Investigating Privilege and Racism in Writing by White People

Guest Author: Ryland Swain

            In a workshop during a MFA residency at WV Wesleyan, a strong and brilliant woman of color challenged me with “your protagonist is skating on her white privilege.” Indeed, I am white and had presented a draft of a story set in Georgia, the place of my birth and upbringing, a story   involving a black woman house cleaner who was accused of stealing money. The white (privileged) daughter worked to clear the woman’s name.

            The challenge I received in the workshop affected me deeply, at first in a painful way. How could this be? I was a social worker, a progressive, and had all (supposedly) the right beliefs about race in America.  I decided to do intensive reading on racism and the Africanist presence in literature. I gained, and am still working on, a new level of consideration and understanding of racism and my own unacknowledged white privilege.

Toni Morrison brought a totally new world of understanding to me in her seminal book, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Morrison points out there is an abiding, but largely unrecognized, Africanist presence in American literature.   

Morrison lays down these propositions: “In the beginning, meaning was assigned to the color of skin,” and “…a black population (was) forced to serve as freedom’s polar opposite….”   She illustrates these propositions with Mark’s Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl.  I had always wondered why, at the end of the story, Twain had to leave Jim enslaved instead of setting him free. Morrison explains, in line with her thesis, that neither Twain nor any of his characters could imagine freedom for Jim because it would destroy the white people’s freedom. “The ways in which artists—and the society that bred them—transferred internal conflicts to a “blank darkness,” to conveniently bound and violently silenced black bodies, is a major theme in American literature.”  Morrison contends that Sapphira, the slave owner, “…can and does, remain outside the normal requirements of adult womanhood because of the infantilized Africanist population at her disposal.”

Morrison wants “…a serious intellectual effort to see what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination, and behavior of masters.” Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism offers the type of analysis Morrison called for. The original moral equation at the time of the founding of America was an ideal of equality, but a side bar of inequality to justify slavery. White people think racism makes them bad, so they deny it. However, white privilege is a reality for those with white skin, however unconscious that might be. I have more freedoms because of my white skin, I have a greater presumption of innocence until proven guilty, a greater sense of “belonging.” Whites have more power and control in society. It’s shocking to contemplate what has been wrought in our world and our culture because of this mistake, this corrosive travesty of thought.

In Between the World and Me, a memoir of his dealings with racial issues, Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks of “people who believe they are white.” Such are we who have founded our identity on the color of our skin. Knowledge that “whiteness” is a belief system with far-reaching and destructive consequences can empower the on-going struggle for equality and justice.

Needless to say, this is hard for “people who believe they are white” to do as long as the shadow of violence is projected onto people with darker skin. It remains of great interest that as the number of white male “shooters” increases, terror is claimed to be the work of brown people and people of non-Christian religions while there is silence on the white violence.

Angela Pelster Wiebe wrote, “I’ve learned that to feel the emotions of defensiveness rise up within me is to wake to the violence of my absorbed white supremacy…white artists often fail at this work because they haven’t centered themselves within the violence of their own whiteness.”

To struggle with my white privilege offers a path to wholeness by incorporating the “shadow,” a term used by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist. Jung had a deep interest in the shadow—its form and content—and in the process of assimilating “the thing a person has no wish to be.” Becoming familiar with the shadow is an essential part of a therapeutic relationship, of individuation, and of becoming more rounded, more whole and more colorful (yes, colorful.)

My novel-in-progress, tentatively titled Nothing Ever Happens Here, has white characters and people of color in modern-day Atlanta struggling over efforts to suppress the black vote. I hope to portray these folks as real and present with no invisibility for either in both heroic aspects and warts. Each iteration of this narrative reflects my own personal attitude adjustments and advances in understanding. Will it be perfect? Will I avoid criticism for my portrayals? I don’t think so, but I am unrelenting in listening to critiques and furthering my understandings of this profound and complex issue in our culture.

A student in the Fiction genre of the WV Wesleyan MFA program, Ryland Swain holds an BA from Emory, MA from UNC, and MSW from Catholic University. She studied at the Washington School of Psychiatry and the Philadelphia Jung Institute. She practiced psychotherapy in Washington, D.C. for a number of years. She lives in Berkeley Springs, WV.

A student in the Fiction genre of the WV Wesleyan MFA program, Ryland Swain holds an BA from Emory, MA from UNC, and MSW from Catholic University. She studied at the Washington School of Psychiatry and the Philadelphia Jung Institute. She practiced psychotherapy in Washington, D.C. for a number of years. She lives in Berkeley Springs, WV.

The (Other) Story in the Story

Guest Author: Billy Davis (MFA ‘19)

Marion Crane is going to be murdered in forty-seven minutes. It’s inevitable—a preordained event set in motion long before she accepted the key to a room in a lonesome motel. In her final moments, she will undress and step into the shower. The bathroom door, unnoticed by Marion, will open. A shadow will rise in the background. The shower curtain will be ripped aside, light will flash against a butcher knife’s blade, violins will screech. Marion will scream.

Marion Crane is going to be murdered because of a desperate desire.

If you haven’t seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, forgive me—spoilers are awful. But be fair, the movie was released fifty-nine years ago. You’ve had time.

This scene is one of the most iconic in American cinema, and you should see it as more than a plot point that moves the narrative forward—it’s the culmination of hundreds of steps and emotional movements. It’s iconic, but only because of what comes before. And now, knowing Marion’s fate, you have the freedom to focus on the actions that lead her to it.

 *

 Children can’t be trusted, especially in their rhymes. They are horribly inaccurate. Lizzie Borden, as a point of fact, did not give her stepmother and father a combined total of eighty-one whacks. (The trial transcript offers a count of eighteen and eleven, respectively.) But why? Why were Abby and Andrew Borden murdered? We, usually from media of some sort, have an American familiarity with the surface story, but another simmers underneath.

Angela Carter took on the motivations of the killings in “The Fall River Ax Murders.” The story is set the morning of the murders, in the seconds before the maid’s alarm clock rings, before the eponymous ax is taken up. But the title informs us; we know the ultimate end. We read the first sentence already aware of the Bordens’ fate. Carter is miserly with the words spent on the deaths, scattering few references throughout: “On this burning morning, when, after breakfast and the performance of a few household duties, Lizzie Borden will murder her parents…”1

Carter doesn’t tell the typical story, though; hers is one of heat and pressure, constricted lives and suffocation of the soul, and a coffin-thin house on the verge of infamy.

 *

 Marion’s story begins in a mirror of its end—in a shabby motel room. She is stretched on the bed, in her slip and stockings. Her boyfriend, Sam, is drying off with a towel. It has the makings of a seedy scene, but gives way to one that is more tender, to a story of unfortunate love. “Sam, let’s go get married,” Marion says with a terrible urgency. “And live with me in a storeroom behind a hardware store in Fairvale. We’ll have a lot of laughs. When I send my ex-wife her money, you can lick the stamps,” Sam says. Marion responds with a deep desperation, “I’ll lick the stamps.”2

This is the beginning of Marion’s end. Every ill-fated step she takes afterward on her path to the Bates Motel is made in the shadow of this desperate want. Over a third of the movie is spent building on it. The theft of $40,000 from a letch of a businessman, the early uncertainty, the tension of a police encounter, the motel, lunch with Norman and his taxidermied birds. All follow that initial desire.

 *

 Are we still fascinated with Lizzie Borden? There are fictional accounts, documentaries, mini-series, movies. Typing “Lizzie Borden” in amazon.com’s search bar gives twenty pages of results. The Lizzie Borden Chronicles come up in the Trending Now section of Netflix. There’s still a desire to know—to read or watch. August 4, 1892, is a date that morbid curiosities return us to again and again. An ax falls; what new intrigue can be found? Angela Carter takes us into a mazelike house, into a mazelike life, to show us how much deeper bitterness and animosity can cut.

*

One story is told in film, the other on paper, and each has a distinct structure. Marion’s follows a linear stream, taking us through lovesickness, larceny, flight, responsibility and remorse, and redemption cut short in a voyeuristic seventy-eight shot shower scene. The other is more complex: a heavy swirl of pressure and heat and bitterness that preludes the murders that we are taken to the threshold of but not shown. These stories seem dissimilar on the surface but beneath there are commonalities. Both go to great lengths to develop the lead up to the ends we know are coming.

New intrigue… Is that what we find in imagining Marion Crane’s cinematic movement from one motel room to another as a story in itself—in gathering up and enjoying the subtleties that her yearning leads to. Is it what we see in Angela Carter’s gothic retelling? Or, is it that every story, even though we know its ultimate end, has the potential to be something more?

Billy Davis (Fiction ‘19) has done a few things in life: beer slinger, screen printer, nurse, teacher. He dislikes the beach, loves a good road trip, and pronounces Appalachia the Southern way. He is hooked on cozy mysteries and often wonders about unreported murders in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. No surprise—he is working on his first whodunit.

Billy Davis (Fiction ‘19) has done a few things in life: beer slinger, screen printer, nurse, teacher. He dislikes the beach, loves a good road trip, and pronounces Appalachia the Southern way. He is hooked on cozy mysteries and often wonders about unreported murders in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. No surprise—he is working on his first whodunit.

Road Writing

Guest Author: Julia Kastner, Nonfiction ‘19

In November, I moved out of my house. In December, I hit the road (from central Texas) in my 1995 Chevy van, named Foxy. In January, I attended my final residency at Wesleyan. February, turned in the final deposit of my thesis. End of March, I celebrate four months on the road−a life that suits me awfully well−and think about what kind of writer I've become.

When friends ask, I tell them, "I haven't written anything new since November." That is, the last time I did any new composing of what we call "creative writing" was when I was wrapping up the thesis (to move into final editing rounds). After that point, there was one thing and another: editing the thesis, preparing the seminar I would teach at January's residency, moving out of the house, prepping the van. To be more honest, my creative well had run dry. Two years in our MFA program had been exhilarating, some of the best and most productive times of my life. I would do it again in a heartbeat. But by the end, I felt wrung out. I can't speak for other genres, but I speculate that nonfiction can be especially draining because it draws on the writer's personal life. My thesis had been, at least on its face, about the present tense−about moving out of my house and into my van (with hidden undercurrents, of course). By the time I'd written it and lived it, I was ready for this next chapter: windshield time, new-to-me mountain bike trails, visits with old friends, hikes with my dog.

Asked to reflect on what my writing life looks like on the road, I felt a little shamed. "It looks like nothing, I'm afraid," I'd say. But that's not quite true. For one thing, I'm still working as a book reviewer, in my ninth year now. I'm reading constantly, and writing about everything I read. That's my paid work; there's also my book blog (pagesofjulia.com), where I post twice a week. I've got a travel blog for the van trip (foxylikeaturtle.com), which posts once or twice or seven days a week. I write a lot of postcards. And oh yeah, I wrote a poem in west Texas while getting my oil changed.

Typical office day—post ride

Typical office day—post ride

The book review gig is as thrilling now as it was when I was first hired. I love looking at the lists of books I might get to read, picking and choosing; I love getting them in the mail and seeing all their different galley formats, the odd surprise from my editor (and friend) Dave thrown in. These days it's a more complicated process: when I request books for review I also have to figure out where to have them sent. Several of the friends who have loaned me their mailboxes have been friends made in this program. I show up on a doorstep to hugs and exclamations, glad to see a smiling face, and with the bonus of bookish mail to open and share around. (I always have the galleys I'm done with to pass along.)

