Tag Archives: MFA

Meet the Writer: Jodi Paloni @Press53 @JodiPaloni #environment #poetry #fiction #giveaway

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Meet the Writer: Jodi Paloni @Press53 @JodiPaloni #environment #poetry #fiction #giveaway

Today, Grab the Lapels welcomes Jodi Paloni to the Meet the Writer series. I’ve asked Jodi questions about her two very different graduate degrees — one in environmental studies and the other in creative writing — and you read about how poetry may serve a purpose to the poet, but doesn’t have to be published to have meaning. Read more about Jodi Paloni at her website; at the bottom of her site are numerous ways to connect with her on social media.


Grab the Lapels: What kind of writing do you do? What kind of writing do you wish you did more of?

Jodi Paloni: I mostly write realistic fiction. I’ve published a collection of short stories and a number of other stories in lit journals on-line and in print, and I’m currently working on a novel, which is hard work, but very exciting. I love to read fiction and find that getting lost in a story provides both solace and wisdom. Novels provide me with an escape like nothing else. I want to make what I love, so I write.

But when I began to write in earnest — to actually put words on paper, look them over, work on them — it was October 2001 and I was writing poetry. My first marriage was unraveling and the Twin Towers had just fallen. The poetry teacher at the school where I taught held a workshop for anyone who wanted to come and process the national tragedy through writing. My oldest daughter had been born on September 11, 1993. She was eight when the towers burned down and troubled that something like that had happened on her birthday. I wrote my first poem about her, in celebration of her coming to be. It’s still my favorite poem of the hundred and fifty or so that I have written since.

But I don’t publish poems. I keep them private, like one would a journal. Some day I’d like to pull all of my poems out and take another look at them, along with the dozen or more I’ve written in the last few years. If I find something I like, I might start sending them out. I think it would be nice to have an artifact, a chapbook or a book, that embodies the work. Poetry, to me, is the distillation of a moment, a feeling, or an experience.

My poems are mostly about the natural world as a mirror into my interior life. In troubling times, writing and reading poetry is a balm, so I tend to turn towards poetry to process emotion. I also turn to poetry when I am moved by beauty. It’s an impulse. Writing fiction is more of a strategic process for me. I get to use the parts of my brain that are both generative and tactical. It’s like figuring out a logic puzzle: the brain expands beyond the boundaries of normal thought, but is also thoughtful about boundaries. I have to say, though, all forms of writing, even writing answers to these questions, is what I want to be doing most of my time.

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GTL: What is a graduate degree in Environmental Communications at Antioch all about? And did that degree affect your time spent in an MFA program at Vermont College?

JP: I haven’t thought about that degree for in a long time, but recently, at an Earth Day brunch, I found myself reflecting on my time at Antioch with great nostalgia. I earned that first masters in 1990 (wow!) almost thirty years ago.

I had gotten my bachelors degree in education in the early eighties, but didn’t love the idea of working in a classroom. I wanted to be outdoors, exploring the natural world, enjoying it and working to advocate for it. After a few years of teaching in environmental jobs, I decided to indulge myself in environmental study. I say indulge because a lot of the classes were held outdoors. I learned how to identify flowers, trees, and birds. I took one class called, Mammals of the Subnivean Zone, a study of the little furry creatures that stay alive all winter underneath the snow. I learned tracking. I saw Snowy Owls. I was in heaven. The communications part of the degree was about writing, and I read wonderful nature essays along the way, but mostly, it was about how to bring ideas we learned to others in the form of advocacy and policy.

In the end, I went back into teaching. I found a wonderful public school in Vermont where both place-based learning and literature was highly valued. I could learn and explore new ideas along with my students. I wrote poetry at night, after my own children were asleep. I dreamed of writing a novel and would sometimes lay awake writing scenes in my head.

I guess all of this it to say, I have two great passions, the outdoor world and stories about regular people. Earning masters degrees in both environmental studies and fiction was really an opportunity to immerse in what I love.

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GTL: What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?

JP: I wanted to be a stage actress or a famous singer, a Joni Mitchell, a Stevie Nicks, a Carol King. I loved the stories the ballads told, and the rhythms, and I loved to sing. Plays and movies were just another form of the storytelling. Ha! I guess writing fiction allows me to wear the mask of my characters and become what they are on the page, so in a way, that is a form of acting — taking on someone else’s voice, imagining how they would gesture or move across their exterior backdrop. Poetry is akin to song lyrics. It’s musical, all about sound, too. Fantastic! I got to become what I wanted to be when I grew up, just not in the way I might have imagined.

GTL: What inspired you to write They Could Live With Themselves?

JP: They Could Live With Themselves is a collection of linked stories about a small town in New England, based loosely on the small Vermont town where I lived for twenty-five years. My interactions with my neighbors and the landscape inspired me, for sure, and other stories I read, too. I pay attention to certain things­­ — nuances between people in a public place, gestures, objects, and am taken by a particular visual moment.

That visual moment is what I usually begin with — a lanky boy mowing a lawn, three teenage girls glommed together on a park bench, a pregnant woman sitting on a curb. I don’t write any notes or make a conscious effort to sit down and write about what I’ve just seen. The images just get stored in my brain.

