CRAFT FOCUS: CM Chapman on Descriptive Strategy

CM Chapman (Fiction '15) contributes to the WVWC MFA Blog with an excellent craft piece certain to make all writers examine their work for their own use of description. Here he examines a short story from one of John Gardner's collections. Those of us not having read this collection will certainly make a quick click to our favorite book shop to grab a copy for ourselves. Additionally, we'll be anxiously awaiting Chapman's novel in stories, SUICIDAL GODS, which is tentatively scheduled for release in October 2019.

Imaginary Joan: A Look at Descriptive Strategy

As writers, we often find ourselves describing things directly. Certainly, there is a need for specificity in many cases. As we know, the detail can cement the reality. Every once in a while, though, I find myself looking at one of my own descriptive passages and hating it. It is at those times when I know I need a different angle.

Once, during my MFA studies at West Virginia Wesleyan College, I had the opportunity to examine some of the descriptive strategies in John Gardner’s The Art of Living and Other Stories. This book of ten stories, by one of the 20th century’s best writers, is a treasure trove of descriptive strategies, and I often think of it when I’m looking for one of those different angles. In particular, I remember the story, “Stillness.”

Here, we have the story of Joan Orrick, the wife of a famous writer. This is an amazing setting piece, set in St. Louis, both in the story's present day and its past. The setting, and its changes over time, mirror the changes within Joan and her relationship to her snooty husband. Gardner establishes the setting right out of the gate when the couple stops at “a light at the corner of Olive Street and Grand...” and “...when they left Highway 70 and nosed past the arch...”  (Gardner 49).  Again, specifics solidify the setting and make you ready for the description coming soon afterward.

“Beyond the stadium... the scrubbed, unconvincing show of government buildings, the husk of the grand old railroad station where she'd met him...” (Gardner 49). That descriptive passage not only prepares the reader for a dip into the past, but firmly establishes how 'dead' the place appears to Joan, “everything was gray, windblown, burnt out” (Gardner 49).  This description mirrors and supports how Joan feels inside. 

Then, an interesting device is used to bounce the reader into some descriptive acrobatics. What would Joan have thought about present-day St. Louis if she'd had a vision of it in the past? (Gardner 50). Gardner applies a question to setting that most people use in reference to their lives, and to great effect, first, to lead into past-Joan's physical description which then blends seamlessly into a long description of the city as it was when she looked that way. All of this, in turn, accentuates the 'deadness' of the modern city as her attention returns to it and compares. “’I'm in the future!’ the imaginary Joan would finally have realized, ‘and there's been some terrible war, or a plague, and everything's been ruined’” (Gardner 51). I use a piece of dialogue in a discussion on description to point out what a wonderful descriptive device the “imaginary Joan” is.

At that point, “imaginary Joan” starts describing present-day people, including “real Joan.” What an interesting way to discover her physical description, “the lady in the fur, with emeralds, and a ruby and a diamond on her fingers was herself—her own ‘child,’ Wordsworth would say...” (Gardner 52). He even gets an astoundingly appropriate reference to Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” in there, right before he uses it all to bring the story firmly back to the present, offering the image of the hands of imaginary Joan and real Joan coming together until the child's hand disappears, leaving her “gazing at a cracked sidewalk, a piece of dirty cardboard: Fragile” (Gardner 52).  

Description can help us to understand the inner landscape as well as the outer, and sometimes it can come from unexpected places, imaginary places, carrying a momentum of its own which affects the story. I often think of imaginary Joan when considering a different descriptive angle.

Like all of John Gardner’s work, The Art of Living and Other Stories is rich with these strategies, including some fine examples of describing something by describing something else, juxtaposing one description on top of another, and utilizing sound. Imaginary Joan is an amazing device, but it barely scratches the surface of a master craftsman's incredibly diverse descriptive methods.

 Work Cited

Gardner, John. The Art of Living and Other Stories. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. Print.

C.M. Chapman has appeared in Cheat River Review, Limestone, Dark Mountain in the U.K., and the anthology, So It Goes: A Tribute to Kurt Vonnegut. He is the author of the chapbook, Music and Blood, from Latham House Press, a 2017 Pushcart nominee, and was a finalist in the 2015 Curt Johnson Prose Award for fiction. He is a graduate of the low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where he serves as an Adjunct Professor of English.    

GUEST POST: Lara Lillibridge on Writing and Family

We're excited to have Lara Lillibridge (Nonfiction ’16) guest blog this week. Lara has a memoir forthcoming in April from Skyhorse Publishing (available now for preorder from Amazon and Barnes & Noble). Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home is Lara's first book, and in it, she explores her childhood and her family. When Lara attends conferences, many people ask her what it is like to write about her family and what kinds of responses she gets from those family members. The below post is her answer.  

They say you never know someone until you divorce them, and it seems you never really know your family until you write about them. It’s similar in a way--you are making your own needs, you own art, paramount. Both are a betrayal of people you love. Different paths, of course. But perhaps the same conclusion.

When I left my first husband, his requests were simple: I was to return his last name and give him the house. I was warned that if I tried to go after his Harleys, he’d take me down any way possible. 

My second ex-husband and I fought over everything--including the kitchen broom--with one exception: the children. We co-parented even more smoothly apart than we had together. He wasn't the right man for me, but he is still the right father for our children. (And he kept the broom and the vacuum cleaner, for the record.)

How they reacted--the ex-husbands in our divorces and my parents, brother, and half-sister when I wrote my memoir--was exactly in keeping with who they had always been to me, only without pretense. 

I created space between my parents and myself when I started writing. I had to, to write it honestly. I had to immerse myself in my history and revisit the scared, wounded child I had been without worrying about their anxieties. I can't tell you the number of nights I was up all night, frantically wishing I could unwrite my own story. But that terror meant that I was writing what I needed to write--the shame and fear and convoluted boundaries.

I asked my mother, who is also a writer, if she wanted to write my memoir with me--alternating chapters, each of us describing the same time period. I thought it would show a balanced look at the family. She wasn’t interested, but she urged me to write my story. She did not ask me to hold anything back. She told me that she wished she could write about living with a bipolar spouse, but felt it was too much of a betrayal. Still, I should write our story because someone needed to. 

My mother’s partner, the bipolar spouse in question, was adamant that I should write my truth. She told me over and over that I have every right to do so. We discussed her biggest parenting regrets, and again she told me, “You must write it.” So, I did.

I did not send my parents drafts. I didn’t want to be influenced or pressured while changes were still possible. My mother couldn’t wait to read my book. She texted and emailed and asked about it on the phone. And when it was done and the last revision submitted, I sent it to my mother. She decided not to read it.

Instead of reading it, she texted me with anxiety about what the book may or may not contain. I told her, as she always told me, the only way to overcome fear of the unknown is to face it head on. I told her of the positive responses of my early readers. Then she read a few chapters and put it down. Read a little more and put it down. It’s been three months, and she has not yet finished it. Now she says she can’t read it because she doesn’t have Wi-Fi, but I know Wi-Fi is not needed to read a PDF file she downloaded three months ago. Perhaps the excuse makes her feel better, but it doesn’t mean anything to me.

Her partner has begged my mother not to tell anyone I wrote it. They have informed me that they will not attend my book release. They are proud and ashamed at the same time. My mother will be there in spirit, but she needs to stand by her spouse, which is historically, the path she has always chosen in our family. In some ways, my parents’ reaction eases my anxiety--it corroborates everything I felt was true about my mother’s loyalty and my ranking in her life. 

I gave a copy of the book to my brother to read while it was in-progress--he was the only one I gave editorial veto-power to, because we were children together, and he was just as innocent as I was. He started reading it but decided that he didn’t want to relive our childhood. He’d gone through it once and didn’t need to do it again. I understood this completely. But my brother posts about my memoir on Facebook often and proudly. He will come to one of my events and publicly admit to knowing me. Since he’s a chef, hopefully he’ll bring snacks.

My half-sister has read the most relevant parts of my book. She has had long discussions with me about what she remembered, being eight years older, and fact-checked my memories. She, too, is proud of me and reassures me that our story needs to be told.

My father’s wife is accusing me of slander (through my sister--she hasn’t spoken to me directly) and thinks I shouldn’t air my dirty laundry in public. 

I’ve read many books about the ethics of writing about family. One of them said--and I'm paraphrasing--that the relationship you had with your family before the book will be the same relationship you have after the dust settles. In my case, this is proving to be true. My mother always chose her spouse over her children. My father’s wife sees him as the victim. I always knew I could count on my brother and sister.

Writing the memoir has released my fixation on the past--the memories that I couldn’t stop thinking about are now contained on the page, and I don’t have to think about them anymore. I am convinced that someone out there is waiting to see themselves and their family in a book, and that everything I went through and wrote about will have tremendous value to some unknown reader. If the price of that is that we can no longer pretend that we are a close, loving family, so be it. Our relationships haven’t changed, just our honesty about them.

