Conversation with Julia Wendell

Julia Wendell is a poet currently living in Aiken, South Carolina. She is also a three-day event rider, the experience of which considerably informs her newest collection of poetry, The Art of Falling, published by FutureCycle Press. Amanda Moore said this about The Art of Falling: “…knowing how to fall allows Wendell’s open-eyed work to acknowledge pain but not be weighed down by it, moving instead to consider what blossoms and grows each passing season. Love here is represented by and extended to plants and animals—reluctant gladiolas, bursting peonies, a menagerie of dogs and birds—but nothing so beloved as horses, an anchoring and comforting presence throughout.”

I found The Art of Falling to be a powerful book encompassing decades of Julia’s life, moving from childhood traumas to complexities of adulthood. In one poem, Julia describes the art of falling as a practice perfected through pain and intense self-awareness, visible in “the coat hook / of my separated shoulder, / my spine’s bumpy lane, / sunspots littering my back— / the parts of me / I can’t see without mirrors.” In other poems, the art of falling is also made known in far less visible ways. Julia was kind enough to speak to me about her new book, her writing process, ekphrastic poetry and what it’s like to be married to another poet.

DL: Many of the poems in “The Art of Falling” touch on a fall you suffered from a horse that caused significant physical pain. But these poems reveal other traumas as well. What’s your process like for transforming writing about trauma into a well-crafted poem?

JW: It wasn’t one fall from a horse, but many: actually, a lifetime of falls. The old directive is true for me—you fall off a horse, you get back on. You fall off a poem, you get back on. Some falls are worse than others. And the older you get, the worse they tend to be, and the harder it is to get back on. Several years ago, I broke my hip as well as my leg falling from one of my horses, and that fall transformed my life for a year, as well as the writing of The Art of Falling. I found ways to live through the pain and to see through it. I had to change my life pretty drastically during that time, and my poems became both a respite and a way to work through the ordeal. I couldn’t get on a horse, but I could go to my desk with the help of a cane or just steadying myself on furniture as I went across the room.

DL: I was thrilled to read your poem, “Horse in the Landscape” which is an ekphrastic work related to Franz Marc’s painting with the same name. This is also the image used for the book’s cover. I recently taught a workshop on ekphrastic writing. Can you talk about the relationship that can exist between visual art and written work? Are you also a visual artist?

JW: No, I’m not a visual artist, but the piano is my brush; has been all my life, and music often finds its way into my poems. In reference to the above question about writing through pain: while writing the poems in The Art of Falling, I re-visited Frida Kahlo’s life and work. Her example taught me how to keep making art while in terrible pain. I read everything I could get my hands on about her life and artistic process, and studied her strange, surreal self-portraits. I even went to Mexico City after I had partially healed and visited her house, Casa Azul. I was drawn to her for the obvious parallel between her life and mine at the time. Both of us had our hips gored by rods, except that hers was put there by a bus and mine was put there by a surgeon. Here was an artist who experienced a lifetime of pain, and yet she kept getting back on the horse of her art to create her organic, visceral, paintings. The poem “Portrait Chinois” came directly from my re-experience with Frida’s work.

Similarly, the figure of the broken girl in Wyeth’s Christina’s World reminded me of my own plight; and through her semi-reclined pull and yearning for the gray house on the hill, despite her infirmities and inability to walk, drew me to ponder what it would be like for her to crawl to the house, to go inside, to open up her world and reach her dream destination.

I have always loved Franz Marc’s work for its ebullience and movement, and of course for its subject matter. But what pulled me to Horse in the Landscape is also what struck me about Christina’s World—we see a still landscape through the girl’s and horse’s perspectives, as they turn their backs to us. It is a world of no movement, only thought and perspective, possibility and possible movement, which is what my life had become during the time I was so badly injured. I had to contemplate my life through quiet and stillness, and find my poems there.

I chose the cover for The Art of Falling before I had written Horse in the Landscape. The pdf’s of the interior of the book were almost ready for the printer. Suddenly, I had the urge to write the poem and spent last Christmas season writing and re-writing it, thinking I would save it for some other project. Then Diane Kistner, the editor at FutureCycle Press, contacted me. Did I have another poem that might fit into the book? The way the pages were laying out, she needed one. Uncanny coincidence.

DL: I always ask writers about the process of compiling, submitting and publishing their books, and I’m especially interested in asking you because this is, I believe, your eleventh book. How long did it take you to write and shape the poems in this collection? How did you find and form a relationship with FutureCycle Press?

JW: The poems in The Art of Falling span at least a decade. The last book, Take This Spoon, had a very specific theme of poems about family, and the relationship to food and eating and anorexia, and even incorporated old family recipes. I was already working on the poems in The Art of Falling when Take This Spoon came out in 2016. The manuscript has seen many, many revisions: different title, different order, new poems. It’s actually my sixth, full-length collection, having published a number of chapbooks in addition to the longer books. I submitted to FutureCycle at the suggestion of April Ossmann, with whom I worked on an earlier draft of The Art of Falling. Diane Kistner, editor at FutureCycle, was very good at managing the publication details of the book, though not so much involved with line edits or broader editorial suggestions. For those I relied on April, Jack Stephens, D.W. Fenza, and most especially my husband, Barrett Warner.

