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.

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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?:

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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.

******

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).

***

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:

 

Travels with Devon to Ireland, June 2016

Every other year students in the West Virginia Wesleyan MFA program have the exciting opportunity to travel to Ireland to explore the literature and culture of a literary nation during ten days of writing and literary enrichment in Dublin, Galway, and County Clare. The next trip is scheduled for this summer (June 1-10, 2018), and today's blog post, written by David Evans (Nonfiction ’18), shares what that trip was like during the summer of 2016. Learn more about the WVWC MFA Ireland Residency.

Before my trip to Ireland in 2016, I told myself that I didn't need the aggravation of traveling again. I squirmed at the discomfort of flying, of being packed into tiny spaces, unable to even get up and bump my way to one of the too few toilets. And even before I boarded, I would have to endure endless lines and pretend that passing through metal detectors would keep me safe from terrorists. If that wasn't enticing enough, I could entertain myself by guessing which of the surly strangers in uniform would sniff inside my shoes, pillage my luggage, or stare at the imagery in the metal detector stall to see what contraband I had secreted in one of my aging body cavities. Couldn't I be just as content staying home, reading James Joyce's Dubliners, sitting in the comfort of my own home while sipping an imported Guinness? If I wanted to see the Cliffs of Moher, why not stream "Ryan's Daughter" and watch the steamy scenes of Sarah Miles and Robert Mitchum?

Then I talked to Devon McNamara (Poetry Faculty). She convinced me that Ireland was not just a place. It was more a state of mind where the world suddenly seems kinder, a lot more welcoming. There was no turning back. She breathed life back into my dormant desire to step off a plane onto foreign soil.

I tip my Irish tweed cap to Devon, a master trip planner and organizer. From the moment she met me at the airport at 5 a.m. on June 2, 2016, until we toasted a hearty farewell at our final dinner at the Ballinalacken Castle in County Clare on June 11, Devon was always there to ensure that our small group missed nothing and that all our needs were met. I wish I could go again with the group Devon will lead this coming June. I have spent the last two years recommending this trip to others and will continue to stress that the cost is cheap considering all the benefits and personal attention.

Literature, writing, history, theater, ancient Celtic sites, dramatic scenery, train rides, Guinness Stout, and the magic of Devon to walk you through what I consider the trip and experience of a lifetime—what's there not to like!

I am proud to say I wore out a substantial pair of walking shoes wandering the streets of Dublin in a few days. My companion was the ghost of James Joyce who took me to the spots made famous in Ulysses and in Dubliners, his collection of short stories set in the early twentieth century. Of course, when chasing down the venue for Joyce's stories, one needs liquid refreshment to keep up required energy levels, so I dropped into some well-known pubs—such as the two-hundred-year-old Mulligans ("the home of the pint"), the posh "Writer's Lounge" (known for its afternoon tea) in the Gresham Hotel, and the Davy Byrnes, where Leopold Bloom in Ulysses takes his lunch of a Gongonzola sandwich with a tipple of burgundy.

By mid-morning of my first day in town, I had made my way to the giant Guinness brewery. I was so overwhelmed by the footprint of the place and its high walls that I passed on by and headed for a small pub on the opposite side of the street. When I entered, the locals all stopped talking and looked at me. I wanted to channel the good Mr. Bloom and say, "Ah! Ow! Don't be talking! I was blue mouldy for the want of that pint. Declare to God I could hear it hit the pit of my stomach with a click." Instead, I said I was fresh from America and had a craving for a "real" Guinness. The guys relaxed then, and Hannity and Mike invited me to join them.

Afterward, I trotted the few blocks to the infamous Kilmainham Gaol where many Irish revolutionaries were imprisoned and died during the 1916 Uprising. No matter who you are, you can't help but be reverent when you walk around that stone fortress of a jail with its haunting "Proclamation Sculpture" of 1916 martyred resistance fighters who were tortured to death in the prison. "Dublin Remembers" signs hung everywhere in commemoration of the centenary of the 'Rising.

