Thursday, March 24, 2016

An Open Letter to Governor Pat McCrory

Dear Governor Pat McCrory,

My family's roots are in North Carolina. My grandfather once owned the 42nd Street Oyster Bar in Raleigh. My family goes back many generations in the state. I went to graduate school at UNC-Greensboro in large part to recapture that sense of home. I met my husband there. He proposed to me on the North Carolina coast. We now have four children. When I was a child, my father picked me up and ran me along the shore of Kitty Hawk the length of the Wright Brothers' first flight, my arms outstretched. I was looking forward to reliving that moment with our youngest this summer.

We won't be coming to North Carolina.

You just signed into law sweeping discriminatory legislation. Until all are welcome and treated with respect in North Carolina, we won't be visiting. We're not interested in teaching our children hate. We're not interested in handing over our vacation dollars to a state that encourages hate. We're not going to spend time in a state that has stripped Americans of their basic rights, a state that seems to have no basic concept of the gifts of the LGBT community, no understanding of the basic struggles facing the community, in particular the vulnerable youth. You are actively creating a hostile environment for your own people. Do you know that the suicide attempt rate for the transgender community is 46%? Do you know how at-risk these teens are -- even without hateful legislation that strips them of their basic civil liberties? Shame on you for signing this bill without meeting the families in your state who need protection and listening to their stories.

Perhaps you once visited the lunch counter in Greensboro, home to an historic moment in civil rights history? Do you realize that you just made it legal to deny gays, lesbians, and transgender people a seat at lunch counters across your state? You did that. In one fell swoop, you reversed all of that progress.

You've taken a state that is beloved in this household and you've turned it into a place of hatred, discrimination, and bigotry.

We might be just one family -- and you should know that we're Christians. We're protesting. We're boycotting. Count us out.

Julianna Baggott

on craft

Late at night, I read in bed and write notes about my current project in the front and back pages. I wake up in the morning curious what I worked out, usually thankful. My night mind functions differently than my day mind and, in this way, before falling asleep, one can talk to the other.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

1/2 Dozen for David Blair

David Blair's latest book of poems, FRIENDS WITH DOGS, has recently hit the shelves. Julia Story likens the collection to "a long fast-paced walk with your weirdest, smartest friend." It's a delight to have that weird, smart friend here to answer some questions about his obsessions, the silence of poetry, being a writer of place, and much more. 

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

I write one poem at a time rather than book-length projects—which are not really to my taste—so I don't really have a sense of the entire book coming to me all at once, but the themes emerge as I discard and revise poems. When I finished my first book, Ascension Days in 2007, I started thinking about my next book, and I started fooling around with some different sorts of formal approaches, making my poems less dense than they were in the first book, and also experimenting with poems that were partially written in lines and partially written in prose. The title sequence poems of Friends with Dogs are the result of this stylistic development. How did I get to Friends with Dogs? Actually, Friends with Dogs is my third book. I finished another manuscript around 2013, and that book, Arsonville, will be coming out in September of 2016 with New Issues Poetry & Prose.  My first book is mainly poems I wrote when I was first living with my wife Sabrina. Arsonville contains poems that I wrote when my daughter was a toddler and then around the time both my mother and my father-in-law died. They are basically the first and second Obama administrations reversed. Friends with Dogs contains a lot of poems that I wrote about and for my friends. Friends, love, and art are realistic consolations for the pains of life, and I write to show how and to find out how much. The poems that I still liked between 2007 and 2012 ended up as Arsonville. The ones I still liked from between 2012 or so and last summer ended up as Friends with Dogs.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

I love writing poetry and the feeling of heightened consciousness of music and being near the ocean and traveling around the city and other places either by foot or car, all of which are more or less akin to my experience when I am writing. I recently started writing essays, and prose is just like playing, but playing for too long. It drives me crazy.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer? 

I was kind of fat and hedonistic, loved sports, was clumsy at them, and very injury prone, and then got thin as a rail in high school. Spending a lot of times on crutches probably made me more bookish than I might have been. I got to avoid a lot of gym. I was obsessed with old movies and plays, so that when I discovered poetry later on—the writing that moves most by images—I was hooked. I'm the youngest of five kids, and everybody in my family takes a lot of personal space to themselves, so that mixture of sociability and the sort of humor that creates and weird subjectivity shapes me and made me ripe for poetry as well. Lots of sharp talk with my brother and sisters, cracking up, imitating people, making cartoons of people, and stuff like that. I think I am shaped in my world view by my experience of the various class and religious and racial experiences of growing up in Pittsburgh and things like that, moving into and out of various situations, different vernaculars.

