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Expanding the Parameters of Literary Nonfiction

by Monica Barron, Book Series Editor, Contemporary Nonfiction Series

The first publication in the Contemporary Nonfiction Series, Trout Streams of the Heart by Chad Hanson, was published in April. It is a lovely collection of narrative essays with a first-person narrator and an ecocritical bent. The second volume, Bodies, of the Holocene by Christopher Cokinos, is due out this October, and pushes the boundaries of the essay firmly into the lyric essay category and affiliates even with prose poems. Over time the books in this series will define the series. But we are pleased that the initial books in the series suggest the broad territory we are interested in: traditional literary essays, researched nonfiction, memoir if it is firmly situated in a cultural/literary/social context, and lyric essays.

A few months ago at the AWP (Associated Writing Programs) Conference in Boston I attended a session hosted by AGNI journal, “Options of the I: The Post-Memoir Memoir.” I went to that session because I feel AGNI and The Seneca Review have done incalculably valuable work to enlarge our conception of literary nonfiction, creative nonfiction, and to expand the parameters of the lyric essay. Panelist Lia Purpura spoke of the palette of gestures she drew from in the “atmosphere of lyric permissiveness” necessary for her work. It seems to me she’s pointing at not just the work she’s done in her life to make writing possible, but also the work editors do to enlarge or define the literary territory their magazines and presses inhabit.

As I sit down this summer to read manuscripts for this fledgling series, contact writers, or arrange upcoming visits with writers, all of it is in the service of finding manuscripts that contain what at least one of those AWP panelists referred to as “new configurations of the contemplative and narrative self.” I know there are writers out there ambitious to situate their work in magazines with a track record of publishing the full range of nonfiction. If you are building a collection of such work, please see the author guidelines for our Nonfiction Series and send us your book proposal.

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E-books: A Promise, Not a Threat

by Liz Fifer

E-books are a gimmicky, inferior alternative to traditionally paperbound books. They will make bookstores and mass-market paperbacks to be novelties of the past.

That was my fear, at least.

I was as skeptical as anyone else when e-books first hit the market. Reading from a computer-like monitor seemed so unappealing. I didn’t want my favorite local bookstores, rich with personality, to be replaced by online, impersonal booksellers. The next generation would never cozy up and escape with a good book—they would be forever distracted by their email on their tablets.

But working as an intern at TSUP, I had more exposure to them. TSUP produces and distributes their e-books to various vendors (Amazon, Barnes & Noble’s, iTunes, etc), and their profits have benefited from the new-found market. I worked with assigning styles to manuscripts to be turned into e-books and witnessed the intensive preparation a manuscript undergoes in the transformation to an e-book. It garnered my respect, and I began to reconsider e-books.

I found that e-reader monitors had changed and bright screens no longer strain my eyes. New advances in technology allow them to resemble paper and are easier to read under sunlight. And while I thought that the price of e-readers and tablets weren’t reasonable comparative to real books, their prices have fallen and e-books are generally cheaper than their hardback or paperback versions. With online marketplaces, it is also convenient and simple to buy books.

But my most important discovery was that e-books are revolutionizing the industry of publishing. Because of the appeal of e-readers and tablets, readers are enticed to read and buy more books—as books have become easier to transport and acquire. While hardbacks and paperbacks are still the huge majority of sales for publishers, e-books provide additional revenue and are boosting the industry. They’re also a foolproof use of resources. Publishers don’t have to worry about overprinting electronic copies of their books.

In addition to publishers making more money, authors find it easier to self-publish and make some money too. It is relatively easy for an author to self-publish electronically. While they certainly won’t hit the New York Times Bestseller List with self-publishing alone, they can still make money for low production costs. Readers can connect with these authors and quickly get the next book in a series. Most significantly, the author can retain their independence and promote the spirit of writing without relying on big publishing houses to do so.

E-books, I have realized, aren’t a replacement for a book in hand—they are a supplement. It isn’t the medium of storytelling that is important. It is that we are still communicating stories. While I thought the newfangled technology was threatening my traditional paper-turning ways, I have reconsidered. E-books are another avenue for publishers, authors, and readers. For storytelling, they are promising for the future.

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The Lure of Missouri Noodling

by Cody Anthony

Noodling has been gaining much media interest in recent years as a curious tradition of rural Southern United States. The sport, which consists of men and women plunging barehanded into submerged river holes to pull out catfish, has been featured on popular TV programs such as Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs, History Channel’s Mudcats, and in its own Animal Planet series named Hillbilly Handfishin’. Noodling is fascinating for its high stakes as an extreme sport; not only must the participant battle strong currents and hidden dangers below the water, but in states like Missouri one must also do this as an outlaw because noodling is banned for its unknown effects on catfish populations.

So who are the noodlers exactly?

Mary Grigsby, an intrigued University of Missouri researcher of rural sociology, explores this question in her book Noodlers in Missouri: Fishing for Identity in a Rural Subculture. Grisby interviewed 20 men and 10 women noodlers in order to hear what the activity means to them.

In an interview with The Maneater, Grigsby said she started with the questions, “Why had people persisted in doing this from 1919 to 2005 when it was illegal? Why do they keep going in a river, going under water, using their hand as a lure to get chomped and bleed? What would make someone really want to do this, even though it is illegal? I think my book answered that.”