DL: I have to ask you about Barrett Warner who is also a writer. To what extent do you and he read and comment on each other’s work?

JW: Barrett reads and helps edit everything I write, as well as a tone of what other people are writing. When he likes reading something his hand twists up his hair, and if he comes back to me with really messy hair, I know he liked it. I am dependent upon him as my first reader. He is a bit more independent of me, perhaps because as an editor he has such rich connections with other writers. I am more of an artistic recluse, and I like it that way. But everyone needs a first reader, and Barrett’s mine. In sickness and in first drafts, as they say.

DL: In addition to being a writer, you’re a three-day event rider. It’s also clear in your poetry how much you love and respect horses. Are there lessons from the equestrian world that also apply to writing?

JW: Ride the rhythm, create the energy from behind, send it forward, don’t let the poem go against your hand. Talk to your poem. Give it confidence by having clear intentions. Give it treats. There must be a daily devotion to the art of riding, as there must be to writing. The development of a poem, as well as a horse, comes in the smallest of increments, and must be addressed day after day after day. Writing is re-writing; riding is re-riding. The daily devotional is how you get there.

DL: What are you working on now?

JW: The next poem. Then, the one after that.

Seriously, though: recently I’ve collected poems I’ve written about my daughter in her lifetime (and even before that), and have compiled a collection called “Daughter Days.”  I have plans to get back to that manuscript to revise it and see if I still like it before I send it out into the world. Writing is re-writing, and submitting is re-submitting.

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Find out more about Julia on her website, and don’t forget to order her newest publication, The Art of Falling. My next post will feature a writing exercise inspired by one of Julia Wendell’s poems. Make sure you never miss a post by subscribing here:

Conversation with Christopher Linforth

I first met Christopher Linforth in 2014 at Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Our paths crossed again in 2019 at Writers in Paradise – Eckerd College Writers Conference. Christopher is a graduate of Virginia Tech’s MFA program, and recently, he was appointed Editor-in-Chief of Atticus Review. Christopher’s first two books are When You Find Us We Will Be Gone (Lamar University Press, 2014) and Directory (Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, 2020).

His third collection of short fiction, The Distortions, was named winner of the 2020 Orison Books Fiction Prize and has just been released by Orison Press. The Distortions is a beautiful collection of stories, thematically linked by the Croatian-Serbian War, particularly its aftermath. In each story, the weight of the past continues to press against the present. For many of these characters, historical events have had generational effects. These are not war stories although the war is a villainous character, always looming in the background. More than war stories, these stories are often about love–all kinds of love including the kinds that are sadly insufficient as well as the kinds that keep trying.

Christopher is a gifted writer. His own experience living in Zagreb was surely useful in writing these stories, but each story is subtly elevated by detailed knowledge that must have required significant research. In the same way that these are not war stories, this is also not a book about Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, etc. as much as it’s a book about displacement and identity and the universal ways we humans struggle to put the past behind us. Christopher agreed to answer some questions about The Distortions as well as about his writing and publishing.

DL: Your new collection of short stories, The Distortions, centers on the aftermath of the Yugoslav Wars, mostly focusing though on the Croatian-Serbian conflict. Although you lived in Zagreb for some time, you come from a very different background. Did you find your outside perspective to be helpful or more challenging as you wrote these stories? Can you talk about how the kinds of research that were required for these stories?

CL: In some ways, my position as an outsider helped me to broach the aftermath of the war in new and different ways. Josip Novakovich talks in the afterword to Infidelities about the reluctance of people in the former Yugoslavia to talk or write about the war. Though this has changed in recent years and has led many writers from those countries to write compelling novels about the war, I still felt I had something to say. Over the years, to aid my poor memory, I read dozens of history books on the subject and watched documentaries, and delved into tranches of original documents and news reports, and I talked with people from that area. Much of that information, though, never appears in the book. Instead, I focused more on the characters and the stories while hewing—as much as one can—to the historical, political, and cultural realities of the time.

DL: So much of the tension in your stories comes from the weight of the past pressing into a character’s present. Moving back and forth through time can be tricky, but it can also enrich a narrative as it clearly does in your stories.

CL: Whenever possible, I try to eschew as much backstory as possible and instead focus the story on the present action. With the stories being set in former Yugoslavia and revolving around a major but little-known war, I tried to strike a balance of including information (in non-expository ways) that would help an American audience understand the ramifications of the war for the characters while also keeping the pacing tight and the stories interesting.

