Summer Teaching & Literary Conference

Photo of Sejal Shah teaching a Writing & Yoga workshop

Writers & Books’ Gell Center in Bristol, NY. This is a photo from when I co-taught a Writing & Yoga Workshop with my friend, yoga teacher Marijana Ababovic.

In 2012, I taught my first workshop at Writers & Books’ Gell Center, a retreat facility in the Finger Lakes region of Western New York. My friend Marijana and I taught Writing & Yoga workshops, and really enjoyed bring those two interests of ours together—especially in a beautiful place where students (and both of us) could walk by a stream, write outside, and get a little break from the usual routine. The Gell Center is just 50 minutes from Rochester, but you really do feel as though you are away.

On Saturday, July 21st, 2018, I’ll be teaching in a day-long writing retreat hosted by Writers & Books and called The Gell Intensive.  My co-workshop leaders are Ralph Black (poetry), Sarah Freligh (poetry), Kristen Gentry (fiction), Anne Panning (creative nonfiction), myself, and Stephen Schottenfeld (fiction). I once took a writing workshop at Gell with writer Sonja Livingston—the day before my engagement ceremony. It was such a good thing to do something creative before a big day involving family and a major life change, etc. Until May 15, Writers & Books is offering 10% off on all workshops, including this one.

In the past, I’ve also enjoyed taking workshops at The Millay Colony, which was once summer home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. It’s now a rustic artist residency near the Massachusetts / New York line. The time away, the structure, the beautiful location, and meals prepared for you, is good for the soul. I’m excited about teaching in a similar environment for the Gell Intensive. All of my co-teachers are writers I know who live and teach in the area. However, I’ve never actually seen them teach and so I look forward to working with them, and learning from them, too. If you are here in Rochester that weekend, I really recommend this workshop. More info here.

The other writing-related thing I’m doing this summer is taking part in The Ladder, the inaugural literary conference hosted by Writers & Books on Saturday, June 16, 2018. This will be a terrific opportunity for writers at all stages to attend different panels, learn from editors, teachers of writing, and agents—all without having to travel to AWP or out of state. It’s downtown. I’ll be on a panel called about tackling the tricky subject of genre with essayist Sonja Livingston and poet Chen Chen. I admire both of their writing very much, and am excited to be in conversation with them about how we choose a genre or if it chooses us. Here’s a PDF of the conference schedule.

Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib

IMG_5274Do you remember the YA books you read when you were in middle school? In some ways, I never got over them. In my essay, “Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib,” I wrote about growing up South Asian American—which really meant growing up Gujarati in the 1980s—and I wrote about the books I loved as a child and those I came back to again. These included books in a series like The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, and books that were geared specifically for girls: Nancy Drew, Anne of Green Gables, Sweet Valley High, Trixie Belden, The Girls of Canby Hall, and the Betsy-Tacy books.

“Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib” appeared in an anthology called Under Her Skin: How Girls Experience Race in America (Seal Press, 2004, Ed. Pooja Makhijani). What became “Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib” began as a short story in my MFA thesis in fiction, but what I was really interested in doing was exploring what it was like to grow up Gujarati and Indian American in a predominantly white suburb of Rochester, New York. I sent the original story to writer and editor Pooja Makhijani, who had a call out for submissions to her anthology, Under Her Skin. Pooja was interested in the story (which was entirely autobiographical), and she suggested expanding it. Through the process of revisiting and expanding the story, it became clear to me that this was a different kind of writing—a marriage of both archeology and choreography; both artistic and imaginative—a personal essay—and it grew into one of my first creative nonfiction essays.

This week I spoke to a class at the University of Rochester about “Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib” (PDF in link).  My essay has been part of the reading for this course for the last two years and this will be my fourth time coming in to talk to UR graduate students in the Warner School of Education. I realize now that only some of the YA books I allude to are well-known—often because of re-releases or film versions of the books. Roxane Gay has written about Sweet Valley High; Anne of Green Gables was made into a three-part series in Canada and broadcast over PBS, and Nancy Drew was re-released as series now using first person narration instead of the third-person point of view in the original books. A film adaptation of Madeline L’Engle’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time, hit the theaters this year.

