Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"A Big Empty": Wonderful Story by Rhonda Browning White, My Former Thesis Student!

I’m thrilled to brag about one of my Converse thesis students, Rhonda Browning White, whose story “A Big Empty” has been published in the Bellevue Literary Review and is now included in the online archives, for free reading:  http://blr.med.nyu.edu/content/archive/2014/fall/bigempty

Rhonda worked SO HARD on her thesis, and this story in particular, because she wasn’t sure how to end it.  She pushed and pushed and pushed herself…and came up with this, which made me cry when I first read it because I knew it was exactly right.  

Take a few minutes and see for yourself:
 …My daddy loved mining. Or used to, before they started lopping off the mountains. Fifty years he worked underground. Went from shoveling coal into a rail-cart to watching it gouged out with a continuous miner and dumped onto conveyor belts. I seen his face the first time he saw the dragline megaexcavator shearing off the head of Kayford Mountain. Looked like he’d get sick. 

Made me feel sickly, too, watching the monster that stands taller than Lady Liberty eat two-hundred-forty ton of mountain in every bite, two bites a minute. Progress, they call it. Progress that puts thousands of underground miners like me out of work. Progress that changes the land forever. Progress that pumps sickness into the water supply, kills fish and deer and daddies and babies. 

It was Daddy’s plan for me and Romie to pack up and head to North Carolina, get out of the West Virginia mountains before the coal companies flatten them all, before the mountains bury us in return. It felt like a message from beyond, then, when we learned on the first anniversary of Daddy’s death that Romie was pregnant again. I knew right then we had to leave….

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Sonnet Class & F. Scott Fitzgerald Conference

Some upcoming events/classes of interest:

Reading Sonnets: a seminar led by Kim Roberts, editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly

This class will use a range of modern and contemporary sonnets written by authors from the Washington DC region as a text. We will examine the traditions of the form: rhyme, meter, subject matter—and discuss how contemporary poets have both honored and subverted those traditional expectations. Participants will be asked to read assigned poems in advance of each of the three class meetings, and be ready to join in a lively discussion on the amazing longevity and flexibility of the sonnet. Open to all: no specialized knowledge about poetry is needed. 

Meets three consecutive Thursdays, October 30 through November 13 from 7:30 to 9:00 pm
$35 fee
Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church, Adult Programs, 9601 Cedar Lane, Bethesda, MD
Advance registration required: ap@cedarlane.org or (301) 493-8300


The F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival in Rockville, Oct. 16-18.

Established in 1996 to celebrate the centenary of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birth in the city where Fitzgerald, his wife, and his daughter are buried, the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival, co-sponsored by the City of Rockville, the Share Fund, and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference, Inc., a non-profit corporation, has for 18 years held this one-day event, which seeks to honor the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and those of prominent American literary artists; and to support, encourage, and assist aspiring and emerging writers and students interested in the literary arts.

The centerpiece of the Literary Festival is the presentation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Achievement in American Literature to a prominent American writer, who is present and gives a reading and a master class. Over the years, many of the most distinguished American literary figures of the last half century have been honored. The 2014 recipient is James Salter.

The day’s activities include writing workshops designed for both emerging and established fiction, poetry, and non-fiction writers held both in the morning and the afternoon; and literary discussions, panels, and performances designed for book lovers who are not themselves writers, also held in both the morning and afternoon.

In 2014, the Festival will be held on October 18th in the Auditorium of Montgomery County Executive Office Building, Rockville, MD and the Rockville Memorial Library in partnership with the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and the Friends of the Library, Montgomery County, Maryland. It will have as its theme “Literature and War” and will include a Literary Luncheon on Thursday afternoon, October 16th, at the Mansion at Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland; and, on Friday evening, October 17th, the Writer’s Center will host “Writing the War Experience,” featuring a panel of distinguished writer-veterans reading from and commenting on their work.

More information: http://fscottfestival.org/

Monday, October 6, 2014

Kinda Cool: My Essay Is Selected for "100 Notable" in New Best American Essays

 Hmm…I’m not sure how the New York Times Magazine’s Ethicist columnist would feel about an editor publishing her own work in her literary journal.  But apparently I don’t care because I’m doing it!