I often begin a story when a first line comes to me, and I riff on that. Later, I’ll see something in a story that is a knock-off of an image in real life or one from a daydream. I love the mystery of how it all works. Once I had written a dozen or so stories that took place in the same town and found that characters were popping in and out of each other’s stories, I began to think of the ways I could do this with intention, and plan how the stories could be arrange in a linked form to give a novel-like experience of the read, while maintaining each story as a discrete piece. The stories take place over the course of one year, from May to May, in a small town. Readers can watch the evolution of the community as a character, too. It was fun.

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Jodi’s revision process for her short story collection.

GTL: Many times writers find a creative niche and community. What do you think is yours?

JP: I have a writing group that traverses place. We use Google Hang Out. We’ve met once a month, almost religiously, for six years. I also am very involved in my local writing community and the statewide alliance in Maine, which is fabulous, very active, and quite generous in spirit. I have to say, most of my friends are writers, or at least avid readers. We talk a lot about our lives as it relates to writing and books. I go to a few writing events a year, a conference or a residency. I’m currently in a poetry group and just joined two new prose groups, probably too many groups, but we’ll see. I do love spending a Sunday afternoon with three other writers discussing the work. Most of my social media connections are with writers as well, so I’m basically surrounded with writers and craft talk, books and publishing news. Works for me!

GTL: If you could change places for a day with any one of your characters, who would it be, and why?

JP: Oh, wow! Great question, a tough one, too. Let’s see. A lot of my characters are pretty sad, and for good reason. I don’t want to be any sadder than I already am in real life, or as sad as some of them. Ha! Oh, dear. But just for one day, right? I like a character named Wren, a lot. She’s a single woman in her forties. Although she has had very sad events in her life, going as far back to a childhood, she seems to be on the mend. She’s figured out that it’s okay for her to be there for others and still find ways to take care of herself, to make peace with the fact that she actually likes living alone, and, I think, though I’m not absolutely sure, she’s about to hook up with someone who could become the great love of her life, a man named Addison, who lives in a fabulous Vermont homestead high on a hill overlooking the valley. Sure, I’ll be Wren for a day. I’ll pick a lovely spring morning when the sun is hot, but there’s still a hint of melting snow. The stream is rushing. Addison’s just said good-bye to his ex-wife, once and for all. Wren and Addison both have the whole day off. 😉

In fact, there are a number of my characters who, by the end of their stories, are about to embark on something better than where they began because they’ve figured out something important about who they are and who they want to become. I’d trade places with almost any of them if I could pick up where their story has just left off.


The winner of the giveaway, chosen by random, is Jackie over at Death by Tsundoku!

Giveaway: If you want to read about Wren and Addison and some of the other characters living in Stark Run, Vermont, leave a comment written to Jodi below to be entered into a drawing for a copy of They Could Live With Themselves. Currently, winners are restricted to United States due to the cost of shipping. A winner will be chosen at random at noon on May 5th.

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Meet the Writer: Lori A. May #writerslife #interview

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Meet the Writer: Lori A. May #writerslife #interview

I want to thank Lori A. May for answering my questions. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (which May just started!), or visit her website to learn more!

GRAB THE LAPELS: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

LORI A. MAY: I fell in love with paper and writing—not just storytelling—at a young age. There must have been something about that tactile experience that appealed to me so early on. Of course that led to actual writing and falling in love with the page in a different way, the way it opens us up to worlds both real and imagined. Everyone knew I was a kid who was going to grow up to write but it was in my twenties when I began to take it more seriously, to consider what I could do with words. I read nonstop, wrote about anything and everything, and probably found my groove when I hit my thirties.

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GTL: How have you developed creatively since then?

LAM: It’s important to always push the creative mind and to enjoy the playfulness of writing. I like to remember that writing is fun—and that reminder comes in handy on those days when deadlines are looming or something out of my control just isn’t working out. It was an important lesson in my MFA program—I went to Wilkes University—to cultivate a lifestyle that supports the creative process, be that in exploring advanced craft issues or simply keeping up a walking routine to make sure the body has movement throughout the day. Writing can be all-compassing and I like to exercise the body and mind to ensure I give my brain the space it needs to create freely.

GTL: What would you like readers to know about your new book, The Write Crowd: Literary Citizenship & the Writing Life?

LAM: We certainly can’t do it all and be involved in everything, but it’s so beneficial to find one’s tribe and to feel a genuine part of the community. The Write Crowd shares inspiration and ideas for connecting with others, creating opportunities in our communities big and small, and cultivating a sustainable and enjoyable literary lifestyle. Whether working with nonprofits and small presses, mentoring other writers, or setting up chairs at an event, everything we put into the community benefits the bigger picture. Dozens of writers and readers are interviewed in The Write Crowd to share their experiences, and I hope readers will find tips to apply to their own literary lives.

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GTL: Many times writers find a creative niche and community. What do you think is yours?

LAM: I’m very community-oriented, as evidenced by my interest in literary citizenship, but that means I enjoy working with others and talking to writers groups. I’m a bit of a ham when I speak to a crowd and I love inspiring others, sharing experiences, and encouraging developing writers to do what they love. There’s so much discouragement elsewhere in the world and writing isn’t always easy. I love helping others see that it’s possible to follow their dreams and pursue writing as a vocation.

GTL: What inspired you to write your first book, The Profiler? (*you can read a sample at this link!)