My life feels very full, and not a little busy. People ask about vanlife boredom, which amazes me: when would I have time to get bored? It's nearly a full-time job to figure out where I'm going next and where I'll sleep, and try not to miss the best brewery, trail, or other feature along the way. I play solitaire (with real playing cards!), I read a lot, I walk my dog. I don't spend enough time just staring up at the trees. I don't spend enough time writing, but when people ask, I still include "writer" among the identities I claim. I'm a mountain biker, a solo traveler, a dog mom, a beer drinker. I'm a book reviewer, and I'm a writer. One of these days, I expect I'll get back to writing again.

Foxy the Van in North Carolina’s Outer Banks

Foxy the Van in North Carolina’s Outer Banks

For now, we'll call it research. There's so much world out there, and all of it material. The newlywed couple on their honeymoon at a campsite neighboring mine in Florabama, who fought all weekend and left very early their second morning. The civil rights museums and monuments of Montgomery and Birmingham; memories of the first time my parents took me to one in particular. The odd wastefulness of Bryson City, North Carolina's "Road to Nowhere." The people I meet and their wildly contrasting understandings of what the hell I'm doing out here. The glorious, glittering variety of trail design, my joy in whooping downhill, and my dog's pell-mell hell-for-leather sprints.

It can't all be butt-in-chair time, or what would we have to write about? I'm justifying, I know. But with all this world out there−all this road, trail, city, country, forest and desert and beach−I can't justify sitting still just yet. I'm living. I trust that the urge to write will strike again; and then I'll have plenty to write about.

Julia and Hops.  Julia Kastner (Nonfiction ’19) is a book reviewer, dog lover, beer and whiskey drinker, mountain biker, and native Texan. Her creative nonfiction has been published at  Slag Glass City ,  Word Riot , and  You Are Here Stories . She currently travels full-time out of a van named Foxy. Her favorite color is green.

Julia and Hops. Julia Kastner (Nonfiction ’19) is a book reviewer, dog lover, beer and whiskey drinker, mountain biker, and native Texan. Her creative nonfiction has been published at Slag Glass City, Word Riot, and You Are Here Stories. She currently travels full-time out of a van named Foxy. Her favorite color is green.

Tillie Olsen’s Silences (1978)

Every writer must discover, if not forge, his or her writing practice. By that I mean a given writer’s pattern or way of getting an idea, capturing it, committing it to paper and doing work that follows as one crafts the idea into a finished creative work.  Part of the creative process are silences, the natural and nurturing ones, and unnatural ones, thwart, hamper or extinguish one’s creative energy and projects.    Learning to distinguish the two, or to perceive their interaction, is a valuable skill for a writer.  For those of us who will become teachers of writers, it is valuable knowledge to instill and to wield, lest one unwittingly shame or diminish a writer struggling with silences. 

Tillie Olsen’s work Silences describes and documents factors and forces that silence writers.  Olsen notes, “Literary history and the present are dark with silences: some the silences for years by our acknowledged great; some silences hidden; some cease to publish after one work appears; some never coming to book form at all.”  Through its juxtaposition of questions and excerpts from writers’ journals and interviews, the book attunes to the ear to types of silence. 

The book is organized into two parts.  Part One—Silences consists of three essays.  The first, Silences in Literature—1962, represents Olsen’s earliest and most systematic investigation into silences.  This essay casts the question broadly:  what are the claims of creation, and what happens when those claims cannot be primary?  She considers the silencing occasioned by time lost to earning an income, to confidence undermined by having an aesthetic not currently popular, or subject matter not deemed worthy.  Examples and comments are taken from the experiences of Melville, Rilke, Rimbaud, Kafka, Katherine Anne Porter, Virginia Woolf, and finally her own experience as a writer.

The second essay, “One of Out of Twelve: Writers Who are Women in Our Century—1971” examines the disparity between men and women’s literary output as evidence of factors that silence women.  Chief among them is the cultural norm that women’s first responsibility is her care for as wife, mother, daughter and her function as “the essential angel” who does domestic labor.  Running a close second is blight—the leeching of will by the constant devaluation of women as artists, and the constant focus from the 1950s tp the 1980s, on men’s stories as uniquely representative of humanity. 

The final essay in Part One discusses then Virginian, now West Virginian, author Rebecca Davis Harding. Her novel Life in the Iron Mills was published in 1861 in The Atlantic to great acclaim.  Olsen asserts, “Nowhere in fiction was industrialization, the significant development that would transform the nation, a concern, not its consuming of the lives of numberless human beings.”  Hugh Wolfe, the central character of the novel, is a sculptor, whose thwarted desire to create ends in suicide.  Despite its success and its groundbreaking subject, Davis Harding was forgotten until the second women’s movement began to recover lost voices.   Olsen’s essay traces the contours of Davis Harding’s life and development as a writer.

Part Two has the intriguing, rather lengthy title “Acerbs, Asides, Amulets, Exhumations, Sources, Deepings Roundings, Expansions.”  In this section, Olsen organizes dimensions of silences into categories and offers both source material from male and female writers.  I do not aim to systematize or summarize, but how to whet your appetite by naming some of the categories: Silences of the Great in Achievement; Subterranean Forces—And the Work of Creating in Circumstances Enabling Full Function; A Sense of Wrong Voice; Literacy; The Damnation of Women; Wives, Mothers, enablers; Blight: The Hidden Silence—Breakdown; Hidden Blight—Some Effect of Having to Counter and Encounter Harmful Treatment and Circumstances; and Creativity, Potentiality, First Generation, among others.

This section is a rich archive of insights and experiences against which an individual writer may measure him or herself. For men and women like me, in and beyond middle age, the book names cultural norms we may yet be struggling with.  In the absence of such analysis, it’s easy to construe the struggle as evidence of personal failure, rather than evidence of the power of social context.  For writers in their twenties and thirties, reading Silences yields historical awareness (that’s what it was like) that provides a point of comparison for current gendered expectations (how is it now?). 

As I have lived with this book over time, I continue to see its power but I see limits as well.The only dimension of sexuality that she considers is heterosexuality (wife and mother in relation to husband and father).While she perceives the silencing effect of these relationships in terms of the need to defer to or please men on women writers, she does not discuss sexual violence, its pervasiveness, and how such violence impairs the trust in self and one’s truth so needful to creative expression.Olsen showed courage to name the silences that she heard.I hope that we continue to name silences as we find them.

The VIDA Count and Tillie Olsen's Silences--Part I

Learning about the VIDA Count has prompted me to return to Tillie Olsen’s 1978 book Silences. which republished in edited form her MLA presentation “One Out of Twelve: Writers Who Are Women in Our Century—1971.”  Olsen reported that her “crude sampling,” undertaken without research assistants or computerized help, showed that for every woman’s book published, four to five books by men appeared in print.  When Olsen expanded her survey to include the presence of women in literature courses (as evidenced in required reading lists, presence in anthologies and textbooks, critical reviews), the proportion shifted to one woman acknowledged for every twelve men.  Olsen advised her readers to count the number of male and female writers in print with the literary materials that came into their hands over a week or two, a useful exercise still.

The VIDA Count, begun in 2010, intends to produce information about gender parity in publishing by a formal, disciplined, and consistent, annual count, of two types, of 40 major literary journals and publications.  Beginning in 2015, the Count introduced an intersectional analysis of gender, in order to provide information about the diversity within women being published. (Click here for the 2017 VIDA Count.)   The Count is one of the projects of the organization VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, a “feminist organization committed to creating transparency around the lack of gender parity in the literary landscape and to amplifying historically-marginalized voices, including people of color, writers with disabilities; and queer, trans and gender nonconforming individuals.” Forty years later, has the ratio changed since Olsen’s informal count? 

Not as much as one might hope. 

The main VIDA count examines fifteen publications.  In 2017, two of the fifteen (Granta and Poetry) achieved gender parity; for eight of the fifteen from twenty-four to thirty-eight  percent of their content was women’s work (for specifics, see Highlights and Observations). A VIDA Count “The Larger Literary Landscape” showed that fifteen of the twenty-four published as many or more women to men (for example, Kenyon Review, The Cincinnati Review, New American Writing). 

As part of their intersectional analysis, the Count shows that writers of color constitute twenty-five to thirty-five percent of writers published in five publications; of that percentage, less than fifty percent are women of color and nonbinary individuals (as self-reported).   Writers who self-reported their sexual identity as bisexual or queer provided from three to four percent of the published content of six publications. 

As I examine the detailed information given in the various VIDA Counts, I am aware of my lack of skill in interpreting data; if my readers find mistaken inferences or generalizations, attribute those mistakes to me, not the VIDA Count.  As far as I can judge, in terms comparable to Olsen, women are published one out of every three or four times that men are published; women of color are published one out of six. 

About Olsen’s own results, she asserted, “But it not does matter if the ratio had been one out of six or five.  Any figure but one to one would insist on query: Why? What, not true for men but only for women, makes this enormous difference?”  This question, as well as her critical evaluation of her own experience as a writer in the second half of the twentieth century, led her to investigate silences, the unnatural silences that prevent or impede creative work coming to fruition.  Such silences indicate that factors larger than an individual author’s desire to write impinge on one’s ability to create, such as class, color, sex; the times, climate into which one is born.”

Looking at the VIDA Count the question remains pertinent.  VIDA devotes space to examining this question in its “Voices and Views” and “VIDA Review.” As an example, see Delaney McLemore’s recently published essay In “VIDA REview.”  McLemore foregrounds the impact of sexual violence on women’s silencing, a topic that Olsen did not treat, and a topic that deserves continued attention. 

I’ve owned and used my copy of Silences since it was published.  I believe Olsen’s remain useful and pertinent.  The book is recursive, lyrical, imaginative and documentary.  It presents a collection of vignettes, experiences, comments and observations on writers from the 20th century on what has fostered and has hindered writers’ creative work. Specific to women Olsen investigates how “the different past of women,” our historical subordination to men and the ideological assumption that women exist to serve men, has left a legacy of obstacles, inner and outer, to fulfilling “the claims of creation.” 

In the next blog I will share some of Olsen’s insights into silences,

Vicki Phillips, MFA ‘18

Life after an MFA: Can I call myself a writer?

Velicia Jerus Darquenne, MFA ‘18, is the guest blogger this week.

I never thought I would be the next J. K. Rowling or Stephen King, or even Dorothy Allison or Silas House. I knew that I didn’t want to teach like many people who earn their MFA, at least not right away. I knew after the MFA program, I would get a job to pay the bills, hopefully one that granted me enough time to write on the side. Many people asked me why I would bother going another $20,000 in debt to “not use my degree.” I wanted to study the craft of creative writing. I loved writing. I felt like I had stories to tell that would help others understand human nature. These answers rarely satisfied anyone but me.

I learned in undergrad that college was more than the simple equation I was told growing up: College + Degree = High Paying Job. I come from a family and society that doesn’t value a degree, especially a liberal arts degree, unless you are making more than your neighbor pipeliner without one, and still then, they weren’t happy with the decision. By my junior year of undergrad, I was told that I “educated myself out of the family.” That displacement was something I had often felt growing up anyhow, but hearing it said by an aunt hit me like a wave. I didn’t fit in.  

More than anything, that’s why I applied for an MFA program: I was looking for a family. I was looking for people who wanted to talk about literature, read language that inspired themselves, and write a series of words that made others whisper the ultimate compliment: I wish I had written that. For two and a half years, those residencies on West Virginia Wesleyan College’s campus meant everything. I was home. I had place and space.