I found out this weekend that one of my essays was listed in the “100 Notable Essays” section in the back of the new edition of Best American Essays (thanks for telling me, Anna Leahy!).  So, yay for that, and yay that I hold the incredibly powerful position of editor/founder of Redux, the online journal that features previously published work not found elsewhere on the internet, allowing me to jump right into it and post the essay today. 

I’d like to add a shout-out to the literary journal that originally published this piece, PMS: Poem Memoir Story, which features work by women writers.  I bought a copy while at AWP and after reading it, knew that I wanted my work to appear in those pages.  I’m so happy to bring some more attention to that fine journal.

Here’s the opening to the essay, “Joy to the World”:

It’s mid-December, a morning of doing errands, a day like any other day, except that everything is going remarkably well:  I find a great parking spot.  The post office isn’t crowded when I arrive to mail my packages, though the man behind the counter tells me there’s been a line all morning, “until right about now.”  Find another great parking spot.  Stumble across the perfect Christmas gift for my hard-to-buy-for friend at a locally-owned boutique.  And so on.
 Last stop, the grocery store, where my luck continues, and the guy working produce locates in the back the last bag of parsnips in the building.  Parsnips are a key ingredient in the velvety-lush root vegetable soup I want to make for dinner tonight.  “Bet you’ve never seen anyone get so excited about parsnips,” I joke to him, and he laughs pleasantly.
 So things are moving along, and I’ve committed to a check-out aisle, unloading my cart onto the conveyer belt, doing my usual tidy job of it:  heavy stuff up front; frozen foods, meat, and milk grouped together; produce in one section, poisonous cleaners in another; fragile things at the end.  I’m daydreaming about the array of Christmas cookies on the covers of the food magazines, so I don’t notice the person in line ahead of me until she snaps, “I told you I can’t lift more than five pounds!  Those bags are too heavy!” ...

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Politics & Prose Class: October 16

I’ll be offering a class at Politics & Prose soon:  Right Brain Writing.  I’ve taught it before and (if I do say so!) it’s been both fun and successful, in that everyone goes home with the start of some excellent pieces.  We laugh, we cry, we write up a storm!

Thursday, October 16
3:30 – 6 PM
Explore your creative side at this afternoon of guided writing exercises designed to get you energized and your ideas flowing. No writing experience necessary! This is a great class for beginners and for fiction writers and/or memoirists with experience but who might be stuck in their current project and are looking for a jolt of inspiration. The goal is to have fun in a supportive, nurturing environment and to go home with several promising pieces to work on further. Please bring lots of paper and pen/pencil or a fully charged computer.

Read more, including registration details here:

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Why Your Writing Matters

Feeling discouraged about writing?  Let me recommend this essay by poet Karen Craigo, which should rouse your spirit and remind you that what we do as writers is important. 

…Two nights ago, I was driving up National Avenue in Springfield, Missouri, and off to my right I saw an unusual thing. There was a man trudging up the block and he carried a homemade walking stick. He had fashioned it from a long, stout branch that was made smooth, perhaps through sanding or long use, and to its base, affixed with duct tape, he had affixed a baby’s pink sneaker for traction…. When presented with a great gift like that man with the homemade walking stick, a poet has almost no choice but to tell you about him—to try to make him as real on the page as he was on that street. We would try to find some sort of purchase in his story, some overlap between his apparent experience and our own—and everyone’s. You should not expect a factual accounting from a poet. (I admit it—I’m not sure the baby shoe was pink. It was late and I was driving.) You can, however, expect an attempt at truth, something beyond fact. My spirit recognized that man, although I didn’t have a chance to meet him, and I need to tell you about him on the page. Is there any impulse more human than that?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Writing about Loss

Looking for something else on the internet, I came across this short piece by Jessica Handler about writing of loss and how she decided if she should read her dead sister’s diary while she worked on her memoir:

I couldn’t deny that I had the rare opportunity to see into my beloved sister’s heart and mind. She was no longer here to answer my questions in person, and I missed her terribly. Maybe the answers would be on those pages, in her deliberate, rounded, cursive handwriting, but I couldn’t shake the mental image of my little sister not-so-playfully slapping my hand and laughing, telling me, “that’s private!” She wouldn’t have let me read her diaries if she were alive.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

"Best American Poetry Reading 2014...." by Sean Thomas Dougherty

Best American Poetry Reading 2014 or a Plea to Stop Talking Trash on American Poetry and Maybe the Problem Isn’t American Poetry or the Anointed (and yes of course there are some who are anointed) but maybe the problem is you.  Read the work and shut up motherfucker.