But the Betsy-Tacy books are not as well-known. Here’s a quick description thanks to Wikipedia:

The Betsy-Tacy books are a series of semi-autobiographical novels by American novelist and short-story writer Maud Hart Lovelace (1892-1980), which were originally published between 1940 and 1955 by the Thomas Y. Crowell Co. The books are now published by HarperCollins.

Betsy-Tacy and Tib (1941) is the second volume in the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace. This story introduces the character of Thelma (Tib) Muller, a German-American girl who becomes friends with Betsy Ray and Tacy Kelly.

The series follows the adventures of heroine Betsy Ray, who is based closely on the author, and her friends and family. The first book, Betsy-Tacy, begins in 1897 on the eve of Betsy’s fifth birthday, and the last book, Betsy’s Wedding, ends in 1917 as the United States prepares to enter the First World War.

I particularly loved Betsy-Tacy and Tib, because of the friendships I remembered from growing up on my street. In all of those books, much as I loved them. I never saw a character who looked like me. From my essay:

In the books I read growing up, there were always words I couldn’t quite imagine. I remember, with a specificity that surprises me, the foreignness of certain colors: kelly green, strawberry blonde…How these series come back to haunt me now, with their sense of ownership over the world, with the ways in which they defined a world…We read these books, but there was no one like us in any of them. Did we think of writing our own? I want to see us. To see the girl I was, the girls we were, back when we lived at home.

Within the “Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib,” essay, I wrote the beginning of an imagined YA book—one that my husband and other friends have suggested I write someday. And I can imagine doing it now—what does it mean to write yourself in a narrative—into a world where you never saw yourself?

The Betsy-Tacy series was set in Mankato, Minnesota and covered the late 1800s into 1917, far away from where and when I grew up but this resonated with me and I wrote “a series about two best friends from the same street who made room for a third. No one felt alone past the second chapter.”

Sejal Shah lived alone with her parents on Pelham Road in western New York State, in a city that had seen better days (“Lion of the West”), that had housed stops on the Underground Railroad….

I did grow up feeling very alone at times, except for books—our middle school was almost entirely white, middle class, suburban at the time, with only one other South Asian American boy in our grade—and he was a close family friend; my mother and his had grown up together in Nairobi. But there were no other girls—and middle school is all about friendships. And of course there were other Indian Americans in the Rochester area. And so I imagined a series about us—about me and my friends who lived in the other towns around Rochester and went to different schools. Here are some of the imagined titles in the essay:

The Gujarati Girls Go to (Hindu Heritage Summer) Camp
The Gujarati Girls Go Skiing 
The Mystery of the Prasaad Plate (A Gujarati Girls Mystery)
The Gujarati Girls Go to Panorama Plaza (to see the latest Molly Ringwald movie—Gujarati Girls Mystery #13)
The Gujarati Girls Get Malaria (also titled The Gujarati Girls Go to India)

My husband and other friends have long suggested I actually write those books—and I want to do that. Because those early books made an impression on me. I loved them and wondered what it would be like to write my way into a book and bring along others who looked like me, but you couldn’t find us in the books in the library.

It reminded me of an essay I quoted from in the introduction to my MFA thesis: Adrienne Rich’s “Invisibility in Academe”—from a talk she gave in 1984 at Scripps College and later published in Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985. I’ve been thinking about this essay in relation to my work right now and about visibility and invisibility:

…whether you are dark-skinned, old, disabled, female, or speak with a different accent or dialect than theirs, when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. Yet you know you exist and others like you, that this is a game with mirrors. It takes some strength of soul—and not just individual strength, but collective understanding—to resist this void, this nonbeing, into which you are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard. And to make yourself visible, to claim your experience is as real and normative as any other…

And my teachers were wonderful, by and large, but there were moments, there always are—of misunderstanding, and something wounding—and not with teachers, but just by being out in the world—moments with other people—and I wanted to make the life I lived at home and on weekends, with our friends who were more like cousins and the language we spoke, Gujarati, visible. Legible. Normative. Part of the landscape and not even the most interesting part.

