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 >

 

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.

“Enchantment for me is no place to hide”—Elizabeth Gaucher on writing back to childhood

Elizabeth Gaucher, creative nonfiction author of “Dialing the Dark,” an essay featured in The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2017.

Our nonfiction editor, Nina Gaby, recently had this exchange with Elizabeth Gaucher, author of “Dialing the Dark,” an essay featured in The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2017 anthology. Elizabeth will be reading from her work at our book launch party, Friday, April 21, 6:30 p.m. at Contois Auditorium in Burlington’s City Hall. We hope you’ll join us >

It has been said that on some levels we write to understand what we know. You write about striving for an adult understanding beyond the understanding in your “child mind.” Are you still looking to make more sense of this evil which eventually did take over? I guess I’m asking if writing about it helps to at least provide some control over your version of it.

 It’s interesting that you use the world “evil.” That’s not a word I use, ever, because I don’t have a definition for it that doesn’t bleed over into other things. I don’t know what it is.

On some level, I think if there is “evil,” I was closer to understanding it when I was a child than I am as an adult. Maybe that is why I go backwards into the complexity. I grew out of being able to see and identify something mysterious rather than into it. What that something is I would describe more as a shadow. It falls on us, into our lives. We see it but don’t often know what is casting it.

I think that’s where I was, cognitively, as the narrator in this essay. Aware of a shadow, and wanting it to move away, but not knowing much more. I still don’t know much more.

There is a sense of enchantment that runs through your piece despite the tragedy of its narrative. I may be going out on a limb here, but do you think that is either consciously or unconsciously intentional, to soften it a bit for the reader? Like a child reading a Grimm’s fairytale, as Bettelheim has said, while unreal it is not untrue, and the child intuitively recognizes the difference?

 I will confess, I am a huge fan of fairytale and myth, which might seem odd for a committed nonfiction writer; at the same time, I don’t think they soften the truth. If anything, they make the truth sharper and sometimes more painful, unavoidable even. Enchantment for me is no place hide. It’s where there is no place to hide.

Consider “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Never happened. And yet, it is happening every day. You can’t hide from story because it is not even on your playing field. It’s above you, leaving you only to look up and gasp.

You girls had a dogged handle on controlling the mean man. In fact, from going through the editing process with you, “Mean Man” was an earlier title consideration, a theme you deftly braid into this piece. Is it still a descriptive metaphor for the evil lurking in these low-ceilinged rooms without windows, this Middle Earth as you look back through the frames of this story now? Was Bale’s death preventable or did you ever see it as such? “Initiative, control, choice” …are those innocent constructs or viable actions?

No one has ever accused me of deftness before. Thank you!

A writer has to, I believe, at some point let her work go. Release it and let it be to readers what it will be. I never felt, and still don’t feel, that “evil” was lurking in that house. This is where we help one another. Something, but what?

My narrator is less concerned with “evil” than with what seems unresolved. The place in this essay is full of unanswered questions for the child narrator. I think that is why the girls in this narrative are trying to find their own voices. They want to claim some agency in an environment where who or what is controlling the story is not clear.

Children are incredibly intelligent like that.

Whatever this unnamed thing was, it had power. I think now that it got its power from never being identified.

As far as Bale’s death is concerned, I have never tried to judge or analyze it as “preventable.” I am not going to start now. I sometimes wonder if by the time we are talking like this, “can it be prevented,” the answer is no.

And what do you want others to understand about suicide?

I did not write this piece to help anyone understand anything about suicide. I don’t believe that is possible.

But I did write it to share. To share the experience of not understanding, of feeling close but never close enough, to working to spend a lifetime making peace with grief.

In terms of craft, writers gain momentum often by work shopping their pieces and finding support for digging deeper into the story. What supported you as you explored this topic? There is a tendency in the new Medical Narrative genre to “go there.” A bravery in that we are exposing more about mental health, suicide, trauma, addiction, and abuse. Do you think ultimately this will help reduce stigma and encourage more mental health initiatives? Or do you think there is some other purpose or benefit?

I started this piece a few years ago. It has been workshopped in my MFA program, as well as with the outstanding editors with the BWW.