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LAM: Fiction is one of my callings and my first book is a criminal suspense novel. It came about from one of those magical moments we hear about—I woke up remembering a vivid dream that basically outlined the story that became a book. Waking up with an idea is one thing, but I felt drawn not only to the story but to the process of writing a novel. For me, it takes a bit of a special space in my creative mind to commit to a novel-length project and it’s a different process than nonfiction or poetry, I find. But it’s an enjoyable challenge and one I look forward to revising soon.

GTL: What are your current projects?

LAM: It’s already been a busy year with a new poetry book, Square Feet, published by Accents this past January, and now The Write Crowd out with Bloomsbury, but I am indeed looking ahead. In May 2015, my book, Creative Composition, which is a collection of essays about writing that I co-edited with Danita Bergwas, was published by MLM. I’m also tweaking and revising a narrative nonfiction manuscript that I hope to send out soon. In between those and my frequent travels, I write poetry and articles and tinker with another project that’s waiting in the wings. I’ll be on the road a bit in the coming year, too, and readers can track me down via my social media links. You never know when I pay a visit to a town near you!

Meet the Writer: Shabnam Nadiya #writerslife #interview

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Meet the Writer: Shabnam Nadiya #writerslife #interview

I want to thank Shabnam Nadiya for answering my questions. You can find more about her work on her website or her tumblr, LitStop, which Nadiya says, “is more of a parking spot for bits and pieces from the books I’m reading.”

What was the first story you ever wrote about?
I had toyed with the idea of being a writer for most of my teenage and adult life, I just hadn’t been serious about it. I had numerous story ideas jotted down, and many false starts which still sit unfinished.  I still come across them sometimes in notebooks. I think partly because I was lazy, partly because I didn’t really believe I could do it, partly because I had no idea how to. Which is one of the reasons perhaps I veered toward translation: because the ‘how to’ part of the storytelling had already been taken care of.

The first story I actually completed was called “A Journey in the Night.” I wrote it in two days after I ran into someone I knew on a long-haul bus. The person had pretended to not recognize me and walked right past. I had felt a little bit hurt. At the time I would tend to think that I was a particularly unlikable person, and I was actively trying to be positive about myself and stop myself from thinking like that. So later, when thinking about the bus encounter, I tried to imagine scenarios in which someone’s rude behavior really had nothing to do with me; from those thoughts the story emerged.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer as far back as I can remember. I wanted to be a journalist for a while (my icon was Nellie Bly), I wanted to be a science writer (Carl Sagan!), I wanted to follow in and go beyond the footsteps of Indian Bengali writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen and hop trucks all across Asia and write about it, I wanted to edit a magazine and a run a literary salon at the same time as writing my novels. The kind of writing I wanted to do changed as I grew, but the fact of writing was constant.

Do you think writing is taught, that we know how to do it instinctively, or both? Why?

I think it is most definitely a combination of both. I do think that innate talent is necessary, but I also believe that there are many ways to hone that talent. One of those ways can be to go to writing school. This is not to say that this is the only way to hone your talent—but it is one way.  I think my thoughts went immediately to MFA programs because there’s been so much talk in the past couple of years trashing and defending MFA programs; but when I really think about it, writing is largely an act of learning. Writers who do not go to formal school—and they are absolutely the majority—learn their craft through observation, reading (obsessively!), through the give and take of conversation and debate and community building. Which of these activities is not learning? We learn about the world, we learn about ourselves, we learn about the craft of writing in many ways. I was a writer before I went to writing school, and now that the school part is over, I’m still a writer. I’m glad I had the opportunity to attend an MFA program—but it would not have stopped me from being a writer if I hadn’t. 

What was your least favorite class at any point in your education? Why?

My least favorite class was a phonetics class I had to take as an undergraduate. The class itself was boring, and the teacher was fairly disrespectful of the students, where she made fun of their English accents (this was in Bangladesh where English is not our first language) or made inappropriate comments on their clothing. She decided to go after me, where she would call on me in class by saying things like, “You, the girl sitting in between two boys.” Or, “You, the girl wearing the short blouse.” It got to the point where she threatened to fail me at the end of year. She couldn’t, of course, because her class only counted for 5% of the total and it while it affected my total score, my passing or failing didn’t depend on it. I still marvel, however, especially now that I have been a teacher myself, at any teacher losing their professional calm to the extent of letting it become personal with a student.

Are you reading anything right now?

I am reading Margaret Atwood’s climate-dystopia The MaddAddam Trilogy, and marveling, as usual, at the imaginative reach, the range of distinctive voices, the tight control of time–moving back and forth and sideways. I’m also rereading a novel by a friend, Shaheen Akhter, called Beloved Rongomala (which is in Bangla but World Literature Today published the first chapter translated by Mahmud Rahman, which can be found here.

Are you writing anything right now?
I just finished the last story of my linked collection called Pye Dogs and Magic Men: Stories. Now I need to polish them all a little more, and send them out to my handful of trusty readers. Then, the big one: agent search time!

Meet the Writer: Kim Koga

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Meet the Writer: Kim Koga

Kim Koga is currently a web development intern at Oceanhouse Media and a co-managing editor at 1913 Press. Her work has been published in Lantern Review, Grab the Lapels, and _list magazine, among others. She currently resides in San Diego, CA.

You and I met in 2009 in the University of Notre Dame MFA writing program. How did you end up there?

