Undergraduate Reading Series: Report from a First-time Reader

On Monday, March 5th, at the weekly meeting of Sigma Tau Delta, I signed up to write a blog post about the Happy Captive Magazine/Howe Writing Center Undergraduate Creative Writing Reading on the 15th of February. Little did I know that I would be presenting my own work at that reading. I had never read any of my work in public before—my words had always been confined to the classroom or to the ears of those closest to me—but when the opportunity presented itself, I knew I had to take it.

When I arrived at Thursday’s event, I got there unfashionably early, giving myself plenty of time to sit, be anxious and buy office supplies that I probably didn’t need from the bookstore’s table. One by one, everyone arrived: the organizers, my peers from Sig Tau, classmates, and my fellow reader, Emily Brandenburg. I was asked if I wanted to go first or second and, in choosing first, I became immediately aware of the closeness of the room, the intimacy of the space, and the people in it, and of the heat in my face and how it intensified with each passing second. The next thing I knew, I was at the podium.

The whole event passed through my mind as if it were a dream. I know I read my pieces, I remember some of the things I said in between, and I remember which pieces I presented. I remember the faces of the people as they listened and their laughter and applause. But the second I sat back down in my seat, the whole affair washed over me in an ephemeral haze: a feeling of “Oh my gosh…I did it! I actually did it!”

Thankfully I gained enough composure to listen to Brandenburg’s poetry. Her work was raw, relatable, and her style was straightforward and beautiful in its directness. I particularly enjoyed how many of her works address people, specifically addressing them for the wrongs they’ve done and the tidal waves she must wade through because of them. She gets at the heart of things and is unafraid to say how that feels.

That night was also her first foray into presenting her work publicly, and I find myself increasingly thankful for Happy Captive Magazine and the Howe Writing Center for putting this reading series together. It is because of events like the Undergraduate Reading Series that budding writers like Brandenburg and I can share our works so that our creative writing community can grow stronger and prosper with each new writer.

I feel this ever more poignantly as I recall the reactions of the listeners after the event’s close. Several people told Brandenburg and me how well we did and how much they loved what we read. I specifically recall one of my fellows from Sig Tau who told me she was so glad I read my multivoiced piece about life’s emotional clutter from our poetry class because she enjoyed how funny it was (I cannot express how encouraging the audience’s laughter at this piece has been). I also recall another member of Sig Tau who told me that my work gave her chills.

Not all of my work is meant to be read. In fact, as a poet dealing greatly in the visual on-the-page aspect of my poems, reading them aloud if often quite difficult. But the most beautiful and meaningful sentence in the universe carries no power past the writer’s pen unless it is shared. As that writer aspiring to create that most meaningful and beautiful sentence, poem, or play in the universe, this moment of connection with the audience was terrifying, but rewarding nonetheless.

To all my fellow writers, I urge you not to shy away from these opportunities to read what you have written. As many audience members confirmed for me, presenting your work gets easier after the first time. I think of that glorious cliché: There’s a first time for everything. That anxious first foray into reading your work will be worth it.

Lauren Miles

English Department Ambassador

Kelcey Ervick’s Bitter Life: An Alternate Way to Present History

The beauty of readings is that, while you go in expecting to be entertained by a writer’s work, you can leave with a new perspective, or perhaps a better understanding, of how to improve your own writing. I had such an experience back on October 17, 2017, while listening to Kelcey Parker Ervick read samples from, and explain the process behind, her biography/memoir hybrid The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová (Rose Metal Press, 2016).

Ervick learned about Němcová while working on a different novel in Prague. Known by some as the “Mother of Czech Prose,” Němcová was fiercely independent and loathed to follow the societal standards for women at the time: get married, have kids, pour your energy into domesticity. She embodied the spirit that later, in America, became the Women’s Rights Movement. A visionary writer and thinker, Němcová is now celebrated in her home country, and Ervick took immediate interest in her.