The penalty for noodling in Missouri is no small sum either. A noodler who was active in Noodlers Anonymous told Grigsby about the legal issues noodlers must face. “If you’ve never been caught before you can’t understand the feeling that I have when I go because I was caught in ’91 by the conservation agent. Cost me $500 and the maximum is 1,030 days in jail. If I get caught again that’s where I’m going, probably to jail. Whoever gets caught with me is going to face the same penalties and I don’t want to be responsible for that” (90).

With the threat of legal action constant, noodlers are motivated by more than just the fish they catch. Grigsby found in her research that the noodling subculture is quite different than the images portrayed by the generalized culture in popular media. “For people involved in noodling, the activity transcends the realm of sport. The intimacy with members of the group, the immersion into the natural environment, and the ‘primitive’ closeness that noodlers experience with their prey are parts of a web of cultural meanings and values that illuminates what noodling means in the noodling subculture and why it has persisted despite its illegality” (8).

Most noodlers see noodling as an important opportunity to spend time with families and to teach their children important cultural values such as teamwork, trust, respect for the environment, and overcoming difficult adversity in daily life. Grigsby said the noodling tradition is part of a cultural identity that defines noodlers as a unique group of hardworking, rural people and establishes their worthiness in the face of a dominant culture that grants higher worth to middle class suburban and urban values.

For these reasons, Noodlers Anonymous continues to lobby for legalization of noodling in Missouri. Primarily through their efforts, noodling was legalized in 2005 as part of a 5-year experimental study, but was halted in 2007 after the Missouri Department of Conservation stated that the catfish population was under duress. Of the 646 tagged catfish caught that season, only one had been captured by noodling.

“They’re all about the money” Connie, an avid noodler, told Grigsby. “And they can’t make money off a hand-fisherman because there’s nothing that a hand-fisherman needs but a rope. That’s it” (84).

There is no evidence that noodling will become legalized in Missouri again in the near future. But for devout noodlers these obstacles have not dampened their spirits. “It’s like I told the UPS man the other day, it’s the challenge,” Howard Ramsey told The New York Times. “Anybody can throw a trout line in the river and hang a perch on it. But very few people are going get in the river, and wade around and look for a hole in the bank, stick your hand in there, and hope it’s a catfish.”

As long as challenges persist, noodlers don’t see noodling dying out anytime soon.

 

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Preserving a Native Language

by Ashley Butner

Within the span of the next fourteen days, one language will die. If this rate continues, then by the year 2100, nearly half of the world’s seven thousand languages will disappear (Rymer 60).

With every language forgotten our culture sphere shrinks. And in an increasingly homogenized world, what we risk losing is far greater than words. We relinquish songs, delineations of seasons, myths, terms of endearment, names for animals (and on and on) into a black hole of terminal silence. What hangs in the balance are priceless facets of living heritage that not only endow native speakers to name their own part in existence, but enrich the global community as well. For with each language removed from our comprehensive lexicon, we forfeit a unique and essential square in the quilt of human experience. When mother tongues become homeless we sacrifice diverse worldviews.

Ahtna, a group of people surrounded by the Chugach, St. Elias, and Wrangell Mountains, amidst the valleys of the Copper River in southeast Alaska, is one such perspective. The place Ahtna calls home—much like the language itself—is remote and enduringly beautiful. As one of less than twenty remaining speakers of this Athabaskan Indian language, Dr. John Smelcer’s bilingual book, Beautiful Words / Kasuundze’ Kenaege’: The Complete Ahtna Poems, is a linguistic and creative landmark. To understand why, we must first examine Ahtna’s (relatively brief) history as a written language. In the poet’s own words:

“The first Ahtna word ever written down was ‘naa-taakie,’ most certainly nadaexi, the Ahtna word for snow. That was in 1787. A few others were written down by Russian explorers over the next few years and decades. But, largely, our language remained hidden from the Western world. Little by little, word by word, over two hundred years, our language was partially documented by Russian, French, German, and American explorers, miners, missionaries, and, eventually, by trained linguists. Serious work didn’t really begin until the 1970s.”

As the past so often begs for serious and immediate responsibility, “The Poet / C’etsesen” (4–5) brings us up to speed with Smelcer’s present role.

I am beginning to write in our language,
but it is difficult.

Only elders speak our words,
and they are forgetting.

There are not many words anyhow.

Dahwdezeldiin’ koht’aene kenaege’
ukesdezt’aet.

Yaane’ koht’aene yaen’,
nekenaege’ nadahdelna.

While most of Ahtna is documented now—including James Kari’s impressive list of place names—Smelcer comments on the comparative scarcity of his language to other major languages such as English, Spanish, or Chinese:

“When a high school or college student buys a popular English dictionary, the cover will often boast, ‘Includes over 30,000 words!’ Indeed, the English language contains many times that number. In contrast, the entire Ahtna lexicon contains a fraction of the entries in one of those cheap paperback versions; I’d go so far as to say less than ten percent, which makes translating from Ahtna into English very difficult. For me, I have to think of a poem in Ahtna first, because the lexicon is so restrictive. Imagine colors, for instance; Ahtna really only counts a handful of basic and primary colors. Even then, brown and green are confused, almost as if Ahtna didn’t really see much of a difference between the two. Words fundamental to any poet worth their salt, such as love, does not exist in Ahtna, yet, quite understandably, we have numerous words for the various conditions of snowfall or, say, for the names of the parts of a snowshoe or a dogsled.”