Before linking up with my fellow travelers—Megan Mallory (Nonfiction '17), Dee Sydnor (Fiction '15) and her husband Dave, and Elizabeth Hawkins (Fiction '17)—at the hotel, I managed a quick walk through St. Stephens Green. At twenty-two acres, it is the largest of the parks in Dublin's main Georgian garden squares. Again, a major site of insurrection during the 1916 Uprising. Only in Ireland could a ceasefire be arranged to allow the park's groundsmen to feed the local ducks.

 Our first dinner together in Ireland: (L-R) Elizabeth, Devon, Dee, Dave, and David. (Megan is taking the photo.)

Our first dinner together in Ireland: (L-R) Elizabeth, Devon, Dee, Dave, and David. (Megan is taking the photo.)

Our hotel was well located off the main drag of O'Connell St. near Parnell Square, named after the nineteenth-century Irish Nationalist who also spent time in Kilmainham for his land reform agitation, and The Garden of Remembrance, a memorial garden to honor all those who lost their lives for Irish independence.

The next several days of planned tours of Dublin went off without hitch. I love playing tourist, and the morning at Trinity College in Dublin lived up to all expectation. I was delighted to be greeted by the statue of the great eighteenth-century Irish statesman Edmund Burke, who stands tall at the entryway outside the gate. I had reread his essay on the French Revolution just the previous year, so I felt as though I were in familiar company when I entered the magnificent campus. No one should get out of this life without seeing the Long Library, the largest library in Ireland with over 200,000 of the oldest books in the greater library's collection of over six-million volumes. The library is home to the Book of Kells, the illuminated medieval manuscript of the four gospels of the New Testament in Latin. To quote Devon, “Being there is a gobsmacking experience.”

In the days ahead, we attended lectures arranged by Devon and continued our explorations of the city and the surrounding countryside. In the evenings, we enjoyed performances at The Abbey Theater and The Gaiety. On one day trip, we took a bus ride to Newgrange, a prehistoric stone monument on a grassy knoll built around 3200 BC, making it older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. No one knows for sure what the site was used for, but its entrance is aligned with the rising sun on the winter solstice, when sunlight shines through a slot in the roof and floods the inner chamber. All the prehistory of the area, not to mention the events and geography of the nearby Battle of the Boyne, made for a history-laden day. I entered my name in the raffle for a special chance to see the next equinox show. I'm still waiting to hear back.

 David stands on the “Burren,” near an ancient Celtic “passage grave.”

David stands on the “Burren,” near an ancient Celtic “passage grave.”

At our stop at Tara en route back to Dublin, we were allowed up close and personal to the Lia Fail—the phallic stone that is said to be the coronation rock for the ancient kings of Ireland. Nothing like a little magic from antiquity to add flavor to a funky bookseller’s shack and adjoining ice-cream café.

Thanks to Devon, we had a wonderful workshop with the novelist, poet, playwright, and historian Dermot Bolger during our stay in Dublin. Much to our surprise and delight, Dermot invited us to his house for several hours. After talking about the current Irish literary scene, he gave us personal critiques and valuable feedback on our workshop pieces.

Before we knew it, our Dublin days were drawing to an end. In no time, we prepared to board a westward train to Galway. Farewell frenetic urban days, welcome rural Ireland. In a few hours we crossed the country and checked in at Pat and Connie O’Sullivan’s B&B. We were soon to discover that Pat’s breakfasts were to die for. Any variation on eggs, poached salmon, homemade granola with dates and figs drenched in honey, bacon straight from the hog farmer, quiche with fresh cheeses and kale from the local farmer's market, and fruit bowls full to the brim with blueberries, mangos, and sliced bananas, all dusted with cinnamon and smothered in fresh yogurt.

On the second day in the rugged, boulder-strewn west of the country, we embarked on the ferry that took us to the Aran Islands at the mouth of Galway Bay. Bikes, horse-drawn carriages, and hiking were island transportation to the ancient Celtic fortress of Dun Aengus, several miles from the dock. A bicycle would probably have been better than my own shank’s mare, but I wouldn’t have traded the peripatetic experience for anything. When I bought Megan, my fellow walker, an ice cream at the small shop just before we climbed the steep path to the stone citadel on the edge of a three-hundred-foot cliff, we felt as though we were real troopers. Megan was braver than I and belly crawled to the edge. We rewarded ourselves at the base of the mountain with more ice cream and some shopping in one of the island’s famous sweater outlets. My wife Jody now sports two of their finest.

