Tag Archives: writing

Interview with Rodney Gomez, Author of Citizens of the Mausoleum


Sundress Publications: The first poem in this collection begins with a quote from the Los Angeles Times, and several later poems also draw from newspaper articles. How did you make this decision? How do you see your work as a poet connected to, and interacting with, the work of a journalist?

Rodney Gomez: Well I think that poetry can and should serve as witness, especially for marginalized communities. I believe it’s a powerful way to document narratives that might otherwise go untold. So some of what you see in the book with reference to news articles is an attempt at preservation of some narratives that might not otherwise survive, or even be told at all. I don’t see this work as similar to journalism, however, because I am creating the story. I am not really telling the story. On the contrary, I am telling a story—the one that the poet hears and is then inscribing on the page. I can’t replicate, but only propagate, the narrative. Therefore, I felt that with these poems there was a need to point the reader to the actual news. In another sense, by drawing from news stories I am doing a very basic job—giving the reader some context that might be helpful to understand what is going on in the poem. In some cases, understanding might be necessary (“Checkpoint Aubade”). In others (“Zuihitsu of the Mesquite Virgin”) it’s helpful but not essential. I am indebted to other writers who uncover new realities. These shape my consciousness, and the poems themselves are also forms of gratitude. I see this relationship as parallel to an ekphrastic one, where another work of art serves as the impetus for my own poem-making.

SP: Your poem “Love” is so funny because it has this perfect twist at the end. It’s also notable because it’s a one-sentence, two-page monologue. Can you say a little about your process writing it?

RG: So “Love” actually arrived in the world pretty full-formed. There are autobiographical elements in it and the part about my friend and his girlfriend stem from an actual conversation, and so the style of the poem mimics that. It started off with a lot of conceptual leap-frogging and refusals to stop the freewheeling of imagination. I tried to focus the theme in subsequent drafts but I wanted to let the speaker’s point of view roam freely. It’s a bit neurotic, too, and I wanted to give the sense that you are hearing a monologue spoken on a therapist’s couch, but there’s a lot of room for empathy there.


SP: I feel like, in my own writing, I tend to do the same thing over and over again: the speaker’s voice is always my own voice, and I am usually writing about relationships. I can’t tell if this is just who I am, and that I should accept it, or if I need to push myself to experiment more. Reading through this collection, I’m so struck by the variety in form and tone. Is this something that comes naturally to you? My question is mostly one of admiration: how do you do it??

RG: Well I don’t like to be bored. I like surprises. I like to be delighted. I read so many collections that seem to operate exactly how you describe your own writing—the same voice, the same concerns, and the same way of telling the same stories or discovering the same concepts. So part of the reason for the variety in the book is a willingness to have fun. I have no allegiance to a particular conceptual framework or theoretical approach, so each poem starts anew.

On the other hand, I think development of a singular voice is not easy, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing that your writing has a unity of voice. The voice you hear may be your own, or it may not. I would only consider the situation problematic if there were some lack of authenticity there. Is there something missing? Some people never find their voice, and this may be what you see going on in the collection. Maybe there are many voices because I haven’t found a voice. I might want to say that. Or I might want to say, instead, that I’ve developed a better ear for how a poem wants to develop than I had when I first seriously started writing poetry. So variety may be a consequence of developing the ear, or empathy. And the empathy is directed toward the poem—its concerns, its speakers, and its language.

SP: You have another book, Baedeker from the Persistent Refuge, coming out next year. Congratulations! Are you working on a new project now?

RG: Thank you. So yes, Baedeker will be out in February, I think, from YesYes. That’s the plan. That collection is about identity and the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. It’s a much more place-based book, a book about subverting conventions when it comes to Chicanxdad. I am working seriously on a third book right now, too, which is roughly based on the way we react to and make sense of acts of violence. It’s a horrible book in that it is depressing to write and really drains me, but I think it’s a book it is necessary for me to write. At this moment I am working on the one of centers of the book, a series of poems based on the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, which is a series of dollhouse dioramas created by Frances Glessner Lee to assist criminal investigators in their training. The scenes are ghastly — for example, one of them shows a bloody crib with a trail of blood leading out to the hallway from a child’s room. That book is a sister collection to Citizens and you can see some of the same concerns already in the first book. I’m not sure, ultimately, what kind of conceptual orientation the new collection will have. I only know that I have a rough operating theme and have certain contours of it in mind.

Citizens of the Mausoleum is available for sale at the Sundress store.


Rodney Gomez is the author of Citizens of the Mausoleum (Sundress Publications, 2018), Baedeker from the Persistent Refuge (YesYes Books, 2019), and several chapbooks. He is the recipient of the Drinking Gourd Prize from Northwestern University and the Gloria Anzaldúa Poetry Prize. His work appears in Poetry, Poetry Northwest, North American Review, The Gettysburg Review, Blackbird, Pleiades, Denver Quarterly, Puerto del Sol, Verse Daily, and other journals and anthologies. A proud member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop and the Chocholichex writing collective, he is also an editor at Latino Book Review and works at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

SAFTA Now Accepting Fall Residency Applications for Writers Coop

Sundress Academy for the Arts Now Accepting
Fall Residency Applications for Writers Coop

The Sundress Academy for the Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) is now accepting applications for short-term writers residencies during the fall residency period for our new Writers Coop during the weeks of August 27 – December 30, 2018. These residencies are designed to give writers and artists time and space to complete their creative projects in a quiet and productive environment.

SAFTA is located on a working farm that rests on a 45-acre wooded plot in a Tennessee “holler” perfect for hiking, camping, and nature walks. Located less than a half-hour from downtown Knoxville, an exciting and creative city of 200,00 in the foothill of the Great Smoky Mountains, SAFTA is an ideal location for those looking for a rural get-away with access to urban amenities.

The SAFTA Writers Coop is a 10×10′ dry cabin approximately a fourth of a mile from the SAFTA farmhouse. This tiny house is furnished with a twin bed, a desk, a wood-burning stove, a deck that looks over the pasture and pond, as well as a personal detached outhouse. While the cabin has neither electricity nor running water, residents will have full access to the amenities at farmhouse as well as solitude from other residents to write in the rolling hills of East Tennessee.

Each residency costs $150/week and includes your own private dry cabin as well as 24-hour access to the farmhouse amenities.

Applications for this residency are free and rolling. Apply today to get preferred dates.

Find out more at www.sundressacademyforthearts.com.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Summer 2018 Fiction Writing Retreat


Sundress Academy for the Arts Announces
2018 Summer Fiction Writing Retreat

The Sundress Academy for the Arts is thrilled to announce its Summer Fiction Writing Retreat, which runs from Friday, June 15 to 17, 2018.  The three-day, two-night camping retreat will be held at SAFTA’s own Firefly Farms in Knoxville, Tennessee.  This year’s retreat will focus on generative fiction writing and include two break-out sessions, “Conflict and POV as Perspective” and “Writing the Travel Narrative,” plus discussions on kicking writer’s block, publishing, and more.

A weekend pass includes one-on-one and group instruction, writing supplies, food, drinks, transportation to and from the airport, and all on-site amenities for $250.  Tents, sleeping bags, and other camping equipment are available to rent for $25.  Payment plans are available if you reserve by April 17, 2018; inquire via email for details.

The event will be open to writers of all backgrounds and provide an opportunity to work with many talented, published fiction writers from around the country, including Mary Miller and Jeanne Thornton.

unnamed-1Mary Miller is the author of two collections of short stories, Big World (Short Flight/Long Drive Books, 2009) and Always Happy Hour (Liveright, 2017), as well as a novel, The Last Days of California (Liveright, 2014), which has been optioned for film by Amazon Studios. Her stories have appeared in the Oxford American, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, McSweeney’s Quarterly, American Short Fiction, Mississippi Review, and many others. She is a former James A. Michener Fellow in Fiction at the University of Texas and John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss. 

Jeanne Thornton is the author of The Black Emerald and thornton_author-photo_smallThe Dream of Doctor Bantam, the latter a Lambda Literary Award finalist for 2012. She is the co-publisher of Instar Books and the creator of the webcomics Bad Mother and The Man Who Hates Fun. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in n+1, WIRED, WSQ, CURA, and other places. She lives in Brooklyn. Find her online at:  http://fictioncircus.com/Jeanne.

Space at this workshop is limited to 15 writers, so reserve your place today at:


The Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) is an artists’ residency that hosts workshops, retreats, and residencies for writers, actors, filmmakers, and visual artists. All are guided by experienced, professional instructors from a variety of creative disciplines who are dedicated to cultivating the arts in East Tennessee.

Web: http://www.sundressacademyforthearts/                     Facebook: SundressAcademyfortheArts

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Interview with Bernard Grant, Author of Fly Back at Me (Sundress 2017)


Author of two prose chapbooks, Bernard Grant is a doctoral student. In this interview, Bernard talks about the beginnings of Fly Back at Me, good books to read, and his favorite part in the process of writing. You can read Bernard Grant’s e-chapbook, Fly Back at Me, with Sundress here!

Tierney Bailey: The opening words of Fly Back at Me are “A storm is coming.” Bubbling barely under the surface in the collection of stories is a connection between actual, literal storms and the terrible things people perpetually do to hurt each other—beginning with a lie told at a lake and ending with the cycle of sexual abuse in this particular family. Can you tell me just a little bit about how this connection was formed in the process of writing the chapbook?

Bernard Grant: I’d like to, but I can’t. Writing can be such an intuitive process it’s hard to describe how connections are formed. Most I can say is that things happened in revision, after I noticed patterns in earlier drafts, and then followed them.

TB: I know you’ve written about very similar stories to those in Fly Back at Me in your published nonfiction essays, but there’s a certain staccato rhythm in reading the stories of Fly Back at Me and an obvious, deliberate use of wording which would seem to very nearly poetic in nature—what drives you to write these narratives in connected vignettes rather than out-and-out poetry or even a longer, single story?

BG: Thank you for reading my essays. The biggest challenge of writing these stories was the voice. I had never written extensively in a child’s voice, and since all but one of the stories are in first person, I spent a lot of time listening to children speak. I also read some stories from child protagonists, but mostly I read narrative poems while I worked on this manuscript.

I think the short-short form lends itself to poetic language. I’m not a poet, so it never occurred to me to write these as poems. I had intended to write this as a longer story. After about nine pages, the story fell apart. I took a look at my own essays and realized how fragmented they are, how poor my memory is, and realized I couldn’t write a linear story from life. So instead of playing with a different form—like switchback style—I decided to try out flash, and the decision worked in my favor.

TB: Your previous chapbook, Puzzle Pieces, is very similar to Fly Back at Me in that it is composed of stories meant to be sparse of words for the reader to actual consume and strung together to create a whole story. How did the simple act of creating that chapbook influence the writing for Fly Back at Me?

BG: I actually wrote Fly Back at Me before Puzzle Pieces, which was composed of previously published micro essays that I assembled into a manuscript. Fly Back at Me was more difficult as I wasn’t just assembling a manuscript from completed material.


TB: In “Big,” a moment that filled me with so much dread while I read the chapbook on the train occurs—“[Uncle Walter] pats my butt, squeezes it, keeps his hand there. His callouses are warm and rough.”—but doesn’t come to a “pay off” until the last short story reveals the abuse hiding there in plain sight. Did the chapbook always piece together like this in your head to culminate in the reveal of the abuse or did that happen as you pulled the stories together?

BG: No. Not at all. That came through revision. I see a pattern and I complete it. I think the manuscript was supposed to originally show a year in a child’s life, revolving around the death of his grandmother, his mother’s overprotection, and the anger that fuels his behavior, as seen in the opening story, which is meant to serve as a prelude. A reader commented on the pattern of dangerous men that surround the boy, and it was clear that I needed to follow that. Almost inevitably, I’ll draft a lot of material, and the piece or pieces take their own direction. Revision is my favorite part of the writing process, in part for this reason.

TB: The age old question of process must always come up. Writing every morning, night, or using music or not using music. While writing, what rituals do you perform?