 

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Lara Lillibridge is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. In 2016 she won Slippery Elm Literary Journal’s Prose Contest and The American Literary Review’s Contest in Nonfiction. She also was a finalist in both Black Warrior Review’s Nonfiction Contest and DisQuiet’s Literary Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She has had essays published in Pure Slush Vol. 11, Vandalia, and Polychrome Ink; on the web at Hippocampus, Crab Fat Magazine, Luna Luna, Huffington Post, The Feminist Wire, Airplane Reading, Thirteen Ways to Tell a Story, Weirderary, and Brain, Child magazine’s Brain, Mother blog. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, and for more on Lara, visit her website.

SPOTLIGHT: An Interview with Jessie van Eerden

This academic year marks an important milestone for several faculty and alumni in our MFA community as they release books out into the world. A handful of these works are first publications for their authors. To acknowledge their hard work and celebrate with them, we will periodically feature these publications and interviews with the authors on this blog. It is only fitting that we begin with Jessie van Eerden, director of WV Wesleyan’s MFA program. In November 2017, Orison Books released Jessie’s collection of portrait essays, The Long Weeping, and we recently connected with the author to find out more about the essays, her literary influences, and her future projects. 

In her blurb for The Long Weeping, Ann Pancake said that it “turns a visionary eye and a laser mind on subjects often simplified or even scorned by contemporary culture: white poverty, mysticism, love of family, the wisdom of modest people.” How would you describe The Long Weeping to others?

I’m humbled by Ann’s description. I do think I’m drawn to subjects and characters that can be oversimplified and thus deserve a closer look. I compiled the book as a set of portraits, so I would describe it that way. Thematically, the essays intersect on a series of axes: the axis of place, particularly rural Appalachia; the axis of ethical relation (and “thickness” of relation in rural spaces); the axis of spirituality, often inside the Judeo-Christian tradition, but, just as often, outside it or in opposition to it; and the axis of grief experienced in various contexts. In order to create cohesion, the manuscript formally makes use of the portrait as a limiting and focusing frame. The essays sometimes explore the literal biographical details of the portrayed character, as with the mother figure in “A Good Day,” and at other times the portrait is a frame for meditation, as with the boy glimpsed in a film at a church camp in “Resurrection.” The ultimate goal of each of the portrait essays in the collection, as with all personal essays, is to transcend the immediate subject. 

Sonja Livingston, in her blurb, referred to the essays in this collection as “the truest essays [shes] read in a long time,” stating that the collection “shimmers with intelligence and grace.” What was the inspiration behind this blend of essays?

These essays came together over a stretch of about twelve years, though I wasn’t working on the manuscript consistently during that time. The earliest ones are part of my MFA thesis (so I always tell our MFA students that a book can come years after the thesis—be patient until the work is ready!). The essays focused on my rural home community came first; I grew up around many elderly people and had a feeling very young that I lived in a place with customs and attitudes that were dying out and giving way to a great “blandification” of American life. So I wanted to preserve that place somehow. I was also reading mystics at the time, and I wanted to somehow infuse the mystic’s way of being in the world with the dirt and chickens and crab apple trees of my home turf.

In the essay, “Without,” which was also published in The Cimarron Review, you write of Simone Weil that she “had worked so hard to erase herself even as she wrote herself. The eraser always leaves a smudge and leaves someone trying to decipher what had been written there” (49). In the same essay, you write that you and your ex-husband both wanted to “be Weil” (48). Looking objectively at your own work, would you describe your writing in the same way—that as you write yourself, you are also trying to erase yourself?

That’s a really interesting question. Probably yes: self-erasure and self-discovery may be two sides of the same process that are essential to the whole enterprise of writing. Self-erasure is central in trying to write something in which the reader will find herself, something beyond my personal story, and the only way that “finding” can happen is, paradoxically, when I’m genuinely engaged in trying to understand something in myself. Anne Carson, in her wonderful essay “Decreation,” which is about Weil as well as Sappho and the Beguine mystic Margaret Porette, beautifully captures this paradox of de-creating while creating: “To be a writer is to construct a big, loud, shiny centre of self from which the writing is given voice and any claim to be intent on annihilating this self while still continuing to write and give voice to writing must involve the writer in some important acts of subterfuge or contradiction.”

In your essay on the Beguines, “The Soul has Six Wings,” which was also published in Portland MagazineDreams and Inward Journeys: A Rhetoric and Reader for Writers; and Best American Spiritual Writing, you ask if there is a “place for the contemporary mystic,” someone in your view who “simply believes that God visits” (33). Do you consider yourself a contemporary mystic?

Ah, I don’t know. Probably not. That seems like a designation for someone other than the self to decide. I feel that way even about writing. I’m less comfortable saying “I’m a writer” than saying “I’m a person who writes.”

The sections that make up the essay, “The Long Weeping,” stray from Rizpah of the Biblical book of 2 Samuel, who you describe as “Saul’s surviving concubine, a no-wife,” to a more current Rizpah who can’t stand going to Kroger. How were you able to put yourself inside the mind of Rispah, whose two sons and five grandsons were impaled and hanged as an offering to turn the wrath of a seemingly angry God?

I think I wrote about Rizpah because I needed her as a companion. This extended portrait essay pushes the form to its extreme and becomes, really, a fictional essayistic exploration of grief, an episodic exploration that probes and explodes the sketched-out biblical and midrashic narratives which I spent a good bit of time researching. The character of Rizpah emerged for me as a troubling yet constant companion to those who mourn. She speaks to the necessity of letting go of kinds of control. She is someone outside the dominant narrative, so I tried to put myself in her mind by attempting to look at the dominant narrative from the margins. 

The Long Weeping is your third published book, and your first with Orison Books. How would you describe the process of bringing this book to fruition? Was the publishing process similar to that of your two novels, Glorybound and My Radio Radio?

I mentioned above that it was a twelve-year process, and that’s partly due to these two novels that I poured myself into during that same time span. The process of working with a small press was similar—very human, very kind and attentive and collaborative; I love working with small presses because their investment is really in the beauty of the book in all its dimensions. But publishing nonfiction is different from publishing fiction, I will say that. You cannot hide as easily. 

For the practicing writers among us, how did you balance work/life/other priorities while writing and preparing to publish The Long Weeping?

This is always the struggle for us since long gone are the days when some rich patron would put us up in a castle so we could write! First, I would say that the other stuff is not the enemy. In an interview about spirituality and writing, the poet Li-Young Lee says something like everything is a spiritual act; folding clothes at the end of the day is a spiritual act. This is true of writing too: everything belongs, everything is part of the project, and permeability to the world is essential, I’d say, to the process. Trust the fallow times, but also orient yourself to be receptive when the soil is ready again. It’s a mix of discipline, routine, saying no to protect the core of yourself, saying yes when you need to. Practically, I say give it the morning hours if you can. But some folks write at night, so there’s no rule for routine. Work on it as though you really believe it’s your offering.

What are you reading these days? What works do you come back to, or what authors do you continue to draw from? How have they informed your work and, perhaps, this collection in particular?

At the moment I’m reading Ondaatje’s The English Patient because I recently loved his Coming Through Slaughter, and the prose and the narrative structure teach me with every paragraph, especially about the balance of lyricism with profluence. I’m also loving the work of Susan Brind Morrow on linguistics and the desert (research for a current novel project). I continue to draw from poet C.D. Wright for surprise at line-level; Marilynne Robinson, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison—all for depth and prose style; and the beautiful essayists I’m reading with my nonfiction students this semester: Lia Purpura, James Baldwin, Joan Didion. For The Long Weeping, I drew heavily on the work on midrash by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, the philosophy of Simone Weil, Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Buber, and the essay structures of Jo Ann Beard and Annie Dillard.

What’s next for you? Any writing projects in the works?

Right now, my main focus is on a mess of a road trip novel. I’m also working slowly on another essay collection that is many years out, I think. It is a young project, and I’m still feeling my way into the material, but have enjoyed lately some experiments with form, unraveling a piece while still barely maintaining artistic control. I love experimenting with essay forms. 

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Jesse van Eerden is the author of the novels Glorybound (WordFarm, 2012)—winner of Forward Reviews’ Editor’s Choice Fiction Prize—and My Radio Radio (Vandalia Press, 2016). Her work has appeared in Best American Spiritual Writing, The Oxford American, Willow Springs, and other publications. Jessie holds an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Iowa and directs the low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College. Learn more about Jessie on her website www.jessievaneerden.com.

