those who may be interested in the program I’m in. It makes you see the whole picture instead of just going through school for your own benefit. The MFA culture is its own little world, and being able to blog about it for an audience means that I’m a part of that world. It also comes as a responsibility. I have to represent my program well and I have to be honest about uncomfortable things in my own life in order to do my job and give the reader a real tool to use. For example, I wrote about something really personal back in May, and it was so very uncomfortable, but it helped people who were in the same situation. It was good to see that by “walking through the fire” and being honest, I connected with readers.
Minda Honey: I would not say that blogging has affected my perception or overall experience. I used my blogging as a way to give potential MFAs an idea of what the experience is like rather than as a tool for me to explore the experience in real-time. Any writing to gain further understanding of my experience would likely occur in the months or years following my graduation from the program. So, I believe my experience to be fairly on par with what it would be like had I chosen not to blog about it.
Caitlin Neely: Before this, I was not an avid blogger. But I was also never good at keeping a diary as a kid. Blogging about my MFA has been great. It helps me process what I’ve done, accomplished, and how I’ve changed. It’s also helped me connect more to my program. They’ve shared a few of my posts on the UVA Facebook page and I’m glad they enjoy reading them!
What tips do you have for students who are interested in blogging about their own experiences?
JD: Don’t just write about you. People read blogs in order to connect and learn. Write about the larger scope of what is going on with you in your life. Thinking about your audience is what separates a blog from a diary.
Also, don’t try to be someone you aren’t. All of us wish we were as witty as Allie Brosh, few of us are. Just be you.
Finally, proofread. You are in a writing program. If you have a typo or a grammatical error, that looks bad for your program.
MH: Do it. The MFA Years recruits every year in the spring and you always have the option of blogging independently from your own corner of the Internet. Be honest about your experience and your feelings, but also be mindful of any limitations your department might have concerning this practice.
CN: Go for it! Blogging is a great way to think about your MFA in a new way and to chronicle your experiences. Plus, it keeps you writing even if you’re experiencing writer’s block in other aspects of your life (we all know that feel).
My big tip is to always remember the internet is forever. Even if you take a post down later on or edit something out, there still might be ways for others to access it. That’s why I give my blog drafts 24 hours to sink in. I don’t hit publish immediately after I’ve written something. And proofreading is just as important!
Are modern MFA programs doing an effective job of communicating to potential applicants via the internet (social media, program websites, etc)? In what ways can they use the internet as a way to advertise themselves?
JD: I think some are and some aren’t. I think people are still learning that this generation that is now entering college and graduate school thrive and survive on the internet. I think that program websites need to be spotless, and I know that when I was applying for MFA programs, sometimes I ran into schools where instructions were a little hard to follow and not specific enough. Having a professional, informative, clear website is really important to us. And using twitter to communicate is also really great.
But I also feel like perhaps there’s a gauche way to use the internet. If I saw a pop-up ad for a program or a Facebook ad, I’d probably give it a side-eye. Maybe getting creative with webinars, videos, that sort of thing? I would have loved to see more of that when I was applying.
MH: I believe that there is opportunity for programs to enhance their web and social media presence. I recall that during the application process that some websites were difficult to navigate or just felt light on overall content. This is actually a role or roles that could be turned over to their MFA candidates and become a chance to gain social media experience much in the same way that a program’s literary magazine gives candidates the opportunity to develop literary mag experience.
CN: Some programs are doing a great job and others are not. When I was applying to programs, I couldn’t believe the number of times I came across a program site that provided next to no information. I’m talking funding numbers weren’t even mentioned and some of them were programs I knew fully funded everyone. I’m not sure why these places aren’t shouting from the rooftops how awesome they are and how much money they provide.
Twitter, Facebook, and websites are all great ways for programs to advertise themselves. I agree with Minda. Social media is something that could be handed over to interested graduate candidates. And (self-promotion alert) The MFA Years is always happy to interview alumni and current MFA students about their program.
