Hybrid Genres & Collage with Kelcey Ervick

Miami University was proud to welcome Kelcey Parker Ervick to campus to teach her sprint workshop on Hybrid Genres and Literary Collage.

After visiting us, Ervick writes, “Last week I got to teach a 3-day Sprint Workshop…to students in Miami University’s (OHIO!) MFA program. On the first day I said, ‘Here’s some paper, a bone folder, an awl, and some string. Make a mini-book!’”


Check out her blog to see how the course went, see our graduate students in action, and learn more about Ervick’s hybrid writing practice.

Italian Mystic Women, Road Trips, and Running Beyond Limits: Jessie Chaffee, Brendan Kiely, & Dave Essinger

 

 

On Tuesday, October 3rd, Miami University had the honor of hosting authors Jessie Chaffee, Brendan Kiely, and Dave Essinger for a reading in Kreger Hall. Kiely and Essinger are Miami alums. Each writer read captivating excerpts from their latest books—The Last True Love Story, Running Out, and Florence in Ecstasy, respectively—and answered questions on the research process, authenticity, and publishing.

Jessie Chaffee opened the reading with a scene from Florence in Ecstasy, a novel that tells the story of a young woman exploring Italy in the aftermath of an eating disorder. She feels a kinship with medieval Catholic women mystics, who often starved themselves to come closer to God. Brendan Kiely followed with a collage of early scenes from The Last True Love Story. His novel follows a young man who sets out on one last fateful road trip with his Alzheimer’s stricken grandfather. On the road, his grandfather tells him the one story of his life he never wants to forget: his love for his wife. Dave Essinger closed out the reading with a selection from his novel Running Out, in which a man is forced to run across an unforgiving icy terrain in order to find help for his stranded family in the wake of a plane crash.

The readings were followed by a Q&A, with all three authors chiming in to answer the topics. In response to questions on the research process and the need for authenticity in the treatment of difficult stories, Dave Essinger said it is a writer’s duty “not just to get things right, but to avoid getting things wrong” to avoid a betrayal of their subject. Brendan Kiely put this duty in context of The Last True Love Story, describing how he realized his own experience with a family member diagnosed with Alzheimer’s was different from other families’, and how it was necessary for him to consult with the Alzheimer’s Association of America in order to write with best practices in mind.

He also discussed the challenges of writing his debut novel The Gospel of Winter, which addressed the child sex scandals that rocked the Catholic Church in Boston around the turn of the millennium. Kiely said it is “incumbent upon all of us to tell our community’s stories,” but warned of the difference between telling stories and appropriation. Chaffee further discussed the tricky balancing act needed to tell stories with tricky themes, drawing on Florence in Ecstasy as an example. “I wanted to avoid romanticizing or sensationalizing it,” she said, “which is why I set the book in the aftermath.” Doing so helped her evade the voyeuristic urge to dwell on suffering that accompanies many pop-culture portrayals of eating disorders.

The three also answered questions on the publishing industry. Chaffee and Kiely agreed on the beneficial business potentials of conferences, talking about their own experiences of meeting agents at conferences. Kiely also offered tips on finding an agent, telling the audience that instead of simply following the traditional advice to contact the agents of books they regard well, they should contact the agent’s assistant in hopes that they will be looking for their first big sale. Essinger offered a counterpoint to the discussion of agents, reassuring the audience that so long as they do their research, small presses are often available that could be willing to accept an agentless manuscript.

Kiely and Essinger are alumni of Miami’s Western Program.
____________________

Brendan Kiely is a New York Times bestselling author, whose work has been published in ten languages. He wrote The Gospel of Winter, which received a starred review from Booklist and a ‘Best of 2014’ recommendation from Kirkus Reviews, co-wrote All American Boys with Jason Reynolds, with the pair receiving a Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award, and most recently wrote The Last True Love Story. He currently lives in Greenwich Village.

Dave Essinger lives in Ohio, teaching as an Associate Professor of English at The University of Findlay. He serves as the editor of The University of Findlay’s literary magazine Slippery Elm and is the 2018 General Editor of the AWP Intro Journals Project. His short fiction has been published in Midwestern Gothic, Mud Season Review, Great Lakes Review, Sport Literate, Weberthe Contemporary West, and 34th Parallel. Running Out is his debut novel.

