An interview with Peter Biello

Author and BWW founder Peter Biello

Peter Biello, founder of the BWW and the organization’s Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop series, has a short story (“The Man in the Orange Shorts”) featured in this year’s anthology. To hear Peter and other talented writers read from their work, join us on Friday, April 21, 6 p.m. at Contois Auditorium in Burlington’s City Hall for the Mud Season Review Vol. 3 & The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2017 launch party.  RSVP for this free event now >


You have a story included in this year’s book, but you’re also the founder of the Best Of series. Can you give readers a little background on how the anthology came to be? 

In 2012, a group of regular BWW attendees wanted to publish an anthology of work by folks who had attended at least one meeting. We weren’t as big an organization back then—we had no official business registration, no expenses except for the Meetup.com fees—but we did have a solid base of members we thought would submit work. So we raised a little more than $3,200 on Kickstarter and, long story short, we used that money to publish The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2013.

Did you envision, at the start, that this series would still be going five years later? How has it changed over the years? And where do you see it going from here?

At the start, I wasn’t sure how The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2013 would be received by the public. But I did a lot of legwork selling these books, the idea being that the proceeds would finance the following year’s anthology. We got some good publicity in Seven Days and a few other media outlets, which helped the workshop itself grow. Membership swelled and interest in Best of as a publication swelled, too, so by then I was fairly certain the anthology would be around indefinitely.

The book’s quality seems to improve each year, which tells me (1) we’re still growing and deepening our bench of talent within the workshop and (2) the workshop is helping the writers who stick with a writing routine and attend workshops regularly. Little things about the book have changed. For example, we didn’t have our green logo when the first book came out, but since 2014 that little green circle has appeared on the spine of each book. Some versions of the book often reserve space for the author to discuss their story, as The Best American Short Stories anthology series always does. I like seeing that, but it’s not always necessary.

My hope is that the anthology doesn’t change too much. Consistency over time feels right to me. I like the brevity of it (144 pages seems right). I like the mix of genres. And I love the collaboration between workshop members serving as editors and those who have submitted work. The workshop is a social experience; the work we do requires that we put down our cell phones and talk to each other like human beings and sort out aesthetic differences. Like everything the BWW does, publishing this book is a learning experience.

Your story that’s featured in this year’s Best of (“The Man in the Orange Shorts”) is one you’ve workshopped through the Burlington Writers Workshop. Can you talk about how the story evolved through the workshop process?

Sure. This story was originally called “Boo’s House”—the man in the orange shorts was yelling for a guy named Boo in early drafts, not Charlie—but workshop members thought it was a little too reminiscent of Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. Other interpretations involved ghosts. Those were not avenues down which I wanted my readers’ minds to travel, so I nixed the name “Boo”.

This story was the first piece I put before the workshop back in 2009. This was at the second or third (probably third) meeting of the workshop, which was held in someone’s backyard in Winooski. It may have been the first story that was emailed to participants in advance. Most of the time, in those early days, folks would just read stuff aloud at the meetings.

The story didn’t necessarily start as one about class guilt, but over the years, Sarah’s feelings about her new, privileged station in life stole the spotlight. The man in the orange shorts became a challenge to Sarah’s idea of herself as a generous, caring person. How many comforts would you give up to accommodate someone who is less fortunate? Everyone has a line. Sarah found hers.

When you submitted this story, you went through the same thing that all BWW members who submit to Best Of dowaiting to find out if your story got into the anthology. And, because we have a blind submission process, there was no guarantee your piece would be selected on the merits of the author being the anthology’s founder. You submit, and have had work featured in, many other journals. Is there anything different about waiting to hear from the anthology that represents your own writing community and the anthology you founded?

For me, there was no difference. I was glad that there was an anonymous way to submit. We don’t want even the perception that a story is published because of who the author is and not the story’s merits.

This is a story that, in some ways, the workshop deserves the credit for. I must have taken this story to the workshop at least three times over the years. Each time it had been significantly revised and I don’t think too many workshop participants saw this story more than once. I received a lot of suggestions. (Spoiler alert!) One suggestion came from our good friend Alexey Finkel, who said it was probably unwise of Sarah and Tim to bury the body in the backyard. I thought more about this and realized he was right, and the solution that Tim and Sarah came up with became another decision point for Sarah.

So—to get back to the question—I felt like the anthology deserved first crack at publishing it, so I didn’t send it anywhere else. If the workshop rejected it, I would have moved on to other markets. But I’m glad the editors took it.

What inspired the story of The Man in the Orange Shorts? You mention that it didn’t start out being an examination of class guilt. Where did it start and what sparked the ideaand its evolution?

An actual man in orange shorts inspired this. One night, when I was living in Wilmington, N.C., a man in orange shorts wandered up Market Street from his downtown hotel room and somehow found my living room door. There were two doors: a screen door, which we had left unlocked, and another door made entirely of small glass panels, which fortunately was locked. He was banging away at the glass door and screaming to get in. My wife at the time and I called the police, who took forever to get there. The cops determined he was on some kind of drug and simply drove him back to his hotel room. There was no justice. From that moment on, my wife was terrified of living there. The guy had ruined it for her. I was a little less frightened, probably because I’d grown up in a city where potentially dangerous people were more or less a fact of life.

That sparked the idea for the story. It was a very clear problem and good fiction often needs a clear problem. But how to solve it? Recently at my MFA workshops in Wilmington, we’d been talking about the idea of solving problems the simplest way possible. Your protagonist is going to try to solve the problem, but she can’t start with the extreme solution; she’ll lose the reader’s sympathy because she’s not acting logically. So she needs to start with a simple, logical solution everyone would turn to: call the police. If that doesn’t work, she needs to try a different solution. Build a fence, for example. If that doesn’t work, get a big, vicious dog. If that doesn’t work—well, wouldn’t you, as a reader, like to see what she does next?

All of the above, by the way, appeared in early drafts of this story. It became an exercise in escalating, failing solutions, hoping to make the extreme solution that she and Tim eventually use seem reasonable, if not admirable.

You mentioned that this story was workshopped several times. Is work shopping part of your writing process for all (or most) of your stories? And how does it fit into the overall process of writing? Do you find that stories often change as much as this one did through the workshop process?

I love the workshopping process. In some ways, it feels like a rough draft of a story is a dirty bit of laundry and the workshop is my laundry machine. And just like with a real laundry machine, some stains take more than one wash to clear up.

In general, I like going to the workshop with a piece once I’ve got a story with the beginning, middle, and end, and I’ve done everything I could possibly do without outside influence. One thing I don’t like in workshops—and what I’ve made sure we avoid at the BWW—is when the conversation steers toward rewriting the story at the workshop table. “Move this here” or “make this character do X” or other such comments can really hijack a story early in the process. Peer observations about what’s happening, without attempts to rewrite the story, can help an author steer a draft toward its true purpose. The story matures into itself. And I feel like my peers made keen observations that helped me see where this was going. Little seeds of class consciousness on Sarah’s part. Once I was in tune with that part of her, I followed the clues to see where they’d go.

This story changed more than most of my stories, but that may be a function of how long it took me to write it. I started it in 2009 and I finished it in 2017, so that’s eight years of writing a bit, then putting it aside for months or even a year, and then picking it up again and seeing it with fresh eyes. I grew as a writer. My sensibilities and interests changed and evolved. I suppose if you held up side by side the first draft and the last draft you’d think two different people took a crack at the same concept.

You’re working on a collection of short stories now. Can you share a little about that collection?

This collection features stories about people and living space. How does a home interact with the person living in it? How can a home generate conflict? And how can a home reflect someone’s emotional state? I don’t have a clear title for the collection yet, but I’ve got all the stories that I want to include.

One early reader of the entire collection, Megan Mayhew Bergman, told me that masculinity is one of the dominant themes. I had considered this a secondary theme, but I’m guessing this secondary theme going to stand out and perhaps overwhelm the first. Masculinity in general is not a subject I’m comfortable speaking about in public just yet.

