Tag Archives: writing

Genre-Bending Women

I could write about this all day, but here is a shortlist of female writers that have influenced me through their individual contemporary/hybrid styles:

1. Maggie Nelson

A mixture of poetry, essay, philosophy, and memoir, Bluets blows both form and genre out of the water.

2. Lidia Yuknavitck

The first book I ever read by Yuknacitch was her memoir, The Chronology of Water, which remains one of my favorite books to date. Her use of language is so precise, so powerful, so poetic, yet perfectly bare-boned and vulnerable. Her latest novel, The Book of Joan, is a modern reimagining of Joan of Arc that takes place on space station. Again, the language is incredible and completely unexpected for dystopian, sci-fi.

3. Roxane Gay

Gay blew up in 2014 with the release of Bad Feminist, a collection of essays that redefine what it means to be a modern feminist. But long before this, her debut came with a collection of 15 stories called Ayiti, “a unique blend of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, all interwoven to represent the Haitian diaspora experience.” Her novel An Untamed State, was released the same year as Bad Feminist. Gay also posts actively on tumblr with thoughts on life, recipes, and more.

4. Claudia Rankine

When Rankine’s lyrical memoir, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, was released in 2004, she completely changed both poetry and CNF. Similarly, her book Citizen pushed this line of hybridity further when it was nominated for the National Book Award in poetry. Some argued that it was a collection of essays, while others saw it as poetic. Still others see it as both, and I am inclined to agree with them.

5. Anne Carson

If you haven’t read The Glass Essay, you need to get on that right now. Carson manages to meld poetry and the personal essay perfectly in this piece as well as The Autobiography of Red. Her poetry is typically prose heavy to begin with and extremely enjoyable to writers of different genres.

6. Carmen Giménez Smith

Crisp autobiographical poetry and a must-read.

7. Octavia Butler

Badass sci-fi daring to go where no one has gone before. “[Butler] defied formulaic sci-fi while exploiting the freedom of the genre to take her usually female and nonwhite characters to places where mainstream fiction would ten to deny them.”—Commonweal

8. Eula Biss

Please read The Pain Scale if you haven’t. She also has a myriad of essay collections that skillfully tackle hard-hitting topics.

9. Lorrie Moore

“Oh, the precarious position of fiction in our world: that over the last several decades the novel has continually been declared dead, and the short story is in constant resurrection, which means half-dead or post-dead or heaven-bound. But one continues writing anyway—as has been said by many—because one must.”—Lorrie Morre

10. Ruth Ellen Kocher

I had the pleasure of studying under this incredible poet whose hybrid work is constantly changing the game. domina Un/blued is a personal favorite.

11. Vanessa Angelica Villerreal

Beast Meridian is one of the most beautiful collections of poems I’ve read in a long time. It includes family photos, potent imagery, and wounding personal experiences to show the erasure and illegalization of Mexican-American bodies in today’s society.

12. Jennifer Tamayo

You Da One is highly experimental and uses pop culture references to explore the wound of American assimilation.

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Prompt of the Day: Poetry

You may or may not be familiar with erasure poetry, but it’s essentially exactly what it sounds like. Taking pre-existing work, you mark out chunks of text to create a new poem. This process can be especially helpful if you’re experiencing writer’s block.

Ruefle-Mary-page1Mary Ruefle has a famous 42-page-erasure poem called A Little White Shadow that she created from Emily Malone Morgan’s Brown & Gross (1889). I believe I read an interview somewhere in which Ruefle claimed one of the main reasons she chose this text is because there are no copyright issues from a text this ancient. So bear that in mind before you spend too much time on this.

A former professor of mine, Ruth Ellen Kocher, took a different approach to erasure in her book domina Un/blued. While in Rome, she wrote tons of poems and later went back and erasured her own work. The results are absolutely breathtaking.

Many poets erasure their own work in the editing process without thinking of it as such. And many poets have difficulty letting words go. But this process is all about whittling down to the most precise language. You’d be surprised what can come out of that.

Rules:

  • take a text you’ve either written or a text that you love and mark out chunks to create your own poem

Here’s my attempt:

Road Not Taken
by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
So:

Taken By Frost

a yellow traveller
bent in the undergrowth
and wanted
that morning
I kept knowing
I should never come back

 

Why New Orleans Still Makes the Perfect Dystopian Setting

Plenty of people have written about the use of New Orleans as a dystopian setting over the last decade, which hits a little too close to home—literally. Yet, I cannot deny that my city does in fact make the perfect backdrop for political commentary. In the context of Hurricane Katrina, this statement makes sense, but does it still hold up?

From a local perspective, I would argue that it does for the following reasons:

1. Unwavering Weather Deathtraps

It’s hard to believe that a little over 12 years ago, Hurricane Katrina left 80% of the city flooded, at least 1,833 dead, and hundreds of thousands homeless—myself included.

While this event destroyed my 15-year-old world, it captivated the rest of the country through the national news circuit as the ultimate disaster porn for months, maybe even years.

The question on everyone’s mind—How could this level of devastation occur in 2005 in one of the most powerful countries in the world?

The images, more reminiscent of a third world country than that of a modern US city, forever shook the country’s self-view. People waiting on their roofs for days with rescue signs, houses upon houses filled with water, stragglers swimming in what was once a street, security footage of looters, the cajun navy out in their personal boats, the 27-mile-long Lake Pontchartrain Bridge in ruins, my childhood theme park (Six Flags New Orleans, formerly named Jazzland) becoming a lake instead of just having one.