Jessie Chaffee was a recipient of the 2014-2015 Fulbright Grant in Creative Writing, spending the year in Italy to focus on her writing. During this time, she was the Writer-in-Residence at the Florence University of the Arts. Her short fiction has been published in The Rumpus, Bluestem, Global City Review, Big Bridge, and The Sigh Press. She currently lives in New York City, where she is the daily editor and art editor for Words Without Borders, an online magazine of translated short fiction. Florence in Ecstasy is her debut novel.k

Evan Doran

English Department Ambassador

First Annual Graduate Student Choice Reading Brings Alexandra Kleeman to MU

“She was truly happy for the first time in her life, and it felt just like living in a small room painted all white…”

So begins Alexandra Kleeman’s Jellyfish, the short story she read this past Thursday to a crowd of people in the Miami University Bookstore.

“I was actually so excited to meet Alexandra Kleeman this morning that I spilled coffee all over myself,” confessed Darren Thompson, a second-year graduate MFA student at Miami, when he introduced her. “Alexandra can write anything. If she wrote a phone book, I would read it and ask her to sign it.”

Alexandra Kleeman at her reading in Shriver Center Bookstore.

For what was both the first annual Miami Creative Writing Residential Graduate Student Choice Reading and the last creative writing event of the Spring 2017 semester, NYC-based writer Alexandra Kleeman chose to read her most recent short story, Jellyfish. As one short story in a trio that examines a character named Karen at three different stages in her life, Jellyfish explores the nuances of character.

“In a lot of short stories you follow a character and get attached to that character, and then that character has sort of a transformative experience at then end… and you never see them again,” Kleeman explained. “But I think that human lives are shaped a little bit differently… We have a lot of partial epiphanies that don’t actually change the way that we live in the world, that don’t take, but sometimes the accumulation of them causes character shift.”

Jellyfish describes Karen at a midpoint in her life: she is on vacation at an idyllic beach resort, and she and her boyfriend have just gotten engaged, but she isn’t happy. In the Q&A session after her reading, Kleeman explained that much of her inspiration for the story came from the concept of “people being unhappy in a place designed to make them happy.”

Jellyfish is also swimming with literal jellyfish, which Kleeman said played a major role in shaping the story. In the story, the jellyfish that fill the oceans around the beach resort act as a sort of a visual trigger for Karen’s anxieties, uncertainty, and fear.

“I’m really fascinated by ways in which our emotions are affectedly poetically,” Kleeman explained. “We can logic and we can rationalize, but the things that we see shift us at a level that isn’t mentally accessible.”

As Darren Thompson explained in his introduction, Kleeman’s writing—most notably, her debut novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine—often contains elements of the absurd, “a terrain Alexandra navigates with enviable grace.” You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine (Harper, 2015), which addressed themes of consumerism, body image, and identity, garnered much critical acclaim. Her second book, Intimations (Harper, 2016) is a collection of short stories which explore life in all of its stages and also frequently incorporates elements of the absurd.

Kleeman, 31, lives and writes in New York City, where she received a MFA in Fiction from Columbia University. Her fiction has been featured in The New Yorker, Paris Review, BOMB, Guernica, HENRY, Gulf Coast, Conjunctions, Zoetrope: All-Story, and DIAGRAM. Her non-fiction writing has been published in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, The Guardian, Tin House, The New Republic, Vogue, and n+1, among others. Kleeman has received numerous scholarships and grants for her work from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Santa Fe Art Institute, Bread Loaf, ArtFarm Nebraska, and from institutions such as the University of Colorado, University of California, Berkeley, Brown University, Harvard University, and Columbia University.  She is also the winner of the 2016 Bard Fiction Prize.

The reading was sponsored by Miami’s Creative Writing Program.

Sarah Lehman
Professional Writing and Media and Culture, ’19
English Department Ambassador

So She Pushed Me: Sherman Alexie Enthralls Crowd in Guest Lecture

On Monday, April 3, an assortment of students, professors, and Oxford citizens alike swelled into the high-ceilinged auditorium in Shideler Hall. As the lights dimmed, voices suddenly hushed in anticipatory silence; a few pairs of eyes searched the room, others whispering about potential extravagant grand entrances. As the author of the National Book Award-winning young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie is known worldwide for sparking laughter, tears, and contemplation among his readers. He is also a screenwriter and filmmaker, currently working on the film adaptation of the novel. His talk, “The Partially True Story of the True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” was an “[externalization of his] creative process,” interlaced with gallows humor.

Alexie’s visit was sponsored by the Margaret Peterson Haddix Fund for YA/Children’s Literature and the Clark Family Capstone Fund. Assistant Professor Daisy Hernández of the Department of English suggested bringing the author to campus, and it worked out, despite initial concerns that Alexie “was out of [their] league.” A book signing immediately followed the talk, as well as a standing ovation.