 Megan belly crawls to the edge of the three-hundred-foot cliff.

Megan belly crawls to the edge of the three-hundred-foot cliff.

During our stay in Galway, we also made a day trip to Lady Gregory’s Coole Park estate, a literary getaway for many the famous Irish writers of the early twentieth century. I have my photo of the famous Cooper Beech “Autograph Tree” in my study. Yeats, O’Casey, Shaw, Synge, and many others carved their initials to prove they were there. The walk through the gardens took me to the pond made famous by the Yeats poem of the local swans.

Our stopover at Thoor Ballylee Castle served as a good substitute for my planned trip to Sligo (next time) to pay homage to Yeats. Confession here: I took a pebble from the Streamstown River flowing by the tower where he lived. This was my only transgression during the trip and certainly nowhere as serious as scratching graffiti on the walls of Newgrange as some eighteenth-century hooligans did.

A few days later, the poet Nicholas McLachlan met us in the charming Salmon Bookshop in the country market village of Ennistymon, which is near the coast in County Clare. Nicholas is a warm and witty fellow who also kept us busy with stories and readings.

 An exterior view of the Salmon Bookshop

An exterior view of the Salmon Bookshop

The An Gorta Mor ("The Great Hunger") Memorial is just outside town and is a somber reminder of the memory of the victims of the 1845-1850 Great Famine. One side of the memorial depicts a barefoot orphan boy standing before a workhouse door on the freezing morning of 25 February 1848, while across from him is the head of an anguished mother and two hands clenched above the sorrowful text of a pleading note that was pinned to the torn shirt of the boy:

Gentlemen,
There is a little boy named Michael Rice of Lahinch aged about 4 years. He is an orphan, his father having died last year and his mother has expired on last Wednesday night, who is now about to be buried without a coffin!! Unless ye make some provision for such. The child in question is now at the Workhouse Gate expecting to be admitted, if not it will starve.
—Rob S. Constable

Doolin proved a grand finale to our trip. I hopped a tourist ferry early on and saw the seven-hundred-foot-high Cliffs of Moher from the sea before hoofing it back in time to go to the music festival. We all loved the small venue and the great music, not to mention the friendly people. The festival was also a great opportunity to buy some first-quality shirts and gather other memories of Ireland. And did I mention the convenience of the beer pub and the tasty food?

We were blessed during our Galway stay to be driven about by Sean, a most efficient, pleasant, and hardworking man who filled in as tour guide and fact finder. He was always on time and provided a good memory of the fine people of Ireland as he delivered us to Shannon bright and early for our departure.

We had a charmed ten days of idyllic weather with no rain and summer nights that never seemed to end. One man told me he could follow the flight of a golf ball hit well after midnight. I imagined following its trajectory as it sailed westward over the Atlantic, destination Newfoundland—hole in one!

WVWC MFA Kudos

Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) 2018 Conference

AWP2018 in Tampa, FL, is happening now through Saturday—The WVWC MFA program has a table in the Bookfair, so be sure to drop by and say hello.

Karen Salyer McElmurray (Prose Faculty) will be on the panel “Fierce Muses” with Gina Frangelo, Paul Lisicky, Carter Sickels, and Eiren Caffall on March 8 from 12-1:15 p.m. She will also be on the panel “Blood of My Blood” with Janice Gary, Camille Dungy, Connie May Fowler, and Reyna Grande on March 10 from 1:30-2:45 p.m.

Jessie van Eerden (Director) will hold an author signing at the Orison Books Bookfair Table Friday, March 9, from 2-4 p.m. She will also be reading for the Willow Springs & Florida Review at Four Green Fields on Friday at 5:30 p.m.

WVWC MFA Student and Alumni Publications

Self-Portrait, Houston” by Julia Kastner (Nonfiction ’19) can be found in SLAG GLASS CITY.