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Photo Credit: PBS.org

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to dissociate myself from these images the way the rest of the country did. I distinctly remember the people around me as well as the anchors on TV referring to us IDP’s (Internally Displaced People) as “refugees”—people who by definition have been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.

This semantic discrepancy spoke volumes and reflected the cognitive dissonance between what people were witnessing on television and what they believed possible in their own country.

The use of “refugee” framed the black bodies appearing on millions of white American screens as foreign. The media also fanned fears of looting and crime through exaggeration, bias, and racial stereotypes: Whites borrowed for survival, while blacks doing the same thing stole. But I digress.

Between August 29 and September 17, directly after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, “dystopia” spiked worldwide on Google trends. If you look at this search trend between January 2004 all the way through September 2017, there is no other spike of this magnitude. In fact, when you look at this graph, dystopian YA is just beginning to surpass that spike in terms of popularity. That almost feels wrong, given the wave of Hunger Games, Maze Runners, and Divergents dominating publishing and film.

spike

But if a world-ending event were to occur in America, people already picture it in our backyard thanks to Katrina, the Louisiana Floods of 2016, and even the occasional two-hour thunderstorms.

2hurricanes
What in the actual F???

In 2017, we’ve had the strongest recorded tornado in LA since the 1950s, a biblical thunderstorm (that consequently trapped me in my car for five hours), and, at one point, there were three active hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico simultaneously, which, scared the absolute crap out of me. I’ve never witnessed such a thing in my lifetime, and, frankly, my list of close encounters with supposedly once-in-a-lifetime weather events is much too long for my liking.

la-na-new-orleans-flood-20170810.jpg
After a 2-hour thunderstorm. I was stranded in my SUV down the street.

To my surprise, New Orleans has resembled Seattle more than a Gulf Coast city this year. With newly formed tropical storms and hurricane upgrades every day, I finally muted my weather alerts before hurricane season ended. I won’t even get into to the daily tornado/waterspout watches I recieved while driving across the longest bridge in the world (not hyperbole) to get to and from work.

All of this is to say, we’re never far off from apocalyptic weather or an ecodisaster down here.

2. Refusal to Put the Past to Rest

Another reason New Orleans serves as a popular dystopian backdrop is because our residents don’t just live in the past, they also glorify it.

Until I left the south, I never realized just how bizarre, let alone common, it is for a classmate to receive a scholarship from the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). My mind is still boggled by the self-proclaimed American patriots around me who tote the flag of the losing side.

The confederate flag is so prevalent here, you would think it’s the state flag. I may be desensitized to this symbol now, but, as a child, I knew exactly what it meant without any verbal explanation and felt anxious every time I saw it. Children are perceptive enough to notice the commonality between flag-wielders, some of whom’s ancestors never fought in the Civil War.

While the confederate monuments have come down, this continues to be a hot-button issue among residents. The statues are permanently gone and never coming back, but people here refuse to move on, blaming any and every issue from flooding to poor fund management on metal and stone.

leecircle
Photo Credit: The Daily Signal

Class and racial tensions aren’t going anywhere, which provides a great backdrop for political unrest, injustice, war, primitivism, violence, corruption, and all the things that makeup dystopian works.

Baton Rouge, the state capital located less than an hour way, has the highest wage gap between men and women in the entire country. Baton Rouge and New Orleans also have the highest rates of HIV in the country. With one out of every 55 people in Louisiana is behind bars, we are the prison capital of the world. Oh and don’t forget that we dance in and out of the top 10 murder capitals on a regular basis.

Throw in the fact that the majority of these prisoners are black men performing prison labor, and you can see a new form of slavery that isn’t far off from plantation days. Actually, some of this labor is performed in plantations.

3. Decrepitude and Corruption

A lot of people (aka tourists) find New Orleans’ infrastructure to be “charming.” However, I’m well aware that the abandoned hospital around corner still has flood water from Katrina filling the bottom floor and parking garage. The roads and foundations are sinking faster than we can fix them. Black mold and asbestus run rampant in schools, homes, and public spaces.

Because we rely almost exclusively on tourism, the French Quarter is the only area that keeps up with preservation and maintenance, while the areas populated by local residents continue to show scars from Hurricane Katrina. The job market is almost exclusively service industry for the same reason.

Corruption is also notorious in New Orleans. Show me a politician that hasn’t blatantly embezzled money from taxpayers, and I’ll show you a unicorn. The worst part it though, is that the entire country knows this about us.

img_0079-1Yes, parts of this city are lovely and interesting because of their history, but tourists shouldn’t be the only people in the city who experience upkeep. But, all of this just makes Nola a better candidate for said dystopia.

Conclusion

Bottom line: There are a million reasons to love New Orleans, but this city still reflects past atrocities and what is still broken in modern society. Hurricane Katrina was the catalyst for this view on a national scale. However, the ingredients were there well before the storm and remain here today.

These are things we accept in New Orleans, and maybe that is in fact part of our charm. This is a city full of history, heartache, violence, ghosts, and tragedy. But it is also a place of love and magic, a place where people can express themselves without judgement.

There are things I would like to change, but the reality is that this colonial city is set in her ways. So, for now, you can either take it or leave it or just accept that nothing, including this crime-riddled city, is solely good or bad. Either way, no one in the US knows dystopia better than New Orleanians.