But then it ends.

I have spent the year since graduation with a void, an emptiness, that I understood too well. The immediate connection was gone. I struggled to write a sentence in that year, to take the time I should to write. I had family, who once understood that I had a packet of homework due, now asking if writing was a really a job or “just a hobby.” Their definition of job requires a pay check. They didn’t understand needing to work at the craft, taking the time to read and write, let alone paying to get printed in a journal that only paid in contributor copies. Without the MFA family and their deadlines for packets, I felt lost to the world of writing, like I no longer understood it or belonged in it.

I got a job with a law firm as a legal administrative assistant. I didn’t think I would ever feel at home there, but it would pay the bills. Lawyers still give me the eerie suspicion they are all half-demons like Balthazar/Cole from Charmed.  But there were glimmers of hope, even there in a law firm, of writing appreciation. Not long after I started, an attorney with round John Lennon glasses walked out of office with no shoes, hiked up his pant legs, and asked me who was on his socks. It was Edgar Allen Poe. He had heard I was an English major and thought I would appreciate the socks. I did, more than he knew then. In less than a year, I got promoted to paralegal because they prefer their paralegals to have a masters. My MFA degree felt appreciated. Then, the gentleman training me tells me about himself. He has a BA in English and MFA in creative writing fiction. My same degrees! Again, I felt validated for not teaching and valued for my degrees. For me, no place is home without writing; however, I am finding it in places I never thought to look before.

Thankfully, the MFA family doesn’t disappear completely after graduation. I had peers reaching out, tapping my shoulder, checking on me, asking if I was still writing. I have been disappointed to repeatedly tell them not so much and give my line of excuses because, from my point of view, it looks like they are having no problem writing; it’s only me. My heart is healing, and I am learning to cope on my own after the MFA.

But more importantly, I am learning to give myself permission, to write and not write, and to still call myself a writer.

Velicia Jerus Darquenne is from Clarksburg, West Virginia. She earned her BA in English from Fairmont State University in December 2015; while there she interned for  Kestrel: A Journal of Art and Literature  and currently serves as Media Editor. Darquenne won the 2016 Best Prose Award from  Whetstone , Fairmont State University’s undergraduate literary journal. She has published in  Crack the Spine ,  Pretty Owl Poetry , and  Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art .

Velicia Jerus Darquenne is from Clarksburg, West Virginia. She earned her BA in English from Fairmont State University in December 2015; while there she interned for Kestrel: A Journal of Art and Literature and currently serves as Media Editor. Darquenne won the 2016 Best Prose Award from Whetstone, Fairmont State University’s undergraduate literary journal. She has published in Crack the Spine, Pretty Owl Poetry, and Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art.

An Interview with Larry D. Thacker (Poetry and Fiction ’18)

Vicki:  Your critical essay and graduate seminar focused an Appalachian poetic tradition concerning the dead.  Please describe this tradition briefly. 

Larry: I wanted to explore the death and dying motif in Appalachian poetics, a tradition I believe is expressed uniquely in our Appalachian mountain culture. Our writers lean artistically on the character of death and the death process in numerous fashions including mourning, as a means of expressing violence, as landmarks in history, as traditional ghost lore, and as a means of remaining attached with family. Death shows itself in our mountain writing more often than we give it credit.

vine geometry2.jpg

V:  In what ways did researching and then teaching about this tradition impact your forthcoming book Grave Robber Confessional?  

L:  It gave me a constant means of establishing road markers along the way. I have questions of my own about death and dying, of course. My writing is a selfish means of pursuing answers, right? So many of these poems resulted from simple unanswerable philosophical fascinations with the death mysteries, but some were just scenarios that popped into my mind while researching. What-ifs along the way. Long lists that accumulated as marginalia.

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V: The breadth of the poems is fascinating.  Some treat our sense of mortality, some fear and speculation about what it will be to die, some discuss cultural rituals related to death, and some leave me feeling eerie and afraid.   Did you set out intentionally to explore the range of meanings associated with death?

L: If I recall accurately, I wrote at least half or more of them for the collection once I’d settled on the arcing theme. I was like, alright then, this collection’s heart is mostly orbited by death, and life with death, so let’s go with it. I robbed a number of other pieces I already had into the collection as well, from smaller projects, morphed poems, Frankenstein monstered up quite a few, so to speak, all while working on two viewpoints: looking into the cemetery and looking out from it.

Gravestones Thacker2.jpg

V:  None of the poems in the collection treat grave robbing in the sense of removing bodies, bones or artifacts.  What led you to choose the title Grave Robber Confessional

L:That’s a very deliberate riddle in a sense. We’re all grave robbers if we look to those who are gone for answers, are we not? Who among us hasn’t stood at the silent grave asking questions? Stared at the quiet stone? Passed the graveyard looking over the stones looking for a certain something? Wished to reach down, metaphorically, and gain answers from the grave? From “beyond”?

Flowers Grave Thacker2.jpg

V:  I notice that for a number of the poems in Grave Robber Confessional the title is the first line.  What factors led you to make this choice?

L:  I seldom title a poem until it’s near or fully complete. I doubt I’m very different than most in that way. I like to know what “becomes” in a piece, what it says for itself, and sometimes a first line is all the simple introduction the scene requires.

******

V: A collection of poems about death does not, at first glance, seem marketable.  What is your elevator pitch, and then, if you like, share why you think readers will want to buy this book.

L:  If you’ve done your taxes, then make a date with this book your next stopover. But seriously, I’ve tried to deal with what is usually avoided in some unique manners that might lighten the burden of anxiety. If I can do that, or at least tempt us to question the mysteries a little more bravely, then I’ve purchased my goal a step further.

******

V:  Tell me about a poet—or a poem—that inspired you to try a new form or technique in your work.

 L:  The MFA semester (also my critical essay semester) I spent with Mary Carroll-Hackett (Death for Beginners, Trailer Park Oracle, and The Night I Heard Everything) as my advisor was eye-opening from a craft approach. I spent the entire semester immersed ONLY in prose poetry, a foreign mental-scape for me. I was ready to write about the destruction of my home neighborhood due to a grocery store expansion. With Carroll-Hackett’s patient tutelage in the prose form, I was able to express where I was emotionally in a unique way during a vulnerable part of my life.

All images courtesy of larry d. thacker

All images courtesy of larry d. thacker

V:  Describe how you benefited from pursuing an MFA at WV Wesleyan.

L: What a question! Indeed, I’m not the writer I was before the program. It’s hard to fathom the absence of what you don’t know before enrolling and how steadily you grow when craft and real-world examples are introduced into your creative life. I brought enthusiasm. The faculty and leadership of the WVWC MFA program offered what I needed, but that I didn’t even know about. It’s that sort of community alchemy that builds you up. Gives you faith in yourself and in others. As for the creative family of peers in the program, our fellow students, they remain my sisters and brothers in the word.

Larry D. Thacker is a Kentuckian writer and artist living in Johnson City, Tennessee.   His stories can be found in past issues of  The Still Journal, Pikeville Review, Fried Chicken and Coffee, Dime Show Review ,  Vandalia Journal ,  Grotesque Quarterly, and Story and Grit.  His poetry is in over one-hundred-and-fifty publications including  Spillway ,  Still: The Journal ,  Valparaiso Poetry Review ,  American Journal of Poetry ,  Poetry South, The Southern Poetry Anthology, and Appalachian Heritage.  His stories have been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Net recognitions. His books include  Mountain Mysteries: The Mystic Traditions of Appalachia,  and the poetry chapbooks  Drifting in Awe  and  Memory Train , as well as the full collections  Drifting in Awe  and  Grave Robber Confessional . Another full collection,  Feasts of Evasion , is forthcoming in later 2019. Visit his website at:  www.larrydthacker.com

Larry D. Thacker is a Kentuckian writer and artist living in Johnson City, Tennessee. His stories can be found in past issues of The Still Journal, Pikeville Review, Fried Chicken and Coffee, Dime Show Review, Vandalia Journal, Grotesque Quarterly, and Story and Grit. His poetry is in over one-hundred-and-fifty publications including Spillway, Still: The Journal, Valparaiso Poetry Review, American Journal of Poetry, Poetry South, The Southern Poetry Anthology, and Appalachian Heritage. His stories have been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Net recognitions. His books include Mountain Mysteries: The Mystic Traditions of Appalachia, and the poetry chapbooks Drifting in Awe and Memory Train, as well as the full collections Drifting in Awe and Grave Robber Confessional. Another full collection, Feasts of Evasion, is forthcoming in later 2019. Visit his website at: www.larrydthacker.com

The Dear Irene Memorial Quilt

During the MFA residencies, in the spaces where public readings are held, audiences have the pleasure of viewing The Dear Irene Memorial Quilt.

Irene Quilt Entire1.jpg

The “genre first”--a crazy quilt.    

A crazy quilt is a type of patchwork which lacks a repeating motif.  Pieced quilts are typically formed by the repetition of a block, itself designed from geometric shapes—squares, triangles or rectangles.  The coloration as well as the pattern of the block repeats, in a satisfying and rational way.  A crazy quilt forgoes geometry and symmetry.  Quilters stitch irregularly shaped patches onto a plain square, often approximately ten inches square background completely. A given block might sport patches of silk, brocade, velvet, wool and brocade, haphazardly and in conversation with one another; or it might be made of cottons, feedsacks, or deconstructed clothing—or any and all conjoined.  The quilter’s fancy, her imagination, her aesthetic, and what’s available to her govern how the patches are placed.

The quilter then decorates the seams with elaborate embroidery.The embellished patch now serves to frame the next creative element within the block:embroidered motifs, images, initials, words and messages, all of which can be seen in the Irene McKinney quilt.The variety of fabric, print, color and embroidery make for a lively quilt.No square is identical, yet the many squares cohere into an energetic, vibrant whole.The purpose of bed quilts is beauty and warmth.The purpose of crazy quilts is sensory delight and the discovery of treasures as the eye follows the colors and motifs while the fingers long to stroke the inviting fabrics.

Irene Quilt Squares2a.jpg

Crazy quilts were a Victorian fad, prompted, according to Judy Ann Breneman, by the 1876 Philadelphia Exposition and lasting until approximately 1910.  The Exposition introduced Americans to Japanese art and ceramics, which featured crazed glazes and asymmetrical designs.  Women responded with enthusiasm at the challenge of making a quilt freed from the constraints of repeating motifs.  “Creativity was wide open with women sewing asymmetrical pieces of fabric together in abstract arrangements,” states Breneman.  Throughout the twentieth century and into the present quilters continue regularly produce and prize crazy quilts.

The inspiration for the Dear Irene Memorial Quilt came to Barbara Weaner, as she examined boxes of vintage clothing Irene had collected from thrift stores and yard sales.  Recalling that “Irene encouraged creation.  In fact, it was one of the few things she truly believed in,” Barbara prepared a creative challenge for herself and others.  Each garment was torn into 25 pieces and placed into 25 stacks, so that each stack had some of each fabric.  She then asked 25 “friends and lovers of poetry” to make blocks for a memorial quilt.   Along with the fabric pieces Barbara Weaner sent a few guidelines.  “Include darks and lights.  Use what appeals to you.  Add a bit of your own if you want to.” 