While the lexicon is sparse in many areas, the ones in which it is abundant deserve to be remembered, to be written and passed down. Until these bits of culture are lastingly sewn into the fabric of our consciousness, then generations lose access to their own unique context and position in the world. For it is these special points of emphasis that customize cultural and geographic experience, and in doing so, add color and distinct patterns to our greater quilt. As Ahtna is rooted to its own landscape, the poems that emerge from it are tinged both with mourning and joy “A salmon weeps in a fish trap / Luk’ae tsagh yii tiz’aani (19); The earth laughs in flowers / Nen’ dlok’ tah c’et’aan ‘unetniigi (31).”

In this collection, Smelcer has pieced together a map of Ahtna culture and history that is a signpost to the present as well as the past. By interspersing poems about current problems such as “A Polar Bear Tries to Adapt (to Global Warming) / Tsaane’ Ggay Dzes Cu’ts’endze’” (22) and “Soda Pop Song / Tuu Nelnesi C’eliis” (67) between works about trickster and creator Raven, Owl, Fox, and Mouse, Smelcer emphasizes that cultural pride and rejuvenation are the first step toward progress. What is lost in translation is everything.

“Aside from my own writing, no other literature has ever been produced in the Ahtna language,” Smelcer said. “There are no models. No teachers. So, when asked to provide specific passages that were difficult to translate, my reply is that every line of bilingual poetry I write is difficult. And sometimes, I simply discard a poem after realizing it simply can’t be translated effectively.”

In this way, the poem, “The Indian Prophet / Uni’di C’ilaenen” (3) expresses the grave and undeniably lonely position of the speaker of an endangered language, “Almost no one remembers. / I am sick and lonely / and weak from crying. / K’aagu kenaege’ niic kole. / Ts’iye ‘est’aat ‘el sneyaa / ‘el stiye’ kole tsagh. But, as if in acknowledgment of his own contribution, “The Poet / C’etsesen (4–5) reminds us that there is hope, too, “I do not speak like an Ahtna elder, / but I hear the voice of a spirit, / hear it at a distance / speaking quietly to me. / Sii ‘e koht’aene k’e kenaes, / Sii ndahwdel’en, / dandiil‘en / s’dayn’tnel’en.

When a language disappears from our collective lexicon, so do the idiosyncrasies of our world. The opportunity for linguistic variety both authenticates and elevates our ability to render our own universe. And without this opportunity we will find that at times, silence can be deafeningly louder than words.

John Smelcer reading “Heart”:

[jwplayer config=”myplayer” file=”http://media.truman.edu/media/trutube/1612.mp3″ height=”24″]

NOTE: Because of font limitations, some special characters may not display properly in this work.

Works Cited

Smelcer, John. Beautiful Words / Kasuundze’ Kenaege’: The Complete Ahtna Poems. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2011. Print.

Rymer, Russ. “Vanishing Voices.” National Geographic July 2012: 60-93. Print.

 

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The Dibbuk Box: Jason Haxton on Writing His Story

by Jeff Denight

Jason Haxton writes in his journal daily, and has for the last twenty-two years, yet he has never considered himself a writer. Even now, after the publication of his book, The Dibbuk Box, a wild and fantastic telling of his real-life experiences with a haunted Jewish wine cabinet, Haxton doesn’t regularly think of himself as an author. This may seem strange that someone who is a member of the Author’s Guild and has a major motion picture based on his book wouldn’t consider himself an author. Yet, Haxton’s experiences with writing are collaborative, and he attributes his success to not only himself, but to everyone who helped him along the way.

When Haxton first had the idea for his book, he had no intention of writing it himself. He felt that if he provided the story and the material, then someone else might do a better job. After contracting with Truman State University Press to publish his story, Haxton originally took his idea to a writer recommended by the Press. But when this author began experiencing the strange effects of the box, he backed out.

Next, Haxton took his idea to Giles Fowler, author of Deaths on Pleasant Street, published by TSUP. Though Fowler was excited about the new project, he was unwilling to write it for Haxton.

“Giles agreed to edit my book,” Haxton said. “I wouldn’t have considered myself a writer then—I just have these journals—so when I sent in my first fifteen pages, I got three of them back. They were just bleeding with red ink.”

It was clear to both Fowler and Haxton that their system could be a bit more efficient. Haxton began sending a few pages at a time to Fowler, and this began a constant flow of new pages to Fowler, edits back to Haxton, revisions back to Fowler; each writer working in collaboration to craft a better book. Fowler was so dedicated to the book that he continued to edit it until they finished, which ended up being a few months later than he agreed to.

“The writing process took about nine months,” Haxton said. “Though Giles originally agreed to help for seven, he stayed on the project until we were finished.”

Haxton said he’s glad that he decided to work with Fowler in the way he did, instead of continuing his search for an author for his book. For the book, Haxton kept it true to life, and he said if someone else were to have written it, “It would have still been my story, but it wouldn’t have been my story. It would have become their interpretation of the story.”

With Fowler’s help, Haxton was able to keep a personal connection attached to the book, the reason he believes the book has been such a success. “They’re all true events. I can go back to any one of those days and look up what happened, because they’re all in my journal. I guess the pure honesty of my thoughts, what I experienced and what I was feeling came from my nightly journal entries—never knowing what the next day would bring with this item—truly comes through in the story. I guess that is why people like it—it is honest and occurring as you read it. Writing the book from my journals allowed me to keep from spoiling the mystery.”