DL: Two of my favorite stories in The Distortions are epistolary. I’m thinking about “brb” (seemingly told through a long Instant Message) and “Sojourn (told through a more traditional letter). What I appreciate about both stories are their gestures toward the confessional. Do you have advice for writers who want to explore the epistolary form? Does a story told through a letter have special considerations?

CL: It’s funny. For me, “Sojourn,” is an imagined letter, not an actual one. The story reads and feels like a letter and perhaps contains a vestigial element of that form. The story, to me at least, has an uncertain form: part letter, part monological confession, part a story being told. The hybrid nature perhaps also reflects the vacillating nature and identity of the narrator. Similarly, “brb” uses misdirection about the narrator’s identity to say something about the stylized IM form. The intersection of the confession and the letter form, or variants thereof, often work well together. They allow a “natural” unfolding of thought on the page addressed to someone off it. For me, that is where the intimacy and magic of the epistolary form lie.

DL: I’ve been working on a collection of short stories for several years, and through that time, the manuscript keeps shifting. How long did it take you to write and shape these stories? What was the submission and publication process like for The Distortions?

CL: The earliest stories were drafted around 2014 and the latest around 2019. It was a long process of revision and then discarding the lesser stories (perhaps another six or seven). Some stories, like “brb,” emerged fully formed, with only minor edits later. Others, like “The Little Girls,” I rewrote several times over the years. I entered the manuscript into a handful of contests in late 2019 and early 2020, perhaps only five or six altogether, while constantly fine-tuning it the whole time. The collection won the Orison Fiction Book Prize in July 2020 and then underwent another year of refinement.

DL: What are you working on now?

CL: I’m working on two books. One is a sister project to The Distortions. Tentatively titled The Homeland War, it’s centered on two young men in Zagreb just before the outbreak of war. The novel explores toxic masculinity and social class and the football hooliganism endemic in the 1990s. The other book, currently untitled, examines the intersections of internet culture and the New York art scene. Stories from this collection are forthcoming in Cutleaf and in the Irish magazine, Banshee.

DL: Are there any opportunities coming up for readers to meet you or study with you via Zoom or in person?

CL: Yes, I teach online creative writing classes for The Writer’s Center in DC, and I take on private editing clients now and again. I’m also available for workshops and readings and so forth. I also have some more on the origins of the book over at Necessary Fiction.

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Submission Calls for Writers 3/9/2022

For those of you who aren’t in submission mode but are rather needing some inspiration for generating work, I hope you will refer to some of my recent blog posts. Since my last list of submission opportunities, I’ve posted conversations with Lauren Davis and Walter Robinson about their new books. I’ve also posted generative writing exercises (Exercise 22.3 and Exercise 22.4) from both writers. And I’m looking forward to speaking with additional writers in the next few weeks.

As I’ve been collecting and organizing this list of opportunities today, I’ve been thinking a lot about the AWP Conference that is coming up in Philadelphia at the end of the month. I’m planning to be there along with the other EastOver Press editors. If you’re going to be at AWP, I hope you will let me know or at least stop by our small corner of the bookfair to say hello.

Until then, here are a dozen submission opportunities for writers. There’s something here for you regardless of what genre you’re writing in. So happy submitting, and good luck!

The Madison Review The Madison Review accepts  poetry, fiction, and art submissions during our reading period. We publish two issues, one online in fall and one physical in the spring. Fiction submissions should be no longer than 30 pages. Send up to 5 poems. https://madisonreview.submittable.com/submit

Sepia Journal Sepia is committed to showcasing the work of both emerging and established artists. We are open to submissions all year, and we aim to reply to all submissions within three months. We welcome submissions of both fiction and creative nonfiction. We prefer work that is below 8,000 words long. Submit up to five poems at a time. https://thesepia.org/submission-guidelines

Real Karen Fiction Contest Got a great original story that includes a well-written character named Karen? We welcome flash fiction, multiple submissions, simultaneous submissions, and work that has been published elsewhere for which you hold the copyright. We prefer not to publish work from authors who use and or have used the word “Karen” as a slur in their other writing. Stories should be less than 8,000 words in length. https://www.therealkaren.com/inspired-fiction/submit-your-fiction

Berkeley Fiction Review The Berkeley Fiction Review is a forum for short fiction, published annually. We invite submissions of previously unpublished short stories from around the country and the world year-round. There is no minimum required page count, but submissions should not exceed 30 pages in length. https://berkeleyfictionreview.org/submit/short-fiction/

Movable Type: 1455’s E-Magazine 1455’s Movable Type publishes every other month. Each issue provides a forum for a diverse array of poets, masters of prose, essayists, educators and anyone with passion for written expression. Each issue revolves around a theme. Please see the themes for 2022 and send your original work. https://1455litarts.org/movable-type/

Cortland Review TCR considers poetry, translations, book reviews. We accept simultaneous submissions, but kindly ask that you notify us as soon as possible when you have placed submitted work elsewhere. Submit  up to 5 poems at a time. https://www.cortlandreview.com/submissions/