Early incarnations of the narrative did not spend much time on Bale. Looking back, I’m not sure why I ever thought I could avoid “going there” when it came to my own feelings about his death. But I do think it’s a process for most of us, especially in personal nonfiction, to find our footing with what we need to face. Just starting can be a victory. But good editors and classmates won’t let us stop there. “Go deeper” is essentially the last and best advice I received while working on my MFA.

I am increasingly fascinated by the writer/reader dynamic. Writers often seem to be in a place of, “This is what I want to tell you,” while readers come back with, “But this is what we want to know!” I’m getting better and letting go of my need and meeting the reader in the desire to know more.

From what I see, disclosing more seems to be helping reduce stigma around mental health issues. But I think it’s not as simple as disclosure alone. We have to be able to share with a sense of courage, and that can be difficult.

I sometimes wonder if we could see everyone’s depression, addiction, and delusion if we could handle it. The older I get; the more certain I am it is everywhere. Being more open about that in a responsible way—not for shock value or tabloid readership—I think will help in the long run.

And lastly, what are you working on now?

I saved newspaper clippings about a horrific flood in the state where I grew up, West Virginia. This particular flood destroyed the town of White Sulphur Springs. My family has close ties to this area.

There are many gut-wrenching events in these clippings, but there is one narrative about how a teenage girl died that haunts me. (I just got chills writing that.) I want to create an essay about her death, but I am still sitting with all of it.

Sometimes events and feelings have to live in my head for a long time before they find the page. But that’s part of being a writer! The thinking and the feeling and the just allowing things to be is important.

More about Elizabeth

Elizabeth Gaucher received her BA in History from Davidson College and her MFA in Creative Writing from West Virginia Wesleyan College. She lives with her family in Middlebury, Vermont. She is the founder of an online journal for creative nonfiction, Longridge Review. Her work has appeared in Still: The Journal, The Pikeville Review, and Brevity’s nonfiction blog, among other print and online publications. Learn more about Elizabeth at elizabethgaucher.com.

To hear Elizabeth 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 >

Opportunities & Announcements: Week of October 24, 2016

This is a very busy time for the Burlington Writers Workshop! Here are the top 5 opportunities you don’t want to miss over the next few weeks:

Top 5 Opportunities with the BWW

#1 Take the BWW survey

Deadline: October 28, 2016

the-bww-2016member-survey-1Share your thoughts on all things Burlington Writers Workshop—and help to shape what we’ll do in the future. The survey takes about 5 minutes. Deadline is Friday, October 28, 2016.

Take the survey >

 

#2 Submit your work for publication

Deadline: October 31, 2016

call-for-subsOur call for submissions for The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2017 closes on Monday, October 31, 2016. So make sure to submit your work!

We’re looking for your fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. The only criteria for eligibility is to have attended 1 BWW workshop within the past 5 years. Submit your work >

 

#3 Come to the BWW’s First Annual Member Meeting & Celebration

11-12-16-1Saturday, November 12 at Main Street Landing in Burlington:

Learn about all we’ve done this past year to meet member goals—and how you can get involved. Celebrate our dedicated volunteers. And, join us for our first BWW open mic night to share your talents with your fellow members. RSVP now >

 

#4 Support the BWW and win a basket of books

october-schedule-1Tickets on sale through Saturday, November 12 event

More than 20 accomplished authors who’ve either been a featured author in Mud Season Review, led a BWW guest workshop or retreat, or joined us for an expert panel or reading, have already donated copies of their latest books. And many of the copies are signed! Meet our authors >

Raffle tickets are $5 each.

And special offer: The first 2 people to sign up to be a BWW sustaining member (an automatic donation of $12 or more per month) this week will get 5 additional raffle tickets!

The drawing will take place at the Annual Member Meeting & Celebration. But don’t worry. If you can’t join us, we’ll contact you if you win.

To buy tickets, ask your workshop leader or make a donation and write your contact info + “raffle tickets” in the comments field. All proceeds go toward BWW programs & publications!