Minda Honey was raised in the land of bourbon, basketball and horse racing—Louisville, Kentucky. She is a candidate in the MFA program at the University of California, Riverside, where she is working on her memoir, An Anthology of Assholes. Her writing can be found on Gawker and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She tends to her own little plot of the internet at www.mindahoney.com.
J.R. Dawson is an MFA Popular Fiction candidate at Stonecoast. She holds an MS in Education and a BFA in Playwriting and English Literature. She is the founder of her alma mater’s Writer’s Guild and is past editor-in-chief of their literary journal. She has published plays, a short stories collection, and one really weird new age music demo that her parents made her release when she was fourteen. Dawson now keeps a blog, Ramblings of a Mad Woman, where she is currently attempting her Year of Writing Challenge. Follow her @j_r_dawson.
Caitlin Neely is an MFA poetry candidate at the University of Virginia. Her work has been published in Sixth Finch, DIAGRAM, Thrush Poetry Journal, Devil’s Lake, and others. She is the founder of The MFA Years and the editor for Reservoir Journal.
October is Violence Against Women x month. This October we bring together six poets from and the editor of the anthology Women Writing Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013) to discuss resistance and fear in poetry, teaching resistance in the classroom, and the inspiration to write. Women Write Resistance views poetry as a transformative art. By deploying techniques to challenge narratives about violence against women and making alternatives to that violence visible, poetry of resistance distinguishes itself by a persuasive rhetoric that asks readers to act. Shevaun Brannigan, Mary Stone, Sara Henning, Jill Khoury, Meg Day, Larissa Schamilo, and Laura Madeline Wiseman explore poetry of resistance in this roundtable discussion. These poets will be featured at the Indiana Writers’ Consortium 2014 Annual Conference in October.
How do you write resistance? Were you ever scared to resist in your poetry?
Shevaun Brannigan: I have been retroactively scared to resist in my poetry. If there is a poem I have to write, I write it. But there is an in-between space from writing to publication. I have a poem about one of my parents that is about abuse, and its publication is forthcoming—I regret sending it out, because it will hurt someone who I love deeply. Sometimes I feel I am exploiting my own past for subject matter at the expense of others—I think this comes from the distinction of writing about resolved trauma because it will be entertaining, versus writing from an open wound out of need. I seem to have given myself a pardon for the latter, but not the former.
Another issue is other people’s stories. My poem “Don’t,” in Women Write Resistance is not my story, it is based on the story of a woman who told me this in a recovery group setting, and has since passed away. I know I needed to write the poem, because her story haunted me and if I did not engage in some sort of compartmentalization about it, I would not have been able to get her story out of my head. But did I need to publish it? It is a story that needs to be told, but is not mine to tell. I have a great amount of discomfort surrounding this poem, but can tell from reviews and videos that it speaks to people just as her original story spoke to me. I think it is right that I feel uncomfortable, though—from some angles, I see myself as a white woman who appropriated a black woman’s story for her own creative gain.
Mary Stone: The most terrifying thing is to resist at all, as well as through poetry. There is nothing more scary than writing the opposite of what you are “supposed” to say or believe or to put down stories no one wants to hear or to be controversial. Just writing “sexy” poems is a form of resistance. Not writing for others is a form of resistance. It’s scary because I don’t ever want to be told that my voice doesn’t matter or to feel like that story gets lost in the shuffle of other, more “interesting” stories. I decided a long time ago, though, that making others feel uncomfortable is not my problem – that’s their problem, and in fact, it’s part of poetry’s job to make people question what they think they know about the world. Let the poem cause discomfort, let it hurt, let it anger. It’s really only through challenge that we learn about ourselves, anyway.
Sara Henning: Every good little girl is scared to resist until she realizes what is holding her in place isn’t her lover, or her father, or her disapproving mother, her cruel brother, her drunk boyfriend in the back of the car, even the rapist holding a knife to her throat. Rather, it is her fear of possibility, and the change that possibility might demand of her. To scream, even if it means death. To say no, even if it means being disowned. To run, even if it means the door she runs out of will be locked forever after her. To put on her clothes, if it means knowing she will never see the lover left in her wake again. Every time we say no, I want something better, a little piece of who we once were dies. If these little girls remain held down, it is because they believe society when it says sit, lie there, don’t speak.