***

In Mankato, Minnesota (a few hours away from where I lived in Decorah, Iowa) there is actually a Betsy-Tacy society. And the house I rented in Decorah was owned by J.R. Christenson, who grew up in the Mankato neighborhood where Maud Hart Lovelace lived. My friend Sandhya, who lives in Decorah and also loved the Betsy-Tacy books, and I talk about going to Mankato someday, and I’d love to take that trip with her—driving and talking on our way to visit the neighborhood where these books were set.

In the end, two of my great loves will always be books and friendships.

Making Time

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Where I am this month: the Anderson Center at Tower View, an artist residency in Red Wing, Minnesota. I’m writing and revising, and trying to get out of my way to work.

So here’s something my friend Geeta wrote recently about time, grief, and writing that resonated with me:

One day, around the time my parents died, I finally understood that time isn’t an infinite, renewable resource. After the grief, came the despair. I added up all the wasted hours. So many, with people I didn’t like doing things I didn’t care about. Of course, I couldn’t actually add up all my wasted hours because I never kept track of them. This was a period when I didn’t keep a journal or a schedule on paper. Even when I began writing seriously, I paid little attention to how I used my time. I measured my progress by how many pages I filled, how many drafts I wrote, publications. This last item seems a little insane now because rejections for my stories far outnumbered acceptances (and still do)…

I don’t want to live the rest of my life regretting things. You don’t either. Geeta makes a good case for how to spend your time on what counts (if writing deeply and daily counts to you). You can read the rest of her essay / blog post here

2017 Summer Roundup

2017 Summer Roundup

This summer careened by, dizzy from travel (Ohio three times; Mexico; Washington, D.C.; Rhode Island; Pittsburgh) and some enormous changes. My beloved grandmother passed on July 31. Her absence is palpable. I am still trying to adjust to the fact that I can’t eat dinner next to her or braid her hair for her (as she used to do for me when I was young); or bring her a jasmine flower from my plant (she loved the fragrance and would lift the tiny blossom to her face, close her eyes, breathe in, and smile); or just sit with her and talk and laugh. I used to see her most days. My parents’ house feels empty now.

IMG_9291I wrote a poem about her when I was sixteen, first published in my high school literary magazine, then in Hanging Loose magazine, and finally reprinted in the Hanging Loose Press anthology, Bullseye: Outstanding High School Writers. R. posted this photo of my poem on Instagram.

Now, R and I are packing up to move from our first apartment to our first home. We bought a house—I’ll finally have room (I hope) for all of my books.

In between house hunting and later-stage hospice, I taught a seven-week creative nonfiction class, which included reading and writing in response to Eula Biss’ Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays. It feels important to be writing about race, place, responsibility, privilege, ambivalence, what we love, what we struggle with, what we hope will change about our country, and how we are part of all of it. If you haven’t read this book yet, please do.

Next on my list to read, re-read, and teach: essays by James Baldwin and Audre Lorde. What are you reading to help you get through this particular time? Please comment and let me know.

Here’s my writing-related news update—

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Writing:

My story-essay, “Skeleton, Rock, Shell,” will be published in Conjunctions 69: Being Bodies (Fall / Nov 2017). R took the screenshot of the table of contents (in-progress) above. Yes—that’s Rick Moody and Anne Waldman in the same issue (!!!). I love Conjunctions, and have been published by them online, but this will be my first time in their print journal.

My story collection, How to Make Your Mother Cry, was selected by Paul Yoon as a finalist for the 2017 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction from Sarabande Books. Sarabande will publish the winner of the prize, Tiny Heroes, Tiny Villains, by Robert Yune.

My essay collection, Things People Say, was named a finalist for the 2017 Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s Essay Collection Competition, selected by Renee Gladman. More info in the link.

Readings, Festivals, & NYFA:

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Some of the audience saying hey. Those are the other fellows smiling at me in the first row.

In June, I was a Peter Taylor Fellow at the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshops. Here’s a photo from the fellows’ reading, where I shared my essay about a former teacher, the poet Agha Shahid Ali. When I remember to, I like to take photos of the audience. This was a great one.