Salvation South Salvation South accepts submissions in two broad categories: stories that address critical issues facing the South and stories that celebrate the culture of the South. In our submission form, you will find several more specific options. Please choose the one that best applies to your submission. We also accept Southern short fiction and poetry. https://salvationsouth.submittable.com/submit

Rust and Moth We are accepting submissions for the Summer 2022 issue. At this time, we publish only poetry. Submit up to three poems in any style. Deadline: March 31, 2022. https://rustandmoth.com/submissions/

Split Lip Review Split Lip Review is a literary journal of voice-driven writing with a pop culture twist. We publish online monthly and in print yearly. We accept fiction between 1,000 and 5,000 words, flash fiction under 1,000 words, and memoir up to 2,000 words.  We accept only one (yes, just one) poem at a time. Please do not send us more than one poem. Send your best poem, but only one. We mean it. Submissions are free through the month of March. https://splitlipthemag.com/submit

Passages North Passages North is open to submissions of poetry, short-shorts, nonfiction, and hybrid work from through April 15, 2022. Please submit a packet of 1-5 poems. Send up to three short-shorts or five mircos (fiction, nonfiction, prose poems, hybrids). We’re looking for all manner of well-written, innovative creative nonfiction (up to 8000 words) including, but not limited to, lyric essays, personal essays, memoir, and literary journalism. https://www.passagesnorth.com/submit

Posit Journal Posit is currently considering submissions for 2023. Send 1-3 pieces of prose, including fiction and hybrids, but no nonfiction please, 1000 words or less each. However, if you are submitting very short pieces, please send us at least three to choose from. Please include a minimum of five and a maximum of six poems for us to consider. Deadline: June 15, 2022. https://posit.submittable.com/submit

Rhino Our diverse group of editors looks for the best-unpublished poems, translations, and flash fiction/nonfiction by local, national, and international writers. We welcome all styles of writing, particularly that which is well-crafted, uses language lovingly and surprisingly, and feels daring or quietly powerful. Send 3-5 poems or flash fiction/nonfiction pieces (500 words or fewer), totaling no more than 5 pages. Submissions are open until monthly caps are reached through June 30, 2022. https://rhinopoetry.org/submit-1

Writing Exercise 22.4

If you missed my previous post, please check out my conversation with Walter M. Robinson about his new essay collection What Cannot Be Undone—True Stories of a Life in Medicine. Also yesterday, What Cannot Be Undone was included in Kathleen Stone’s list of Eleven Over Sixty over at LitHub. Now, I’m sharing a writing exercise that Walter shared with me.

Writing Exercise 22.4: Everyone has experiences in a waiting room, whether a physical room at the doctor’s office or a virtual room before a Zoom call. Many stories start or end in a waiting room: Flannery O’Connor’s Mrs. Turpin waits in a doctor’s office filled with people she disapproves so openly that one of them disapproves of her right back by smacking her with a textbook, and Anthony Perkins hopes to impress the police that he is harmless at the end of Psycho, saying, “I’m not even gonna swat that fly.”

Describe a waiting room, real or imagined, in as much detail as necessary to create the beginning or end of a story.

Walter’s writing prompt triggered the memory of Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem, In the Waiting Room, and when I searched for it online, I came across a poem by Thomas Hardy that I’d never read before but that uses a similar title, In A Waiting-room.

I love this prompt because waiting rooms, although they can be incredibly unique from each other, have a universal quality that readers can immediately connect with. I’m so grateful to Walter for taking the time to talk about his writing and for offering this exercise. I’m anxious to try it myself.

Please buy Walter’s new book, What Cannot Be Undone—True Stories of a Life in Medicine, available from University of New Mexico Press, online retailers, and your local bookstore.

Conversation with Walter M. Robinson

Walter M. Robinson is a writer and physician. Originally from Nashville, Tennessee, Walter now lives in Massachusetts. His collection of essays, What Cannot Be Undone—True Stories of a Life in Medicine, won the River Teeth Book Prize for 2020 and was published by University of New Mexico Press. Walter has been a fellow at MacDowell and Yaddo and was a PEN-New England “New Discovery in Non-Fiction.”

What Cannot Be Undone relates stories from a lifetime of professional experience, primarily working with cystic fibrosis patients. That experience expertly shows the complexity of cystic fibrosis, of the body in general, and of the inner workings of the mind and soul of a medical professional. Among the many aspects of Walter’s work, I admire how he is able to break down complicated medical information so that I, as a lay person, am able to understand it. Walter also served as a medical/hospital ethicist, and the ethical questions—about why and how a person is treated—are some of my favorite parts of these essays.

Walter and I first met as students in the Bennington Writing Seminars, and now we work together as editors at EastOver Press and Cutleaf. Walter agreed to answer some questions about What Cannot Be Undone as well as about the writing and publishing process. Come back tomorrow for a writing exercise inspired by Walter’s work in non-fiction.