So yes, I was scared to resist in my poetry, until I realized that not resisting wasn’t an option anymore. I started to write from that little girl’s position, the one that grew up, got some sense, and didn’t look back. Now, I write resistance because I refuse to believe that as a society, we are not capable of better.
Laura Madeline Wiseman: I believe the critical introduction of Women Write Resistance is resistance. It offers a tool to view poetry as action and encourages readers to act. In my own creative work, I am interested in stories of women who resist gender violence. My book Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience is a contemporary retelling of the Bluebeard myth in the voices of Bluebeard’s living and dead wives. Bluebeard is usually framed as a story of blood and gore, but I focus on the love each of his wives felt, the first blush of romance and young marriage, the complicated turns of mature desire and the past we bring into our present affections, and the trauma and scars violence in the home slashes into the our lives. The middle section of the book works as a chorus in the voices of all Bluebeard’s previous wives and the ways they nightmarishly witness what they cannot stop. Though the bluebeard myth may appear to be about obedience and the sanctions imposed when one fails to follow them, I believe another more interesting interpretation of the bluebeard myth is to read it as a celebration of the disobedience of wives, for each new Mrs. Bluebeard does unlock the door. Yes, most wives are murdered. In some variations the final Mrs. Bluebeard is saved by her brothers. In the robberbride groom version, her own fortitude and wit allows her to save herself. In others, she is aided by a woman who works in service to bluebeard. My reading suggests that when women are disobedient to patriarchy they triumph. The last wife resists by outsmarting keys, locked doors, and death by hooks. She lives.
Jill Khoury: Many of the poems that I write are inherently resistant because they force the audience to engage with subject matter that pushes back against preconceived notions. A lot of my speakers are blind women, or women with mental illness. Even in intellectual circles, there are these tropes of blindness as ignorance (“the blind leading the blind,” “blind faith”) and of the mentally ill female as a helpless, childlike figure. I resist these tropes by writing experiences from an authentic perspective. My characters are women who live their lives in spite of these tropes. They negotiate their world with these tropes as obstacles. When my audience experiences these poems, they encounter characters who overwrite the tropes. I was and still am somewhat apprehensive when a “resistant” poem enters the larger world. The action of resisting is by definition going to be uncomfortable for both the writer and the audience.
Larissa Schamilo: I don’t really resist, truth be told – I have always stated my truth in poetry without being reactive in any way, and have always been quite bold about it. I view sexist and oppressive men as being reactive to me.
Meg Day: There have absolutely been moments when I have felt really afraid of what I’d written—and perhaps even more terrified when I realized those poems would be published and available for anyone to read or misinterpret—but for the most part I think it had everything to do with speaking my own truth in ways that validated my humanity, instead of in ways that upheld all of the misleading stereotypes about American poetics. I don’t think the power structures currently or historically in place want to hear about how women and gender non-conforming people experience violence, and I don’t think they want to hear that people of color are murdered by police states and the prison industrial complex and economic inequality and post-racial mindsets, and really, I don’t think anybody in power wants poetry to be about anything but having the leisure to think about leisurely, solitary things. I don’t have anything against nature poems or the pastoral elegy or sonnets to a beloved (I write them, too!), and I’m actually really excited about the possibility of merging these inherited forms with more contemporary and global concerns. I’m just saying that there’s a reason poets are imprisoned and murdered and censored and disappeared in other countries but not, for the most part, in this one. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always feel the fear I should when writing poems, but I do think that asking yourself what’s at stake is a pretty good starting place.
Speak about your pedagogical experiences when teaching texts that explore gender violence and resistance. In your answer, discuss texts that foster such explorations of poetry as action and writing as resistance. (If you’re not a teacher, speak about your experiences as a student in such situations.)