 

Prompt of the Day: Poetry

In five lines (no more, no less) incorporate:

  • the word “sliced”
  • the color “chartreuse”
  • something only you know about your mother
  • your favorite author

Here’s my attempt:

A Chain of Fish Hooks 

Chartreuse is just another way of saying yellow. Tawny and lime.

The way my mother likes to turn inside out quietly in the kitchen.

Neruda said, Eating alone is a disappointment. But not eating is

hollow and green. And that is how family feels. Like a verdant hole

or an animal’s sliced heart.  Careless breaking of something wild.

How to Write When You Have Nothing to Say

The Big Bad Block

Writer’s block, listless lingua, poetic impotence—whatever you want to call it—I’ve been forcing myself to write through it for years now. After all, one of Hemingway’s most famous works, The Old Man and the Sea, came directly out of writer’s block.

But after years of writing through it, the results—a ton of first chapters, hundreds of unfinished poems, and a slew of half-hearted essays—are less than desirable.

gordonramsy
Actual photo of me in undergrad.

Never in my life have I experienced writer’s block. I was always that ambitious student in the front row who could spin a tale from any assigned prompt, always volunteering to read it out loud at the end of class. So how did I get to this place?

  1. Exhaustion from professional reading, editing, and writing
  2. Writing endlessly through past trauma for creative purposes
  3. Pushing emotions down instead of using them as creative fuel
  4. Only looking at work through the lens of the reader
  5. Writing extensively sans passion/inspiration to beat the block

Hemingway may have been able to write through his soul-numbing creative drought, but I simply couldn’t do it anymore. Somewhere in the middle of grad school, the blank page became my enemy, reading felt like a burden, and I hated everything I managed to put into words.

500words
Actual footage of Hemingway writing drunk & editing sober

The Solution

What I’m talking about here is not your run-of-the-mill writer’s block. If it were, writing prompts, coffee shops, family squabbles, people watching, and a number of other random things would pull you out of it quickly.

I’m talking about something much more sinister. It is recurring exhaustion, disillusionment, existing in a mechanical or automatic state. It is going full-speed into Self-Deprecationlandia without any hope of resurfacing. It is the inability to find inspiration over prolonged periods of time, despite your dedication to “write through it.” It is losing touch with why you became a writer in the first place. No, what I’m talking about is longer and darker than standard writer’s block.

So how do you write through numb periods like this when the act feels on par with vacuuming a staircase or cleaning the toilet?

The simple answer is—you don’t!

When one of my undergraduate professors gave me this advice seven years ago, she changed my whole perception of writing and how it should be done. She said she went through periods of consumption and regurgitation. In other words, she took time to ingest lots and lots of media and mull over her thoughts before entering a long writing phase or working on a book project. This method is both obvious and sacrilegious at the same time.

So often as writers we are told to carve out a practice and stick to that schedule every single day, to write through writer’s block, and to, above all, never stop. In reality, I think this can be damaging to some of us.

At the upper echelons of academia, passion is inadvertently stamped out, while the pressure to publish, contextualize, and evolve reign. Production is never-ending. Some find this challenging and fun; others feel drained. Either way, you keep moving.

This professor’s advice permitted me to take a break from writing. And this professor is the only person ever to do so.

Rethinking Writing Practices

After so many years in this discipline, I no longer see the practice of writing in terms of black and white. Instead, I see it as a natural cycle or fluctuation. There are times when forcing yourself to write is helpful, even healing, and should be done. But that force can also reach a point of killing your passion for the craft altogether.

ts
The most chill I can muster rn

There is a timing and balance to writing that cannot be forced, which is why we find ourselves writing about childhood trauma decades later. You need enough emotion to power you through the act itself and enough distance to craft that feeling into something worth sharing with the world. You need time to analyze your emotions and the events in your life to fashion art from that.

Some write solely from raw emotion and experience, which many describe as reopening an old wound and letting it bleed. This type of writer also needs time to heal or practice self-care from time to time.

Even creative writing/lit professors take sabbaticals every few years to nourish their minds and spirits. While this suggestion goes against everything we’re taught as writers, I think it is necessary to say aloud. It’s okay if you have nothing to say right now. It will come to you later, and when it does, it will flow out in bursts. It will feel natural. It will not feel like a chore.

Most creatives have multiple interests, skills, and hobbies. Every time I put a pin in writing, I find it helpful to play piano, paint, crochet, draw, record songs using old poems as song lyrics, make gifts for upcoming holidays, take my pooches to the dog park, go hiking or to somewhere I’ve never been, research something I’ve always wanted to know more about, or take up a new hobby altogether. This provides a respite from the blank page while channelling other parts of your creativity, building your confidence back up, and giving you ample inspiration for your current or future projects.

hillsarealive
Actual clip of me conquering 3 years of writer’s block

 

Conclusion

It took three weeks of vacation for me to finally shake the last three years of writer’s block.

Spending time with my family, sleeping in my teenage bedroom, not pounding out copy/edits eight plus hours a day, watching my favorite sci-fi/fantasy films, and reading captivating books for the first time in ages all reminded me of why I do what I do and inspired a novel I truly care about finishing.

Forcing myself to write isn’t so bad—when I have something to say. Ultimately, inspiration and restfulness are paramount to my creativity and maybe to other’s creativity as well. Like medical treatments, writing practices aren’t one-size-fits-all. The most important thing is to listen to yourself and protect that well of creativity with everything you have. Don’t be afraid to experiment and find what’s best for you.