If you teach the craft of writing, why do you do it -- other than cash?

I love to work with people, and I like a job where I don't spend all of my time nailed to a desk. I like being able to work on my own, and I love the material. It's like getting paid to play. For most of my teaching career, I've taught at a school with a lot of fundamentally bright and creative students who have gotten a raw deal from the sort of class system that gets imposed on American students and bores them with pablum, and since I had the experience of being thought of as both a very bad student and as a very gifted student, I know that all students basically need to come into contact with all the strangeness and realness that poetry and fiction have to offer.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

I am not precious with myself about poems in progress, and I am mostly thick-skinned about rejection. My first book got only two reviews—and the only really extended treatment of it was by Tony Hoagland, a full two years after it came out. The FBI could offer poetry publication as part of witness protection programs. You have a new name, a new social security, a house in Ohio, and, oh yes, your poems will be in this review.  New editors.
Now if you asked me how I dealt with the silence around poetry, I guess I would say that it is like the silence in the woods. "Oh. That's what there is. Is this a tick?" 

Faith. Do you consider yourself religious? If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process?

I do consider myself religious, but I do not invest any of my ideas about religion with authority. I consider myself a sort of Catholic of a not very rigorous sort, though I suspect that a lot of Catholics might not choose to have me on their team because I think that there is some crazy stuff that people think is defensible. Puritans. For me, the big divisions in the world are the ones between the ones who are literal-minded and the ones who are metaphoric in their understanding. I also believe that I am part of whatever is messed up about the world. Some of this is going on in my books.

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?

I am obsessively a lover of places and their cycles of change, and this is all over my books. "Where can we live but days?" Philip Larkin asks. Place and people and imagery all happen at the same time for me. The great acting teacher Stella Adler says in her lectures on American theater that if an actress is playing a character, she has to know where she is and when she is­. If it's a garden, she has to know that it's a garden. Place and imagery are the best enemies of abstraction. Friends with Dogs and Arsonville are really New England books. I've lived around Boston for twenty years, almost half my life now. There are poems set in New York and Pittsburgh and at the Jersey Shore because those are soul places for me, but these two books are all around Boston, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island. When I was a kid, we lived in Ireland for a year, and my father's parents were from Ireland, his father a convert from Ulster and his mother from Mayo. A number of the poems in Friends with Dogs are actually set in Ireland, and Stanley Moss found a beautiful Irish watercolor of a dog in a boat by Jack Butler Yeats for the cover. Poems can be comedies or highly aware projections of looking at place and people, getting some things right, getting some things wrong, social and physical comedies that I hope leave a "a loophole for the soul." The sense of place is a huge presence in all of the writers I love best. It's practically a pre-requisite for me.

David Blair was born in New York City and grew up in Pittsburgh. He is the author of three books of poetry, Ascension Days, which was chosen by Thomas Lux for the Del Sol Poetry Prize, Arsonville, and Friends with Dogs. He has taught at the New England Institute of Art and in the M.FA. Writing Program at the University of New Hampshire. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, with his wife and daughter, and he has a degree in philosophy from Fordham University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from  the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. 

Find Friends with Dogs here, and Ascension Days here.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

1/2 Dozen for Bryan Furuness

No one kicks ass at the 1/2 Dozen like Furuness kicks ass at the 1/2 Dozen. 

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer? 

A while back I heard about a study that found a strong correlation between the things you're into at twelve-years-old and what you're into as an adult. (I just tried to google up the study, but no luck. Clearly I wasn't into research at twelve). In my case, the connection is embarrassingly literal. Reading and writing, for example: Liked then, like now. Though I would never have admitted this to my sixth-grade classmates, I like(d) school. Comics. Stories with magic and monsters. 

Back then I read a lot of fantasy and soft sci-fi (and my grandmother's Harlequins. Add that to the list of things I wouldn't have admitted to my classmates). Heinlein. Piers Anthony. Books with titles like Beast Island and Spellsinger. I couldn't get enough of them.
But Stephen King? I wanted nothing to do with that guy.  

People always talk about the writers they aspired to emulate. I’d love to know the writers you most hated as you were coming up and how those tastes shaped you.

I hated Stephen King.
No, that's not right. I hated the idea of Stephen King.
When you're a kid in the eighties and you let it slip to a grown-up that you like to write, you could count on the following response: "Oh, you could be the next Stephen King!" (I imagine there are more than a few writers growing up now who hate the idea of J.K. Rowling).

It's hard to say why that response rankled me so much. At that point, I hadn't read a word of King's writing, but I didn't hesitate to reject it on the hipster principle of "If it's so damn popular, it must be stupid." My own books, I told these adults who were taken aback by my sudden anger, would not be garbage. I would write Real Books, dammit. Serious Books!
And then, in the literary equivalent of a booty call, I would disappear into my bedroom with a Xanth novel.

But leading a double life is not a viable long-term strategy. Hypocrisy is exhausting. Eventually, my affected disdain for popular, "unserious" fiction like King's grew like cancer until it killed my love for fantasy. That happened during high school, and shortly afterward I stopped reading altogether.

I didn't come back to reading until one night, late in college, when I found myself in the library, dangerously close to doing homework. In a last-ditch effort to avoid my assignments, I picked up The Sun Also Rises and American Psycho. These seem like weird choices to me now—Macho Lit? Really, Furuness?—but I'll forever be grateful to Messrs. Hemingway and Ellis for resurrecting my love for reading.

But as any fan of Stephen King could have told me, when something comes back from the dead, it's never the same as it was before. I was back into reading, sure, but only literary fiction. I steered clear of other genres, especially fantasy.

Until a few years ago. 
Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

I didn't come back to fantasy as much as fantasy came to me, dressed up as literary fiction. It came in the guise of Kelly Link and Karen Russell, Lauren Groff and Lev Grossman and Angela Carter.
Here's the thing that seems crazy to me now: I didn't think of their work as fantasy. Despite the fact that I was reading about magic and demon lovers and supernatural pirates, I didn't make the thinnest connection to the books I had devoured as a kid.

But then came a day when my creative writing students asked for help in coming up with story ideas. I pointed them to this article by Kelly Link and asked them to do the following:

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

Tip #1742: Set a timer for 25 minutes. As Link describes in her article, make a list of "Things I Like in Other People's Stories." Don't think too much. Treat your mind like a magic eight-ball. If something floats into your mind, put it on paper.

I bet you'll be surprised at least a couple of times. I certainly was. Especially when I saw magic and werewolves and mermaids show up on my page.

Huh, I thought. That sounds an awful lot like fantasy.

That's when I realized how so many of the books I'd loved over the last few years could be categorized as fantasy, and all at once I felt stupid. How could I have missed it? So obvious!

Maybe that was the only way it could have happened. Maybe my boyish interest had to sneak past my conscious mind that was still poisoned with traces of the old disdain. It had picked the lock, crawled under the security cams, performed sexy tumbles through the laser grid, and now, at last, it was back in the command center where it belonged.

I was happy for a whole minute before another question troubled me: If I loved reading this kind of stuff, why wasn't I trying to write it? Why the disconnect, bro?  

Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who was impactful on your writing life?

Because I was afraid. Afraid of looking dumb, or worse, unsophisticated.

After college, I took a writing workshop as a graduate non-degree student. My first story featured a talking lizard. When I met with the professor in his office, he gave me a funny look and said, "The lizard isn't actually talking, right? The narrator is crazy and he just thinks the lizard is talking to him . . . right?"
This, my friends, is what we call a leading question. At the time I didn't think he was leading me further away from the stuff I loved as a kid; I thought he was leading me toward being a Serious Writer who writes Real Books. "Right," I said after a pause. "Talking lizard. Come on." We laughed, and that was the last time I played with fantasy elements for several years.

Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.

What are the lessons here? Snobbery closes doors in the pleasure palace. As an artist, your job is to blow doors open. If you like what you find on the other side, let yourself like it. Don't lie to yourself, don't waste time being ashamed. Write what you want, not what you think you should want.

And if your lizard wants to talk, let him. This reader, for one, would be interested in what he has to say.

Bryan Furuness is the author of The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson, a novel. Along with Michael Martone, he is the co-editor of Winesburg, Indiana, an anthology. His stories have appeared in New Stories from the Midwest and Best American Nonrequired Reading. He lives in Indy, where he teaches at Butler University. 
For more information, his website is