Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Writing Superstorm Sandy: Amy King Finds Society in Words

November, 2012
The storm lasted 24 hours, but clean-up continues across New York & New Jersey, a month later.  Hers is a prolonged wake, no burial in sight.  Power has been restored to most, except those homeless still residing in shelters like the two on my campus.  Their homes have washed away, others dead while many remain uncertain about where they will go.  I'm lucky, I know it.  Before Hurricane Sandy came ashore, I had just gone through a break-up and was bracing to face the torment alone, which somehow felt fitting.  But the fates waved a wand, and my friend Matt descended with supplies and rifles.  We spent the dark hours with a radio and Trivial Pursuit.  The week that followed, when Matt returned home, is where the story breaks into fragments.  Without power & cable & transit (thanks, Mad Max gas crisis, thanks, power lines and tree limbs crossing their arms across roadways), I found myself with hours on hand and no real plan.  I worked the property, moving wood and limbs, cooking with propane and using my tiny cell service to assure the world and find assurance in the world as best as I could.  I also burned wood to stay warm.  
Power was restored to the local towns of Long Island first, I guess to give folks places to converge.  Lots of observations:  New Yorkers go gracious in trauma's aftermath.  Looting was limited and people got nice.  Now resorting to candles and lanterns, the printed word made a comeback.  I went to the local indie bookstore, Book Revue, in Huntington, NY for society and words.  Even without a crisis, people are mostly friendly there, and the aftermath was no exception:  chat and coffee and lots of reading.  The Book Revue still offers used and new poetry books - several shelves worth - as well as new journals of writing like Poetry, Washington Square, Harvard Review, Ploughshares, and lots more.  It's kind of unbelievable. In between reading poets still publishing in print journals, more awarenesses surfaced:  
1.)  Reading is thinking that draws ideas from the recesses.   What if I had not sat down, engaged those poets, and felt things rising?  My storm notebook would be blank.  Gives new dimensions to Kafka's "A book ought to be an ice pick to break up the frozen sea within us."  It is not just taking in another's ideas - the very act is alchemy.  The writing, the reading brings the surfacing:  alchemical regeneration.  Making things by scanning the print on dead wood.  2.) Annoyance over the feminization of "Mother Nature's erratic children - Sandy and Katrina.  Bitches are unpredictable.  3.) My break-up was right but emotional, preceded by signs neither of us noticed until the final cathartic release.  Not so much a bang or a whimper, but more of a series of bumps warning of the cart about to topple.  How many notice such signs?  And if such signs serve, how?  Shouldn't the higher ups connect the Sandy and Katrina dots with the melting permafrost that catches fire?  I mean, we're talking literal lakes of fire...   Republicans got a clue - New Jersey Governor Chris Christie praised Obama and NYC Major Bloomberg endorsed Obama during the aftermath because of global warming.  4.)  And then there was the discovery of a pile of Ashbery's recent translation of Rimbaud's Illuminations on discount.  Rimbaud's "Je est un autre" (“I is someone else”) also took on new meanings.  Reading the forgotten dreams of Rimbaud's neglect (these weren't supposed to be his last) somehow emboldened.  That Rimbaud was likely no longer bothered with acceptance or finding a place in modernism, he wrote what he wrote, freely. Illuminations offered a key through though, in that bookstore, a permission to carry on among the destruction and sadness - this is often referred to as the indomitable human spirit but, last awareness, that spirit needs motivation, a path.  Sometimes one finds it in the beauty of the ruins as in Illuminations, printed on the bones of dead wood, ready to ignite, if given to the deepest recesses.  
Waters and sadness rise and raise the Floods again.
Because since they abated – oh, the precious stones burying themselves and the opened flowers! – It’s wearisome!
--"After the Flood" -- Rimbaud  

Amy King is the author of, most recently, I Want to Make You Safe (Litmus Press). Also, Slaves to Do These Things, I'm the Man Who Loves You, Antidotes for an Alibi, all from BlazeVOX Books, and The People Instruments (Pavement Saw Press Chapbook Award). She is currently preparing a book of interviews with the poet Ron Padgett, co-edits Esque Magazine and the PEN Poetry Series with Ana Bozicevic, and teaches English and Creative Writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.

She has conducted workshops at such places as the San Francisco State University Poetry Center, Summer Writing Program @ Naropa University, Slippery Rock University and Rhode Island School of Design.  Her poems have been nominated for numerous Pushcart Prizes, she was a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and she was the recipient of a MacArthur Scholarship for Poetry. Amy founded and curated, from 2006 until 2010, the Brooklyn-based reading series, The Stain of Poetry.! 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Travel Notes from The Top End: On Loss & Finding A Friend in the Oddest of Places

Martha B. Hopkins: hiking in Australia at 82 & the death of her son.
October-November, 2011
It gets harder all of the time. Yesterday I passed a rack of birthday cards. No more birthdays. Last night rugby game between Australia and Wales: a shorter guy with strong build and cropped blonde hair–quite like Alex—was key to Australia’s win. I see an ambulance, I see someone stepping onto a bus or riding a bicycle. At last he is free from his struggles, including those that confront short, strong, funny, sensitive men in the meaner parts of the US.