DL: The full title of your book is What Cannot Be Undone: True Stories of a Life in Medicine, and yet, you explain in the book’s foreword that you’ve relied on an imperfect memory to write these essays. Can you talk about the challenge of relying on memory in nonfiction, some of the workarounds, and what added measures you took to protect the privacy of patients?

WR: Everything in the book is just as I remember it, but I acknowledge in the foreword that others might remember these events differently than I do. Everyone’s memory is imperfect because we only notice fragments of any event while it is happening, and as time passes, the act of remembering brings some things into sharper focus while others fade away. This is the fallible nature of human memory.

I chose the term “true stories” because these essays are not case reports or journalistic accounts, but nor are they fiction. I wrote them in a style that tries to give life to my experience as a doctor rather than simply recounting a clinical case. Medical case reports never use the first person, but I use it in some of these essays to accentuate that the story is about my perspective. In other essays I use the third person to remove myself somewhat as a character, while in still others I use third person to emphasize how I see myself in the past as a very different person. None of these approaches are typical in medical reports, so it seemed like the term “true stories” was the best fit.

I changed the identifying details of patients and families because I didn’t want my version of events to crowd out the families’ or patients’ versions. I was just one doctor among many, and I was often present at a very difficult part of their lives. I hope the story they live with now is not about me but about their loved one.

One way a nonfiction writer can address natural flaws of memory is to acknowledge in the essay that his version of events is not necessarily the only accurate account, as I did in “Nurse Clappy Gets His.” Another way is to take care not to re-configure the story to make himself look smarter, wiser, or kinder than he was in the moment. I hope I succeeded in that. As I wrote in the foreword, I am “no hero, no wizard, no saint.”  

DL: At the time we met, your goal was to find a way to write about your experiences as a doctor, particularly one who worked with cystic fibrosis patients. So it seems like What Cannot Be Undone is the successful answer to that pursuit. Is this book exactly as you imagined it?

WR: I didn’t call myself a writer when I started at Bennington, though I had written scores of academic papers. I had finished about 60% of what I called a “social history” of cystic fibrosis. It was overly academic and unbearably dull. I knew it, and anyone who tried to read it knew it. Thank goodness my teacher at Bennington, Susan Cheever, told me at our very first meeting, “Walter, this is terrible, just start over.” I will forever be grateful to her for that advice because it saved me from trying to rescue something that wasn’t worth the effort.

And while I started over, I followed the Bennington method: Read one hundred books to write one. Pay close attention to the work of others. Read the work of the past in order to make the work of the present. Gather up the tools of art to see if they fit your own work. What a gift those reading lists have been to me!

By the time I finished I had some idea of what I was doing, and I’ve just kept at it. So I’d say this book is the descendent of that early draft, but they have very little in common. Or at least I hope so.

DL: The essays in What Cannot Be Undone describe traumatic events, particularly for the patients whose lives you write about. But what has always been clear to me in reading your work is that you as a medical professional have carried much of that traumatic history with you. Do you have advice for writers writing about their own trauma?

WR: I think of my work as a doctor as meaningful, moving, difficult, exhausting, and completely absorbing. Yes, it was sometimes heartbreaking, but sometimes it was joyful. I loved being a doctor most of the time, even though I worked mostly with patients with life-limiting illnesses. I admit that I am a person who concentrates more than most on the tragic aspects of human life, and many of the stories in this book end with the death of a patient because being at the bedside of these patients may be the most meaningful work I have ever done.

In the most personal essays in the book, “The Necessary Monster” and “White Coat, Black Habit,” I write about my work in a way that most doctors keep private. I try to bear witness to my uncertainty about my value as a doctor and a human.

I think anyone trying to write about difficult experiences should be as honest as they can but also hold things in reserve. Not every part of a life should be open to public view.

DL: In my recent conversation with Lauren Davis, she said that it took her about five years and 48 rejections before she found a publisher for her first full-length collection of poems. How long did it take you to write and shape these essays? What was the submission and publication process like for What Cannot Be Undone?

WR: I worked on these essays much longer than I work on essays now because I was learning how to write while I was writing this book. I revised all of them over and over and started over with a blank page many times. I’ve gotten much faster over the years, especially in knowing what is not working and starting over.

Once I had enough essays for a book, I submitted the manuscript to an agent and was floored when she said “yes.” I thought it would be smooth sailing from then on, but eighteen months later most of the publishers had not replied. I thanked the agent for her time, and I gave up.

But then two friends from Bennington—one of them you––told me about contests for manuscripts run by journals, and so I submitted it to as many contests as I could find.  A year later, I had gotten form rejections from every single contest. I thanked my two friends, and I gave up, again.

I told myself, “This is no tragedy. You learned so much by writing these essays. This is your second career, and you started in your late fifties. What did you expect? Time to move on to something else.”