 

#5 Support the BWW in our online auction

Bidding open through Saturday, November 12 event

vtiff_logo-1Support the BWW—and local businesses—while buying some amazing gifts for yourself and others. Like a Friend Level membership to the Vermont International Film Foundation or a 10-class card to Evolution Yoga!

evolution-yogaWinning bidders can pay online through the auction site or by cash, check, or credit card at the Annual Member Meeting & Celebration on November 12. All proceeds go toward BWW programs & publications. Check out the auction > 

Announcements

Flynn Blog

Burlington Writers Workshop members regularly blog for the Flynn Center. Check out these recent posts:

Lauren J. Sanders previews the National Theatre Live’s Frankenstein, coming to Palace 9 Cinemas  on October 27 >

Josh McDonald previews the Middlebury Actors Workshop’s Macbeth, coming to the Flynn MainStage on November 1 >

Lorraine Ryan previews the Capitol Steps, on the Flynn MainStage tonight, October 25 >

Congrats…

Congrats to Anne Charles, whose review of the  2016 memoir A Body, Undone: Living On After Great Pain by Christina Crosby was recently published by the Lambda Literary Review (Vol. 7, Issue 94, Friday, Oct. 20, 2016). Read the review >

Congrats to Sam Hugheswhose poem “Representation” was recently published in Rattle. Read the poem >

And thanks…

Thank you to everyone who participated in our Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 book tour event in Middlebury. Thanks, especially, to Elizabeth Gaucher for coordinating and hosting, David Weinstock and Ann Fisher for co-hosting and reading, and to all of our readers: Zoe Armstrong, Melinda Bachand, Dennis Bouldin, Cynthia Close.

Thank you to Cathy Beaudoin for hosting our first workshop leaders potluck. And thank you to all the dedicated workshop leaders who made it out for our meeting!

Opportunities and Announcements: Week of September 5, 2016

Well, September is here! And it’s bringing with it many opportunities to get more involved in the BWW—as well as much excitement for what’s ahead.

best of 2017 (3)The first opportunity is a call for editors for The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2017. This year will be a milestone for us, as 2017 will be the 5th annual Best of anthology.

Working on the Best of is an excellent way to build connections with other writers and editors in the community while also building your editing, publishing, and book sales & marketing skills in an open and collaborative learning environment. We’ve expanded the available roles this year—including roles for lead editors, assistant editors, and a marketing & events coordinator—and I’m very much looking forward to working with this year’s team. If you’re interested in being part of Best of 2017, please consider applying.

Deadline for applications is September 30 or until positions are filled. Apply now >

If you’re interested in submitting your poems, stories, or essays for consideration, look for our call for submissions to go out next week!
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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 >

Opportunities and Announcements: Week of February 29, 2016

Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 anthology

Celebrate the launch of The Best of The Burlington Writers Workshop 2016: Friday, 4.29.16, 6-9:30 pm at the BCA in Burlington

Our April calendar is up at Meetup.com—and we’ve got a ton of exciting workshops and events planned, including guest author workshops with fiction writers Joseph Hurka and Robin McLean and poets Partridge Boswell and Gary Margolis.

April also brings our annual The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop book launch party. This year’s event will be held on Friday, April 29th from 6-9:30 pm at Burlington City Arts (BCA) on Church Street. Come celebrate with us and enjoy author readings, free food, a cash bar, live music by Seth Cronin & Friends, and lots of good literary company. Readings will feature the fiction of Natasha Mieszkowski, the nonfiction of Cardy Raper, and the poetry of Ashleigh Ellsworth-Keller, Deb Sherrer, and Linda Quinlan. RSVP now >

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Opportunities and Announcements: Week of October 5, 2015

Hotel Vermont Lobby

Fireside at Hotel Vermont

I am very excited to open the call for submissions for the Burlington Writers Workshop’s first-ever public oral storytelling events.

“It Happened One December: Stories by the Fire, a Hotel Vermont and Burlington Writers Workshop storytelling series” will take place on Saturday, December 5th and Saturday, December 19th beginning at 4:00 pm. We hope these will be just the first 2 events of an ongoing series. The deadline for storytelling proposals is October 31, 2015. Get the full details >

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