Wakened at 4am last night (as I often do) and scribbled:

Is my son burning now?
Have his strong bones turned to ash?
The clean vapors of integrity
will land on the few who can absorb them.
The freshness of his humor will show.
His spirit swirls around me
but I cannot hug, only love, one that is dissolving.
How many things we never got to say
it doesn’t matter now. Only that you are safe.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011 in Arnhamland, Northern Australia, was the hardest day, physically, of my life. It was within just a hair of being too much, but worth every painful, thrilling, expensive, beautiful, revelatory moment. It was not just a fascinating experience for me, but also for the two Belgians, retired Australians and two young women that joined us. "Gary" was out guide, and Chris the out-van driver .

First time I have seen an actual sunrise in Australia. Driving east at 5:30 a.m. from Darwin to Arnhamland–– from black skies driving through peopleless lands to dim lighting to bright, pale yellowing skies. A fortuitous glance in the right direction showed a little dark orange hill on the still dark horizon. Steadily it rose and became the blood orange sun that I had watched slide down into Darwin Harbor the night before. Our objective: 10,000 year old rock paintings on the underside of overhanging rocks of what is called Injalak Hill near the little village of Oenpelli, and learning something about the mysterious "dreaming" land of indigenous Australians. The trip could be as long and as complicated as the guide chose to make it. From what I gather now, I think we got the whole nine yards.

The few tribes that are there are broken into clans and strictly observe customs that prevent the consequences of interbreeding. Ultimately everyone is related anyway and the sacredness of relationships is highly honored. The land has been studied geologically and culturally (from bones, DNA, etc) and in every other which way since the end of the last ice age. It is said that it has changed little. Miles-wide green flood plains between high plateaus became giant lakes during "The Wet." 


We climbed the face of a giant escarpment, like scrambling up toward Finger Rock (in Tucson) but more complicated. It was too hot to scramble, so we moved more clumsily picking our way upward into the rough mass of huge blocks, boulders, hunks, and wedges of silicified sandstone tilted every which way, often with just one narrow way around. Every few feet up I could see new canyons and obstacles, but we kept going. I was near the front, as always, so I could hear, but basically I couldn't hear much of the general talking. I could observe, though. At a fairly level stop, Gary, our graying but sprite indigenous guide, asks me if I had a camera. I said yes and he said let's take a picture of you and a black man to show your grandson. He was almost always peaceful and smiling at the humor of situations. I think it is his way of getting some people comfortable, with black and white folks touching each other. Many people have trouble with that, but not me.

No rock was cold, just soft warmth that gradually became too hot to touch, especially the yellows, grays and browns. We kept drifting upward, often single file or just one or two of us at a time because the rocks were so close together. It was sometimes quite steep but I came to realize that Gary was always there and offering me his hand before I knew I needed it. Suddenly I was aware that this was one of those relationships that felt forever, where you fully understand each other and your own private mysteries. Complete trust.

We finally arrived on a wide plateau under a huge overhang, covered with paintings. Gary stopped and in a prayer-like voice began speaking in his native tongue. We all were silent. He said he has asked the ancestors for permission to let us take pictures but that there will be some places NOT to take pictures. On some surfaces, always the underside of an overhang, the paintings are more dense. The longer I looked, the more I saw buried under each other. Gary speaks of the Lightning Man, the fish, the serpent, the honey bee. We kept moving slowly among the rocks, seeing and listening. At one place with a single figure, he said "no pictures."

It was getting hotter and everyone was sweating and drinking from their water bottles. He sat easily, comfortably cross-legged, and explained the studies that determined that the paintings are 10, 000 years old. . . and that they, and he, and all of us will vanish eventually as "as a patch of water will vanish from a hot surface—with no trace that it ever existed." He gently describes that as an elder, he has no younger replacements. He knows and speaks of it. I know of it and hardly know what to say. At some time everyone has watched a puddle on cement shrink and shrink and disappear. It has always happened and will always happen. It is sometimes disquieting to contemplate, but he was so totally calm that it was inspiring to me.

As we continued through a tight spot, the next obvious place I would have placed my hand was a narrow ledge, smooth as glass by thousands of hands over thousands of years. He said "not pictures," and then the next place he paused. He simply pointed to the right at a wedge-shaped crack, at the bottom of which was a recognizable skull. Judging from the fact that the back of the skull where the poor person's ear would have been faced me, I gathered that long ago someone probably fell head first from above. Or perhaps it has settled down there. What a helluva way to die, but even now it could happen. There would be no way to get down there except with one or two people like Gary carrying or dragging the injured or dead out. There were no paths, no place for a helicopter to land, just the rocks, an occasional plant and lizard, and the poop of some animal. Gary played here as a small boy.

We continued into a box canyon with one wall tilted enough to preserve a complex red drawing with several stick figures around a more detailed one. Gary sat on a ledge, explaining that this was a portrayal of what happens when a member of the family dies. He stepped down and pointed at one of the small figures. I told him that my son had died three days ago. He smiled gently, without missing a beat, put his hand on a boulder and said "He'll be back."


Gary was the only one who knew the routes and protected and guided everyone gently and ably. Because I was by far the oldest (nobody over 60) I was the first in line when we had to go single file––which was most of the time. And I soon learned that people behind me were very grateful that I was going slowly.

Always I felt protected by Gary and it became like a slow motion dance––we didn’t say anything. I put my hand forward when I need a little steadying or support and when it was a complicated place, he silently pointed or put his toe on a spot that I was to use. Further on, quite high up, we had to cross by a place that had a severe drop on one side. The only way was to slide on your back between two horizontal rocks, at most two feet apart, by pushing with your feet. It too was smooth as glass from thousands of backs. There was no shortcut, no finding an easier way. It was all hard squirming but he always kept the pace moving. He would make a small gesture of pointing where I should put my hand or he would gently tap a rock where I should put my foot. One of my legs (broken years ago) was aching, my back was aching, my body was sweating, and my head and heart were pounding—and there were no choice but to follow him.