In introducing Alexie, Professor and Director of the Creative Writing Department Dr. Cathy Wagner noted that he “has published 25 books that have won many awards and accolades,” including the recent New York Times Best-Seller children’s book, Thunder Boy Jr. In August 1998, Alexie spoke at Miami University’s Convocation, the summer after the university had changed the mascot from Redskins to Redhawks. Wagner left the stage with heartfelt remarks: “I’m really honored to have him here tonight.”

Acclaimed novelist Sherman Alexie.

Alexie began with a casual statement, stirring laughter in the crowd: “Cathy has made me laugh all day, three almost-spit-takes.” He seemed to glide through the front of the room, uttering after a short pause, “I don’t remember being here in 1998.” The chuckles and chortles that followed lingered throughout the entire talk, creating a sense of ease and comfort like that a close friend can invoke.

He briefly described the “alphabet soup of mental illness acronyms” he lives with, claiming that “three brain surgeries equals poet.” Alexie then led us into the story he has told hundreds of times, the very first story of his life; his mother immediately knew something was wrong when they took him home, but the doctors kept dismissing her, even when she brought in a graph of his abnormal head growth over time.

As a believer in “interpreting coincidences exactly the way you want to,” Alexie seamlessly transitioned back and forth between this central story and discussions of narrative concepts throughout the evening. “In the days before safety,” his cousin set him in a U-shaped swing; already-horrified expressions scattered the auditorium. Alexie then diverged from the story to discuss how people always inquire about his books in relation to oral tradition; his response: “Not a whole lot, because I type them… and I’m really quiet when I type them.”

He then discussed how others will still associate him with ancient traditions of his particular culture, remarking, “I didn’t know the names for the ways I communicate until I met white people. I can be Crazy Horse and Socrates, because I don’t operate under the impression that it’s difficult to walk in two worlds.” However, in writing The Absolutely True Diary, he found it extremely difficult to avoid the tangents that are present in adult literature, as well as in his talk; young adult novels have “far more of a focus on straight-up narrative [and] a real structure.”

“Young adult literature is very primal,” Alexie stated, after performing a noise similar to the one his cousin made when she realized that pushing him might have been a fatal mistake. The tension in the room increased as he described how she pushed him, how his tiny hands held onto the chains, how he pinwheeled through the air. The audience collectively winced, and Alexie teased: “You all got dramatic, and you liberal arts majors got even more dramatic, because you don’t know shit about physics.”

Referring back to his thoughts on coincidences, Alexie described how his tribe had applied for a grant to make the playground safer just before the incident, meaning that thousands of saw chips lay underneath the playset; the impact left him with dozens of cuts, slivers, and scrapes. When people would ask what happened, he would say with seriousness, “Ceremony.” The punch line would stop all inquiry, and as a young adult author, he has to be careful that questions are still being asked in his books.

After one of many comments that induced laughter among the audience, Alexie pointed to a man in the center section and said, “That’s my goal in life – to make handsome men in beaded necklaces smile.”

Drawing attention to his “giant head,” he brought a woman from the front row on stage to prove how large it actually is; he then commented on how if a coroner looked at his skull, he would declare it Mongolian. His mother’s concern was valid – it was the “fling out of the swing” that diagnosed his otherwise fatal condition, idiopathic hydrocephalus, or the buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. The situation can be adequately summed up in a few words: “Real life can feel completely implausible.”

Alexie was part of the first generation to receive the surgery commonly used to treat hydrocephalus, which involves drilling burr holes in the skull to relieve the pressure; upon describing this, he guessed that we were “starting to get that vomit-y taste,” and he wasn’t wrong. “The power of stories is that it can make people throw up,” he asserted.

Stories can invoke such powerful, controversial emotions that some are inclined to ban the novels that contain them, as The Absolutely True Diary was by schools across the country. Alexie spoke with a young girl in the audience, exchanging fist bumps and saying, “I have to worry more about your adult feelings than kids’. Kids don’t ban books.”

The topic of conversation turned to unrequited love, whereupon over half of the audience raised their hands when asked if they had ever experienced it. There was a collective gasp when one audience member was asked, “How many heartbreaks?” and replied with, “Six and a half.” “Adults aren’t taking [kids’] heartbreak seriously enough,” Alexie declared.

In writing a book, the trick is to “add the real detail,” whether that’s a woman’s muscular arms or how “she farted a lot.” According to Alexie, if “you want to tell a good story, you have to tell the truth.” However, he also commented that he could say anything regarding his childhood, and we would have to believe him. “We’re all amazing,” he went on. “Everybody has an amazing story.”