How to Be a Tourist in Your Own City in 6 Steps

Whether you’re feeling a little stagnant or just want to try something new, it’s never too late to discover untapped facets of your city.

 

1. Swallow your pride

In a place like New Orleans (my city), it’s hard not to get defensive when a tourist shows us something we didn’t already know about. Down here, we really pride ourselves on our ability to recommend the best restaurants, bars and music spots. But, if you really want to learn something new about where you live, you have to let that pride go. Live with the curiosity of an explorer, and don’t shut people down just because they’re not from your city. They just may offer you something life-changing.

 

2. Take a tour

I used to roll my eyes at the tourists who went on alligator tours, but it’s hard to deny how amazing this experience is once you’ve seen a 12-foot alligator jump six feet in the air and snatch a chunk of raw chicken out of a man’s hand.

I thought I knew everything about the Treme until I took a Segway tour.  While I knew all of the facts our docent listed off, I’d never gone “off-roading” in Louis Armstrong Park before.  And it was one of the most fun experiences of my life, mostly because of the Segway.  Learning how to ride that thing was hard at first, but it was such a unique way to see my city.

 

3. Change your route

I always notice new murals, restaurants, and popups when I take different routes.  Yes, the same routes are comfortable, and probably have less congestion, but when you’re not in a hurry, change it up!  You’ll be amazed at what you find.

 

4. Revisit your favorite childhood spots

You went to the zoo and aquarium a million times as a kid, right?  Surely, it hasn’t changed that much? Think again. How old are you now? Believe it or not, you’re all grown up now and the zoo probably isn’t what you remember. More importantly, returning to these places can fill us with a sense of child-like wonder and leave us inspired for weeks.

 

5. Rent a hotel or bed & breakfast

Our mood can improve just by getting away from regular routines and environments. Find a place in your favorite part of town or an area you don’t know very well. While you’re there, go to an unfamiliar restaurant. Unplug from technology and responsibility over the weekend.

 

6. Find solace in nature

Nothing makes me feel happier than being on the water – it’s like coming home. The second I feel that salty breeze through my hair, the stress of the work week just melts away. But you don’t have to go on the water to find your happy place or discover a different side to your city. Try exploring local hiking trails and state parks in your area. For me, that means heading into the swamp and hurtling alligators!

Watching Hurricane Harvey from New Orleans

For the first time in twelve years, I didn’t wake up thinking about Hurricane Katrina on the anniversary.  Not the day of, not the week before, and not for the entire month of August.

Instead, I woke up thinking about my stranded parents in Houston. This is where they settled twelve years ago after we lost everything. Surely this can’t happen here, too? Surely they are more equipped to deal with this level of devastation than New Orleans was in 2005?

The truth is that we cannot outrun disaster. I know this first hand. In my first 3 months of grad school a hundred year flood hit the area, and it was impossible to escape the memories of Hurricane Katrina. If there’s a natural disaster, you can bet that I will be there for some inexplicable reason. I guess it was lucky that I’d planned on driving to Houston the weekend after the storm to watch the LSU game with my dad. My weather misfortune is a long running joke among friends and family.

Still, it’s hard to look at the photos of Houston without remembering the hell of Katrina. And the irony of Hurricane Harvey falling on the anniversary of Katrina isn’t lost on me. Houston took us in, all of us. Plenty of people saw it as a sanctuary and settled there permanently. And as it sits engulfed in water, I can only think about the fact that there is nowhere left to run.

I have lived all over this country only to experience this kind of devastation over and over again. Wherever you are, we are all in this together. However, I do not wish to spin the resilience myth that comes with surviving a hurricane (or flood, tornado, tsunami, earthquake, landslide, or wildfire). That is an individual experience.

As I’ve gotten older and survived more and more once-in-a-lifetime weather events, they’ve become easier to deal with. A few weeks ago, I was stranded in my car during a flash flood with a flat tire when the water suddenly rose without warning.

It is so easy to relapse into trauma or to let my PTSD resurface in these moments. Or that used to be the case anyway. But for the first time, I found myself laughing in the face of danger. Making humorous videos to share with friends and family as the world around me spun out of control like it had so many times before.

I have found a certain kind of peace in accepting what I cannot control.

Earlier today I called my mother to see if she could get out of her neighborhood, which she now can. “I feel bad for cooking and drinking like nothing’s wrong,” she said. My mother, who has worked at Home Depot for 30 years, is weatherproof. She is ready to step up and sheetrock people’s homes, and I love her for that.  If anyone understands what Harvey flood victims are going through right now, it is my selfless, half-Cajun mother.

My father was evacuated from his home today and took the only road out of the city all the way to Austin. On the way out, he shared a photo of the Brazos River, which looks muddy and pregnant, ready to burst at any moment.

The battle is not over. The river will crest, and when it does, more devastation will arrive. Even though I should be nestled in a cocoon fashioned from my own anxiety right now, my heart is full witnessing the Cajun navy (rescue volunteers from Louisiana) arrive in Houston with boats – lots of boats – to brave the elements and lend a helping hand.

It is strange to see Houston in a vulnerable position when they’ve always been our refuge. But I guess this is how relationships work. We New Orleanians see ourselves in Houston. We know what lies ahead for them. While we won’t forget Katrina, Harvey’s widespread destruction has it’s own place in history now. And we are ready to help.

