Author Archives: monroec2

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

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