Self-described as an “immigrant into the land but also into the culture,” Alexie articulated how “[our] racism is even more complicated than [we] can understand.” In 1966, the doctor who saved his life was a Greek Muslim first-generation pediatric neurologist. “The anti-immigration fervor has blinded us to our own greatest narrative. The basic narrative of the United States is immigration.”

“Politics is about competing narratives, about the mythology you choose to believe in,” Alexie added. When the doctor spoke to his mother before entering the operation room, he said, “Your son’s going to die during this surgery. If he doesn’t die, he’ll become a vegetable.”

After a tense, dramatic pause, Alexie discussed how the ending of the story was in question; after the past hour-and-a-half of stimulating discussion on a myriad of topics, anything could happen. He threw it to a vote, with the audience split in half between a happy and a sad ending. “This is what happens to you in the process [of writing],” he said. “There’s an extreme pressure for the redemptive ending.”

“You feel that?” The stillness of the room was a paperweight. “That’s narrative tension.”

So, how do you make a story told through another’s eyes still have power? How do you make it matter? Alexie’s confident answer is to “put yourself in the same emotional space.” In remembering his first son and his medical issues, he told the audience how the doctor wasn’t even supposed to be there; the surgeon was in a tuxedo and only in the hospital because he’d forgotten the opera tickets in his locker.

Alexie’s mother replied, “What kind of vegetable?”

Leah Gaus
English Department Ambassador
Creative Writing and Professional Writing ‘20

MUPress Author Garth Greenwell Returns to Teach Fiction

MUPress Author Garth Greenwell returned to Oxford, OH last week to teach a graduate workshop and visit the undergraduate capstone course. He also read from his acclaimed book What Belongs to You, which was recently named PEN/Faulkner Award finalist.  Greenwell spoke on the importance of place in storytelling, an element he considers crucial yet sometimes under-acknowledged.

“Place seems to me central to everything” – Garth Greenwell

Greenwell’s long standing relationship with the university began in 2010 when is novella, Mitko, was selected by former Miami Professor David Schloss to win the Miami University Press Novella Prize. It was Greenwell’s first fiction publication. This novella was eventually becoming part one of the expanded What Belongs to You.

“I think of fiction as first and foremost an exploration into place,” he said to the graduate fiction workshop. Students later generated prose investigating a place from their own history and shared that work. Students also read and discussed short stories from the likes of Flannery O’Connor and Nam Le through this lens of place. It was a short but intense week.

On Tuesday, he gave a reading from What Belongs to You. Poetry MFA candidate Tammy Atha called his reading “emotional, passionate, and captivating—to say the least.” She went on to say “Greenwell can effectively hit his reader in the gut and then truly care for the wound. A talented, raw, and fantastic prose writer.”

This blogger, for one, agrees in full. It was a pleasure to meet and work with Garth. Few have such an eye for compassion and sincerity.

Eric Rubeo
English Department Ambassador
English Creative Writing, English Literature, & AYA English Education ’17
MU Press Intern

Call for English Department Interns and Apprentices

Miami University Press, the Creative Writing Program, and the Literature Program seek enthusiastic, talented, well-organized undergraduate interns and apprentices for 2017-18. The deadline for this year’s applications is Friday, April 21. Please follow the links below for application forms and position descriptions. Students are welcome to apply for more than one position.

Miami University Press Marketing Internship Application
Miami University Press Editorial Internship Application
Creative Writing Program Apprenticeship in Publicity and Event Promotion Application
Literature Program Apprenticeship in Publicity and Event Promotion

Questions? Please contact the Miami University Press Managing Editor Amy Toland, Director of Creative Writing, Dr. Cathy Wagner, or the Director of the Literature Program, Katie Johnson.

 

George Packer, MU Professor James Tobin, and Alum Matt Young Draw Crowds for War Stories

The filming studio of Williams Hall is a large room. It has to be in order to hold the massive props, recording equipment, high-end professional cameras, and the filmmakers themselves. As a testament to the anticipation for this February 16th reading, the room was nearly filled to the brim with chairs set a little too close together to seat the maximum possible audience. It was a gathering of three departments: English, History, and Journalism, meeting to share experiences, advance their knowledge, and celebrate the humanities. There were three speakers: Matt Young, George Packer, and James Tobin.

Matt Young was the first to speak. He read pieces from his upcoming memoir, Eat the Apple, based on a collection of his experiences of serving in the infantry and deploying to Iraq three times. The first piece he read was “Choose Your Own Adventure,” his experiences with enlisting in the military. The title is ironic, reflecting on the lack of agency that felt during the time, “because your sense of masculinity is warped by all the men in your life, and the only way to change is through self-flagellation, achievable by war.”