By Sean Thomas Dougherty   


Everyone always talk shit on  American Poetry, as a dead art form, as solipsistic, elitist, stuck up, part of the 1 percent power structure. And who does it more than the poets themselves? And actual that is true, but what isn’t implicated in some form of oppression these days in America the Prisontocracy.  But what these critics forget or chose to ignore is American Poetry is huge, pluralistic and often and always an argument with itself and America.  It is both elitist and anti elitist at the same time, and it is this prismatic sense of itself that makes it one of the most alive and living art forms in the world right now, and an affront and insult for example  to the far greater elitist and Nobel driven European poetries.

On September 18th I drove down from my small working class city of Erie, PA to participate in my first ever appearance in Best American Poetry.  My poem was chosen by recently awarded McArthur Fellow Terrance Hayes.   Terrance lives down in Pittsburgh. I know Terrance. He’s cool.  But he had never done anything for me, it wasn’t like the lauded great younger writer was my patron or anything.  So it was a grand surprise to be selected.  You see, I turned my back on things academic years ago.  I don’t apply for jobs, don’t go running off to conferences, rarely ask my publishers to submit my books for awards.  But I do perform, I perform like a banshee.  I travel like a gypsy.  I’m searching for something else you see, I’m searching for something through language that only poems can explain.

A lot of my friends on the other hand are mostly caught in the poetry system, fighting for jobs, tenure, publications mean something more to them than just a cool book to be in.  The subtle jabs and insults I received from some of them were so hurtful.  Their jealousy direct.  They said things like “I wonder why I haven’t been in there.”  Or bizarre statements about me as a “semiotic indicator that the elites can manage.”  I have no idea what that means.  “I’ll never be published by BOA.”  Or the really insulting thing “well of course, because you know Terrance” who I have seen face to face once in 5 years despite him living a couple hours just down I-79. You have to understand these “friends” of mine have multiple books, teaching positions.  I haven’t been able to find a full time job in years and finally just gave up.  What more do they want? 

But I learn from them.  I learn how dead they already fucking are, how they are actually everything they pretend to hate.  And how truly free I have become.

I have to say all of this because it points to the sense of hierarchy and desperation that the system of American poetry both enables and dissipates and also to the great disappointment I often feel with other artists.  Envy, jealousy, back stabbing, all the attributes of artists in Ancient Rome, the new 21st century artists for the New Empire in Decline.  Why wasn’t I admitted to Breadloaf?  Why didn’t I get that Fellowship at Princeton?  All the poets of color get everything?  Or the Old White Men.  There is always someone in poetry getting something you deserve. But do you?  Yes those are the kinds of things so many poets say.  And yes, I know plenty of young poets of color with one book and a fancy job, The Anointed Ones.  And could point out plenty of the white old Guard still there.  Or the old Gay guard.  Or… but those are institutional questions of power and privilege I have no interest in.

I leave that to my jaded friends.  I leave them to the Anointed ones and the Gatekeepers and the Norton Anthology makers, to the professors and the police.  But you have to realize sometimes the Annointed ones are anointed for a reason.  They are really great artists.

So just leave me alone and let me write I often have to say. I live along a big dirty lake.  I try as best I can to take care of my kids and my slowly dying girlfriend.  I talk to Ritsos in the basement.  I play poker with Frank Stanford.  We wager the blues.  What I am searching for only a few can understand anyways.  Except you, Dear Reader.  You know what I am searching for.  You are searching for it too.