MD: About a year ago, I taught Patricia Smith’s “Skinhead” in an intermediate poetry workshop at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. I like to teach this poem on the page first, without much of an introduction, and to watch the responses grow in complexity as I show, first, Smith’s performance of the poem on Def Poetry Jam (which both confirms and reveals the body of the poet to be perceived as an African-American woman), and then the tribute performance of this same poem by Taylor Mali, a white man, at the ’98 National Poetry Slam in Austin, TX. While we did, obviously, talk about the implications of race and the power of positionality, it was the first time anyone wanted to talk more about gender than anything else. How is this poem easier or harder to listen to because it’s Smith (and not an African-American man) who performs it? Easier or harder for whom? What is our understanding of hegemonic masculinity as it relates to race and violence? Which poems are possible for which people? And, perhaps most invigorating, a long conversation about what poems are off-limits (and whether a poem can be off-limits!) for us, a mostly white and masculine class, to write?
LMW: One text I’ve taught is Anne Sexton’s Transformations, a collection that retells fairy tales, is one introductory poetry students seem to be able to approach because the content is familiar. Students can begin together on the level of story as they approach questions on delivery, crafty, allusions, and form. From there, students can move into interpretation such as asking why Sexton might portray Sleeping Beauty’s father in a given light to consider, “Is this poem about incest?” Likewise, in my introduction to literature class, students read tellings and retellings, such as Shakespeare’s King Lear and Jane Smiley’s One Thousand Acers. One tool I bring into the classroom to help students grapple with the issues of gender violence and its representation in literature is the Power and Control Wheel. It illustrates the ways in which an abuser maintains control before resorting to physical and sexual abuse. I ask students to find examples (e.g. emotional abuse, using children, making her think she’s crazy) in a text such as One Thousand Acers. It’s always a powerful class room activity and discussion because students are often shocked as they compile the examples abusers use to maintain power. In several instances after I’ve used such a teaching tool, students have written papers that further explore gender violence in literature, in their own experiences, and in culture, using the tools we’ve studied and others. Such student work is action because admitting gender violence exists is an act of resistance in a culture that cloaks such experiences in shame, victim blames, and/or sensationalizes violent acts in the media. Student written work becomes resistance because they too witness and break silences.
JK: When I taught first-year comp an adjunct, my classroom consisted of mostly upper-middle-class white students who seemed to have a pretty sheltered perspective. Although there are a few who came to me and said, “this text changed my thinking,” most of the students were reluctant to admit to having their opinions changed or even broadened by the texts. Being continually disappointed by my students’ reactions caused me to gradually teach fewer resistant texts. I feel like the first-year writing classroom is an environment in need of social change. However, some people are fueled by constant opposition. I am not one of them. When I was at this job, most of what I got was opposition. I literally did not have time to get my fulfillment in other places. It was rare to make it out for a reading. Taking a workshop did not fit into my schedule. So I burned out.
As a student, though, I remember one transformative event. It occurred on a college campus, but not in the classroom. I had just come out as a sexual assault survivor, and this support group I was involved in was doing readings in a public setting, the most public setting, on campus, all day, of poems written about resisting gender violence and / or processing the violence of sexual assault. I chose to read “Diving into the Wreck.” I felt such energy flow through me. Afterward I just broke down and cried. Something had shifted in me. I think it was the first time I realized the power of creative writing as action, as resistance.
LS: As a writer about sexual violence, rape, prostitution, incest, I have found that readers resist the level of pain that I depict, call it battering, excessive, and transgressive. Yet it only begins to describe the level of horrors perpetrated against women in the world. We have a holocaust on our hands in that regard.
SH: In my fantasies, for once I get a tenure track assistant professorship, my very first graduate class will be a class exploring Contemporary Women’s Poetry of Trauma. I will teach texts that explore race, sexual identity, and class; texts that explore the traumatized body, including rape, sexual abuse and notions of the violated body; texts that explore the dysfunctional family unit, substance abuse and its effects on relationships and the female psyche; texts that explore body dysmorphia, and the cycle of embodied hatred; texts that explore shame, guilt and emotion in the literary of trauma, as well as contemporary elegy. I hope to see Simone de Beauvoir, Cathy Carruth, and Julia Kristeva, among others, providing foundation for explorations of Muriel Rukeyser, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds, Carolyn Forchẻ, Lyn Hejinian, Ai, Anne Carson, Judy Jordan, Wang Ping, Thylias Moss, Claudia Rankine, June Jordan, Lynda Hull, Kimiko Hahn, Patricia Smith, and Mary Jo Bang.