The Dibbuk Box doesn’t rely solely on his own journals or experiences; it is riddled with stories and testimonies from previous owners, various folk who encountered the box, and a few anonymous persons whose only contact with the box was through a photo of it. Furthermore, people who play a role in Haxton’s Dibbuk Box story seemed naturally drawn to help Haxton in his efforts to understand and cleanse the box of its demonic evil. Even before the book was written, the story of the Dibbuk Box had a way of bringing people to work together, and that didn’t stop with just helpful strangers on the Internet.

In October 2004, a lawyer representing Sam Raimi, director and producer of such films as the Spiderman trilogy, approached Haxton. Raimi heard about Haxton and the Dibbuk Box through a Los Angeles Times article, as well as through Haxton’s own website. Raimi wanted rights to make a filmed version.

Though Haxton didn’t mind the idea of the story being retold, he said, “I originally told them ‘No.’ It didn’t matter to me who he was. I didn’t care. I was just starting my book, my kids were still young, and, most importantly, I was happy. I didn’t want anything to get in the way of that.”

But eventually a contract was drawn up that allowed Haxton to keep rights to a book, documentaries, replica boxes and a few other elements. A movie based on the box, The Possession, will be released August 31.

Just like with Haxton’s book, there was no shortage of people working on the film’s script. Haxton said there have been three scripts drafted for the film. Stephen Susco (The Grudge, The Grudge 2) penned the first of the scripts; his was loosely based on Haxton’s personal experiences, with the protagonist being a museum director who has recently taken possession of a haunted Jewish box.

Susco’s script was polished and finished, but then bad news came. While at a party, Susco ran into his friend and fellow screenwriter, E. L. Katz (Autopsy), who was elated about a new job that he had just received. The job? Katz signed on to write the script for a dibbuk box movie; the very movie that Susco had just finished writing. Katz’s script told the story of a college student who bought the box from an auction on the Internet; a close similarity to the owner previous to Haxton.

Once Katz’s script was completed, he received bad news as well; his script had been passed over, and this time Juliet Snowden (Knowing, Boogeyman) was to write the coveted screenplay. This version of the script is the final version, with the story vaguely following Kevin Mannis’ story, the original owner of the box.

Haxton hypothesizes that these first two drafts of the script aren’t just going to be thrown away. “It’s not like they were bad scripts. They were good. They just weren’t where the story begins.”

Haxton’s guess is that Raimi had the full story written in a backwards order, starting with Haxton’s experiences and leading all the way back to Mannis’. This way, Raimi could produce sequels to The Possession quickly, without sacrificing story quality.

“Raimi is a master of horror. He took control of the American horror genre with The Evil Dead trilogy; Japanese horror with The Grudge,” Haxton said, “and there’s no way he’s going to give up on Jewish horror.”

Many of those who worked on the film wanted to keep close to Haxton’s story, often asking him for advice or to draw inspiration from his stories. Though Haxton has written to all of the screenwriters, he still has regular contact with Susco. “Susco has kept up a friendship,” he said. “Mostly by his contacting me about the movie, my book, articles in magazines. And he has expressed a desire to do more work, if possible.”

Haxton’s contribution to the films didn’t stop there. In order to draw inspiration for the box, Raimi’s assistant asked Haxton to acquire an exact replica of the box.

“They were too afraid of having the actual box,” Haxton said. “Nobody wanted to house it.”

The box in the film, while not the exact replica, does draw upon the wine cabinet’s unique hinges, its odd appliques and Jewish inscriptions. When I asked why they decided to go with a chest instead of the replica, Haxton responded, “It was for practical purposes. [Natasha Calis, who plays the box’s first buyer in the film] needed to be able to carry it, but the replica was too large.”

Because the filmmakers worked so closely with Haxton throughout the process, taking his experience for inspiration, Haxton thinks the film complements his book, rather than detracting from it.

“I believe from what I have seen so far,” Haxton said. “That the movie truly complements the suspense I tried to keep in the book of not being too sure what might come next, and also that element of help coming when it is unexpected from unexpected sources.”

It seems that in the past few years, everyone wants to have a hand in telling the tale of the Dibbuk Box. Beside the book and the movie, there are several other groups telling the tale of this demonic box. One of which is SyFy Channel’s popular docudrama series, Paranormal Witness, which will air an episode on August 29 titled “Dybbuk Box” about Haxton’s story. Haxton said they were very excited to work on that episode, and that it could be one of the most-watched episodes of the season.

“SyFy really wanted this story because it was already vetted. With most ghost stories, you get people who have no real proof other than their statement. ‘Oh! I saw a ghost!’” (At which point in the interview, I admit, I thought Haxton had actually seen a ghost in our meeting room. But then he continued.) “They have to do research into these stories to make sure it’s true. Mine was already vetted. I have eight years of journals, a published book, and lots of contactable references. Their work is already done for them.”

Besides The Possession and the SyFy program, the story of the Dibbuk Box continues to be told again and again. Haxton spoke about the box and his book on multiple podcasts, an episode of The History Channel’s Fear Files based on his story, and in a six-page spread in Entertainment Weekly on August 3. It seems that this story has a natural draw to people that sparks their imagination, and they want to be a part of it. Haxton think this is because “People have always loved stories like this. We have Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster… what else? Chupacabra, that’s the newest one. But it’s really been a while since we’ve had a true story create a legend like this.”

In order to tell this intriguing story completely, Haxton understood the need to include as many voices as possible. Haxton said that he couldn’t have told his story without the participation and help from all who have been involved; that it’s great when “everybody comes together, when you help each other. Collaboration is the only way to get a great finished product. If you’re nice to people, and give what you can (especially if it doesn’t cost you anything), then you’ll only foster good relationships.”

