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It’s been a busy and inspiring coupla months. Here’s a little recap of things I saw and did, starting with the AWP Writers’ Conference in Washington, DC, where I was on a couple of panels, did a reading, and got to sign some books at the Rose Metal Press table. Those are my books on the left side of the sign:

My colleague and friend, David Dodd Lee had a book release and art show at Lang Lab. Here he his reading from his latest Ashbury erasure book, surrounded by his fans and collages:

I was thrilled to have my visual essay, “Empty Nest/Emptiness,” published (in full color!!!) in the latest issue of Passages North. It’s 14 pages, something I made when my daughter left for college:

Speaking of my daughter, I got to see Mamma Mia in Bloomington, IN with her and her bestie for her birthday. The next morning I saw the whole cast and crew in the lobby of my hotel!

Colson Freaking Whitehead came to my campus, Indiana University South Bend, and I got to sit in the almost front row. Here he is talking to Darryl Heller of the Civil Rights Heritage Center:

I invited the comic artists Marnie Galloway and Scott Roberts to visit IU South Bend, and the room was full for their artist talks:

Then the poet Steve Henn came to talk to my classes about his new book by Wolfson Press: Indiana Noble Sad Man of the Year. Here he is showing off his “tour” T-shirt:

Another visual/collage essay published in Quarterly West!

I already blogged about being the guest author at Butler University’s Litfest and doing a workshop for the Indiana Writers Center, which was an honor and a blast.

And over the weekend, Wordman and I headed to Chicago and saw Lambchop at Lincoln Hall:

Then I got to read at Sunday Salon Series with amazing fellow readers and a fabulous crowd. Here’s Howard Axelrod reading:

Got some partial views of the Navy Pier Ferris wheel from the hotel window:

And made it to the Bean for the first time, and took the requisite selfie:

The AWP gods are against me. Last year none of my panels was accepted; this year all three were accepted so I had to drop one. And the two panels I’m on are in the first and last slots of the conference!

In between panels, I’ll be at the Rose Metal Press table (#629) to sign and hopefully sell a few copies of The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová. Because the second half of the book is my memoir-in-postcards, the first 20 people to buy a copy of the book will get their choice of a Prague-themed postcard hand-painted by me. They are made on watercolor postcard paper and have all the postcard markings on the reverse to be sent in the mail.

If you’ve ever been to Prague, you have seen these posters around town:

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And here is the Golem as seen on a Prague sidewalk, a hearty glass of pivo, and Kafka’s head based on a new statue in Prague:

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And here is Kafka’s tiny house at No. 22 Golden Lane on the grounds of the Prague Castle:

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I still have a few more to make this weekend. What should I paint? Accepting ideas in the comments!

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– Here are my events –
Hope to see you! Say hello!

Feb. 8-11, 2017 – AWP in Washington, DC
Thurs. Feb 9, 2017 at 9:00-10:15am
PANEL: “The Long from the Short: Turning Flash Pieces into a Novel, Novella, or Memoir”
Abigail Beckel, Lex Williford, Kelcey Parker Ervick,  Tyrese Coleman, Tara Laskowski
[Rm 206, Washington Convention Ctr, Level Two]

Thurs. Feb 9, 2017 at 10:30-11:30am

Table 629: BOOK SIGNING AT ROSE METAL PRESS TABLE with Lex Williford

Fri., Feb 10, 2017 at 12:00-12:30

Table 629: BOOK SIGNING AT ROSE METAL PRESS TABLE

Fri. Feb 10, 2017 at 6:30-9:30pm

OFF-SITE READING with authors from Rose Metal, Cupboard, and Soho Press

at BABY WALE DC

1124 9th St. NW

Sat. Feb. 11, 2017 at 4:30-5:45pm

PANEL: “Attempting the Impossible: Strategies for Writing Creative Biography”
Kathleen Rooney, Sarah Domet, Anthony Michael Morena, Kelcey Parker Ervick, Sarah Blake

[Rm 101, Washington Convention Ctr, Level One]

Every writer needs to confront the effigies built to his hometown heroes, but doing battle with a statue is a fatal mistake.

 

fresno-saroyan-statueDear William,

You’re everywhere and nowhere. There’s an elementary school named after you. There’s a bronze statue. A dedicated society perpetuates your name. Your signature, rendered in huge silver letters, adorns the Saroyan Theatre at the Fresno Convention Center; the stage has hosted countless concerts by the Fresno Philharmonic, the Fresno Grand Opera, the Fresno Ballet, and performers from all over the world, in every artistic genre. To the visitors passing through, your legacy in the San Joaquin Valley must seem mighty indeed.

william20saroyanYou divided your last years between Paris and Fresno. I can’t think of two more different cities, at least in how they appear in one’s imagination. A decade ago, when I felt trapped in Fresno, its heat and flatness and provincialism combining to make a prison I longed to escape, I took comfort in the idea you kept returning here from Paris. I searched for what brought you back. I needed it, whatever it was, for myself.

Now your former house sits vacant, in a neighborhood turning beige: the faded stucco, the grass, the heavy dust. It’s sad to see. Not as sad, however, as the state of Fresno’s bookshelves. Your books, those odd, funny, beautiful books, which you wrote quickly and with the rarest of literary attributes—with heartbreaking joy—where are they now? How is it possible to see your name everywhere, to grow up knowing your name, but never read the words that made you famous? I fear that if it weren’t for exhumation via the internet (thank you, AbeBooks) I might only know your name. What does that mean for writers? Especially for writers who come from the other California, the San Joaquin Valley?

What would you say, William? In the title page of My Name is Aram, you wrote:

The writer returns these pleasant memories to the world of Fresno, California, from the year 1915 to the year 1925 (from the time he was seven years old and was beginning to inhabit the world as a specific person to the time he was seventeen years old and had forsaken his native valley for some of the rest of the world), and to the members of his immediate family in that world during those years. That is to say, to the ugly little city containing the large comic world, and to the proud and angry Saroyans containing all humanity.

A little, ugly place. A proud, angry people. I think there’s something like a reason in these lines for why you’ve fallen out of print, especially in your hometown. And yet, the memories are pleasant.

I can tell you what I’d like: I’d like you to cast the same long shadow over valley writers as Faulkner casts over writers from the ethically challenged state of Mississippi. I want to arm-wrestle a literary legacy of your quality and quantity, though I would be beaten before for the contest begins. I would like the contest, in losing it, to leave my voice a little bruised, a little twisted, much as the fight with his William left Barry Hannah’s voice crooked and deranged. Every writer needs to confront the effigies built to his hometown heroes, but doing battle with a statue is a fatal mistake. One must find the words that led to the statue being made in the first place. And with you, my William, that’s not been easy.

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I suppose by now I’ve let you down. I’ve included none of the things in my letter to you that make your stories so rich. There’s been no food to eat, no trees to shade us from the warm day, no sunny rooms in which to enjoy conversation. I’ve talked, instead, about fighting and cynicism. Violence, when it appears in your stories, is seldom the bleeding knuckle kind, but rather the spiritual kind: a death in a distant war, hitting home in the form of a telegram; the pain of displacement and genocide, rendered in narrators who speak hilariously of uncles, cousins, and friends. Your characters refuse to believe that evil deeds cancel out the beauty of good people. In fact, they work to insure that it never will. It must speak to the privilege and relative peace of my time, compared to yours, that I welcome violence and cynicism in my writing, whereas you guarded strongly against it. I’ve done the unforgivable, I think: I’ve complained.

Let me try to redeem myself. It’s May 2003, and I’m in my classroom at Kerman High School, twenty miles west of Fresno. The door stands open, and that hard valley light manages to coax a shine out of the asbestos tile floors, unwaxed since last July. The students move between periods. I hear snatches of things as they walk past, talking with friends. Here only outcasts must walk to class alone.

The most gifted student I’ve ever taught comes in carrying a purse large enough for a woman three times her age, which, I suspect, in her soul she truly is, and from my desk she picks up a copy of My Name is Aram. It’s the Laurel Edition from Dell Publishing, an economic paperback with illustrations by Don Freeman. She thumbs the pages then presses her nose into the crack, breathes deep.

“I’ve never read him,” she says.

“Borrow it,” I say. “Bring it back when you’ve read him.”

She lays the enormous purse at her feet and begins lifting out binders, textbooks, a spiral bound journal, more things than I’ve ever considered carrying around with me, and rearranging the contents so your book won’t be mangled in a landslide of bigger, meaner books. As she does this, she holds My Name is Aram in her mouth. A few days later, when she brings it back to me, I notice that the soft cover holds the semi-circular imprint of her teeth.

Since that day in my classroom I’ve been struggling to understand something important, which I’ll try to put down here. It’s good to have memories of Fresno, but it’s a hard place to live. Perhaps that’s why you chose the word forsaking to describe leaving “for some of the rest of the world,” because the same things that make the valley hard for us also tie our hearts there. I left the valley ten years ago, but I write about it every day, walking the family vineyards and the streets of Caruthers in my imagination. I also still have that cheap, chewed copy of My Name is Aram to remind me what it feels like to be bookish in a small valley town. Hungry, that is, for something to explain the conflict of loving and hating your home. Your books help me make sense of my place and my impossible feelings for it.

I hope the next daydreaming child of Fresno who reads your name on a sign won’t have to wait so long to find out the writer you really are.

—–

[This is the latest post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]

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John Carr Walker’s first book, Repairable Men (Sunnyoutside), was a Small Press Distribution Best of the Press pick and a featured title on Late Night Library’s Debut podcast. His writing has been appearing in literary journals since 2007 and in 2014 was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. In 2012 he was awarded a Fishtrap Fellowship for an early draft of his novel-in-progress, “Get.” A native of the San Joaquin Valley and former high school English teacher, he now lives and writes full-time in Saint Helens, Oregon.

William Saroyan (1908-1982) was born and died in Fresno, California, and many of Saroyan’s stories were based on his childhood experiences among the Armenian-American fruit growers of the San Joaquin Valley, or dealt with the rootlessness of the immigrant. The short story collection My Name is Aram (1940), an international bestseller, was about a young boy and the colorful characters of his immigrant family.

 

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová by Kelcey Parker Ervick
is one of the least bitter, most loving books I have read in a long time,
and it’s beautifully made.

– Kate Bernheimer
author of How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales

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Still Life with Books and Beer

 

Today is publication day for The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová! My journeys in the Czech Republic and Slovakia took me to this book, and this book has taken me on its own journey. It’s my first book-length work of nonfiction, and it includes a series of postcards I wrote to Němcová about my travels, my Czech language class, my Slovakian family, and, well, my failing marriage. I quote from my favorite Prague-based letter-writers: Franz Kafka’s Letters to Milena, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, Bohumil Hrabal’s Letters to Dubenka, and Vaclav Havel’s Letters to Olga.

What I am probably most amazed about is that this book also includes collages and paintings I made, published in beautiful full color. The first two here are images from my travels to Česká Skalice, where Božena Němcová grew up. I was lost, and these were the not very helpful signs. The third image is of a photo on a bulletin board at Shakespeare and Sons in Prague that addresses anxieties one might feel about publishing a strange hybrid beast of a book such as mine.

But you can help make the book a bestseller! It is now available for purchase from Rose Metal Press, Small Press Distribution (SPD, where it is a Handpicked selection, 20% off in November), Amazon (ugh, this will update soon!), Amazon’s Kindle (live and ready!), etc. It costs $17.95, which is pretty amazing considering the color images.

If you read and like it, please consider posting a review on Amazon, Goodreads, etc. If you’re even thinking of reading it, you can mark it as “want-to-read” on Goodreads. All this helps libraries and other potential readers know about the book, and make it an even-better-seller.

I want to end with a major thanks to Abby Beckel and Kathleen Rooney at Rose Metal Press. I’ll say more in a future post, but they did SO MUCH GOOD WORK  make this book the beautiful object that it is. And thanks to Heather Butterfield for her stunning design work.

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Fifteen years ago, a group of unpublished, aspiring writers met in McMicken Hall at the University of Cincinnati and spent the next several years drafting and discussing stories, reading and analyzing literary texts, drinking and smoking, dissertating and job-marketing. One by one we got jobs and moved away and kept writing and started publishing, and whenever we can, we get together to celebrate one another’s accomplishments (and catch up on our personal lives!).

Last night was one of those nights of celebration, in this case of Sarah Domet’s debut novel, The Guineveres, which has been featured in, oh, you know: People, Elle, O. Magazine, and, last week, in the NY Times book review, which called it “deft and lovely.”

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To which one might add, smart and magical and IMPORTANT in its emphasis on the lives of a group of girls at a transformative time of their lives. (I think of the line from Kathryn Davis’s Hell: “Two adolescent girls on a hot summer night—hardly the material of great literature, which tends to endow all male experience […] with universal radiance… Mightn’t we then permit a single summer in the lives of two bored girls to represent an essential stage in the history of the universe?”) Sarah endows her Guineveres with universal radiance, and the lives of girls is great literature indeed.

As we toasted several times last night: Cheers to The Guineveres!

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First, I tried to get someone else to make my book trailer.

When that didn’t work, I got other people to HELP me make my book trailer. As I writer, I don’t often get to collaborate on creative projects, and it turned out to be a blast.

But you should watch it first:

Now that you have seen the trailer and know that The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová is about a Czech fairy tale writer, you will understand why it is important that I happened to be in Prague this summer taking students on a study abroad trip. I was accompanied by my gentleman friend, whom I dragged around the city with a camera, and he helped me film moving shots of still statues (check out the opening pan up), and still shots of moving statues (Kafka’s swiveling head at minute 1:05!). We got footage on trams and of trams, on bridges and of them. We got a lot of footage.

Next, I wrote a script. Then rewrote it a few more times.

In the meantime, I contacted the Indiana University South Bend Instructional Media team and asked, “Can somebody please help me make a book trailer?” And they were like, “Sure, we can do it.”

Joel laid the ground rules. Joe would record the voices. Sky went to work on sorting through the video footage.

But we still didn’t have any background music to set the tone.

One night my gentleman friend and I watched a weird German movie, The Strange Little Cat, and we loved the music. So I did what you do: I googled the band and emailed the record company asking permission to use the music in my trailer. No answer. I wrote again. This time I got a response from Kim at Monotreme Records: “Yes, that should work!”

A few more email exchanges, a small fee, and the next thing I knew I had the rights to that hauntingly awesome music that plays throughout: “Pulchritude” by Thee More Shallows.

Meanwhile, we recorded the voices, which include my daughter (the first and last voice), my gentleman friend, and me. Sky was making great progress on the video editing, and the next thing I knew it was almost done. We just needed some audio for the credits.

Luckily, back in Prague, when I filmed Božena’s grave at the National Cemetery, I recorded the church bells as they rang and rang throughout the cemetery.

Did you watch all the way to the end? The bells are so beautiful.


The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová is now available for pre-order at Rose Metal Press. Free shipping!


 

 

I liked the way in writing I also felt like I was doing something magical. I don’t know how else to describe it, but I went chasing after that feeling ever since.

 

Douglas Cole has had work in the Chicago Quarterly Review, Red Rock Review, and Midwest Quarterly. He has published two poetry collections—Interstate (Night Ballet Press) and Western Dream (Finishing Line Press)—as well as a novella called Ghost with Blue Cubicle Press. He is currently on the faculty at Seattle Central College in Seattle, Washington.

Featured at Talking Writing: This interview is part of a partnership with Talking Writing magazine. The How to Become a Writer Series here at PhD in Creative Writing includes interviews with Talking Writing’s featured writers. Here is the beginngin of Douglas’s story “Wanderers” published at Talking Writing:

Out in the dark field, Ronnie was running. I was running, but my gut was too full of beer to keep it up. She came back with a few deep breaths and hands on hips. John wasn’t even trying. I love that guy, but he’s soft in the middle—a soft, Connecticut, slow-moving mescaline freak.

Read more by and about Douglas:

Story: “Wanderers” at Talking Writing

Story: “Standing In Hawaii” at Baltimore Review

Poem: “Counsel” at Eckleberg Review

Three Poems at Black Heart Magazine

How Douglas Cole Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series at Ph.D. in Creative Writing. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Talking Writing for sharing their writers, and thanks to Douglas for his answers!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

When I was a kid in school, one of my English teachers assigned Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. It was the first book I ever read all the way through. I was hooked, you know? I couldn’t put it down and just became completely absorbed in it. It was very addictive and set me on a voracious reading journey. I think that was when I first caught a glimpse of the magic of words and stories. Later, in another English class, my teacher, Mrs. Sheridan, had us write a descriptive piece. We were sitting in class, so I decided to just describe what I saw around me in the room. I don’t remember it, except I remember that I ended it with a description of a poster on the wall of a ballet dancer and the words at the bottom of the poster: Twyla Tharp. I was just fooling around, but she liked it and ended up reading it to the class. I liked that feeling. I liked feeling good at something. And I liked the way in writing I also felt like I was doing something magical. I don’t know how else to describe it, but I went chasing after that feeling ever since.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I read everything I could, everything that I thought would teach me something, even if I didn’t think I liked it at the time, like if I had heard it was an important work. If a teacher assigned a story or a poem and I liked it, I’d go find that writer’s books. I’d go to Moe’s Bookstore and in a groping way just scan other books and read the first paragraph if a title caught my eye, give it that test and see if it grabbed me. And once I started something I would never put it down without finishing it. I felt almost a moral obligation to go all the way. And if I found writers I liked, I would absorb everything I could. I’d read everything they had written, even biographies and critical stuff on them and their work. I realize I was listening like a safe-cracker. And I treated everything as somehow connected, or I’d look for a connection. Movies, for example, and how a filmmaker tells a story and sets a pace and a mood and works an image. Music, the same thing. How does a song work like a poem or a story, or what does it do differently that can be converted, and what does it do that I want to do? All my classes in college: philosophy, history, science, weight training, tennis! What could they contribute? How did they relate? What could they teach me that would work for writing? I was that conscious about it. Friends? Any moment? I always thought in terms of creating. Not to sound pretentious, but I remember reading Joyce say that he wanted to convert the bread of everyday to the holy host. I took it that seriously.

3. Who helped you along the way, and how?

Charlie, Chris and Mike Steele. I met them when I was sixteen. Chris was going to PSR, the Pacific School of Religion, where my mother was a student. She and my mother were friends. And Chris brought her brother Charlie down to stay, there in Berkeley, right after he had finished college, and he and I became friends. On my seventeenth birthday, he gave me a copy of A Hundred Years of Solitude with a big fat joint taped to the inside cover. Then their brother Mike came down a little while later. He was an actor and a musician and a writer. They were all talented musicians and writers and scholars, just beautiful people, physically, energetically. And they had such a rich vocabulary for the world and love for art and music and literature. Charlie turned me on to Richard Hugo and Joni Mitchel and Bob Dylan and Miles Davis. They were intellectuals, poets, people who lived with passion and never said a dull thing or yawned. And I connected with them right away. They inspired me to love even more deeply what I already loved, and they helped make my love of the arts cool. They’re still my family. I love them dearly and feel I owe them a great deal in terms of finding what would be the only real community I ever wanted in connection to writing. I’ve always been pretty private about it.

4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

Reading Douglas Day’s biography of Malcolm Lowery was almost as harrowing as reading Under the Volcano. I knew I was reading a genius, though, when I read Richard Ellman’s biography of Joyce. I couldn’t finish The World as a Lie, though, the biography of James Dickey. And that’s unusual for me. I love Dickey’s work, of course, but I was going through some rough time, to be honest, and I just couldn’t handle it. I still intend to go back and read it. I think that’s one of the only times I can remember not finishing something I started. But as I get older, I’ve come to let go of that imperative a little. When you have less time, you treat it more dearly. I love biographies, though. When I’m in a good one, it’s like time travel or shape-shifting. A crazy leap into another world. Negative capability. Cold but intimate friends.

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Read. Read everything you can. Study the world and write all the time in all forms and no form at all. Just write. Don’t even think about publishing or money or fame. Just write and reach for that illusive image in your mind. I love what William Faulkner said when he received the National book award. He said “I accept this on behalf of all, who like me, failed. Failed to create what we imagined in our minds, but in failing set out to get closer the next time.” Keep your crap detector on, especially with yourself. But also have compassion. We’re all struggling. So be open. Think. Look for the connections. Experiment and be joyous. Like John Gardner said, “Write what you’d like to read.” Write and write and write freely without concern for punctuation or intellectual coherence. Follow music, like Hugo said. Meaning will come. And when you revise, revise ruthlessly. But always save a holy space for the private prayer of writing with no intention for public consumption. That’s your gold. That’s your soul. Never sign anything in blood except for love. Dive into the dream and the unconscious ocean. Steal without guilt. See through the eye that’s seeing and record your vision in whatever languages you know or create. Have no fear. You’re always all right.