We trickled into a "cooler," amphitheater-like formation and arranged ourselves in front of a ledge that had many stones and objects placed on it. No pictures were to be taken here. The only thing that looked like a "weapon" was a long stone spear point, which was used for spearing fish and animals. A couple of things looked like arrow heads but were kinds of scrapers and piercing tools. No weapons and no talk of war or violence. These are, and apparently always have been, peaceful people. How utterly refreshing, I thought. They don’’t worry about killing or overpowering other people and it shows in the lovely and relaxed attitudes. He explained the uses of one oval rock which he demonstrated by pounding lightly on his chest to remove phlegm, but not too hard because it was "too dangerous––" meaning don't pound too hard or you'll hurt yourself. the same phrase, "too dangerous," was used for scraping to remove or trim hair. Too much and you'll cut yourself.

A small rock worn smooth on one side was a piece of red ochre. Red, yellow, orange and white are widely used by all tribes to make their distinctive designs, including "war paint," for some. But Gary just drew a few red stripes on his face. I was startled to see his red palm when he held up the rock. Later I asked to look at his palm, and sure enough, ours were as alike as two palms could be: a simian crease almost exactly like mine. We both just looked at each other and smiled.


One of my greatest fears is turning or bumping my right knee in a way that messes with the hardware surgeons put in there years ago. I know what it is to turn just enough in the wrong direction so that the tips of the screws feel sharp inside and pointedly say it's time to change leg positions immediately. My right leg has become extremely strong in certain directions, but by using it so much that day, it was tiring. Fortunately lunch time came. Everyone was dripping and exhausted. Chris had climbed up with drinks and the makings of hearty ham and cheese sandwiches. By that time I simply could not lift my leg up the big step necessary to see the view of immense distances, but one rock down, I still had a commanding view of the giant green flood plain and distant formations. Right near me was a smooth rock with a little tilt—a perfect bed—and another smooth rock for a pillow in just the right place. I almost fell asleep. My back stretched out and I rested, which I must do several times a day since there is no cartilage between some of my lower vertebrae.

It had gotten really hot as we worked our way down through another tight slot canyon, past the never-ending rock, I thought I was going to collapse. The paintings got sparse, and while more interesting in some subject matter (like fishing), they were less interesting than safely getting down. There was no choice but to keep going. Gary kept the pace very slow with many stops. We were all bright pink and pouring sweat, but everything around us was so beautiful that there were no words of complaint. Just awe. I didn’t think I could go another millimeter—I felt tested to the max. But I made it.

It felt wonderful to have a new soul-mate. . . a forever friend in Gary. I doubt we will ever meet again, but I had a sense that I think we both felt. He helped me understand the loss of my son.

I think none of us can redefine our birth—our surroundings, the people that are immediately upon us, what has been decided for us to learn, or not to learn—and become comfortable with what we think is fixed. . . or change it, accept it, or suffer. In the few hours during the rugged hike on the Top End of Australia last year, my life took on a richness hard to explain, and one that is with me permanently.


Martha B. Hopkins, author of Second Chances: A Travel Narrative of Southern Africa, has been a geologist, journalist, real estate broker, civic activist, and writer of non-fiction articles. She lives and writes in Tucson, Arizona. 

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Writing and Editing Fiction: An Interview with the Author and Editor of FOR SALE BY OWNER

An Interview with Kelcey Parker and Shannon Cain about For Sale By Owner

By Erinn Kelley

Erinn Kelley received her BA from the University of Iowa where she majored in English and minored in Women's Studies. She is currently a part-time Environmental Consultant, a full-time mom, an aspiring writer, and a graduate student working toward an MA in English at Indiana University South Bend.

1. Kelcey, did the collection evolve as a series of separate pieces that just happened to speak to similar issues? Or, did you always envision your stories as a collected body of work?

KP: Each of my stories begins on its own terms as an individual exploration, and each story reveals a new aspect of my writing. But as these stories accumulated, I began to see connections - in theme, style, and subject - and I began to see the possibility of bringing them together as a collection. That said, not all of the stories I initially sent to Kore are in the final collection, and certainly not all of the stories I've ever written were among the ones considered.

2. Can you tell us if you have a favorite among your stories or if there is a piece in which you feel particularly invested?

KP: In "Some Aspects of the Short Story," Julio Cortázar asks, "What is the essential quality of certain unforgettable short stories?" He distinguishes between stories that are 'the best' or most frequently discussed and those that are, simply, unforgettable. His own list includes lesser-known stories by well-known writers. I love this way of thinking about short stories, and it may say something about my answer here.

The story that lingers with me is "What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why," which was inspired by the Edna St. Vincent Millay sonnet of the same name. When I read that poem, I immediately knew it would find its way into one of my stories, and something about the voice of this story's narrator-a high school teacher accused of inappropriate relations with a talented student-seems to fit the lonely tone of the sonnet. The narrator admits to minor offenses such as stealing flowers and library books, but she is unable or unwilling to admit to any wrongdoing with the student. In fact, she wants only to know what others believe: "Do you think I did it?"

Cortázar concludes that the "essential quality" of unforgettable stories is that they contain "that fabulous opening from the small to the large." Millay's uncertain poem ("I have forgotten," "I cannot say," "I only know") acts as the portal that allows my story, I hope, to open up to something larger.