10 Stunning Books of Poetry Set in Louisiana

As fun as Mardi Gras is, Louisiana has much more to offer in terms of entertainment.  

Louisiana has been home to many celebrated authors, such as Anne Rice, Tennessee Williams, Kate Chopin, John Kennedy Toole, and Truman Capote. But there are some lesser-known authors and works that capture unique facets of this mystical state, which is marked by an incredible resilience, breathtaking swampscapes, and a long list of past traumas from the slave trade to the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina.

Here are 10 stunning books of poetry set in Louisiana(ish):

1. Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith (Coffee House Press, 2008)

dazzler

While Smith isn’t a Nola native, Blood Dazzler remains one of the best poetry collections on Hurricane Katrina to date. With quiet fury and expertly crafted tension, Blood Dazzler takes the reader through the utter terror of wading and waiting through the storm. The cadence of the language and stunning imagery will blow you away too.

“Scraping toward the first of you, hungering for wood, walls, unturned skin. With shifting and frantic mouth, I loudly loved the slow bones

of elders, fools, and willows.”

 

2. Missing the Moon by Bin Ramke (Omnidawn, 2014)

moon

A few years ago, I reviewed Missing the Moon for The Volta blog. There was a point in time where both Ramke and I lived in Denver. I approached him after a reading one night when his poetry struck me as familiar. “Are you Cajun, too?” I asked. “Yes, how did you know?” he said, and we proceeded to chat for the next few hours about our shared history.

Missing the Moon perfectly captures the insidious encroachment of Americanization that nearly destroyed Cajun culture after the Red Scare.  Forced into the swamps, Ramke shows us how Cajuns belong on neither land nor water, speak neither French nor English, instead, remain displaced between worlds.

“I translate myself into myself—
sane phrases, words and words
Returning into Sabine Bay we would
stare forward into a horizon the dark
smear of cypress and palmetto not
yet arisen to separate sky from water
the shape of the boat a word…”

 

3. Book of Southern and Water by Emmalea Russo (Poor Claudia, 2013)

russo

I stumbled upon this treasure when I was really homesick. In the midst of a 3-year masters program in Boulder, CO, over 1,300 miles away from LA, everything around me made me feel dislocated. The climate and culture could not be more different.

Reading this felt like coming home. Like being wrapped in humidity and warm rivers. Russo captures the Louisiana landscape the way one photographs someone they love.

“this is the bottom                                  this is the bottom

the bottom of the country                   moist crowded

something like safe inside

the time it takes for skin to dry…”

 

4. Smoked Mullet Cornbread Crawdad Memory by Rain C. Goméz (Mongrel Empire Press, 2012)

mullet

When I first saw the name of this book, I thought: A) Could you repeat that? And B) A redneck definitely wrote this. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Goméz, a Ph.D. working within TransIndigeniety and Diaspora in Literary and Cultural Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Creative Writing, is a self-identified, Louisiana Creole mestiza with a stunning perspective. These prose poems illustrate a unique and underrepresented intersection of  Louisiana. Plus, the book took home the Native Writers Circle of the Americas’ 2009 First Book Award in Poetry.

“The layers of my skin are made
From story and memory.
I am fashioned from the experience
Of mothers,
Of fathers.
I move in constant awareness that
This act of being was not easily won. “

 

5. Slab by Selah Saterstrom (Coffee House Press, 2015)

slab

Originally from the Mississippi Gulf Coast (and the MS/LA border), Saterstrom was deeply affected by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. While post-Katrina Louisiana is often used as a backdrop for dystopian works, this collection of experimental, political, playlike, prose poems is undeniably one of a kind. Slab is a meditation on disaster. In it, we follow Tiger, a southern woman turned stripper. The decay left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina she must overcome represents the lingering post-Civil War deterioration of these Gulf states and serves as a call to action. Bottom in education, healthcare, infrastructure, crime, and overall quality-of-life, Slab refuses to romanticize or hide our wreckage.

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6. Boy with Thorn by Rickey Laurentiis (Pitt Poetry Series, 2015)

thorn

“It’s the experience of being from a place and then, suddenly, that place being caused to changed—radically, quickly—such that in some ways it’ll never be what you remember it as again. So I want to say, like the military child, I’m at work to get back to this remembered home that, in some way, doesn’t anymore exist.”—Rickey Laurentiis

“Rickey Laurentiis’ debut poetry collection, Boy with Thorn, arrives at a crucial time in American literary discourse, engaging the oppressive and harmful legacies of our nation with clarity and intelligent critique. Laurentiis’ collection as a whole is honest in recognition of a life lived through violence. The reader must praise the landscapes in this collection, in the midst of its terror and destruction, for also producing Laurentiis’ lyric beauty and wisdom. His relentless recognition of personal truths and reclamation of narratives formerly silenced is an example of poetry at its highest form.” Yael Massen, MICROREVIEW: RICKEY LAURENTIIS’S BOY WITH THORN, Indiana Review.

 

7. One Big Self by C.D. Wright (Copper Canyon Press, 2007)

onebig

Louisiana is the prison capital of the world. “Compare Louisiana’s rate of 816 people per 100,000 with Russia’s 492, China with 119, France with 100, and Germany with 78…Louisiana has long been much more severe in sending black people to prison than whites, at least after black people were no longer slaves…Angola Penitentiary remains the largest maximum security prison in the United States. There are over 5000 prisoners at Angola alone. The average sentence for prisoners there is 93 years. About 95 percent of people serving time at Angola will die there under current laws.”—Bill Quigley, Louisiana Number 1 in Incarceration, Huffington Post.