And so finally this gets us to the idea of Best American Poetry.  Or anything Best.  What is a Best poem?  Or even a better poem?  Honestly I haven’t thought about those terms in over a decade.  I simply make.

But let’s remove the idea of Best and simply look at Best American Poetry as an indicator of what is happening.  And we see in this 2014 such a diverse range of aesthetic, race, gender, language that speaks a deep health of the art form.

That tells me both at the center, and on the edge, what I am searching for, yes they are searching for too: That light inside the language.


I drove 7 hours that morning to Bronxville to visit my old friend Jeffrey McDaniel’s class at Sarah Lawrence.  I’ve known Jeffrey for decades, he too came out of the American performance poetry scene and is one of the poets whose language drives me and teaches me.   He’s an old friend who makes me feel safe, and he’s very aware and inside of the power structures of poetry but he rarely talks that talk with me.  He knows I live somewhere else, lost in that light along the lake.  When we talk of poems we talk of the inside of a poem, of how things are made, of life.  Of a sandwich.  We know a sandwich is a kind of poem.

I am often lost so having Jeffrey with me made my chance of getting to the Best American Reading good odds.   I was honestly a bit scared.  I was going to be reading with some huge American poets and who am I?  It wasn’t their prestige that made me nervous, but my admiration for their work

Not everyone was nice.  Don’t expect everyone to be nice.  But expect everyone to be professional. 

And they will surprise you.  Cordial goes a long way.

Here is a breakdown of  some of the reading.    

Lucie Brock Broido read quietly and beautifully.  She has the When I AM A Cool Old Woman artist-ness to her that could get her mistaken for a crazy old lady but instead she is just a genius artist.  Long on the all hair poetry team she had her amazing blonde gray hair around her like a dangling BOA as she recited from her poem “Bird, Singing”

Then, every letter opened was an oyster
Of possible bad news, pried apart to reveal

The imperfect probable pearl of your death.

Then Joel Dias Porter nailed his bluesy song  “Elegy Indigo”

How long does it take to hear what silence can say?
I stand at a stoplight, waiting for the colors to change.

Natalie Diaz read her tough mythological love poem “These Hands, if Not Gods”

Haven’t they moved like rivers—
like Glory, like light
over the seven days of your body

Mark Doty asked us in his poem “Deep Lane”

If you don’t hold still, you can have joy after joy,

but you can’t stay anywhere to love.
That’s the price, that rib rattling wind
waiting to sweep you up,

that’s the price the wind pays.

Sean Thomas Dougherty

When I got up to read a bunch of people cheered which really surprised me.  I saw BAP even sent a twitter out at that moment on the pre applause.  I mean who am I, just some old punk from the shores of Lake Erie?   I read my poem like I might punch the air.  I read it twice as slow as I meant to.  I have no idea how it went over but I read it clear.  It’s a bitter poem.  It’s made of Rust and unemployment. It leaves a feeling like chipping a tooth.

All the street assassins know you can break
A man’s neck in a second flat, they grin
At their electronic palms.  They enter and exit
Through broken arteries….

Cornelius Eady is a poet I’ve turned to since the late 80s for inspiration.  He has long been the leader of the New Guard in American poetry with his founding of Cave Canem, working to change American poetry for the better. He read  his small lyric with a cool ease a cool breeze of a poem reminding you maybe of what you’ve “Overturned” along the way

Maybe the wrong story,
Palm trees where  there should
Be pine.  And now you doubt

Everything.  Don’t you hate
Doubting everything……

Ross Gay  is a cat I’d never meet, one of the anointed in a lot of ways.  But his poems groove.  He wasn’t exactly overly friendly but he read wonderfully.  He passed out Figs before his reading then read his lyrical, thin lined Nerudesque poem, “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian”

Tumbling through the
city in my
mind without once
looking up

Le Hinton I’d met at Elizabethtown College where he attended an afternoon talk I gave, a real Pennsylvania gem I was so happy to get some notice.  He read “No Doubt About It (I Gotta Get Another Hat)

how does a poet
fall back into the sky
(what time is it)

Yusef Komunyakaa I had never met, he signed my book.  His graying hair is like God, and he invoked for me both in presence and word the ghost of Aimé Césaire