Remembering Residency

I am feeling a bit melancholy for this blog posting – perhaps it’s the realization that another residency, which I was unable to find time to participate in, has passed by. Memories of residencies flooded my mind as I read each of the comments offered by the more recent graduates and viewed their postings popping up in my Facebook feed. Megan Mallory Martin, my co-editor, tells that returning to WVWC feels like coming home. David Evans shares the reminder that we all remain lifelong writing students, soaking up all wisdom offered by our cohorts. Rebecca Elswick shares a lighthearted “first poem” with us. Finally, Larry Thacker shares his own blog post where he writes of his stacks of books separated semester by semester. I have since organized mine into a few shelves for craft books, poetry chapbooks, and literary magazines, many shelves of fiction (novels and short story collections mixed), and a shelf for my books on the craft of teaching, but I recall many of the same stacks he refers to, with my Post-it notes peeking out of the pages. These books share space with not only my desk and computer, but also with my supplies for scrapbooking, a hobby that preceded my first short story by many years. Looking back, though, these things have always been about sharing memories and special times from my heart, so the likeliness for them to share what is now my sacred space is just right.  --Dee Sydnor (Fiction '15)

Megan Mallory Martin (Nonfiction ’17), my co-editor, was able to visit WVWC for an evening reading and spend some time with the faculty and students. She writes:

As an alum, it was such a joy to return to residency for some of the public readings. I had the opportunity to hear talented writers share their words, visit with current students and my former professorsall friends, and celebrate the upcoming graduation of six from our group. I graduated one year ago, but I truly believe that no matter how long you've been an alum, coming back to residency feels like coming home.

David Evans (Nonfiction ’18) shares a realization he had during Rebecca Howell’s seminar on publishing:

What struck me … was her reminder of how tough it is to write well. What I carried away were her parting words: “Never forget, we are all apprentices.” Howell talked about attending workshops where accomplished and older writers were in the front row taking notes. That's what I want on my obit: He was seated up toward the front, seriously listening and scribbling away.” I would be proud to have those words chiseled on my tombstone.

Larry Hacker (Poetry ’18) refers us to his blog posting from the 7th of January, “Vertical, Horizontal, & Other Reminders.” I love his talk of the life of books and stacks that carried him through his semesters at WVWC. He reflects:

 A regular reminder of this life within words has been the life of books throughout several rooms. The dozens of books for each new semester always stayed vertical for that work period. The books of past semesters, when done with, were placed, as we might expect, horizontally into shelves by loose semesterly groups for ease of location as the program progressed. But for the most part, any book – and there were always several – cover up, was a current interest: on the desk, the side desk, on the floor near the work desk, by my recliner, on the kitchen table, on a shelf waiting for another flurry of work attention, in the back seat of the car (perhaps not so neatly vertical) on the way somewhere to do more work. Those books will take on new homes this week as I begin moving into new routines of post-MFA life.  

Thacker finishes his post with:  I can’t help but wonder where I fit into things, too. This new anxiousness I feel vibrating just under the surface must be something akin to what it’s like to be tossed sea-bound for a time and to then step upon sudden still shoreline. That instant change of expected balance. Something in the ear, heart, or mind, shifting. Vertical to horizontal. 

Rebecca Elswick (Fiction ’18) playfully looks back on her final residency as a WVWC MFA student in her first poem:

What I Learned at My Last Residency Besides All That Writing Stuff
(Dedicated to Larry Thacker, a Fellow “Gilmore Girls” Fan)
Once I dreamed of wintering in Stars Hollow
A room at the Firefly Inn,
Lorelai Gilmore would teach me how to smell snow
And take me to Luke’s Diner for coffee.
What a time I would have!
Walking around town square in the snow,
Bundled in coat, hat, and gloves,
My face aglow with cold
Snowflakes in my hair.
What a time I would have!
Then I came to Buckhannon, West Virginia
Cold and snow – wonderful swirling snow!
Why! This is like Stars Hollows.
Bundled up, I ventured out into my imaginary Stars Hollow
What a wonderful time I would have!
But there was my car covered with snow.
Why hadn’t Luke cleared it? Why hadn’t he shoveled
a path for me? And the snow-covered road –
Where was the Stars Hollow snowplow?
What a miserable drive I would have!
Finally, I made it to campus.
Why, what’s this? Snowy sidewalks,
the buildings positively freezing!
Where was the Firefly Inn’s enormous fireplace?
What a miserable day I would have!
Sub-zero temperatures,
Snow, snow and more snow,
Icy roads and sidewalks,
I can’t feel my toes.
What a ridiculous idea I had!
I will do what I learned at residency.
Revise! Dream of summer vacation in Stars Hollow.
A room at the Dragonfly Inn and cheeseburgers at Luke’s Diner,
Evening strolls around town square with Lorelai
After all, it was Lorelai who said, “Hey, did anyone
Ever think that maybe Sylvia Plath wasn’t crazy,
She was just cold?”

Photos shamelessly taken from WVWC MFAers' Facebook posts.....

Winter Residency 2018 Begins Tomorrow

Tomorrow—Friday, December 29—students from across the United States will gather in the hills of Appalachia to begin West Virginia Wesleyan’s winter residency, a component of the school’s MFA program. WVWC follows the low-residency model where students come to campus twice a year (in the summer and winter) for an intensive, ten-day residency featuring a series of craft seminars, workshops, and readings presented by the program’s core faculty of writers and the semester’s visiting faculty. Each residency kicks off the semester that follows when students return home but continue to work one-on-one with an advisor through regular and frequent email, mail, telephone and/or Skype contact.

As Andrew Raines (Poetry ’19) looks toward this winter’s residency, he says, “I'm really excited for both the schedule of seminars, and for readings from our graduating students. In general, my favorite things about residency are the community and the environment.”

An alum of the program, Lisa Hayes Minney (Nonfiction ’17), echoes these sentiments from her own time on campus: “I loved being in an environment where writing and learning are a priority. It had been 20 years since I was in an academic environment, and I had forgotten what a privilege and joy it was.” Minney will return this winter as the program’s residency assistant.

Mornings of the residency are devoted to lecture- or discussion-style seminars. These mornings are interdisciplinary, offering all students instruction in fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. Graduating students also present seminars. In the afternoon, students separate into genre-specific writing workshops, and in the evenings, students attend readings by visiting authors and guest faculty in the MFA program. These readings are free and open to the public. For more about the visiting authors and the schedule of public readings, see our blog post from earlier this month

“I’m always really excited to see some of my favorite people,” says Julia Kastner (Nonfiction ’19). “Snow is an interesting novelty as I come from Texas, and the immersion in the reading/writing life is a feature, too, since my day-to-day life lacks that.” Reflecting on the readings she did in preparation for this residency, Kaster especially enjoyed the packet assigned by Katie Fallon (Nonfiction Faculty), including “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith, “Leap” by Brian Doyle, Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” and “NeVer ForgeT” by Matthew Vollmer; Visiting Faculty Jacinda Townsend’s entire reading packet of magical realism; three punchy short stories assigned by Richard Schmitt (Prose Faculty); the online art project “Looking at Appalachia” assigned by Rebecca Gayle Howell (Visiting Faculty); and Jane McCafferty’s brief “Thank You for the Music,” assigned for Vicki Phillips’ graduate seminar.

WVWC alumna Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher (Nonfiction ’15) says, “I never for one minute viewed the residency as competitive. For me, it was always communal and shared, and no one was ever ‘ahead.’ In residency, we were all building one another up.”

The town of Buckhannon, where WVWC’s winter residency takes place, usually sees snow and chilly temperatures at this time each winter, but as current students and alums agree, that only adds to the atmosphere. “The winter residencies were always my favorite residencies,” says Allison Pugh (Fiction ’15). “There’s a difference in the atmosphere that comes with the winter weather across the campus. The words seem deeper, the purpose fuller somehow.”

Joyce Allan (Fiction ’15) adds, “Being at winter residency was always special. One year, it snowed six inches, and no one else was on campus but us MFAers. It only added to that united feeling we all shared!”

In addition to the busy days filled with classes, workshops, readings, and possibly snow, this residency will be the fifth and final residency for six students in the program as they prepare to graduate. Larry Thacker (Poetry ’18), one of the six, says, “I always look forward to this break from my usually strange world. I count my blessings when, after more than a week, we can all manage to leave in one piece.”

Velicia Jerus Darquenne (Fiction ’18), who will also be graduating, agrees: “What I love and am always most excited for with residency is the mix of creative people and backgrounds who come from all over the continent together for one passion: Writing. The personalities of creative folks like ourselves always keep things interesting and intelligent. I am always in awe of my cohorts.”

Thacker and Darquenne will join Vicki Phillips (Fiction ’18), David Evans (Nonfiction ’18), Aaron Morris (Poetry ’18), and Rebecca Elswick (Fiction ’18) as WVWC’s newest graduates.