After C.D. Wright, a renowned poet from Arkansas’ Ozarks, was invited by photographer, Deborah Luster, to Angola Prison, she felt moved to write One Big Self. Part prison portraits, part poetry, “the discrepancies between the photographer, writer, viewer, and inmate are multiple, blaring” (Wright).  Many of these haunting images resemble Civil War-era, tintype, portraits of slaves. The message is clear, and the evidence—hard to deny.

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8. The New Testament by Jerricho Brown (Copper Canyon Press, 2014)

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Dripping with biblical nomenclature and gospel-like lyricism, The New Testament is an incredible, original collection of poetry. It is almost impossible to separate Brown, a self-identified gay man of color and Shreveport native, from the book’s narrator, which perhaps is the point. The text is imbued with intimacy, exile, ambivalence, struggle, and passion. Like Lucifer, the narrator is cast out of heaven, yet he finds small ways of coping, replacing the omnipotent “He” with a lover. “In the best moments, Brown weaves together strains of religious invocation with his uneasy identity as a southern, gay, black man into a beguiling self-myth.”—Craig Morgan Teicher, A Collection Of Poems That Offers An Unlikely Kind Of Hope, NPR

Psalm 150
Some folks fool themselves into believing,
But I know what I know once, at the height
Of hopeless touching, my man and I hold
Our breaths, certain we can stop time or maybe
Eliminate it from our lives, which are shorter
Since we learned to make love for each other
Rather than doing it to each other. As for praise
And worship, I prefer the latter. Only memory
Makes us kneel, silent and still. Hear me?
Thunder scares. Lightning lets us see. Then,
Heads covered, we wait for rain. Dear Lord,
Let me watch for his arrival and hang my head
And shake it like a man who’s lost and lived.
Something keeps trying, but I’m not killed yet.

 

9. You Good Thing by Dara Wier (Wave Books, 2013)

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This collection doesn’t explicitly mention Louisiana or Katrina, but it is implied by the abundance water imagery and wild chaos of the text. Wier is originally from New Orleans. “Many of Weir’s stanzas draw a reader away from a recognizable world into one in which women waltz with bears, houseflies chat with colonels, and the absence of sound makes a material presence.”—Harvard Review

“You took the boat onto flattened waters./ White wall of blue morning fog to slip into./ You withstood what is was that was wailing you through./ There you were standing on nothing, looking down at two/ Blackfeathered slashes your two hands held on to.”

 

10. Flood by J. Bruce Fuller (Swan Scythe Press, 2013)

Flood“Written by current Stegner Fellow J. Bruce Fuller, Flood is the kind of read that sticks with you, like the lingering floodwaters of a rain storm, like the water lines you can see when they recede. The book is split into two parts “1927” and “2005,” each indicating a different year when water altered the landscape and lives of the people of Louisiana. Fuller reaches into his family and personal history to tell stories of what is lost when waters rise, but also what one learns from experiences like this, such as in “The River Is In Us”: “Each of us is planted / in the earth for a time / when the river inside us / mouths open to the sea.”—Kimberly Ann Southwick, 3 Chapbook Reviews: Loving and Living in Louisiana, Ploughshares

And if she is angry
her belly constricted
by our levees
she will erupt
silt like ash

 

 


Is It Okay to Read Trash?

Most of us don’t start out reading Nietzsche, Kafka, or Joyce and with good reason—it isn’t fun! 

When I was in middle school, I was obsessed with trashy romance novels (also, Harry Potter). My trashy tastes have since moved on to paranormal teen romance, which is weird because I essentially went from being a historical-adult-romance-reading teen to a paranormal-teen-romance-reading adult (funny how that works sometimes).

Now I don’t mean to put classic writers like Joyce down; after all, he gave us this gem: “The sea, the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea” (Ulysses). And he was one of the biggest literary pioneers of the 20th century, along with fellow modernists Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Kafka, and Lorca.

Yes, arduous reads are absolutely worth the effort. After all, these are the texts that transform you from ‘just proficient’ to master. These are the texts that make you reach and pull and grow intellectually. I don’t think anyone would bother to argue against their value. Yet, plenty of people like to police reading habits if they happen to include garbage books.

This is something I would never have admitted to my classmates in grad school, but I don’t think I would have ended up with an MFA had I not taken an interest in salacious lady-porn-trash in the 5th grade. That was the catalyst for my love affair with reading. Despite this knowledge, I found myself asking this question during and after grad school quite a bit:

Is it okay to read unchallenging, garbage simply for entertainment value?

Fuck yes it is, and here’s why:

1. Challenging reads never go away. 

Academic track or not, you will have to read taxing things you don’t care about for the rest of your life. It’s just a part of our existence, so you might as well enjoy what you read in your free time.

2. It will keep you inspired. 

All of us avid readers/writers got here somehow, right? Maybe it was trashy romance or some cheesy, predictable mystery series. Whatever it is, I believe deep-down that everyone loves to read, and I’ve found successful ways of getting adamant, self-proclaimed non-readers to love it. It’s just a matter of finding something you connect with. There’s a reason 46% of romance readers read 1 book per week compared to the 5 books a year the typical American reads.