3. Your work includes a lot of play with form - space, sentence structure, and the overall appearance of the text on the page. What draws you to play with form in this way, Kelcey?

KP: This is just how I think. Visually, architecturally. It's no accident that the collection's title and subject matter are related to houses. For me, paragraphs and section breaks lead a reader through the story as hallways and staircases lead one through a house. (My next project takes this to an extreme: it's set at Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater.)

4. Can you tell us about the writing process? How long does it typically take you to write a single piece and how often do you revise a piece before you consider it finished?

KP: Often enough my stories begin - to use a simile - like a metaphor: there's one subject (or image or form), and then there's another. I know I'll make use of each of them individually, but the story begins when I realize they are going to be together, and I begin to seek the connections between them. For example, a friend of mine experienced a late-term miscarriage, and it made me so sad. Another friend participated in a home marketing research survey. I knew I'd try to write about each of them, but I didn't know that one would provide the content and the other the form that would become "Domestic Air Quality," and it was both a delight and fresh challenge to discover it.

In terms of time, I do write 'faster' than I used to. But there's two qualifiers to this. One is that even if I write a draft in a week (as I do every spring break), I don't have time to return to it until the summer or fall, so I get the benefit of returning to the story with fresh eyes. The other qualifier is that, after a decade of serious writing, I feel I've achieved what Flannery O'Connor, quoting Jacques Maritain, calls "the habit of the artist." O'Connor says that she wrote "Good Country People" almost without revising, but insists that the story was "under control" throughout the process because she has developed this habit, this "way of looking at the created world and of using the senses so as to make them find as much meaning as possible in things."

5. Your stories are not only beautiful, but also unpredictable and often startling. Can you discuss the inspiration for some of the unexpected ideas that populate the pages of your book - the bride who swallows the fly or the mother who imagines a freeway in her head?

KP: Thank you. Maybe it's best if I address the two stories you mentioned directly. "I Heard a Fly Buzz" is a flash fiction that transforms the Emily Dickinson poem, "I heard a fly buzz - when I died," to "I heard a fly buzz - when I got married." It was also inspired by Kate Chopin's "Story of an Hour" (and far too many other stories about women), where marriage and death are uncomfortably interconnected. My story tries to have some fun with the idea that, because of the fly's buzz, the bride says, "I does" instead of "I do." But it ends in the dark and unsettling territory of Chopin's story.

The other story, "Maugham's Head," is sort of a surrealist manifestation of suburban sprawl. All the land is taken up, and Mom/Maugham, who feels guilty as well as lost because her own house takes up so much space, accepts an offer to have a road built in her head. This story and a few others borrow from the Magical Realism of Clarice Lispector and Maria Luisa Bombal, but I'm not sure that my stories are Magical Realist so much as, perhaps, Metaphorical Realist (a term used by the artist Vladimir Kush to describe his paintings: a ship with sails made of butterfly wings, an ocean that is a rippling sheet, a suitcase that is a house.)

In "What Lips My Lips Have Kissed," set in a land of lake-effect snow, the narrator's garden blooms all winter. As I mentioned, the narrator is a high school teacher accused of inappropriate relations with a student, and the reader learns that the student's first poem is about a garden that blooms all winter. Toward the end of the story the narrator jokes that the scientists conducting tests on her garden might find an unfamiliar substance in the soil: "Metaphoracline." Is the winter garden magical? Metaphorical? Or merely imagined? Neither I nor the story will tell.

1. Shannon, what drew you to Kelcey Parker's collection and led you to choose it as one of the first pieces of fiction published by Kore Press? How does it fit with the vision of Kore Press as a press devoted to promoting the voices of women?

SC: There were so many factors. But mostly what happened is that I opened the document and I felt immediately in good hands. The authority of the prose was evident; this narrator was in complete control. Yet at the same time the language broke rules, was wild and lyrical and half-sensical. Here are the first sentences I read: My garden blooms all winter. Rose petals bleed on Northern Indiana snow. I mean, really: how could you not keep reading?

By the time I got deeper into the manuscript-I think it happened with Kelcey's story Lent, in which a woman gives up her family for Lent, moving into a motel for 40 days and not seeing them at all, even when a crisis occurs-I was in love. I thought, here's an original, unafraid writer. So this is first & foremost what made the stories work for Kore Press: just damn good writing. Yes, we're devoted to promoting the voices of women, but we don't have any particular focus on what those voices are saying. By which I mean we aren't tied to any certain material or subject matter or even literary aesthetic. Just good writing by women and transfolk.

2. How does your own career as a writer of short stories and fiction shape your editorial decisions? Did the fact that you are a writer contribute to your interest in this collection?

SC: Oh yes, the writer in me was completely turned on by Kelcey's manuscript. The inventiveness at the sentence level, the attention to language, to the sounds of the words, even to punctuation-this hardly went unnoticed by my writer's eye. In many ways Kelcey is a writer's writer. This isn't to say that she ever allows the language to dominate the story; she doesn't let the form, the voice or the conceit get in the way of narrative, or character. She's a craftswoman for sure, but she doesn't let the scaffolding show-she makes it look easy, which it most assuredly is not.