Researching Němcová began as normal, with Ervick scouring resources and piecing together as much information as possible. But the scattershot sources, coupled with the fact that Ervich had minimal knowledge of the language, would make stringing together a standard, chronological biography very difficult. And so, in a stroke of brilliance, Ervick decided to approach her subject as more than a historian. The Bitter Life… collects the writings and personal letters of Němcová and other writers, along with collages, paintings, and the autobiographical writings of Ervick herself.

Listening to her describe the process, I was amazed at how natural the structure seemed. I, and most everyone else I know, am used to history as the simple recollection of names, dates, and events. At its worst, this approach reads like a boring textbook. At its best, it can be a gripping narrative. But Ervick has tapped into something far more organic, and far more comparable to how we experience the world. It’s rare that any information is handed to us on a platter. You do not meet a new person and ask them to recount their life, starting from birthplace. No, learning outside of a book is like a puzzle, where randomly selected facts are presented to you and, eventually, a portrait is formed.

Even more interesting was Ervick’s assertion that biographers shouldn’t attempt to distance themselves from their work. While learning about Němcová’s resentment towards marriage, and how she felt like a prisoner in her own life, Ervick discovered a deeply powerful parallel in her own feelings. She had married her high school sweetheart and, like her subject 150 years earlier, felt the walls of domesticity closing in. As Ervick writes, “150 summers later, her folktales lead another woman to happiness.” Studying Němcová was a journey of self-discovery, and Ervick wasn’t about to exclude that from her narrative.

Both The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová and Ervick’s reading style are refreshing in their candor. During the reading, Ervick talked about the difficulty of registering sensitive feelings in published writing, especially considering that others will almost certainly end up reading it. Evidently, Ervick found inspiration in her predecessor to put their fears or turmoil on the page. The book isn’t just about Němcová’s life, or even Ervick’s life, for that matter; it’s influenced by the structure of life itself, about how we learn about and process things, and about how a wake-up call can come from the most surprising places.

I probably won’t be trying to write a biography/memoir featuring my own art work any time soon (I don’t have any art work to begin with), but I now have a new perspective on writerly observation. It’s important to pay attention, not only to what is happening around us, but also to how—and in what manner—we learn about it.

Sam Keeling
English Department Ambassador

Rodrigo Toscano and two poetry students stand intent, reading from sheafs of paper during a poetry performance skit.

Rodrigo Toscano performs with MFA students

Last semester, on Tuesday, November 6, acclaimed poet (and labor organizer by trade) Rodrigo Toscano, along with five Miami Creative Writing MFA students, performed for a full house in the Bachelor Hall reading room. (Pictures here.) Toscano has lived a double life, splitting his time between working in the labor movement and weaving his poetry. A writer who has authored multiple books of poetry, recordings, and essays, he most recently released a collection based off a single sentence, one that also gave him the title for the book: Explosion Rocks Springfield. With Miami graduate students, he performed a string of poem-skits that combined to create an astute reflection on the modern human experience.

Standing side-by-side with Katarina Morris, Savannah Trent, and Kinsey Cantrell, all holding stacks of stapled papers, the poets began speaking one by one in rapid succession. Between chorus-like repetitions of “Scrolling! Pointing! Clicking! Selecting!” the poets bombarded the audience with observations, statements, and rhetorical questions. Each new line spoken by Toscano and company seemed borrowed from something we might hear any day or every day—the lines were rooted in contemporary experience we share.

The majority of the reading was taken up in this manner; however, as the performers shed each packet, the tone of the poem shifted. The first shift came in the form of simulating a discourse between the four writers. At first, this section felt like a dark satirical comedy piece, but it soon began to seem more like a manifesto of the working class. Throughout the larger piece, Toscano attempted to raise serious questions in the minds of the audience while keeping things humorous. Battered by comments about the financial markets and society rich in dark satire mixed with material from the exploits of Esmerelda, the audience had no choice but to laugh. Of the performers, along with Toscano, Katarina Morris stood out for her good use of the space of the room. Her deliberate movements mixed with her body language delivered some of the last and most powerful lines to bring the audience to applause.