3. You will discover what sells. 

I will never forget this life-changing advice a professor handed down in graduate school: Don’t be too high-brow to find out what sells. Part of his success as a famous novelist is attributed to reading best-sellers. As a writer, it will benefit you to have a grasp of what readers and publishers alike want. And if you happen to enjoy the “research,” so be it.

4. It provides you with sweet, sweet relief. 

There are tons of psychological benefits to reading what you like. Stress relief is at the top of the list. Other benefits include natural memory loss prevention, increased empathy, sleep aid, improved writing skill, plus it’s a cost-effective form of entertainment compared to movies and certain outdoor activities.

5. You learn from it. 

Even trash has an editor. If you want to ingrain grammar, spelling, and new vocabulary into your brain, keep reading that trash. You’ll also pick up naturally on the formula of the genre you like, which will make it easier for you to plan and write your novel.

6. It helps you escape reality.

“There is no frigate like a book.”—Emily Dickenson

Escaping reality might sound a lot like running away from your problems, but it’s the exact opposite. How many of us have turned to reading and writing after trauma? Your parents’ divorce, a family member’s death, surviving a natural disaster, undergoing physical or emotional abuse—even the necessary act of growing up is traumatic to some extent. Reading helps us look outside of ourselves and process these emotions and experiences. It lets us travel through space and time when we’re destitute. It keeps us from feeling alone, even if we are.

7. It empowers us. 

All sorts of sexist tropes exist in trashy romance novels, and yet tons of women feel empowered by them. In Anne Browning Walker’s contribution to the Huffington Post blog, Why Smart Women Read Romance Novels, she says:

“Our society feels threatened by women having sex. Romance novels present the opposite view. Authors use sex scenes to present a healthy activity shared by two consenting adults who (in the end, if not at the moment) fall in love with each other. Heroines are sexually satisfied during each encounter. There’s a safe space to explore your fantasies and figure out what turns you on. Nothing dumb about that.”

This also goes for sci-fi novels with people of color protagonists, YA novels starring gay teens, and books like Crazy Rich Asians—one of the few novels straying from tokenism and asian stereotypes with western success. It’s kind of like Gossip Girl, but these kids put Serrena Vanderwoodsen’s and Chuck Bass’ fortunes to shame. The cool thing though, is that the book allows a large cast of asian characters to be vapid, hot-mess pieces of shit, which is pretty absent from mainstream media in the US. It also begs the question: Why are these types of works really considered trash in the first place? 

8. “Good” is subjective. 

What qualifies a book as “good”—or “bad” for that matter? You can check out the Goodreads and Amazon reviews or hit up the NYT bestsellers list to see what a whole bunch of people you’ve never met think. Perhaps, you should go with the literary canon pounded into you most of your life by people who’ve also had the literary cannon pounded into them?

Few acknowlege the gaping issues in the literary canon as well as the Modernist Movement I discussed earlier, which excluded black writers of the New Negro Movement (Harlem Rennaissance) at the time and appropriated West African art without citation because white writers considered this art “primitive.” (Yet they thought it was good enough to steal, lmao.) Yikes.

The point though is that it lacks inclusivity. When you can’t relate to a book, or you know your particular demographic is subjugated or excluded entirely, it makes it that much harder to enjoy. Make things simple and think for yourself. Just because your professor thinks it’s “good,” doesn’t mean they’re looking at the big picture.

9. Haters gonna hate. 

fabio
You knew this was coming.

If you’re in graduate school or a literary community, those in your coterie will try to shame you for reading trash. The high-brow, art school mentality is an unwitting tool of colonialism that ultimately limits the hater. But I digress. Don’t let other people decide what you should like because it will make you fucking miserable.

Let’s be real for a second though. Carrying trash around is embarrassing in these spaces. Can you imagine walking into an MFA student lounge with Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey in your hand? Or any space for that matter? Hell no! You might as well tape a “make fun of me” sign on your back.

Still, you like what you like so if you want to avoid embarrassment, do what I do—cover that shit up with a false book cover from a more revered title that no one will want to talk about. E-books are probably the safest option, but personally, I need to hold a book in my hands.

10. It’s fun!

There is no greater joy in life than reading a book you can’t put down. So engrossing you carry it with you around the house, the office, or wherever you go “just in case.” Or you dream about going home all day to be with it. So good you lock yourself in a closet with a flashlight so you can soak it all in without interruption. This kind of reading isn’t a fun acticity so much as an addiction—and it’s a high worth chasing to the very last drop.

 


hexhall

 

Q: What are you reading?

A: Currently, I’m on Book 2 of the Hex Hall series, which follows Sophie Mercer, a teen witch in her first year of boarding school. Only it’s not your average school.

Hecate Hall, or Hex Hall (as it’s been renamed by students), is full of magical beings. Sophie isn’t sure how she feels about sharing space with werewolves, fairies, shifters, and vampires—but she doesn’t have much of a choice.

Aside from being banished to Hex Hall for the rest of high school after accidently revealing herself to humans, Sophie’s situation becomes more unpromising when young witches begin turning up dead. And there are no leads as to who the killer might be.

What’s your favorite trash? Comment below to tell me what you’re reading! 

Becoming a Creative Writing Major: Yay or Nay?

Getting a degree in creative writing is both the best and worst decision I’ve ever made, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

A lot of amazing and crappy things have happened along my writing journey. I was one of 5 poets accepted into my kickass MFA program my year. I now have a stable career as a full-time national magazine editor. But getting here wasn’t easy.