Reading at The Library of Congress, July 29, 2017

Reading at The Library of Congress, July 29, 2017 (photo credit: Kundiman)


July: I also read the essay (published this past April in Mad Heart Be Brave: Essays on the Poetry of Agha Shahid Ali, edited by Kazim Ali, University of Michigan Press) at the Library of Congress, for the Smithsonian Asian American Literature Festival, with Karen Tei Yamashita and Kundiman Fellows Vt Hung and Mark Keats.

It felt significant to read in our nation’s capital at the Library of Congress, as an Asian American writer myself in front of an audience of mostly other Asian American writers, scholars, poets, and readers. Several people came up to me afterward or emailed me to say that they were moved by the essay and reading. I felt that way about the events I attended, too.

To buy a copy (and/or ask your library to buy a copy) of Mad Heart Be Brave, head over here.

IMG_3812In August, I took part in the NYFA (the New York Foundation for the Arts)  2017 Artist-as-Entrepreneur Bootcamp. Lots to learn about as I gear up to begin offering private writing workshops and mentoring in 2018. If you are a writer or artist in New York State, I recommend applying to this program, which is offered several times a year around the state—the next one is in Albany.

Thanks to Brooklyn-based writer Roohi Choudhri, who told me about the bootcamp. She teaches privately and has a terrific set of in-person and online offerings for writers. Check out her website here.

Other Nice Stuff:

Every once in a while I Google my name to see what the internet rolls back at me. I found this mention on a website library discussion board called LibraryThing. Here is what one user posted about writers of South Asian origin:

6 cindydavid4: Though I’m a big reader of Indian-American writers (or, more broadly, American writers of South Asian origin), and I’ve read some [Chitra Banerjee] Divakaruni, I’m not a fan of her work. I can’t pinpoint why exactly because I haven’t spent enough time thinking it through. I only know that, after forcing myself to get to the end of her collection of stories Arranged Marriage: Stories, I have not picked up another of her books.

These days, the most interesting writing by Indian-American (or writers of South Asian origin) women writers I am liking are: Nina McConigleyTanwi Nandini IslamTahmima AnamMira JacobSejal ShahTania JamesJade Sharma, and more.

With male writers of South Asian origin, these are most interesting to me these days: Amitava GhoshAkhil SharmaVikram Chandra — whose Sacred Games is going to be a Netflix series, Kanishk TharoorKaran MahajanAnuk ArudpragasamSunil Yapa, et al.

I’m flattered to be in such company. The other folks have books. I’m working on it.

 

 

 

On Ordering Essay (& Story) Collections: To Try & Try Again

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Ann Patchett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage—one of the essay collections I read in 2016.

Earlier this year, I assembled a hybrid manuscript (short stories and creative nonfiction essays) and an essays-only version and sent both out to several places. My manuscript was a finalist at three presses this spring and summer, which was encouraging. A few of the editors, writers, and friends who read my manuscript generously provided some useful feedback. Then I took some time to consider next steps.

In September, I had lunch with Sabina Murray, a fiction writer who teaches in the MFA program at UMass Amherst. We were talking about the challenges of selling a hybrid manuscript and she said, “Think about when you go to a bookstore and pick up a memoir or a novel. You are looking for a different experience in reading one over the other, right? We have different expectations for nonfiction versus fiction.”

That made sense to me, even though given the interest in books like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen or Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, it is also a good time to be publishing “hybrid” work. For what it’s worth, Edie Meidav, another fiction writer at UMass thought it absolutely possible to shop and successfully publish a hybrid manuscript.

My takeaway: there’s no one or right answer. These are just decisions we make and go from there. The word “essay” comes from the French verb essay—to try. So much of writing is to try. And to try again.

After putting my manuscript aside for a few months, I decided to try separating the stories and essays, which meant shorter collections of each—but I could also see how they read differently.

In December, I picked up Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. As in any collection, I found some essays more compelling than others. Many of Patchett’s essays had been published elsewhere first (and some were the text of speeches), and while there were certainly themes, Patchett has a strong following as an established writer. Readers would (and did) buy the book whether or not the essays all worked together to create a unified whole. Beyond that, of course it’s meaningful and valuable to hold a book in your hand, all the writing there at once, instead of clicking to this link and that link online.