For another piece, Toscano was joined by MFA students Paul Vogel and Kyle Flemings. The poem-skit comprised a discussion between Paul, who stood in as a representation of toxic corporate management, with Toscano taking the role of mediator between the public and the wants of corporate America. The back-and-forth between the two highlighted how disconnected the corporate world can be to the needs and wants of the common people. The ludicrous demands and questions by Vogel—for instance, “Tell them if they get help to get the big blue ball over the flaming wall there will be a prize in it for them…they want to know what the prize is? Tell them ‘life.’ What do they say?”—gained many laughs. However, this did not take away from the poem’s focus on just how disenfranchised most people truly are in comparison to corporate power.

Toscano and company did more than just entertain their audience. Through their craft, they found a light way to raise some much-needed social awareness in our time. During the hour, we were able to see the power the written word can have and the light it can shine on the paradoxes we find ourselves living. Perhaps we, the audience, will take some time away from our “scrolling, pointing, clicking, selecting” to take a closer look at what is going on around us.

John D. Meade
English Department Ambassador

Creative Writing MFA students pursue passions with alternative courses

We are reposting this piece by Mackenzie Rossero, CAS communications intern, which originally appeared on the Miami English Department website here

MFA grad student working with kids outdoorsHave you ever wanted to take a class on fanfiction? Have you ever wanted to teach that class? Or, introduce kids to creative writing in the outdoors, in a place teeming with inspirational opportunities? Creative Writing MFA students are doing all of this, and will soon be doing more.

A NEW DEGREE

As of this fall, the English department has changed its Creative Writing Master of Arts (MA) degree to a Creative Writing Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in Creative Writing: Creative Writing and Pedagogy. With an MFA degree, graduates are eligible for more university jobs. The MFA is also a more studio-oriented degree, providing extra emphasis on the student’s individual work.

With these changes in the degree, the English department is offering an option for MFA students to complete a course in another department or propose and pursue a service, research or writing project in place of one of their 600-level literary seminars.

This alternative option is designed for students who are looking to pursue a specific passion — something that cannot normally be found in Miami’s curriculum.

“We think it’s important, both at the undergraduate and graduate level, for students to read a lot and to figure out their place in a literary tradition, and literature seminars help inform their intervention in the tradition,” said Cathy Wagner, Director of the Creative Writing Program. “That’s incredibly important to us… And we also wanted to open up possibilities for students to pursue other options that could feed into their creative practice or support their teaching of creative writing.”

GLOBAL FAN FIC WORKSHOPS

Second-year graduate student, Elizabeth Weeks, developed a community workshop, MFA grad student Carrie Bindschadler (L) teaching children in Tucson.via teleconference, that is specifically for writers of fanfiction. It is a twelve-week course and, from a pool of approximately 50 applicants, she chose ten participants from around the world. In the course,
the authors submitted to each workshop twice, once with fanfiction and once with original fiction.

“This is something I would like to continue even after the semester is over,” Weeks said. “I had way more interest than anticipated, and I’d like to extend the opportunity to others. It’s a lot of work and there’s no pay involved, but I love it and it’s fun and I get to read some really cool stories and talk about writing and fic [fanfiction] with people who have the same level of interest in it that I do.”

CREATIVE WRITING OUTDOORS

Second-year graduate student Carrie Bindschadler spent a summer teaching children in Tucson, Arizona, about creativity and writing in their desert environment. She taught two age groups, 5 through 9 and 10 through 13. Her lessons provided students with the opportunity to act out and write plays and create planets and make pop-up books about them, among many other things.

“One week I had all the kids pretend we were on a deserted desert island, role-playing and writing about our experiences on our island. We spent a lot of time running around outside in the desert trying to get rescued and fighting off giant radioactive killer rattlesnakes. These experiences gave me a lot of hope for the world, but also gave the kids time to pretend outside and it ultimately made their stories better, more infused with descriptive language and more grounded in place than they had been before.”