The stories take place in Wilmington, N.C., Maine, and Cape Cod. Only one has any action in Vermont, but then those characters quickly move to New Hampshire. But the setting I’ve been happiest to revisit is my hometown of Fall River, Massachusetts. A few stories, including “The Man in the Orange Shorts,” take place in Fall River. It’s a former mill city that is now incredibly poor—high crime and high unemployment. The recession really hurt Fall River. It’s a place pounded by the opioid epidemic and there seems to be a strong belief there that addiction is not a disease, just a moral failing. I love the city in part because I carry so much of that place with me all the time—in the language I use, for example—but I don’t love it enough to live there. Writing about it occasionally is what I do instead.

What do you mean when you say you carry language with you?

Fall River’s language is unlike any I’ve heard anywhere else. It’s English with Portuguese words (slang or otherwise) sprinkled in. One of the obvious ones is chourico, that Portuguese sausage. It’s pronounced “sho-REESE” in Fall River. But it looks like “chorizo” and pronounced “sho-REE-zo” everywhere else. Another one I felt inclined to use recently was “quackish,” which refers to underwear. I’m not sure I’m spelling that correctly. There are others. They’re mostly dirty words, but you get the idea. Sometimes that language appears in my stories and I think those moments feel real, though they may seem like errors to readers who don’t know the city.

What’s your next project?

Well, I’ll probably spend the summer tidying up these stories about houses/masculinity and then searching for an agent. I’d also like to try my hand at writing a novel about the Lizzie Borden trial—another Fall River story—but I’d like it to not have much Lizzie Borden in it. I think that’s the cliché those who write about Lizzie Borden fall into. Rather than tell it from Lizzie’s perspective, I’d like to tell it from the perspective of someone who has had romantic feelings for her but has never expressed them. I think his anguish during the trial will drive him to do stupid things, and that seems like a fun challenge for me. How do I portray a man doing stupid things in 1892 and still make the reader like him? I’ve got some work to do.

More about Peter

Peter Biello is a reporter and the host of All Things Considered on New Hampshire Public Radio. His stories have appeared in Gargoyle, Lowestoft Chronicle, South 85 Journal, and other publications. Born in Fall River, Massachusetts, he now lives in Concord, New Hampshire.

To hear Peter and others read their work from this year’s anthology, join us for The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2017 and Mud Season Review vol. 3 print launch party: Friday, April 21, 2017 6-9:30 p.m. at Contois Auditorium in Burlington’s City Hall. RSVP now >

More about The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2017

This book is the fifth installment in the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop series. Founded in 2013, the annual anthology features work that is written, selected, and edited by BWW members. The mission of the anthology is to showcase the work of new, emerging, and established Vermont writers while offering Vermonters the opportunity to learn first-hand about the editing, publishing, and book marketing process. The 2017 edition will be available for purchase soon. Learn more or purchase a copy of past anthologies in the series >

 

We learn how to build better stories

An interview with author Benjamin Hale

Mud Season Review co-fiction editor, Natasha Mieszkowski,  and editor-in-chief, Lauren Bender, recently talked with Benjamin Hale, author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore and a featured author in MSR’s print issue Vol. 3. Here’s what Ben had to say about his work, his craft, and his advice on writing.

Author Benjamin Hale will read at the Mud Season Review launch party on April 21, 2017.


To hear Ben read from his work: Join us on Friday, April 21, 6 p.m. at Contois Auditorium in Burlington’s City Hall for the Mud Season Review Vol. 3 & The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2017 launch party.  RSVP for this free event now >


Your piece [featured in Mud Season ReviewTower of Silence is an excerpt from your next novel. What inspired you to write this work? What do you hope readers take away from it?

I was teaching a class at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop last spring, and at some point I mentioned a story about the legacy of Kafka’s archives. When he was dying of tuberculosis, Kafka gave all his unpublished manuscripts, diaries, letters and so on to his friend Max Brod, and told him to burn them all after his death. He didn’t—instead, Max Brod published a lot of them (which is why we have most of the Kafka we do), and held on to the rest, which he then left to his secretary and maybe mistress, Esther Hoffe, when he died decades later in Israel. And when she died in 2007, she left them to her two daughters. The fate of the Kafka papers is still undecided—the National Library of Israel is suing the sisters to obtain them. One of the students in the class remarked on how much she hated romantic anecdotes about famous male writers giving their papers to mistresses with solemn commands to destroy them. That comment sparked the idea for this story. The other ideas floating around in there have to do with our bad habit of romanticizing the lives and suicides of great artists who were bad or badly dysfunctional people; legacy; fame; and why anyone bothers to make art in the first place.

 

You spend a lot of time in this section developing the background of the two central characters. How much time did you take to plan these characters and their histories out? Have you mentally mapped out their future as well, or do you let the story shape itself? 

I always do a lot of planning and groundwork before beginning to write the sentences of a story.  I try not to start laying down the bricks and mortar before the architect has drawn up pretty thorough blueprints for the house. I always try to start a story with a nine-part outline: I detail the action that needs to happen or the information that needs to be revealed in each leg of the story before moving on to the next. This story takes place over the course of several months, and I know what happens to each of the characters during that time. I have no idea what they might do after the story is over.

The two main characters have not met by the end of this section. Yet you’ve established enough tension surrounding them to make the reader want to know what will develop between them, and what will happen to the boxes. Could you describe your thoughts on constructing a story with such a gentle build-up of tension while maintaining a reader’s interest?

Besides thinking about the story of the Kafka archives, the other source of inspiration for this novel was Heinrich von Kleist’s novella, Michael Kohlhaas. A year or so ago I was reading all of Kleist’s novels and stories—an interest that was brought on by Kafka—but I was particularly astounded by Michael Kohlhaas. It’s about a very stubborn, principled horse trader in sixteenth-century Saxony who gets screwed out of a couple of horses by a bored aristocrat; in seeking remuneration for this relatively petty injustice, events compound upon events, and the situation spirals rapidly out of control as Michael Kohlhaas stumbles into leading a violent peasant rebellion. The novella is narrated in a cold, distant style, hovering a mile above the characters’ heads. A dry, businesslike voice moves the story quickly from one action to the next. That’s the way I want this story to unfold. I don’t know if I’ve achieved it yet—it’s a work in progress.

Since this work is currently in progress, how do you feel publishing this excerpt will impact the story? Do you ever have any hesitation or anxiety about releasing a piece of your story for the public before it’s completed? 

Maybe I should feel some hesitation about publishing part of it before it’s done, but I don’t.

With such a compelling beginning that leaves so many questions unanswered, I’m sure our readers will be anxious to know when they can expect to read the rest of it. Do you have a timeline in place yet?

All that is undecided so far. I don’t want to say anything specific, for fear of jinxing it. 

Do you have any other writing projects in the works? How far out do you plan in advance?

I have quite a few novels and stories lying around in states of semi-completion, waiting to be returned to. I hope eventually to get back to all of them, but that is all dependent on a million things, most of all the fluctuations in my teaching schedule.

Could you describe your writing process, and how you approach revising?

Step one: Planning/research. I read a lot of books about the subject I’m working on, and when I’m ready, I map out the plot. Mapping the plot usually takes at least a few weeks, and I expect to go back to my outline and fiddle around with things many times over the process of writing.

Step two: Write the first draft by hand. I always write the first draft of anything by hand in notebooks first. I try to work as quickly as I can at this stage, hopefully during the chunks of time when I’m not interrupted by teaching—during the summer, or the winter break between semesters, in January. I don’t let myself start typing it up until I’ve finished a draft of the whole thing by hand.

Step three: Type up the second draft. I prop up my notebooks on a music stand next to my desk, and type the second draft into my computer. This process takes months and months and months.  In typing the second draft, I work much more slowly, reworking the sentences as I type, taking things out and putting things in. This stage of the process is better suited to the school year, when my writing time is much more stop-and-go than those long, unbroken stretches in the summer.

Step four: Hand-edit the manuscript. I print out the manuscript, and carefully go over every sentence, again taking things out and putting things in, playing around with word choice, grammar, messing around with the sentences. This, for me, is the most fun part of writing—paying extremely close attention to every word, experimenting with language, trying to make every sentence as beautiful and interesting as it can be.