I wanted to leave California. I had lived in Encinitas my whole life, and I needed a way out. My undergrad prof Sandra Doller told me about MFA programs. I had no idea that these things existed! I had been writing poetry for many years and had helped found the Creative Writing Community and Workshop at Cal State San Marcos (my undergrad) – so I was very involved in the creative writing scene on campus. Sandra suggested that I look into the MFA programs out there – in the end, I applied to 11 schools (all outside of California), got into 3, loved meeting ND students and professors at AWP and on campus when I visited, and chose ND.

How have you developed creatively since then?

My writing has changed a lot since I left ND. While, it’s always turned inward, I have been able to explore different subjects and different parts of myself through my writing. I used to write pretty much about love and sex, but I feel that I’ve turned more towards feminism and identity outside of those things. Also exploring cultural fits – for example, sometimes I wonder where I fit in to the culture of San Diego, or Encinitas, or _______. I often feel outside in various ways, and I’m learning how to write and explore these feelings/thoughts.

What are some themes and styles present in your poetry collection, Ligature Strain (Tinfish Press, 2011)?

I am not sure how to talk about the styles – but themes I can approach more readily. I had read Aase Berg’s With Deer (Trans. Johannes Goransson), I think, almost a year before I wrote Ligature Strain. I was thinking a lot about motherhood, birth, postpartum depression, infections and invasions – the body – my body, my illnesses and how they affect my body, how humans are animals, and how humans invade and usurp animals homes/lands. People have mentioned that it’s ecopoetic, though I’ve never thought about it in that vein – perhaps there is a relationship there? I tend to turn inward.

Hmm, as for styles – I was thinking squares, tightness, suffocation. I wrote it long in a notebook, but when I formed it on the page I broke it up into small squares so that it felt claustrophobic on the page. I wanted the words to invade the head of the reader rather than splay loosely on the page. I love the prose form too – which is not to say that line breaks do not matter – because they do – but I like to think about how the page interacts with themes of the piece. I felt that this piece needed a tight prose boxes. I think that the page communicates as much as the piece does.

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Photo Credit: Jesse Porter, 8/30/2015

You’ve done work for a couple of presses, namely Action Books and 1913: A Journal of Forms. What sorts of things do interns do for presses?

When I was with Action, I did all kinds of things – I tabled the AWP bookfair, sold books, managed author signings at the table. From the office at Notre Dame I mailed review copies, wrote release letters, order fulfillment, copy edited manuscripts, corresponded with authors, sent authors’ copies and more. With 1913 – the first time I interned for them I just tabled for them at the bookfair, sold books, talked to customers, etc. Now, I am in a co-managing editor position where I am helping to manage schedules, order fulfillment, and corresponding with authors.

How do you maintain a role in the literary community today?

These days are very different – I am a very introverted person – in personality and in mind. I am selfish with my time since it is short (not in any certain way, but more so that life is short). I find myself participating by writing book reviews mostly. I read things online, and follow many poet/writer friends on Facebook to keep up on the happenings. I try to go to readings at local universities too.

Since I have invested in writing longer poems – I am more thoughtful in ways and publish less often. I am reading some poetry this weekend at an aquarium – which I am super excited about! But mostly participate in the community through 1913, reading books, writing reviews, sometimes reading my work in public, and keeping up with social media.

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The reading at the Birch Aquarium. Poet Adam Bishop taped pieces of poem to himself. He took the pieces off and read them for the performance. Bishop then stuck the pieces on Koga, who was “running” away from Bishop and reading from The Descent of Alette by Alice Notley to random people at the aquarium. Everyone was there for a poetry/music performance, but Koga feels she made the audience uncomfortable as they walked around and looked at the animals. Photo credit: Sarah Bishop.

What are you writing these days?

This year I started a web development bootcamp LEARN Academy in San Diego. I LOVE it. So, I have been writing a lot of code! Part of what I love about it is that it’s just like poetry. It’s writing poetry in another language. So I am exploring digital poetry and I have started writing a homophonic translation program, which I am hoping to be able to complete within the next year. It’s huge project! I’m also working on a long poem called girlgirl, and I have several books to read and book reviews to write.

I have a list of projects inside my head too. I want to write geek sonnets – some Buffy sonnets and Star Trek: the Next Generation sonnets. I also want to play with the form of the sonnet to create others works. I guess you could say that I’m writing these inside my head.

Meet the Writer: Debra DiBlasi

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Meet the Writer: Debra DiBlasi

I want to thank Debra for answering my questions. Debra is also a contributor (along with yours truly!) to the all-women-authors anthology, Wreckage of Reason II: Back to the Drawing Board. She has won many awards for her writing, including the 1991 Eyster Prize in Fiction, the 1998 Thorpe Menn Book Award, the 2003 James C. McCormick Fellowship in Fiction from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, the 2008 Diagram Innovative Fiction Award, 2008 Inspiration Grant from Arts Council of Metropolitan Kansas City, and three Pushcart Prize nominations, among other awards. She was a finalist in the Heekin Foundation’s Novel-in-Progress. Her books include:

  • Drought & Say What You Like (New Directions, 1997)
  • Prayers of an Accidental Nature (Coffee House Press, 1999)
  • The Jiri Chronicles & Other Fictions (FC2, 2011)
  • What the Body Requires (Jaded Ibis Press, 2013)

What was the first story you remember writing about?