With all the excitement stirring around the story of the wine cabinet, could there be repercussions with tempting the haunted box? The film crew has already felt the effects of the Dibbuk Box. Haxton said that a few days after The Possession finished filming, their entire props warehouse spontaneously burned to the ground. If the dibbuk did actually cause this incident, what will happen when this film is released to the wider audience? In The Dibbuk Box, the box affected people after they saw only a picture of it. This is a major motion picture telling the story for entertainment; could the malicious effects be intensified?

I asked Haxton what he thought about this possibility. He said, “I believe people will feel a connection and have issues—they always do—but so far nobody has died, just felt horrible bad luck. So, I am not too worried.”

Then he joked, “Then again, there is that Mayan ‘December 2012: End of the World’ scenario—maybe it can give that ball a kick start.”

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Mona Lisa Saloy discusses poetry as a journey

Three T. S. Eliot Prize poets will visit Truman March 29 to promote poetry and highlight their prize-winning books published by Truman State University Press, now celebrating 25 years of publishing.

Rhina Espaillat, Mona Lisa Saloy and Dean Rader will be on the Truman campus as guest lecturers in several creative writing classes. They will all take part in a discussion panel at 1:30 p.m. in the Student Union Building Alumni Room to talk about the craft of poetry and getting started in publishing. The poets will read from their prize-winning books at 7 p.m. in the Student Union Building Down Under where books will be available to purchase. The public is welcome at these events.

The T. S. Eliot Prize, sponsored by the University Press, was first established in 1997 and receives national recognition for the quality of work published. Each year the Press receives about 500 manuscripts for the competition and a well-known poet selects a final winning manuscript. The author wins $2,000 and publication.

In preparation for the event, we invited each author to tell us about their interest and career in poetry.

Saloy, author of the 2005 prize for “Red Beans & Ricely Yours,” has had her prose and poetry published in many anthologies and magazines. Her folklore research and writing focuses on the culture of New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina. She teaches at Dillard University.

For more information, visit Saloy’s website: http://www.monalisasaloy.com/

How did you decide to become a poet?

Actually, I didn’t, poetry picked me. Initially, I wanted to be the first black girl to win Gold swimming at the Olympics; but it was the end of Jim Crow. Rather than integrate the local pools, city pools were closed. Then, I wanted to be a designer of clothes, but I really did not draw very well, but I could sew; I sewed my way through my first two degrees for sure, sewed for some in the NBA, some on the Globe Trotters, mostly men’s custom casual clothes, and men tipped well. It was a way to continue my studies on my own schedule, hiring myself out to shops. I took a class here and there between work, really directionless and still swimming, where I met my husband and married too young.

Six months into the marriage, we had a car accident that left me with a broken pelvis (so no kids), a hole in my lung, a concussion, and no memory. I wrote to remember, was flat on my back for a year, then attended poetry readings at the little café next door to student housing (when we married, my husband was a full-time student, and I worked full-time). It was there I heard Black literature, the works of Langston Hughes, Sonia Sanchez, Alice Walker, Don L. Lee, Amiri Baraka from the student poets; and since I was there often just listening, but friendly, they inquired about me.  I told them the stories I remembered about New Orleans, and they told me I “sounded like a writer.” At the time, I didn’t know what that meant. They urged me to meet their teacher, a professor at the University of Washington, Colleen McElroy.

I made the appointment, went to her office still on a cane with my little notebook of scribbled memories, no clue what I was doing. She listened, looked at me, and said “You might have something here; let me show you what you might do.” That began a life-long mentorship. It was Colleen, emeritus from the UW to opened me to the life of literature and writing, who gave me my writing life. Then I studied poetry with Nelson Bently there, and fiction with Charles Johnson (Faith & the Good Thing—still a favorite of mine, & Middle Passage); composition with William Irmsher & others who helped shape me. Under the guidance of Colleen McElroy, I participated in the United Black Artists Guild, the Northwest equivalent of the Umbra workshops of New York, or Congo Square Writers Workshops in New Orleans.

How did you first get published?

Working intensely with Colleen, college coursework, and the workshops of the United Black Artists Guild, the UBAG published a journal called Dark Waters, edited by Charles Johnson; my first writing appeared there. Then, I placed in a Northwest writing contest, second or third; I don’t remember now. Later, I was selected for the poets-in-the-schools pilot program in the Northwest, and interned at the University of Washington Press, where I learned everything from editing to indexing and layout.  I was hooked by the writing life.

What has it meant for you and your career to win the T. S. Eliot Prize?

The T. S. Eliot Prize was such an honor and a game changer. Its prestige is well-known, so my first book rose from the pile of annual first publications. Then my book appeared in October, a few months after post-Katrina flooding closed New Orleans down and forever changed half a million lives forever; no one was home, so it was some time before returning to “market” my work there.  The T. S. Eliot Prize moniker allows me a continual one-up in marketing still, so I’m extremely thankful to have been selected.

Which poets or authors do you often read? Why do you enjoy reading them?

In poetry: Niyi Osundare, his metaphors are extraordinary; Muriel Rukeyser’s craft always teaches me something; Sonia Sanchez, Ntozake Shange, & Carolyn M. Rodgers marry craft to my culture and are daring!  In non-fiction: W.E.B. DuBois, before whose mind I bow; Manning Marrable, the true BuBois of my time.  In Folklore, I’m all over the place but always Hurston. In Fiction, I’m reading Alice Dunbar Nelson and rereading Chesnutt.