3. What is it that you most love about Kelcey Parker's work, Shannon?

SC: Her misbehaving characters. I just love stories in which the protagonist acts out in unhealthy ways or makes lousy choices for the right reasons. I love stories in which we cannot help but feel intense empathy for a character even as she's doing something ridiculous, or dangerous. The first time I read these stories, the phrase "twisted domesticity" popped into my head, because Kelcey takes the familiar realm of family life and contorts it. She allows an irritant into the mix, and then lets that irritant fester, and of course the character does nothing to calm or solve the irritant (because that would be reasonable, and reasonable characters are usually boring characters). Tossed into this delicious mess is Kelcey's feminist ethic, which is never, ever imposed, never didactic-it's organic, infused.

1. Can you describe the process of selecting stories for inclusion in this collection? How were the decisions to include or omit certain pieces reached? What about the organization of the stories within the collection? How did you determine the way the stories would be presented and the order in which they would appear?

KP: This may have been my favorite part of all: having Shannon's input on what should stay and what should go, and on where a story should go once we decided it stayed.

Between the time I first sent the manuscript to the time it was going to production, I wrote new stories and revisited older stories that I thought might fit. I sent all of them to Shannon, and she told me in no uncertain terms that we needed to go 'lean and mean' and gave me a list of six stories to cut. That felt great - like an overdue hair cut. I fought back for just one story, and Shannon graciously and immediately agreed.

Then followed my favorite part: an intense Skype session with Shannon in Arizona and me in Indiana. Shannon picked up her laptop and showed me all of my stories spread across her dining room table. She had them mapped out, quantified, and categorized. She told me how many happy vs. unhappy endings I had (unhappy won in a landslide). She divided them according to their various lengths (short/medium/long), conceits (formalist, fabulist, realist), and points of view. She performed, in short, a complete diagnostic study of the collection.

Thus, when she recommended the placement of the first and last stories, which were very different from what I was thinking, I trusted her completely. She really set everything in place, and helped me think through my stories' arrangement in a new way.

SC: I'm so proud of this book, and the work Kelcey and I did on it together. This is the first first full-length book of fiction I've edited, and I couldn't be happier with it. Because I hadn't done this before, I needed to figure out the thinking behind how story collections were ordered. So yes, I did all that analysis that Kelcey describes, and am grateful for what it taught me about editing. Ultimately I hope what I was doing more than anything was listening to how the stories wanted themselves to be told, and of all the wonderful stories in the initial manuscript, which of them were doing that job in greatest harmony with their neighbors.

2. I know that the book's title was inspired by one of the stories within, but how did you decide on that specific title for the collection?

KP: I sent the collection to several publishers with several different titles, but I'd never tried 'For Sale By Owner,' and I have to confess that I didn't really like it when the publisher suggested it. I replied by suggesting a half-dozen overly arty titles and was basically told that the title was going to be 'For Sale By Owner,' that it was the best for marketing and book design. Marketing and design are about the farthest things from my mind when I'm writing, but now that the book is out, I think of these things a LOT. And I know that the title is exactly right, not only for those things, but for the writerly things: motifs, multiple levels of meanings, and even the tone - the sense wanting to give up what one has, and of being on one's own.

3. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

KP: A year ago I started a blog,, where I address this question fairly frequently. As a professor, I work with aspiring writers every single day, and some of those students are doing exactly what it takes to become writers, while other students seem to want to be professional . . . aspirers. The students who are well on their way to becoming writers are those that take as many writing classes as they can, write even if they're not in class, volunteer for the student literary journal, attend local readings, read like words are food and they're starving, participate in open-mics, follow literary debates online, write reviews, and connect with other writers in the community. Becoming a writer is not rocket science, but it's not magic either.

SC: First and most important: there are no shortcuts. Kelcey is a perfect example: she's been writing seriously for ten years, and here finally is her first book. My path as a writer is similar: my first book comes out this fall, nearly twelve years since I started writing seriously, doing all the things Kelcey recommends. Typically when editors are asked what we're looking for in a manuscript, we respond with some version of "it's got to grab me from the first sentence." Which is true, absolutely. And also a terribly unhelpful answer for a new writer, who already believes (one would hope) that their work accomplishes that initial grabbing. The part you hear less often is that it takes a whole lot of work and dedication to get the point at which you can write those grabbing sentences, and just as importantly that you understand why they're grabbing; how to know when they aren't, and how to fulfill the promise of that grab in every sentence that follows. As a teacher told me once, getting published isn't hard. Getting published is easy; its the writing that's hard.


To read more about (and purchase your own copy of) For Sale By Owner, click here.
For more information on Kelcey Parker and Shannon Cain, visit and

Monday, February 14, 2011

An Open Letter to Poets,from Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine is the author of three previous collections of poetry, Nothing in Nature Is Private, The End of the Alphabet, and Plot. She is co-editor, with Juliana Spahr, of American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language. She teaches in the writing program at the University of Houston.

Author photo © John Lucas

Dear friends,

As many of you know I responded to Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Change” at AWP. I also solicited from Tony a response to my response. Many informal conversations have been taking place online and elsewhere since my presentation of this dialogue. This request is an attempt to move the conversation away from the he said-she said vibe toward a discussion about the creative imagination, creative writing and race.

If you have time in the next month please consider sharing some thoughts on writing about
race (1-5 pages).

Here are a few possible jumping off points:

•If you write about race frequently what issues, difficulties, advantages, and disadvantages do you negotiate?

•How do we invent the language of racial identity--that is, not necessarily constructing the "scene of instruction" about race, but create the linguistic material of racial speech/thought?

•If you have never written consciously about race why have you never felt compelled to do so?