I read Patchett’s book from beginning to end, and did not skip around. I usually skip around. I realized that’s in part why I had a hard time thinking about chronology and ordering my essays or stories—the order of stories or poems or essays in a book usually does not have much bearing on the order in which I actually read them.

On the other hand, seeing the structure, reading an introduction or forward, seeing subtitles (as in Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and Eula Biss’ Notes from No Man’s Land) did help me to see in part how the writers themselves (and / or their publishers and editors) intended for the book to read. And I appreciated that, could see the value in that.

With a little help from (as Roxane Gay might say) Dr. Google, I found some useful resources:

Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies also has two excellent posts covering recent conference panels on the subject. One is Vivian Wagner’s blog post, “Narrative, Lyric, Hybrid: Crafting Essay Collections into Books.” This post covered the AWP 2015 conference panel of the same title with Renee D’Aoust (moderator), and Rebecca McClanahan, Patrick Madden, Peter Grandbois, and Philip Lopate as panelists.

From Assay:

Rebecca McClanahan began the discussion by addressing the different ways that essay collections can come together. Some books of essays, she said, cohere organically because of subject matter, style, narrative movement, or repeating images. For essays that don’t automatically hang together, however, she said writers have to grapple with a variety of questions. What should one do, for instance, with events that repeat themselves over and over in various essays? Should the writer edit the essays and place a key event once in the collection? What if some of the essays are in present tense and some in past? What about the fact that people in our essays grow up, marriages end, and we ourselves change over time? As McClanahan said, “our reflections may change drastically from essay to essay. There can be several selves on the page colliding with each other.”

Wagner ended her coverage of the panel with this commentary:

I can’t say I came away from this panel with all the answers. I’m still mulling over my yet-to-be-assembled essays. What I did learn, however, is that putting together a book of essays involves more – much more – than just creating a single Word file and piling essays in it until it reaches 300 pages. And that lesson, at least, is a good place to start.

So true. It’s much more than creating a single Word file!

Next, Heidi Czerwiec’s write-up in Assay covered a panel at the 2015 NonfictioNow Conference (I was lucky enough to attend this panel, too): From the post, “Assay@NFN15: ‘Beyond Scaffolding: Constructing an Essay Collection,’”

Audience comment from Heidi Czerwiec: Susan Grimm’s Ordering the Storm contains several theories of how to order poetry books, and Katrina Vandenberg had a great essay in Poets & Writers on how to order a poetry book based on how to make a mixtape, a la High Fidelity. Jericho Parms [panelist] responded that she often looked to poetry books for ideas on ordering.

Audience comment from Robin Hemley: there’s greater importance on the organizing principle, especially on the title of the collection, and how it works as a rubric for how to read the essays together.

I scoured my bookshelves and gathered up books of essays and short story collections and studied them—the titles, where the books opened, the tone of the first line of the first essay or story; how each story or essay closed; where the book ended; narrative arc; whether or not they were divided into sections or parts and whether or not those parts had subtitles. I think it’s worth doing this with any of your favorite books of short stories or essays.

Here are some of the books I looked at (some in great detail and others, just skimming or scanning) listed here in no particular order:

  • Joy Castro’s Island of Bones (Essays)
  • Adrienne Rich’s Blood, Bread, and Poetry (Essays)
  • Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Essays)
  • James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son (Essays)
  • Eula Biss’ Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays and The Balloonists (Hybrid/Nonfiction)
  • Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist: Essays
  • Douglas Watson’s The Era of Not Quite (Stories)
  • Lia Purpura’s On Looking (Essays)
  • Ann Patchett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Essays)
  • Sonja Livingston’s Ladies Night at the Dreamland and Queen of the Fall (Essays)
  • Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth (Essays)
  • Rachel Hall’s Heirlooms (Stories)
  • Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams (Essays)
  • Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider (Essays & Speeches)
  • Rick Moody’s Demonology (Stories)
  • Junot Diaz’ This Is How You Lose Her and Drown (Stories)
  • Meghan Daum’s My Misspent Youth (Essays)
  • Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies (Stories)
  • Laurie Colwin’s The Lone Pilgrim (Stories)
  • Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever (Stories)
  • Susan Steinberg’s three books: Spectacle; The End of Free Love; Hydroplane (Stories)
  • Rahul Mehta’s Quarantine (Stories)

Ones I intend to look at:

  • Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now (Essays)
  • Julie Marie Wade’s Small Fires (Essays)

I found the process of ordering my stories and essays and thinking about how the individual stories or essays speak to one other, themes, etc., to be more challenging than I imagined it would be—even though I had done another version of this process in 2013. Or perhaps I knew it—and this is why it took me many years to do it again.

Finally, I had a really thoughtful conversation over email with Nate Pritts, author of several poetry collections. From his email:

These questions, about ordering, are really so crucial. I think about them a lot. I have much I could say. But maybe first I’d say you should trust yourself – reading those first and last paragraphs to see what resonance there is makes a lot of sense. Also, if your instincts suggest coming up with a structure for sections, I’d say go for it, explore it. For me, sections have always been obvious (ie, series of poems, or seasonal) or mysterious (which is to say, I roughly feel like there is a first and second section and organize poems according to those currents).

Maybe just think about the pieces overall. What shapes or recurrences or narratives define what you’re writing about: interior / exterior, journeying and returning, etc. The question then is, for example, if you can ascertain a rough interior / exterior divide, do you separate them or intersperse them for strengthening?

For poems, I tend to print out ALL the poems and spread them on the floor (or desks, whatever, all over the house) and then just walk around reading them and picking them up as I go as it makes sense, if I’m finding those riffs and connections. If these are shorter pieces, maybe you could do that too? Or maybe you could just start with one piece – is there one that seems like a center or kernel? Then what piece of the other 21 pieces goes before it? Or after it? And start working out organically in waves.

Nate’s advice resonated with me. Before this year, I had no idea how other writers came to this process. Like Nate, I had printed out copies of all the essays and stories and spread them across my office. I could see all of the pieces and move them around as actual physical objects—well before any cutting and pasting on the computer.

Many years ago I ordered the stories in my MFA thesis in the final days and weeks before handing it in and the whole process felt rushed and somewhat random—just putting things together in a word document. In the end, it was a thesis, but not a book.

Maybe assembling a book is a little like taking stock of the year—here we are on New Year’s Eve. What’s your story about 2016? Themes, highlights, recurring images? It’s stepping back and seeing the forest, as McClanahan said— (after, for me, counting up, classifying, and mulling over the variety of trees and various vegetation).

Our country’s story in 2016: The rise of Trump. A loss of heart. The loss of so many gifted musicians and writers.

The to-do list: I still have to research long-term care insurance.

Writing: I bought a new desk and two new file cabinets. I assembled manuscripts and mulled over titles and subtitles and epigraphs.

Obviously, there’s much more to the lists than this, but it’s getting late in the day and this blog post is already long. (And I need to take a shower.)

What’s on your list? What are the important pieces and parts and stories of your year?

I wish you and yours health, happiness, wild creativity, and meaningful order in 2017. And to trust your instincts. And lots of reading and writing.

None of Us Really Left: Reimagining Rochester

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Poets Cornelius Eady (reading from his iPad), Marie Howe (of the fabulous hair), and Philip Schultz (a poet’s poignancy in his countenance) read in Rochester, with local poet and MCC Professor Tony Leuzzi (far right) moderating the conversation.

Last night I went to a terrific reading in town through Rochester Arts & Lectures, featuring Cornelius Eady, Marie Howe, and Philip Schultz—poets all originally from Rochester. MCC professor and poet Anthony Leuzzi did a wonderful job moderating the reading and conversation. Eady, Howe, and Schultz addressed the role Rochester played in their lives as poets and how they think of home now (none of the three stayed in town, but draw from their time there in their writing).