Step five: Type up the hand-edits. I put the typed and edited manuscript back on the music stand next to my desk, and make all the changes to the manuscript. This is a very slow and careful process, as I’m hoping this one will be something like a final draft.

Step six: Repeat steps four and five until happy with the result.

What are you reading right now? 

A quick list of books I’m in the middle of reading, or that I’ve read or reread recently: Mark da Silva’s Square Wave, Frank Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy, John Berryman’s Dream Songs, Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation, Gabriel Blackwell’s Madeleine E., Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear, Martin Seay’s The Mirror Thief, The Collected Poetry of Wallace Stevens, Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. And then there are things that I’m rereading because I’m teaching them, or about to teach them: Descartes’s Discourse on the Method, David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster, Patricia Highsmith’s The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder, Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus and the Duino Elegies, Kafka’s “The Burrow,” Jakob von Uexküll’s A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans.

You’ve already published two books: The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore and The Fat Artist and Other Stories. How has going through the publication process changed how you start to write a new novel?

In one way, it heightens anxiety about writing a new novel: I know that this one will probably be published—I’m not working desperately in the dark, as I was with my first novel. But it lessens another kind of anxiety, which comes from the terrifying questions that haunt a writer who hasn’t yet published a book while working on a book: Am I wasting my time? Will anyone ever read this? You might never get back the hunger you had when you wrote while you were starving.

The subject of writing, and other writers, seems to wiggle its way into your works. Why is that? Is this a way of examining your own processes and place within the literary world?

Whether directly or not, all literature is commentary on other literature. Some works of literature choose to ignore this. Others address it head-on. Borges, for example, or Roberto Bolaño, assume that if the reader is the sort of person who is interested in reading a Borges story or a Bolaño novel, it’s probably a safe bet that such a reader would be interested in the lives and works of writers, critics, and poets. Some books seem to be set in worlds in which writers, readers, and books do not exist. That’s not my world, or any world I would want to live in.

What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?

The single most useful tool anyone has ever given me to go about the process of trying to write fiction was a trick William Melvin Kelley taught me about sixteen years ago. Willy Kelley died at the age of 79 just recently (on February 1, 2017), and I will continue imparting his system for outlining to my students until I die, or quit teaching. Here it is:

  • Write your story in three sentences: beginning, middle, and end.
  • Take those sentences and break them into nine sentences:
  1. The beginning of the beginning.
  2. The middle of the beginning.
  3. The end of the beginning.
  1. The beginning of the middle.
  2. The middle of the middle.
  3. The end of the middle.
  1. The beginning of the end.
  2. The middle of the end.
  3. The end of the end.

You now have an outline. Take this, and start writing. This system builds a three-act structure into a story, and helps you think about a plot architecturally.

You are a senior editor of the literary journal Conjunctions. What do you enjoy most about this role? How has it influenced your own writing?

A few years ago, I co-edited an issue of Conjunctions with Bradford Morrow (the magazine’s founder and longtime editor), but aside from that project, the title is basically an honorary one. I have a direct line to Brad open though, if I ever want to send him something or if I want to pass someone else’s piece along to him. I’m a proud member of the Conjunctions family.

Has writing been a part of your life since childhood? What is the first story you remember writing? 

The first pieces of fiction I remember finishing were a couple of stories that I adapted from Boccaccio’s Decameron, when I was a freshman in college. They were sex-revenge jokes set in monasteries, which I re-set in a boys’ boarding school. They were the puerile and gleefully nihilistic products of an eighteen-year-old boy, and I bet I’d be mortified to reread them now. And yes, writing has been a part of my life for as long as I’ve been a fully conscious human.

What writers have been important to your development as a writer? 

Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Günter Grass, Italo Calvino, Miguel de Cervantes, Flannery O’Connor, James Joyce, Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek, Patricia Highsmith…to name a few. There are many others.

Because we grew out of a workshop, we like to ask: what is your best or worst workshop experience?

I don’t have a particular experience that leaps to mind, but I do have something to say about the writing workshop in general, which is a fashionable thing to malign. The subject of what to call our writing classes here at Bard comes up from time to time—some people dislike the word “workshop” and want to do away with it. My colleague here, Ann Lauterbach, hates the word. I on the other hand rather like it. I like the humbleness of the word. It makes me think of shop class in high school: we would all be nailing and sawing on our birdhouses, while Mr. Arnold walked around the room, offering woodworking tips, practical advice about measuring, cutting, gluing, sanding. That’s pretty much the way I see my role as a teacher. I asked Ann why she hates the word “workshop” so much, and she said she doesn’t like the way it implies we’re “fixing” something. I don’t think of it so much as “fixing,” but as building—in this class, we learn how to build better stories. And in the process, we will have a more general conversation about what literature could be and should be, which is always the more important thing.

 More about Ben

Benjamin Hale is the author of the novel The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore (Twelve, 2011) and the collection The Fat Artist and Other Stories (Simon & Schuster, 2016). He has received the Bard Fiction Prize, a Michener-Copernicus Award, and nominations for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award. His writing (both fiction and nonfiction) has appeared, among other places, in ConjunctionsHarper’s Magazine, the Paris Review, the New York Times, the Washington PostDissent, and the LA Review of Books Quarterly, and has been anthologized in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013. He is a senior editor of Conjunctions, teaches at Bard College, and lives in a small town in New York’s Hudson Valley.

More about Mud Season Review Vol. 3

Mud Season Review Vol. 3 is the third in our annual MSR print issue series. This volume features fiction by Benjamin Hale, nonfiction by Jericho Parms and J. Drew Lanham, poetry by Chen Chen, and additional work by many other talented writers and artists. MSR Vol. 3 will be available for purchase soon at MudSeasonReview.com.

To hear Ben and others read selections from MSR Vol. 3: Join us on Friday, April 21, 6 p.m. at Contois Auditorium in Burlington’s City Hall for the Mud Season Review Vol. 3 & The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2017 launch party.  RSVP for this free event now >

 

 

Opportunities and Announcements: Week of March 20, 2017

Read our interview with Elizabeth Gaucher, whose nonfiction essay is featured in The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2017.

The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2017 and Mud Season Review Vol. 3 are off to the printer! We’re very much looking forward to sharing the latest editions of both publications at this year’s book launch celebration, to be held Friday, April 21 from 6 to 9:30 p.m. at Contois Auditorium in Burlington’s City Hall.

Gearing up for the celebration, we’ll be featuring interviews with some of our Best of and Mud Season writers who will be reading at the event. This week, our Best of nonfiction editor, Nina Gaby, speaks with Elizabeth Gaucher, whose piece, “Dialing the Dark,” is included in this year’s anthology.

Read the interview >

And join us to hear Elizabeth and others read at the event >

Opportunities

Spring 2017 Literature Reading Series
Beginning Tuesday, April 4 at 6:30 p.m. in Burlington
Thank you to everyone who voted to choose our next reading for this series. Each Tuesday evening this April, you’ll find us in our space in downtown Burlington reading and discussing James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Space in the group is filling up fast. RSVP now >

New member workshop
Thursday, April 6 at 6:30 p.m. in Burlington

Have you attended 5 or fewer BWW workshops to date? If yes, please join us for a new member workshop.  This is a great opportunity to learn about the workshop and see what’s it like to review a piece, all among other new members.  All skill levels are welcome. RSVP now >

Book Launch Party
Join us on Friday, April 21 at 6 p.m. to celebrate the launch of The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2017 and Mud Season Review Vol. 3. Enjoy readings from authors featured in both publications, plus free food, cash bar, music, and good company. RSVP now >

Join the staff of Mud Season Review
We have editing and reading positions open on our art, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry teams right now. We’re also looking for someone to help coordinate events. If you love literature and want to experience working on a literary journal, please let us know. Send inquiries to Lauren Bender, editor-in-chief, at editor@mudseasonreview.com.