Shauna Hambrick Jones (Nonfiction ’13), who was in WVWC’s very first MFA graduating class, sums up the general consensus that students and alums express as they reflect on residency: “Every residency hummed with energy from these imperfect, talented, vibrant personalities that took risks on paper and with each other. This was and is my mishpocha, my tribe.”

Congratulations to this year’s graduates, welcome to WVWC’s newest MFA students, and best of luck to all WVWC MFA students as tomorrow’s residency gets underway. To learn more about WVWC’s low-residency model, visit the program website.

View photos from residencies over the years in this slideshow below.

West Virginia Wesleyan MFA's Visiting Writers Series

West Virginia Wesleyan College’s MFA program is hosting a variety of writers during its Visiting Writers Series. The readings are free and the public is welcome and encouraged to attend. The authors will have their books available for sale and for signing after the readings. Readings will be held in WVWC’s Loar Auditorium in the Loar Hall of Music (Meade St. at Fayette St.). These events coincide with the MFA program’s winter residency.

Saturday, Dec. 30, at 7 p.m. – Diane Gilliam and Jacinda Townsend

DIANE GILLIAM is the author of four poetry collections—Dreadful Wind & Rain (Red Hen, 2017), Kettle Bottom, One of Everything, and Recipe for Blackberry Cake. She has won the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing, a Pushcart Prize, and the Ohioana Library Association Poetry Book of the Year Award for Kettle Bottom. She is the most recent recipient of the Gift of Freedom from A Room of Her Own Foundation. Learn more about gilliam. JACINDA TOWNSEND is the author of Saint Monkey (Norton, 2014), which is set in 1950’s Eastern Kentucky and won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for best fiction written by a woman in 2014 and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for best historical fiction. Saint Monkey was also the 2015 Honor Book of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. TOWNSEND received her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, then spent a year as a Fulbright fellow in Côte d’Ivoire. TOWNSEND teaches in the Creative Writing program at University of California, Davis, and is a Truth Fellow at the Yerba Buena Arts Center in San Francisco. Learn more about Townsend.

DIANE GILLIAM is the author of four poetry collections—Dreadful Wind & Rain (Red Hen, 2017), Kettle Bottom, One of Everything, and Recipe for Blackberry Cake. She has won the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing, a Pushcart Prize, and the Ohioana Library Association Poetry Book of the Year Award for Kettle Bottom. She is the most recent recipient of the Gift of Freedom from A Room of Her Own Foundation. Learn more about gilliam.

JACINDA TOWNSEND is the author of Saint Monkey (Norton, 2014), which is set in 1950’s Eastern Kentucky and won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for best fiction written by a woman in 2014 and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for best historical fiction. Saint Monkey was also the 2015 Honor Book of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. TOWNSEND received her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, then spent a year as a Fulbright fellow in Côte d’Ivoire. TOWNSEND teaches in the Creative Writing program at University of California, Davis, and is a Truth Fellow at the Yerba Buena Arts Center in San Francisco. Learn more about Townsend.

Tuesday, Jan. 2, at 7 p.m. – Laurie Jean Cannady and Jeremy Jones

LAURIE JEAN CANNADY is a professor of English at Lock Haven University and creative writing faculty in the Wilkes University MA/FA low-residency Creative Writing Program. Her debut memoir Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul was listed as a finalist for Foreword’s 2015 Book of the Year Award and the Library of Virginia awards in the People’s Choice category. Learn more about Cannady. JEREMY JONES is the author of Bearwallow: A PERSONAL History of a Mountain Homeland, which was named the 2014 Appalachian Book of the Year in nonfiction and awarded gold in memoir in the 2015 Independent Publisher Book Awards. His essays appear in Oxford American, The Iowa Review, Brevity, and elsewhere. He is an associate professor of English at Western Carolina University, and he co-edits In Place, a nonfiction book series from West Virginia University Press. Learn more about Jones.

LAURIE JEAN CANNADY is a professor of English at Lock Haven University and creative writing faculty in the Wilkes University MA/FA low-residency Creative Writing Program. Her debut memoir Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul was listed as a finalist for Foreword’s 2015 Book of the Year Award and the Library of Virginia awards in the People’s Choice category. Learn more about Cannady.

JEREMY JONES is the author of Bearwallow: A PERSONAL History of a Mountain Homeland, which was named the 2014 Appalachian Book of the Year in nonfiction and awarded gold in memoir in the 2015 Independent Publisher Book Awards. His essays appear in Oxford American, The Iowa Review, Brevity, and elsewhere. He is an associate professor of English at Western Carolina University, and he co-edits In Place, a nonfiction book series from West Virginia University Press. Learn more about Jones.

Thursday, Jan. 4, at 7 p.m. – Rebecca Gayle Howell

REBECCA GAYLE HOWELL is the author of American Purgatory, winner of the 2016 Sexton Prize, and her debut collection, Render/An Apocalypse, was a finalist for Foreword’s 2014 Book of the Year. Howell is also the translator of Amal al-Jubouri’s verse memoir of the Iraq War, Hagar Before the Occupation/Hagar After the Occupation. Among Howell’s honors are fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Kentucky Arts Council, and the Carson McCullers Center, as well as a Pushcart Prize. Howell edits poetry for the Oxford American and serves as James Still Writer-in-Residence at the Hindman Settlement School. Learn more about howell.

REBECCA GAYLE HOWELL is the author of American Purgatory, winner of the 2016 Sexton Prize, and her debut collection, Render/An Apocalypse, was a finalist for Foreword’s 2014 Book of the Year. Howell is also the translator of Amal al-Jubouri’s verse memoir of the Iraq War, Hagar Before the Occupation/Hagar After the Occupation. Among Howell’s honors are fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Kentucky Arts Council, and the Carson McCullers Center, as well as a Pushcart Prize. Howell edits poetry for the Oxford American and serves as James Still Writer-in-Residence at the Hindman Settlement School. Learn more about howell.

This project is being presented with financial assistance from the West Virginia Humanities Council, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations do not necessarily represent those of the West Virginia Humanities Council or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Thankful Thursdays #5: Jeffrey Webb, Karen Salyer McElmurray, Rebecca Elswick, and Katie Fallon

As November draws to a close, we wrap up our Thankful Thursdays with words of thanks from four writers in our West Virginia Wesleyan MFA family. Continue reading below to learn about two faculty members, an alum of the program, and a current student. While we purposefully paused in November to share our thanks, we remain grateful throughout the year for this community of writers and the many ways we help each other to learn and grow. 

Jeffrey Webb (Fiction '15)

I’m thankful for all the great teachers I had in school, from elementary and up. For the teachers I had who used song and dance to make their lessons stick, embarrassing themselves, sacrificing a little bit of their pride so their students could learn. For the teachers who managed to come to school each day with such great energy and compassion, no matter what. For the teachers who always set high expectations. For the teachers who brought passion to their subject and instilled that passion in me. For all the teachers who taught me more in one day than some teachers taught me in a semester or a year. I’m thankful for all these teachers who have made me the person, and teacher, I am today.

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Jeffrey Webb is a writer and teacher from southern West Virginia. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from West Virginia Wesleyan College. His work has appeared in such publications as The Pikeville Review, Red Mud Review, and Scarlet Leaf Review. He is also a blog contributor for Teaching Tolerance. His latest piece "Man Enough" recently appeared on The Fiction Pool

 

Karen Salyer McElmurray (Prose Faculty)

The first night I remember being truly thankful—a thankfulness I felt in my belly and in the veins in my hands and on my itchy tongue—I was in a hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. I had been through ten weeks of radiation and four months of chemo, and I was just waking up from surgery for colorectal cancer. Even now, when I say that phrase, colorectal cancer, people flinch. They’ve heard two “c” words, all in one mouthful, neither word pretty, one about a body part we hide, another about an illness no one wants. I remember waking up that morning just as my doctor stepped in and stood at the foot of my bed. No lymph node involvement, he said. I wasn’t thankful yet. I was stoned on morphine, and I was both heavy with sleep and sleepless, had been for months, it seemed. A week later, out of the hospital and back at home, I began to realize what thankful meant. I was going to be okay. More than that, I began to realize I was thankful for the illness itself. It made me wake up in a way I had never awakened before. I realized that life is a gift, not a bitterness. It is light and bright crimson leaves and ocean. It can be love, not loss. Even in these dark political times, I can choose that love, choose to hold it out in my open hands, offering it up as the only thing, some days, I know how to give.

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Karen Salyer McElmurray writes both fiction and creative nonfiction. Her memoir, Surrendered Child, won the AWP Award Series for Creative Nonfiction and was listed as a “notable book” by the National Book Critics Circle. She is also the author of Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven (University of Georgia Press), a novel that won the Lillie Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing and, most recently, Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean, co-edited with Adrian Blevins, from Ohio University Press. You can learn more about Karen and read her work on her website.