BG: Before I started PhD school, I wrote everyday, usually in the morning, and a little at night if I had the energy. I’m a morning person for the most part. Now I write when I can find the time and energy to do so. A few days a week, I have intense short sessions anywhere from half an hour to an hour. Two hours if I’m lucky.

TB: What was the last really good book you read?

BG: Howard’s End by E.M. Forster.

TB: What would you recommend as a must-read for other writers?

BG: James Baldwin’s Another Country and Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Oh, and Notes from No Man’s land by Eula Biss. Also, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.

TB: Many writers I know always have a huge list of projects they want to eventually produce. What project are you working on next?

BG: I just finished a manuscript of novel-in-stories. I’m currently working on a semi-autobiographical novel (my dissertation) as well as a collection of essays. Over the summer I started playing around with the idea of ghost stories. So far I’ve only drafted two stories. It’s not going well but it’s fun.

Bernard Grant is a doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati, where he is a Yates Fellow. He has received fellowship and residency support from The Anderson Center, the Jack Straw Cultural Center, Vermont Studio Center, Sundress Academy for the Arts, and Mineral School.He’s the author of two prose chapbooks, Puzzle Pieces (Paper Nautilus Press) and Fly Back at Me (Sundress Publications), and his stories and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, New Delta Review, The South Carolina Review, The Chicago Tribune Printers Row, Day One, and many other venues. He received his MFA from Pacific Lutheran University and currently serves as Associate Essays Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.

Tierney Bailey is a Libra, a lover of science fiction and poetry, and studies Korean in her spare time. Amongst her pursuits, Tierney is currently the production editor at Redivider Magazine and a copyeditor at Strange Horizons. As a graduate student at Emerson College, Tierney is studying publishing in the Writing and Publishing program. True to her Midwesterner roots, Tierney still smiles upon the slightest bit of eye contact, makes small talk in lines and elevators, and exclaims “ope!” with barely any provocation at all. If you can’t find her on a train somewhere between Providence and Boston, she can easily be found screaming into the void on Twitter as @ergotierney.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

AWP Roundtable: Journalism Skills for Fiction Writers

Joan Didion, Maya Angelou, Alex Haley, Stieg Larsson, Charles Dickens, Edna Buchanan, and Mark Twain (among many others) created memorable fiction largely as a result of the skills they honed as reporters. Journalists churn out hundreds of words every day (without the luxury of waiting for inspiration), write to a word count, write to deadline, learn to work with editors, and develop an eye for extraneous words, authentic dialogue, and telling details. They also tend to have pretty solid grammatical skills and a keen sense of story. Is it any wonder they often make brilliant novelists?

A reporter’s toolkit can help novelists and storytellers of all kinds write gripping first lines, create memorable characters, and imagine authentic worlds in their fiction. There are stories in the world far more important—and far more interesting—than those drawn merely from our own experience. With global tensions intensifying, it feels urgent to tell stories that reach beyond our own borders and engage us with both the broader world and other humans.


Jennifer Steil (Moderator): Why don’t we each start off by talking about how the skills we acquired as a journalist are reflected in our own fiction writing?

Jo Piazza: Speed is the first thing that comes to mind. I started out as a newspaper reporter for the New York Daily News right before the Internet completely changed newspapers forever. But even when I was on a daily deadline instead of an hourly deadline I was still crunched to churn out clean, well-crafted copy on tight deadlines.

The Internet has only made those deadlines faster. What that means is that I have never had the luxury of fretting over my words. I just had to write. I do the same thing with my fiction writing. I can get a first draft on paper fast as hell. Then, once the whole thing is written, I take the time to go back and massage it and make it beautiful. I credit my work as a reporter for never getting writer’s block. I laugh when people talk about writer’s block. Who has the time for it?

My work as a journalist has also taught me to take meticulous notes. I used to carry three or four reporters’ notebooks with me all the time to write down my interviews. Now I carry much smaller notebooks that can slip into my back pocket. I am constantly writing down descriptions of things or bits of dialogue and then stashing them away as inspiration for my fiction.

Tom Zoellner: I believe the top trait demanded of a reporter is the ability to listen. You must ask probing questions and not accept superficial explanations. You must develop the ability to understand inference – to understand what is left unsaid. The art of writing fiction is about “listening” to your characters as though they were interview subjects.

Michael Downs: What Tom said is really important – for journalists, novelists, everyone. There’s a quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez – another journalist/novelist – that I often mention to students in which Marquez chides interviewers for relying too much on technology and recording devices and paying attention only to a person’s words. But those things, he says, don’t “hear the beating of the heart, which is the most important part of the interview.” He’s talking about empathy, and I think journalism teaches that. Journalism helped me become a person who knows how to pay attention to another person. It’s empathy, it’s listening, it’s openness to the world and experience. That was a great gift.

But as for skills, I’d say the ability to research and report have primarily helped my fiction writing. I’ve set a lot of my work in other decades – my forthcoming novel is set in the 1840s, and it’s about the early days of anesthesia. It took a lot more than Google to understand the world and the science and my characters’ lives. I had to know where to search, how to search, and why to search. Journalism taught me a lot of that.

Sophfronia Scott: At both Time and People magazines I frequently had to write short articles, like 500 words and less. Those short articles still had to be packed with information and the prose had to pop. Writing like that taught me to respect words. Every word has to pull its weight when you write short, every verb has to be on target. I’ve carried that respect into my fiction writing. My novel may be over 100,000 words but none of those words are throwaway words.

Jennifer Steil: You’ve all made really important points. Like Jo, I don’t have time to sit around waiting for inspiration. I’m very good at writing to deadline. I also carry a notebook everywhere because if I don’t write down a thought the minute I have it, it floats up into the ether. My experience scribbling interviews in my reporters’ notebooks, making sure to record the exact words, was terrific preparation for writing convincing dialogue. Reporting also brought me in contact with people I would never otherwise encounter or get to know. They made me aware of very different lives, different stories. Perhaps among the most important things I learned as a reporter was how to ask questions of the world and how to listen closely to the answers.

My journalism background is also entirely responsible for my career as a novelist. Before 2006, I had written many stories and one entire novel, but none of them felt urgent. When I moved to Yemen in the summer of 2006, I finally found a story worth telling. I became the editor-in-chief of a Yemeni newspaper, which was the hardest and most fascinating thing I had ever done. It felt urgent to tell the world the stories of my reporters, to tell the world that Yemenis are nothing like their portrayal in the media. Thus my first book ended up, to my surprise, being a memoir. After publishing a work of nonfiction, it was much easier to sell a novel. I already had an agent, an editor, and a publishing track record.


Jennifer Steil (Moderator): If you were teaching a masterclass in using journalism tools for fiction writing, what one journalism tool would you teach, and how would you do it? What have students or colleagues really responded to?

Michael Downs: I’ll return to what Tom and I alluded to above: the interview. Becoming a good interviewer requires that you as a writer learn how to move from an answer to a question, to discover in an answer a new question –and isn’t that the direction literature takes? Also, interviewing skills help at parties and receptions and the like. Strangers, it turns out, are more interesting when you ask them interesting questions.

Sophfronia Scott: I would teach the power of detail. We tend to think of description as telling what something or someone looks like—his hair was gray, the sky was blue. But I would teach to choose detail that does more, detail that tells you someone’s situation or state of mind or provides a stunning contrast. I once reported a story about a middle school age student who took a knife to school in her backpack with the intention of harming her teacher. My editor wanted me to try to find out what else was in her backpack: pink lip gloss? Math homework that had been left undone? A crumpled bus pass? She wanted to play off that contrast of a violent instrument placed among a pre-teen’s school things. Detail is so important. I would want students to open their eyes to see more than what they may be taking in now.

Jennifer Steil: Absolutely. That’s a terrific example of evocative detail, Sophfronia.

One exercise my students consistently find useful is a lede-writing exercise. While there is a lot more to writing a good book than crafting a riveting first sentence, a riveting first sentence never hurts. I talk about 13 different types of journalistic ledes, giving several examples of each type. (Many of my favorites come from Pulitzer Prize-winning Edna Buchanan, who wrote memorable ledes such as, “Bad things happen to the husbands of Widow Elkin” and, “His last meal was worth $30,000 and it killed him,” but I also include examples from novels, such as, “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet,” from Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.) After we read dozens of brilliant first sentences and learn something about what makes them work, I ask my students to interview each other and write a profile of their partner, starting with one of the lede types we discussed. They do not need to stick to the facts (fiction writing!) but can freely spin off from the material. The interview is just a starting point. Students always come up with some great stuff. Even seasoned authors have let me know they went home and rewrote the first sentence of their book after this particular lecture.

Jo Piazza: Writing on deadline. I guess it’s something I can’t emphasize enough because I keep mentioning it. Right now I’m working on a very quickie project for my publisher. It’s a 75k word novel, and I need to bang it out in about three weeks. Yeah, an entire novel in three weeks. The exercise is daunting every day. I go through the complex emotions one usually experiences writing a novel over the course of a year or two in a single 24-hour span. While you’d think this would dull my writing skills, it has actually done the opposite. It’s forcing my brain to work in different ways. I’m doing a constant sprint now instead of a marathon, and I think the exercise will serve me well on my next big book project. I think reminding people that time is a luxury is really important.

Tom Zoellner: This one is hard to pull off in the classroom except by exhortation, but what helps journalism immeasurably is the simple act of “showing up” – traveling out to see the coal mine, the hospital, the city council chamber, the family home. You are exposed to ten thousand sensory elements and organic connections – the grist of life – that you would never get from reading about it or a phone conversation. Establishing a physical presence first in the places where we seek to create literature is a journalistic habit that fiction writers would do well to imitate.


Jennifer Steil (Moderator): How do you encourage other writers to think beyond their own lives and experiences?

Jo Piazza: I tell everyone who wants to be a writer to set a writing goal every day and make sure to meet it every day for the next month. Mine is between 1,000 and 3,000 words depending on what I am working on. You’d be amazed at how many people come back to me and say they didn’t make it even three days. That’s when I remind them that writing is hard. It’s a craft. It’s a habit. It takes real work. I think from the outside writing looks really easy. Everyone thinks they can be a writer. But when it comes to putting pen to paper on a regular basis (I still say that because I write almost everything long-hand before I type it out) the reality is very different.

I tell people to talk to as many people as possible in a day, but to make sure they’re really listening. Writers are essentially thieves, stealing bits and pieces of other people’s stories and dialogue. I’ve gotten some of my best dialogue from Uber drivers around the world. It’s the listening that is key…and the writing things down. You will tell yourself you will remember something and 99 percent of the time you won’t.

Tom Zoellner: I have never bought into the idea that writers of an assigned gender, race, religion, geography, class, etc. should be confined to only writing about their “identity” (however and by whomever that is defined). Journalism is an excellent way to break those boundaries and establish some empathetic projection – paradoxically enough, through dispassionate observation – with people who live in far different circumstances. And another paradox: getting out of your neighborhood is at once an act of hubris and an act of humility.

Jennifer Steil: I’ve always told young writers that the best thing they could do for their writing is to move somewhere that makes them profoundly uncomfortable and that challenges all of their assumptions. Such a situation is bound to force people to think outside of their own small worlds, from a less nationalistic and more global point of view. It also leads to interesting adventures and relationships, all splendidly rich writing material. One exercise I like to do with students is to have them write a travel story about their home town. Where’s the best pizza place? Where is the best place to throw a birthday party? Which bars would you recommend? What is the town known for? It gives them new perspective to have to describe it to a stranger.

Sophfronia Scott: I tell my students that creativity playdates are just as important as the time they schedule for writing. In fact, their writing time could be difficult and fruitless without them. If they find they are spending much of their writing time staring wordless at the screen or blank page, they’re in need of a creativity playdate. I say if you’re looking for a story idea, ride the subway a few stops or go sit in a park and pay attention. Your next character might step on at West 66th Street, or stroll past you wearing a top hat and walking a fluffy Scottish terrier sporting blue booties on its paws. I know my writing eye is awakened every time I travel the 65 miles south to New York City and take in the energy and movement of a different environment. Suddenly my senses have new sights, sounds, and smells to process. Really the best way to get outside of yourself is to open your eyes and start looking around.