 

Announcements

Flynn Center blog

BWW writers regularly blog for the Flynn:

Jeffrey Lindholm reviews Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s recent performance on the Flynn MainStage >

Cynthia Close reviews The Chieftains’ recent performance on the Flynn MainStage >

Congrats and thanks

Congrats to Deena Frankel, our oral storytelling workshop leader and designer of The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshopwho will be performing at the upcoming Boston Women in Comedy Festival.

Congrats to Michelle Watters, leader of a monthly BWW poetry workshop and Mud Season Review co-editor of poetry, whose poem was recently accepted by Typehouse Literary Magazine.

Thanks to Karin Ames for filling in on scheduling while our BWW scheduler (Dennis Bouldin) is away on vacation.

Thanks to Katie Jickling from Seven Days for joining us for Saturday’s workshop on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Vermont’s “Right to Know” laws for journalists.

Support

Support for the BWW comes from A Book of One’s Own Literary Services. Janice Obuchowski is a longtime fiction editor who helps cull and refine writing.  Through offering substantial feedback and developmental suggestions on short stories, essays, and book-length manuscripts, she can make your writing more compelling, polished, and ready to submit to agents and literary journals.  Contact her at ownbookliterary@gmail.com to inquire about specific pricing and services, or visit ownbookliterary.com.

Meet our new Mud Season Review editor-in-chief

An interview with Lauren Bender

I recently had a chance to talk with Lauren Bender, our new editor-in-chief for Mud Season Review. As I get to know her more, I’m ever more sure the journal is in very good hands. Here’s what Lauren had to say about how she got involved with the BWW, how she started writing poetry, and how she sees the journal’s future taking shape.

Lauren Bender, editor-in-chief, Mud Season Review

Lauren Bender, editor-in-chief, Mud Season Review

You’re relatively new to Burlington and I remember meeting you at your first BWW event, The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 launch party. You were so helpful and willing to jump right in and volunteer. Can you share with your fellow members a little bit about what drew you to Burlington in general and to volunteering with the BWW specifically?

I really fell in love with Burlington after my wife and I attended the Burlington Pride parade/festival for the first time in 2012. I grew up in a large city in Virginia but had spent the last several years living in a small town, which felt limiting to me after a while.

As soon as we knew we were going to move, I started scoping out the writing community, mostly through Facebook. One of the upcoming events I saw was the BWW Best of 2016 launch party. That led to me heading over to the BWW website and joining so that I could RSVP to that event, and then I saw the call for volunteers and thought that would be the perfect way to meet people.

You joined the staff of Mud Season Review shortly after joining the BWW. What drew you to the journal? 

The Mud Season Review Vol 2 launch party happened about a week after the Best of 2016 launch party; that was another event I spotted on Facebook. There were also copies of MSR for sale at the Best of launch, and I was impressed by the design and the quality of work included. I remember immediately wanting to get involved and emailing Rebecca soon after that to ask about any volunteer opportunities.

Can you share some of your favorite pieces from the Mud Season archives?

I really love Lisa Beech Hartz’s art-focused poetry (Issue 19) and Aimee Nezhukhumatathil’s poem “The Smallest Commotion” from our Volume 2 print issue. Lori White’s nonfiction piece “Mapquest to Auntie Iryne’s” (Issue 17) is brilliant with form without any sacrifice to the quality of the writing. With fiction, I’m usually drawn to magical realism and strangeness, so one of my favorites is Jacob Guajardo’s “We Have Commandeered Our Bodies to Science” (Issue 14). And there are a few art pieces that I feel I could stare at for hours: Dr. Ernest Williamson III’s “Regardless of What You Face” (Issue 4) and Jessica Nissen’s “Red Storm” and “Purple Storm” from our Volume 1 print issue.

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An interview with Vermont writer Spencer Smith

Spencer Smith will be reading her poetry at the upcoming Best of 2016 book tour event in Shelburne

Spencer Smith will be reading her poetry at the upcoming Best of 2016 book tour event in Shelburne

Our poetry editor, Michelle Watters, recently had this exchange with Spencer Smith, who will be reading her poetry at the upcoming The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 book tour event at Shelburne Vineyard. Here’s what Spencer had to say about her poetry and fiction writing and the inspirations behind her work.

How long have you been a BWW member?

About three years.

Do you think it has helped you grow as a writer?

I have been writing since 1977 so I don’t know about growing, but I like it. It has been helpful to me as a writer.

When did you start writing poetry?

I was living in NYC, working as a freelance writer. A friend of mine who wrote promos at ABC told me about a Haiku group she’d heard of called The Haiku Society of America. They met once a month at Columbia University.

I never felt like I could write poetry. I had never studied poetry and was very insecure about it, but I thought maybe I could do Haiku because it was a shorter form. We went, I liked it, and I continued to go to the group.

Later, I came to Vermont for a writers retreat in Adamant and I wrote my first poetry that was not Haiku. The poems were about nature. Then I wrote poetry off and on for the next ten years. This poem, “June Heat,” [featured in The Best of 2016] was one of a couple I was working on about Ukraine and Russia.

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Say hello to Mark Hoffman’s “Saying Goodbye”

Best of the BWW 2016 poet Mark Hoffman

The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 poet Mark Hoffman

Our poetry editor, Michelle Watters, recently had this exchange with Mark Hoffman, who will be reading his poetry at the upcoming The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 book tour event at Shelburne Vineyard. Here’s what Mark had to say about his poetry and the inspiration behind it.

How long have you been a member of the BWW?
A couple of years.

Do you think the workshop has helped your writing?

Absolutely. It’s expanded my perspective on writing technique and the nature of craft, while giving me a real sense of the process of writing, helping me to understand my own process so I can use it more effectively. Of course all of these things only have value when you practice; you can’t learn to walk just by talking or thinking about it, and writing is the same way. The workshop gives you lots of incentive to keep writing, as well a safe place to trot out new stories and try them out.

Your poem “Saying Goodbye,” which is in this year’s anthology, is simply put a classic love poem reminiscent of W.B Benton’s book of poems This is my Beloved. When writing this poem, did you intend to leave the reader with a sense of loss and time?

Yes, it was written to a specific person. I’d had a three-year relationship with someone; the poem in last year’s anthology was written near the beginning of that relationship. “Saying Goodbye” was written near the end. I often use poems as a way to clarify my feelings; when I hurt or something’s bothering me, poems help to embody those feelings, so I can understand them better and let them go.

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Filling the need for lightness and brevity in local poetry

An interview with Vermont poet Jimmy Tee

Our poetry editor, Michelle Watters, recently had this exchange with Jimmy Tee, who will be reading his poetry at the upcoming The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 book tour event at Shelburne Vineyard. Here’s what Jimmy had to say about his poetry.

How long have you been a BWW member?

Best of the BWW 2016 poet Jimmy Tee

Best of the BWW 2016 poet Jimmy Tee in his home writing space. 

I have been involved with the BWW since January 2014.

Do you feel that it has helped your writing?

Yes. I have learned to use the language and some techniques to better communicate my jumbled thoughts.

When discussing “”Meow Cat”” [Jimmy’s poem in Best of 2016] with my fellow editors, some felt that it could really be about a woman. Is that true?

It starts out that way. I was aiming to fill the need for lightness and brevity in local poetry.

 So is it about a woman or a cat?

It’s about a cat. I believe an author must work hard to approach the level of the subject. In this case, I lay prone on the floor staring deeply into her napping eyes.

Can you describe this cat for our readers a bit?

Meow Cat belongs to my daughter, Grace. Her official name is ‘Untitled Cat’ and she has also gone under the alias of ‘Rock Steady’. She is calm, affectionate, full of random surprises (as in ‘climbing boxes like Everest’ ), content to just be in the same room with you, but sometimes tribute must be paid and she demands attention.

How long have you been writing poetry?

Maybe ten years or so.

 Do you write in other genres?

Once in a while an essay or short tale. I’m beginning to write a cookbook.

Where do you see yourself as a writer in five years?

I enjoy creating my works in words, so I hope things stay about the same.