As is so often the case, I was wrong again. I thought I had gotten rejections from every contest, but one day I got a call from an unknown number. I didn’t pick up; surely it was those people who are so worried about my warranty expiring, right? But no, the voicemail was from the very kind editor at River Teeth, telling me I had won their Literary Nonfiction Prize. I smiled so hard the rest of that day my face hurt.

After winning the Prize, the publication process was a breeze. The folks at University of New Mexico Press have been delightful and kind to a first-time author. I didn’t count the number of rejections, but I wrote the first very rough draft of one of the essays, “Nurse Clappy Gets His,” in July 2012, and the book came out in February 2022. So it took about ten years.

DL: What are you working on now?

WR: I have been working on two projects. One is another essay collection about medicine and medical ethics tentatively titled “Deciding the Fate of Others.” The other is a more speculative book about the lives my ancestors did not lead so that I might be here to write a book. 

DL: Are there any opportunities coming up for readers to meet you or study with you via zoom or in person? (workshops, readings, interviews, AWP?)

WR: I’ll be at AWP with EastOver Press and Cutleaf, so please stop by our booth and say hello if you’d like to talk about the book. And I am happy to try to arrange readings or other interviews or talks about the book, over Zoom or in person. Contact me at words (at) wmrobinson (dot) com.

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My next post will feature a writing exercise inspired by one of Walter M. Robinson’s essays in What Cannot Be Undone—True Stories of a Life in Medicine.

“[The whole soldier doesn’t suffer]” by Lyudmyla Khersonska

I find it nearly impossible to accomplish anything at the moment without first checking the news to see what’s happening in Ukraine, hoping and praying that the Ukrainians can stay strong and hold off Putin’s forces.

In between news checks, I started looking for some Ukrainian writing, and I came across this poem written by Lyudmyla Khersonska, translated by Katherine E. Young, and published in 2016 by WORDS without BORDERS that I wanted to share.

[The whole soldier doesn’t suffer]

The whole soldier doesn’t suffer—
it’s just the legs, the arms,
just blowing snow,
just meager rain.
The whole soldier shrugs off hurt—
it’s just missile systems “Hail” and “Beech,”
just bullets on the wing,
just happiness ahead.
Just meteorological pogroms,
geo-Herostratos wannabes,
just the girl with the pointer
poking the map in the stomach.
Just thunder, lightning,
just dreadful losses,
just the day with a dented helmet,
just God, who doesn’t protect.

Writing Exercise 22.3

If you missed my previous post, please check out my conversation with Lauren Davis about her new poetry collection, Home Beneath the Church. Lauren talked about how difficult it was her to write deeply personal poems about her body and health. The poems in Home Beneath the Church also explore holy spaces. Those holy spaces begin and end with the body, but there are also churches, French basilicas, and other spaces reserved for traditional religious figures. And there is also the outside world. Lauren’s poems are never far from nature. It’s clear that she is a gifted student of observation, although I must assume there’s some amount of research that supports her knowledge of the natural world.

Two of my favorite poems in this collection are “If I Were a Resurrection Fern” and “I am a New Caledonian Owlet-Nightjar.”

If I Were a Resurrection Fern

And you were the wind-shipped rain,
I’d draw you up. My fronds bright soaked

without shame. Imagine my grief this past
drought. I shivered in my little

plot of lack. Come my mineral nip,
my sky-dropped lake.

Nothing can keep us apart,
not even climate nor gods.

you come down and down
and never stop coming down,

and I revive, baptized.

I am a New Caledonian Owlet-Nightjar

Unseen since 1998,
I am nearly a lost breed.

No one has heard my voice but you—
a different genus of bird
who sought and discovered me.

I beat my wings against yours
unable to mate, but look

how groomed my semiplumes.
I pluck them into dead air.

Now I am ready
to be collected beneath
your breast.

Let scientists say I dared to survive—
that you came down from your perch

to quiver against me,
my last known touch.

They will find me in the brushweed,
virgin. But a song in my throat.

In both poems, the narrator takes on the identity of non-human forms in order to express very human yearning. One poem is qualified with the word “if.” The second poem is more declaratory: “I am.” But in both poems, the narrator embodies another form.

For this writing exercise, start with a quick online search for vulnerable species in the region where you live or within a geographic area that has significance for you.

Reading these poems prompted me to think about what animal or plant I would choose to speak through in a poem. So I started with a quick online search for “endangered birds of Appalachia.” The first link expanded my original idea by taking me to a website that listed vulnerable species beyond birds. I chose to search for species in Appalachia because that’s where I live, and it felt more appropriate for my writing.

I love that a minimal amount of research can keep me from feeling that I don’t know what to write. So once you’ve selected your species, see what you can find about their behaviors. This will help you embody that species for yourself by borrowing where they are and what they do.

Notice that in both poems, the narrator speaks directly to a beloved by addressing that person as “you.” Do the same in your poem by speaking directly to someone.