What advice would you have for students wishing to pursue writing as a career?

As Ernest Gaines preaches:  read read read, write write write, and always study craft while doing those.

In Red Beans and Ricely Yours, the themes of life and death seem not to be written as opposites, but as somehow co-dependent of each other. Can you talk a little about the relationship between the living and the dead in your poems and how this reflects New Orleans culture?

Being born and raised in New Orleans, I remember early criticisms of the city: “the people are too parochial; they never leave their neighborhoods.”  How right they were because it is that consistency in families who produce the culture. As a result, we live multi-generationally, old and young with all in-between together.  We see the best and worst, how to celebrate life and mourn those passing who are forever with us in memory.  Yes, life and death, living well and sending our loved ones home to heaven in death are integral to our lives here.

The southern women depicted in Red Beans and Ricely Yours are strong, full of life, and support each other like family, sisters. Growing up, were there specific female role models who inspired the women in your poetry?  

Of course my mother, who sewed tropical seersucker suits and costumes for Mardi Gras, my aunts who did the same; my dear sister and elder female cousins who possess so much heart and style; then my dear neighbors who are extended family, who set the bar of living, being, and becoming so high. They are all a constant inspiration; they are all a blessing in my life.

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Dean Rader provides humorous insight to his work

Three T. S. Eliot Prize poets will visit Truman March 29 to promote poetry and highlight their prize-winning books published by Truman State University Press, now celebrating 25 years of publishing.

Rhina Espaillat, Mona Lisa Saloy and Dean Rader will be on the Truman campus as guest lecturers in several creative writing classes. They will all take part in a discussion panel at 1:30 p.m. in the Student Union Building Alumni Room to talk about the craft of poetry and getting started in publishing. The poets will read from their prize-winning books at 7 p.m. in the Student Union Building Down Under where books will be available to purchase. The public is welcome at these events.

The T. S. Eliot Prize, sponsored by the University Press, was first established in 1997 and receives national recognition for the quality of work published. Each year the Press receives about 500 manuscripts for the competition and a well-known poet selects a final winning manuscript. The author wins $2,000 and publication.

In preparation for the event, we invited each author to tell us about their interest and career in poetry.

Dean Rader, author of the 2010 prize for “Works & Days,” has published widely in poetry, American Indian studies and popular culture. He teaches at the University of San Francisco.

For more information, check out Rader’s website at:http://deanrader.com/

How did you decide to become a poet? 

Well, I think most poets would say that they never actually choose poetry—poetry chose them. At least that was the case for me. I mean, almost no one would make a conscious decision to be a poet: you have a tiny audience and even tinier royalties. No one makes films of books of poems. You don’t get invited to be on Oprah. Perez Hilton won’t blog about you. You’ll never see a poet on Dancing with the Stars.

But . . . but . . . there is no better feeling than crafting newness out of the words we use every day for the most mundane things. I started writing poetry because I wanted to see if I could make something funny or provocative or holy from the raw materials of language.

Nothing had made me feel more excited about being alive, nothing had made me feel the divine more than poetry. I wanted to see if I could do as a writer what I had felt as a reader.

How did you first get published?

That sort of depends on what you mean by “published.” I wrote for my high school newspaper and even did the occasional column in college. Some of my poems and stories were published in standard undergraduate literary magazines. Also as a college student, I had a short story, I think, appear in The Rectangle, the magazine of Sigma Tau Delta (the national English honor society).

Later, once I had my Ph.D. I started writing poems more seriously and sending them out to journals and literary magazines. I’m pretty sure the first national magazine to take one of my poems was Veer: New Verse, but it wasn’t until a few years ago when one of my Frog & Toad poems won a national contest and another Frog and Toad poem got accepted at The Colorado Review that I really started feeling like I had moved from merely writing poems to being a poet.

What has it meant for you and your career to win the T. S. Eliot Prize?

It is not overstating things to say that winning the Eliot prize has changed my life. Though I had this other career as a scholar and a columnist, Works & Days was my first book of poems. The prestige of the prize probably helped get the book reviewed, and the positive reviews got the book noticed and subsequently got me noticed as a poet. Now the book has gone into a second printing and has sold more copies than either of my scholarly books.

In addition to being a writer, I’m also a professor at the University of San Francisco. I was up for Full Professor when it was announced I won the Eliot prize, so the prize certainly helped get me promoted. Also in 2011, I won the university’s distinguished research award—which takes into account artistic and creative work.  I’m absolutely certain that the Eliot prize was instrumental for that award.

But, on a more personal level, this particular award has meant a great deal. My area of expertise in graduate school was modern poetry, and I focused on writers like Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and of course, T. S. Eliot. Having my name linked to Eliot’s is pretty cool.  Additionally, I really like and believe in university presses, so the fact that Truman State University Press publishes the book makes me happy. Most significantly, though, I have a real affinity for this part of the country. I grew up in Oklahoma. My great great grandfather moved to Oklahoma from Missouri. I feel very connected to this part of the world and the cultural values that shape it.

Many of your poems incorporate experimental poetic techniques (words that are stricken through with black lines, blanks, and poems that appear to be lists and, in one case, a PowerPoint presentation). What appeals to you about writing this way? Were you hoping for poems like these to have a particular effect when read in the same book as poems that are more traditional in structure and appearance?