These projects brought about unexpected rewards for both Weeks and Bindschadler. They were able to bring flexibility and creativity into their own projects.

“I thought the workshop would be more in line with my personal goals as a writer and teacher. While literary theory interests me and I’m sure I would have enjoyed a seminar, I tend to work better and learn more in self-guided environments,” Weeks said.

GROWING INTEREST

Of the latest cohort of Creative Writing MFA students — those who began this fall — twenty percent have already expressed serious interest in this alternative option.

“I’m curious to see how many students do get interested,” Wagner said. “And, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that, once they hear about what other students are doing, more people want to do it.”

The pursuit of this alternative option would require students to develop a plan that produces work equivalent to what would be produced in the literary seminar, and at an equally challenging level. It is intended to offer students more freedom, should they desire it, in designing their coursework to support their artistic practice.

“I’m thrilled about the projects that have been done so far, and I think that they have been useful to the students thinking and helping them move forward as writers. It gives them a sense of agency,” Wagner explained. “They create their own project. They go through it — it’s kind of hard — but they come out at the other end saying, ‘I did that.'”

Creative writing faculty are in the early stages of developing relationships with community service providers such as Oxford’s Family Resource Center and local prisons. Faculty are hoping to build connections between Miami writers and the larger community and to offer MFA students additional opportunities to share the creative literacies they are learning.

Any Creative Writing MFA students interested in pursuing an alternative option should contact the Director of Creative Writing.

Visiting writer Peter Manson, in a pale linen jacket, stands at the microphone and gestures. Miami University faculty poet cris cheek, in a hand-painted shirt, kilt, and glasses, watches Manson intently.

Peter Manson and cris cheek: a night of poetry

On October 30th, the seats of Irvin 40 filled quickly with poetry enthusiasts, there to see the reading of cris cheek and Peter Manson, two writers hailing from across the pond. Manson is from Glasgow and is the author of a variety of works including a book-length translation titled Stéphane Mallarmé: The Poems in Verse (Miami University Press). cheek, originally from England, now teaches here at Miami. He has done it all—music, publishing, dancing, and e-poetry. It made for an interesting scene, Scottish and English poets who cut their teeth performing and writing abroad and in online spaces now reading together for a US crowd. The reading was a melting pot of European Anglophone styles, countries, cultures, and languages as each author brought his own flavor to the mix.

cris cheek performed first, prefacing his reading with the assertion that he’s never done a live reading like this one before. He said that he would be firing off twenty-nine poems in roughly twenty-one minutes, warning the audience that verses are going to be coming at them “thick and fast.” cheek has a masterful delivery, presence, and command of the audience. He describes his own work as “all about water and harm.” His poems critique social media, environmental practices, government, and industry, and generally bounce around so much that it can be hard to keep track. The phrases jumped out at us, including:

“Without regulation there is no air.”

“I write for profit.”

“I cannot speak for myself—I cannot tweet!”

“Facebook bears witness to my alcoholic abuse of my children.” (This line, which, like most of the poems, was collaged from found text, was met with much laughter.)

Half of the time, his reading was sold more by the performance than the actual words. In one memorable poem, he repeated the phrase “How to photograph ___”, inserting various words at the end of the sentence and punctuating it with a click and snap of the hands. Another time, he broke out into song, and perhaps most memorably, at one point he signed words at the crowd. It was interesting to consider whether these actions were improvised by him for a live reading, or were part of the paper and ink.