Young talks about the most toxic elements of masculinity, probing deep with incredibly vivid language and pointed observations, such

Miami Alum Matt Young reading from his memoir.

as: “You wear glasses. Heroes don’t wear glasses, all men with glasses in movies are expendable, they don’t get the girl, they are villains.” Its powerful topic hit home with Young’s stage presence and excellent command of language.

 

Determinism and choices are something Young explores in his later pieces, as when he details his experience of harshly questioning Iraqis after an explosive detonation: “Explosive is constructed. Explosive is placed. Explosive is detonated,” and “we pursue the meerkat men, because that is what tigers do,” and “because that is what fathers do – make their sons kneel on rice, make sons feel ashamed.” He questions what it means to accept orders and give up your autonomy, becoming an instrument of the government’s orders. It’s obvious he wrestles with the weight and guilt of some of the things he is told to do, given the line he wraps up his story with: “Years later, when we’re trying to fall asleep, we tell ourselves we did what we had to do.”

War journalist George Packer and Miami Journalism professor James Tobin talk the politics of war and the soldier’s experience.

After a hearty round of applause for Young, George Packer and James Tobin step up on the stage for an interview-style talk. George Packer is a war journalist that covered the Iraq war, author of The Assassins’ Gate. James Tobin is a Miami journalism professor who specializes in hard questions.

The two had good give-and-take on stage, with Tobin asking thought-provoking questions and Packer responding with fantastic observations on the nature of war and soldiers. He described the war as a “Mad fever dream—that we can take over an Arab country and make it into a beachhead of democracy and battle extremists and balance the Middle East—can you imagine the plausibility of that plan today?” He also shared several stories of Iraqi citizens that had a lot of hope in the war and American soldiers who had nothing else to give them hope. He wanted to paint the Iraq war with more shades of grey than the typical black and white light that is normally cast in the American perspective.

Packer has a great respect for the soldiers, as he described in detail. Yet he described their service as antithetical to American values. “They were submerging themselves [in their duty]…That is the least American thing to do—we’re so individualistic. They were so conscientious, no privacy, no freedom. They came from my own self-serving culture, molded to live for the mission, the greater good—military life made them peculiarly un-American.” Tobin noted the change in opinion between the Iraq war and WWII, when the very same traits would be seen as quintessentially American.

War has been a defining part of US consciousness, and it is important to recognize its human elements in order to keep them from being forgotten.

Jack Renfree
English Department Ambassador
Creative Writing; Media and Culture ‘18

Alum Matt Young Interview

On Thursday, February 16th, 2017, Miami University Master’s in Creative Writing graduate Matt Young sat down with students in TaraShea Nesbit’s Intermediate Nonfiction Writing course (ENG 323), to talk about his forthcoming memoir, Eat the Apple (Bloomsbury, 2018). The memoir explores the time in his life when he made a rash decision to join the military and the subsequent events that befell him. In this interview, Young discusses how he wrote the memoir, his use of unexpected point of views and images in the memoir, the ethics of writing about living people and real events, and the publishing process from query letters to working with a publisher. This interview was edited for cohesion and conciseness.

 

Q: (TaraShea) When we first met, you were writing fiction and resistant to writing about your time in the military. How did you overcome that?

A: (Young) There was a lot of resistance, mostly because I didn’t want to be a cliché. I didn’t want to be the type of person that experienced something traumatic and then writes to capitalize on that traumatic experience and doesn’t do it in a thoughtful way. I was super-worried about it because I started writing about it as an undergrad at Oregon State and the stories I wrote were just bad. The fiction I tried to write was bad, the nonfiction I tried to write was worse. I put it aside for a while, and then I got into Miami as a grad student in fiction. I was going to write speculative fiction stories about the Midwest because I grew up in Indiana and I thought alright, I can make the Midwest weird—that can be my gimmick, that can be cool.

Then, halfway through the year Oxford Student Magazine had a grad student reading, and the people in charge at that time asked me to do a reading like all the other grad students. I wanted to do something different than what I had already written because all of the fiction I’d already written was crap. I wrote a couple nonfiction pieces. I sat down over the course of a day and a half—I gave myself a super short timeframe—I had a super short time constraint, so I pumped them out. It ended up being okay, I got a good response, people laughed. People thought they were funny and sad, and people were quiet—concerned about me, and then I put them aside again because I said that’s not a thing, I’m here to write fiction, that’s what I came here to do. And then over the summer, I locked myself in my office. I realized that this was the time I had to write this thesis because it’s due at the end of next year, and I’m not going to have time to write it next year because of coursework and all this other stuff, and so I had to get the bulk of it done over the summer, so I sat down and tried to write fiction, but it didn’t come.