Speaking from a non-human voice is not limited to poetry. A New Caledonian Owlet-Nightjar likely would have just as much to say in a short story as she does in a poem. The same is true in an essay, and in an essay, there’s even more room for research. Whatever form you’re writing in, you may find it wonderfully freeing to speak through this other voice.

Huge thanks to Lauren Davis for speaking to me about her new book and for inspiring this writing exercise. If you enjoyed Lauren’s poem, you’ll want to hear her read from Home Beneath the Church on Tuesday March 1, 2022 at the Birch Bark Editing Reading (online). For more opportunities to hear Lauren read, keep on eye on her event listings online.

Conversation with Lauren Davis

Lauren Davis is a writer who lives on the Olympic Peninsula. I first met Lauren when we were both MFA students at Bennington College. Since that time, Lauren has published two chapbooks of poetry, and, most recently, a full-length collection, Home Beneath the Church. “Lauren Davis is the poet you need to be reading,” says Kelli Russell Agodon, and I couldn’t agree more.

Home Beneath the Church includes deeply personal poems about the body and then moves into writing about religious spaces. Clearly, the body is one such religious space, perhaps even the holiest. But there are also churches, French basilicas, grottoes reserved for anchoresses and saints. And there is also the outside world: the forest, the bay, the moon, and everything that lives and endures in that outside world. Davis finds the holiness in it all.

Lauren agreed to answer some questions about Home Beneath the Church as well as about the writing and publishing process. Come back tomorrow for a writing exercise inspired by Lauren’s new collection.

DL: So many of the poems in Home Beneath the Church explore deeply personal material about your body and particularly your health. I often feel that we poets are inherently confessional, but can you talk about the process of writing these poems?

LD: I sometimes wept while putting pen to paper. One thing that kept me going was my absolute rage at the shame that surrounds women’s bodies. There was nothing for me to be ashamed of in these poems, and yet, I struggled. I found this struggle infuriating, so I pressed forward.

DL: Do you have advice for writers who are attempting to write about the body? Were there other poets or specific poems you referred to for guidance?

LD: Read, read, read. That’s my advice. Somewhere someone has taken the plunge, or they’ve taken a similar risk. I turned many times to Sharon Olds and Jason Shinder. I also made use of therapy. There’s so much to unravel when we talk about bodies.

DL: One of the questions I’m asked the most, especially by poets early in their career, is how to not sound overly prosaic. What kind of craft elements do you employ to identify and modify those prosaic turns of phrase?

LD: We’re not supposed to be overly prosaic? That’s news to me! I often find the opposite situation in new writers. They’re writing in such a complicated or elevated manner that the music, imagery, and meaning gets lost. But my advice, whether the new writer is dealing with either side of the spectrum, is to read, read, read. There is no substitute. And read living poets. Give the Greats a rest for a moment. Come back to them in a couple of years. For now, find those writers that are winning awards and branch out from there.

DL: In my conversation with Rosemary Royston last month, she said that it took her about six years of reorganizing, resending, and hoping before she found a publisher for her most recent collection of poems. How long did it take you to write and shape this collection? What was the submission and publication process like for Home Beneath the Church?

LD: Oh, Lord. Who really knows how long this took? Five years? And forty-eight rejections, I think. Each rejection helped shape the book in its own way. The publication process was a little rocky. We entered the pandemic shutdown, and I just took my hands off of it. Full surrender. And I could not be happier with the final product that Fernwood Press delivered.

DL: I know you have another collection of poems already in the works. If it’s not too early, can you tell us when that will be available? And what are you working on now?

LD: When I Drowned will be available in Winter 2023 through Aldrich Press. At the moment, I’m working on a novel titled The Sleeping Cure, and I’m seeking a publisher for my short-story collection The Milk of Dead Mothers.

* * *

My next post will feature a writing exercise inspired by one of Lauren Davis’s poems in Home Beneath the Church, as well as more information about where you can hear Lauren read this spring.

Now Available: I Thought I Heard A Cardinal Sing

I’m thrilled to have two poems included in I Thought I Heard A Cardinal Sing, a new anthology that celebrates Appalachian writers and particularly those from the Appalachian region of Ohio. Kari Gunter-Seymour, who edited this collection, wrote:

“Within these pages you will find a lavish mix of voices—Affrilachian, Indigenous, non-binary and LGBTQ; from teens to those creatively aging; poets in recovery, some with disabilities or developmental differences; emerging and well established; some living in the state, others from assorted locations throughout the country—all with a deep connection to Appalachian Ohio. The work speaks honestly and proudly as it represents Ohio’s Appalachian population, providing examples of honor, endurance, courage, history, love of family, the land; and provides evidence of how even against the odds our people continue to thrive, to work hard to build awareness and overcome mainstream America’s negative response to those with a strong Appalachian heritage.”