Who are your favorite authors?  Have you drawn inspiration from them?

Henry Miller is second to none; his vision of vitality through experience has followed me most of my life. Vonnegut for clear, human sense. Twain for his humor. I have been enjoying the poems of Sappho, Blake, and Hafiz lately.

What was your childhood like?

Lots of smiles and good times.

 What is your favorite place to write? 

At my desk under a Marc Chagall print. I am writing this at the beach, which is nice.

 What are some of the names of pets you have had throughout the years? Any sage wisdom you have picked up from interacting with them?

I had a dog named Bonzo, but he was difficult in many ways. Meow Cat is a gentle soul, untroubled with just a few desires. That’s for me!

To hear Jimmy and others read their work from this year’s anthology, join us for the upcoming The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 book tour event at Shelburne Vineyard. Enjoy a glass of local wine while listening to local poets read their work: a perfect pairing for any Vermonter. RSVP now >

About Jimmy

Jimmy Tee, resident poet from Milton, Vermont is a BWW member since 2014. Born and raised in Buffalo NY a very long time ago, he tells himself to keep it light and his cat agrees.

About The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016

This book is the fourth installment in the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop series. Founded in 2013, the annual anthology features work that is written, selected, and edited by BWW members. The mission of the anthology is to showcase the work of new, emerging, and established Vermont writers while offering Vermonters the opportunity to learn first-hand about the editing, publishing, and book marketing process. The 2016 edition is available for purchase on our website or in the BWW space at 110 Main Street in Burlington. Buy your copy now > 

An interview with Vermont poet Zoe Armstrong

Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop poet Zoe Armstrong

Zoe Armstrong will read her poetry at The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 book tour event at Shelburne Vineyard, Sunday, September 25, 2016

Our poetry editor, Michelle Watters, recently had this exchange with Zoe Armstrong, who will be reading her poetry at the upcoming The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 book tour event at Shelburne Vineyard. Here’s what Zoe had to say about her poetry and the inspiration for her writing.

How long have you been a member of the Burlington Writers Workshop?

Since June of 2014.

Do you feel it has helped your writing?

Yes, the BWW has helped me gain more confidence to be bold, silly, and controversial with my writing in a public forum. It has helped me think strategically about editing both of my own work and other people’s work. I have gained skills in hosting writing events and work-shopping.

In this year’s anthology, your poem “Wooly Worms” describes the narrator as “a huge alien in a big blue space ship.” Has there been a time in your life when you felt like an alien? 

Most days I generally feel modern humans have a disconnect with nature as much as we are connected to it. When I am on a highway in my car, a.k.a my spaceship, I observe the other space ships swirling around me on our tar pathways and I think the wild life would experience us as we would experience an actual alien in the sky from a space shape.

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An interview with Vermont poet Linda Quinlan

Linda Quinlan, Burlington Writers Workshop poet

Linda Quinlan in her writing space. Linda will be reading her poetry at The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 launch party, Friday, April 29th at the BCA.

Our poetry editor, Michelle Watters, recently spoke with poet Linda Quinlan, whose poem “Chelsea, MA” appears in The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016. Here’s what Linda had to say about her work, her inspirations, and her approach to poetry.

Your poem “Chelsea, MA” reads like memoir. Is it?
Yes. It was about my favorite Aunt Evelyn. My mother was the oldest of seven children. My favorite aunt was the youngest. She was the wildest, she was a flapper in the twenties and drank way too much. I used to run numbers for her. In the old days, people would pick numbers in a bar and then you would bring them to a bookie. If your numbers matched the numbers at the bookie joint, you got paid. I brought the numbers to the bookie.

What was your childhood like?
My childhood was working class. My parents were factory workers. My mother worked in a rubber factory and my dad was a steelworker. I was adopted and I had an older brother who was also adopted. He was eight years older and a sadistic bastard. I belonged to the hip crowd in school, lots of friends, lots of fun. I enjoyed the social aspects of school, not the academics. I still hang out with some of my high school friends when I go home.

Was there a defining moment in your life where it hit you that you were a writer?
Yes, eighth grade English class. There was a class on poetry and I fell in love and thought this is what I am going to do. We read Emily Dickinson and Yeats and later Plath and Rich. I thought it was magical.

What are some other jobs you had before becoming a writer?
I have always been a writer, but I have had jobs along the way. I owned my own painting business; it was one of the first all-women painting crews in the country. I’ve also been a financial aid adviser and a grant writer.

Do you have a favorite poem that you have written?
Yes, it was called “A New Orleans Farewell” and it was published in The Women’s Literary Journal about two years ago. It was about a friend of mine who died after Katrina. His name was Mike and he had undiagnosed hepatitis C and liver cancer. He had used a needle in his twenties and had gone undiagnosed.

Who are your favorite authors/poets/books?
Adrienne Rich’s Diving Into The Wreck, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. Martha Collins was my creative writing teacher in college. She is considered to be among the best top twenty American poets. Also I would say Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.

Do you consider yourself a feminist poet? And what does that mean to you?
I would say I am a feminist, but not necessarily a feminist poet, and even though I am a lesbian, I don’t say I’m a lesbian poet.

Where do you like to write?
I like to write at home in a small room, kind of a little cubby. I have a lot of poetry around me. I play music, blues mostly. I do a lot of pacing when I write.

Do you write anything besides poetry?
I do, but I don’t think I’m very good at it. Margaret Atwood made a statement that “if you throw water on poetry it becomes a novel.” I really identify with that because when I try to write nonfiction or plays, I just want to go back to poetry because I feel like I can tell the story better, more concise, more powerfully.

Where did you go to school/college?
University of Massachusetts, Boston 1970-1976.

You have been writing for a long time. What are some of the accomplishments you are proud of?
I was Poet of the Year in Wisconsin in 1989. I’ve also had lots of publications in literary magazines.

How do you think the BWW has helped you?
The BWW has enhanced the writing community for me and given me access to fellow writers.

Do you have any specific writing goals for the coming years?
I would like to get a chapbook published, but I guess I don’t put in the effort it takes to do that. I am very zen about this. I submit my poetry all the time to journals, but I just am happy with my life and enjoy it.

More about Linda

Linda Quinlan has been published in numerous literary journals, some of which include Pudding, New Orleans Review, Sinister Wisdom, and the North Carolina Literary Review. She was Poet of the Year in Wisconsin and had a play entitled When I Go to Sleep performed at the Players Theater in Waitsfield, Vermont. She lives with her partner in Montpelier, Vermont.

To hear Linda and others read their work from this year’s anthology, join us for the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 print launch party: Friday, April 29, 2016 6-9 pm at Burlington City Arts (BCA), 135 Church Street, Burlington, VT. RSVP now >

 More about The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016

This book is the fourth installment in the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop series. Founded in 2013, the annual anthology features work that is written, selected, and edited by BWW members. The mission of the anthology is to showcase the work of new, emerging, and established Vermont writers while offering Vermonters the opportunity to learn first-hand about the editing, publishing, and book marketing process. The 2016 edition will be available for purchase soon. Learn more or purchase a copy of past anthologies in the series >

An interview with Cardy Raper

Author Cardy Raper

Cardy Raper will read from her essay, “Mother Nature’s Kama Sutra,” at The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 launch party, April 29th, 6-9 pm at the BCA in Burlington.

Our nonfiction editor, E.T. Perry, recently spoke with Cardy Raper, author of the essay, “Mother Nature’s Kama Sutra,” which appears in The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016. Here’s what Cardy had to say about the themes of nature, science, curiosity, and independence that run through her life and work, including her latest book, An American Harvest: How One Family Moved from Dirt-Poor Farming to a Better Life in the Early 1900s.

Where did you grow up and can you describe your experience? How do you feel your upbringing has affected you?

Born and bred in Plattsburgh, New York, I was the youngest and only girl in a family of six siblings. My five brothers offered tough love. Whenever I accomplished something of note, the greatest praise I remember receiving was, “That’s pretty good—for a girl!” I was called a tomboy, trying to do most of the things they did: skiing, skating, boating, hiking, camping, working on the family farm in Peru. My dad, brought up on that farm, made a living as [a] small town lawyer—he brought home the bacon; mom stayed home, keeping the household going, loving and disciplining us kids.