I wrote poems before stories.  Very bad poems about animals, usually dead ones.  I grew up on a farm surrounded by many different kinds of critters — dogs, cats, birds, fish, horses, pigs, cattle, and a superior cast of wild animals from skunks and raccoon, to foxes and coyotes—all of them inevitably meeting their demise, of course.  Ergo my early expertise as a eulogist. The first story I recall writing was for a Social Studies class in grade school, though I cannot recall which grade—probably fifth. We were studying Mexico, its people and landscapes and resources, and we’d been given a list of words like maize, hacienda, oro, senor and rio with which we were to write a story.  Mine was quite long, an adventure about a conquistador’s search for Mayan gold. The teacher gave me an E+ and scribbled something red and very nice about me being a fine writer with a vivid imagination. E, by the way, stood for Excellent.  In those days, our schools used the grading standard of E (Excellent), S (Satisfactory), M (Mediocre), I (Insufficient), and F (Failure).  Sometimes I think we should go back to that standard, at least in college, so that the students whose work is C (Mediocre) but think—and sometimes insist—that it is A (Excellent) more clearly understand what’s expected.

The fact that I remember quite well my first story and the how it came to be and the teacher’s comments suggests just how much influence teachers can have on a student’s course in life.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

In chronological order:  veterinarian, rancher, “movie star” (that’s they were called then; not “celebrity”), war correspondent.  I stuck with the last occupation but switched it to journalist after Saigon fell, ending the American-Vietnam War the year I graduated from high school.  I went off to University of Missouri-Columbia with the intent of getting my B.J. (yes, an unfortunately abbreviation) but got sidetracked into creative writing for a couple of years after I look a poetry writing class as an elective.

Once I’d taken all of the poetry writing courses available, including graduate level, and one fiction course (that I did not particularly love), I decided to switch back to journalism for “practical” reasons, as in “Debra, you can’t earn a living as a poet.”

I studied in the University’s then famous J-School (which Brad Pitt also dropped out of) for only a summer and a fall.  When I actually attended class, I did very well, especially in the writing courses—well enough that, when I dropped out for various reasons related to finances and general uncertainty, one of the professors looked me up at the restaurant where I was working to talk to me about re-enrolling.  But I just didn’t know what I wanted yet.  I was 20 years old and there were too many possibilities spread before me.  I was like the cat sitting in front of a box of mice when the lid is lifted: she doesn’t catch any mice because she wants all of them at once.

Case in point:  After I moved to Kansas City, Missouri, I eventually enrolled at Kansas City Art Institute where I took my BFA in painting.  Then, after traveling around Europe, I moved to San Francisco to work at increasingly higher management positions in advertising and magazine production, all the while writing articles for an arts and entertainment magazine. I took a course in novel writing at San Francisco State University where I realized my autodidactic reading knowledge exceeded my professor’s; I left the M.A. program.  I really loved my job as advertising productions manager at MacWEEK Magazine but had begun publishing some of my short stories.  I was getting up at 3am to write in a diner near my office in the Financial District.  After the major earthquake of 1989, I peered at my life 20 years thence and saw: lots of money but no art.  So I quit the corporate world, moved back to the Midwest, took a low-level secretarial job (9am-5pm versus 8am-9pm) and began concentrating on my fiction and visual art.

The rest is a long path with a few roadside attractions, but essentially undeviating.  I have no regrets.

Do you think writing is taught, that we know how to do it instinctively, or both? Why?

Having taught, for quite a few years, creative writing (particularly: experimental forms like hyperfiction and mixed media writing, nonfiction, and composition for students with learning disabilities), I’m convinced there are teaching methods to direct a student toward better writing and, most importantly, to make that person a better thinker. The creative writing workshop, however, is definitely not one of those methods.  It’s a sloppy format for lazy teachers who don’t really want to work hard. Example: One of my former colleagues complained to me—when my course was waitlisted at 18 students and his course, with an enrollment of only eight had just lost two more students — that I had all of the talented students and he didn’t want to teach anyone who wasn’t talented. My response to him:  “So, what you’re saying is that you really don’t want to have to teach.”

Really teaching creative writing requires (1) understanding and valuing the idiosyncratic aesthetics of all students to help them improve their strengths and reduce their weaknesses, while not making them write like you; (2) creating a curriculum of carefully designed assignments that teach specific elements of creative writing, like structure, musical syntax, and (significant) meaning; (3) daily improvising on-the-spot exercises that push students into learning and understanding aspects of writing and thinking that they lack; and (4) assigning reading material that complements all of the above.

Having said this, however, I would add, with emphasis, that the best writing teacher is the process of reading as much intelligent and diverse writing as you can.  Also, the best writers keep writing, and exploring, and educating themselves in history, all of the sciences, technology, global politics and socio-economics, and philosophy.  That’s something I see gravely lacking in MFA and PhD creative writing graduates.  They’re too specialized; they cannot intelligently discuss much outside of their specialization with a sophistication necessary to evolve the discipline—and the human.

On a final note:  Literary theory is its own art form; reading it does not make better creative writers, only better literary theorists.

What was your least favorite class at any point in your education? Why?

I took only one class that drove me insane with boredom:  American Romanticism.  Not because of the subject matter but rather because of the professor.  Prof. Dickinson could take an otherwise fascinating writer like Henry David Thoreau and transform him and his writing into watching paint dry.  (There was a rumor in the English Department that the professor had been married four times and three of his wives had committed suicide. Hmmm.)