I Thought I Heard A Cardinal Sing is published by Sheila-Na-Gig, and you can order the book through their website: https://sheilanagigblog.com/cardinal-sing/.

Submission Calls for Writers 2/8/2022

This has been a hard winter, in large part because we’ve all been enduring a difficult two years. When the weather is as cold as it’s been, I especially want to do nothing but hibernate. But yesterday and today, the sun has felt a little stronger, and I’m finding just enough energy to think about the future. That includes finding the courage to submit new work. In that vein, here are a dozen submission opportunities for writers. There’s something here for you regardless of what genre you’re writing in. So happy submitting, and good luck!

The Barcelona Review     The Barcelona Review is presently accepting submissions for previously unpublished short fiction, articles and essays. We do not accept poetry submissions. Submit one story at a time for consideration to the editor. Word length: 4,500 words max. Articles/Essays should be related in some way to the world of books and writing; creative non-fiction (e.g., personal essays) that fits with the review is welcome. Word length: preferably under 3,000 words. https://barcelonareview.com/mis/subguide.htm

The Manifest-Station     We are looking for honest writing that has heart. We want to be moved. Nonfiction submissions should be no longer than 3,000 words. Fiction submissions should be no longer than 5000 words. http://themanifeststation.net/submissions/

Regal House Publishing     We are currently seeking manuscripts within the genres of literary fiction, contemporary fiction, historical fiction, and memoirs. For submissions, please send us: A query letter, a one-page synopsis of your story, and the first three chapters of your novel or the first fifty pages, whichever is more. https://www.regalhousepublishing.com/submissions/

Barrow Street     We are currently open for poetry submissions. There is a $3 charge per submission. Submit up to five manuscript pages. http://barrowstreet.org/press/submit/

Western Humanities Review     Western Humanities Review accepts unsolicited submissions of original poetry, fiction, nonfiction, hybrid work, audio/visual work, essays, and reviews year round. Because of the volume of submissions we receive, we are only able to publish about 2% of them—so please send us your best work. We’re looking for dynamic writing that engages, surprises, and moves us, work that is, in fact, out to get us. http://www.westernhumanitiesreview.com/submissions/

Valparaiso Fiction Review     Publishing since 2011, Valparaiso Fiction Review is a biannual publication of Valparaiso University and its Department of English. Valparaiso Fiction Review is seeking submissions of short stories for its upcoming 2019 issues (Summer & Winter). Submissions to VFR should be original, unpublished works that range from 1,000 to 9,000 words. There is no set deadline, and submissions are considered on a rolling basis. Current and archived issues of the journal can be found online. https://scholar.valpo.edu/vfr/guidelines.html

Orange Blossom Review     We are excited to announce the open call period for submissions to Orange Blossom Review, the peer-reviewed, digital-format literary journal of the Florida College English Association. OBR publishes innovative poetry, short fiction, creative nonfiction, and visual art. Submit short fiction and creative nonfiction up to 5,000 words. Submit up to five poems. Deadline: February 15, 2022. https://orangeblossomreview.org/

Echolocation     For the very special 20th (!) volume of Echolocation, the theme is Everything Is Free – an aptly contradictory idea for this year (2021-2022). Our theme calls for writing that explores the costs of being alive, in whatever way you may interpret this; let the theme serve as a springboard to loosely guide your submission. We want you to send us your writing, no matter how subtle, explicit or tenuous the connection may appear.  Please submit 1 or 2 pieces of prose, or 1-4 poems, or 1 piece of prose and 1-2 poems. Submissions close March 1, 2022. https://www.echolocationmagazine.com/submit

Embark     Embark is a literary journal designed for novelists, and features the openings of unpublished novels. The opening of your novel should be a minimum 2,500 words and a maximum 4,000 words. The novel in question must be unpublished at the time of submission. Submissions received by March 1, 2022, will be considered for our sixteenth issue, which will be released in April 2022. https://embarkliteraryjournal.com/submissions/

Orange Blossom Review     We are excited to announce the open call period for submissions to Orange Blossom Review, the peer-reviewed, digital-format literary journal of the Florida College English Association. OBR publishes innovative poetry, short fiction, creative nonfiction, and visual art. Submit short fiction and creative nonfiction up to 5,000 words. Submit up to five poems. Deadline: February 15, 2022. https://orangeblossomreview.org/

Salamander     Salamander, which is published biannually, features poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Submit no more than five poems at a time. Submit one story or memoir at a time, or up to three flash pieces in either fiction or nonfiction at a time. Our current reading period closes April 1, 2022. http://salamandermag.org/how-to-submit/

Bennington Review     Bennington Review is published twice a year in print form, Summer and Winter. For poetry, please send no fewer than three and no more than five poems per submission. For fiction and creative nonfiction, please send no more than thirty pages per submission; any excerpts from a longer project must work as self-contained essays or stories. Our current reading period will end on May 8, 2022. http://www.benningtonreview.org/submit/