I believe that pretty much anyone can like poetry. I also believe that most people have a kind of poetry anxiety. When they see a text that looks like “a poem,” the immediately go into a defensive mode, like they’ve seen a grizzly. So, in these poems, I wanted to communicate to readers that poetry and poetic language—poetic creation—can take many forms (even un-poetic forms). Almost nothing is less poetic than a PowerPoint presentation or a talking point memo, but writing poems that take on those forms, changes both the poem and the form. I hope it makes both more accessible.

I’m also very interested in readers. Readers are more interesting than writers. I wanted to write a book that would, obviously, appeal to writers (all those references to other poets, for example) but that would also reach out to readers. My hope is that the pop culture references, the poems about Frog and Toad, the use of recognizable forms (like PowerPoint), and the humor will draw people into the book, rather than push them away.

I’ve always loved the elasticity of poetry. As a poet, I wanted to stretch what a poem could look like and sound like. I wanted to write a book of poems that really felt like it participated as much in the world as in the world of poetry.

Many poems in Works & Days, especially in the final “Days” section of your book, offer a personal, biographical look at the author. Is it ever uncomfortable to expose personal moments or reflections on your experiences, or does relying on these experiences make your task as a writer easier?

Ha! It is always uncomfortable for me to expose personal moments. I still worry that the poem for my sister, “Self Portrait as Antinomy: 32” is too intimate, too confessional, though it is one of the poems that many interviewers and reviewers seem to respond to.

I also worried (and still worry) that making me the subject of so much of the book is too self-indulgent. I mean, most people don’t know me. Why would they want to read poems about mile markers in the life of some random dude? I realized, though, after putting the book together and doing some readings that folks are interested in the project of mapping the terrain of a life, of charting what kinds of things give direction to our common journey.

I also think one of the things that saves Works & Days from being too internal or self-obsessed is that so much of the content is universal. We all know pop songs. We know who Michael Jackson is. We have ideas about Albert Einstein. Many of us have been moved by the story of Dido and Aeneas or the photographs of Dorothea Lange or the poems of Wallace Stevens or the exploits of Frog and Toad. So, while a lot of the poems are about the self, they are about the self as mediated and experienced through a larger database that everyone has access to.

Which poets or authors do you often read? Why do you enjoy reading them?

First and foremost, I’m always drawn to Wallace Stevens. His is the voice I hear in my head at some point every day. I really mean that. Every day. I don’t think I write Stevensian poems, but his voice certainly narrates the poetic soundtrack of my life.

More obviously, I like Charles Wright. I worry at times that too many of my lines sound too much like him, but I don’t even know I’m doing it. I think his book Negative Blue is the best book of contemporary American poetry of the last 20 years.

I’m also currently obsessed with Emily Dickinson. I keep rereading her with awe. I loved Terrence Hayes’ Lighthead. It excited me like nothing I’d read in a while. I am also drawn to W. S. Merwin, Jorie Graham, H. D., Gerard Manley Hopkins, Pablo Neruda, Rainer Maria Rilke—the list extends forever it seems. No writers have shaped my teaching and critical work more than recent American Indian writers like Heid Erdrich, LeAnne Howe, Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich, Orlando White, Linda Hogan, Leslie Marmon Silko, Joy Harjo, Simon Ortiz, Kimberly Blaeser, and Esther Belin.

I enjoy all of these writers for different reasons. In Rilke I feel the divine; in Neruda energy and politics; in Hayes anger, energy, politics, and poetic experimentation; in Wright the unexplainable beauty of a perfectly articulated image; in Hopkins, glory; in Alexie and Howe artistically hilarious insights into Native American issues; in l Stevens the struggle to make sense of the ongoing tensions between one’s overpowering imagination and the realities of the real world.

What advice would you have for students wishing to pursue writing as a career?

Since I teach in the writing program at the University of San Francisco, I get this question a lot. My advice is pretty practical. Do everything. Do writing and publishing internships. Study with as many different people as you can. Be prepared to work very hard for a long time and very little money. Be prepared for rejection after rejection after rejection (Reginald Shepherd told me one time to expect 200 rejections for every acceptance). Go to graduate school—not necessarily in creative writing but in something you truly care about. Stay engaged with the world. Keep an open mind about the subject of your writing. Consider writing about anything and at any time. Do not worry about selling out. If such a thing even exists, it’s a long way away. Above all, read. Read, read, read. In her great handbook on poetry, Mary Oliver says that if you want to be a writer, and you have a choice between reading and taking a workshop, you should read. That is excellent advice.

I find—especially in San Francisco—that some students are more interested in being a writer than they are in writing. Writing is very hard work. Writing does not come easy for anyone. You know that Malcolm Gladwell claim that a person needs to do 10,000 hours of something to become a pro at it? It’s certainly true with writing.

But, at the same time, writers have altered the course of history. They change the way we see everything. They give us back ourselves and the world as well. There are few more noble ways to spend your days.

What are you working on right now?

Right now, I’m working on getting our newborn son to sleep.  But, I’m having no luck. All the dude wants to do is eat and nap, eat and nap. He rarely sleeps longer than an hour or two at a time (even at night).

But, in all of my free time (that’s a joke), I’m immersed in several things all at the same time. I’m working on a book on poetic craft. I’m continuing to review books of poetry. I’m writing an essay for a new Oxford University press book on American Indian art and literature. I’m trying to keep up my columns for The San Francisco Chronicle and The Huffington Post, and I’m working on new poems. I’m really pleased with the direction of my recent work, like this one in Zyzzyva.

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Rhina Espaillat talks about T. S. Eliot and reading

Three T. S. Eliot Prize poets will visit Truman March 29 to promote poetry and highlight their prize-winning books published by Truman State University Press, now celebrating 25 years of publishing.