SB: I have not been a student for so long that it is difficult to speak about texts I read, when in that role, that explored gender violence and resistance. I am not sure I was exposed to an entire book that discussed such a subject until I was included in the Women Write Resistance anthology. I would love to blame this on a patriarchal curriculum, which somewhat was the case in my undergrad, but at the Bennington Writing Seminars, where I did my master’s degree, the reading list was largely self-directed with some guidance from the teachers. I confess I did not seek out such texts. I did just finish The Round House, by Louise Erdrich, and while not a poetry collection, it is a book I would easily call poetic and addresses the rape of a Native American woman from the perspective of her son. I’m following that read with Beloved, by Toni Morrison, which shockingly I had never read. It is important to me to read women of color now, as I believe in the power of literature to help a reader embody someone else’s life. I have spent much of my time reading about the white male experience because that is expected and exalted, and I want to read something that is a little more eye-opening to the rest of the world’s population.
How are you trying to get better as a writer?
LMW: I try to get better as a writer by reading voraciously and by writing daily. I am currently reading some lovely poetry collections released from Dancing Girl Press, Sundress Publications, and Lavender Ink. I read all genres. Over the summer, while traveling I read Rainbow Rowell’s delightfully sweet Eleanor and Park. Other books I’ve recently enjoyed are Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Reading inspires me to write. Teaching also inspires me to write. When I teach, I write with my students. My chapbook Spindrift (Dancing Girl Press, 2014) and my book American Galactic (Martian Lit Books, 2014) were both largely generated by the in-class writing prompts I gave my students. In my creative writing classes, my students write 1-2 seven minute poems daily. We also write during 2-3 field trips to local museums. I write with them because I believe that as a teacher and a poet, it is important to write and share such low-stakes writing in the writing community a classroom generates. I want students to know that I value the intellectual and creative rigor such activities demand, that I am not above prompts and such prompts are never busywork, that such in-class work, though rough at first, has the potential to be polished, revised, and sometimes, ultimately published.
JK: Read writers that are new to me. Interact with as many writers as possible. Keep writing. Keep revising. Keep sending out. Be open to differing opinions while still maintaining my own voice.
SB: I recently completed a MOOC (Massive Open Enrollment Online Course) through The University of Iowa, and learned a great deal. I’m also taking a local West Philly workshop from poet Leonard Gontarek, and that has been invaluable. In addition to reading more, I also believe I have a lot to learn from teaching. Inspired in part by the Women Write Resistance anthology, I have reached out to a local domestic violence center to lead a workshop there. I will be using the anthology as a fundamental text for the class, and am hoping if it turns into a regular engagement that I will be able to get a grant to purchase a copy of the book for every member who enrolls. I’m also leading poetry workshops influenced by reading Irish American literature for The Free Library of Philadelphia.
LS: I am studying with the brilliant Annie Finch, a hero to me as a writer, mentor, and liberated woman.
SH: I am reading a lot and listening to the news. Besides that, I am trying to stay unplugged.
MS: Reading for fun. Focusing on projects that allow me to speak from many perspectives. Allowing myself not to write every once in a while. Painting. Working out. Being spontaneous. My writing seemed in need of an energy makeover, so I’m trying to write about subject matter that is new to me. Something new in my process – not sharing any work until I let it sit for quite a long time. I used to be excited to share work immediately and get feedback, but something different happens to the writing when you really let it simmer and only revise based on your own new eyes every few weeks.