The guidelines and the use of clothing that Irene had fancied remind me of the counsel Irene offered concerning list poems at a poetry session class she taught as part of May Term course in creative writing in 2005 or 2006, along with Devon McNamara and Richard Schmitt,  at the Mountain Institute in Spruce Knob, West Virginia.

As we sprawled on pillows on the floor, in the round, sunny center of the main yurt, Irene introduced the form of a list poem and told us to list items and topics that expressed our character or self or personhood.  We listed for a while.  Then she said, “Go deeper.  Go into dreams and memories, hopes.  Go for the scary and for the forbidden.”  We listed again.  I remember asking, “What if the list makes no sense when I read it over?”  I remember her saying, “Don’t worry.  It will make sense.  Everything on your list comes from you.  Your unconscious—not hers or his.  There’s a reason you have that facet, fact, or image in your soul.  Trust it.” 

I look at the Dear Irene Memorial Quilt and see Irene’s counsel and example embodied.  The fabrics she collected became patches that her friends held, played with, arranged, and fixed with stitching.  As Barbara Weaner puts it, “Each of the 25 creators worked independently, and revealed a collective dream.  What you see is a kaleidoscope of Irene.  May she live on, seeding goodness!”

All photos courtesy of Jessie van Eerden.

All photos courtesy of Jessie van Eerden.

Winter 2019 Visiting Writers Series Announced

Appalachia, both geographically and culturally, is richly diverse.  The literary offerings of the WVWC MFA’s Winter 2019 Visiting Writing Series are similarly rich and diverse in genre, topics, themes, and places treated in these writers’ works.  The writers hale from West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania.  I have assembled some links for you to follow as a way of introducing these visiting writers.

Steve Scafidi began writing poetry after reading Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”  It satisfied and piqued further “his hunger for something like magnificence” (The Poetry Break: Steve Scafidi). 

For a visual and oral experience of Scafidi’s evocation of life and death matters a mutually illuminating one another, watch the animation of his poem “The June Bugs,” from his magical biography of Abraham Lincoln, To the Bramble and the Briar, and read his poem “Thank You Lord for the Dark Ablaze.”

                                                                                                              

Diane Gilliam’s collections of poetry have moved along a spectrum.  From treating four generations of women in her family, (One of Everything) to the struggles of West Virginian families during the Coal Mine Wars (Kettle Bottom), to her most recent collection, Dreadful Wind & Rain, which takes up the mythic dimensions of each and any woman’s story.  Melva Sue Priddy reviews the verse narrative. Priddy notes, “Her poems speak from different personas and cover stories women often tell and don’t tell, which are the key to how we are who we are, how we diminish ourselves, and how that can change over time.”

An Appalachian murder ballad supplies the title for her most recent collection.  Listen to the rendition by Gilliam Welch and David Rawlings; listen here for the interpretation by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman. 

CATHERINE VENABLE MOORE is a nonfiction writer and radio producer based in Fayette County, West Virginia. Her work investigates questions of history, place, identity, and character of West Virginia, past and present.  Her article “The Book of Dead” explores the formation of identity through disasters remembered and suppressed.

For a sampling of her radio documentaries, click here.

                                                                                        

Jacinda Townsend is currently the Appalachian Writer-in-Residence at Berea College.  Her novel Saint Monkey, winner of  the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for best fiction written by a woman in 2014 and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for best historical fiction, relates the story of two African American women in the 1950s from a small Kentucky town.   Listen to Townsend discuss Saint Monkey on PBS.

Read her article on the Green Book, a guide for African-Americans travelling by car through segregated America, which appeared in the Smithsonian Magazine in 2016.

Townsend shared writing advice and encouragement during National Novel Writing Month 2018. 

Matthew Ferrence hails from Pennsylvania and Prince Edward Island.  These two places delineate the area of Appalachia that is north of the Mason-Dixon line.  He describes himself as living at “the confluence of Appalachia and the Rust Belt.”  His book North: A Memoir is the first full-length treatment of that region.

Read his essay “The Foxes of Prince George Island” for its poignant evocation and exploration of discovering an island home to foxes became his.

                                                                                                              

Kayla Rae Whitaker's work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Buzzfeed, Literary Hub, Lenny Letter, and others. Her debut novel, The Animators, was named one of the best debut novels of 2017 by Entertainment Weekly and one of the best books of 2017 by NPR, Kirkus Reviews, and BookPage.   

Whitaker discusses her desire to write a novel about women artists as well as her choice of central characters in this interview; two of her exemplars were Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark and Margaret Atwood’s Cats Eye.

Watch an episode of Judge a Book devoted to The Animators in which people attending a book festival speculate about the novel by interpreting its cover.

Mindy McGinnis is an Edgar Award-winning novelist whose books include the YA novel The Female of the Species. In addition to treating sexual violence and young women’s response to it, the novel also attends to the impact of rural poverty on young people.  Mindy discusses this aspect of the book at Teen Librarian Toolbox

Mindy writes across multiple genres, including post-apocalyptic, historical, thriller, contemporary, mystery, and fantasy.  Advice and reflection on writing can be found at her blog Writer Writer Pants on Fire.

Diane Callahan interviewed Mindy for her YouTube program Writer to Writer.

The Whys and Wherefore of Craft Books

David B. Evans, MFA ‘18, is the guest blogger this week.

The mid-twentieth century Scottish novelist George Mackay Brown once said,

I believe in dedicated work rather than in “inspiration” . . . I believe writing to be a craft like carpentry, plumbing, or baking ... In “culture circles,” there is a tendency to look          upon artists as the new priesthood of some esoteric religion.  Nonsense—and dangerous nonsense moreover—we are all hewers of wood and drawers of water; only let us do it     as thoroughly and joyously as we can.

 I, too, am a hewer of wood as well as a writer.  I recently completed an arts and crafts-style desk and took as much pleasure in designing and building it as I did in writing an essay about the loss of my sweet old dog Abbie in early summer.  The furniture making and canine remembrance both came from the heart and were guided by experience and training.

Those writers who consistently write clear and beautiful prose, many from an earlier time such as Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, and V. S. Prichett, are my great teachers.  More contemporary stylists who continue to guide me include Francine Prose (Reading Like a Writer), James Wood (How Fiction Works), Willian Zinsser (On Writing Well), Vivian Gornick (The Situation and the Story), John McPhee (Draft No. 4), Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones), Philip Lopate (To Show and to Tell), Annie Dillard (The Writing Life), Sandra Scofield (The Scene Book), Verlyn Klinkenborg (Several Short Sentences about Writing), and Wallace Stegner (On the Teaching of Creative Writing).

As this summer drew to its end, I finished Francine Prose’s new book, What to Read and Why.  What struck me most was what Prose says about the classes she teaches.  They “are centered on close reading, on examining every word, every sentence, considering word choice, diction, tone, subtext . . . some fiction simply cannot be understood—on the simplest level of plot and character—unless you pay attention and concentrate on every sentence, every word.” 

I can hear Prose’s advice echoed in what my advisors at Wesleyan instilled in me—read, reread, and then read again the authors who are doing more than just putting black marks on the page.  Learn your craft from the masters.  If you want to be a good reader and a consistently good writer, you have to understand why an accomplished author chooses the right word and not the almost right one, how a stylist hears the rhythm and builds a heartbeat into sentences, how the novelist and essayist create scenes and avoid expository descriptions.  We must develop an ear for dialog and use it to reveal motivation and desire.  Nothing should be by accident.  The best writers are like composers.  They make you hear the music behind those marks, free you to gallop with the arpeggios, or slow down or pause when the mood changes.  Our job as readers and writers is to crack the code.

In Prose’s chapter on Mavis Gallant, a Canadian writer who spent much of her life and career in France and is best known as a short story writer, we are introduced to “Mlle. Dias de Corta.”  Gallant’s work, according to Prose, “cannot be reduced, summarized, or made to seem like anything but itself.”  In the story, Gallant introduces us to a unpleasant Parisienne, “xenophobic, passive-aggressive, self-involved, sly—a considerable range of unattractive personality traits.”  The tale is framed as a letter addressed by this woman to the eponymous young actress, Mlle. Dias de Corta, who boarded with the old woman and had a disastrous affair with her son decades earlier.  Gallant proceeds to perform magic by breaking our hearts for this unpleasant woman with whom, in all likelihood, we would prefer not to spend five minutes.

Prose then tells us that the magic is in reading the story closely, to understanding what this woman is saying underneath what she appears to be saying on the surface: “what she wants and needs to say, what she cannot say, and why she so often chooses to say something else entirely.”

Within the full range of the many craft books I have next to my writing desk, I believe Prose’s is the one that gives me the clearest insight into writing.  She says she wrote the collection of essays to show us “why books can transport and entertain and teach us, why books can give us pleasure and make us think.”  She teaches me to stop, to regroup, to take the time to reread the passage and to understand how it is written.

So I keep her close to my side and as I move back and forth from hewing lumber for tables to trying to write good sentences.  The beauty and pleasure are in both crafts which we should practice as thoroughly and as joyously as we can.

 

David is an active septuagenarian who graduated from West Virginia Wesleyan College's MFA program in creative writing (nonfiction) earlier this year.  He lives in the mountains of eastern West Virginia with his muse Jody. He enjoys writing portrait essays and composing narratives based on his rich life experiences.

 His essay "Farewell, My Lovely" about the passing of his Golden Retriever Abbie was a finalist in Still's writing contest earlier this month.  

 

Craft Books Recommended

Every semester students propose three to five craft books for study.  Craft books vary, from comprehensive treatments in textbook format, complete with exercises and examples, to books that focus specific craft elements, to works that express the accrued insights of successful writers on craft and the writing life.

Over time we develop favorites, books that address issues masterfully or that remind us of craft elements to address.

 In that spirit, I invited various members of the MFA community to describe craft books they valued. 

 Semein Washington, Poetry ‘19

The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism by T.S. Eliot is a craft book determining the best ways to talk about poetry and the correct format of criticism. Jane Hirschfield’s Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry examines the craft of poetry from cognitive and spiritual perspectives. Both have something to say about the importance of poetry to humanity at large.

 

Larry Thacker, Poetry ‘18.

Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, a collection of creative flash essays, is like poetic Zen instruction for a writer. Whether the essay is a prompt or inspiration to get to work, Goldberg gives examples of awareness in her creative tongue. She doesn't just offer general statements; she follows up with her own creative direction.  For example, in the essay "A Tourist in Your Own Town," Goldberg notes that "Writers write about things that other people don't pay much attention to. For instance, our tongues, elbows, water coming out of a water faucet, the kind of garbage trucks New York City has, the color purple of a faded sign in a small town." She is constantly picking beautiful randomness from the ether and showing us how to do the same in our work, but without hesitating to insist: "Now, please, go. Write your asses off." 

 

Sharon Waters, CNF ‘19

One of my favorite craft books is Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Non-Fiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola. I particularly appreciate the chapters on researching the history and background of one’s subject matter.  The information on how to effectively critique another writer’s work proved invaluable. I keep it close when I have work to critique. If I have the privilege of teaching creative writing someday, I will require this text.

Ryland Swain, Fiction ‘20

I grew up on self-help books and advice columns, and now I'm addicted to books on the craft of writing. Just throw me in that briar patch and I'm a happy bunny. For starter books, I read Natalie Goldberg and filled notebooks with my flowing pen. Stephen King taught me that a good writer could be made from a competent one, while John Gardner cautioned me not to break the dreamscape in my prose.