 

Rebecca Elswick (Fiction '18)

I am thankful I was born in, and still live in, the sickest town in America. Even though I learned we were a toe’s length from poverty, I grew up with hardworking people who taught me to love learning. I recently saw a panel of teachers who used the holocaust to teach students about their own cultures’ atrocities. A Native American from Montana taught the WWII Holocaust alongside the genocide of Native Americans. A Hispanic teacher taught the Holocaust together with America’s history of xenophobia. An African American teacher taught the Holocaust in conjunction with American slavery. That presentation transported me back to my mountains, and how outsiders came in and took the natural resources and destroyed the land in this place the Atlantic Journal called, “a nightmare of disability.” Not so. My town is a place where the mountains touch a bluebird sky with wedding cake clouds. Where even in winter, the mountains are rife with chipmunks and squirrels foraging for acorns and deer grazing the hillsides. A place I am thankful to call home.

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Rebecca D. Elswick will graduate with an MFA from West Virginia Wesleyan College in 2018. Her debut novel, Mama's Shoes, was published in 2011, the result of Writer's Digest Pitch2Win Contest. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. She currently directs the writing center at Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Virginia. Learn more about Rebecca by visiting her website.

 

Katie Fallon (Nonfiction Faculty)

My grateful list is long: birds, dogs, frost on rhododendron, warm horses, houseplants, coffee, coarsely chopped garlic, Riesling, unnamed ephemeral streams, my children, meadow rue, our national and state park system, readers, campfires. And you, and you. This community, these writers, these thinkers, teachers. Friends. Thank you.

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Katie Fallon is the author of the nonfiction books Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird and Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird, and the co-author of two books for children, Look, See the Bird! and Look, See the Farm! (forthcoming 2018). Her essays have appeared in a variety of literary journals and magazines. Katie is also one of the founders of the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving wild birds through scientific research; outreach and public education; and rescue and rehabilitation. Katie’s first word was “bird.” Learn more about Katie on her website and read some of her recent work at Shaver’s Creek.

Thankful Thursdays #4: Richard Schmitt, Delaney McElmore, and Doug Van Gundy

Today—Thanksgiving Day—we continue our Thankful Thursdays with insights from two faculty members and a current student in West Virginia Wesleyan’s MFA program. Happy Thanksgiving to all of our readers! We have much to be thankful for.

Richard Schmitt (Prose Faculty)

Today, November 19th, I am thankful Charles Manson is finally dead: an ugly reminder of an ugly era that is best put behind us. There is still plenty of ugliness to go around, of course, but also plenty of things for which to be thankful. For instance, I am exceedingly thankful that you've contacted me on the very day my new short story collection hit the marketplace. Happy reading in the holiday season. 

Richard Schmitt teaches in the West Virginia Wesleyan College Low-Residency Master of Fine Arts program. He is the author of The Aerialist and has recently published work in The Baltimore Review, Cimarron, and Adelaide Magazine. His short story collection, Living Among Strangers, is recently released and can be found at this link: http://adelaidebooks.org/richard_schmitt.html 

Delaney McLemore (Nonfiction '18)

If someone had told me five years ago, or even three years ago, that in 2018, I'd be graduating from an MFA program, married to a good guy from Oregon, and living in upstate New York while I watch my work start to get published around the country, I would have probably put out a cigarette in their eye. This year, as I recognize the Indigenous and First Nations peoples who brought their bounty to my ancestral colonizers, I find so much to be grateful for: this amazing program that has welcomed and fed me as I work on my nonfiction voice; the friends and family who support my wild-hare ideas; and the good that is still in the world, just constantly fighting to reach the surface. I hope as we reach the New Year and head into 2018, we bring the best of ourselves along and push more of that good to the light wherever we are. 

Delaney McLemore will graduate in 2018 from WVWC's MFA program. You can find more of her work in Entropy online and forthcoming from Chapman University's Anastamos

Doug Van Gundy (Poetry Faculty)

I am grateful for the quotidian things that keep me getting out of bed in the morning: family and friends who love me and accept me for the flawed person that I am. Coffee and cut oranges. Dogs. I am grateful for the basic goodness of other people, for anyone who through a kind gesture takes a step away from sectarianism and division and a step in the direction of civilization. I am grateful to be a member of a community of thinkers and learners who challenge me to be a better teacher, a better writer, a better person.

Doug Van Gundy teaches poetry in the low-residency MFA Program at West Virginia Wesleyan College, and is the co-editor of the anthology Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods from WVU Press, which was nominated for the Weatherford Award. His poems and essays have recently appeared in Still: The Journal, and are forthcoming in Kestrel. His new monthly podcast, 3 Poems, will debut on January 3rd.

Left to right: Richard Schmitt, Delaney McLemore, and Doug Van Gundy

Left to right: Richard Schmitt, Delaney McLemore, and Doug Van Gundy

Thankful Thursdays #3: Jessica Spruill and Velicia Jerus Darquenne

For today's Thankful Thursday post, we share thoughts from Jessica Spruill, an alumna of the West Virginia Wesleyan MFA in Creative Writing program, and Velicia Jerus Darquenne, a current student who will be graduating this winter. We are thankful to both of them for their moving words.

Jessica Spruill (Poetry ’15)

I am thankful for love. For a deep abiding love that astounds me daily. For the all-encompassing love of motherhood. For the love in my son’s eyes every morning we wake and see each other again. For the tough and tender love I feel for my students. For the loving support of my MFA family. 

I’m thankful for words. Words that fill spaces, absences. Words that spill over the edges of my heart, the ones that make it onto the page. Kind words. Words of protest and frustration. Words that can articulate our innermost thoughts and the ones that just come close. 

I’m thankful for dirty dishes, dirty laundry, and dirty diapers—for the everyday life and provision they represent. I’m thankful for every struggle and triumph of each day and how they help me prove to myself that I am strong enough. That I am enough.

Jessica Spruill is an assistant professor of English at Alderson Broaddus University in Philippi, West Virginia. She earned her MFA in poetry from West Virginia Wesleyan College. Jessica is a poetry editor for Heartwood, and she also founded and curates Wordstock Wednesday, a literary reading series which hosts local and Appalachian authors. Her piece "Birth/Butchery" recently appeared in Burnt Pine Magazine, and her poetry has also appeared in the Pikeville Review and Still: The Journal.

Velicia Jerus Darquenne (Fiction ’18)

Today, I’m thankful I have so much to appreciate. I’m thankful for submitting the first deposit of my thesis, my cats who give me sanity, my family and friends who told me I could do it when I was no longer sure, my cohorts and faculty who have the ability to save the world with their words, and the mountains that raised me. 

But mostly, what I think is often neglected, I’m thankful for myself. I’m thankful for the person I have become, the challenges I’ve conquered, and that I’ll continue to grow because of the people surrounding me. 

Velicia Jerus Darquenne is from Clarksburg, West Virginia. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Fairmont State University, and currently attends West Virginia Wesleyan’s MFA program. Her piece “Immaculate Conception” recently appeared in Pretty Owl Poetry (see page 30). She is the media editor for Kestrel, and has also been published in Whetstone and Crack the Spine.

Left to right: Jessica Spruill and Velicia Jerus Darquenne. Photo of Spruill taken by Doug Van Gundy, WVWC MFA poetry faculty. 

Left to right: Jessica Spruill and Velicia Jerus Darquenne. Photo of Spruill taken by Doug Van Gundy, WVWC MFA poetry faculty. 

Thankful Thursdays #2: Mary Carroll-Hackett, Shauna Hambrick Jones, and Vincent Trimboli

Today we continue our Thankful Thursdays series with Vincent Trimboli, a poet and WVWC MFA alum, Mary Carroll-Hackett, a WVWC MFA Faculty member, and Shauna Hambrick Jones, a nonfiction writer and WVWC alum. They share, in their own words and styles, what they feel most grateful for:

Vincent Trimboli (Poetry '13):

“There you go/ walking in the woods/ as usual/ ignoring the trees…”

                                                                                                                 Maureen N. Mclane

Today I am grateful for [   ].

As writers it is easy to jump to the broad picture. Today I am grateful for:       Love

Beyoncé

Socioeconomic Status

Privilege.

To truly value gratefulness as an emotion, to truly use it in a way that is translatable as writers of anything other than an epic tale or poem we must take time to dissect daily gratefulness: The minute moments, clepsydra rhythms, the small. Today I am grateful for the spider at my feet in the shower, the moment you crossed my mind, the keys in my hand.