And then these stories just started pouring forth, which were bar stories that I used to tell people to get a laugh a lot of the time, and then I moved them into a space that wasn’t just bar stories. These were things I would do to just entertain people. That turned into well what’s the actual story, why did I use them to entertain people? Is it really a funny story? Can it maintain humor and also keep the seriousness and keep a conversation about any one of the other things I write about with trauma, or love, or sexuality—can I do something with that? Then they just started pouring forth—I wrote 75 to 100 pages over the summer, which felt good to me at that time. And then I just kept going and writing from there.

Q: (TaraShea) I was just listening to a podcast this morning, of an interview with George Saunders from about 10 years ago and he was similarly talking about how he feels that people reject the thing that is actually most clear, the closest to them. He kept trying to get rid of his funny, and that was his real voice so when he stopped trying to do that, it was more natural. The writing was better.

A: (Young) Absolutely, it’s like, this is my personality, I’m sick of writing about it. Why would I write about myself if I’m sick of myself? I realized that I had to take a different approach in how to apply that, or how to apply that part of me to something that is different. It’s kind of where the weird genre switching came from.

Q: (John) When writing in nonfiction, do you find that there are things you just cannot talk about?

A: (Young) Yeah, if you’re writing nonfiction it’s important to find that line that you’re not willing to cross, because if you write nonfiction about yourself, then people are going to know it’s about you, and if you’re not comfortable with people knowing that about you, then you shouldn’t write about it. 

Q: (TaraShea) It also seems like one strategy you use it to anonymize the speaker—

A: (Young) Absolutely—

Q: (TaraShea) The story gets to happen but it’s “one of us did this,” or it’s blurry. Many people in the class talked about the way things get blurry at times which feels like a strategy of telling and not telling.

A: (Young) It was a strategy of me being a complete coward.

Alum Matt Young reads during the “War Stories” event in Williams Hall

Q: (David) What was the purpose of the POV shifts between sections?

A: (Young) In the military if you use the first person, you are punished. The purpose was to think about the whole. In the sections that use the second person and third person, this was to emphasize the collective thought and also the idea of family. The shift between the first and third person in the last section of the book was done to demonstrate the process of returning to individual life. Returning to “I” was frightening.

Q: (Paige) At times, the tone sounds angry. Is that something you’re trying to portray and if so, is that anger more directed at yourself or at the military?

A: (Young) I’m angry at a lot of things; I was angry at everything. I’m less angry now. But, I think that I was angry a lot at myself. When I got the edits from my editor, his biggest criticisms were in the sections where I talk to my past self. In this one section I just berate my 18-year-old self which is like, who yells at an 18 year old? It’s like the jerkiest thing to do in the world. He was like you gotta back off yourself a little bit because you’re being kind of a jerk. And I was like yeah, that’s the point. I was an idiot. And he’s like, yeah, but you didn’t know that, and also you’re fine now, relatively speaking…. He said you gotta let people know that you’re okay, and you have to let yourself know that you’re going to be okay, because if you don’t show empathy to your characters you’re just gonna sound angry and ‘yelly’.

Hopefully at some points in the book that empathy comes out. You have to tell yourself ‘Alright, this happened, but you’re gonna be alright, and you’re going to move past it.’ But yes, anger was a driving force.

Q: As far as the point of view, we were on that earlier, I noticed that you split up sections of these diagrams of the body, could you explain your choice in putting them where they were and why you chose to demonstrate the physical body instead of your disembodied voice?

A: (Young) Yeah, so, the body diagrams… well, one of them is an accurate recounting of my medical record– like the “Ouch” section is from my medical record. In one of the iterations of the book they were a complete story. There were 7 of them and I was like, this is too much, it’s too busy. And so I was thinking a lot about how to separate the book. I was gonna write this book in seven sections–like basic training, deployment one, home, deployment two, home, deployment three…it was too many, it was too busy. So I had to think about how I could separate it by time, and think about how my mindset changed. Those changes in the body are representative of how my mindset was changing a lot of the time–as with the phantom knee pain one. That’s not real, but it was representative of an emotion.