I’ve taken up new craft books with good advice on characterization.  The first essay of  A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft edited by Andrea Barrett and Peter Turchi dug right into a big problem of mine: the author-narrator-character merge. Frederick Reiken asserts that this merger is "why many first-time novelists wind up with flat, uninteresting protagonists." Margo Livesey, in Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing, advises endowing the character with an "attitude." She also has a zesty section on Jane Austen. 

Sean Price, Fiction ‘19

One of my first craft books, to which I return from time to time, is Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain.  Swain focuses on things a writer should do to make their work more marketable so that they will appeal to a wider audience. Most folks might take that to mean genre writing. Personally, good writing and good storytelling is interesting regardless of its station. The advice in this book is, above all else, concerned with entertaining the reader. And isn't that one of the main things we want from fiction−to be entertained?

The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (3rd Ed.) by Chistopher Vogler details all the aspects of the Hero's Journey proposed by Carl Jung and studied by Joseph Campbell. Patterns are everywhere in nature. So too, the Hero's Journey is a pattern, one that comes up time and again in ancient storytelling, a pattern that seems to resonate with readers. In my mind, doing what's natural is a compelling way to enable my work to reverberate with the reader. Who wants to write something that's forgotten tomorrow? I want my work to stand the test of time. I want my words to reach the hearts and minds of others across an expanse of time. It's not about fame; it's about connecting on deep level at a great distance−−a subspace communication−−where, somehow, the magic in the pattern will register with those readers not yet born and make them feel the same chills and heartaches I felt from a few scribbles on a page−−long after I'm gone. 

 

Karen Bryant, Fiction ‘20

I became part of the WVWC MFA in Creative Writing program to learn the craft of writing. I welcomed the hefty reading list to illustrate craft and inspire me. I also embraced the concept of craft books, good craft books, as a logical tool.

 But how to determine which one is “good” and will be the most effective tool?  My advisor recommended John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers but also warned me that I’d have to overlook his style issues. It didn’t take me long to see what he meant. First of all, I’m not young, so perhaps I wasn’t Gardner’s target audience. Also, his continued reference to the writer as “he” was a hill I didn’t want to climb on each page. I found his style to be arrogant, pejorative and cumbersome. That said, I highlighted passages, took notes and admitted to seeing why my advisor said that everything I have to learn about craft is in that one book, if I could get passed his style. I could not. I learned from that experience that “good” does not just encompass content, but also the connection the author bothers to develop with the reader. I suspect many of my colleagues may have a different take on Gardner.

But, although not young, I’m a big girl and got over it. I was hungry to better grasp point of view, so I sucked it up and focused on that section of Gardner’s book. I explored How to Write a Damn Good Novel, II by James N. Frey, and I went online for additional voices for more descriptions of POV to use as I read and dissected each story. And finally, in my own writing, I compared my natural inclination to the “book learning” and welcomed my advisor’s notes.

In the end, learning the craft of writing has been and will continue to be a holistic experience that requires craft books from many voices as a scaffolding.  I mean, would Michelangelo have been able to paint the Sistine Chapel without adequate undergirding?

The editor invite readers to add comments describing craft books that they value.

Less is More?

GEICO ran a short-lived ad campaign in which a man announces to a friend, “I joined GEICO and got more.”  Each enumeration of “more” was illustrated by increasing large possessions; in one ad, a series of powerful lawn mowers; in another, belt buckles that grew until they turned into shields covering his torso.  The commercials concluded with the affirmation “Gotta love more.”

It’s not surprising that materialistic, consumer culture equates “more” with larger—look at the size of fast food portions.

More can be said about “more.”

I joined the MFA program with a fiction concentration and graduated in May 2018.  I read more than one hundred books.  I wrote annotations, a critical essay, story drafts and polished revisions.  I earned a teaching credential.  I got more.

I learned: 

Matters of craft (five beats to start a story; how to braid; the function of dialogue; the significance of the line; how to use artifacts in essays and poetry, and more)

To interact with published works by writing annotations that examined how literary elements work so that I could use them; I could continue to learn from writers after the program’s formal instruction ended

To respond to peer writing in conversation with other writers (in other words, to workshop)

To listen and learn from my peers’ discussion of my piece; to hear what worked and what didn’t (in other words, to be workshopped)

To trust that the story would show up if I did

To revisit the piece, to explore and to find the story’s heartwood, to revise as needed.

I entered the MFA program and got more:

            Affirmation

            Confirmation

            Attention

            Challenge.

A community welcomed me.  I felt—I feel less alone, less odd, less isolated—because I’ve discovered I’m not alone.

For these reasons and more I volunteered to become editor of the MFA Blog.  This blog is another avenue for mutual support, instruction, and fellowship among past and present students.  I look forward to reaching out to you for insights, topics, and guest blogs.  Share your annotations, reflections on the writing life and process; describe the impact an author or a poet, and more.

Each of us has something to say, and someone needs to hear it.

Vicki Phillips is serving as the MFA Blog Editor. Her email is phillips_v@wvwc.edu

WVWC MFA Candidate Okey Napier, Jr. Leaves Behind a Legacy of Caring

Today, guest blogger, Cynthia McCloud (Nonfiction '19) contributes this week’s blog post in memory of her friend, Okey Napier, Jr. (Nonfiction ’19):

“There’s a queen-sized hole” in our MFA community, wrote Jonathan Corcoran (Faculty) in tribute to Okey Napier, Jr.

Okey was our encouraging classmate and devoted friend, who was also known as sassy drag performer Ilene Over.
Okey died July 17, 2018, two days after the end of summer residency. He was entering his fourth semester with big goals – to adapt some of his memoir into a play while also writing the critical essay with Jonathan as his advisor.

“He was in the process of writing down his story, a story that wowed us in the writing workshop and certainly would have wowed the world,” Jonathan wrote.

Sincere and selfless, Okey’s fierce love wowed everyone it touched.
For many of us, Okey was the first friend we made at residency, and for some he was the friend we maybe didn’t know we needed.

Julia Kastner (Nonfiction '19) wrote, “My friend Okey was a caretaker. The first, last, and middle memories I have of him involve him inquiring into my various small troubles: He wanted to be sure I was safe, healthy, and had what I needed to be happy. He wanted to give advice and assistance where he could. He was concerned for me. He wanted pictures of any man I would consider dating; he wanted to know how my mother was doing. He had many fine qualities: He was funny, sassy, wise, and selfless. But what I remember most was his deep concern for me, and in this respect I know I was not special. He cared for the many people he loved in this way. He wanted to take care of us.

“Others in this program have written about him finding a home here, support and community that he needed. I’m glad we had that to offer him, and I don’t doubt the truth of these statements. But I never much considered what we had to give to Okey; I always saw much more what he gave to us. Thank you, friend.”

We enjoyed Okey’s friendship for only 18 months, but it felt like we had been friends forever.

“I felt like I had always known Okey, even though we were relatively new friends,” wrote Sharon Waters (Nonfiction '19).

“I remain stunned and deeply saddened by Okey’s loss,” Sharon wrote. “I had just spent 10 days writing, talking and laughing with him before he passed. I can still feel the huge bear hug he gave me when we said goodbye. Okey was planning on coming to my church in the next few months to hear me preach. I had promised to attend his Bar Mitzvah when the time came.

“He said several times during our residency, ‘Have you noticed how everything on campus looks greener, lusher, and more beautiful this time?’ I told him I believed this was so because he had opened a new chapter in his life and was seeing everything with ‘new’ eyes. Okey was happy, excited about all that lay ahead, and making plans he could barely wait to see unfold. I take comfort from that, as I know he did. I am devastated to know I will not see him again on this side of life. I will miss you, sweet friend. Rest well in the arms of the One who created such a beautiful you!”

Okey’s absence leaves some of us feeling a duty to continue his life’s work, whichever aspect of it we feel called to take up. May we welcome everyone without prejudice. May we be for others the kind of encourager Okey was for us. May we create a community of love and acceptance. May we write our passions.
Okey was a contributor to the 2017 collection Unbroken Circle: Stories of Cultural Diversity in the South and was slated to be included in a 2019 anthology of LGBTQ literature from Appalachia. Okey valued diversity and inclusion. To honor his memory, the West Virginia Wesleyan MFA program has established a memorial scholarship to offer tuition assistance to incoming MFA students who identify with underrepresented or marginalized communities. The fundraising goal is set at $20,000 to enable the school to endow the scholarship and ensure a consistent annual yield for scholarship disbursal. To give, please visit https://mfa-scholarship.everydayhero.com/us/wvwc-5.

Beginnings

Beginnings are exciting, sometimes terrifying, but always an adventure for those willing to step off the curb and begin the journey. WVWC MFA Blog co-editor Megan has begun a new stage of life and has some wonderful news to share: we have a baby boy! Brian and Megan's arrived at 4:26 p.m. July 10 and was 9 lb., 7 oz. and 21 inches long. His name is Logan Wayne, and the family is doing very well! Below are a few pictures of both proud parents with their new little one. Join us in celebrating this new life.

New family.jpg

Everything we do requires a beginning, and those beginnings, as Mary Shelley once said, are tied to the things that went before. The creation of a child marks that child's beginning of life as a human being, and on a parallel level, the parents' beginning of life as caregivers to another human being. This cycle evolves from generation to generation.

The ancestry of the child and the way life ties to those that went before brings to mind The Way to Rainy Mountain, which was required reading for the 2016 summer residency seminar given by Mary Carroll-Hackett, "Gettin' Lyric With it: Exploring Lyrical Prose and Hybrid Forms as Subversive." Momaday's lyrical stories were told in three voices: the ancestral voice, the historical voice, and the writer's personal voice. In the preface, Momaday writes: "There is a turning and returning of myth, history, and memoir throughout, a narrative wheel that is as sacred as language itself" (33). This leads us to understand that beginnings are really not something new at all - they are a continuation of what has gone before, and what has been learned through the stories of the ancestors. Momaday writes, "A word has power in and of itself. It comes from nothing into sound and meaning; it gives origin to all things. By means of words can a man deal with the world on equal terms. And the word is sacred" (362-363).

Just as families have generations, so has the MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College. It began with Irene McKinney and her dream of creating a community of writers. Barely after her dream had lifted off the ground and taken wing, Irene was taken to the next life. What continues to evolve, though, as generation after generation of writers begin their journeys at WVWC is so much more than a community - these writers become family, bonded by language, sacred language.

In the spirit of the beginnings of each residency, we'll leave off with a poem by Irene McKinney, our founder from Have You Had Enough Darkness Yet?:

The Living Hand.JPG
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MFA BLAST: Recent Publications and Accolades

Alumni and faculty from West Virginia Wesleyan’s MFA program are seeing quite a bit of coverage in various publications recently. We share a few of those now and send out a heartfelt congratulations to all! 

Lara Lillibridge (Nonfiction ’15) recently had a piece published online in the Washington PostWhy we need to break the silence around domestic violence in LGBTQ families

A poem by Jeremy Bryant (Nonfiction ’17) appears in The New Verse NewsIvanka in Jerusalem.

Faculty member Mesha Maren (Fiction) has a piece in Crazyhorse (Somewhere South of Wichita), and her debut novel, Sugar Run, is forthcoming from Algonquin Books in January 2019.

To round out this roundup, WVWC MFA Program Director Jessie van Eerden recently had a piece published in Blackbird: What I Want Your Voice to Do.