Rhina Espaillat, Mona Lisa Saloy and Dean Rader will be on the Truman campus as guest lecturers in several creative writing classes. They will all take part in a discussion panel at 1:30 p.m. in the Student Union Building Alumni Room to talk about the craft of poetry and getting started in publishing. The poets will read from their prize-winning books at 7 p.m. in the Student Union Building Down Under where books will be available to purchase. The public is welcome at these events.

The T. S. Eliot Prize, sponsored by the University Press, was first established in 1997 and receives national recognition for the quality of work published. Each year the Press receives about 500 manuscripts for the competition and a well-known poet selects a final winning manuscript. The author wins $2,000 and publication.

In preparation for the event, we invited each author to tell us about their interest and career in poetry.

Rhina Espaillat, author of the 1998 prize for Where Horizons Go, has published eight books of poetry and won numerous awards for her work. Originally from the Dominican Republic, she taught high school English in New York City and is a frequent reader and speaker at universities.

“Where Horizons Go, a beautiful, typo-free volume whose appearance alone, inside and out, recommends and honors the poems. It was my first large prize and therefore got me more publicity than I had ever had before. It attracted the attention of other poets I respect and admire, and helped to create a readership for future books. Most important, the book appeals to ordinary readers—the people we want to reach—and is being used in college courses, reaching young people with some interest in writing, who are my favorite readers. I like the poems of T. S. Eliot, read them early in my writing life, and learned a lot from them. I felt it would be a triumph to win a contest named after such a poet.” —Rhina Espaillat

How did you decide to start writing poetry?

I grew up hearing poetry in the home of my poet grandmother in the Dominican Republic, where I lived as a child, so that it was part of my life right from the beginning, long before I understood any of it except for the word music, which I loved. Making poems seemed a natural part of life—in Spanish first, of course—but later in English too.

When and how did you first get published?

An English teacher I had in high school, herself a poet, sent several of my poems to a national magazine without my knowledge, and they were accepted, much to my surprise. They were published during my junior year, and then I began to submit poems myself, and others were accepted by various magazines in the USA and in England.

Your book, Her Place in These Designs, is full of mostly form poetry, yet the form rarely reveals itself, since the lyricism and pacing of the lines blend together seamlessly. Do you often write using a form? Why do you choose to do so?

I read a great deal of poetry as a child, in both English and Spanish, and learned early to imitate the devices—meter, rhyme, figures of speech­—of poets whose work I admired. Form came easily to me because I found it in the work of others and responded to it with my body, as children respond naturally to music, dancing, chanting and every other form of sound play. As an adult writer, of course, I soon learned that all of those devices can be used to work with, or pull against, the intellectual or emotional content of what you’re writing. Meter isn’t an ornament, but a tool, both useful and fun to use. And yes, I do especially love the strict forms, such as the sonnet, villanelle, sestina, ballade and so forth. 

How did this book differ from your T. S. Eliot book of poetry?

This most recent book, and the one before it, Playing at Stillness, were both published by TSUP, the same publisher that sponsors the T. S. Eliot Prize and awarded that prize to an earlier book of mine, Where Horizons Go, which TSUP also published. I suppose all of my eight full-length books and three chapbooks differ from each other, but they all do have certain themes in common, certain experiences and concerns that turn up in all of them. Her Place in These Designs, though, has a particularly strong focus on the life of the woman, examined through my own experience and that of women I’ve known and women from fiction and history.   

Which poets or authors have influenced you? Why do you enjoy their work?

Too many poets to name, in both English and Spanish, but certainly the English metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, St. John of the Cross, Federico Garcia Lorca, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Stanley Kunitz, Richard Wilbur, the list goes on and on. The poets I tend to love are those whose work sings what it has to say, even if it’s not the kind of insight that calls for celebratory singing. I think of the poet as a kind of “Oven Bird,” the bird in Frost’s poem that asks itself “what to make of a diminished thing.” I also prefer poetry that is meant to be understood, designed to communicate rather than mystify. And of course their poetry is truthful, in that it can acknowledge the inconsistencies of real life, the opposites that manage to be true at the same time.

Can you talk a little about your involvement in the Powow River Poets?

The PRP is a marvelous monthly workshop that began as a small informal group and has now grown to some two dozen members, of whom about 18 are regulars. A great majority have published one or more books, several have won national and international awards, and all are rigorous and serious about improving their work and publishing and presenting readings in good venues. The group mentors a creative writing student group from the local high school, and also presents bi-monthly readings by guest poets and members at a local bookshop. Our real job, though, is helping each other grow, learning from one another, and supporting one another.   

What advice would you have for students wishing to pursue writing as a career?

Read, read, read. Try everything. Be prepared to throw out almost everything you try: that’s how you learn. Do it for love, not for personal gain or prestige. Don’t be afraid of tackling formal structure, which is a challenge and a delight, like the arbitrary rules of any game worth playing: there would be no pleasure to any game if it didn’t entail the risk of losing, and if there were no obstacles to keep you from winning. It’s impossible to “think outside the box” unless you first have a box to get outside of! The pleasure of poetry is that you first get to make the box (by learning how to build it, with language) and then willingly climb into it, then tempt the reader into it with you, and then manage to get out of it without destroying it, all while dancing. It’s one of the oldest arts, after all, and art is the only activity I know of that can take a profound sorrow and turn it into an artifact that inexplicably provides comfort without changing anything.