MD: Lately I’m really invested in being in conversation with other poets and writers. I’m reading a lot and maybe writing a little less, which I’m working on feeling good about. I’m traveling a lot, too: I’m touring with my first full-length collection this year and next on #thelast13tour, which I’m hoping will take me to what Paste Magazine listed earlier this year as the last thirteen feminist bookstores in the U.S. and Canada. It’s a roadtrip I’ve wanted to take for a while, given that independent bookstores and feminist community spaces were among the first to support me as a young person and a young poet. I feel really fortunate that Last Psalm at Sea Level (Barrow Street, September 2014) will make it possible for me to meet the owners and patrons and communities who have kept these shops alive for, in some cases, nearly 80 years. While booking these readings, though, I’ve already come to understand (thanks to some #binder writers of color) the shortsightedness of the original list, which doesn’t seem to embrace a very inclusive or intersectional definition of feminism and has left out several central feminist bookstores that have perhaps played a larger role in feminist and queer communities of color than the original list was designed to include. I’m doing a lot of listening and trying to do a lot of self-educating, and I think that perhaps, as a white kid, the daily work of trying to stand in ongoing allyship to marginalized communities that are not my own is one way we all become better writers.
Shevaun Brannigan is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars, as well as The Jimenez-Porter Writers’ House at The University of Maryland. She has had poems appear in such journals as Best New Poets 2012, Lumina, Rhino, Court Green, and Free State Review. She has been an Arts & Letters Poetry Prize finalist, received an honorable mention in So to Speak’s 2012 Poetry Contest, as well as a Pushcart nomination by Rattle.
Meg Day, selected for Best New Poets of 2013, is a 2013 recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Poetry and the author of Last Psalm at Sea Level, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize (forthcoming 2014), When All You Have Is a Hammer (winner of the 2012 Gertrude Press Chapbook Contest) and We Can’t Read This (winner of the 2013 Gazing Grain Chapbook Contest). A 2012 AWP Intro Journals Award Winner, she has also received awards and fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation, Hedgebrook, Squaw Valley Writers, the Taft-Nicholson Center for Environmental Humanities, and the International Queer Arts Festival. Meg is currently a PhD candidate, Steffensen-Cannon Fellow, & Point Foundation Scholar in Poetry & Disability Poetics at the University of Utah. www.megday.com
Mary Stone is the author of One Last Cigarette and Mythology of Touch, and two chapbooks, Blink Finch and Aching Buttons. Her poetry and prose has appeared in many fine journals, including Mid-American Review, Gargoyle, South Dakota Review, Arts & Letters.
Sara Henning is the author of A Sweeter Water (Lavender Ink, 2013), as well as a chapbook, To Speak of Dahlias (Finishing Line Press, 2012). Her poetry, fiction, interviews and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as Willow Springs, Bombay Gin and the Crab Orchard Review. Currently a doctoral student in English and Creative Writing at the University of South Dakota, she serves as Managing Editor for The South Dakota Review.
Jill Khoury earned her Masters of Fine Arts from The Ohio State University. She teaches writing and literature in high school, university, and enrichment environments. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals, including Bone Bouquet, RHINO, Inter|rupture, and Stone Highway Review. She has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net award. Her chapbook Borrowed Bodies was released from Pudding House Press. You can find her at jillkhoury.com.
Larissa Shmailo is the editor of the anthology Twenty-first Century Russian Poetry, poetry editor for MadHat Annual, and founder of The Feminist Poets in Low-Cut Blouses. She translated Victory over the Sun for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s landmark restaging of the multimedia opera and has been a translator on the Bible in Russia for the American Bible Society. Her books of poetry are #specialcharacters (Unlikely Books), In Paran (BlazeVOX [books]), A Cure for Suicide (Červená Barva Press), and Fib Sequence (Argotist Ebooks); her poetry CDs are TheNo-Net World and Exorcism (SongCrew).
Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of more than a dozen books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist GenderViolence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her recent books are American Galactic (Martian Lit Books, 2014), Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink, 2014), Queen of the Platform (Anaphora Literary Press, 2013), Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012), and the collaborative book Intimates and Fools (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014) with artist Sally Deskins. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Margie, Mid-American Review, and Feminist Studies. www.lauramadelinewiseman.com