Are you reading anything right now?

I’m reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking because I’m…

Are you writing anything right now?

…working on one of my memoirs, The Way Men Kiss.  I finished the first draft of this collection about ten years ago. Recently I promised myself that when I moved to Hong Kong (I’m living here now) I’d spend mornings writing for myself rather than answering emails and sweating over the increasingly complex management of Jaded Ibis Press.

The Way Men Kiss is one of three memoirs in the works.  The writing is fairly straightforward; i.e., not an experiment in syntax, like another memoir-in-progress, Otherwise, from which comes “Olbers’ Paradox,” my syntactically-perverted essay included in the recently published Wreckage of Reason II:  An Anthology of Experimental Prose by Contemporary Women Writers).

TWMK covers the year I slept (as in, fucked) my way across Europe after my first husband, a pathological liar, left me for other women.  (Yes, plural: women.)  Some people might call my poor Grand Tour “revenge fucking” but it was not.  I adored these men, every one of my lovers and my friends who had arrived in Europe from so many parts of the world.  They were the salve to my wounded heart.  The book explores much of who they were then, and who I was then—very young, all of us, and untethered to obligations of any kind.  Audacious travelers on the same unpredictable road to a constricting future that would present itself to us soon enough.  Soon enough we’d be less free, and older, and already nostalgic for the wilder days and nights.  But until then:

“Kamal grazed on me.  And I, lover of men, grazed on Kamal.  We might have made love right there on the park bench along the Champs-Élysées, in view of amused passers-by, had Kamal not then slid his hands under my bottom and picked me up and carried me out of the light into the warm green darkness of the park, to a big shadowy circle of briers, conveniently hollow in the center—an intimate lair smelling of rabbits and black dirt and green-waxy ceiling of leaves.  We climbed inside and kissed more deeply and groped more desperately.  And then we could not help ourselves:  We made love right there, on the dirt amid the thickets of that Champs-Élysées park, on that warm September night in Paris, so many years ago.”

—from the title essay, “The Way Men Kiss”

Meet the Writer: Laurette Folk

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Thanks so much to Laurette for answering my questions! I hope you will read more about the author at her website.

What kinds of writing do you do?

I write fiction, mainly in the literary novel genre, essays, and poetry.

How have you developed creatively (pre-, during, and post-MFA)?

When I was living in New York in my twenties, alone and depressed, working a job I hated, I started writing stories to pass the time, and also as an outlet for my broken heart, or should I say broken hearts, plural, because I had several. I realized the world of imagination was an escape, and I didn’t need a television or a movie screen to go there. It was an important realization, that I could be self-directed through what I had always thought was a vast, abstract, and amorphous world. Also, depression was a portal of sorts, to an inner life. So, depression directed me inward, and once there, I needed to do something with the uncomfortable feelings, so I used them to create. But as I matured artistically, creation became something else; it became a way to learn, not only about myself, but the world at large. Expression eventually became more of an intellectual pursuit, rather than an emotional one.

Anyway, after I left New York, I dated someone who inspired me to write a novel. He said, “Why are you wasting time with short stories? Write a novel.” He was young and naïve and so was I. A novel—that seemed monumental to me, but I gave it a go. The novel was about my Italian American family, and I remember giving it to a friend to read, and he said it was terrible. It was, of course. At this point I desperately wanted to leave my career as an engineer and get out of the corporate world; I needed to make money doing something else. I wanted writing to be it, but clearly this was not going to be the case. This caused me a great deal of anxiety. I eventually left engineering and became a temp; this was the thing to do in the mid to late nineties: show up at one office one week and another the next week. That grew old, and I became panic-stricken about money. The only way to escape the panic was to write. So I did. I always wrote, no matter what. It was a safe haven for me.

I started teaching mathematics and then physics; I realized I had a passion for teaching, and it was a way to make money. Like many others, I used my summers to get the writing done. At this point, I learned to do research to enhance my writing; I also continuously read. I was reading Amy Tan, Louise Erdrich, Isabella Allende, Barbara Kingsolver. I wanted to be them. I rewrote that first novel and started another, finished a draft, and was accepted into Vermont College’s MFA program.

The MFA program gave me a community of artists and writers that I desperately needed. I felt completely at home there. I was a misfit in society, or so I felt, but at VC, I was a misfit in the land of misfits. I also learned how to analyze literature and write essays, which I would not have done on my own. I discovered top echelon women writers like Woolf, Byatt, and Atwood. At this point, my writing did not consistently have impact. In fact, my writing during the MFA period was pretty much awful. I don’t know why this is.

Post-MFA, I joined a writer’s group and found a writing partner there. She was a poet, a feminist, and I loved her work. She was also a professor at a university nearby, and she taught comp and lit. At this point, my writing was still not consistently impactful. I remember giving her a draft of my second novel and her telling me it was trash (well, not trash, per se; she was more diplomatic): I could do better. It was her criticism and not any of the advisors at Vermont College that pointed me in the right direction, perhaps because I was less narrow-minded and bull-headed; I was starting to lose those delusions of grandeur that afflict novice writers. Or perhaps it was because we were interested in similar topics: feminism, mysticism, and spirituality. Also, we met nearly once a week for seven years; we were both dedicated to our work, despite our busy home and work lives. We had similar writing philosophies. I think we inspired one another as women artists. Still do.