Michael Downs: Creative playdates. I love that. I hope you don’t mind, Sophfronia, if I borrow that one.

This question of moving beyond personal experience is so important, especially for younger writers. Too often they don’t have enough narrative distance from the particulars of their own experiences to be cold about them. A newspaper columnist from California once wrote in Best American Newspaper Writing how he always wrote hot and edited cold. I tell that to my students, but they still often can’t find their way to that cold phase regarding their own experiences.

So I encourage several strategies: change the setting or change the genders of the characters. Change their ages. One thing that often works is to get them to see their particular experience in terms of its abstractions (their experience involved betrayal, or failed hope, or the strange comedy of grief). Then, they imagine a situation different from their own particular experience, but one that allows them to write about those same abstractions. So rather than the profound betrayal they felt in a love affair, they write instead about a betrayal in a workplace having nothing to do with love. That way they still write about their life experience, but the particulars belong to someone else’s life.


Jennifer Steil (Moderator): Do you still work as a journalist? How does that affect and fit in with your fiction writing on a day-to-day basis?

Sophfronia Scott: I write essays and opinion pieces for publication, but I don’t work as a reporter-type journalist anymore. I focus on my own writing now but the lessons I learned from journalism are still within me and at use every day. How could they not be? I wrote many stories, under deadline, for years and years. It’s imprinted in me at this point.

Jennifer Steil: Sometimes. I like to do freelance work when I can, it brightens up my brain. Working to a tight deadline and word count focuses me. I no longer work full-time as a journalist, largely because I find that if I am writing all day long for a paper or magazine, I don’t have the energy for my own fiction work at the end of the day. I’m better off bartending.

Michael Downs: Like you, Jennifer, I find it difficult to balance the two. It’s an analogy that dates me, but I find it’s like Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders trying to toggle between baseball and football. They’re both sports, but they require such different skills and world views. In my case, journalism is about the rush, the deadline, the ability to learn enough that I can simplify what’s complicated. Fiction, though, is more like method acting. It demands that I be quiet and go deep and concentrate, to take what might seem simple and complicate it. But I love and honor both disciplines and their crafts.

Jo Piazza: I do. Up until I had my baby six months ago I was still working full-time as a journalist and writing books on the side. Now I am focusing mainly on books and baby with some freelance assignments. I typically reserve a couple of hours every day to do the fiction writing regardless of what my full-time job looks like, be it editor of a website or a magazine or being a mom like it is right now. But I follow the quota more than I follow the time limit unless I am editing, then I can edit for about eight hours straight. But when I am in creation mode once I am done with that word count I let myself be done for the day. Sometimes I am finished in a half hour and sometimes it takes five hours. My husband is very used to me saying “I have one hundred more words…I can’t do anything until I get one hundred more words.”

Tom Zoellner: I am far more a journalist – by habit, training, and a liking for paychecks – than I am a fiction writer. But I find I am drawn to write fictional characters that embody a certain reserve and clinical distance resembling that of the journalist’s prose. A refusal to participate in the depths of life in favor of observation, much like the existential ambivalence of the protagonist of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. This is a dilemma that we don’t much like to talk about, and one whose best expression is through fiction.



Michael Downs’s debut novel, The Strange and True Tale of Horace Wells, SurgeonVersion 2 Dentist, is forthcoming in May 2018 from Acre Books. His other books include The Greatest Show (Louisiana State University Press, 2012), a collection of linked stories, and House of Good Hope (University of Nebraska Press, 2007), which won the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize. His recent nonfiction has appeared in AARP: The MagazineBaltimore Style, and River Teeth. A former newspaper reporter, he has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Maryland State Arts Council, and the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. He lives in Baltimore’s Hamilton neighborhood and teaches at Towson University.

JoPiazzaJo Piazza is an award-winning journalist and best selling author of both fiction and non-fiction. Her novel, The Knockoff, with Lucy Sykes became an instant international bestseller and has been translated into more than seven languages. Jo received a Masters in Journalism from Columbia and has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Marie Claire, Elle and Salon. Her latest novel, Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win, will be published by Simon & Shuster in July 2018. She currently lives in San Francisco with her husband, son and their giant dog.

Sophfronia Scott is author of the essay collectionLove’s Long Line, from Ohio State SophfroniaScottUniversity Press’s Mad Creek Books and a memoirThis Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World, from Paraclete Press. She was a writer and editor at Time and People before publishing her first novelAll I Need to Get By (St. Martin’s Press). Her latest novel is Unforgivable Love (William Morrow). Sophfronia teaches at Regis University’s Mile High MFA and Bay Path University’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Visit her website, www.Sophfronia.com.

Jennifer Steil
is an award-winning author and journalist. Her novel, The Ambassador’s JenniferSteilWife, published by Doubleday in 2015, won the 2013 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Best Novel award and the 2016 Phillip McMath Post Publication book award. It was shortlisted for both the Bisexual Book Award and the Lascaux Novel Award. Jennifer’s first book, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (Broadway Books, 2010), a memoir about her tenure as editor of the Yemen Observer newspaper in Sana’a, was praised by The New York TimesNewsweek, and the Sydney Morning Herald. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune chose it as one of their best travel books of the year in 2010, and Elle magazine awarded it their Readers’ Prize. National Geographic Traveler included the book in their 2014 recommended reading list. It has been published in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey, and Poland.

Her freelance work has appeared in the Saranac ReviewWorld Policy Journal, The WeekThe Washington Times, Vogue UK, Die WeltNew York Post, The Rumpus, TimeReaders’ Digest Version, Irish National Radio, France 24 (English), CBS radioand GRN Global Reporter Network Service.TomZoellner

Tom Zoellner
is an Associate Professor of English at Chapman University and the author of four nonfiction books, including the recently published Train as well as A Safeway in Arizona, Uranium, and The Heartless Stone. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, Time, Harper’s, Men’s Health, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and many other places.



Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Interview with Stephanie McCarley Dugger, Author of Either Way, You’re Done (Sundress Publications 2017)


either way you're done

Cass Hayes
: What kinds of things inform and inspire your writing? Are there any specific books or authors that had a big impact on Either Way, You’re Done?

Stephanie McCarley Dugger: I grew up on a farm, which is a big influence on my work; I write a lot about nature and animals and the night sky (it’s vast and gracious in the country). And music—I’m from a family of singers (but since I can’t sing to save my life, I became a flutist). So, music really inspires my work, too. Specific writers? So, so many. Definitely Mary Ann Samyn, Anne Carson, and, of course, Emily Dickinson. I didn’t recognize her influence until I was proofing one of the early drafts of Either Way, You’re Done and noticed that nearly every poem had two or three dashes. They’ve changed a lot since those early drafts, but I believe her influence is still evident in the poems.

CH: What about writing brings you joy?

SMD: Discovery. I write to find out—to investigate something—and when the writing results in some new discovery, some new truth, I get excited. When I wrote the last two lines of “After the Shooting,” “In my daydreams, / I do not beg for mercy,” I realized much of the manuscript is an act of begging for mercy, and refusing to do that is alluring and empowering, but also often impossible. That kind of surprise keeps me writing. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does I get all giddy.

CH: Why do you write poetry, and why did the topics you explore in Either Way, You’re Done need to be explored through poems?

SMD: I’m drawn to poetry in particular because rhythm is a form of meditation for me. It provides me focus to explore what I’m trying to learn about. I write essays, too, but I always return to poetry because the attention to rhythm, language, and space on the page helps me clear out all of the noise. I write a lot about trauma, and poetry seems to work best when I’m delving into those topics. I can cut, cut, cut until only the necessary remains. Often, the necessary ends up being more space on the page than words. That white space gives me (and maybe the reader) a place to breathe.

CH: What has been your biggest struggle in your writing and in publishing your work?

SMD: There are some love poems to women in the book, some about being bisexual in a Southern Baptist home. That isn’t something I’ve shared with many family members, so I have some concerns about how they’ll react. The biggest struggle, though, goes back to writing about trauma. Many of the poems are about my childhood experiences—physical and sexual abuse, my mother’s mental illness—and that’s hard to put out there. It isn’t something I go around talking about, so knowing these poems might be read by other people has been hard. I struggled for a long time with whether or not I should publish them at all. I want to protect my family and my privacy, so I’m torn between writing/publishing my experience or keeping it close. At some point, I had to make a decision. This is what I write about, and I’m going to either release it out into the world or abandon the work. I decided to release it.

minnesota 143

CH: How do you decide what form a poem is going to take? Is there any significance in the form of the poems included in Either Way, You’re Done, or in the structure of the book as a whole?

SMD: I’m not very practiced in choosing a form and writing to that form, so I have to listen to the poem to find the form. I still handwrite the first draft of everything—it feels less restrictive. The handwritten draft is usually a sin

gle stanza, short lines. Then I type the poem out, but keep that basic form. I work in the white space and fragmentation after several revisions. I revise based on sound—I read the poem out loud over and over, and the pauses in rhythm usually suggest the white space. Funny, though—when I read the finished poems in front of people, I usually don’t read them as they appear on the page. The white space is diminished. I don’t always end up with a fragmented poem, but the poems dealing with trauma often end up in that form. It just needs more time, more space on the page. Not more words, just more space.

CH: Why are so many poems in Either Way, You’re Done dedicated to specific people?

SMD: That’s a great question. I didn’t actually intend for those people in the dedications to read these poems (this goes back to your earlier question about the struggles with writing). If they do, fine, but it wasn’t my aim to get their attention. Initially, none of the poems were dedicated, but there are so many different you’s in the first section of the book that it was confusing. No matter what I did, though, I couldn’t get away from second person point of view. Very few of the poems worked in third person. The best solution was to add a dedication when it was necessary to understand who the poem is directed to. In the first section, it’s important to know in order to keep the narrative clear. That information isn’t as necessary in the second section—whether the you’s are all the same or different doesn’t matter as much—so there are fewer dedications in the second half.

CH: Do you have any advice for someone just starting out writing poetry?

SMD: Keep writing. We need your voice, especially now.

And if you’re afraid to write about something, that’s the very thing you need to write about.

Oh, and there is no set path, no set time-table in writing. Go your own pace, no matter what everyone else is doing.

CH: Do you have any advice for revision? How do you go about revision?

SMD: I revise a lot. A lot! I like revising. I like it more than writing something new, so I’ll often put off generating new work by revising. I rarely know when to stop. It’s part of the reason there’s so much white space in my work—I cut and cut words and lines until I have to start the poem over.

My advice for revising: Read it out loud over and over. Reading out loud is the most productive means of revising for me. I get a clearer sense of the diction and rhythm.


Also, keep every draft so you can go back if you don’t like where it’s going, but don’t be afraid to do something drastic in revision. The poem isn’t some delicate thing that needs to be nestled and protected. It’s a process, a product of manipulation. So, blow it up, cut it apart, see what happens. You can always go back if it doesn’t work.

CH: What are you working on now? Do you have any other projects in the works?

SMD: I’m working on a children’s book and an essay collection (slowly). I recently finished my second manuscript, a long poem about mental illness and diagnosis, and I’m working on a third. I’ve been spending as much time outside as possible these last couple of years, and that is heavily influencing the new poems (back to nature!).

You can order Either Way, You’re Done today from the Sundress store!


Stephanie McCarley Dugger is the author of Either Way, You’re Done (Sundress Publications, 2017). Her chapbook Sterling (Paper Nautilus, 2015) was co-winner of the 2014 Vella Chapbook contest. Her work has appeared in The Boiler Journal, Gulf Stream, Heron Tree, Meridian, The Southeast Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and other journals. She is an assistant professor at Austin Peay State University and is Assistant Poetry Editor for Zone 3 Press.