•If you don’t consider yourself in any majority how does this contribute to how race enters your work?

•If fear is a component of your reluctance to approach this subject could you examine that in a short essay that would be made public?

•If you don’t intend to write about race but consider yourself a reader of work dealing with race what are your expectations for a poem where race matters?

•Do you believe race can be decontextualized, or in other words, can ideas of race be constructed separate from their history?

•Is there a poem you think is particularly successful at inventing the language of racial identity or at dramatizing the site of race as such? Tell us why.

In short, write what you want. But in the interest of constructing a discussion pertinent to the more important issue of the creative imagination and race, please do not reference Tony or me in your writings. We both served as the catalyst for this discussion but the real work as a community interested in this issue begins with our individual assessments.

If you write back to me by March 11, 2011, one month from today, with “OPEN LETTER” in the subject heading I will post everything on the morning of the 15th of March. Feel free to pass this on to your friends. Please direct your thoughts to

In peace,


Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Tucson Perspective: Through the Eyes of Shannon Cain

The following posts come the blog of Shannon Cain: Tucson, the Novel. Shannon is a fiction writer and a writing coach. Her collection of short stories, The Necessity of Certain Behaviors, was awarded the Drue Heinz Literature Prize for 2011 and will be published by the University of Pittsburgh Press this fall. Her work has been awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the O. Henry Prize and the Pushcart Prize. She has taught creative writing at the University of Arizona, Gotham Writers Workshop, UCLA Extension and Arizona State University. She is the fiction editor for Kore Press. Visit her website here.

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

Tucson: Learning to live with the discomfort of unknowing

This week, the sort of familiar violence we watch on the news has come home to Tucson, and our hometown seems suddenly unfamiliar.

So I did what used to be done in this country, not really so long ago, when the senseless struck: I consulted a novelist. The writer of stories, the reasoning goes, has spent a good amount of time thinking about the human condition and might have something interesting to say about it.

The loss of innocence, says the American novelist Charles Baxter, is partly a recognition that there are depths to things, that what you see isn’t always what you get. The loss of innocence leads us to explore, to try to figure out what it all means. To gain insight.

But the mass production of insight in America is a dubious phenomenon, says Baxter, and some of these insights can seem disturbingly untrustworthy. There is a smell about them, he says, of recently molded plastic.

My call today is for reflection, and calm, and a strong yet passive resistance to the demands all around us that we participate, at top volume, in efforts to neatly wrap up this experience. Perhaps, for a while, we should let it dwell in the realm of inexplicability. We should live with the discomfort of unknowing. Soon enough we’ll be compelled to make sense of it all, but maybe for now the most appropriate and most dignified response is to sit quietly and reflect.

Let's not allow this tragedy to be commodified for the national and international media. To join in the noise of a debased and thoughtless rhetoric, the kind that people use gleefully without really knowing what it means or understanding its consequences, is fundamentally disrespectful. We ought to give these deaths and grave injuries and indeed our own grief the dignity of their own complexities.

We are free to reject toxic public discourse.

We can be grateful that Tucson has a history of investing in the arts. In the months and years to come, we're going to need our artists. The role of the Tucson artist in the wake of these events is the same as it always is, in good times and bad: to consider that which she sees and to reflect it back to us in all its beauty and pain. To show us who we are, and in so doing to help us see ourselves differently. Said James Baldwin on his eloquent public resistance against the pain and struggle of black Americans: "I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness." In moments like this, when our hearts are broken open, when the familiar seems strange, when a parking lot becomes a killing field, the artist shows us how to expand our vision.

The story of what happened on January 8, 2011 in Tucson, Arizona is a moral mystery. Good storytellers understand that tales overcontrolled by their meaning, as Baxter says, start to go a little bit dead. When a story hits us over the head with what it’s trying to tell us, it can become false to its own shadings and nuances. Perhaps we should take a cue from the artists and try not to explain this right away, but just to see it. Perhaps we ought for now to reject the self-satisfied declarations and false authority of others who are trying to tell our story. Perhaps for now we ought to allow the mystery to unfold without judgment, without attaching a meaning to it, because when we are too busy interpreting, and then yelling out our interpretations, we can't listen.

Gratitude to Charles Baxter in "Against Epiphany," Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction (Graywolf Press, 1997)

Saturday, January 15th, 2011

Tucson as birthplace of the civil discourse movement

Tucson's heart has broken wide open. And to our pride we discover that out pours love.

This loss of innocence has not closed us down and filled us with fear, as it might have done. We are wide-eyed, America, at what has happened on our doorstep. We're grateful for one another. There's a lot of hugging going on. We're not afraid to show this country a thing or two about kindness, not to mention heroism.

What good might come? What if these events began a new way toward democracy? Here on the eve of Martin Luther King Day, what if Tucson were to become the Selma of the civil discourse movement? We already have the attention--and respect!--of the country. What if Tucson were to lead by example, what if we pledged henceforth to engage in the democratic process with civility and compassion and respect?