Each described a different Rochester, a different sense of place, a different home—Eady described his street in the city neighborhood now called Corn Hill; Howe spoke of growing up in the suburbs in a fake Tudor stone house with a swimming pool in a neighborhood of Irish Catholics, but did not specify which town or area (I found this especially interesting—the absence of detail here; as a product of the suburbs myself, I have always been acutely aware of the distinctions between the different towns and suburbs, and even neighborhoods within the same municipality—I don’t see them at all as all the same).

Schultz spoke about growing up on a street of immigrants in the city, and at some point moved to my hometown / suburb, Brighton, which borders Rochester. Eady and Howe both talked about the same block on Prince Street, which played an important role in their lives. Howe read poems from her first book, What the Living Do, which was written largely about her brother John’s death from AIDS in 1989; John died on Prince Street in Rochester, and some of the poems are set there.

Eventually, all left home. Eady and Howe spoke of wanting to be where people were—where everyone was—all together on the streets. And this place was New York. That resonated with me and with others I know who grew up here. Schultz said it was more that he was fleeing where he was—that he had to leave the pain of his situation in Rochester more than getting to New York.

I just jotted down some notes, because I found the conversation and poems so inspiring. Not only are they all beautiful poets, they read poems grappling with identity, place, and the lost worlds of their childhood and adolescence in Rochester. All stuff I think about often. I had heard Cornelius read before, and have some of his poetry, but weirdly enough, was not familiar with Howe and Schultz.

Some excerpts from the conversation:

Marie Howe: [On the power of poetry]: “What poetry can do—turn our lives into myth.” From the elegiac title poem of What the Living Do, written to Howe’s brother John, these last lines stayed with me: “I am living. I remember you.” I woke up two days later still thinking about these words and the relationship between those of us still living with ones we love, long passed.

Cornelius Eady: [On coming back to Rochester]: “Driving around the neighborhood, looking at things that aren’t there.” Also this—worlds gone by, vanished, lost, another era, another time.

On Leaving Rochester:

Eady: Described a kind of “adolescent panic” to get out—“the larger world was calling to me and I to it…Writers are ambitious. New York tested and pushed me in different ways…and I needed NY for that.” Eady mentioned an important mentor, poet Shreela Ray (who has since passed). Sadly, I never met Ray, but I have her book, Night Conversations with None Other, and have had it for a long time. I need to read it again.

Philip Schultz: “None of us really left. Our imaginations were created here and exist here still.” (How I related to this! I left Rochester for 18 years, but I never really left and it never really left me…and eventually I did move back.) The title of one of Philip Schultz’s book, Living in the Past, appeals to me for obvious reasons if you know me or my writing at all…

Howe: “I never would have met Cornelius and Phil had I stayed in Rochester.” [The worlds they inhabited in Rochester were different and they may never have crossed paths.]

Schultz: [Quoting from what his wife has called the best or truest line of one of his poems]: “I left town, but failed to get away” (from his poem, “Failure”).

This last line reminded me of a sentence in Bharati Mukherjee’s novel, Jasmine, which has stayed with me for nearly 25 years: “The world is divided between those who stay and those who leave.” I appreciate that Schultz’s words suggested something perhaps more subtle and complicated than Mukherjee’s distinction. (However, I think what the narrator says in Jasmine has a great deal of truth to it as well.) Reader, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on staying versus leaving (in life and writing), should you have any you’d like to share.

What Can’t Be Cast Off: An Interview with Rachel Hall

At the end of July, I completed a six-month stint writing a bi-weekly column for the Kenyon Review blog. I am proud of all that work (and gained tremendous respect for the work involved in writing a weekly column or blog and for all who do it).

Heirlooms-coverMy final post is an interview with fiction writer Rachel Hall, a friend and fellow Rochesterian. Her first book, Heirlooms, is a collection of linked stories, which will be published in September. From the interview:

I grew up looking at family photo albums and listening to family stories. I’m lucky that my mother is an excellent storyteller, as were her adoptive parents, my grandparents. I loved their stories about the war in France, loved hearing them repeated, and in particular the way a new detail might emerge. At some point I began wondering what was left out or smoothed over or forgotten altogether… Read the entire interview here.