Cass Hayes is a writer from Waxahachie, Texas. She attends the Arkansas Writers MFA Program at the University of Central Arkansas and works as the managing editor of the online literary journal Arkana. Her fiction and poetry appears or is forthcoming in various online and print literary journals, including Five:2:One, Work Literary Magazine, and Déraciné Magazine.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,





Cassie Grillon: The poems in Actual Miles are beautifully lyrical, and the way they are arranged on the page varies interestingly from short stanzas to blocks of text similar to prose. In your writing process, do you focus more on lyricism or the visual appearance of the words?

Jim Warner: For me, the visual aspect of the poem is the very last part of the process, simply because it’s the most difficult for me. When I was in grad school, it came very apparent that my poems didn’t utilize the field of action when it came to line breaks and lineation. My poems were like 2×4’s: dense and solid.  In a lot of ways, the look of the poem ran in direct competition with the rhythm of the language. As a result, I spent the better part of the last decade really focusing on the look of the poem. As far as the lyricism of the poem, as an auditory learner, my writing always starts with the play of sound. I am a son of sound, due in large part to being in love with the radio. Growing up, I wanted to be Paul Westerberg, Chuck D, or Tom Waits, I’ve settled on being the best misterjim.

CG: Familial relationships play a large role in the book, and food is often connected to family and memory. What kind of inspiration do you find in your family (and food)?

JW: If you ever had my mom’s fried rice and lumpia, I would challenge you to find better poetry anywhere. It’s in her fingers, and always has been. Spoiler alert, I’m very close to my family, and my relationship with them has informed the way I approach the literary community. My dad worked a seven day swing shift for Pennsylvania Power and Light so my mom could stay home with me. My mom volunteered at my school library from the time I was in first grade all the way through middle school. They taught me to not only seek community, but to be an active, contributing member of it.

CG: How did setting influence the way the book was written?

JW: I’m unsettled, always. For the better part of the last five years or so I’ve been on the move. In the last five years I’ve gone from Scranton, PA to Central Illinois to Knoxville, TN and back to Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, for now). In the next six months, my wife and I will be pulling up stakes again to…? I like being in motion, love the road. Granted, having a giant record and vinyl collection to wrangle each move is intense, but it’s fuel for the fire, right? Travel keeps you honest, forces you to pare down, be neat and compact. I probably do as much writing while behind the wheel as I do behind a desk.

CG: What is a good book you recently read? What did you like about it?

JW: Over the holiday break, I finished Hanif Abdurraqib’s amazing essay collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us.  What I love about Hanif’s work is how his voice radiates regardless of personal essay, criticism, or poetry. When I saw him read at last year at the Rock n Roll reading at AWP, I was immediately floored by the marriage of pop culture, underground scene, and identity going on in an essay.

CG: Do you have any upcoming projects you are working on?

JW: Right now, I am working on a collaborative writing project with Beth Gilstrap. We are writing haibun-inspired pieces based on our mutual experiences in punk and hardcore. Over hanging out at AWPs, we discovered that we both spent time in our area’s punk communities. At the time, I had been writing haibun and haiku and was looking for a way to experiment with my writing using them as a base. Since last March, we’ve written nearly forty pieces and have had a real positive response both in publication and reader feedback.

CG: Which part of the writing process do you find the most enjoyable?

JW: The editing after making it public. Usually I pound away on a draft and then share the work either at a workshop, an open mic, or (most often these days) with my wife Aubrie Cox. Getting that immediate response as well as the act of sharing immediately takes the piece out of my head, and on some level, closes the circuit for the work. This isn’t to say that my revisions are reactionary or that I just make changes to satisfy person x,y, or z, but having eyes/ears (both familiar and not) gives me an experience I can’t replicate alone in front of a computer. It fills in blanks for revisions, places the work may be falling apart, and reinforces for me that in order for a piece to be successful that at some point, I have to no longer claim sole ownership over it.  One of the principles of haiku I really dig is the concept that a haiku is not finished until it’s shared with somebody. The revision after making work public then has some additional context. In a lot of ways, the best poems in this book are a direct product of making the pieces public, particularly with Amy Sayre Baptista and John McCarthy (aka Guaranteed Agony aka the best writing workshop I’ve ever been involved with). Every poem that went through the Guaranteed Agony grinder ended up getting published. That’s just crazy.

CG: What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

JW: Swearing in church.

CG: Are there any authors whose work you disliked at first but have now come to appreciate? What changed?

JW: I wouldn’t say disliked but I never really understood haiku until I met Aubrie. I was very much in the mode that 95% of the world is when it comes to haiku: 5-7-fucking 5. We fill in the box, syllabic mad-libs style, and boom: haiku.  That syllable count is a carryover from Western translations: Japanese poets do not count syllables.  It’s all about breath and the juxtaposition of two images. The simplicity is its strength, and its complexity. For comparison, think of the early Beatles catalog or even punk for that matter: simple three chord, three-minute wonders whose style belies the lean muscle working under the surface.  Going back and reading classic haiku like Basho and especially Shiki with this in mind (as well as writers like Alan Pizzarelli, Roberta Berry and Nick Virgilio) has given me a larger appreciation of their work as well as informing how I teach writing.

CG: What advice would you give to new writers?

JW: Make time daily. Writing is a muscle that needs to be worked as much as any other you’re training. Discipline and routine may need to be built into your schedule, even if, and probably especially if you’re not “the schedule type.” Learning about how you write is as important as anything you will write. Learning what time of day, what the writing space needs to be, what pen/notebook/computer/quill/vial of blood will be your best medium–all these things need to be understood in order to maximize both your time and your output. That old chestnut/story of person X telling a writer “I’ve always wanted to write X but…” is a usually product of 1) totally not understanding how much writing means to you and what you’ve done/sacrificed/ruined to commit to being in the life and 2) totally not understanding their own needs/styles/motivations/approaches to best maximize their time.

You can pre-order our copy of Actual Miles now for $2 off the retail price plus free shipping! 


Jim Warner’s poetry has appeared in various journals including The North American Review, RHINO, Hobart, No Tokens, New South, and is the author of two collections from PaperKite Press. He is the Assistant Editor of Frogpond and teaches in the MFA program at Arcadia University. Jim serves as host of the literary podcast Citizen Lit.


Cassie Grillon grew up in the small town of Henderson, KY. She received her BFA in creative writing from Murray State University in Murray, KY and is now focusing on earning her MFA in creative writing with an emphasis on fiction from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, LA. Her short story “Dry Grass” was recently awarded the David Madden Award for Short Fiction (2017), which was judged by ZZ Packer.

Tagged , , , , , ,

AWP Roundtable: “Duty and Dilemma: 100 Years of Writing About War”

The year 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, or the end of World War I; and 90 years since the first publication of the most famous novel from that war, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Alternately praised by pacifists and condemned by patriots, Remarque’s work was eventually banned by the Nazis as they revved up their war machine for what would become World War II. But did they have reason to fear Remarque’s words? Has any one book—not to mention poems dating back from Sappho–or the thousands that have since been published during a century of armed conflict, stopped any war? Or have they had the opposite effect by celebrating the triumphs of soldiers along with the cost of those triumphs?

As if in response to these questions, the field of war literature has expanded mightily since Remarque to include graphic novels (It Was the War of the Trenches by Jacques Tardi), books by and about women at war (Girl at War by Sara Novic); both realistic and magical investigations into the lives of refugees (Exit West by Mohsin Hamid; Loom by Therese Soukar Chehade); stories told from the point of view of America’s enemies (The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen); and the resurrection of Greek myths (The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya) to recast the narrative of the ever unfolding and potentially endless War on Terror. This discussion focuses on why and how we write about war, and whether we have been meeting our responsibility as writers and human beings to somehow put an end to this recurrence of the “decisive human failure.”

Jane Rosenberg LaForge (JRL): Why do you write about war the way that you do? Each of you has carved out a particular approach, locus, or specific time period, in your books. I’m asking this question in light of innovations to the genre, such as those mentioned above, and any others you can think of.

Helen Benedict (HB): I first approached my cycle of writings about women in the Iraq War – my recent novels, Wolf Season, its predecessor Sand Queen, the nonfiction book, The Lonely Soldier, and the play, The Lonely Soldier Monologues – with the mission of finding out from soldiers and civilians themselves what they were experiencing in this war, and what they thought about it. I knew what politicians were saying, and what pundits, journalists and my friends were saying, but in 2003-5, we were hearing precious little from those actually in the midst of the violence.

I also knew that more American women were serving in the Iraq War than in any other war since World War II, and yet were receiving precious little attention for it. I wanted to know why they, as women, had joined, how they felt about the war, and what was it like to be a woman in ground combat, even as it was still officially banned. Thus, I set out to travel the United States for roughly three years, from 2006-9, interviewing women veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Some I spoke to for an hour or two by phone, others I talked with for many months, visiting their homes, touring their towns, seeing their high schools, and meeting their families. In the end, I interviewed some 40 women from the Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force.

These women opened their hearts to me in ways I found extraordinarily courageous and moving. Some were proud of their service, others loved the military but opposed the war, and yet others had turned against both the military and the war – but they all wanted to be heard. I wrote The Lonely Soldier based on those interviews, and later the play, which was all in the words of the soldiers themselves.

Yet, I was not satisfied.

All these women had endured war, and most had suffered trauma, not only as a result of being in battle but because some 90 percent had been relentlessly sexually harassed, and some 30 percent raped or sexually assaulted by the very men who were supposed to watch their backs in battle – their so-called brothers-in-arms. Sometimes, during our interviews, the women would fall silent, their hands shaking, their eyes filling with tears; at other times they would deflect my questions with humor. Those moments haunted me until I came to see that, as open as these women were with me, another story lay in those silences and jokes – the private, internal story of war hidden deep inside every soldier’s heart; the real story of war.

I wanted to tell that hidden story, but I knew much of it lay beyond what these women were willing or even able to say aloud. Some couldn’t speak because they didn’t have the words, some were too afraid, others too proud, yet others too ashamed. Military culture is fiercely secretive and self-protective, and soldiers who criticize it are usually treated as traitors. Even whistleblowers tend to internalize that accusation, and eventually retreat into self-loathing, shame, suspicion, and silence.

So I turned to fiction, where I could combine my interviews, research and imagination to fill in those silences and get to the uncensored story of war — to how it really feels to be in a war day in and day out, from the long stretches of boredom to the worst moments of violence, and all that happens in the minutes, hours and months in between.

But soldiers’ experiences are, of course, only one side of what is going on in Iraq. I wanted to tell the other side, too — that of civilian Iraqis – a side that has been missing from American public discourse for 15 years by now. Thus I found some Iraqi refugees and talked to them for hours, just as I had the soldiers. They, also, were generous, courageous, and eager to help me. They, also, wanted to be heard. And once I explained that I was writing a novel with an Iraqi character in it, their eyes brightened, their enthusiasm kindled, and they offered all the stories and advice I needed.

This is how I came up with my novels about women on both sides of the Iraq war, novels that reflect what I found in the silences, tears and jokes of soldiers, and in the lonely eyes of Iraqi refugees; those secret places in the human soul that have always been the territory of novelists.

D.H. Lawrence once said, “…war is dreadful. It is the business of the artist to follow it home to the heart of the individual fighters.”

I wrote about war the way I did because I, too, wanted to follow the war home.

JRL: I’m wondering if the #MeToo movement is going to change anything in the military, and if this will eventually translate into literature. Do you care to make any predictions about it?

HB:  In a sense, military women have been having a #MeToo movement for many years now. And military sexual assault and harassment as a subject has already entered some literature — for example in both my novels, Sand Queen and Wolf Season, as well as in memoirs, such as Caged Eyes by Lynn Hall. Several closed Facebook groups for survivors of military sexual assault exist as well; forums for just this kind of discussion. Women have also spoken out to journalists, as they did in my book, The Lonely Soldier, and the documentary that came out of that work, The Invisible War. But this is not to say that it isn’t incredibly difficult to speak out about sexual persecution in the military, which is an intensely victim-blaming and shaming culture.