I had another growth period when I started teaching comp and lit at the college level. I now had to fully analyze everything I put on my syllabus and then teach it. I taught short stories and realized how dense, subtle, and complicated they were; these were things missing from my own writing. I learned through Hawthorne, Melville, O’Connor, Joyce, Marquez, and Chopin.

I see how you have a blog called Meditations and Reflections. What made you choose to start a blog, and how often do you use it?

My blog is a place I stash ideas to pursue at a later time; it is like a life-line to my writing, especially now, because I don’t have hours and hours to spend indulging in my imaginative world like I used to when I was single and childless. I have toddler twins and I am their main caretaker. If I can get at least two entries per month, I’m happy; I feel like I am keeping my writing life alive.

When I created the blog, I wanted it to serve three purposes: one, act as an impetus for meditation; two, enable me to develop my essay writing skills; and three, allow me to keep up with the Joneses, i.e., do what other writers were doing. For the most part, I have achieved these goals; however, lately the meditation time is becoming shorter and shorter.

Does mediation/reflection play a big role in your fiction writing?

Absolutely. Writing stems from your inner imaginative life; what better way to get in touch with your thoughts than meditation? This was something I realized while at Vermont College: to put the pen down and just sit and breathe, or to practice walking meditation, and for me that means walking my dog. The muse whispers to you when you walk.

Can you tell me a little about the cover of your novel, A Portal to Vibrancy, and what your role was in that part of the publishing process?

The cover is an acrylic painting I created in an art class I took while writing the last chapters of the novel. I wanted to be more in touch with Jackie, the protagonist, who is a painter. I manipulated the image of the painting in iPhoto and asked my publisher to use it. Big Table Publishing is a small literary press, so I had more say in the publishing process. We went through several iterations of color, font, etc. and made it work.

What are some of the most enjoyable ways that you’ve promoted your novel?

Recently I had a book club read the novel and they invited me to sit in on the discussion about it. It was interesting to see what scenes affected the readers and why, and also that the readers had some of the same weird thoughts as the protagonist. It generated excellent dialogue on Catholicism and feminism. I always cringe at self-promotion, but I really enjoyed that.

Meet the Writer: Laura Kochman

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Thanks, Laura, for answering my questions! You can learn more about Laura by clicking any of the many hyperlinks below, which lead you to her poems, website, and blog.

Your book of poems, The Bone and the Body, forthcoming from BatCat Press this spring, will be handmade. To you, what is the significance of handmade books? What does it all mean for writer and reader?

I really love reading books that are well-designed, whether digitally or handmade. For me, the object is part of the reading experience—the book is its own little house/body, and how it looks and feels matters, especially with poetry, which cares about form and shape. Handmade books allow a greater amount of freedom in design, like Matthew Mahaney’s Your Attraction to Sharp Machines (BatCat, 2013). Mahaney’s book folds out into three sections with pockets, invites you to open it and explore the ephemera within. My intention in writing is to evoke a feeling in the reader, and book design can help the reader take up residence in the headspace of the book. The design for The Bone and the Body hasn’t been finalized yet, but I think the content and form open up possibilities for its physical form—the landscape is full of slippery locales and different kinds of home spaces. I’m excited to see what BatCat does.

One of the most popular tags on your blog is “muppeting.” What is that all about?

That one started as a joke. I make a lot of faces, some of them mopey and sad, and a friend of mine described me as a muppet, and it stuck. My Twitter name is @themuppetface, and I started tagging blog posts that were sad or nostalgic or sentimental. Sentiment, in my writing and in my person, is something that I’ve thought a lot about and struggled against and tried to embrace, hesitantly. During my first college writing workshop, the professor told me that my writing was melodramatic, and it took me years to realize how gendered and condescending his statement was. I spent those years thinking that writing shouldn’t be emotional, that it shouldn’t care too much. Reading Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony, and God made me think a lot about female voice and what we deem worth listening to: “It is confusing and embarrassing to have two mouths…The doubling and interchangeability of mouth engenders a creature in whom sex is cancelled out by sound and sound is cancelled out by sex.” —Anne Carson, “The Gender of Sound.”

A lot of people talk about MFA factories churning out carbon copy writers. What are your thoughts on us MFA folks?

There have been so many think-pieces on this subject, and I don’t see how any one person is capable of describing all MFA programs unless they have somehow magically attended all of them. Even then, they’d have to have attended all of the programs right now, since they’re so different from the programs of the 70s and 80s and 90s. Actually, this magical person is probably James Franco. My only absolute feeling when it comes to the MFA is that you shouldn’t pay for it. I spent four years in Alabama for my MFA, surrounded by the best group of people I’ve ever known, writing and thinking and being influenced and stubbornly resisting advice and basically receiving a studio art degree. I would never assume that every other program out there is the same, or make a sweeping statement.

I also think there’s a lot of anxiety about how many programs there are and how many writers they’re producing, that this will somehow muddy up the creative waters. But would those people not have been writing anyway? And who does it hurt that they take themselves seriously? And what would we lose if they did not? I read plenty of poetry from writers that do not excite me at all, who follow the status quo, and who are lauded. So who gets to say what is good? I’d rather see the full spectrum.

How have you developed creatively (pre-, during, and post-MFA days)?