Q: (Sam) We talked about the more corporate idea of target audience. We stereotyped the sort of people who would read military memoirs as more conservative and we stereotyped military memoirs as very mass-market, very American Sniper, and then we stereotyped the kind of people who would read a book of creative nonfiction essays as very liberal, Brooklyn-hipster. This book has a lot of both, so did you think about that at all and if you did, how do you reconcile these two ideas?

A: (Young) My biggest fear is being put in a niche where the only people who they send my book out to are white military men. God, the world has too many voices there. I tried to background the war. I tried to overlay these kind of human experiences on top of that thing, so the war works to move the narrative forward while I’m talking about a love story. I have these ideas about masculinity, and these ideas about sexuality, and these ideas about race that kind of criss-cross throughout that narrative and kind of ride it like a wave. I’m hoping those take the forefront. Hopefully military dudes pick up the novel and maybe that can help them.

I’m hoping that people can use it to form empathy with people they don’t know about. I have a meeting with my marketing and publicity folks next week, and I’m like, what am I going to say to them? Because that’s who they’re going to send that to. They’re going to send it to [military writers] which is fine. They’re doing great work, but I don’t want to have a ‘hot take’ about what’s happening socio-politically in the Middle East, because I’m not super smart, and I don’t have a ‘hot take’ on it. So I think that it’s a hard space to navigate and I hope that maybe that has to do with the cover. Maybe the cover art will be some part of that conversation and that maybe–trying to go after and get authors of color and women to read it who have non-military backgrounds, that would be awesome.

 

Q: (Chaze) What went into creating your query letter? What relationship do you have with your editor? What influence, if any, did you have on the physical format of the book?

A: (Young) The query letter was a page long word document, single spaced. It was a really uncomfortable space for me to be in because you have to sell yourself, which is super weird if you’re not comfortable with it. For me, because I have a self-deprecating sense of humor–I’m super-self conscious–[Being here] this is kind of my nightmare. But I gave it to a couple of people for edits, and it got to the point where I said, “Screw it I’m going to send it out to 10 agents and I’m going to see what happens.” A friend said, “send it to Bill Clegg, of the Clegg Agency.” She sent me a new edit, which was a better than what I wrote because it sells me more. She managed to hit my voice better than I hit my voice somehow. To have someone who knows you–knows your voice, your writing–tell you, “This is how to be natural,” I looked back on it thinking, “Would I have been more successful if I had talked to her first?”

As far as my editor relationship, we have very little contact. He is this ethereal creature that does his thing and sends me stuff when he needs to. I have more contact with my agent [Chris Clemans], and he is fantastic because he treats me very nicely, like a delicate flower. I can’t take criticism, and he knows I can’t take criticism, so he treads very lightly. He has this “how do you feel about this” approach. He went through the manuscript page by page with me. It was an eight-hour phone conversation over two days. He really sat down and told me, “This is the stuff you need to keep, take out, talk more about this experience.” There was a poem in it at one point in time and he told me, “You can’t do that.” I had to ask myself, “Is this adding to what I’m doing? How is it adding to it?” I asked myself that a lot.

As far as the physical aspect, they gave me a questionnaire, which is very strange, which was like “Describe your book in five sentences, who are six authors you’d like us to send the book to,” so I gave them 15 authors. They asked me what I like in terms of jacket covers, what I don’t like, what’s an image I think that would work on it. I’m like “I like abstract art covers,” which they’re thinking, “That’s probably not gonna work on a war memori…” But my fear is that they come back with an M-16 or something, or date palms, or an M-16 planted with date palms. Those were all horrifying moments of my life.

Q: (Paige) Were the other people you mentioned in your memoir, specifically your ex, included in the process and were you worried about their reactions when the book gets published?

A: (Young) Yeah, pretty constantly. I kind of have a hypocritical relationship with that because at one point in time I do care, but mostly I don’t think a lot about audience at all when I’m writing.  If you try to write for everybody, you end up writing for nobody, as cliche as that sounds.  The ex–she doesn’t know the book is coming out. In my defense, I have tried to contact her and she wants nothing to do with me.  In her defense, fair. She isn’t mentioned by name, but she is still definitely recognizable, especially to herself and her family. If I could get ahold of her and let her know it’s happening, I would love to. As far as the Marines that are mentioned, there are four or five that don’t have their names changed: Charlie, Adam, John, Keene. The three dead don’t have their names changed.  The rest of the names are changed.  Some of them asked me to and some of them I couldn’t get ahold of.

Q: (Sam) If you don’t mind sharing, what five authors did you send your book to?