Only two years ago, Human Rights Watch released a study showing that a woman who reports a sexual assault in the military is TWELVE times more likely to be punished than a man who commits one. Retaliation, cover-ups, and victim blaming are still far too rife in the military. Investigation and prosecution must be taken out of military hands and the chain of command, and moved to neutral, non-military courts, as they are in Canada and Britain, if true change is to be made. I do hope the #MeToo movement will make that happen.

JRL: Returning to the original question of why each author has approached a particular time period, or aspect of war:

Jesse Goolsby (JG): I’m most interested in the nuance and uniqueness of human desire in all of us. The reason I write about war and its infiltration beyond combat areas and into the side streets and livings rooms everywhere is because war, for veterans and civilians in war zones, is only one experience in a life, but such an impactful one that it very well may tinge all that occurs after. But, of course, that may not be true at all. I know many combat veterans that do not showcase the expected physical and moral wounds of war, and abhor the assumption that they must be haunted or hurt. My novel and many of my short stories work imaginatively to privilege the sanctity of the individual experience and the vast responses to conflict one might image.  While that’s my goal, I must acknowledge that as an active-duty Air Force officer, the proximity of war, or the threat of war, is never far from my day-to-day consciousness. How that affects my writing, I’m not sure, except to say, when I write about war or the consequences of war, it feels urgent and close. And at the same time, I find it a great joy to explore human courage, loyalty, and fortitude well beyond the battlefield. Of the 13 chapters in I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them, two take place in Afghanistan. My “war” novel is more at home in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Chester, California than in the Middle East.

Samuel Snoek-Brown (SSB): I’m an absolutist in my pacifism. This isn’t just about war; it’s about violence of any sort. I’m that guy who literally wouldn’t hurt a fly—I have a little bug vacuum that I use to suck up insects and carry them outside. I’m that guy. So, nationally speaking, I’m against any war for any reason. But I’m also what one might call a pragmatic idealist; I know how unlikely it is that we’ll ever eradicate warfare altogether. So how do we live with it? Not the warriors but the civilians, the people who have no interest in fighting someone else’s war—how do these people cope when war sucks them in unwillingly? That’s what I was trying to wrestle with in Hagridden. Which seems strange, considering how easily the women in my book fall into murder during the Civil War, but that is their coping mechanism. Historically, culturally, regionally, this all rings true. We tend to think of the South as a monolith, racist Confederate rebels the lot of them, but in truth, poor whites in the South—even the racist ones—had little at stake in the war. They knew it was a political and economic fight, and a lot of folks, especially outside the heart of the slave economy, knew they were just being used as fodder in a war for rich white people. This was especially the case in Louisiana, and the bayou there became notorious as a place where people could avoid conscription or hide out from home front soldiers hunting deserters.

Seth Brady Tucker (SBT): This is an interesting manipulation of a very common question: “why do you write about war,” which I’ve been basically answering at every reading or guest lecture I’ve done since 1996. It is a tiresome question; so tiresome, that I actually misread your question to begin with (I don’t bring this up to criticize, but it made me think about why the first version is so annoying and the second version, yours, is so compelling). Of course, if one is a veteran, it is likely they will write about what they know, as many fiction writers do, as many poets do, as certainly most nonfiction writers do. Personally, I feel strongly that I don’t choose what I write, but listen for the next piece by paying attention to the world. The way I write is significantly more complicated; I write the way I do (fiction, poetry, and currently a novel) because of all those veteran writers who came before—I write short fiction because Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried challenged me to write a “true war story.” I write poetry the way I do because I early on fell in love with those poets who could communicate a life and an idea in just a few simple images. I write the way I do because I literally found poetry (William Carlos Williams and Mary Oliver) in a foxhole in the Persian Gulf. In my mind, we are all paying our respects to Heller and Sassoon and Remarque and and and… And then it is our turn to speak a “truth the stomach believes,” as O’Brien wrote in “How to Tell a True War Story.”

My poetry is what I would consider imagistic lyrical narrative (yuck, what a mouthful), so much of what I write takes small moments and endeavors to expand it in such a way that the reader is given a stake in the subject, right there along with the humans who are speaking or experiencing it. Almost all of my poems tell tiny stories, which is why my short fiction will sometimes lapse back into flash fiction or prose poems. And no. I don’t believe we have been matching our duty when it comes to “our decisive human failure.”

JRL:  In 2015, Roy Scranton, the author of War Porn (Soho Press), wrote an essay in which he criticized “the myth of the trauma hero.” He traced the origins of this myth—mild-mannered men go to war and are forever changed by the monstrosities they witness but cannot articulate—to demonstrate how most war literature fails, particularly in terms of illustrating the social forces that propel nations into war.  (https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/trauma-hero-wilfred-owen-redeployment-american-sniper/ ) He indicts Wilfred Owen into this category, along with Hemingway and Phil Klay. What do you think of his criticism of war literature and in particular, his idea of the “trauma hero?” I think this myth is necessary, if only so we can believe in the exceptional or fragile nature of our own humanity, and as war as an inhumane, worst-case scenario. Does this myth preclude explaining the causes of war in the midst of combat?

 HB: Yes, American soldiers are too sorry for themselves. And yes, it is tiresome. And yes, we selfishly pay more attention to our own problems – those of the occupier – than those of the occupied, the civilians whose lives we have destroyed. And finally, yes, too much of American war literature, and too many American war movies, glamorize and lie about war without addressing the deep corruption of its politics and the horror of its results.

But the study and discussion of moral injury is essential, for the deeper it goes, the more it reveals that, in fact, most humans are not comfortable with killing and torturing, and that most killers suffer for their actions. I refer readers to a forthcoming anthology called War and Moral Injury, edited by Robert Emmet Meagher and Douglas A. Pryer (Cascade Books), in which the findings about how deeply killing and torturing destroys the killer and the torturer are beautifully explained. I consider this a ray of hope for humankind. We just might not be quite as savage as we think. The traumatized soldier is not a myth; it is merely overdone.

The root of Roy Scranton’s critique, I believe, lies in the difference between a war that relies on a draft, and one that relies upon voluntary enlistment. It is much easer to muster sympathy for the trauma and moral revulsions of young people sent to war against their wills than it is for those who voluntarily joined up, only to express bewilderment and horror once they are sent to war.

This is an argument that Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried) has also made. But both he and Scranton have lost sight of a few facts that challenge their point.

First, many young service members who deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were, in fact, bamboozled into war. This was certainly the case for those who joined the National Guard, which hadn’t been sent to war since Korea, just so they could serve the country, get their paychecks and escape their hometowns without going to war. As one soldier said to me, “National. That means inside the country, right?” Wrong, it turned out.

Second, many recruits were conned into enlisting by lies. Under President Bush and the pressure to fill the ranks for the post-9/11 wars, recruiters were lying in droves. I document this in The Lonely Soldier, so will only say here that the prevalence of lies told to high school kids to get them to enlist was widespread, well-covered, and shocking. They were told they wouldn’t go to war, that the chances of dying in war if they did go were lower than being killed by a car, that the war was almost over, and that it wasn’t really a war but a liberation of the people, especially the women, of Iraq. (In fact, we took away the rights women had held under Saddam Hussein and joined with fundamentalist Imams to drive women back under Sharia law.) Under the “No Child Left Behind Act,” public schools were mandated to give the names, addresses and phone numbers of students to the military in exchange for Federal funding, so that the military could reach into students’ homes, visit them, court and hound them.

Then, of course, there’s the argument that poverty is a back door draft. And, I would add, half the recruits in the Marines and Army came from violent, dysfunctional families and had suffered abuse as children, according to two seminal studies, also cited in my book. This means that some 50 percent of those enlistees could well have joined up to escape, to feel strong, and to turn themselves into warriors instead of victims.

In short, many of the soldiers I interviewed over the years were young, ignorant and naïve, yes, but they were also idealistic, good people who truly thought they were going to do something noble. Most had enlisted at 17 or 18. They were children, and in my view, they have as much claim to trauma and moral injury as any draftee in Vietnam.

JG: I pray no author genuinely interested in the imaginative arts ever considers what Scranton or any other critic has to say about the potential failings of his or her art. Hemingway, Owen, Klay, and many others have tapped into fictive consciousnesses that experience trauma in war. The vast majority of their work is very well written. There are blank pages in front of all of us. If one wants a different war story then go write it, and I wish you well.

SSB: A few decades ago, when I had a job cooking meals in a senior center and eating a daily lunch with members of the Greatest Generation, I confessed to a woman that I once thought about joining the military but had decided against it because I didn’t want to go to war.

“You wouldn’t be willing to die for your country?” the woman asked, incredulous.

“I would absolutely die for my country,” I said, “but that’s not what they send you to war to do. They want you to kill for your country. And I’m not willing to kill anyone.”

I think Scranton makes some good points about the mythology of the “wounded warrior,” but the truth is, the trauma isn’t just in the violence a veteran soldier witnesses—the greater trauma is often in the violence the veteran soldier has been party to. That’s one of the things I was trying to address in my novel. My characters are all more or less willing participants in the often horrific and intimate violence they commit, but most of the characters also feel forced into committing that violence, and some of those characters are more damaged by what they’ve done than by anything they’ve been witness to. All of my killers are victims, but none of my killers thinks they are heroes.

If anything, I think that’s the new mythology that good war literature is trying to portray these days. We still have “patriotic,” jingoistic stories like those Scranton indicts, but I would suggest that since at least Vietnam, we’ve been far more willing to also tell the stories of the violence that we do ourselves in war. That in some respects, every wartime soldier is their own enemy, brutalizing themselves on behalf of someone else. That is especially more prevalent in the midst of America’s longest war, which we’ve been fighting on at least a few different fronts for going on sixteen years now. Soon, children who were born just before we went into Afghanistan will be able to enlist and ship out to a war that has been smoldering their entire lives. When they get there, what will we ask them to do? How much violence will we ask them to commit?

I wrote my novel about the U.S. Civil War, arguably the world’s first “modern” war and one of the most intimate and intimately brutal. But it was about this question of what wartime—not just warfare but a national period of war—does to the psyche of everyone living through it. Because these days, even civilians are “veterans” of the wars we’ve been fighting, and maybe that’s always been the case. In one of my current novels, I’m writing about the Reconstruction, and the characters in that novel are all veterans of the Civil War, returned to a home and a peace they don’t know how to inhabit, not because they are victims of the trauma of war but because they were perpetrators of war—they engaged in vicious, brutal violence, and they don’t know how to stop. That novel is rooted in several true stories from the period, but as I’ve been writing it, I’ve also been thinking about a student of mine a decade ago who gave a classroom presentation on video game violence. His older brother had deployed to Iraq and when he came home, all he wanted to do was play the wartime first-person shooter “Call of Duty.” My student and his brother would spend hours at the game, engaging in mission after mission. My student explained that his brother needed to play the game because that was the only way his brain worked anymore. He had to engage the enemy, accomplish the mission, juice his adrenaline. The only place he felt comfortable was on the battlefield, even if it was a virtual one. But then one day, as my student and his brother played a desert-battle scenario, the game stopped and my student heard a crack—his brother had broken the game controller in his hand. He was standing in the living room, his fists mottled red and white as he crushed the controller, as he struggled to breathe.

“Are you okay?” my student asked his brother.

“I can’t play this anymore,” his brother said. “I need some air.”

“Are you okay, though?” my student repeated.

“It’s too real,” his brother said.

The soldier, returned home, couldn’t handle the video game anymore not because it reminded him of what he’d witnessed, but because he’d gotten too wrapped up in the digital violence, and he was worried it would carry over into the real world. He was worried he would carry into civilian life the violence he had committed in war.

That’s not a myth. That’s not fiction; it’s not a film or a video game. That’s our current reality.

I think that’s what war literature today has to be about.