Here’s a link to Vince’s work on the San Diego Readerhttps://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2017/jun/07/poetry-when-your-head-went-through-windshield/

Mary Carroll-Hackett (Poetry Faculty):

I'm thankful for bread, and birds, and books, for the blessed details that weave each day. I'm so grateful for my children, my grandson, my family, my four-leggeds, for their wisdom, their humor, their commitment to living lives that serve others. I'm thankful for my students, for their energy, their big beautiful hearts, their curiosity, and their laughter. I'm thankful for the opportunity to learn, every day, from everyone I meet. I'm grateful for the Love I have been fortunate enough to know in this life, and even for the grief that continually leads me back to gratitude.

Mary's Website: https://marycarrollhackett.com/

Links to read samples of Mary's work:

Superstition Review: https://superstitionreview.asu.edu/issue6/poetry/marycarrollhackett

Writing for Peace: https://writingforpeace.org/poems-from-the-night-i-heard-everything-by-mary-carroll-hackett/

Cultural Weekly: https://www.culturalweekly.com/mary-carroll-hackett-three-poems/

Shauna Hambrick Jones (Nonfiction '13):

As these mid-November days bring less light, I’m thankful for the warmth of words. 

At the college where I work, lots of students are tired, anxious, dealing with dark thoughts. I’m thankful for the art of providing encouraging words, whether they are my own, or a quote, or a line of poetry, or a song lyric.

I’m thankful for our MFA writing tribe—our mishpocha—that supports each other’s work.

I’m thankful for my son, a high school senior, this man-child who can write a decent paper and doesn’t seem to mind doing so.

I’m thankful for words, stories, breath.

Here is a link to Shauna's essay “Physical Graffiti,” which was one of seven finalists for the 2017 CNF contest in Still: The Journal: http://www.shaunahambrickjones.site

Left to right: Vincent Tromboli, Mary Caroll-Hackett, Shauna Hambrick Jones

Left to right: Vincent Tromboli, Mary Caroll-Hackett, Shauna Hambrick Jones

Thankful Thursdays #1: Jeremy Bryant and David Evans

As we head into November and prepare for Thanksgiving and the coming holidays, we are taking this opportunity to share words of thanks with our readers. Today’s post is the first in a series we are calling “Thankful Thursdays.” Each Thursday in November we will introduce readers to some of the talented individuals in our West Virginia Weslyan MFA family and share links to their creative work. In the spirit of giving thanks, each highlighted individual will respond to the following question: What are you thankful for?

Jeremy Bryant (Nonfiction ’17) 

During this month of giving thanks, I am grateful for my MFA family. How incredible it is that we all unconditionally support one another. We praise each other’s accomplishments, pick one another up after rejections, and always celebrate our love of writing. I am blessed to be a small part of this coterie that genuinely cares about both the art and the artist. My MFA family has helped me develop as a writer and as a human, and I cannot imagine my life without them. These wonderful writers will always have a special place in my heart.

Bryant graduated from the WVWC MFA in Creative Writing program in 2017. He currently lives in the woods of Virginia where he writes poetry, watches birds, drinks hot tea, and thinks about the divine. His essay “Coming Kingdom” recently appeared in EOAGH, and his words can also be found in Prism, The Pikeville Review, The James Dickey Review, and New Verse News. Bryant works at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Virginia.
 

David Evans (Nonfiction ’18) 

I am thankful for all those versions of myself—that inner crowd—clamoring inside my head, demanding to be heard.

I am thankful to trace the nature of memory, explore the role of past loves and influences, cope with loss, and search for grounding and equanimity. 

I am thankful for my reservoir of personal recollections, shifting perspectives, and evolving expectations.

I am thankful I do not hunger for revenge.

I am thankful for those who have forgiven me.

I am thankful I have no doubt about the power of writing.

Evans is a life-long student and septuagenarian who retired from another life and lives in the mountains of eastern West Virginia. He will graduate this January from the WVWC MFA in Creative Writing program. His essay “Why We Build” just took Judge’s Choice in the nonfiction contest hosted by Still.

Left to right: Jeremy Bryant and David Evans

Left to right: Jeremy Bryant and David Evans

MFA BLAST: October Publications and Readings

As a community of Wesleyan MFA writers, we celebrate each other’s achievements and spur one another on as we each continue to hone our craft. In today’s post, we highlight five of our WVWC MFA alumni and faculty on their recent (or upcoming!) accomplishments. Check out their work at the links below! 

Publications

Jeffrey Webb (Fiction ’15) recently had two of his pieces accepted for publication. On October 15, his short story "Clutch" appeared on the Scarlet Leaf Review website, and prior to that, his article "Celebrating Freedom Means Celebrating Defiance" appeared on the Teaching Tolerance website.

Also in October, two stories by CM Chapman (Fiction ’15) appeared in the journal Unlikely Stories: "Signs" and "Various Acts of Rage or Despair."

Looking ahead, Richard Schmitt (Fiction Faculty) has a collection of short stories, Living Among Strangers, due out this November from Adelaide Books.

Readings

HeartWood Poetry Editor Jessica Spruill (Poetry ’15) coordinates Wordstock Wednesday, a monthly reading series featuring local poets and authors at the Market Place in Philippi, WV. Spruill shared a selection of her poetry on October 4, and Amanda Jo Slone (Fiction ’17) will be the featured reader Wednesday, November 8, in the Funkhouser Auditorium on the Alderson Broaddus University campus. If you are in the area, be sure to attend!

CRAFT FOCUS: Thacker on a 365-Day Poetry Challenge

For this craft focus, poet and fiction writer Larry Thacker (Poetry '18) goes beyond the month-long writing challenges and tries writing a poem every day for a year. His commentary below on the lessons his personal challenge taught him can inspire all of us to add challenge to our everyday. We are writers, and we must write, after all.

Poem-A-Day: For A Year

The headspace where writers live is a strange and fascinating country. Once we realize that

Yes, I am a writer, and I must write!

we set about establishing a little homestead in that land in our minds and are there, whether physically at the keyboard or with pen in hand, much more than people ever know.

I’ve just returned from what feels like an uninterrupted year-long foray deep into that backcountry where poetry runs wild in the hills.   

On this past 15th of September, I successfully completed a 365-day poem-a-day personal challenge. No one dared me to do it. I hadn’t lost a bet. I wasn’t threatened.

I’d participated in month-long challenges before such as during National Poetry Month in April. But last September, while engaged neck-deep in my MFA studies with West Virginia Wesleyan College, I realized I was managing good writing time. The framework for what resembled a poem a day, or two, was the result on many days. All of them great? No. But I was writing and holding my momentum as a writer, something we all cherish.

What if I tried this daily? A poem, every day, for a year? Was it possible? There might be a good reason people only tried it for a month at a time, after all.

Being prone to crazy ideas anyway, I committed, ran down a few early partners to trade work with every day for accountability and got started. I didn’t wait until October 1st. That would have been too long to think on the mountain to come and back out. September 15th was as good a time as any.  

You can imagine my immediate anxieties.

Sure, a month, maybe two. After that, what the hell was I going to write about? What about when I’d suffer from writer’s block? What if it was all junk? Was this purely a self-indulgent project? Isn’t this putting quantity over quality? How would I know? I’m biased. What if I couldn’t find any partners to help along the way? What if I’m too lazy to keep it up? How awkward would it be if I said I’d do it and couldn’t keep going? And the question we all ask ourselves all the time: What if I fail? 

There were a lot of excuses for not doing it.

Nevertheless, a year is passed, the project complete. The poems accumulated day after day, sometimes more than one a day. Having attended two MFA residencies and numerous festivals and seminars, the overall count is well over four-hundred poems. 

Though not the only things getting me through the ordeal, two factors helped most: partners and a routine.

I was never alone. One or more writers were alongside me the entire time. Knowing another poet was wandering around out there waiting for a strike helped with the frequent loneliness of the project. I knew I’d be hearing from someone before the day was out, that I’d be reading their work, influenced by them, encouraged and energized.

A routine was essential, of course. And it wasn’t simply, go write. Unless something drastically interferes with the day, I get up early (usually 6 a.m.). I’m at my desk by 7 a.m. On these poetry days, I’d have something written resembling a poem by 8 a.m. But I wouldn’t end the writing day there. I would at least revise, read, and submit something, usually by 9 a.m.

Of course, my schedule isn’t the same as others. I’m lucky for having those hours free. But as you know, life has a way of being an abstract obstacle to writing.

Without these partners and a routine, the rest of life – a double MFA (poetry and fiction), helping manage an antique and vintage store, running my own small vintage business, and the responsibilities of family and home – would have surely ruined my chances of doing this one important thing every day. 

I’m still writing daily, though more fiction is creeping in, and since I’m dead center in my final MFA semester (thesis), I’d best be about the business of collection and revision, huh?

Yet it’s difficult to break routine. I’m still out in the backwoods of that headspace where literally everything is mined for potential poetry.