Tucson, America loves us. They love us out of empathy for our loss and also because we have been so openhearted in the media about our pain and grief and our resolve to move forward as better versions of ourselves. If any city can bring America back to civility, it's Tucson. And what better way to return the love of our country.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A speech from a vigil for recent LGBTQ youth suicides, by TC Tolbert

TC Tolbert is a genderqueer, feminist poet and educator. TC earned his MFA in Poetry from UA in 2005 and currently teaches Composition at Pima Community College. S/he is the Assistant Director of Casa Libre en la Solana and is a member of Movement Salon, a compositional improvisation group in Tucson. S/he is a collective member of Read Between the Bars, a books-to-prisoners program, and s/he spends his summers leading wilderness trips for Outward Bound. TC’s poems can be found in Volt, The Pinch, Drunken Boat, Shampoo, A Trunk of Delirium, and jubilat. He won the Arizona Statewide Poetry competition in 2010 and his chapbook is forthcoming from Kore Press.

According to the American Association of Suicidology, 12 youth per day die by suicide. Suicide is the 3rd highest cause of death for youth between the ages of 15-24 – right behind accidents and homicides. Now even if we apply the most conservative estimate that 1 in 10 of those youth is LGBTQ, this still means that 1 queer kid a day is dying by suicide. That is over 365 queer youth per year. And yet, all we know of – what has pulled us here together – are 8. What about the other 350-something lgbtq youth who have died by suicide in the last year? What do we know of their stories? Why don’t we know their stories? When we look at these 8, who do we see reflected back at us? Who do we not see?

You may have also recently heard about the horrible attack of a transwoman in the Bronx (she has been mis-identified as a gay man in the media but she used female pronouns and went by the name La Reina – the Queen). 9 attackers, ranging in age from 16-23, brutally tortured her and two acquaintances for being queer. Some NY detectives are calling it “the worst hate crime they’ve seen in years.”

The grief we feel as a community and as individuals when faced with such violence is swift, tremendous, and just. When youth, the very embodiment of hope, growth, and change are snuffing themselves and each other out b/c they cannot find evidence of that hope, b/c they cannot see themselves reflected, or, perhaps, b/c they cannot stand the reflection that they do see – our response should be grief. We are losing something and we have lost people. I am proud of us tonight for being honest, for being vulnerable. For coming together in our grief.

And yet, I ask each of you not to let this grief become a weapon. I ask us, as a community, not to let our losses be compounded by separation, by a perpetuation of hate, violence, retribution, or otherness. If convicted of a hate crime, their perpetrators could get 3 years, 5 years more. Given 3 more years will La Reina feel safe walking in her neighborhood? Given 5 years will we hear Tyler’s violin again? No. Hate crimes legislation will not and does not make queer people safe. Prisons perpetuate violence, they do not end it. I’m sorry but hate crimes legislation won’t bring back Tyler Clementi, Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, Billy Lucas, Raymond Chase, Justin Aaberg, Zach Harrington, and Aiyisha Hassan. Hate crimes legislation won’t bring back the over 30 transwomen who have been murdered in the last year. We can punish the most obvious perpetrators but it won’t correct a system – a world - in which racism, homophobia, and transphobia are status quo.

Instead, I’m asking you to do two things. First, I ask that you take care of yourself. Nourish yourself with good food, time alone, time with loved ones, time with your body, fun. Take the kind of care of yourself that you would wish for your very best friend. That’s it. It’s simple but not easy. That is thing one. Take care of you.

Thing 2 is neither more important nor less. And I believe with every fiber of my being that if each of us do both of these things, we will see the radical shift we are asking for. I am asking you (and myself) to take responsibility for the privileges we do have in this world (and we’ve all got some – I’ve got an enormous of amount of it) – be it white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, socio-economic privilege, the privilege of education, of leisure, of time – whatever privilege we have, use it to advocate for someone who is unlike you yet who is also oppressed. Let’s stop acting as if there is such a thing as a migrant issue or a women’s issue or a people with disabilities issue. These are all queer issues. Put yourself in dialogue, in proximity, in solidarity work with people who do not look like you, think like you, believe like you. So we’ve come out on campus this week – that is the first step, not the last. Let us now be big brothers or big sisters and come out there. Let us now volunteer to teach in prisons and come out there. Let us volunteer at shelters, in schools, at migrants’ rights organization, at Palestinian liberation actions, at Jewish film festivals, and come out there. Give time, give money, give. The sooner we stop segregating ourselves from the issues that keep all of us down – the closer we come to eradicating oppression. If we want real change, if we want to end violence and bullying, we’ve got to know each other – we’ve got to work in solidarity, we’ve got to connect.

Please consider not just those stories you heard today but also the stories you didn’t hear. Search them out. Make room for them in our movement. And please, make movement any time you have room. Thank you.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Tucson is Buzzing About Coming in Hot

Since Coming in Hot wrapped up its Tucson, AZ performances and has hit the road for LA. We're sharing a collection of reflections from post-show audience free-writes, open forums, and facilitated discussions. During the month of September, Coming in Hot took the stage at six area high schools, Pima Community College, the Univeristy of Arizona Poetry Center, a Veterans in Higher Education conference, and a few local living roomgs. The diverse locales and audience sparked powerful, collaborative dialogues across generations:

Tucson High School

"I feel the weight of many years of history--the stories of men and women whose lives are forgotten but whose struggles mirror my own. . . [this is] a war memorial more meaningful than a statue or a wreath. War/anti-war; knowledge/awareness; compassion/grief."

"I feel a deep power from within, hearing a tale of . . . women in the army. It takes away the simplistic views I had about the army and threw them in the trash. I see that the army is fear, it is sadness, it is loneliness. The army, especially for a women, is a complex world."

"I feel sad not only because my mother is in the army and I wish she could be here with me, but because its not easy to be a woman soldier. It motivates me to want to be in the military even more. I feel grateful for our women who serve in the military."

