When Fomite Press accepted my first novel, A Free, Unsullied Land, a conversation began. Marc Estrin (editing) and Donna Bister (production) run Fomite along with a couple of interns, and the press is actively engaged with their authors every step of the way. Marc liked my characters and their story, but wanted more about the novel’s time and place, Chicago 1930. I was afraid of bogging the narrative down among facts, but got to work. Marc’s editing was detailed and dialogic through many drafts. Though I had already received excellent critique and advice on the novel from writing teachers Fred Schafer and Kevin McIlvoy, as well as the members of my own writing group, this final edit added a dimension that grounded the book in the real world and its history. Donna consulted me on all aspects of interior and cover design, something unheard of at bigger, more commercial houses.
I wrote animal stories as a child. In seventh and eighth grade classes, I’d read Tennyson and Poe, but then my friend Catherine Patterson sent me Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. Poems not in a textbook—and by a woman! I was hooked.
In college at the University of Virginia, I took two poetry workshops with Greg Orr—he was an encouraging and intuitive teacher. After graduation I worked in Europe, and became a member of a woman’s poetry group in Paris. I earned an M.A. in creative writing at Johns Hopkins (at that time a one year program) but I was not mature or savvy enough yet to teach myself how to make better poems. Eight years later, I foolishly enrolled at the University of Delaware because the graduate director said he’d “count” my M.A. if I passed Delaware’s M.A. literature exam. I did pass, by a slim margin I’m sure, but the process of studying for it made me see that the degree won’t matter if the work is not good, and good work in my case would take more time. Today I advise my students to see formal education as buying time. Anyway, I asked the same graduate director if I could start the Ph.D. clock over and he said no, so I applied to University of Maryland, which ended up being a better place for me anyway.
Yesterday in Brooklyn, NY I saw young mothers strolling their own children, and Jamaican women strolling other women’s children. Mothers and nannies walked, did errands, negotiated cease fires between siblings, bartered lollipops for patience, tickled and explained the teaming stimuli of the surround.
I thought of the ease with which people, beginning as strangers to each other, proceed to bend and twist, adapting like a tree to the turns and swallows of the river alongside its bank, reaching toward the nourishing light. We reach beyond our strangeness and otherness toward familiarity, love and intimacy. We want to insinuate ourselves into family, village or social group.
For over two years I’ve been researching and writing a poetry collection about sex-trafficking and objectification issues in America. When I give poetry readings there is always at least one person, if not more, from the audience who comes up to me and asks: “Why are you writing about this issue?” What I’ve discovered is, they’re really asking, “Are you a trafficking survivor?” I answer truthfully, “I am not.”
In the days since the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, I’ve been mostly silent, watching my mouth, and my mind, while others speak. I’ve felt the need to speak, because I certainly have feelings about what happened: rage and despair about the virulence of racism in this country. But I’ve had to think hard about what I could say that might not be primarily about my need to be heard.
I am a white person living in the South. I was born and raised in the South. Until I was 10 it was a Jim Crow South. My parents, products of the culture in which they’d been raised, held racists views. They taught me, by example, to believe I was part of a defeated nation, the Confederacy. Segregated bathrooms and water fountains puzzled my small-child self–what could skin color possibly have to do with cleanliness?–but because I had no contact with people of color, my bewilderment was in the abstract.
I feel for Rachel Dolezal. I really do. When the strange saga broke and blanketed the news I couldn’t help but identify with her a little. It’s the story of a woman who craves acceptance from a community she doesn’t belong to, goes to extremes to find it, and inevitably goes too far. It’s a plot we’ve all read before. Rachel Dolezal lied, of course, and alienated the same culture she hoped to become a part of. But the need that first put her on that path, I feel it too.
When I met the man I would eventually marry, a beautiful man from India, life became complicated. There are the vast cultural differences between me and my husband’s parents and extended family. There are verbal and non-verbal barriers that we chip away at, but will never fully destroy.
June was quite a month for race relations in the United States. Hard to believe at the beginning of the month we were talking about the pool party in McKinney, Texas, where officers were called to a scene that quickly intensified and turned into chaos. Next, we talked (at length) about Rachel Dolezal, the woman who was born white but lives as a black woman. She gave us a whole new definition of the “authentic self.” In a podcast with host Marc Maron, our president used the N-word in the course of the interview (in a perfectly acceptable way, I might add). Then there was Charleston, South Carolina, where nine worshippers were gunned down at a prayer meeting at Emanual Africa Methodist Episcopal Church.
KA: First, congratulations on winning the 2015 Maine Literary Award for Poetry. I know you’ve won several other awards as well. How does getting this kind of recognition affect your writing or sense of yourself as a poet?
BS: This is an interesting question because certainly winning an award is a boost to confidence, and it makes spending so much time writing seem like it has some value for someone beyond oneself. I am grateful for every bit of recognition I’ve received. But I’m also aware that awards involve a lot of chance and luck and grace. It’s a great gift to win some recognition, but it’s important to remember how many great books are out there not getting recognized.
And of course, poems come from some place deeper than public recognition, some deeper need and passion or vision, which is why people can continue to write with or without recognition. The work is really all we have; recognition comes and goes and follows currents beyond anyone’s control. Also, every poem is a new venture (hopefully) that we don’t know how to write, so we have to be a beginner all over again. Past recognition maybe helps a writer feel like the effort is worth it. But the effort is still necessary.
DF: In your craft essay “One Story, Two Narrators” included in the anthology SolLit Selects, you talk about how many personal essays and memoirs fall short, because they fail to create an internal narrative to accompany the surface-level events. Why do you think that so many aspiring nonfiction writers struggle with this? Also, you give some examples of the various things that your students deny themselves in their writing, for example you mention self-interrogation, or “asking the hard questions about yourself, the ones you don’t always want to know the answers to.” This is a tough one for writers to do because it involves reevaluating their core selves; as a teacher, how do you get your students to have the confidence to really pick themselves apart? How do you know whether or not they can or should dig deeper?
MJS: These are separate, yet, I believe, closely related issues. And both, I think, are tied to matters of imagination and craft. I say that because when I write anything (in my case, personal essays and memoirs), I never think of myself as the literal “I.” I’m “the writer at the desk,” the author who is trying, first, to figure out what it is that I’m writing about; then, how to best craft the work’s shape. As “the writer at the desk,” my biggest challenge is to create a fully realized, three-dimensional narrator to tell a particular story. And that’s an act of imagination. Once I’ve found that “persona”—I say “persona” as opposed to the literal “I”—the persona becomes the main character in his own story. That said, I believe that a personal essay or memoir (or any other literary work, for that matter), grows out of a not-knowing. Personally, I’m not compelled to write about what things I already know or understand. Rather, I’m interested in exploring what others (mostly fiction writers) refer to as “discovering what I didn’t know I knew;” or, “what I didn’t know I needed to know.”
MT: Your story “0=1” was the Fiction First Runner-up for SolLit Magazine’s Annual Lit Contest in 2013. Now the story appears in SolLit Selects: Diverse Voices, the magazine’s first print anthology. Congratulations! Could you tell us what inspired you to write this story?
EG: The story was inspired by experience, and in fact is so close to my experiences that I didn’t bother to change the characters’ names. My aunt Ruth (my husband’s aunt, technically) was one of those rare people who can actually “put on” Christ, as Christians are called to do. Her death and her homegoing services were a powerful testimony to me. They were profoundly different from my prior experiences with funerals and death. Yet in some ways her burial was brutally frank and efficient, which made the material fact of her death equally telling, at least to me.
JS: I’m fairly sure Russell Banks’s “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story” was the initial inspiration for “The Edge.” It’s been many years since I read that story, but I remember it was about a woman whom everybody rejected for her looks and she is seduced by a man who later turns on her in a very cruel way. Of course, the theme of people marginalized because of their appearance is at least as old as the Latin saying monstrum in fronte, monstrum in animo (monstrous in appearance, monstrous in spirit), but I persist in thinking Banks’s powerful story, rather than, say, The Elephant Man, was what got me going on my version. Some people might say “The Edge” is “really” about, oh, particle physics or the difficulties of eyewitness testimony or the Humean critique of the problem of induction, but I don’t think a fiction writer sits down and thinks, “O.K., now I’m going to write my critique of inductive reasoning story!” At least, I hope not.
Your essay “The Coverless Book” won our nonfiction contest last year and is also included in SolLit Selects: Diverse Voices –our first print anthology. It’s a beautifully crafted essay in which you explore your brother Daniel’s death, which followed a number of suicide attempts, by using excerpts from a notebook of his you found after he died. Can you talk a little about the process of writing this essay? I also understand it was your first contest entry ever and your first published piece, so congratulations! It was well deserved.
Thank you! This essay was a long time in the making; about four years, off and on. It took on many forms before it eventually fell into place. I had begun trying to pin down the elements of Daniel’s story a year or more before I found his notebook. Finding it was one of those serendipitous gifts that mystifies me even now. I was struck by how many portents the notebook contained, and by the poignancy of some of that little boy’s observations; how they were born out or refracted in his later life. Months later I picked the book up again and started to go through it, listing them, and boom: there was the scaffolding for the narrative I’d been struggling to structure.
Your Guide to All Things SolLit at #AWP15!
Visit us at booth 409 at the bookfair with our friends from Talking Writing! We’ll be selling copies of our brand new anthology SolLit Selects:Diverse Voices.
Thursday April 9
4 to 6pm
Kiernan’s Irish Pub
Poet’s Corner, 85 6th Street
New Rivers Press Book Launch & Readings
Come hear SolLit Editor in Chief Lee Hope read from her story “What To Take In Case Of Fire” with other finalists from American Fiction
Since I’ve started traveling and living abroad, I’ve developed a growing appreciation for foreign words in English text. While I enjoy the occasional italicized vocabulary, I love reading sentences and dialogue in a foreign language, even one that I don’t understand. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway practiced this regularly in their work. Both lived and worked abroad, and both had relationships with foreign women, making it easy for them to learn the language and incorporate it into their work. They wrote street names, food and drinks, and greetings in their original language, and they also incorporated full sentences and dialogue in French and Spanish. This gave their work a very authentic feeling, and an unapologetic, personalized touch.
The following is a conversation between SolLit Editor in Chief Lee Hope and Nonfiction Editor Richard Hoffman. Richard is author of the Half the House: a Memoir, and the poetry collections, Without Paradise, Gold Star Road, winner of the 2006 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the 2008 Sheila Motton Award from the New England Poetry Club, and Emblem. A fiction writer as well, his Interference & Other Stories was published in 2009. His new memoir, Love & Fury, came out from Beacon Press in 2014. He is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College.
1. You have written collections of fiction and of poetry, yet recently your focus has been on the memoir. It is so impressive to have two books appearing in the last twelve months–your new memoir Love & Fury by Beacon Press, and the reissue in paperback of your acclaimed earlier memoir Half the House by New Rivers Press. What motivated you to write the second memoir, Love & Fury? Why did you wish to carry forward the story of your family and its cultural context?
The truth is that it wasn’t my intention to write another memoir. Not at all. When my father died, I felt all sorts of questions about him percolate to the surface, questions about his life, his values, his contradictions, his early and intense influence on me. I realized that without ever acknowledging it to myself I had declared a moratorium on writing about him after Half the House. That book was a challenge for him, and he met it with grace and courage. But now I felt he had left me with a tangled and confusing bequest I needed to try to understand.
I thought that what I was doing was writing an essay about him — that’s what I set out to do, anyway. I had eulogized him at his funeral, now a scene in Love & Fury, but I didn’t feel I’d done him justice. So I tried to write an essay, using James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son as a kind of model, but besides losing him, I had just become a grandfather, my son had flunked out of college and was back home struggling with the family illness of alcoholism, my daughter and her boyfriend and their infant were living with us, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, and my grandson’s father was sent to prison. So, suddenly questions of race, class, gender, violence, and certain spiritual and philosophical questions were part of my life more acutely, or at least more apparently, than ever, and I saw that examining my father’s life and my relationship to him was the key to addressing all the rest of it. I just couldn’t deal with all that in an essay; I needed more room.
2015: My Year of Re-Reads
Every year I try to read 52 books in 52 weeks. This has been my New Year’s Resolution for more than a decade, and most years, I’ve kept it. I love to devour fiction and poetry, and so far, I have read something new each week. This year, however, I am only re-reading. I am doing this for several reasons—to return to beloved texts, to teach myself patience and reverence for good works, to see what I’ve forgotten, and to try to figure out just how my favorite books work.
This project inevitably brings back memories of where I was or whatever else I was experiencing during first readings. It can be a pleasant experience—like falling in love all over again. Or, it can make me see how blinded, or damned young, I was when I first came into contact with an author or a collection.
Nothing has demonstrated the importance of rereading works for me like one particular poetry collection. I saw poet Antjie Krog speak at a release party for a new collection called Body Bereft when I was a junior in college, during the last month of a semester abroad in Cape Town, South Africa in 2006.
There is a belief that writing is a solitary act and in moments, I don’t disagree that it is. There are many times, as a writer, where I have had to shut myself off from the rest of the world and delve deep inside my mind to pull out the words that were bouncing around inside my head. I know the best way for me to do this is to sit by myself, away from any sort of distraction or potential distraction (i.e. suddenly, I need to reorganize the labels for each country of my coin collection), and sometimes even shut my eyes so all I see is blackness under my eyelids, and all I feel are the tips of my fingers hitting each key letter on my laptop.
But since beginning my fiction MFA program at Lesley University, I’ve been thinking more and more about how writing cannot be undertaken in a solely solitary state. A writer’s ideas are born from the influences and circumstances of their life, meaning every interaction they encounter with another human, animal, plant, object, plays into their subconscious and it is from this subconscious that a writer pulls out the needed words to create their story.
“When a writer is born into a family, the family is doomed,” -Czesław Miłosz
I write a lot about family, my father in particular. You might say I’m obsessed with him. Not in the way I was obsessed with him as a child, when I was a daddy’s girl. Then he was simply larger than life: a man who could magically drive a car with his elbows while lighting a pipe. A well-to-do psychiatrist in New York’s Westchester county who could cure any ill, who would pause from his busy patient schedule to play puppets with me. A man I believed to be fearless and invincible and perfect, as many children do.
This one-dimensional view lasted for about 28 years. Then, in 1997, inspired by a paper I wrote in a counseling psychology Master’s program (trust me – counseling programs will break you every time), I finally saw the flaws in my little girl perspective. There was more to my father…much more. And so I interviewed him.
In celebration of Black History Month, we are honored to share the work of many celebrated African American and Black authors who have contributed to our magazine over the years. We thank you for your voice, your work, and your willingness to share your pieces with us.
Contributors to Solstice (alphabetical order by first name):
There is no denial that for a writer, words are the strongest tool in our possession. We have a kinship with language and the words we use to describe our feelings and thoughts. We understand the weight of words, the difference, sometimes subtle, between similar words such as hit and strike, or lean and thin. The word a writer chooses is specific to the context they are applying it too, as well as the meaning or implication they are seeking for such a choice.
As a writer, this is why I know the phrase, “Where are you from?” can hold so much significance to the person who it is asked of. When you meet someone for the first time, a natural question to start up the conversation might be to ask them where they are from. From this question, any number of topics can begin. Someone might be from Tennessee, and start talking about their childhood in Tennessee. Or another person might be from Thailand, and the questioner can mention the time they visited Thailand as a college student.