A: (Young) I gave them six war writers — Matt Gallagher, Phil Klay, Tim O’Brien, Tobias Wolff, and Elliot Ackerman. And then for my goal writers, it was Claire Vaye Watkins, Roxane Gay, and I don’t remember the rest of them. The other ones were women and writers of color because I was all like ‘no white men.’

Q: (TaraShea) When is the book coming out? When can we look for it?

A: (Young) Next year, and you all will have totally forgotten me by the time this comes out. March or February of 2018. Bloomsbury, Eat the Apple.

Q: (TaraShea) Are you working on something else or are you working on revisions?

A: (Young) I’m done with revisions, the edits are accepted. I am having so much trouble writing. So, I’ve been weirdly writing twitter assemblage poems. I’ve found myself completely inundated by the news, and I get my news from pundits that I follow on Twitter. I’m using that thing I’m addicted to and can’t put down into writing, taking those things, combining them, and I’m thinking of turning them into a chapbook. We’ll see where that goes.

Q: (TaraShea) Are you back in the West now?

A: (Young) Yeah, Olympia, Washington. I’m living that Pacific Northwest life, amongst the cougars and pine trees.

(TaraShea) Well thank you so much for coming.

(Young) Thank you so much, you guys were awesome!

Interview conducted and/or edited by: Paige Burcheit, Chaze Copeland, John Meade, Angela Day, Scout Ellam, Audrey Fanshaw, David Farley, Charlie Fordon, Jake Grace, Megan Haase, James Harris, Sam Hunter, Jenni Jenkins, Tori Levy, Ashley Losher, Kelly Murray, Maddie Passarella, Jake Pickard, Caitlin Roth, Zach Sharb, Tori Taylor, Blake Wysocki, and TaraShea Nesbit.

Janice Lowe performing “Boy Flower Tamir”

Miami University Press poet/musician Janice Lowe and musician Yohann Potico performed Lowe’s poem “Boy Flower Tamir” for us during the Two Poets and a Bassist event described in our previous blog post by English Department Ambassador Tim Thomas. A videorecording of the performance as well as the poem itself are on our Facebook page here.

The poem, on Tamir Rice, is from her book Leaving Cle: poems of nomadic dispersal (Miami University Press, 2016). More on Lowe in Miami University Press Intern and English Department Ambassador Alison Block’s transcription of the panel prefacing the performance,

Two Poets and a Bassist

On Nov. 15, the Creative Writing Program at Miami University hosted Two Poets and A Bassist, featuring Janice Lowe, Yohann Potico, and Tyehimba Jess. This performance follows the previous day’s panel, Collaborating Across the Arts: A Discussion.

Professor Keith Tuma kicked off the event recalling his time with Lowe’s Leaving CLE: Poems of Nomadic Dispersal, which was published this year by the Miami University Press.

Lowe, a composer who has worked on multiple musicals, performed these poems from behind her keyboard while Potico set up to the right with his accompanying bass.

“I neglect the sight reading. Everything is timed and cued, so when she says that word, I hit that note,” replied Potico when asked about performing with Lowe. “Accuracy is the challenge.”

With a focus on the migration and reverse migration of her family before her birth, Lowe preluded many of the pieces with the anecdotes that brought her relatives to the space each poem was concerned with. Her readings were punctuated with a repetition and questions developing a powerful interior voice whose tone was further amplified by the melodies.

“I hear in musical phrases,” she said, explaining how she developed her poetry into song. “I hear it in myself, where the meanings change with volumes and with tempo.”

The second half of the two-hour event was opened by the Director of the Creative Writing program, Cathy Wagner, who called Jess’ poems, “brilliant instances of resistance.”

“Okay, so I have to follow music, and that is always a hard task,” said Jess, an associate professor at the College of Staten Island. Reading from his new book Olio, Jess addressed the audience before each poem to present the stories and styles that informed each piece.

Jess explained the importance of opening up to the audience after the performance saying, “The objective is to introduce these folks [the historical figures in the poems] to audiences in a new, engaging ways. To talk to the audience. To engage with the people.”

Throughout the evening, both poets addressed how art can serve as the opening for important discussion about recent events in the country. Jess concluded the night with a poem whose goal was to memorialize Black churches that have been burned and the shooting last year at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

“I think this reading was an important and timely event; the poets’ focus on social issues in their work reinforced the power that art can have to capture attention, to evoke emotion, to delve into the nuances of social institutions and events, and to fight for change”, said Kinsey Cantrell, a senior Creative Writing and Literature double major. “I walked away from the reading with an expanded tool set from the unique forms the poets used and a renewed determination to use my art critically and responsibly.”

Tim Thomas
English Department Ambassador
Creative Writing & Literature ’17