Corey Campbell (fiction, ’12) recently spoke with Arizona State University about her experiences teaching fiction to prisoners.
Friday mornings start with the 63-plus mile drive across Phoenix, past Apache Junction, and into the desert. “Usually I’m nervous before class,” she says. Then she hastens to add, “But not because they’re prisoners, and not even because they’re sex offenders” (that detail she learned the week before her first class). No, what Campbell worries about is whether her lessons will encompass all their interests and needs! “I try,” she notes modestly.
Campbell’s regard for what the prisoners themselves are trying to do is very clear in some of the following stories she shares about them: “Marcus writes a fantasy trilogy about an ancient fighter named O.M.A. (One Man Army). Bobby’s poem, ‘The Birth of Hope,’ describes an inmate’s desire for a rainbow, the only lover who dares visit him in prison. Then there is Notso, initially the most confrontational—writing a monologue from my point of view for the first assignment—who has become my biggest supporter, submitting an encyclopedic history of elderly war veterans on a park bench remembering. Notso’s last name is Smart, so he calls himself ‘Notso,’ and asks that we do the same: Notso Smart.”
“Then there’s Wesley, missing his front teeth, who told me once that everyone appears to be friends in workshop but on the yard are only acquaintances. His first submission described a beaming couple planning their wedding while on a Caribbean vacation. In detail he described the succulent jerk chicken they ate, how the sand gloriously rubbed their feet, where they planned to snorkel the next day.” Reading the rich description of this imaginative journey, Campbell realized that Wes was writing to take a vacation. “He didn’t care when we demanded he add tension and conflict; the piece had already served its purpose for him. He wanted to get away!”
An interview with faculty member Kevin McIlvoy appears online at r.kv.r.y quarterly.
The starting place for me as a writer was the luck of growing up hearing truly marvelous oral storytellers in my father’s large family, particularly the oldest women in his family. Their rambling, chaotic stories were spellbinding to me. They were a form of singing that shifted in register and expressiveness according to what the storyteller was feeling in her body.
The story had not been planned (as a self-conscious design), it was not thought out and, so, poured out; it was unplanned (as an unselfconscious wreckage) and, so, spilled out. The story was not driven by a compelling plot or theme regarding our ways of becoming; it was driven by the sensations and the enigmatic vulnerabilities of the body and its ways of being.
Themes and plots arose in the story only as happy accidents. At no point was the story constructing an experience of comprehension for the listener’s mind; it was, instead, creating a way to listen with the body. This kind of story left me with the impression that storytelling existed above all else in order to give us new ways to be fully present — in all our senses, in our skin and flesh, in our noses, on our tongues, and always in our sensitive ears — to the world before us.
With Stephen D. Miller, Donnelly translates classical Japanese poetry and drama. Their most recent book is The Wind from Vulture Peak: The Buddhification of Japanese Waka in the Heian Period (2013, Cornell East Asia Series).
Donnelly’s most recent book of poems, Nocturnes of the Brothel of Ruin, (2012, Four Way Books), interwove translations of Japanese poems with his own sequences. During his residency in Japan, Donnelly “hopes to amplify the influence of Japanese poetics on his own poems, extending a literary influence to an experiential one, and to explore conversations between Japan’s classical past and its unsentimental present in person and in his writing.”
Read more about the award at the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission’s website.
In an online craft essay for Brevity Magazine, Bryan Furuness (fiction, ’08) asks five writers, including Robin Black (fiction, ’05) and former faculty member Erin McGraw, for their advice to recent MFA graduates.
A weird thing happened the other day. A writer-friend contacted me to say that she felt lost and low and miserable about writing. What’s the point? she wrote. Why the hell am I doing this?
In and of itself, the note wasn’t so strange. But consider this: I’ve gotten two other notes like it in the last month, all from writers a couple of years removed from their MFA programs.
Most MFA grads know about the rough patch that often hits the first six months after the program. You feel burned-out and disconnected, and you have to adjust to life without deadlines and mentors and all that esprit de corps. My pastor-friend calls this a “coming down from the mountaintop” experience. For a lot of grads, this is the end: they never write again.
Many of the writers who slog on find themselves in another trough. Somewhere between two-to-four years out of your MFA program, you realize that no one is reading your work: it’s either not getting accepted for publication or it’s landing in obscure lit magazines that few people read. You get tired of answering your super-supportive Uncle Frank, who, every time he sees you, says, “How’s that novel coming along?” which is like every two weeks, and when you say, “Heh. It’s coming,” he offers up some bit of advice, most of which can be boiled down to Be more like Stephen King. …[Keep Reading]…
When you appease my heart, I’ve nothing left to say,
my agitated words fall fast asleep.
I don’t even remember my petty dramas—
your lullaby sings me awake.
Others assure me I imagine this, that to receive you
the wound in my chest must stay fresh. …[Keep Reading]…
Mercy is the combing of tangled hair
the sewing up of a split lip
the staying of an execution.
So the prisoner remains alive
until he or she dies a natural death
and the priest returns to say the last rites
one more time like an encore
of rednecks shouting Freebird.
Mercy Mercy Me sang Marvin Gaye,
but he was shot in the head anyway. …[Keep Reading]…
“Excerpt From Win Winters’ Notebook,” a piece by Tracy Winn (fiction, ’02) appears at Harvard Review Online.
Tropical Storm Irene
White River Valley, Vermont
Hot and humid. Three months ago they shut down the clapboard mill. Three months without a paycheck. Today I fixed the lawnmower Ward and me found at the dump. Going for new sparkplugs, saw a healthy-looking coyote running near the river. Wonder if that’s what took Ashley’s cat. Ashley cleaned and defrosted the fridge all afternoon with the TV on. She said being laid off should be more like a vacation than this.
Thunder and some impressive lightning last night. Checked up in back for any downed wood worth cutting. Our second winter together and we won’t be able to pay for oil heat. Should I ask Harrison Lenk if he wants to come help? Might do him good to know somebody remembers how easy he was with a chainsaw. Ashley’s still moping over that cat. Doesn’t she understand that any tuna-fattened pet is going to light up a coyote’s radar screen? Made her laugh when I acted out her next cat’s revenge.
Tracy is the author of Mrs. Somebody Somebody (2010, Random House).
“Changing Time,” a piece by Michelle Collins Anderson (fiction, ’13) appears online at Literary Mama, as part of their ongoing series, “After Page One.”
This is not a post about diapers. Not exactly.
You see, it’s been six years since Literary Mama published my story Your Mama’s a Llama. What a thrill! An acknowledgment that I was truly a writer, even when a cursory examination of my life would have indicated otherwise.
I was in the thick of things then — those sweet, gelatinous days of motherhood when the clock read 9:15 a.m. and I had already lived a lifetime, with an early-rising toddler and a regimen that would have read something like “Feed. Change. Play. Placate. Repeat.” Days full of precious snuggle time, but also a fair amount of weeping (usually the toddler’s, although I had my moments) — and that did not always include a shower for me or a real meal for my family. Certainly my days did not include a regular writing schedule. …[Keep Reading]…
The darkness at night was complete. Martin dreaded it every winter evening when he made the drive between Homer, where he owned a natural foods store, and the outskirts of Eureka, where he lived with his wife. Beth begged him to relax. Only eighty miles, she said. Hardly further than your old commute in Seattle, and in half the time. No more I-5 gridlock. No more stop lights and diesel fumes. No more road-rage. No more stress. The darkness, she said, is why we came out here. This is the life we always dreamed of. It’s something we’ve worked for. Earned, even. Think of it as our darkness, she told him. Then it won’t be so intimidating. …[Keep Reading]…
Paul is the author of the novel Houdini Pie (2010, Bennett & Hastings).
We took the fast train to Beijing across hours of deadened countryside where all the trees grow in rows, various heights, but all new and emaciated under the dusting of early leaves. I asked an acquaintance what happened to all the old trees. Was this a result of the Cultural Revolution? He said, maybe they ate them. They ate grass sometimes. Maybe they cut them down for firewood. Now and then you see some that don’t look planted; volunteers, they had been fattened up by age and randomly placed. There are always survivors.
The train whistled us over nearly a thousand miles in less than six hours, a smooth, silent ribbon pulled gracefully through the hard fingers of this landscape. It was comfortable, well ventilated, warm, and the seats gracefully proportioned. Between Shanghai and Beijing, we stopped at four stations. This was the cleanly constructed new China. Big expanses of glistening escalators and parking complexes void of even a single passenger or vehicles. …[Keep Reading]…