SBT: I think the myth is necessary and inevitable and will always exist—it is our job as artists to render that trope into obscurity with our own approaches to the forms we take on in our writing—to create a new vision of the trauma hero that is basically unrecognizable—it is true that we create archetypes and always will, but it is also true that great literature obscures and masks them. To criticize the “trauma hero” is akin to criticize the “broken husband” or the “bitter wife” or any archetype in modern and contemporary literature. What Scranton was really pushing back against, in my opinion, is the wild and irresponsible chase for war writers by publishing houses.

It just happens that there is a push for war literature that wasn’t there when I began writing, or, I should say “war porn” for those legions of Hoo-wah pulp novels that treat war in the same way romance novels treat sex. I like to think that the great writing being done by our contemporary war writers (Andrea Williams, Brian Turner, David Abrams, Kayla Williams, Tim O’Brien, etc.) are actually working against this archetype, and doing it well, just as contemporary domestic writers like Donna Tartt, Michael Chabon, and new writers like Anne Valentine and Kirsten Valdez-Quade, are morphing the archetype of the embittered homemaker.

JRL: Are there certain features war literature must have—and is this part of the problem we’re discussing? I’ve read every war novel I could get my hands on in the past year, and most pay attention to terrain or physical conditions, the before-and-after of leaving civilian life for military service (or of leaving one’s homeland as a refugee, or the difference between war time and peace time), and the whiplash between boredom and intense, even cataclysmic peril that frames life on the battlefield. Is this not enough to de-glamorize war? Are there other ingredients that war literature does have, or should have?

 HB: The ingredient glaringly missing from most war literature is the voice of the victims: The occupied. The civilians. The women and children and non-combatant men whose deaths the military so chillingly describes as “collateral damage.” In today’s wars, more women and children die than men, according to the UN. So to tell war stories only from the point of view of the invader is a distortion so grotesque it would be laughable were it not so prevalent.

There is another ingredient missing too: diversity. Almost all the stories of American wars, past and present, have been told by white men. Even contemporary veteran writers have, for the most part, been former officers with MFAs and all white and male. Where are the female veteran writers? A couple of memoirs, a few poems and short stories – but so far, no novels. And where are the writers of color? Where are the novels by African American, Latino, Native American or Muslim veterans? Even among civilian war writers like myself, there are only four or so women who have written literary novels about war, and all of us are white. (The two exceptions to this that I know of are playwrights: Maurice Decaul, a veteran; and Cassandra Medley, a civilian.)

And finally, we need more literature by Iraqis and Afghans themselves. There are a few out in translation, mostly published by tiny presses her or by presses in other countries. But in the U.S., the dearth of translated literature by those who have suffered our wars is shameful. I have written about these books here: https://lithub.com/the-best-contemporary-iraqi-writing-about-war/

In short, if we are to deglamorize war through literature, which we are duty bound to do if we wish to be honest, we must stop looking at war through the very narrow lens of the white man, and look at it instead from the view of those we hurt the most. I have written more about this: https://readherlikeanopenbook.com/2017/10/11/why-i-write-about-iraqis/

JG: I’d never prescribe required elements in war literature, or any type of literature, but something we often encounter in art that deals with war is an explicit human yearning for connection. But isn’t that true of most or all literature? What I love about literature, and even murky genre distinctions including war literature, is that I feel artists are always pushing the borders outward, in a more inclusive direction. Consider the work of—just to name a few—Siobhan Fallon (You Know When the Men Are Gone), Kim Garcia (Drone), Suzan-Lori Parks (Father Comes Home from the Wars), Brian Castner (All the Ways We Kill and Die), Elyse Fenton (Sweet Insurgent).  All of these writers have taken contemporary war literature in new, and often unexpected, directions. Notably, many of these works possess very few commonalities or traditional, battle-focused war literature markers, and yet conflict always hovers somewhere: in memory, on a drive through the Nevada desert, in a pressed uniform hanging in a dark closet, on a quiet sidewalk outside a 7-11.

 SSB: I think the most honest—and the most necessary—ingredient of war literature is violence. Brutal, soul-rending violence. Whether it’s committed amid screams and blood spurts at the end of a saber or bayonet, or from a dark arcade where children fly robots to bomb wedding parties, war is about violence. Most of it horrifying.

I was talking to a creative writing class once and they asked why so many people in my novel get their throats slit. It’s not something I was conscious of at the time, the fixation on blades against throats, but the part that was intentional was the cold intimacy of those deaths. Violence committed up close, face-to-face. Blood literally on my characters’ hands. In my current project, one of the characters is a sharpshooter, what we’d call a sniper today, and he serves in that position not because he’s a crack shot but because he prefers to keep his distance from the killing he does. Except the distance is just an illusion, and he knows it. He feels it.

You mention terrain, and a lot of people point to my attention to landscape in my novel. Some readers have described my novel as post-apocalyptic even though it’s set 150 years ago, because the terrain is so desolate, my characters’ subsistence so tenuous. That’s on purpose. I had this idea that warfare, even distant warfare (my novel is set in the Louisiana bayou, where only a few battles occurred over the whole Civil War) traumatizes the land as much as it traumatizes the people. Or, at least, the landscape reflects the trauma of the psyche.

I have a pretty grim, unglamorous view of war, so yeah, I think those elements are crucial to any honest portrayal of war in literature.

SBT: I like to think that war literature should humanize war, rather than glamorize (in the case of “war porn”) or perhaps even deglamorize it, the way Brian Turner has done with his poetry and his creative nonfiction. Personally, the war literature that sticks with me, that fascinates me, that changes me, is the writing that presents the soldier and even the “trauma hero” in ways the show us their individual humanity, their value; maybe even teach the reader to quit sending them out to break up any squabble our Idiots in Office start … Yes, the pulp fiction out there, masquerading as literature (American Sniper, etc.; just Google “War Fiction” and there is a list of some truly atrocious and ethically bankrupt books out there that do glamorize it for us), is probably winning right now, but I have to believe that great literature wins out. Otherwise, what the fuck am I doing? Perhaps that is my own confirmation bias at work, but here’s the thing: I think we are only scratching the surface of what a war novel or memoir or book of war poetry can do—satire, humor, speculation, political theory or philosophy, etc., and even war literature that just teaches us it is time to see one another as human, no matter our background or genetic makeup. The lessons are out there, waiting for us to apply to our work. Why haven’t we seen more? Perhaps the almighty dollar? Publishers unwilling to put out another Slaughterhouse Five or Catch-22? That, I cannot answer, I don’t think, without assuming the worst about too many people

JRL: I’ve noticed that you have twice chosen the word “intimate” to describe the violence that takes place during a war. I’m very struck by your use of that word; of course we don’t usually use it in conjunction with “violence.” War is such a vast undertaking and therefore we might not think of it as that personal. Could you tell us why you’re using it and what that word means to you?

SSB: I do think about this a lot, especially as I’ve been wrestling with my current historical/war novel project. I think we too easily dismiss the violence of war when we think of it in global, political terms, and the novel — or, at least, the kinds of novels I know how to write — are deeply personal. And when I listen to my veteran friends describe their experiences of war, or when I read accounts of combatants and civilians who’ve lived through a war, I’m always struck by how . . . well, “personal” isn’t quite the right term, because the inhumanity of war demands that we strip it of the personal. But it’s certainly close-in. It affects each person individually, in a visceral way. The war that human beings experience directly — the soldiers, not the politicians — they don’t experience it in an impersonal way.

It crawls inside them. They carry the violence with them, in their nightmares and in their hearts and in their muscles. Experiencing violence in that way—and this isn’t confined to geopolitical warfare; people engaged in socioeconomic warfare right here in America experience much of this, too—it’s one of the most intimate things I can imagine. It’s certainly the thing I’m most interested in. I’m curious about the geopolitics of war, too, which is why I enjoy reading history. But fiction is about the human, about the internal, about the intimate, so that’s where I go when I write fiction about war.

 JRL: Finally, the responsibility question. As writers—whether as historical novelists, veterans who now write, journalists who have covered war and related issues, for instance—do we have any particular responsibility beyond that of other writers, or artists? Must we be resolutely married to any particular ideology or goal in our work?  Must we always think of de-glamorizing war when writing? What would that look like? Is depicting the truth of war as it is experienced by soldiers and their spouses, civilians, refugees, and even politicians, enough? Or will it never be enough? 

HB: Any work of art that depicts war as glamorous is a lie. And any artist worthy of the name must be honest. The conclusion is obvious. And yet, throughout the history of war literature, from the ballad to the movie, the warrior has been revered, war glorified, patriotism sanctified. Even today, to write about war—or paint or film or photograph it—in its true horror is an act of rebellion. Look at the Bush era censorship against pictures of soldiers coming home in coffins. Look at films such as Hurt Locker and American Sniper, which so glamorize violence and American machismo that any anti-war message is undermined. Look at all the novels about the Iraq and Afghanistan War that either fail to offer Iraqi or Afghan characters at all, or depict them as only background blurs, villains or clowns. And look at the hysterical trolling of writers who dare criticize our invasion of Iraq. I myself have been called a traitor because of what I write.

So yes, when we write about war, or any atrocity committed in our name, we do have an extra responsibility not to join in the lies and propaganda that always surround it. We pay taxes for the killing. We cannot hide from that. Every citizen is responsible for our wars, no matter how remote those wars may seem, so the artist who brings war into people’s homes and heads does, indeed, bear a special responsibility to be honest, unpleasant though that may be.

As for the question of whether writing critically about war is enough, of course it isn’t. Nothing one person can do is ever enough. But we can only do what we can, and as guilty as we might feel most of the time, perhaps the most valuable thing we can do is do what we do best – write.

JG: We will each choose our own path and our own brand of responsibility. Hopefully for our art, our individual artistic sensibilities will lead us in ways we find valuable and worth our precious time and energy. We should never censor our imaginations when our characters act, speak, think, and look different than -. This goes for our feelings about war as well. I’m not interested in obtuse polemics or simple “lessons learned” in my art. But personally? My God, I hope we all agree that war is a horrific thing, and we should do everything in our power to live peacefully.

SSB: I think if we have any driving ethos in our work, it has to be to convey the truth. As we see it. In that sense, I would say we aren’t de-glamourizing war but more re-de-glamourizing a long-glamourized portrayal war—we’re un-varishing a reality that others have varnished.

I think we have to be honest about our ideologies, too. I didn’t write my novel as an overt anti-war novel, but I am anti-war. A former professor of mine remarked that while my novel expresses a wide range of attitudes toward war, in the voices of my various characters, and while I neither shy away from nor linger too glaringly on the violence of war, the overall impression was that my novel feels “anti-war” in the sense that it’s not something anyone would want to live through. Who was it that said every war novel is an anti-war novel? That’s pretty much my view, and while I try to avoid pressing the issue in any didactic way, I also think it would be dishonest to pretend that I don’t hold the views I hold as I’m writing.

But personally, I also want to remember that I’ve never been to war, and while America has never known a generation where we weren’t at war somewhere, I’ve never lived in or even near a warzone. That’s a particular perspective I lack. So I try to remember that there are other truths about war, too.

SBT: I don’t know if I would say we have a responsibility—flatly—anymore than someone who goes through a car accident is responsible to write about auto fatalities. We need more women writing about war. We need more writers and poets of color writing about war. My first two poetry books were not necessarily books I consider “war writing” until I started to put them together; Mormon Boy was my attempt to investigate my own heritage and struggle, and then the strict nature of Mormonism started to speak a bit to the strict nature of the military, and what happens when those tight routines are lost. We Deserve the Gods We Ask For was originally going to be about cartoon heroes once the “cameras” were turned off, but then it began to morph into a book that investigated what we do to our heroes once we stop thinking about them. What happens when Superman/Wonder Woman are no longer called to save the world? What happens to that sense of responsibility? Perhaps that was really my way of looking at the early part of the century, when I began to feel the public’s renewed zeal for war after getting a big bad mouthful of it in the nineties with nothing to show for it. My current project is a novel that follows a troubled youth, who loses his twin brother, into drug and alcohol addiction, then the military as a way to escape it. My hope is that it will show the reader a different type of soldier; one who has no patriotism or love of country driving their military experiences, but who uses the military to simply escape poverty and the great nothing vortex that can often spiral in the middle of rotten little religious towns. That has long been one of my deepest concerns when it comes to our military and the military industrial complex—we ask nothing of our wealthy—and we send our poor and destitute out to do our bidding under a patriotism that is really nothing more than nationalism. It is an ugly habit we have, here in the States; this need to ship out soldiers at every provocation. I keep thinking the poor will rise up, say no to our plutocrats, but the current situation in the White House seems to be showing me that I might be wrong out that. I am an optimist, but even my optimism has limits.