Many believe it takes twenty-one days to establish a habit. If that’s the case, how long will it take me to shake this practice of turning to new poetry every morning?

I’m not sure I want to. 

Editor's Note: Larry D. Thacker’s poetry can be found or is forthcoming in over a hundred publications including The Still Journal, Poetry South, Tower Poetry Society, Mad River Review, Spillway, The Southern Poetry Anthology, Mojave River Review, Town Creek Poetry, and Appalachian Heritage. His stories can be found in past issues of The Still Journal, Fried Chicken and Coffee, Dime Show Review, Vandalia Journal, and Grotesque Quarterly. His books include Mountain Mysteries: The Mystic Traditions of Appalachia and the poetry books, Voice HuntingMemory Train, and Drifting in Awe. Visit his website at: www.larrydthacker.com

READING NOOK: What We’re Reading This Fall

As a diverse bunch of readers, WVWC MFA faculty, alums, and current students enjoy everything from memoirs to poetry to teaching textbooks and more—even Dr. Seuss. Periodically, we will share some of our latest literary finds on this blog. Here’s just a peek into what the WVWC MFA community is reading this fall. Check back in the winter and spring to find more recommendations, and to see our program's list of suggested readings in craft, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, just follow this link.

Dee Sydnor (Fiction ’15) - As is typical for a teaching semester, I am reading from the Norton Introduction to Literature. Today's selections were "Lady with the Dog" by Anton Chekhov and "A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner. I am impressed by the timeless quality of good literature. My students range in age from 16-49, and all enjoyed discussing the philanderer Dmitri Gurov and his mistress Anna, with the understanding that what happens in Yalta stays in Yalta and that love, timeless as literature, can infect the most unwilling participant. 

I am also slowly working my way through Jessie van Eerden's The Long Weeping in between my reading and grading. Through Jessie's essays, I have become fascinated with the Beguines, religious women who lived neither a married life nor a cloistered life. These women shared the Bible with others, cared for the sick, fed the hungry, gave to the poor, and yet they were not approved by the Church because of their disregard for its teachings. Jessie muses in the essay "The Soul has Six Wings" that she wonders "if mystical life is really about visions, or if it's about looking again at pieces you've already got." Would you "see the kingdom of God there if you stare[d] long enough”? It makes me question the day-to-day in my own life and my lack of finding pleasure in it as it is.

Jessica Spruill (Poetry ’15) - I’ve been reading a lot of Dr. Seuss lately, and I have to say, our most recently acquired titles, The Foot Book and Hop on Pop, are delightful. I learned how to read by memorizing The Foot Book when I was 3, and my dentist's office had a copy of Hop on Pop buried under a dozen issues of Highlights magazines on the kids' table in the waiting room, so both of these books have long-held special places in my heart. But I love them even more now as I read them loudly and animatedly for my son, who giggles and coos about fuzzy fur feet or Pat sitting on baseball bats and cacti. The rhymes are on point, and the occasional irregularities to the otherwise precise meter lend to a silly cadence that really demonstrates and accentuates the absurdity of the context. All in all, both come highly recommended by this new mama. 

Jonathan Corcoran (Fiction Faculty) - I’ve been rereading The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. It's a long, challenging, hilarious, and sad book about a group of renegade poets in Mexico. It's a writer's book, an artist's book—the kind that makes you reflect on what it means to live and create. I read it first when I was an MFA student, trying to imagine what life as a writer would look like. It's raunchy in parts, depressing in others, but very, very filled with humanity. Such simple yet complex prose (rendered fabulously in the English translation). Yes—read it! Read it to remind yourself that art and life are inextricably mixed.

Mary Carroll-Hackett (Poetry Faculty) - I’m rereading The Language They Speak Is Things to Eat: Poems by Fifteen Contemporary North Carolina Poets, and a gazillion student papers.

Vincent James Trimboli (Poetry ’13) - I am reading Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan. In my new job, I am currently working with/beside a bunch of kids still in their late teens and very early 20s. I often sit back and listen to the way they talk about the world around them and know that most often they are regurgitating things that their parents have said (or in some cases, the opposite depending on how rebellious they are). That got me thinking a lot about parenting and how and what we impart on [our] children and how that affects the world we will all be living in as they take their place as the generation in power. So, memoirs about parenting seemed to be a good place to look into that. On this journey, I have also re-read A Queer and Pleasant Danger by Kate Bornstein, Two or Three Things I Know For Sure by Dorothy Allison, some of Jo Ann Beards’ essays, and perhaps unrelated (although I would argue not) I'm•be•ciles by Adam Cohen.

MFA BLAST: Diane Gilliam Releases Dreadful Wind & Rain

Wesleyan guest faculty member, Diane Gilliam has released a new book, a verse narrative titled, Dreadful Wind & Rain, with Red Hen Press. The book's description, from Red Hen, is listed below and can be ordered here.

Once upon a time, there lived a girl whose story was not her own...

So the story goes: Neglected and abused by her family, eclipsed by her elder and more beautiful sister, a young girl longs for happily-ever-after, for something, someone to rescue her. She is soon swept away into the next chapter of her life: marriage—a promising world mirroring Old Testament stories and fairy tale traditions. But loving just anyone and living the age-old "ever-after" narrative, as it turns out, fails to bring true happiness after all. Dragged down by a destructive marriage, her sister's continued manipulations, and the growing weight of roles and expectations created by others at her back, she must choose between continuing in her familiar, complacent life, or boldly breaking free—and finally making her own way.

Named for an Appalachian murder ballad in which a girl is drowned by her sister, Dreadful Wind & Rain unseats expectations for what it means to live a fairy tale life, revealing the powerful force that comes from stripping away traditional roles and beginning to write a story all your own.

Diane Gilliam is the author of three previous collections of poetry: Kettle Bottom, One of Everything, and Recipe for Blackberry Cake (chapbook). She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and a PhD in Romance Languages and Literatures from Ohio State University. She has received an Individual Artist Grant from the Ohio Arts Council, the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing, and a Pushcart Prize. She is the most recent recipient of the Gift of Freedom from the A Room of Her Own Foundation.

READING NOOK: What We're Reading This Spring

As a new feature of our HeartWood blog, we'll be sharing periodically some of the works we're reading throughout our Wesleyan MFA community of writers. This spring, we've been reading lots of poetry, in celebration of National Poetry Month in April, and celebrating the works of all genres. Check out some of the works our community members are reading below:

Delaney McElmore (Nonfiction '18): Rachel McKibbens' "Mammoth," a chapbook that resonates so hard with the losses we find so commonplace in Appalachia. Second, I just finished "Said the Manic to the Muse" by Jeanann Verlee, an incredible feminist book of poetry that dives into the poet's journey to becoming a poet out of her raising in a hard life shaped by poverty and violence. Both incredible, both devastating, both too good to be missed!

Doug Van Gundy (Poetry Faculty): I am reading two brand new books, John Burnside's "Still Life with Feeding Snake" from and Rebecca Gayle Howell's "American Purgatory".

CM Chapman (Fiction '15): Randi Ward, Whipstitches. Just read it and it is fantastic. Compact, individually beautiful and powerful poems that evoke a larger story in a unique way. Highly recommended.

Mary Imo Stick (Poetry '15): I read Mary Barbara Moore's two new collections, "Eating the Light" and "Flicker" in preparation for her visit to More Than Words*. Her work speaks to me, reminds me of why I love poetry, challenges me to be a better poet.

CRAFT FOCUS: Berry, Recollected Essays 1965-1980 by Elizabeth Gaucher

We're introducing a new feature series this summer on our HeartWood blog: Craft Focus. This series will focus on issues of the craft of writing, examining the works of others and the tools we use as writers to craft our pieces. We'll feature work from Wesleyan MFA student annotations on various works to discussions of specific craft elements, issues, and more.

Our first feature comes from Elizabeth Gaucher (Nonfiction '15) who is sharing her annotation on Wendell Berry's Recollected Essays 1965-1980, which she presented at the WVWC Graduate Studies Symposium, A Celebration of Scholarship. Read Elizabeth's annotation below:

The Question of Origin & Process: Wendell Berry’s Imagery in “A Country of Edges”

The purpose of this work is to dissect the craft of writing itself and to identify the techniques by which Wendell Berry engages the reader in a highly complex philosophical consideration of the natural world.

I approached these questions by noting in my first reading of “A County of Edges” the repeated and somewhat alternating presentation of land/rock and water images in the essay. I then identified Berry’s own recurring references to a transcendent connection between human life and the elements of the natural world throughout his essay, and examined how he supports his beliefs about unknown questions of time, origin, and change processes with rock and water imagery.

Finally, I analyzed the capacity Berry has through his limited choice of rock and water imagery to make accessible in a short work a series of ideas about why our world is continuously and invisibly shaped, by what forces, and to what end.

This annotation emphasizes the power a writer may wield by focusing on simple, basic elements of a setting to explore enormous intellectual concepts by introducing the familiar to access the mysterious.

Berry, Recollected Essays 1965-1980

In his essay, Wendell Berry uses the tension between images of hard land and limitless water to convey the dynamics of unity and change in the natural world. He uses these dynamics to open an interior dialogue with himself about aspects of life that are “too small, too large, too complex, too simple, too powerful, too delicate, too transient, too ancient and durable to ever be comprehended with the limits of human life.” That is a rather overwhelming theme, but by limiting his observations to how two very specific elements reflect this theme, he makes his philosophy accessible to the reader.

The essay begins with a definite hardscape image of “overtowering edges” and “wooded ridges,” but rapidly introduces the element of water in motion. Water is a substance without edges, and cliffs and ridges are places without motion, and so the narrator draws the reader into the question of how these natural elements relate.

The water of the Red River Gorge “reaches/falls/leaps” off the rocks and slopes. Berry proclaims that “The critical fact about water, wherever you find it in the Red River Gorge, is motion.” The Red River “moves in its rocky notches as abrasive as a file.” In place now is the image of a solid, motionless rock face and active liquid. It seems at first that they are opposites, but the narrator begins to explore the process or interaction between these elements. He states that the “leisure/patience/turmoil” of the river’s work will keep how it does what it does “to some degree unknown” and that though we may speculate, our speculation will always be “a point of departure from the present surface into the shadowy question of origin and process.”

Berry is ultimately concerned with issues of vastness, of mystery and time; but to launch such weighty topics in the first lines of a fairly brief essay would be counterproductive. By introducing the essay with limited “characters” in rock and water and staying close to those components throughout the work, Berry allows the reader to walk naturally and with ease through a difficult and somewhat obscure topic: how and why our world is continuously and invisibly shaped around us, by what forces, and to what end.

 

Elizabeth Gaucher is a native of Charleston, West Virginia, and lives in Middlebury, Vermont. She graduated with honors in History from Davidson College and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from West Virginia Wesleyan College with a concentration in Creative Nonfiction. She edits creative nonfiction for Longridge Review.

MFA BLAST: Jessica Spruill Featured in Burnt Pine Magazine

HeartWood Poetry Editor, Jessica Spruill (Poetry '15) has work featured in the Spring 2017 issue of Burnt Pine Magazine, an online literary magazine. Jessica's wonderful poem, "Summer Break 1993", can be read here.

Jessica Spruill is an assistant professor of English at Alderson Broaddus University in her hometown, Philippi, West Virginia. She earned her MFA in poetry from West Virginia Wesleyan College in 2015. Her work has appeared in The Pikeville Review and Still: The Journal. She is a poetry editor for Heartwood and founded the Wordstock Wednesday reading series in Philippi, WV, which celebrates writers from the region. 

SPOTLIGHT: C.M. Chapman Publishes Chapbook, Music & Blood

In 2017, CM Chapman (Fiction ’15) published his first chapbook of short fiction with Latham House Press, an independent publisher of literary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry based in Buckhannon, West Virginia.

Music & Blood includes three riveting tales of Appalachia that take the reader on journeys through the wilderness of the West Virginia’s backcountry and woodland treasures. From side-splitting humor in “Clem, The Cabot County Cannibal” to unexpected turns in “Modest Mussorgsky’s Bluegrass Jug Band Blog”, these deftly crafted short stories are sure to please a wide range of readers.

A brief interview with Chapman follows, in which he discusses his work during the Wesleyan program, his influences, his writing process, and more.

The chapbook contains three short fiction pieces. Did you always imagine these three together, or did you link them together after having written them? What made you chose each piece for this collection?

All of the stories in Music & Blood were conceived and written separately during my time in the low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College. However, when I began working on putting together a manuscript for Latham House, I discovered that two of them were related. One seemed to be a response to another. This was a subconscious thing at the time, not planned at all, but nevertheless, they seemed to belong together. At that point, it became a matter of finding a story that complimented and yet offset the other two. The whole collection fell together fairly quickly, a happy accident in many ways.

Your writing is strikingly crisp, humorous with a deftly crafted heart, and, often, a tad on the experimental or mystical side. Where do you draw your stories from?

Well, first of all, I’m flattered you would describe my writing in this way. I think you describe what I hope for when I write. I enjoy exploration and experimentation in my writing and, for the last few years, have been trying to work in as many different styles as possible, depending upon the story, of course. As for where I draw from, just about anywhere. 

I’m not what you’d call an autobiographical writer in the sense that I generally only pull peripheral details from my personal experience, not the meat of the story. A story can come from anywhere for me—a witnessed scene, an image, an off-hand comment, a random list of unrelated words, a dream. I like involving my subconscious in the process and I think that carries a certain sort of mysticism along with it. 

As for the writing being crisp, I really do strive for readability and simplicity of language. I’ll stretch that at times, but I don’t want to be Mr. Fancy Pants, lost in his grasp of vocabulary. I want to challenge the reader in different ways.

What draws you to magical realism as a style or genre of fiction? How does magical realism lend itself to your fiction?

I do use magical realism often, sometimes even when I’m not intending to go that way. Sometimes, it just sneaks in. Marie Manilla once pointed out an instance of magical realism in a description from one of my stories that I hadn’t even realized was there. The decision to utilize magical realism, though, depends on the story. When you get down to it, I think I am drawn equally to the post-modern and the absurd. I’ll even resort to realism when required. It’s all about what the story needs to work. 

What are you reading at the moment? What works do you come back to, or what authors do you continue to draw from? How have they informed your work? What has influenced this collection in particular.

I just finished Kurt Vonnegut: Letters. Kurt’s a formative influence. Also, a friend just introduced me to some work from Russian writer, Victor Pelevin, and I thoroughly enjoyed that. And though I write nothing like him, John Gardner continues to be a writer whose work and standards I admire enough to consider them a foundation. For the last few years, I’ve been into Italo Calvino. I really respect his ability to tell stories that seem impossible to tell, and even if I wouldn’t say he was a direct influence in terms of writing style, that attitude of his certainly suffuses Music & Blood

What're you up to now? Any writing projects in the works?

I am attempting to market a larger collection called, Suicidal Gods. Eight of those eleven stories have been published in various places, but I’d really like to publish them as the novel-in-stories from which they came—my thesis at West Virginia Wesleyan, in fact. At present, I continue to work in the short story form as I acclimate to the teaching life. Oddly enough, I think I’ve found another chapbook idea in what I have produced lately. Still some work to do on that, though. There’s a novel of some sort that’s been bouncing around my brain for the last couple years, but I think it needs to bounce a little longer.

 

C.M. Chapman has appeared in Cheat River Review, Limestone, Still: The Journal, Dark Mountain in the U.K., and the anthology, So It Goes: A Tribute to Kurt Vonnegut. He is the author of the chapbook, Music & Blood, from Latham House Press, and was a finalist in the 2015 Curt Johnson Prose Award for fiction. In 2014, he won first place in the WV Writers competition, for humor, and in 2015, for short story. He is a graduate of the low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where he served as the McKinney Teaching Fellow for 2016-17. For more information, visit Chapman's website or find him on Facebook as C.M. Chapman.

MFA BLAST: Wesleyan MFA Community Well-Represented in Winter 2017 Issue of Still: The Journal

Several members of the Wesleyan MFA community have been featured in the Winter 2017 issue of Still: The Journal. Alums CM Chapman (Fiction '15) and Kevin Chesser (Poetry '15) are both featured in the issue along with Visiting Faculty Mentor, Marie Manilla. Read the current issue here.

C.M. Chapman has appeared in Cheat River Review, Limestone, Dark Mountain, and the anthology, So It Goes: A Tribute to Kurt Vonnegut. He is the author of the chapbook, Music and Blood, from Latham House Press (2017), and was a finalist in the 2015 Curt Johnson Prose Award for fiction, judged by Joyce Carol Oates. He is a graduate of the low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where he serves as the McKinney Teaching Fellow for 2016-17.

Kevin Chesser is a poet and musician living in Elkins, West Virginia. His work has appeared in The Pikeville Review, The Travelin’ Appalachians Revue, and on the Dr. Doctor podcast. He holds an MFA in poetry from West Virginia Wesleyan College, and performs regularly in old-time stringbands around the region.

West Virginia native Marie Manilla is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her novel The Patron Saint of Ugly (set in her home state) received The Weatherford Award. Shrapnel, set in her hometown of Huntington, won The Fred Bonnie Award for Best First Novel. Stories in her collection, Still Life with Plums, first appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Prairie Schooner, Mississippi Review, Calyx, and other journals. Marie continues to live in the mountain state.