I’ve been lucky to be able to spend time writing for a while now, and lucky to have family who support a life spent in the arts. My mother’s mother was a painter, and many people in my family play music, and that has all influenced me creatively. Much of my writing thinks about visual art, specifically or generally.

I also started out as a prose writer, strangely enough. I wanted to write short stories, and that same fiction professor who complained of my melodrama suggested that I should write poetry (not meant as a compliment, of course). And then I did, and I realized poetry had so many more open doors for me. As a reader, it is so much more visceral. During my MFA I stopped writing by hand because I realized typing allowed me to write at the speed of thought, and that was one drastic change. Over the last few years I’ve also thought a lot about the writer/reader relationship, which is something that I was able to have conversations about during grad school. Now, outside of that community and away from those conversations I’m trying to figure out how to continue learning on my own. I’ve always loved reading, but it takes on a new significance.

Your poems in [Pank] magazine are connected—tied together by the titles, “circle of salt” and “to the woman in the woods”—and include a date in the title. What is the deciding factor in creating clusters of poems?

Part of it is that my brain works that way, thinking through an idea or a question over the space of multiple poems or an entire book. I never know how long it will take me, though. When I started writing the poems in The Bone and the Body, I was just following my nose. I got saturated with that speaker and her feelings, and I researched folklore that I had only known peripherally, and I kept finding connections. That’s a thing that I love about writing, the way it spins out and back through itself. I love reading poetry that makes me think. Going back to your question about creative development, one thing that has stuck with me from my MFA is a literature class I took on the theory of allegory, which is much more complicated than I had previously believed it to be. What if allegory is an act—a verb, not a noun? It’s about bringing the whole text together in the reader’s mind, so that the meaning inherent in the words really only exists in the reader. And you need time and space to make that happen, hence the long poems and poem cycles.

Is your cat ever a bastard, and do you write about it? Why do so many poets have cats?

This is a great question. I often refer to my cat as a “little jerk,” because he sits on my face when I’m trying to sleep, or yells at me for moving if he’s sitting in my lap, or jumps into the trashcan (that was before we got one that locked). But he’s also sweet and funny and loving and toothless and forgiving and warm. He likes to spoon, and every once in a while he lets me be the little spoon.

I have written about him a few times, though it’s hard because I always feel embarrassed for writing about my cat. There’s a poem in my recently completed manuscript that’s kind of about him and kind of about orcas and ownership over bodies, and how impossible that is. A former roommate of mine also definitely based a gremlin-like character in her novella on my cat, so he’s pretty much an experienced muse. That’s probably why so many poets have cats. They’re such great muses. And they keep our laps warm while we huddle in our heatless apartments.

Meet the Writer: Susan Lewis

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I want to thank Susan Lewis for answering my questions. She is the author of several books, including This Visit and How to Be Another.

Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

I’ve always been a voracious reader. When I was seven years old, I read a collection of haiku by Basho. I was entranced, and became passionate about writing Japanese forms. I went on, as a child and adolescent, to write all kinds of poetry, as well as short stories and plays.

How have you developed creatively since then?

I still consider my writing identity a work in progress, and I suspect I always will! After high school, I didn’t write at all for a number of years. When I turned back to it, I wrote short fiction, which is what I worked on for my MFA. Later, I tried my hand at writing a novel. Only after that did I return to my first love, poetry. Over time my poetry has moved from more-or-less traditional free verse lyric to prose and lineated poems that are more fragmented and narratively unmoored. That said, I still write some prose poems that resemble surrealistic parables or fables.

What kinds of writing do you wish you did more of?

I would like to create a collection of poems that is more tightly linked, more of a “project” book, if you will, mostly because this is something I haven’t done yet! But I’m not sure if I’m temperamentally suited to the task.

I’m also interested in trying my hand at more collaborative work. I’ve collaborated with a visual artist, Melissa Stern, a composer, Jonathan Golove, and another poet, Mary Kasimor – all rich and stimulating experiences, which have whetted my appetite for more.

In what ways has academia shaped your writing?

Actually, I tend to think of myself as a well-educated outsider poet, because I don’t work in the academy, I didn’t get my MFA in poetry, and I never studied poetics or took a poetry-writing workshop. But I was a double major in college, at UC Berkeley, in English and Film Theory and Criticism, so I’ve been formally educated in the Anglophone canon, and self-educated in 20th and 21st century poetry.

In what ways has life outside of academia shaped your writing?

I suppose the biggest influence on my writing is my reading. I’ll never stop turning for inspiration to John Keats, Henry James, Emily Dickinson, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein, John Ashbery, Michael Palmer, Joshua Clover, Jorie Graham, Bin Ramke, Octavio Paz, Julio Cortazar, Franz Kafka, Russell Edson, Rae Armantrout … My work is also influenced by contemporary political and social justice issues, as well as the interpersonal dynamics that infuse my personal life and relationships.

Are there aspects of your writing that readers might find challenging to them?

I’m afraid so! Not only does my poetry continue to move away from linearity and representation – it also tends to be a bit dark, in terms of tone and content. I’m driven to grapple with the most difficult aspects of consciousness – mortality, primarily, but also what I consider the fundamental isolation that derives from subjectivity itself. The irony is that I am a fundamentally energetic, optimistic, upbeat person, who is blessedly surrounded by enduring and extremely rewarding intimate relationships! For instance, my husband and I fell in love when we were still in high school, and have not yet fallen out!