Additionally, van Eerden’s book The Long Weeping was named the winner of the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award in the essay category

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To read even more about what WVWC MFA alumni, faculty, and current students are up to, check out our Spring 2018 News. As a reminder, the WVWC MFA summer residency begins soon, and several evening readings during that residency are free and open to the public. Some of the writers listed above will be reading their work during this time. View our last post for more details. We hope to see you there!

WVWC MFA Summer Residency and Visiting Writers

Summer can be a busy and exciting time for the students and faculty of the West Virginia Wesleyan MFA program, and this summer is no exception. Every other year, students have the option to participate in the Ireland residency instead of or in addition to the summer residency held on the WVWC Buckhannon campus. The 2018 Ireland residency just wrapped up and was led by Devon McNamara (Poetry Faculty). Students who participated in the sightseeing, tours, shows, and workshops were Billy Davis (Fiction ’19), Brigid Clare Hokana (Nonfiction ’20), Amber Milstead (Fiction ’19), Phill Provance (Poetry ’19), Semein Washington (Poetry ’19), Chad MacDonald (Nonfiction ’20), and Andrew Raines (Fiction ’19).

Billy (Fiction ’19), who found a four-leaf clover on Inisheer, the smallest of the three Aran Islands in Galway Bay, was impressed by the architectural details and the way history holds importance in the Irish way of life. He tells us: “There’s respect for their history. Monuments to and statues of revolutionaries are prominently displayed on key streets, and sleek modern buildings are perfectly at ease beside grey granite churches, built centuries ago.”

Brigid (Nonfiction ’20), who had less luck on Inisheer and twisted her ankle, enjoyed her first trip to Ireland and hopes it isn’t her last. She shares many of the photos in the slide show below and apparently has a fondness for photographing her meals, according to Amber (Fiction ’19), who also shares many photos and hopped across the pond before the rest of the group to get in some extra sightseeing. The students all have more to share at a later date, but as of now, they are all recuperating from a long flight preceded by a great time. Enjoy their photos from the trip in the slideshow below. To read memories from the 2016 Ireland residency, visit our post from earlier this year.

Kudos to Andrew Raines (Fiction ’19), who shared some good news during the Ireland trip: he got an Honorable Mention for his poem “Satiety” in the WV Writers 2018 Annual Writing Contest.

Those attending the summer residency on the Buckhannon campus, which kicks off in just a few weeks, can expect some fantastic visiting writers. The readings held during the residency are free and open to the public, and they are presented with financial assistance from the West Virginia Humanities Council, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The schedule for the public readings is listed below, along with a bio for each of the writers:

MARY IMO-STIKE & LARA LILLIBRIDGE, July 7 at 7 p.m.

Mary Imo-Stike (Poetry '15) worked nontraditional jobs as a rail worker, construction plumber, boiler operator and gas company Compliance Officer. When retired from work-life, she obtained an MFA in Poetry from West Virginia Wesleyan College in 2015 and was the poetry co-editor of HeartWood Literary Magazine for two years. Her debut chapbook, In and Out of the Horse Latitudes, is available from Finishing Line Press. Mary lives in Scott Depot, West Virginia.

Lara Lillibridge (Nonfiction '16) sings off-beat and dances off-key. Her childhood memoir, Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home, is out with Skyhorse Publishing. Lara 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 and Andrea Fekete are co-editors of the anthology Feminine Rising slated for release in 2019 with Cynren Press.

MESHA MAREN & MATT RANDAL O’WAIN, July 8 at 7 p.m.

Mesha Maren's debut novel Sugar Run is forthcoming from Algonquin Books in January 2019. She is the 2018-2019 Kenan Visiting Writer at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and her short stories and essays appear in Tin House, Oxford American, Crazyhorse, Hobart, Southern Cultures, and Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial. She has been the recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Ucross Foundation, and she currently serves as a National Endowment of the Arts Writing Fellow at the Beckley Federal Correctional Institution.

Matt Randal O'Wain holds an MFA from Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program. Currently, he teaches creative writing at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. O’Wain is the author of "Superman Dam[n] Fool: family, loss, and coming of age in the working class south" (American Lives Series, Bison Books, 2019) and Hallelujah Station and other stories (Autumn House Press, 2020). His essays and short stories have appeared in Oxford American, Guernica, Booth, Hotel Amerika, Zone 3, among others.

JONATHAN CORCORAN, July 9 at 7 p.m.

Jonathan Corcoran is the author of the story collection, The Rope Swing, which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Awards and long-listed for The Story Prize. He received a BA in Literary Arts from Brown University and an MFA in Fiction Writing from Rutgers University-Newark, where he teaches writing. He was born and raised in a small town in West Virginia and currently resides in Brooklyn, New York.

REMICA BINGHAM-RISHER, July 11 at 7 p.m.

Remica Bingham-Risher, author of Starlight & Error, winner of the Diode Editions Book Award, What We Ask of Flesh, shortlisted for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and Conversion, winner of the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award, is a Cave Canem fellow and Affrilachian Poet. She is the Director of Quality Enhancement Plan Initiatives at Old Dominion University. She resides in Norfolk, Virginia, with her husband and children.

NATHAN POOLE, July 12 at 7 p.m.

Nathan Poole is the author of two books of fiction: Father Brother Keeper, a collection of stories selected by Edith Pearlman for the 2013 Mary McCarthy Prize and long listed for the Frank O’Connor Award, and Pathkiller as the Holy Ghost, selected by Benjamin Percy as the winner of the 2014 Quarterly West Novella Contest. He is a recipient of the Narrative Prize, a Milton Fellowship at Seattle Pacific University, and Joan Beebe Fellowship at Warren Wilson College. His work has appeared in various journals, including The Kenyon Review, Ecotone, Narrative Magazine, Image, Quarterly West, and The Chattahoochee Review.

Bringing Our Talents Together: The Power of Creative Collaboration

This week’s blog post comes to us courtesy of Amanda Jo Slone (Fiction ’17). As Amanda Jo describes below, what began as a conversation with a colleague quickly morphed into a rich teaching and learning experience for all involved: Amanda Jo, her colleague, their students at the University of Pikeville in Kentucky, and everyone in the audience at the Appalachian Studies Association Conference in Ohio where Amanda Jo presented on her experiences this past spring. Amanda Jo Slone is a writer, educator, and mother from Draffin, Kentucky. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Still: The Journal, Appalachian Heritage, Pine Mountain Sand and Gravel and other journals. Amanda Jo is the editor of the literary journal, The Pikeville Review.

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In March 2017, I wandered into a required faculty meeting and found an empty seat next to a colleague I only sort of knew at the time. One year later, that same colleague and I joined University of Kentucky Law Professor and author Richard Underwood to present “CrimeSong in the Classroom” at the Appalachian Studies Association Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio. Our session was about a collaborative project we worked on during the fall 2017 semester, but for my colleague and me, this session also featured the power of creative collaboration in our professional and personal lives.

When I sat down next to University of Pikeville Assistant Professor of Theatre Kim Willard during that fateful faculty meeting, I had no idea that our small talk and banter would lead to the best experience I have had in the classroom and one of the most meaningful friendships and creative partnerships I have experienced. I had just finished reading Professor Underwood’s book, CrimeSong: True Crime Stories of Southern Murder Ballads and was excited to talk about it to whomever would listen. I was raised in a family of musicians, and I grew up fascinated by the stories I found in traditional country and folk music, particularly the stories in murder ballads. Underwood’s book reveals historical facts behind many of those songs and pieces together the real life stories of traditional murder ballads. I rambled about the book and how much it meant to me and almost simultaneously, Kim and I had an idea: we should co-teach a class about murder ballads. We approached our dean as soon as the meeting was over and secured his blessing to write a proposal for the course.

Appalachian Murder Ballads: This course is an experiential study of traditional Appalachian music, particularly the murder ballad, and the adaptation of ballads to the stage. Students will study well-known ballads as literature with a focus on the historical events that inspired the songs and the role this art form has played in Appalachian culture. Students will use their study of the ballad to create an original stage script that will be performed at the end of the semester.

Once the original course description (listed above) was written, the rest quickly fell into place. We were awarded a $5,000 grant from the Appalachian College Association for undergraduate research. The grant provided for the research materials our students needed and for all of the materials needed for the production of the play at the end of the semester. Nineteen students enrolled in the course, and of those nineteen, only six had taken theatre courses before. We had a wonderful mix of disciplines in the course: History, Biology, Criminal Justice, and Nursing majors enrolled. During the first class period, we made a list of what everyone believed they could bring to the table. We were blown away by the skills and talents they offered up. Some students were musicians, artists, writers. Some claimed they were not artistic, but adept at research and critical analysis. What they all brought was an inspiring openness to art and learning. Each class period was an energetic burst of creativity.

At the end of the semester, our Appalachian Murder Ballads course presented their original production, “No Mortal Can You Trust,” for the Pikeville Community. The play portrayed the stories of Stella Kinney, Lula Viers, Pearl Bryan, and the Ashland Tragedy, all subjects from popular murder ballads. The students researched the stories, designed costumes, created a set, and wrote the script. Kim and I stood amazed by their combination of talents and their eager collaboration. They pushed past boundaries and limits they set for themselves, and they created a piece of art to add to Appalachian Literature and Theatre.

It was after the play opened for the public that I began to realize the way the experience had affected me on a deeper level. I felt energized in the classroom and proud of the discoveries our students had made along the way, but I found the semester changed me in other, more personal ways as well. Kim and I had spent the last several months working together every day. We co-taught the course, with each of us present at every class meeting and each of us constantly learning. Kim sat in when I did writing workshops on the script and coached students on how to find their written voices. I attended every rehearsal where Kim brought the students out of their acting shells. We diminished our own creative comfort zones by allowing ourselves to collaborate on every level of the creative process. That energy lasted far beyond the fall semester. Kim and I have become close friends and professional partners on campus. We are always brainstorming another project. We are always working together. We share our creative endeavors and push each other to continue to cross creative lines. Our collaboration has made me a better writer and a better teacher.

Art, especially for writers, is often created alone. Sometimes we live in our heads with our world of words, and it’s not always easy to let someone else in. I cherish my rare quiet time and the solitude I sometimes need to finish a story or essay, but more and more, I am also thankful for transformative power of creative collaboration.

Amanda Jo Slone (left) with Pikeville Assistant Professor of Theatre Kim Willard 

Amanda Jo Slone (left) with Pikeville Assistant Professor of Theatre Kim Willard 

An Interview with Phill Provance (Poetry '19)

Dee: In your commentary on “St. Petersburg Has Many Churches” on asiancha.com, you tell the readers that you “wanted to create plurative meaning” in the poem and that the “Modernist playfulness is largely the result of [your] close readings of [the] father of Modernism, James Joyce.” This was over seven years ago. Do your studies of Joyce continue to play a substantial role in the creation of your poetry?