Helen Benedict photo by Emma O_Connor

Helen Benedict, a professor at Columbia University, is the author of seven novels, including the just published Wolf Season, which Elissa Schappell wrote should be “required reading” and which received a starred review in the Library Journal; and Sand Queen, named a “Best Contemporary War Novel” by Publishers Weekly and reviewed by The Boston Globe as “The Things They Carried for women.’” A recipient of both the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism and the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism for her exposure of sexual predation in the military, Benedict is also the author of five works of nonfiction, such as the award-winning, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women at War Serving in Iraq, and a widely-performed play, The Lonely Soldier Monologues. Her writings inspired a class action suit against the Pentagon on behalf of those sexually assaulted in the military and the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary, The Invisible War. She lives in New York. More information is available at www.helenbenedict.com.



Jesse Goolsby is an U.S. Air Force officer and the author of the novel I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), winner of the Florida Book Award for Fiction and listed for the Flaherty-Duncan First Novel Prize. His fiction and essays have appeared widely, including The Literary ReviewEpochThe Kenyon ReviewNarrative MagazineSalon, and Pleiades. He is the recipient of the Richard Bausch Short Story Prize, the John Gardner Memorial Award in Fiction, and fellowships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences. He serves as Acquisitions Editor for the literary journal War, Literature & the Arts. Goolsby holds an English degree from the United States Air Force Academy, a Masters degree in English from the University of Tennessee, and a PhD in English from Florida State University. He was raised in Chester, California, and now lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  More information is available at http://www.jessegoolsby.com.



Samuel Snoek-Brown teaches and writes in the Pacific Northwest. He’s the author of the Civil War novel Hagridden, the flash-fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin, and the forthcoming collection of stories There Is No Other Way to Worship Them. He also works as a production editor for Jersey Devil Press. He’s the recipient of a 2013 Oregon Literary Fellowship, has been shortlisted twice in the Faulkner-Wisdom competition, and was a finalist in the 2013 storySouth Million Writers Award. More information is available at snoekbrown.com.



Seth Brady Tucker (S. Brady Tucker) is a poet and fiction writer originally from Lander, Wyoming. His second book won the Gival Press Poetry Award (We Deserve the Gods We Ask For 2014) and went on to win the Eric Hoffer Book Award in 2015. His first book of poetry won the Elixir Press Editor’s Poetry Prize (Mormon Boy 2012), and was a finalist for the 2013 Colorado Book Award.  He is currently a teaching Assistant Professor at the Colorado School of Mines, and is the founder and co-director of the annual Longleaf Writers’ Conference in Florida. Recently, his fiction won the Bevel Summers Fiction Prize from Shenandoah; was a finalist for the Jeff Sharlet Award from The Iowa Review; and won the Flash Fiction Award from Literal Latte. His work has recently appeared in the Birmingham Poetry Review, Southern Humanities Review, North American Review, December, and Epiphany. Tucker served as a paratrooper the Army 82nd Airborne in the Persian Gulf.  More information is available at https://sethbradytucker.wordpress.com/.



Jane Rosenberg LaForge (moderator) is a poet and writer living in New York. Her novel, The Hawkman: A Fairy Tale of the Great War, will be published by Amberjack Publishing in June 2018. Her most recent full-length poetry collection is Daphne and Her Discontents from Ravenna Press; and her experimental memoir is An Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy/A Fantastical Memoir, from Jaded Ibis Press. She has been nominated for a storySouth Million Writers Award, the Pushcart Prize, and the Best of the Net collection. More information is available at http://jane-rosenberg-laforge.com/.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Summer Poetry Writing Retreat


Sundress Academy for the Arts Announces
2018 Summer Poetry Writing Retreat

The Sundress Academy for the Arts is thrilled to announce its Summer Poetry Writing Retreat, which runs from Friday, May 25th to Sunday, May 27th, 2017.  The three-day, two-night camping retreat will be held at SAFTA’s own Firefly Farms in Knoxville, Tennessee.  All SAFTA retreats focus on generative poetry writing, and this year’s poetry retreat will also include break-out sessions on writing political poetry, writing confession, kicking writer’s block, publishing, and more.

A weekend pass includes one-on-one and group instruction, writing supplies, food, drinks, transportation to and from the airport, and all on-site amenities for $250.  Tents, sleeping bags, and other camping equipment are available to rent for $25.  Payment plans are available if you reserve by March 31, 2017.

The event will be open to writers of all backgrounds and provide an opportunity to work with many talented, published poets from around the country, including workshop leaders Ruth Awad and Stevie Edwards

RuthAwadRuth Awad is the author of Set to Music a Wildfire (Southern Indiana Review Press, 2017), which won the 2016 Michael Waters Poetry Prize. She is the recipient of a 2016 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, and she won the 2012 and 2013 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize and the 2011 Copper Nickel Poetry contest. Her work has appeared in New Republic, The Missouri Review, CALYX, Diode, The Adroit Journal, Sixth Finch, and elsewhere. Learn more at www.ruthawadpoetry.com.

Stevie Edwards is the founder and editor-in-chief of Muzzle Magazine and senior editor in book development at YesYes Books. Her first book, Good Grief (Write Bloody, 2012), Stevie_Edwards_ (1)received the Independent Publisher Book Awards Bronze in Poetry and the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Her second book, Humanly, was released in 2015 by Small Doggies Press, and her chapbook, Sadness Workshop, is forthcoming from Button Poetry in January 2018. She has an M.F.A. in poetry from Cornell University and is a Ph.D. candidate in creative writing at University of North Texas. Her writing is published and forthcoming in Indiana ReviewCrazyhorseTriQuarterlyRedivider32 PoemsWest BranchThe JournalRattleVerse DailyPleiadesNinth Letter, and elsewhere.

We have one full scholarship available for the retreat as well as limited 20% scholarships for those with financial need. To apply for a scholarship, send a packet of no more than (8) pages of poetry along with a brief statement on why you would like to attend this workshop to Erin Elizabeth Smith at erin@sundresspublications.com no later than March 31, 2018. Winners will be announced in April.

Space at this workshop is limited to 15 writers, so reserve your place today at:



The Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) is an artists’ residency that hosts workshops, retreats, and residencies for writers, actors, filmmakers, and visual artists. All are guided by experienced, professional instructors from a variety of creative disciplines who are dedicated to cultivating the arts in East Tennessee.

Web: http://www.sundressacademyforthearts/                     Facebook: SundressAcademyfortheArts

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Roundtable: Stuttering on the Page: Speech Dysfluency and Writing

Welcome to our Sundress Roundtables, a celebration of exceptional, not-so-lost AWP panels which did not make the AWP final cut for 2018.

How does one’s speech affect one’s writing? Writers with distinct modes of speaking (stuttering, laryngeal dystonia) discuss the relationship between language disability and writing. From memoir that gives voice to non-normative experience, to poetry that makes language itself tremble, to multi-genre performance art that uses vocal difference as a generative force, these writers discuss how their unique speech transforms their work.

How has your speech impacted your relationship with the written word? Describe in terms of form and content how your speech has influenced your writing.

Adam Giannelli: I think, when I was growing up, I turned to writing in part to avoid stuttering. I felt more comfortable expressing myself on the page, hiding from my speech, but stuttering is now an important part of my poetry. The first poem I wrote about stuttering, “Stutter,” chronicles the difficulties I faced stuttering as a child and includes some of the substitutions I used to avoid words that were difficult to pronounce: “since I couldn’t say Cleveland I said / Ohio.” Towards the end of the poem, these substitutions evolve into puns and metaphors: “since I can’t say memory I say / underbloom.” I wanted to show that stuttering not only consists of moments of stuttering, but also the avoidant behaviors that often accompany and precede those moments.

A common metaphor used to describe stuttering is, surprisingly, an iceberg. The physical stuttering comprises the tip of the iceberg, while the person’s fears make up the hidden base. The metaphor illuminates that stuttering is not simply about sound, but about the lengths that stutters go to avoid stuttering itself. These substitutions have a linguistic component, since they rely on periphrasis: saying something in a roundabout way. I think the link between stuttering and writing goes beyond the avoidance of speech. The repetitions, circumlocutions, fragmentation, and silences of poetry all share with the pauses and hesitations of the stutter. Viewing stuttering in this light also makes it easier for people to relate to it, since we are all caught within language. I wanted “Stutter” to not only address stuttering, but to be about maneuvering through language, and describe the resilience and invention that are common to all people as they face challenges in their everyday lives.

Every time I stutter, I feel the tension between the physicality of language and the ideas that I want to communicate. Poetry also inhabits this space. Poetry doesn’t simply communicate, but is a form of communication, like stuttering, flooded with the density of language. I’m not sure I would write if I didn’t stutter. I no longer see poetry as a way to escape my stuttering, but as a way to embrace it. I am now working on some new poems that cast stuttering in a positive light. Instead of writing from the perspective of a child as in “Stutter,” I am trying to write from my perspective as an adult. I realize that the avoidance that “Stutter” portrays is problematic. It is a form of self-betrayal, an attempt to pass as normative. The new poems are more celebratory of stuttering.

Rachel Hoge: I started writing initially as a form of escapism, and later, for self-expression. Because I started stuttering at a young age—I remember being five-years-old and feeling terrified that I would stutter in front of my kindergarten class—my speech shaped my relationship with the written word in a tremendous way. I read constantly as a way to escape the reality of growing up with a speech impediment, particularly one that no one around me seemed to understand (me, least of all). Then, once I realized that I could use language to transcribe my thoughts onto the page—communicating effectively without ever having to stutter—I naturally gravitated towards writing as a way to engage with the world.

In my adolescence, I wrote a ton of serialized novels, modeling my own work after children’s and YA books I had read. It never occurred to me to write about my own life, particularly about my stutter…which I rarely spoke about, and felt incredibly embarrassed by. But then I took creative writing classes in college and naturally gravitated towards creative nonfiction. I started to reflect on how my life and my perspective were unique, wondering what central truth I could bring to the page. Writing about my personal experience with stuttering—as well as the scientific findings, cultural representation, and societal impact—proved to be a meaningful, and possibly lifelong, endeavor for me.

Denise Leto: I have a neurological condition called Laryngeal Dystonia. It is centered in the basal ganglia, specifically in Broca’s Area, which controls speech and language processing. The brain sends errant messages to the vocal folds to seize and shut which then constricts the larynx and impedes the resonant movement of breath; as a result, speech is a disrupted and unpredictable soundscape. This is where my voice lives: in vocal folds and sound waves that twist and move and shape differently. There’s normative speech, there’s the written word, and then there’s this third thing: my voice.

My speech impacts my writing at the deepest core of my relationship to language production: the embodied antecedent to any “hello.” Speaking is rarely a source of generative vocalized ease. On the page, though, these speech patterns—the involuntary stops and starts—have leant multidimensionality to everything I write. Living outside verbal familiarity, with every spoken word an unexpected animism, the written word became its own spasmodic, miasmic unknown.

Contending with this difference over time radically changed my written/poetic voice. The myth of narrative or lyric linearity—already subverted by my interest in experimental poetries—sounded like a flat, one-tonal prosody.  Consequently, the content of my poems shifted. I began to explore in greater depth polyvocality, the poetics of silence, the physicality of words and sound as text art. The form came to mirror the random, shaping forces of my voice. An aesthetic of error, indeterminacy, chance, syntactic fracture, experiential fragment, somatics, and dissonance overtook my poems where lineation and enjambment overlap and/or occupy the same and different places in a sort of painful exhilaration.