You’ve had an impressive career as a scientist, researcher, and professor—having earned degrees from the University of Chicago and Harvard and publishing widely—and in 2012 you were elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Can you talk a bit about the trajectory of your career?

I became enamored of science in third grade at the practice school of the Plattsburgh Normal and Training School, which later became SUNY Plattsburgh. We had a science teacher who inspired us with hands-on projects, like building a simulated volcano or a toy sailboat. One spring evening he took us on a hike up a small Adirondack mountain overlooking Lake Champlain, and talked about the sun, the planets, the stars—what we knew and didn’t know then.

My youngest brother and I got so excited I announced, next evening at suppertime, “When Jonnie and I grow up, we want to be scientists!”

My mother responded, “That’s nice, dear, Jonnie can be a doctor, and you can be a nurse.”

“But Mom, I don’t want to be a nurse. I want to be a scientist and discover things!”

The desire persisted, but I was never encouraged to become a scientist until I became a graduate student at the University of Chicago and met my mentor, John Raper—better known as Red. We worked together. He respected my abilities and potential. We fell in love, got married, and worked together.

Your research as well as your essay in this year’s Best Of, “Mother Nature’s Kama Sutra,” deal largely with various modes of sexual reproduction. Within the many fields of science and biology, what drew you to studying and working on genetics and sexual reproduction specifically? 

The teachings of two professors at the University of Chicago: Red Raper, plant biologist and mycologist, a leading expert on reproductive processes in fungi, and Sewall Wright, a famous geneticist who was the first to work out a unified picture of evolution based on Mendel’s laws of inheritance.

What drew you to writing—be that science writing or creative writing? What relationship, if any, do you see between the two?

I was interested in writing from an early age, but chose science as a main objective, thinking, I guess, that I needed to experience something worthwhile to write about. Science writing evolved over time to become more factual and less narrative. Having retired from my career in science, I’ve felt the urge to convey the way and meaning of science to non-scientists. Writing for a different reading public has required a great deal of learning through trial and error and the advice of other writers and editors.

Are there certain authors you find particularly inspiring, and why?

My views change according to time of life, mood, etc. I’ve always loved reading Mark Twain’s works. I like Hemingway’s style but not necessarily his subjects or characters. Now I’m more interested in the development of characters in whatever I read. The subject has to keep my interest, and I like to learn new things, such as what it was like to live in the Victorian age, or be part of a string quartet, as in Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music. I’m currently a fan of good memoirs, biographies, and historical fiction.

How would you describe your writing style? How do you think it has evolved over time? 

I strive to be fairly focused and concise while sparing in the use of adjectives and the passive voice. I like to make a story of nonfiction with a narrative approach while avoiding heavy reliance on litany and strict chronology. My writing of memoir [and] creative nonfiction is very different from my previous writing of scientific papers and grant proposals.

I love how “Mother Nature’s Kama Sutra” weaves together biological understandings of gender with ideological ones, meanwhile a studied wonder and appreciation of Mother Nature as the ultimate innovator pervades. How do you feel scientific information and personal anecdote work together in your writing? 

I think the personal touch can convey the message in a more compelling way—allows for the opportunity of introducing passion, pathos, and humor.

Can you describe your writing routine? What would be your ideal conditions for writing? 

I need to be in the mood for it. Then [I] work in a quiet place, like my study at home, without interruptions. I prefer the midday hours. When the mood fades, I quit and do something else.

You are currently a Burlington resident. How would you characterize your relationship to Burlington and to Vermont? 

Burlington is the ideal place for me to live out my remaining years. I love the availability of attractive amenities within manageable confines, the beauty of the landscape, and the proximity of treasured relatives, friends, and colleagues.

Your memoir, A Woman of Science: An Extraordinary Journey of Love, Discovery, and the Sex Life of Mushrooms, as well as “Mother Nature’s Kama Sutra,” seem to deal significantly with themes of independence—independence as a woman, as a scientist, and perhaps also as a mother, wife, and author. Can you talk a bit about these themes and how they might take shape in your life and your work?

Having been brought up as the youngest and only girl amidst a bunch of dominating older brothers, I had to develop a sense of independence and self-worth just to survive. Importantly, family love was always there for me. I thereby gained respect for worthy accomplishments.

What do you expect the impact of your writing is on your readers? What do you hope they come away with?

I hope to help readers gain a better understanding of how one can succeed with passion, persistence, and a great deal of hard work.

It sounds like you have a new book coming out soon—can you tell us a bit about that?

My new book, An American Harvest: How One Family Moved from Dirt-Poor Farming to a Better Life in the Early 1900s, is just off the press and available for order.

Details can be found at www.cardyraper.com. This family memoir is written in the tradition of the Foxfire series. A review from Vermont author, Howard Mosher, describes it as “a wonderfully authentic swatch of Americana ranging from tobacco raising to hog butchering, old-time revivals to community corn-shucking, clannish feuds to mutual help in times of need…a loving avocation of a hard way to live.”

To hear Cardy and others read their work from this year’s anthology, join us for the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 print launch party: Friday, April 29, 2016 6-9 pm at Burlington City Arts (BCA), 135 Church Street, Burlington, VT. RSVP now >

 More about The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016

This book is the fourth installment in the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop series. Founded in 2013, the annual anthology features work that is written, selected, and edited by BWW members. The mission of the anthology is to showcase the work of new, emerging, and established Vermont writers while offering Vermonters the opportunity to learn first-hand about the editing, publishing, and book marketing process. The 2016 edition will be available for purchase soon. Learn more or purchase a copy of past anthologies in the series >

“Exploring what is arising, being deeply present, and finding authentic connection” —Deb Sherrer on the power of writing and yoga

Deb Sherrer, Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop poet

Deb Sherrer will read her poetry at the 2016 Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop launch party on April 29th at the BCA in Burlington

Our assistant poetry editor, Jessica Dudley, recently had this exchange with Deb Sherrer, who will be reading her recently published poem, “of love, sustaining,” at the upcoming launch party for The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016. Here’s what Deb had to say about discovering the power of words, finding her authentic self through writing and yoga, and what “of love, sustaining” means to her.

You mentioned in your bio that as a young girl you wrote a holiday card and sent it to soldiers in Vietnam. What inspired this? And what was the response you received?

Our fourth grade teacher, Mrs. K., was incredibly thoughtful and kindhearted, and this was demonstrated in many, many ways, including engaging us in service. She asked us all to make a holiday card for soldiers serving in the Vietnam War. In all honesty, I don’t remember many details about the content except that I acknowledged it must be hard being so far from home and family over the holiday and I hoped they would be safe.  

For some unknown reason, I was the only student to receive a letter back. It was three pages long, and the soldier said he had appreciated my note so much it had been hung for others to read. He proceeded to tell me a bit about his life in Vietnam, his hopes of coming home to the Midwest. It was very respectful, kind, and clear that he had been touched. I think what was impressed upon me, at that very young age, was that words could touch people you didn’t know, living in very different circumstances a world away. It was very moving, like a big circle flowing back and forth, all from words on a page.  

Did you continue to write throughout high school and college?

Yes. And ever after. English classes were my favorite in high school, and writing was the academic realm in which I succeeded the most. I designed and completed an independent study in Russian poetry in 12th grade.  

Did you have a favorite poet or poem that inspired you as you were growing up?

I should probably name a Russian poet (smile), but Nikki Giovanni was one of the first poets that really resonated with me.  

And what about now? Any favorites?

Many:  Mary Oliver, Naomi Shihab Nye, David Whyte, Maxine Kumin, Marie Howe, Li Young Lee, Galway Kinnell, Kate Ryan, Jane Hirshfield, Phillip Levine, Maya Angelou, Lucille Clifton, Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercy…

So, transitioning here, I understand that you are a therapeutic yoga instructor now. “Of love, sustaining” has a beautiful meditative quality to it, I think, and seems to celebrate mindfulness in the way the narrator carefully illustrates this brilliant sunset. I’m curious about what you think of the parallels between writing and practicing yoga. Do you find that taking the time to do yoga influences your writing at all?