Phill: In a lot of ways, yes. For instance, “The Stenographers Union,” which is more recent, is one of those sorts of pieces like “St. Petersburg” that I intentionally wrote from an intellectual place (more on this below), and even more heartfelt pieces, like my “Hours,” tend to play intellectual games wherever I can find room for them or a lucky opportunity. With “Hours,” specifically, the second line of the second strophe reads, “succor for the good sex,” which on the page means something like “(one) who gives respite (or comfort) from/to the good sex,” and depending on how you want to read “good sex,” that means either protection from the effects of venial sin or that the obviously male speaker is being sexist (or maybe, then again, it’s me satirizing sexism). But aloud it’s a pretty obvious pun, sounding like “sucker for the good sex,” the sort of word play you’d find in Spoken Word poetry or song lyrics and, yes, in later Joyce. This is nice and feels strong because the poem is presented in text primarily, not spoken, so it's far subtler than if it were intended primarily to be heard. Reading it aloud is an extra step, so the superficial, browsing reader simply won’t get it, but the close reader will, and that’s really what I feel Joyce was going for with his later works—excluding his children’s book about cats. In my opinion, what Joyce was aimed at in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake was forcing the reader to do some of the work in creating the text. Luckily, the Modernists all laid the ground work for establishing that kind of reading approach, so today you don’t have to make a piece so much about familiarizing the reader with that and can instead make such things fly under the radar more, like Easter Eggs in a video game.

Anyhow, the point, really, is to create ambiguity, give the reader room to make up her own mind as to whom this speaker is and what he’s praying about and to create room for multiple, even uncontrolled and uncontrollable, readings because that’s the way language moves in my opinion: everything is context and tone at the heart of it. You can say the exact same sentence to five different people on five different days, and each time it will mean something different. So that gives the reader an in, a way of participating in the writing process with me, rather than my strictly controlling the way she sees it, and that appeals to me. And then, of course, in the same poem you’ve got another Easter Egg in the third strophe when the speaker is rattling off names of famous historical and pop-cultural heroines he wants his divorce attorney to channel in the courtroom, and those who know how to read accentual-syllabic verse will notice these two lines break from the free verse of the rest of the poem into a heroic couplet ending in a feminine rhyme of “Athena” and “Zena.” In other words, it’s a feminine-rhymed heroic couplet about heroines, which is a self-conscious game I’m playing and will, I hope, drive the reader who thinks I mean for the speaker to say “good sex” to mean “men” unironically (or, alternatively, that I am unironically having my speaker mean “men” by “good sex”) to reassess her interpretation(s) or at least to see the other possible meanings and a human complexity there in a poem that is a lot about a man's relationships with women, himself and his child. The last thing I want to be in such a poem, if I want to be honest, is pat or simplistic, and so I feel that sort of Joycean refraction on the tertiary level and depth is necessary for the complicated, heartfelt moments, even if on a second reading the reader only takes it as a sneaky joke. I hope, in short, my ideal reader will see that no poet who spends the time it takes to bury a heroic couplet with a feminine rhyme consisting of two lines listing heroines within a free-verse poem actually feels any ill-will toward any woman and reflects on what that might mean about a speaker seemingly very close to said poet and what the true subtext of the seedier lines is.

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D: Your poem, “The Stenographers Union” was selected as a finalist for the Crab Creek Review Prize. In your comments about the poem, you describe it as a “montage within the rhetorical framework of an intimate admonishment,” stating that the goal was for the reader to “construct meaning from it as if looking into a mirror, rather than having a controlled meaning dictated to her.” The final lines of that poem stand out to me: “But aren’t we the / generation of hard luck and broken parts; / don’t our iron crosses just float as well as / witches." Is this a statement of the emptiness of the burdens borne in the relationship for the speaker?

P: Now, Dee, how can I possibly answer that and still leave the poem open to constructive reading? What I will say is this: an “iron cross” is a German military medal, awarded to German servicemen between the Franco-Prussian War and WWII, and in the medieval period, trial by water entailed determining the accused to be a witch if she floated, innocent if she sank. Also, there’s a period there at the end, so maybe that final sentence is a rhetorical question, and there’s the syntactical placement of “just” indicating patronizing sarcasm, so maybe the speaker is belittling the addressee, and maybe what he/she means is double litotes: if the honor received for doing terrible things (as far as we’re concerned as English speakers) doesn’t float, it isn’t actually damnable, but if we’re saying that sarcastically, then perhaps it actually does float or at the very least still is damnable, despite sinking. Or, then again, maybe none of that’s right at all because your interpretation is starting to grow on me now that I consider it more. Or maybe I am still holding my real intentions close to my vest. I liked Diane Seuss’s interpretation that it was a religious poem, too. Anyhow, even though I could definitely share what I meant by it, I think that is ruining the reader’s fun of weeding through the mental gymnastics of it. After all, there’s writing to be read and writing to be re-read, and I hope “The Stenographers Union” is one of those I’ve written that falls into the latter category.

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D: Your latest accomplishment that I’m aware of is having earned an Honorable Mention for the Ron Rash Award in Broad River Review for “Of Beauty & Things.” I was not able to find the poem on the web and read it, though I’m anxious to. Can you tell our readers a little about the poem and its inspiration?

P: Yeah, that was great news last winter; my first acceptance in an Appalachian journal came with a bang for sure, and I’ve followed that up since with an acceptance from the Heartland Review for my “Valediction on Zero: A Postscript,” which I’d submitted to their Joy Bayle Boone Prize. Thematically, both are tied as sort of epiphanies in an overarching storyline for the collection I’m working on as my thesis, A Plan in Case of Morning.

In terms of inspiration, “Of Beauty & Things” is a free-verse litany poem framed as a reaffirming prayer (as a counterbalance to the yearning prayer of “Hours”), and it came about when I was driving my son, Ledger, to the county fair out here in Illinois and thinking about the beauty in the commonplace ugliness and imperfection that is all real people really know. That, in turn, developed into a sort of whispered hope that these imperfect things can somehow be saved in some way, in what I hope is a mature appreciation for what we have, rather than the shiny, new-smelling perfections our culture tells us to desire—a prayer, in other words, that what our consumerism assures us is worthwhile, perfect and deserving of heaven isn’t the only thing that is deserving, in fact, but that the imperfect things we learn to truly love are worthy, too.

Of course, as my answers above show, I’m very interested in the interplay of form and content, as well as how nonce concepts lead to nonce forms, and free-verse litany isn’t exactly the most novel form. Still, what I meant to say with the poem seemed too sincere to feel right in something more souped-up; its simple, heartfelt message needed a simple, heartfelt form for Thomist coherence. And, anyhow,  simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy, by any means. In fact, I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that without Mary Carroll-Hackett’s keen eye and impeccable advice, that one would still be doing its rounds in various slush piles. Free verse litanies, after all, are as popular and obvious a form as love is a theme, so doing one well enough that someone will take it, let alone take it as an honorable mention in a prize, is no small order. Novelty and fireworks like with “The Stenographers Union” are almost easier by comparison because experimentation in poetry can be a kind of crutch, a kind of mask for errors, the way CGI can cover over bad storytelling in many movies. Or, put another way, the experimental stuff is like sawing a lady in half, while more traditional forms are like card tricks: so much is going on in the former the audience doesn’t notice the errors amid the light show, while the real test of sleight of hand is creating an illusion with none of that but a simple pack of cards. Granted, I believe experimentation is crucial and essential to certain poems, and I love experimenting when it’s appropriate, but even with a few sawed ladies under my belt, I’m in many ways prouder to have pulled off a card trick, analogously, and still being a baby poet (or, maybe, a toddler poet?) I don’t think that would have been possible without Mary’s guidance.

Finally, as for finding “Of Beauty & Things,” for some reason the Broad River Review decided to keep my name “Phillip Provance,” on their winners’ list after I emailed to mention I use “Phill Provance,” so the announcement itself is hard to find, and I think the only way “me public” can read the poem is by ordering their prize issue. Likewise, I’m not sure if the Heartland Review is publishing “Valediction” online, so that might be a mail-away situation, too. Then, again, The Crab Creek Review recently put “The Stenographers Union” up after a year of its being paper based-only, so who knows. Once they’re out in the world, I just assume somebody somewhere is reading them and getting to them. I’m still holding out for emails from strangers who are readers, but those are few and far between for everyone who’s not a laureate, a Pulitzer winner or listed on the NYT best-seller or Oprah Book Club lists. Still, I will take this opportunity to ask that any strangers who have liked anything I’ve written to please message me on Facebook. Sure, that’s absurd of me, but if such people exist, I want to hear from them and make them my friends.

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D: You have a non-fiction work coming from The History Press, as well a second poetry chapbook from Cy Gist in 2019. Your publications and prizes are almost too numerous to mention. What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment to date? What are you currently working on?

P: Sentimental and trite as it might sound, I have to put my son down as my number one accomplishment in life. Just to realize I made this little person and that every day I manage to do my part to make his life happy is more than I ever thought I was capable of, and beside that, anything I’ve written or might write is secondary—is perhaps only important to me for how it might someday give Ledger a way to understand and remember me. Fatherhood has definitely made me less certain of my relationship with my work because what it might give me in a connection to my little guy after I’m gone, it takes in time I can’t spend with him now, which brings a pain of its own. Luckily, I’ve built a life for us so far that allows me the financial wherewithal to afford all the needs and most of the wants without taking up my whole day so that I can write off my time writing as being the other four hours per day most parents would spend at work that I’m free to write. My only hope is he’ll understand someday that the time I could have spent with him was invested in writing to give him pieces of me when I can’t be there. And if my work achieves nothing else, I think whoever I am in the grand hereafter will be satisfied if it does that.

So, yeah, typical parent answer, but true nonetheless, because I really can’t point to a single accomplishment writing-wise and say, “This is the best thing.” I am, naturally, grateful for any recognition, because writing is so damned thankless, but I’m incapable of complacency. It’s just not in my DNA. And that means no matter what I do, where my work appears or who reads it, part of me is still like, “Well, it isn’t a Pulitzer,” or “It isn’t Poetry Magazine [the New Yorker, MAR, etc.].” Probably, much like a bit of autobiographical writing from a prominent poet Doug shared with me first semester, I will always think that way no matter what I accomplish, or wouldn’t life get boring? But, in terms of short-term goals, I guess the next steps after graduation are pretty straightforward: finishing the second chap for Cy Gist and several more popular histories that The History Press has expressed interest in, while applying to PhD programs and honing my first full-length poetry manuscript until I’m confident enough in it to enter it in some first-book contests. Then, I’d like to dabble with this novel thing I’ve started with Richard and have gotten to 15,000 words so far, with the hopes that with the 70,000-90,000 words my agent says I need for him to sell my monstrous foray into fiction, it will find a home somewhere. Beyond that, I really don’t have any plans or aspirations. Maybe just to keep striving to write that one thing someone might someday use as a text for an elective my son is forced to take so said prof. can embarrass him by mentioning I’m his dad. That’s the dream, right? Shoot for the moon, and all that.

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D: You will soon graduate from West Virginia Wesleyan’s MFA program. How do you feel your writing has changed as a result of your studies?

P: Well, there’s the rule that if Semein Washington hums, Larry Thacker winks, and Aaron Morris and Andrew Raines break into spontaneous literary debate over a piece I’ve submitted to workshop, it might be a poem. And there’s the rule that one may not pass the second floor on Halloway Hall’s elevator without hearing The Thump—which I suspect to be one of Larry’s lost clowns.

But, seriously, there are really too many technical matters I’ve honed at WVWC to mention them all here, so as a broader summation, I will say that what has changed is I can now look at a broken piece more objectively, diagnose what its issues are and fix them, rather than having the niggling, irksome intuition something’s wrong and the frustration of having to abandon the piece because I can’t articulate for myself what the issue is. Moreover, I feel much freer with my work, freer to take chances and play because I have a better understanding of what other poets have done and how they’ve done it, so a better idea of what’s permissible, when and why, as well as what hasn’t been done. And that has led to more complete poems straight out of draft, as well as easier fixes in revision, and consequently, more finished work. In fact, at one point last summer, I even placed in a contest with a piece I wrote in one sitting on Facebook as several FB friends followed my revisions live and commented. I could have never done that sort of thing before. Not that I can do it every day yet either, mind you. But it’s still pretty exhilarating to do even once.