"I feel really frightened by this play. When I first walked through these doors I was interested, maybe inspired, to join the military, now I'm afraid."

"I can feel each pain and struggle these women have been through! I felt as if i was there when I heard each story. I have a brand new respect for military women and it has opened my eyes about wanting to go to Westpoint after high school."

"I wouldn't join the military, but if a woman feels that God wants her to join, she should be able to without fearing the male soldiers and what they might do."

"This has got to be one of the hardest things I have ever listened to. Women don't deserve to be treated this way, especially by men they are working with."

"The Israeli army will be a different experience by far, as a family and community. I think because it is more expected that women will join. I will not get raped or harassed, like these women did."

"I plan on joining the military or Coast Guard after high school. To hear how many women in the military go through so much makes me want to be part of something bigger than myself."

University of Arizona Veterans in Higher Education Conference

"I believe this [play] would be a great program to not only spread to civilian women, but to try to assemble active duty women from all ranks and all forces. As an active duty female, I believe young sailors/soldiers/marines would benefit from exploring this side of combat, both male and female."

"Profound feelings. It took me back like I was there again. Not in a good way. I hated it. I loved it. Well done."

"This was some pretty powerful stuff. We have had a deaf ear to women's issues for way too long and still do not want to face the realities. This play is a wonderful means of awareness that just opens the doors slightly . . . and we need to bust it completely open."

"Too dark. Too sad. No one spoke about patriotism? Courage? Satisfaction?"

Hamilton High School

"These women go through hell and back more times than the male soldiers do."

"I feel shocked and ashamed of myself. I have never really thought twice about women in the military, let alone what they might be going through. . . this performance has reminded me of the things that go on outside of my little bubble of a world."

"I saw and felt all the women's stories. . . as a result I want to talk to anyone in my family who was in the military to see and understand any of their stories."

"I have never felt this way. I feel captivated and touched. . . taken all throughout the horrid experiences a woman has to endure so she can help serve her country. As a man, I feel guilty to have to share the title of "man," for what man has done."

"I feel like I want to do something more. I know I am a very strong girl and now I feel like I am wasting it. . . I am so impressed by how strong women can be. I am glad this is being performed for people."

House party/fundraising salon hosted by Shannon Cain, Kore Press Fiction Editor

"I feel grateful to the artists for giving me a meaningful way to engage with the overwhelming reality of what is occurring in the world--the cost of what my country is doing. I have not found other meaningful ways of engaging. I find most of the ways these issues are presented and discussed to be inhumane, alienating and even more painful."

"It was easy to visualize women in war---the conflicts, the intensity, the never-ending injustices--danger from within our military. I feel loss of life, permanent scaring--damaged souls. . . perhaps the lucky ones are the dead."

"I feel like I've overlooked and not honored my own military upbringing. Yes, Air Force brat was such a badge of pride, but the late 60s and 70s buried that and I buried that and all the families that I knew who lost---literally "lost": MIA. Dads, husbands. Thank you for bringing those memories to the surface."

House party/fundraising salon hosted by Linda Green, anthropology professor at the University of Arizona

"Glad you brought these voices forward. Really found the piece about the pow wow---the inability to speak---very significant! It really brought us back to the silenced voices of women!

"Coming in Hot" clearly opens the space rather than claiming triumph. Thank you for that honesty."

One audience member stated how conflicted she felt about her response to the play: being proud of the strength and courage depicted by the women warriors and at the same time being aware of how deeply anti-war she is.

Someone else raised a question about the status of women in the Israeli army, guessing that they do not experience the same levels of harassment and abuse that women soldiers in the US military do. He also wondered what women vets face when they return, what kind of community do they form or can they look to be received back into? As a Native American, he noted that the Pow wow is a place for warriors to return to and find a home in.

Catalina Foothills High School

"I don't support war, I don't know who would, but I really respect those strangers who live to die. Isn't that a cornerstone of the military, of war, in general? Death?"

"I feel confused as if I am not able to be the person needed for my country, where there is life free and bold. I cannot rise to the occasion of becoming one who protects others. Where do we find this strength, this liberty? How do we understand the unknown? Where do I fit in?. . ."

"I feel like I would like to serve my country but I couldn't do it. I feel like the government covers up the truth. I feel like most war isn't necessary."

"I feel incredibly lucky in the most absurd way. . .it seems completely wrong that I should be so lucky when so many more, the majority of the world is less lucky than me. Why do I get to be comfortable? Why do I have family and friends that love me? Why don't I ever have to pay some kind of steep price for all my good fortune? maybe it will come eventually. I am so selfish for wishing I won't have to."

"The most shocking message I got from the play was that of sexual harassment in the military. Here, servicemen are portrayed as being honorable and something to aspire to, but when they are pulled away from society they are reduced to basic instincts. i also think that the military doesn't share this information with the public."

City High School

"You should have more pro military stories. I know multiple soldiers who are women and they're experiences were much different. I heard some stories from the Gulf War and a lot has changed since then."

"I feel so heart broken that even living in the 21st century that women do not get the respect they deserve even with bravery, desperately fighting for their country. I actually cried. I never cry. Incredible. Truly incredible."

"I feel amazed at how much sexism there is among people who are supposed to be the heroes of our country."

"I can't get how people go about their business during the day let alone sleep at night knowing that people are being tortured, dying, starving and yet. . . we don't even bother to lift a finger."

"I feel sad and confused about the truth of what happens to women in the army. No one should be treated like that."