Writing and yoga have many parallels in my experience and definitely inform each other. Both are about exploring what is arising, being deeply present, and finding authentic connection. They also both require practice, the discipline of showing up and a willingness to discover new things about yourself or the world. On the mat or on the page, whatever we practice grows.  

And does taking the time to write help you be a better yogi?

Yes. Fundamentally yoga and writing are spiritual practices for me. They are about nurturing connection to my authentic self and connecting to something bigger and beyond. In yoga, it becomes the practice of a physical narrative and deep listening.  

Have you ever lead a yoga class that ties in writing for healing purposes?

I have incorporated small writing exercises into the trauma-sensitive yoga series I offer every fall and spring for women. They are invited to write a few words before and after practice to capture “Where they are starting from” and “What is present now.” There is no agenda or expectation about what arises. It simply provides a context for individuals to reflect in words.  

“Of love, sustaining” is the concluding piece in The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016, which we all felt was very fitting. Despite the inevitable darkness that follows every sunset, this piece places emphasis instead on feeling content with and accepting of the cycles of life. The poem concludes with a prayer for the narrator’s ashes to be “anointed with wild rose,” to leave “no human marker/ save the imprint/ of love.”

What does this ending mean to you?

I believe we live on through love and compassion, through the imprint of the lives we’ve touched and nurtured, be it in relationship or service. The ending is also literal, as I have no interest in concrete memorials. While I deeply respect the personal choice of others, I have no interest in land being used for my burial or a headstone. I hope I will be remembered by my love of the ocean and the ever-changing sky.  

Would you say, in general, your environment plays a big role in your poetry?

Definitely. Natural beauty is balm and meditation combined. Living by Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks is like living in a postcard. And I enjoy this every day, whenever I can.  

Do you have any specific places that you like to write?

Everywhere and anywhere I can. More seriously, in quiet, cozy spaces.  

I’ve noticed that you often tie in photography with your poetry. Why is this?

This is a newer practice. I have always loved photography and am rediscovering it. I’m a bit of a Sunset Geek, and as noted above, the ever-changing sky is a wonder. I am always looking up or out across the expanse to see the shifting moods, colors and cloud formations. It’s an ever-changing watercolor, and we get to see this every day. “Of love, sustaining literally began in my head on a bike ride last November  when it  was unseasonably warm. I biked the seven miles home from work and saw the sunset from beginning to end. The attached photo was one of the last pictures I took on Spear St.  

One last question before I let you go: I noticed you blogged about going to Wanderlust last year. Are you going to the festival again this year? And if so, will you take the time to write there?  

I’m not sure I will make it back to Wanderlust this year, due to other travel plans. But I will write on trips to Maine and possibly abroad. It goes everywhere.  

To hear Deb and others read their work from this year’s anthology, join us for the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 print launch party: Friday, April 29, 2016 6-9 pm at Burlington City Arts (BCA), 135 Church Street, Burlington, VT. RSVP now >

 More about The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016

This book is the fourth installment in the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshopseries. Founded in 2013, the annual anthology features work that is written, selected, and edited by BWW members. The mission of the anthology is to showcase the work of new, emerging, and established Vermont writers while offering Vermonters the opportunity to learn first-hand about the editing, publishing, and book marketing process. The 2016 edition will be available for purchase soon. Learn more or purchase a copy of past anthologies in the series >

“A collision between grace and brutality”—Natasha Mieszkowski on capturing childhood in fiction

Natasha Mieszkowski, Burlington Writers Workshop author

Natasha Mieszkowski, author of “Bug,” one of four short stories in The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016

Our fiction editor, Elizabeth Gaucher, recently had this exchange with Natasha Mieszkowski, author of the short story, “Bug.” “Bug” is one of four stories featured in The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 anthology. Natasha lives in Northern New York. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College, and currently is co-editor of fiction for Mud Season ReviewHere’s what Natasha had to say about developing the child character, Bug, and how she uses scenes to advance her story.

Bug is the name of the child protagonist and point of view character in your story. He leapt out at me immediately as an exceptional character, truly unique and compelling. How did you come to create Bug? Did you have any particular inspiration for him?

Bug grew out of a scene I had in my head of a child interacting with a weird cat. Then I was driving home on a winter night and the car ride scene joined with that scene. He’s not based on anyone I know, he’s more a compilation of strange childhood impulses I still remember. I did, however, know the cat [featured in “Bug”]. He never blinked.

You sustain a very tight, intimate world in this story. There are few characters and only two settings we “see,” a car and an apartment. By implication there are other settings, but everything takes place in one car and one small apartment. Did you know when you set out to write this story you would keep it this close, or did the narrative just tell you what it needed? How did you decide to keep things mostly on a car seat, a couch, a kitchen chair?

I try to think of things from a child’s perspective. The whole world is huge, but what is right in front of you means everything. When everything is too overwhelming, you need to break it down into smaller segments.

It helps to compartmentalize it, to isolate and really explore all of Bug’s small moments. What might seem minor and significant to an adult can seem huge to children, can occupy their entire world. The details that are so worn out for us are new to them, vibrant and unexplored. So you don’t necessarily need an expansive territory when writing from a child’s perspective. A car seat can be an entire universe.

There is an unseen character in this story, Bug’s father. Yet he is profoundly influential and ever-present. How did you go about creating this character, one who in some ways drives all the action and yet never appears or speaks?

Silence and absence can really help you punctuate a story. By writing around a gap you end up revealing so much about it, and the present characters, just through how they behave, react, and remember. It’s the elephant in the room, and it carries a lot of weight.

There is always an ‘outside’ affecting our decisions and our lives. The father character is both an ‘outside’ and an internal presence for Bug. For me, this story has always pivoted around the bar of soap, a tangible representation of a person Bug both misses and fears.

As the literary community knows, Harper Lee passed away this year. Her general readership adores To Kill a Mockingbird for its social justice messages and heroic father figure. Most writers, though, admire this work for its consistent narration by a child. It’s incredibly difficult for an adult writer to establish and maintain a child’s point of view. How did you go about structuring this story and keeping everything in Bug’s POV? Were there special challenges in your early drafts?

The challenges always revolve around vocabulary, and characters’ awareness. Would Bug be able to understand the meaning of the phone ringing? Am I using the right words to communicate his experience to the reader? It’s about striking a balance between a raw world of unarticulated emotion and adult reality.

It’s kind of like puppy-proofing a home. You just get down there on the floor and see things from their eyes. The scale of everything becomes different. A puff of dust is a mountain. It’s challenging but incredibly refreshing.

What special value do you see in the child narrator/POV?

Children have a unique way of seeing things. In a sense they have a great amount of freedom in how they express themselves. At the same time, they lack the vocabulary and social knowledge to respond in the way adults might. They are subject to all of the emotions and circumstances that adults are exposed to, yet have a limited set of skills in terms of how they can react.

I feel this gives a pure lens into human experience. Childhood can have a raw, unfiltered take on things, which can drive a story toward the most primitive and pivotal emotions.

Childhood, for me, has always been a collision between grace and brutality. We lived near woods and a river when I was growing up, and I remember once our family dog came home carrying what I thought was a stick. It was a deer’s leg.

It is this juxtaposition between innocence and a pragmatic knowledge I am reaching for.

You are very good at writing scenes. “Bug” hums along with some amazingly well-wrought scenes, and it’s clear that you are skilled at avoiding expository writing. Has that always been the case? Is it natural for you to write in scenes or is it something you have developed over time? Any tips for other writers?

When I start a story it usually begins with one image. This is why I struggle with plot. I have an image and the story takes off from there. I am attracted to very small moments, and want to see what I can extract from awkward intimacies. Writing is awkward and painful. I tend to keep things condensed into scenes because that is what makes sense to me. Interactions between people are often just microscopic happenings, that don’t seem important at the moment but ultimately mean everything.