Peter Manson went straight into his poetry without introduction or preamble. Impish and darkly humorous, his work was easier to pin down. He begins with “My Funeral,” a story in the form of a set of instructions on what to do when he is dead: “remove any teeth and their fillings, and dispose them in a hazardous waste facility”; “Light the pyre, run away.” The instructions range from practical to strangely specific (the exact thickness of his coffin’s walls), to humorous (a specific amount of sugar to be poured into the coffin). He finishes the piece with the words “Don’t actually do this.” The audience, transfixed and silent as the grave, burst into laughter. Manson was also somber and introspective, as in the piece “Time Comes For You,” which he opens with “In the ovary of the fetal grandmother is half of the mother, and in the ovary of the mother is half of the unborn son… but enough about me.” He mused about death and what comes afterwards. It was a sharp turn from the previous piece in overall tone, but in subject matter they did overlap. Death seems to be a recurring theme in his work. Manson closed by readings from his aforementioned book of translations, Stéphane Mallarmé: The Poems in Verse, published by Miami University Press.

These two poets together displayed the breadth of form and style that writing can take, and how live readings breathe new life and meaning into them. From the eclectic, wild performance of cris cheek to the even, measured tone of Peter Manson, the difference in style and delivery could not have been more different, but the two were united in their love and appreciation for the possibilities of poetry.

Jack Renfree
English Department Ambassador

 

Photograph of a poster advertising the Writers' Harvest, an annual event sponsored by Miami University Creative Writing to aid local hungry and homeless people. The 2017 event, held on November 15, 2017, at 7pm in Shriver Center, featured MFA student readers Johnny Fuentes, Heba Hayek, and Madeline Lewis, as well as faculty member Jody Bates and director of Creative Writing Cathy Wagner.

The Writers’ Harvest Returns to Miami University for 27th Year

 On Wednesday, November 15, around 7pm, I trudged down the cold sidewalks of Miami University and ducked into the Shriver Center. On the second floor, I had to ask for directions even though I was standing right next to the room I was looking for.

Miami University’s English Department was celebrating Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week with the 27th Annual Writers’ Harvest. Every year, former and current graduate students and faculty members read original works in support of select food banks.

The featured readers were Jody Bates, Johnny Fuentes, Heba Hayek, Madeline Lewis, Cathy Wagner, and Paul Vogel.

Last year, the event was held in the Shriver Center’s bookstore. This year, due to construction in the bookstore, it was held upstairs in the Harrison Room. Due to a strong turnout the room was cramped and it took some squeezing to get over to the table of cookies and coffee.

There was a recommended donation of $2. They also accepted donations in the form of storable food and a cluster of cans sat at the end of the table by the entry way beside a vase full of dollar bills. Attendees were encouraged to enter a raffle at $1 per ticket to win gift cards donated by local businesses as well as books by creative writing faculty members.

My attendance was, in part, due to my intermediate creative writing class focused on short fiction. We were required to attend a fiction reading featuring published authors sometime during the semester for a grade. The reading was focused on, but not totally monopolized by, short stories and flash fiction, so it was conveniently on topic.

However, I had a personal investment as well. I entered into my Creative Writing major with visions of novels dancing in my head and a portfolio full of poetry. While I haven’t given up on those dreams, over the last year I’ve fallen in love with the short story.

To me short stories seem to be the purest transition from idea to finished product. The meaning isn’t hidden behind fancy language or overloaded with plot, they can be a small but complete narrative or a scene or a conversation or an image. They have the freedom to be relentlessly weird and break the rules, but they can also give small glimpses into the lives of real people. They take less time to write but can linger for years.

Over the evening, I was treated to stories of Syrian refugees, fantastical structures in Milwaukee, robot wives, and school shooters in unexpected ways. For the most, part none of what was read was over 2,000 words long—after all, there were a lot of readers to fit into an hour and a half. Still, they had the capacity to weave worlds together in those short spans and engage with thought-provoking concepts. That is what I have always wanted to do as a writer so I was a little in awe as I listened.

It was also inspiring to see so many people giving up their time and their money in support of suffering members of the Oxford community and surrounding area. The end of fall and the beginning of the holiday season can be a stressful time especially for those who go hungry, so the Writers’ Harvest serves as an important sign of solidarity between the community and the university, in addition to providing a space to listen to good writing and eat a cookie.

Caroline Forrey
English Department Ambassador

Photograph of Miami MFA students making collaged books at a table covered with scraps of paper and partially finished books.

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