I Found My Father in S-Town” by Delaney McLemore (Nonfiction ’18) was recently published in Entropy Literary Magazine

In and Out of the Horse Latitudes by Mary Imo Stike (Poetry ’15) is available for pre-order. Watch for an interview with Mary next month! Get a sampling of Mary’s work in the anthology Voices on Unity: Coming Together, Falling Apart.

The Art of Deception” by Lara Beth Lillibridge (Nonfiction ’16) was published by The Sunlight Press.

Old Scars, New Wounds” by Lisa Hayes Minney (Nonfiction ’17) is in Entropy Literary Magazine.

Alternative Facts” by Lin Kaatz Chary (Nonfiction ’19) is in The Chicago Tribune.

The Moth in the Stair” by CM Chapman (Fiction ’15) has been nominated for a Pushcart from Still: The Journal.

Larry Thacker’s poems (Poetry ’18) will be published in Regal House’s Howling up to the Sky; Iceview Magazine; Ink & Nebula; War, Literature & the Arts; and Still: The Journal.

Phill Provance (Poetry ’19) has an academic review of the critical-essay anthology Jeff Daniel Marion: Poet on the Halston forthcoming in the next issue of the Journal of Appalachian Studies (JAS), and Phill’s poem “Of Beauty & Things” was named one of three Honorable Mention Finalist entries for the 2017 Ron Rash Award by judge Bill Brown and will be published in an upcoming issue of the Broad River Review.

Appalachian Studies Association (ASA) 2018 Conference

ASA Conference is right around the corner, and WVWC MFA will have a table in the Exhibit Hall. Many WVWC faculty and alumni will be presenting. Plan to attend!

April 6, 1-2:15 p.m. – “Profits and/or Prophets from the Mountains,” Karen Salyer McElmurray and Danielle Kelly (Fiction ’15) with Karen Spears Zacharias and Bill King.

April 6, 2:30-3:45 p.m. – “Inside, Outside: West Virginia Writers on Place,” Doug Van Gundy (Poetry Faculty) and Jonathan Corcoran (Fiction Faculty) with Natalie Sypolt, Gretchen Moran Laskas, Randi Ward, and Melissa Minske.

April 6, 4-5:15 p.m. – “Running with Whiskey: A Multimedia Performance Exploring Place, Identity, and Extractive Industry,” Marc Harshman and Doug Van Gundy.

April 7, 11:15 a.m.-12:30 p.m. – “Outliers: Voices of Place and Displacement,” Karen Salyer McElmurray and Jessie van Eerden with Crystal Wilkinson and Cathryn Hankla.

April 8, 9:45-11 a.m. – “The Danger of a Single Story: Ripping the Seams of Stereotypes and Piecing the People Back Together,” Danielle Kelly, Jonathan Corcoran, Mary Imo Stike, and Carter Sickels.

April 8, 11:15 a.m.-12:30 p.m. – Amanda Jo Slone (Fiction ’17) will be presenting with Kim Willard and Richard Underwood about her Special Topics Appalachian Murder Ballads class: “CrimeSong in the Classroom.”

CRAFT FOCUS: CM Chapman on Descriptive Strategy

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

Imaginary Joan: A Look at Descriptive Strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Work Cited

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

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

GUEST POST: Lara Lillibridge on Writing and Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

SPOTLIGHT: An Interview with Jessie van Eerden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering Residency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter Residency 2018 Begins Tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West Virginia Wesleyan MFA's Visiting Writers Series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeffrey Webb (Fiction '15)

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

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

 

Karen Salyer McElmurray (Prose Faculty)

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

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

 

Rebecca Elswick (Fiction '18)

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

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

 

Katie Fallon (Nonfiction Faculty)

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

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

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

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

Richard Schmitt (Prose Faculty)

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

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

Delaney McLemore (Nonfiction '18)

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

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

Doug Van Gundy (Poetry Faculty)

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

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

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

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

Thankful Thursdays #3: Jessica Spruill and Velicia Jerus Darquenne

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

Jessica Spruill (Poetry ’15)

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

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

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

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

Velicia Jerus Darquenne (Fiction ’18)

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

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

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

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

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