So I guess I just stack the scenes on top of each other like building blocks, and try to tie them together to make a sound structure.

Own what you feel, and visualize it. The world you write should be the world you live in, for the moment. Let everything else around you disappear.

How did you come to write fiction? Do you mostly write short stories? What do you like about fiction writing?

I actually never thought I could write fiction. I used to write poetry when I was a kid, but was eventually pulled away by art forms that were a bit more social in nature. Then one day a theater friend boasted he was the better writer, and something clicked inside. I took a class at a local university just to prove him wrong. The instructor took me aside one day and told me I should go to grad school.

I write short stories partly because they are the underdog of literature, and I have a contrary nature. Everybody says you have to write a novel in order to get anywhere and that may be the case. But I’m not willing to let go of the short story. It’s an art form that deserves its own significant place and shouldn’t be overshadowed by the pressure to publish ‘the novel.’

How has your engagement with the Burlington Writers Workshop influenced your development as a writer?

The Burlington Writers Workshop has been invaluable to me. I didn’t know anybody or anything when I moved to this area, and this group gave me a platform to express myself, and a community I could be a part of. The workshops are so helpful, and are always aimed at helping a writer to achieve his or her goal. Frankly, if I hadn’t discovered this group, I might not still be writing. It’s a warm, encouraging group of people who just want to see everybody grow and learn in their progress as writers.

The final scene of “Bug” is intense. I’ve heard people call it things like terrifying, powerful, and unforgettable. I admire it for its layered complexity. You leave the reader with a lot of possible interpretations and debates. Without giving too much away, how did you develop that scene?

I wanted there to be a climax that concerned Bug, from his point of view, while bringing in the unseen, hovering presence of the father. I wanted it to be Bug’s scene. He is the one who has to launch himself out of this hurt. But because of his young age he isn’t fully able to comprehend what is happening, the significance of the events, or even his own actions. He’s operating on raw emotion and reaching for something he doesn’t even understand.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a short story about an empty box of wine. And how to get rid of it.

To hear Natasha and others read their work from this year’s anthology, join us for the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 print launch party: Friday, April 29, 2016 6-9 pm at Burlington City Arts (BCA), 135 Church Street, Burlington, VT. RSVP now >

More about The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016

This book is the fourth installment in the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshopseries. Founded in 2013, the annual anthology features work that is written, selected, and edited by BWW members. The mission of the anthology is to showcase the work of new, emerging, and established Vermont writers while offering Vermonters the opportunity to learn first-hand about the editing, publishing, and book marketing process. The 2016 edition will be available for purchase soon. Learn more or purchase a copy of past anthologies in the series >

 

An interview with Ashleigh Ellsworth-Keller

Michelle Watters, poetry editor of our forthcoming The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 anthology, recently interviewed Ashleigh Ellsworth-Keller, whose poems “Bones” and “Lovefeast” are featured in the anthology. Here’s what Ashleigh had to say about the inspiration for her poetry and the importance of feminism in her writing.

Poet Ashleigh Ellsworth-Keller

Poet Ashleigh Ellsworth-Keller

What was going on in your life at the time you wrote “Bones” and “Lovefeast?”

I was 24 and I’d been living in Arizona for almost a year, and had just spent a jam-packed two weeks along the East Coast with friends, family, and former flames, all of whom I desperately missed. Though I didn’t yet realize it, when I wrote those poems, it was the beginning of a year-long internal search to decide whether I would stay in Arizona and go back to school or move to New York City and pursue the bohemian lifestyle while I still could. Ultimately, I decided to stay, but only after many months of emotional turmoil and a lack of trust in what was best for myself.

Both poems have themes of love gone wrong throughout. Would you say your other work has the same feel?

Yes, I think so. A lot of my poems and fiction have a hint of darkness. I find that happy endings are just not as interesting and difficult to write without sounding saccharin. One of my favorite poems that I have written is called “Spring Cleaning (Swabbing the Decks).” The thing that I love about the poem is it draws the reader in with images of sunlight and newness and freshness, then it slowly descends into the realization that a relationship can’t be fixed and ends with an image of death.

Would you consider your work to be feminist? What does that mean to you?

Yes. My core interest in feminism has been nurtured through my master’s thesis, Contemporary Eco Feminist Fiction, so I am always interested in the intersection of women and nature in literature. There are so many stories that women are ashamed to tell. And the more women tell them, the more often they bring these stories to light, I believe the more we do this as women the less stigmatized we will be. 

When did you know you were a poet?

I was a sophomore in high school and I had a poem published in the high school literary magazine. It was called “Weather Girl” and it related my emotions to different types of weather. That was the first poem that I really felt worked and I was proud of. 

Did you have any mentors or teachers that were integral to your development as a poet?

No one particular person is coming to mind, but I have had a lot of great English teachers throughout my schooling.

Do you write anything other than poetry?

I write short fiction. I have been working on a novel for too long. It is about a young woman who is trying to decide the path of her life after college. Also, I have kept a journal for 25 years.

Are you working on anything now?

I’m always working on something, but yes, right now I am working on a short story now that I work-shopped at a December workshop and that story is about a reunion of friends after the death of someone from their group. 

Where do you like to write?

A coffee shop as long as I am disconnected from the Internet. I like the ambient noise and, when I have my writing in front of me, I can focus on that. 

What writers or poets have influenced you?

My influences are usually the same people who are my favorite writers. Some poets I appreciate are T.S. Eliot. His poetry can be whimsical yet mysterious. I also love Christina Rossetti. Her poetry is both romantic and religious. My favorite poem of hers is “Goblin Market.” It is a religious parable about two sisters and these goblins that tempt them.

My favorite fiction writers…Louise Erdrich. Her book The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse made my thesis possible. My favorite all-time writer is T.C. Boyle, and his ability to employ different voices in all of his work has been a huge inspiration to me as a writer. 

What is an average day in your life like?

I get up early, about 5;30, eat breakfast, read a magazine or book, I go for a run on the bike path, and I go to work. I work for a nonprofit called the DREAM Program. We are a mentoring program that pairs college students with youth that live in low-income housing neighborhoods. I am the camp and teen program director. After work, I come home and prepare dinner with my husband, David, and then we will watch a movie. 

Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?

Columbia, South Carolina, the oldest of two kids. A very happy, healthy childhood. It was fine up until a certain point when I started to realize I didn’t fit in because I didn’t have the same conservative views as my family and community. I guess around my freshman year of high school, all I could think about was how to get out. The things that made me happy were acting and writing. Spending summers at summer camp. After spending several summers at camp and realizing when I was there my friends and I were accepted for being ourselves. Everyone was so open it gave me hope that I could find this elsewhere in the world.

Do you find that writing workshops are an important part of your writing process?

I think the most important contribution the workshops have made to my writing process is that they have given me more confidence in sharing my work. Previously, I have always been apprehensive about showing others my work, but attending the workshop and being able to critique others work has helped me to realize that it is okay to be vulnerable.

How to do you see your writing career developing in the next few years?

I would like to set aside more time to write, submit more to literary journals, hopefully get some of my fiction published, and continue to connect with like-minded writers for support.

To hear Ashleigh and others read their work from this year’s anthology, join us for the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 print launch party: Friday, April 29, 2016 6-9 pm at Burlington City Arts (BCA), 135 Church Street, Burlington, VT. RSVP now >

More about Ashleigh

Ashleigh D. Ellsworth-Keller lives in Burlington, Vermont with her husband and is the Camp DREAM director for The DREAM Program, a regional nonprofit mentoring program. She enjoys reading, writing, running, and hiking.

More about The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016

This book is the fourth installment in the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop series. Founded in 2013, the annual anthology features work that is written, selected, and edited by BWW members. The mission of the anthology is to showcase the work of new, emerging, and established Vermont writers while offering Vermonters the opportunity to learn first-hand about the editing, publishing, and book marketing process. The 2016 edition will be available for purchase in April, 2016. Learn more or purchase a copy of past anthologies in the series >