I’ve had stressful periods of unemployment that’ve made me seriously question the value of my education. I’ve had to borrow money, network (which is a nightmare for an introvert), face countless rejections, and a whole list of undignified things I won’t get into.

There is a lot to consider and a lot of risk when you decide to major in something like creative writing, painting, theater, dance, singing, or any type of fine art. So what have I learned between undergraduate and now? If I could go back in time and give myself advice, here’s what I would say:

 

1. Find what you love early.

happychick

Halfway through undergraduate, I finally asked myself: “What do I love? What will make me happy every day?” Many of us feel that happiness is a luxury, especially in these uncertain economic times. And by the time I asked myself these questions and switched majors, my classmates were ahead of me in pretty much every way, including graduate school applications, craft level, foundational knowledge, required reading, performance, and networking. It’s always good to be practical and weigh your options, but try to find a way to make your passions work for you instead of repressing them or being negative. Talk to people doing what you want to do and find out how they did it. Figure out what you can do with a CW degree if plan A fails.

 

2. Pursue it with everything you have.

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Once you find out how your professors and other writers you admire got to where they are, hatch a game plan and ask the hard questions. Is your goal to go on and get an MFA or PhD? To teach? To write and edit? Be a celebrated novelist? Go for it! And whatever you do, do not give up. When you make that decision and act on it every day, everything will fall into place.

 

3. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Shakespeare_by_William_Blake

Ever since I was a child, I’ve had this longtime fantasy of becoming a revered novelist whose work would live on for hundreds of years in true Shakespearian glory. So what happened? Well aside from the fact that I wasn’t even a poet or playwright at the time, all of the intro level fiction classes filled up before I could get into one. So I was forced to wait for the next semester and in the meantime take poetry and screenwriting courses. And boy, was I terrified. Little did I know that my first poetry class would change the entire trajectory of my life. Later, in graduate school, I went out on a limb and tried a creative nonfiction class and fell in love with that too. What I’m saying is that you should always try new things and push yourself out of your comfort zone. If you’re afraid or uncomfortable, it means something great is around the corner!

 

4. Let go of the ego.

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As someone who has both taken and taught many an intro-level creative writing class, one of the best things you can do for yourself is leave the ego at the classroom door. No one is trying to hurt your feelings – quite the opposite. If you truly want to get better at this craft and make a living at it, you have to be open to criticism. When I was younger, this was an especially hard pill to swallow. You will never ever stop learning; you will never ever be at the finish line, and this is something all great writers know. If you get into freelancing, you will have to learn to be intuitive and figure out what your editor expects/wants and deliver it. If you want to write a successful book, you will have to understand what your readers like and don’t like. When you look at constructive criticism as a tool of success, critiques will be much easier to deal with.

 

5. Know what you’re getting into.

planning

As you’re probably well aware, creative writing is not a lucrative field. On top of that, it is extremely competetive. Only a small few go on to earn PhDs, and out of those, few are offered full-time professorships. You will experience tons of rejection along the way from your workshop peers, you professors, the programs you want to get into, and from publishers.

One of my graduate school professors kept a massive binder full of rejection letters from publishers he submitted to. He is now an extremely successful novelist, but he keeps the rejections to show students how many “no’s” you’ll hear before you hear “yes”. Without publications, you don’t have much of a future as a creative writing professor, so you need to constantly submit your work. Eventually, someone will say YES, and you will be reminded of why all of this is worth it.

 

6. More rejection.

frustrated

The first year I applied to graduate schools, every single one rejected me. That stung quite a bit, but my portfolio was shit, and I knew it. Since you can only apply once a year to MFA programs, I got an office job. I did that for a year, and it made me realize how badly I wanted that MFA. I worked and worked on that portfolio. I re-took the GRE as well as the classes I hadn’t done so well in. I went to my former teachers for advice and letters of rec. I made sure my personal essay reflected my personality and my passion for poetry in a creative way. When I applied the next year, I got into 3 great programs! What I learned from that is that you can choose to let rejection get you down, or you can use it to motivate you. In the end, that year of sitting out helped me realize what I wanted and made me count my blessings when it finally happened.

 

7. Be adaptable. 

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This is the strongest piece of advice I can give. Learn everything you can about everything. Read constantly. Concentrate on your craft. Build a portfolio that you can distribute after you graduate or start doing freelance gigs while you’re still in school. If you don’t get into graduate school or become the next JK Rowling right away, you need to have a backup plan. Freelancing is a great way to make money, and you can even work from home. But most companies don’t care about your short story. They want marketing and ad copy or articles on business, beauty, fitness, tech, etc. If you love fitness or tech, write about it! Also, practice writing on topics you know nothing about. If you can do that and get fast at it, you’ll be just fine.

 

8. There isn’t a limit to the writing club.

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A huge flaw many of us have when pursuing our dreams is believing there are only so many spots for success at the table. Yes, only a few students will be accepted to such and such program. Yes, only a few of the PhDs from that class will be offered full-time jobs when they graduate. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that you can have whatever you want in life if you work for it. That doesn’t necessarily mean you will get it on your first try. Sometimes you have to prove just how badly you want something before others listen, but eventually, they will listen.

 


 

There is much more to be said about creative writing degrees, but these 8 points are a great place to begin. Don’t be afraid of taking risks in life, especially when you’re young. Find your joy, and make it your everyday.

Until next time!

–Liz