My negritude is the caul worked into the soil

Frannie Lindsay  I did not get to meet. I missed her in the arrival room and couldn’t find her afterwards.  I was sad because she is one of my favorite poets and  she read my favorite poem in the book “Elegy for my Mother,” it was so utterly moving and full of astonishing metaphors:

But I still have my river-mother
and all her glittering fish,

my sycamore mother who never is cold,

Major Jackson

Is just a Dear.  There is no other way to say it.  He actually gave me a hug.  I had only met Major once, very briefly, even before he had a book, and I used to do a teasing formal imitation of him.  I also used to unfriend him on Facebook just to mess with him. Because I so love his poems.  He’s the best poet to come out of Philadelphia since Tim Seibles.  Which is saying a whole lot.  He DID NOT though have on a cool hat and I was disappointed.  Later he would read “OK Cupid” a series of leaping similes that filled out loud our ears and hears with wonder and surprise that began “Dating a Catholic is like dating a tribe” and moves to such wonderful absurdities and connections as

“and dating a fireplace is like dating a mantel
and dating a mantel is like dating a picture frame
and dating a picture frame is like dating Martin Luther King with Jesus

Cate Marvin was perhaps the coolest poet there, in dress, demeanor, attitude.  She was super nice to me, and I got to talk to her a little bit. She blew me away.  her amazing opening lines from her amazing “Etiquette for Eyes”:

I don’t know
If I wore you
When I met you

But I know
the last time
I saw you you

Drank a drink
I bought you
With another

Woman who
Was far uglier
Than I have

Ever been.

What a devastating poem. 

I have run out of time when this blog is due so I will close by simply mentioning Shara McCallum powerful voice you have to read.  Valzhyna Mort who gave a beautiful and angry recitation.  Mort is a world class poet and a beautiful person.  I recommend her books to everyone.  Eileen Myles was her usual amazing self.  She is now one of the grand masters of our art.  D. Nurke, a really kind soul read a quiet lyric that was exemplary of his best work.  Greg Pardlo,  read his poem about a powerful human collision.  It was so so moving.

My friend Patrick Rosal read in B-Boy baddest voice, one of his best poems ever “You Cannot Go to the God You Love with Your Two Legs.”   The great performance poet Jon Sands  made the funniest line of the night when he walked to the stage, and said, “well I just found out I’m allergic to figs.  Everyone cracked up.  They were still wipping the seeds off from Gay’s luminous figs.  Then he read his inventive poem “DeCoded.”

Jane Springer, Afaa Michael Weaver, Rachel Zucker brought the night to a close with poems of history and language.  So marvelous.

And on the stage with us was the spirit of Jake Adam York, who sadly died last year.

If this night was indicative of the health and breath of American Poetry, than rather than lamenting its Death, the critics should acknowledge its ongoing inventiveness and courage.  Yes people we are living in a Poetry Renaissance and that night in mid September in New York City, on a stage far from the shores of Lake Erie, I heard it sing itself.   And drove away down the highway toward home the next day, still humming, still singing, with a heart full of ghostly words.


Buy the book (and honestly, don’t you absolutely feel compelled to right now??).


Sean Thomas Dougherty is the author or editor of thirteen books including All You Ask for Is Longing: Poems 1994- 2014 (2014 BOA Editions) Scything Grace (2013 Etruscan Press) and Sasha Sings the Laundry on the Line (2010 BOA Editions) He is the recipient of two Pennsylvania Council for the Arts Fellowships in Poetry, an appearance in Best American Poetry 2014, and a US Fulbright Lectureship to the Balkans. Known for his electrifying performances he has performed at hundreds of venues across North America and Europe including the Lollapalooza Music Festival, South Carolina Literary Festival, the   Old  Dominion Literary Festival, the Dodge Poetry Festiva, and across Albania and Macedonia where he appeared on national television. He has taught creative writing at Syracuse University, Penn State University,  Case Western University, Chatham University and Cleveland State University.  He currently works at a Gold Crown Billiards in Erie, PA and tours for performances.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.