While speech and writing both draw upon language, they are different modes of expression. How have you negotiated representing a spoken voice in written form?

Adam Giannelli: In my poetry I make use of white space, indenting lines and scattering words across the page. To some extent, I am trying to capture the swervings of the mind, but I also think these forms relate to the swervings of speech. In their irregularity, they provide a visual analogue to my stuttering. In his essay “The Enjambed Body,” Jim Ferris compares the irregular way he walks to the irregular way he writes, preferring free-verse rhythms over fixed forms. I feel similarly about my own approach to form. My uneven voice takes an uneven form on the page. There are three kinds of stutters: prolongations (drawing out a sound), repetitions (repeating a sound), and blocks (getting stuck on a sound). The white space on the page can be seen as a kind of block, especially when it occurs in the middle of a sentence, suspending the syntax.

The repetitions of stuttering also intersect with poetry. In “He Stuttered,” Gilles Deleuze claims that certain writers use parentheticals and unconventional syntax to make “language itself scream, stutter, stammer, or murmur,” citing Samuel Beckett as an example. As a person who stutters, I am interested in how my own writing might tremble in this way. I have started a new series of prose poems, “Alliterative Autobiography,” that tells the story of my childhood through highly repetitive and alliterative prose. I often struggle to pronounce consonants, and this poetic stutter shares with actual stuttering since it focuses on hard initial consonants. In speech therapy, people who stutter are sometimes taught to stuttering voluntarily. It’s a form of disclosure, but it also helps develop pride in one’s speech. I see the “Alliterative Autobiography” as a voluntary, poetic stutter on the page.

Rachel Hoge: That’s such an interesting question. I’m really mindful of this whenever I write poetry, because poetry is an oral tradition that relies on sound to help develop meaning. I’m a member of many online stuttering groups, and from what I’ve learned, people who stutter are especially fascinated with language in all its form. The mechanics of speech can be frustrating to us, for obvious reasons, but there’s nothing more satisfying than finding a way to fully express yourself. Many people who stutter are also writers, whether it’s professionally or in our private journals, we can’t seem to get enough. Writing is a way to play with language, to embrace a fluidity that’s not always available to us vocally.

In my own speech, there’s always the inclination to whittle down my spoken words to as few as possible, to be concise so I cut down on the possibility of stuttering. But in the written word, I don’t have that concern. I can be as loquacious as I want. I can call the electronic touchscreen of my cellphone a “digital glass pane covered in plastic film, a window that protects one of my most valuable items.” That’s an outlandish example, of course, but you get the idea. For a person who stutters, the written word is a place where we can revel in language without fear or apprehension.  

Denise Leto: Often, I have negotiated this by continuously translating the nonduality of breath. There is so much in between the inhale and the exhale when trying to produce speech. In my experience, that place or portal suffocates if it has to live in a narrowed and anguished interpretation of speech/silence, of spoken/written. Language is the medium, but it’s also the perceived locus of speech pathology and a kind of (as I have been told on occasion) “writerly weirdness.”  It is like a stealth antagonist evading my ability to express its spoken articulation. Pieces of a word revise as they are vocalized. It’s a spontaneous collaboration between the speaker and the receiver. This chasm between the given and the constructed voice, for me, makes the written more ominous: the alphabet as beautiful ruin.

This isn’t a mimetic process so much as it is a letting. Underneath whatever poem I work on or present, there’s always a phantom presence. The field of query seems always to be in first person singular even if I am not writing in first person singular. It becomes a choiceless self-reference. If I write a poem about a giraffe, for example, and read or perform it, it necessarily also becomes a poem about voice. This reminds me of a quote by Barbara Guest that I frequently return to:

“Do you ever notice as you write that no matter what there is on the written page, something appears to be in back of everything that is said, a little ghost. I judged that this ghost is there to remind us there is always more, an elsewhere, a hiddenness, a secondary form of speech, an eye blink…there is something more I do not say. Leave this little echo to haunt the poem. Do not give it form, but let it assume its own ghostlike shape.”

What are some of your adaptive strategies for vocal difference and speech “accessibility” (such as logistical, artistic, aesthetic approaches) when working with the performative aspects of poetry and writing, for example, when preparing and giving readings, lectures, etc., in terms of engaging the listener, audience, spectator?

Adam Giannelli: Growing up, I was initially reticent to speak in public. I think a lot of people who stutter grapple with this fear, and some join Toastmasters to gain more confidence as public speakers. The first creative writing workshop I took in college culminated with a reading. Although I did choose to participate, I was reluctant and fretted over the event for days in advance. I think the numerous poetry readings I have given throughout my life have served a similar purpose as a rigorous public-speaking course. With event after event, I gradually grew more comfortable with my voice.

Early on I would openly tell the audience that I stutter, but now that I have written poems about stuttering I have a slightly different approach. I typically read my poem “Stutter” in the beginning of the reading and then follow the poem with some commentary. I still disclose, but I do it through my art. I feel this openness helps inform the audience, puts them at ease, and even makes them more receptive to the poems. I still stutter sometimes when I give readings, so there is a performative aspect to my readings. I don’t, however, feel so at odds with my body’s improvisations. I am no longer ashamed of my stuttering, and it complements the subject matter of some of the poems.

I always request a microphone for my readings. I have found that I have trouble projecting my voice. On several occasions, I have also encountered audience members who have hearing loss. Technology helps us meet in the middle.

Rachel Hoge: This is a conundrum that’s been on my mind for a while. I received my BA in creative writing and then—most recently—my MFA, so there have been so many readings I’ve participated in which required me to read my own work. I’ve had mostly positive experiences, usually because I have whoever introduces me read a statement I’ve prepared and disclose that I have a stutter. Anytime I haven’t disclosed—just approach a microphone and read for a crowd of strangers—I’m always more self-conscious of my stutter, worrying that the audience spends more time focusing on my dysfluencies than the content of my work. Because of that, anytime I’m in a position to disclose, I always do.

There have been some instances, though, when I knew giving a reading would do more harm for me than good. I actually wrote about this recently for Salon, an essay which I’ll gladly link here. Basically, I became ill once simply in anticipation of an upcoming reading, and learned to be more attentive to my body and its needs. If I need to say “no” to a reading, I will, because self-care is important. But at the same time, if I feel like a public reading will be more of a positive experience than a negative one, I’ll gladly stutter my way through an essay and feel immensely proud of myself afterwards. I approach the more performative aspects of creative writing case-by-case.

Denise Leto: A greeting or self-introduction at an event reveals my neurodiversity: self-disclosure happens without self-explanation. But if I choose to explain what is happening with my speech then to tell you is to tell you.

In the beginning of this new dystonic reality, I experienced a loss of assurance in reading, teaching or performing. My first response was a concerted effort to speak in a way that reflected my previous voice, which was an attempt at “verbal passing.” Finally, I began to experiment with various adaptive strategies: collaboration, participatory, choral and co-readings, recorded voice, music, sound art, visual art, performance art, movement, dance, the practice of voicing by others and the “human microphone” which serves as an interpretive echo. This changed how I thought about binaries of communication. I’m now more interested in interactive, sensory resonances; in building trust fields of speaking and receiving; in creating safer spaces for artistic exchange.

Before an event, I’ll find out if the buildings, classrooms, auditoriums and performance spaces are physically accessible. I’ll check if the venue has an adequate sound system for amplification. I’ve used projected writing and visual communication or an ASL interpreter. In whatever form the soundings take, I’ll make sure those who are visually impaired can receive the clarity of spoken words. I strive to create an environment where everyone in the room is in the room with me – one where the audience or spectators are also not assumed to inhabit normative bodies.


What advice would you give to emerging writers of disability, particularly those hoping to share the experience of disability through their writing?

Adam Giannelli: The poet Brenda Hillman once encouraged me to “embrace my strangeness,” and, although she was not referring to my stuttering at the time, I think it is good advice: embrace. Don’t be afraid to express and celebrate what is unique about your own experience and voice. When I was younger, I did not see my stuttering as a source of poetry, yet the intersection of poetry and stuttering has been very fruitful for me.

I also feel that I have learned that with self-acceptance comes initiation into community. My new outlook on stuttering has led me to forge new bonds. I attend group meetings for people who stutter, and have reached out to other people with disabilities as a volunteer. And now through this panel I am meeting other writers who speak in unique ways.

Rachel Hoge: Don’t let anyone make your life their inspiration. Your work can inspire readers, sure, but it can also educate them, challenge them, make them laugh, make them cry, make them angry, make them want more. Those of us with disabilities are not around to remind able-bodied folks to appreciate the luck of their genes. We have our own stories to tell—stories that are good, stories that are worth telling and worth reading. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, you are large and contain multitudes. You are allowed to be complex, to accept your disability one day and then struggle with it the next. Embrace the authenticity of your experience and channel that into your writing.

And if you’re a literary writer, be conscious of how your perspective might speak to a more universal truth. Write for yourself as well as others. Write in order to contribute to an ongoing conversation that means something to you.

But above all, play with language. Celebrate the act of writing. Write because you love it, because even when it’s difficult, it brings you joy. Protect that joy, always.

Denise Leto: Here are some suggestions of what I have found helpful. I hope they are useful in some way:

It has been of great support to find community within the politics and poetics of disability activism and within interdisciplinary and cross-genre arts communities. In my own process, I became even more concerned with and committed to words as a landscape of transfiguration via radical feminist and queer politics; intersectionality—in my case gender, sexuality, ethnicity and inequities of social and economic status. In addition, further explore awareness of your own unconscious bias by working across intersections that may be outside your own comfort zone.

Explore and advocate for radical accessibility and equity in publishing and in the submission process (as a right and not an exceptionalist favor as it can sometimes be wrongfully depicted).  Request or demand experiential and multimodal classrooms or venues, even when the answer might be no, keep making those requests.

Try to work with intergenerational communities – to value our elders’ voices and experiences — who came before us when it was even more difficult to have these conversations. And keep channels of communication open with younger poets.

I have found it a valuable imperative to have a history of apprenticeship to mentors. Think about folks, not only those who can help advance your poetry or teaching or arts career, but people who you want to learn from whether these mentors are in the arts, the academy, the community, etc.

When you are ready to send something out for publication, I also recommend finding trusted and generous readers so that the feedback becomes a helpful, interesting exchange and not an ego-driven nightmare.

Finally, honor your poetic labor in ways that are meaningful to you and to the work.

giannelli author photo

Adam Giannelli is the author of Tremulous Hinge (winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize), the translator of Diadem (a selection of prose poems by Marosa di Giorgio), and a person who stutters. His poems have appeared the Kenyon Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, Colorado Review, and elsewhere.


Hoge 1

Rachel Hoge is a freelance writer, essayist, MFA graduate from the Arkansas Writers Program, and person who stutters. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from the Washington Post, Salon, the Guardian, the Rumpus, and many more. Entropy named this essay one of the Best Essays and Articles of 2017. Lately, she’s been hard at work on an essay collection about the intersection of disability and gender. You can follow her on Twitter @hoge_rachel or view her full creative portfolio at rachelbhoge.com.


denise leto

Denise Leto is a poet, artist, and creative editor. She wrote the poetry and text art for the collaborative multi-genre performance Your Body is Not a Shark. North Beach Press published the book of poems. Waveform, her collaborative chapbook with Amber DiPietra, is from Kenning Editions. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including The Force of What’s Possible: Writer’s on Accessibility and the Avant-Garde, Nightboat Books. A limited edition miniature broadside is out from Gazing Grain Press. She has been a visiting artist and guest lecturer at many universities and performance spaces. She was awarded the Orlando Prize in Poetry and her fellowships include the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, the Breadloaf Residency Program in Sicily, and the inaugural Sugarloaf Queer Art Residency in the Florida Keys. Several poems are forthcoming in Posit: A Journal of Literature and Art.

Tagged , , , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: