Lost & Found Kicks Off National Poetry Month at LSSU

Happy National Poetry Month!

I’m super proud of my intermediate creative writing class and the project we just finished, which culminated in a show in the Kenneth J. Shouldice Library Art Gallery at Lake Superior State University. While I was at Vermont Studio Center over winter break, I collaborated with collage artist Jay Phillips, whose process reminded me of erasure. The process of finding poems in the pages of his art criticism magazines was super satisfying. There is a forbidden sort of pleasure in taking a permanent marker to a published text, and erasure requires an intense form of concentration, like solving a difficult puzzle or playing Tetris.

After I came home, I found myself wanting to experiment more with the visual elements of erasure. How could visual elements enhance or complicate the found poem’s message? Since I was teaching an intermediate creative writing course intended to encourage student experimentation, I thought we could experiment with visual erasures as a class project.

Before the semester began, I researched erasure poems with visual elements to find some inspiring examples to show my students. It seems Doris Cross may have created the first visual erasure poem when she painted over the pages of a dictionary in 1965, or Tom Phillips, when he began to treat the Victorian novel, A Human Document, with painting and collage in 1966. Whatever its origin, the form has been quite popular lately, with examples appearing in recent issues of Poetry and Thrush and Diagram. One of my favorite recent examples is Poet Niina Pollari’s erasure of immigration Form N-400 last year.

My class and I began the semester by closely reading a number of erasure poems with visual elements together, including Sarah J. Sloat’s startling Misery poems in Thrush and Diagram and Sonja Johanson’s gorgeously textured poems in Menacing Hedgewhich use bamboo segments and florets to cover text instead of erasing it. We watched and discussed Mary Ruefle’s inspiring craft talk on erasure from the Tenth Annual Palm Beach Poetry Festival, trying to put our fingers on what makes a good erasure poem compelling. Then we spent a whole class day making erasures using old reference books scheduled to be destroyed by the university library and copies of pages from classic and popular novels. At the end of the class, we shared our first attempts and discussed the obstacles we encountered during our first experiments with the form.

After that, everyone went out and chose a source text, from which we made copies of pages that we proceeded to plan erasures in. We learned to run copies first, to search for words and circle in pencil with a practice draft, so that first-draft mistakes wouldn’t be fatal. Once we had each found a draft poem, we set out to find the appropriate visual elements to enhance or complicate its message. What has stunned me about this project is how different each of the students’ pieces are! There is an erasure buried under soil; an illuminated erasure of a page from A Room of One’s Own; an erasure of an Edgar Allan Poe story juxtaposed with an image from a Wonder Woman comic; an erasure of a hymnal; an erasure from a book of quotes and covered with bloody-looking handprints; an erasure found in Hamlet; erasures found in novels by Cormac McCarthy, Denis Johnson, Arthur C. Clarke, and J. K. Rowling. I got to participate in the project as well, collaging a page from a guidebook for medieval anchoresses into an illuminated astronomy manuscript…

Once everyone had drafts, we used Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process to develop the pieces and our own understanding of our aesthetics. What did each of us expect from this sort of poem? How did our expectations differ? Liz Lerman’s process was magical as usual. Most of the pieces went through three or more drastically different drafts. Students listened carefully to one another’s feedback, then experimented with visuals, compression, titles, erasing words and adding them back in, and the results were marvelous!

The culminating show at the library gallery, which my students aptly named LOST & FOUND, kicked off National Poetry Month at Lake Superior State University. I’m so thankful to everyone who came out to support the students and the Creative Writing Program. I’m also grateful to my Dean for her support, and everyone who helped with setup and publicity, from the university librarians to Don Bentley at The Art Store who is scary good with an X-Acto knife!


Medieval Women: Hildegard of Bingen

Last summer, editor-in-chief Carolyn Turgeon invited me to write an article on St. Hildegard of Bingen for the medieval-themed winter issue of Faerie MagazineSince I’d traveled to Bingen in 2014 to research Hildegard for THE BOOK OF GOTHEL, I was excited about the assignment.

St. Hildegard is a fascinating, complicated figure. Over the past four years, I’ve read her visionary texts and correspondence. I’ve visited her holy sites in Germany, developing my own interpretation of her life, work, and personality, so that her character in my novel would be historically accurate. Writing a nonfiction article about her was challenging, because of the way I wanted to weave in my personal experience on my research trip with historical facts about her life, a number of which are up for debate…

I’m positively delighted with the layout! The article is paired with images of illuminations from Hildegard’s visionary texts and photographs of the places I visited on my trip. It’s wonderful to have this piece about St. Hildegard and my experience researching her out in the world. I remain grateful to the Sustainable Arts Foundation, for believing in THE BOOK OF GOTHEL enough to give me the award that made my research trip possible. And I’m thankful to Carolyn and all the other folks at Faerie for their work on the article. The medieval issue of Faerie can be found in Barnes & Nobles everywhere. You can also purchase the issue in which the article appears online here.

Goodbye, Vermont Studio Center!

I am so grateful to Vermont Studio Center, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation for making fellowships for parent artists available at VSC. Without mine, I wouldn’t have been able to spend the last two weeks hard at work on my novel-in-progress! I met so many wonderful writers and artists, and the final draft of THE BOOK OF GOTHEL is almost finished!

The below photos are from photographer Howard Romero’s studio portrait project.

Back to Vermont Studio Center

I’m grateful to a number of people to be packing my bags this week! There’s the National Endowment for the Arts, which funded the two-week fellowship and stipend I’ve received to Vermont Studio Center to work on my novel-in-progress, THE BOOK OF GOTHEL. There’s my Dean, who was kind enough to allow me to participate in the residency despite the fact that it begins during final exam week. There are my colleagues at Lake Superior State University, who agreed to administer my finals. There are my students, who have been so supportive of my absence. And there are of course my husband and daughter, who are being, perhaps, most supportive of all.

It has been a real challenge to maintain a balance between work and creative time, this year, since I’ve been serving as chair and teaching an overload, so this fortnight of dedicated time to focus on my manuscript is much-needed. I have about two thirds of the novel rewritten — this is the third draft, if you’re counting — and with all the dedicated time, I’m expecting to actually finish the rewrite. By the end of the two week residency, I hope to be line editing a printed copy of the whole manuscript.  I finished the first draft at Vermont Studio Center when I was there for a month in 2015, so returning there to finish feels like coming full circle.

My travel itinerary on Saturday will be a little intense — both Vermont Studio Center and Sault Sainte Marie are pretty remote — but I’m looking forward to the quiet of Maverick Studios, to celebrating winter solstice in the snowy wilderness of Vermont, to seeing the Gihon River freeze. I’m looking forward to listening to my cleats prick the icy ground, after I suit up to leave my studio for a brisk walk to work through a narrative problem. I’m looking forward to quiet time, to thinking time, and to sending the full manuscript off to the agent who asked to read it when I’m through.

New Issue of Border Crossing!

I’m excited to share the release of the latest issue of Border Crossing, the online journal I co-edit with Julie Brooks Barbour as part of our work with the Lake Superior State University creative writing program. As fiction editor, I’m especially eager to share the work of a Danish writer I discovered this year in translation:  Adda Djørup. The editorial board was blown away by Peter Sean Woltemade‘s English translation of her gorgeous, fabulist story “Hell’s Graces.” Djørup is the recipient of the EU Prize for Literature and a three-year working grant from the Danish Arts Foundation. The story originally appeared as “Helvedes gratier” in her 2015 story collection, Poesi og andre former for trods (Poetry and Other Forms of Spite). We are delighted to be able to present this deliciously strange story for the first time in English!

Another story you don’t want to miss in this issue is “Animals of the North” by the emerging environmental writer Christopher Ring! The Border Crossing editorial staff, last year, was moved by this story’s beautiful examination of the people and places of Baffin Island and of the colliding habitats of polar bears and grizzlies. In the interview featured alongside the story, Ring talks about his process for writing the story and his experience at Breadloaf Orion.

Years ago, when I was in graduate school at Louisiana State University, I read a gorgeous story in The Southern Review about a man who contracted malaria and fell in love with the woman in his fever dream. I loved it so much I wrote a paper exploring its surreal narration, its dreamy subjectivity. Imagine my surprise, five years ago, when we went to accept a dreamy story from the Border Crossing slush pile and realized it had been sent by none other than the author of “Malaria”: Mark Jacobs! “House of Flowers” is the third story of Mark’s we’ve had the honor of publishing. It’s a smooth, jazz-inspired riff about a man who moves into a dysfunctional boarding house in Syracuse.

The final story I want to share from the fall issue of Border Crossing, “Error_Code: 1072,” stood out to the editorial board, last year, for its vivid illustration of the anxieties of the Digital Age. J. Paul Ross has created both a literary fiction about a woman having brunch with her distracted family and a horror story about erasure…


New Poem in Gulf Coast

My poem, “Louisiana Disaster Recovery 3.0,” appears in the latest issue of Gulf Coast. I’m so grateful that it found a home in a journal so close to my hometown because it’s about the floods my family and friends suffered in the greater Baton Rouge area last fall. The poem is written as a Venn diagram in two voices: Voice 1 is focused on recovery from the floods, and Voice 2 has no energy left after all the disasters that have hit the area in recent decades. This structure was inspired by “Employment Relations 4.0,” an innovative poem by Brian Bilston, which I used as a writing prompt in my introductory creative writing class last fall. (I actually wrote a first draft of the poem in class; one of the perks of my job is that I get to do all of my writing prompts alongside my students.)

My class and I were working, that semester, on responding to a call for poetry for a multimedia dance/art/creative writing concert organized by Joshua Legg at my university last fall. The concert was called “Re/Action,” and Joshua had chosen coping with tragedy as its overarching theme: how communities create stories about ourselves to cope with tragedy, successfully or unsuccessfully. The floods had just happened right before he told me about the prompt, and every time I tried to respond to it, I kept thinking about them.

The frequent hurricanes and floods are part of the reason my spouse and I chose to leave south Louisiana. It’s so difficult to build something, when the weather continuously undoes all your hard work. My mother-in-law’s home in Vermilion Parish was devastated by Hurricane Rita in 2005, and they had to use FEMA money to raise their house up on concrete stilts. Most of the other houses on the Ramke family land have been destroyed by the constant floods. Here are some pictures from our most recent visit to the land that my daughter will inherit when she grows up–that is, if it’s still around.

You can order a copy of the Gulf Coast issue here.

SFPA Speculative Poetry Contest Opens Today!

I’m chairing the SFPA’s poetry contest, this year, and it opens today! First, second, and third place prizes will go to the best speculative poems in each of three length categories. All forms and styles of speculative poetry are accepted. You can read more about the contest rules on the official contest website. This year’s judge is the brilliant Nikia Chaney.

Nikia Chaney has won awards from Cave Canem, Poets and Writers, the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund for Women Writers, and more. Her work has appeared widely in venues like Iowa Review, Portland Review, New York Quarterly, and elsewhere. I was blown away by her poem, “hummingbird,” which was recently made into a musical score and film by MOTIONPOEMS. I highly recommend watching the film and reading the poem on her website!

Chaney is a founding editor of shufpoetry and Jamii Publishing, and the fourth Literary Laureate for the Inlandia Literary Arts InstituteA recent Science Fiction Poetry panelist at LOSCON, Chaney has some fascinating ideas about the intersections between experimental poetry and speculative poetry. Read more on my post kicking off the contest on the SFPA blog.


Two Poems in Cimarron Review

I received my contributors’ copies of Cimarron Review in this afternoon’s mail. It’s an honor to have two poems from the full-length poetry manuscript I’m working on appear alongside work by Karen Skolfield, Sidney Wade, and Edmund White.  Highlights for me, in addition to work by the above-mentioned poets, included Katherine Kaufman’s prose poem, “The Foxes,” and Miriam Cohen’s wonderfully sardonic short story, “Wife.” You can order copies here.



Wolf Skin at Baltimore Composers Forum

My prose poem, “Wolf Skin,” had its musical debut this week at the Baltimore Composers Forum concert with the original score by composer Elizabeth Skola Davis.  Watch the video below to see the performance by Joseph Regan, tenor, and Tim McReynolds, piano!

The lyrics originally appeared as a prose poem in the Los Angeles Review and as the title poem in my chapbook.

Frostburg, Jackalope-Girl, and Rose Red Review

I’ve been remiss in not writing about my wonderful experience at Frostburg Indie Lit Festival in October, where I was invited to be part of a panel on Fairy Tales Reimagined by Sarah Ann Winn. I stayed with a fabulous group of writers at a beautiful cabin in the mountains outside town, where the view on my morning runs actually looked like this:


At the festival, I went to wonderful panels and readings, met people in person whom I’d only known online before, and sold some copies of Wolf Skin at the book fair! The panel itself was so much fun, because identifying the traits that make fairy tale retellings successful–both in poetry and in fiction–has been an obsession of mine for years! It was wonderful to be able to talk about that with other writers and readers of the genre, and to get to hear fellow panelists Stacey Balkun, Sally Rosen Kindred, and Sarah Ann Winn read from their books. Bonus: I got to read snippets from Anne Sexton’s Transformations and gush about Donald Barthelme’s Snow White!

One of the chapbooks I bought at the book fair was Stacey Balkun’s Jackalope Girl Learns to Speak (Dancing Girl Press, 2016), from which she read at the panel. This was the first chapbook I chose to read from the mighty haul of books I bought (there was so much goodness!); I literally read it cover to cover at the I-Hop outside Frostburg on the drive home. Jackalope-Girl is a startling, fabulist collection full of wonderfully surreal imagery; I hadn’t read anything like it before. In the first poem Balkun imagines the title character born into a suburban family during an ice storm: “It was unusual/the cold front, the leporid wind scream./Nurses worried in the maternity ward…” She continues:

If the patients looked up, they would have seen
the last photographs of the new-dead flicker

across the screen with captions like tragic…
while frightened deer stilled in yards, antlers branching

toward the grayed sky. Gas stations and their 24/7 signs
stood, for the first time, un-glowing and nobody knew

to blame the jackalope-girl, newborn and hungry,
ears still unfurling, nesting in a stranger’s arms. (“Myth”)

The rest of the collection explores what follows from this premise in all its strangeness. Balkun spins a wonder-tale about Jackalope-Girl with poems that tell of her lost birth-sisters, how she learns to speak, her first time, her first tattoo. But the real wonder of the collection is the extended metaphor Balkun builds, simultaneously, about alienation, adoption, and those who feel like transplants in their own families. I highly recommend picking it up (here’s a link).

Immediately after I got back from Maryland, two of the poems from the full-length collection I’m working on were featured in the autumn issue of Rose Red Review. In the Dining Hall of the Glass Mountain” is a retelling of the Seven Ravens tale; “Bones Knock in the House” is a villanelle exploring the latent content in Hansel and Gretel. Also recommended in this issue is Sarah Ann Winn’s poem, “Witness” and John W. Sexton’s poem, “All the Way Down.” Thanks to editor Larissa Nash for all the hard work she did putting this wonderful issue together!

New Issue of Border Crossing

I’m excited to share the release of the latest issue of Border Crossing, the online journal I co-edit with Jillena Rose and Julie Brooks Barbour as part of our work with the Lake Superior State University creative writing program. As fiction editor, I’m especially eager to share the work of the featured fiction writer this year, Saramanda Swigart, who writes the most fabulous–and feminist–historical fairy tales!  “The Earth Falls to the Apple” tells the story of a young, 16th century noblewoman who receives a strange mirror as a gift from a suitor.

In the interview that follows the story, Swigart explains how the premise came to her as she researched how mirror technology changed in the 16th century. “Suddenly,” she explains, “human beings could see themselves in great detail… I began to wonder if the relationship toward the self changed as a result—if ideas about being human changed—leading to, or contributing to, a greater emphasis on individualism.” What resulted is a startling combination of fairy tale, historical fiction, and horror.

Overall, this year, the fiction we’re publishing this year is phenomenal. There’s “The House on Pienza Road” by Robert McKean, in which a man has an affair with his real estate agent as he tries to sell his recently deceased father’s house. We were especially impressed with the voice of this story and the wonderful, no-nonsense character of Ortensia Costello, the realtor, who comes to life from the very first page.  There’s “The Walk Away” by Cass Pursell, about a sheriff who encounters an apparently homeless man in a cemetery, who ends up being something else entirely. Pursell’s story is alternately meditative–a thoughtful reflection on grief–and full of action, with a suspenseful ending. “Entanglement” by TJ Heffers is a sci-fi piece about a pair of scientists who are experimenting with a dangerous new mode of transportation. The story is simultaneously lyrical and thrilling, and its underlying allegory is thought-provoking. We also published a strange and wonderful experiment by Leanna O’Brien, “Not Born But Built,” the story of a synthetic consciousness written entirely in code. And there’s the beautifully written LSSU High School Short Story Prize-winning story, “Shadows of Auschwitz” by Anna Shier, an alternate history about a woman living in a postwar Germany very different from the one in our timeline.

This issue also includes a number of talented poets, selected by my colleague Julie Brooks Barbour. Sally Rosen Kindred, this year’s featured poet, offers five magical–and densely lyrical–poems about crows’ funerals and ravens and floods. Hope Wabuke‘s prose poems are innovative, musical, and moving, with their stark and abstract language. “Night Tales” by Leah Umansky imagines promises archived by birds. And the issue is visually enhanced, throughout, by Jude McConkey’s dreamlike photography. There is so much goodness, you’ll just have to read the issue for yourself!


New Essay in Southern Humanities Review

I was excited to receive my contributor’s copies of Southern Humanities Review, today, featuring “The Birds,” first in a series of essays I’m working on about my parents’ and brother’s deaths–this one focusing on my father–and one of the most generous personal notes I’ve ever received from an editor. It is a very good feeling, that I’ve done well honoring my dad’s memory. I can’t say enough nice things about Southern Humanities Review, and their managing editor and nonfiction editor, Aaron Alford, who does excellent work. You can purchase the issue here. Also featured is poetry by Natalie DiazStaci R. Schoenfield, and more!

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Film Premiere at Movement/Text/Image

Below is the short film, which I produced collaboratively with Lloyd Eddy (visual artist) and Joshua Legg (choreographer and dancer). It premiered at the multimedia concert, movement/text/image, on April 1, 2016 at Lake Superior State University.  Such an amazing experience to collaborate with artists in other disciplines!


Fragments from the Alchemist’s Handbook

You’ll need the stone that burns. A pinch
of quicksilver. A map of the heart, of all
its parts. With thought, with will, combined.

With eyes squeezed shut, call memories
saturnine. Project what once was shadow,
the shapes of once upon a time—

You’ll need the stars. The stars. The faint,
wild echo of first explosions. The source
of energy and light. The spark. The fire.

Stand back. Stand back. Do not get caught up.
O body of flesh. O flesh made of water. Do not
become smoke, become dust. Do not die—

You’ll need a mask. Try clay or ash
or wood. Small worms make rivers. The work
of human hands. Your blood. Your sweat. Your time.

And then. And then. Watch will become wish.
Watch wish become spirit. Watch spirit become
thing. The impulse, awakened from your mind—

The Alchemy of Teaching Writing

It’s been a whirlwind semester, so far. In addition to reading and editing fiction submissions for Border Crossing with two wonderful internsI’ve been teaching two courses for the first time: a course on Responding to Writing for future teachers, and an intermediate creative writing course for majors and minors that is specifically designed to help students take risks in their writing, to encourage them to experiment in order to help them discover their voices.

Teaching the combination of these two courses for the first time together has brought some interesting insights. Much of the theory we’ve been reading for the writing response course discusses the importance of encouraging students to make their own decisions about their writing. Not only with regard to topic selection, but also with regard to choosing the best form to express their ideas, and even deciding what that best form is. English education scholars like Katie Van Sluys and Katie Wood Ray encourage teachers not to enforce their own aesthetics on students, but rather to ask students what they think makes good writing so that the students work on building their own aesthetics. In essence, good writing instruction is the ultimate panacea for the age-old complaint of the creative writing graduate: “What will I do when there are no more workshops?”

Ideally, we tell students, they should make friends with the other students in their program, so they can share their writing journeys and work. But post-graduation, the working writer most often makes decisions alone, in front of a glowing computer screen. And if what Walter Benjamin said about genre is true, that–

All great works of literature invent a genre or dissolve one.

Isn’t the core work of the creative writing teacher to foster a culture of experimentation, in which students are encouraged to take risks, so that they can work on developing and discovering their own voices?

The intermediate creative writing course I’m teaching this semester incorporates a collaborative–and rather experimental–performance project. I approached Lloyd Eddy, my colleague, the art professor at Lake State, before the beginning of the semester, looking for an opportunity for my students to collaborate with art students, and he invited me to come talk to him and Joshua Legg, our new dance professor, about a collaboration they were already planning. The three of us had an exciting discussion about the possibilities of a collaboration among students in all three disciplines, and I was really excited about the opportunity to collaborate with my colleagues. For years, I had made most of my decisions alone at my computer, and I’d never collaborated outside of my discipline.

At the beginning of the semester, we divided students into interdisciplinary groups, in which they had to decide not only the subjects for their collaborations, but what forms those collaborations would take. We formed a faculty group and met for weekly discussions, like our students, to deliberate about our own piece. This past weekend was the first dry run of the emerging collaborations, and I’m excited by the varied forms the groups have chosen. I got chills and tears in my eyes, more than once, as I watched the performances. There’s a dance in which a narrative poem torn into strips will be part of the costume of the dancer, draped over her dress and tied in ribbons throughout her hair; the final gesture of the dance is mirrored in a sculpture that will be projected onto the stage. Another dancer is using a spoken-word poem as her sound score; the artists in that group will exhibit a triptych of mixed media paintings. Joshua and Lloyd and I are making a film that explores the creative process through the visual imagery, gestures, and language of alchemy. It’s been so much fun to discover the similarities between all three art forms, to explore the creative process not only with words but also with art and dance. I’d forgotten how invigorating it can be to experiment together in the classroom and with my colleagues–who are brilliant and inspiring–and I can’t wait for rehearsals to start!

flyer by LSSU art student Rachael Hendges
flyer by LSSU art student Rachael Hendges

The Gossamer Pleasures of Faerie Magazine

Last summer, I started editing poetry for Faerie Magazine, the lush quarterly edited by Carolyn Turgeon, which was just profiled in the Style section of the New York Times. If you haven’t heard about Faerie yet, you should check out this article, which examines the magazine’s “gossamer pleasures” and calls it “wonderfully curious and deeply weird.”

I have to say, it’s been a delight to read all of the poetry submissions we’ve received these past few months, and to connect with other fabulist, fairy tale, and science poets. This autumn, we were excited to feature two gorgeous fairy tale poems by Sally Rosen Kindred.

The Winter 2015 Issue
The Winter 2015 Issue

The winter issue, out soon, will feature two seasonal science poems by naturalist and poet Elizabeth Bradfield, alongside an interview in which she explores the connections between her poetry and her work as a naturalist. Also featured: an interview with Isabel Allende!

Interested in learning more about FaerieCheck out our submissions guidelines here, subscribe here, or look for the magazine in the lifestyle section at Barnes and Noble. You can also sign up for our free weekly newsletter in the top left corner of this page.