But, most importantly, I’ve definitely gained a community of people just as serious about writing as I am who take a genuine interest in my life and work like I do theirs. Yes, I’ve made some very good, long-term friends in poetry circles before my MFA, but I also made plenty of enemies, too, especially during my New York escapades in my twenties, and making enemies doesn’t feel good at all. I mean, there is always friction between some folks, and yes, on a few occasions I haven’t always been every fellow WVWC student’s (or professor’s) favorite person, I’m sure. But the difference, I suspect, is cultural: we’re predominantly an Appalachian program, and as I recall from boyhood, “blood is thicker …” in the mountains. In a sense, then, we become blood, siblings at WVWC more than we compete (as I’ve seen some NYC friends do with their fellow students in other programs), and having that is worth every penny of what is probably the lowest tuition in the country. In fact, coming out of WV Wesleyan, I really want to start a sort of alumni group in which we pair off to keep the semesters going and keep up a regimen similar to what we’ve done in school, not only to help each other continue improving our work and practice our pedagogical skills, but to keep our little writing family as close as we can hope to be as the program’s reach continues to grow. I’d really like to do this for each other, and I’m wondering if anyone would like to join me. If so, let’s hash it out this residency and get something together through Facebook.  

Phill.jpg (taken by Sheldon Walsmith).
Phill Provance is the author of two poetry chapbooks, The Day the Sun Rolled Out of the Sky (Cy Gist, 2010) and Given to Sudden Laughter (forthcoming from Cy Gist, 2019), as well as the popular history, A Brief History of Woodbridge, New Jersey (forthcoming from The History Press, 2018). His poetry and prose have appeared in numerous publications, including The Baltimore Sun, The Crab Creek Review, decomP and many others. He has received various honors and awards, including being named a finalist for the 2017 Crab Creek Review Poetry Contest by judge Diane Seuss. An MFA candidate at WV Wesleyan, he lives in Woodstock, Illinois, where he and fellow poet Allison Eir Jenks co-parent the special-est little guy ever, their son, Ledger.

READING NOOK: What We’re Reading (or Hoping to Read!) This Spring

It’s about that time in the year when West Virginia Wesleyan’s MFA program concludes one semester and has a little turn-around time before preparation begins for the summer residency. This seems like a very good time to check in with our students (and alums!) to see what everyone has been reading or looks forward to reading in the near future. We have quite a collection to recommend, and if one of our recommendations doesn’t suit your fancy, Amanda Jo Slone (Fiction ’17) has also blogged on this topic for Shadelandhouse Modern Press and has a number of titles to suggest.

Joyce Allan (Fiction ’15) — One of my favorite books of the last year is Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. It is considered a book for adolescents, but is a wonderful read for anyone. A memoir written in verse, it tells of growing up black in the turbulent 1960s. I loved this book!

Abby Chandler (Fiction '19) — I’m looking forward to reading The Devil’s Dream by Lee Smith and Gods of Howl Mountain by Taylor Brown.

Rebecca Elswick (Fiction ’18) — I want to recommend A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. I read this over a year ago, and I’m still thinking about it. It’s an amazing example of creating an unforgettable character, and it’s been a long time before or since that a book made me laugh out loud!

Lisa Hayes Minney (Nonfiction ’17) — I just finished reading Girlish by Lara Lillibridge (Nonfiction ’16), and I enjoyed it immensely. I'm now reading Chasing Slow: Courage to Journey off the Beaten Path by Erin Loechner.

Julia Kastner (Nonfiction ’19) — I recently enjoyed Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, trans. by Ginny Tapley Takemori. It's weird and intriguing, and I had to turn to a classmate for help with my review (Thanks, Megan Mann, Poetry '19!). Also recently, I read journalist Elizabeth Rush's Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, a study of rising sea levels that combines science, poetry and personal witness, concerned with human and more-than-human communities. I think it's the best book I've read this year.

Megan Mallory Martin (Nonfiction ’17) — As a soon-to-be mom, I’ve been reading lots of birthing and childcare books and articles. In Ina May's Guide to Childbirth, I came across a line that aptly describes why I love to read and to write: “What I love about stories the most is the power they have to teach us of possibilities that might not occur to us without them.”

Dee Sydnor (Fiction ’15) — I am reading Alice Hoffman's The Rules of Magic, a prequel to Practical Magic. It tells the beginnings of the Owens' family and their realization of their magical powers in spite of their mother's attempts to shield them from their fate. Like everything Alice Hoffman writes, it is absolutely delicious and spellbinding.

Larry D. Thacker (Poetry ’18) — I recommend anything by Barbara Ras, along with An Almost Pure Empty Walking, by someone I just happened happily upon, Tryfon Tolides.

We will conclude this reading round-up with a delightful collection of titles suggested by David Evans (Non-fiction ’18). Happy reading!

Evans — Even if fiction is not your genre, you can't go wrong with any of James Wood’s books. He is an English-born essayist, literary critic, and novelist, and currently professor of the practice of literary criticism at Harvard University (a part-time position) and a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. Wood advocates an aesthetic approach to literature, rather than more ideologically driven trends in academic literary criticism. He is noted for coining the genre term hysterical realism, which he uses to denote the contemporary conception of the “big, ambitious novel” that pursues vitality “at all costs.” As he describes it, hysterical realism describes novels that are characterized by chronic length, manic characters, frenzied action, and frequent digressions on topics secondary to the story. Think David Foster Wallace.

I've been reading his articles in The New Yorker for several years. At my adviser’s recommendation nearly two years ago, I read his How Fiction Works, a craft book that was invaluable when I was writing my critical essay. I am now reading The Nearest Thing to Life, a blend of memoir and criticism making connections between fiction and life. As Wood declares, “Of all the arts, fiction has a unique ability to describe the shape of our lives and to rescue the texture of those lives from death and historical oblivion.”

As part of my binge, I also have in the queue a couple of other Wood books:

  • The Broken Estate, Essays on Literature and Belief — Susan Sontag praised it and said, “In a distinctively impassioned voice, James Wood advances some formidable arguments for what fiction and the truthful deployment of the imagination can be.”
  • The Irresponsible Self, On Laughter and the Novel — Wyatt Mason of Harpers wrote, “Wood's literary criticism has been the most fruitfully polemical of recent years. Wood is unforgiving of complacency, unsparing of triviality, and unrelenting in his assault on the half-formed or the overwrought."

I'm looking forward to many enjoyable hours feasting on these books. I hope you will, too.

An Interview with Mary Imo-Stike

Mary Imo-Stike and I met at the Winter residency of 2012-13 at West Virginia Wesleyan College. I recall moving in to the dorms that winter and looking around me with the apprehension of a sixth grader on the first day of school and realizing there were other women closer to my age. I once had the pleasure of introducing Mary before she read her meaningful words, and I mispronounced her name. With her recent publication, it is safe to say there will be no further errors in pronouncing her name, as hers is a name that will always be remembered.

I have recently had the pleasure of interviewing Mary, and her bio states that she identifies as an American Indian and a feminist. She worked "non-traditional" jobs as a rail worker, construction plumber, boiler operator and gas line inspector. Now retired from work-life, she obtained an MFA in Poetry from West Virginia Wesleyan College in 2015 and is currently the poetry co-editor of HeartWood Literary Magazine. Her work has been published in Antietam Review, Phoebe, The Pikeville Review, Young Ravens Literary Review, Driftwood Press, Appalachian Heritage and Cactus Heart. Her latest publication is the recently-released poetry collection, In and Out of the Horse Latitudes (Finishing Line Press).

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I’ve just read “The Hit Songs of 1953,” which was published by The Young Ravens Literary Review, and I was so touched by the memories of the speaker’s mother. My memories did just what they were supposed to and drifted back to my own mother hanging clothes or making beds. The final stanza of your poem touched me, especially, and brought memories of vases with fragrant lilacs cut from the bush by the fence and of clothing flapping in the breeze. You write that “she passed her star to my eye,/the eye she shaped to see the world” (lines 24-25).  How would you describe the eye you shape to see the world?

I like the way you phrased this question, Dee, because it assumes we take on our own mother role as we age, and that nurturing the self with love continues, which I do believe. The eye I try to shape for myself is the “poet’s eye,” meaning I look for the details, the smallest pieces that tell the story. I’m constantly trying to train myself to honor and celebrate those details, look past the obvious to kernels of truth that seem ordinary but can surprise us in their extraordinary-ness.

Diane Gilliam wrote the following blurb for your book that has just been released:

In and Out of the Horse Latitudes is a work of generational witness, a testimony to both the light and dark sides of a life of work. These poems move from “the beautiful plane geometry of clean / new lines, perfectly hung, coaxed / aside if needed and aligned plumb,” to the deep loneliness of “jobs that take all of me / out of me” and work which, skillfully done, “renders me invisible.” But Mary Imo-Stike brings forward those whose lives are spent lives grounding our world and honors their ache and endurance in both body and soul.

You know that ache of body and soul, and you’ve held jobs that you’ve called “untraditional” for women. The blurb from Finishing Line Press states that your work observes “the hardships of blue collar Americans, all the while vigilantly preserving the integrity of the individuals who fall under their scrutiny.” What piece from your work do you feel best identifies with the blue collar American, and how do you feel your experience in industry has affected your poetry?

The work I have done has affected every aspect of my life, has transformed me: how I walk, the way I talk, my relationships, how I carry my body, how I lift heavy loads and problem solve. My first blue collar job was as a track laborer on the railroad at age 28, and every choice I have made in the last 40 years has hinged upon that experience.

I have some pieces that I sometimes refer to as my “industrial poems,” but actually, I cannot separate my “blue collar experiences” from the entire package of my life and work. So, my occupations have given me a broader world to write from and a courage to test myself and reach for more.

Mary Carroll-Hackett, your mentor, wrote:

For Imo-Stike, home is both the search and the landing. Home is that which we fashion ourselves, foundations we create by honoring the bones of our ancestors, even as we carve our own trails away from them, lit with the shining fragments, nuts, washers, wire, that we gather from even our lives’ darkest moments. Imo-Stike writes: “There are words that have magic sown into their fibers/that when uttered into sound,/spoken, set free to travel in the sea of air,/release the enchantment.”

I love these words that Mary Carroll-Hackett quotes from one of your poems, though I don’t know which poem the quote comes from (I can’t wait to get my copy). Can you respond to those words of having “magic sown into their fibers” in relation to your Native-American heritage? In what ways do words hold magic for you?

I believe that magic is part of our everyday life; it is always with us, and allowing ourselves to recognize it can become a habit. Native cultures don’t view magic as out of the ordinary. The magical is commonplace and normal. Ordinary occurrences precede my work; they are the seeds of my poems.

The role of the poet is to tell the story that is life. The telling of life with words, crafting words to tell our story in poetry, has helped me to realize that each word is special, each has the power to cut or heal. The poet must choose them carefully before stringing them together.

Thanks to Mary for answering my questions and contributing to the WVWC MFA Blog. You can get a copy of Mary Imo-Stike's latest chapbook at Finishing Line Press by clicking on her picture below: