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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:

I immersed myself in new situations and surroundings all the time—I lived in South Bend, Indiana; Philadelphia; Ceske Budejovice, Czech Republic; Rottenberg am Neckar, Germany; Caracas, Venezuela; Austin, Washington, DC, and Tel Aviv. I had a baby. All of these things make the world absolutely new—or maybe they made me new, and forced me to reinvent language and my relationship to it.

sulak photo

Marcela Sulak was born and raised on a rice farm in South Texas.  She attended The University of Texas at Austin, where she received a BA in Psychology and Honors English.  She received an MFA and an MA at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, winning the William Mitchell Award for Best Graduate Creative Thesis. She holds an MA in Religious Studies from VillaNova University, and her Ph.D. in English is from The University of Texas at Austin with concentrations in Poetry and Poetics, American Literature, and a certificate in European Studies. She is a four-time recipient of the Academy of American Poetry Prize, and has won five FLAS prizes for the study of Czech and Yiddish. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Immigrant (Black Lawrence Press, 2010) and the chapbook Of All The Things That Don’t Exist, I Love You Best (Finishing Line Press). Other poems have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as  Guernica, The Black Warrior Review, The Cimarron Review, The Notre Dame Review, Fence, The Indiana Review, The Cortland Review, Quarterly West, Third Coast and No Tell Motel, among others.

Website: http://www.marcelasulak.com/

2389082Read more by and about Marcela:

Book of Poems: Immigrant

Chapbook: Of all the things that don’t exist, I love you best

Translation: A Bouquet of Czech Folktales

Poem at Guernica: Marriage

Poem at Cortland Review: Jerusalem, a ghazal

How Marcela Sulak Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Marcela for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

I am not sure I wanted to become a writer. I wanted to become a reader. I grew up on a rice farm five miles outside of a town of 250 or so (the town was not incorporated), so I read a lot.  All the time, in fact. And when my siblings and I were outside, our immediate world was mediated through the stories my father and my maternal grandparents told about it—we grew up a mile from where my father did, and ten miles from where my mother was raised. I grew up with the expectation that everything around me contained a story.  I suppose I began to write in order to have a dialogue, to add to the family conversation with the land and with one another, and with the books I read.

The world portrayed in books never matched the world of our rice farm, though; we did not have snow or really much of a change in seasons. We had no highrise buildings or elevators—I must have been in high school before I saw either an elevator or an escalator. And since this was the end of the twentieth century, not the end of the nineteenth century, I realized later, my experience was unusual.  At any rate, after I left the farm, I found the world a pretty exotic place. It gave me the sense of a foreigner everywhere I went. Somehow, this feeling seems to be conducive to writing.

413vaBo3gmL._SX240_2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

I read a lot, everything in the public library and school library. I began to keep a journal when I was twelve and have kept it ever since. I try to free write in the journal for at least 30 minutes a day—everything from new words to recipes to names of birds to things that happened to me or things I saw. I also studied literature at university and creative writing in graduate school. But what really helped me become a writer was simply the practice of reading and writing.

Also, I immersed myself in new situations and surroundings all the time—I lived in South Bend, Indiana; Philadelphia; Ceske Budejovice, Czech Republic; Rottenberg am Neckar, Germany; Caracas, Venezuela; Austin, Washington, DC, and Tel Aviv. I had a baby. All of these things make the world absolutely new—or maybe they made me new, and forced me to reinvent language and my relationship to it. They certainly forced me to renegotiate my relationship to the world. This can be exhausting, but there is nothing like the perspective it gives you.

I did my MFA straight out of undergraduate, but that was really too early for me. I needed to expand my horizons first.  I worked as an English teacher, free lance writer and university adjunct instructor for ten years, then went back to graduate school, and that’s when I started publishing poems in journals. I also translated poetry, and my first book-length translation of poetry was published before my first book of poems.  As for my poems, I just kept writing them, editing them (by which I mean throwing most of them away and cutting the others quite a bit) until one day I had enough that weren’t completely awful to start thinking about a book.

41DI6lVn0dL._SY320_3.  Who helped you along the way, and how?

In sixth grade my teacher introduced me to her friend, Mrs. Mickey Huffstutler, who was a “real poet.” I think she even drove me to meet her at her house in another town the first time. Mrs. Huffstutler introduced me to prosody and received forms, and told me I needed to frame my highly subjective impressions of the world, and to write more concretely—to use nouns and verbs instead of adjectives. Also, I needed to give the reader a frame or a place to enter the poem, thereby introducing me to the idea that my poem might have a reader apart from me. She also introduced me to the concept of a writing community, by introducing me to the Poetry Society of Texas.

At the University of Notre Dame, where I received my M.F.A., I was greatly aided by John Matthias, Sonia Gernes and Jacqueline Vaught Brogan, and later, at the University of Texas, where I received a Ph.D. I was aided by studying prosody with Tom Cable, and poetry with Tom Whitbread, David Wevil and Khaled Mattawa. They were all exceedingly generous and helpful. When I was an undergraduate, Joseph Malof and Kate Frost both at the University of Texas, taught me to close read modernist poetry and Shakespeare, and that has been life-changing.  Today I am helped a lot by the writers with whom I’ve studied, and with whom I remain close, and writers whose work I’ve admired.

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

I am inspired by Veronica Franco (1546-1591) a Venetian courtesan who was one of the most eloquent writers of her period; she also was a prolific writer in many genres. By her eloquence (and perhaps her connections) she defended herself against accusations of witchcraft before the Inquisition and was acquitted. She allied herself with the most distinguished families of Venice, and all who traveled there, yet she publicly defended her fellow courtesans and spoke out against their mistreatment by men. I love how she lived by her wits; indeed, she often wrote for her life.

Veronica Franco (Image from wikimedia)

I admire those who look beyond their own difficult lives and give voice to those whom no one else defends.  To do this well, you have to use new forms in fresh and energetic ways, so as to give the reader a stake in the story. Muriel Rukeyser, C.D. Wright and Lola Ridge write the kind of documentary poetry that puts the reader in a sort of jury box.  And perhaps most of all I an inspired by Nazim Hikmet and Taha Muhammad Ali, whose writing reaffirms their deepest humanity despite the fact they were placed in the most dehumanizing of circumstances—imprisoned and evicted from their home, respectively.

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

Read as widely as you can the best books, poems, stories and essays you can. Try to be as compassionate as possible. And write every day. I learned a lot by imitating the poets I admired in order to learn their tricks. Also, only send your work to journals you yourself enjoy reading.

This morning my daughter called out to me from the kitchen: “Josie* says she just heard your name on the radio.”

[*daughter’s BFF. not her real name.]

“Huh, what?” said I. “Why?”

A few minutes later she got the report back from her friend: “Your book was a finalist for the Best Books of Indiana or something.”

So I googled it, and indeed my book WAS a finalist for the Best Books of Indiana! The best book was a murder mystery, but my almost-best book was in really good company with fellow-finalist, Michael Martone.

Parker cvr frnt

The almost-best book of Indiana.

I got humble, and I got to work. That was the day I became a writer.

Photo credit: Miriam Berkley

Photo credit: Miriam Berkley

Bryan Furuness is the author of the novel, The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson, available in February 2013. His stories have appeared in Ninth Letter, Southeast Review, Freight Stories, and elsewhere, including the anthologies Best American Nonrequired Reading and New Stories from the Midwest. He teaches at Butler University, where he edits for Booth and is the Editor in Chief for the small press, Pressgang.

Web site: http://bryanfuruness.com

cover_lostepisodes(1)Read more by and about Bryan:

Novel: The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson

Break-up Letter: Evolution

Parable: Parable of the Lost Finger

Prayer: Ecclesiastes II: Son of the Philosopher

How Bryan Furuness Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Bryan for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I grew up in the Eighties in a town where the only bookstore was a tiny shop in the mall (a Crown Books from which I once stole a Garfield bookmark, but that’s another story), but by nine-years old I learned how to work the inter-library loan system to get just about any book I wanted. And I wanted a lot of books. I was omnivorous and voracious—a real tiger shark of a reader. I wish I could still read so much so fast.

Anyway, I knew that somebody, somewhere was writing these things, but I never met an author, so I imagined them as these glamorous, semi-mythical creatures. I saw pencil mustaches, velvety loafers, throaty laughs, long cigarettes, an audience hanging on every word. Their natural habitat was a cafe—another place I had never seen, but imagined. That’s where they smoked their cigarettes through ivory holders and drank their absinthe.  The writer was rich, semi-dissipated (which took the form of an unknotted bow tie and a forelock dangling over his eyes, devil may care!), and drove an awesome low-slung MG.

The weird thing is, I never imagined a writer at a desk. I always imagined them at a cafe, or speeding through town in an open convertible, or occasionally on safari. In my daydreams, the writers had always just mailed their manuscript off to their editors and were free, free, free.

Yes, I am now aware that these visions have absolutely no relation to reality.

These visions persisted through college, where I often thought, “I want to be a writer,” or sometimes, in my bolder moments, “I will be a writer,” all of which kicked the prospect squarely into the future, allowing me to focus my present energies on playing Sink the Bismarck, a game in which the loser has to drink an entire bucket of beer, without any pesky interruptions of writing.

I was not very good at Sink the Bismarck. I got very good at drinking buckets of beer.

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/a/ab/CompleteShortStoriesHemingway.jpg/200px-CompleteShortStoriesHemingway.jpg
After I (somehow) graduated, my fiance bought me a present: Hemingway’s collected stories. His bio mentioned that he’d published his first story at age 22. I felt a sharp pang in the area of my liver. I was twenty-two. I hadn’t ever actually finished a story, much less published one. Holy crap, I thought. I better get on the stick. Also, I better stop saying things like “Holy crap.” That’s not very writerly.

That’s when I started writing. Like most things in my life, it took a long period of daydreamy aspiration before I got to work, and the catalyst was the feeling of inferiority, being “behind.” So, you know, superhealthy.

I didn’t write a lot at first, or even steadily, but over several years I worked up to a consistent daily habit. It got to the point where if I missed a writing session, I’d feel weird and “off” the whole day, like I’d forgotten to brush my teeth. Over time I realized that you could write things like Holy Crap, because that was how some people (read: this guy) really thought and talked, and so was true to one facet of the human experience. And I realized not only how silly my early daydreams about “being a writer” were, but also how very white and dude-ly they were, too. In a large sense, these were the years in which I found out how wrong I’d been about so many things, and how I had a lot to learn and a lot of work to do. Again, I felt behind. Again, it propelled me.   

Another weird thing that happened during these years. The more dedicated I became to the act of writing, the less interested I became in “being a writer.” In fact, I privately scorned people who wanted to “be a writer”—especially if they weren’t actually writing—conveniently forgetting that was how I started, too. I forgot that things like desire and belief can precede action, which is a pretty dumb thing for a writer to forget. And I had yet to learn anything about literary citizenship, or even that there was such a thing as a literary community.  

It’s only recently that I’ve been able to reconcile “writing” and “being a writer.” The two aren’t opposed, I see now, but provide balance for one another. Writing is solitary; being a writer is wrapped up in community. Writing is action; being a writer is a kind of reflection. Balance.  

Plus, being a writer is pretty excellent. It’s not the cafe life of smoking jackets and absinthe that I imagined, and I’ve never been able to grow that sexy forelock, but any job whose main requirements are daydreaming and telling stories is a pretty freaking good one.  

2.
How did you go about becoming a writer?

At the turn of the century, I was working for the Indianapolis Star as an advertising guy. It was an okay job, but I hated it. Hated it. I was beyond unhappy; I was angry about working there. It had almost nothing to do with the job itself, which paid me pretty well and gave me a decent amount of freedom, and everything to do with identity. I didn’t want to be a salesperson; I wanted to be a writer. I was writing a little in the evenings, but what I did with the majority of my hours didn’t match up with my idea of myself, and that dissonance was making me crazy. I think I was afraid of losing the idea of myself as a writer for good.

So in late January of 2000, I began looking into MFA programs in creative writing, only to realize that I had just missed the deadline for 95% of them. Then I stumbled upon Purdue. Which had a February deadline. They were a new-ish program back then, and Purdue wasn’t exactly known for its prowess in arts and humanities—all of which is to say that I wasn’t real hot to go to Purdue to study creative writing. But what the hell, I thought. It would get me out of sales. So I shot off an application to Purdue, with the vague idea that they would clap their hands excitedly when they saw that I had decided to grace them with my presence. https://i0.wp.com/chamberfour.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/civilwarland-190x300.jpg

Over the course of my writing life, I have received many rejections, but none have ever come back so fast as that one from Purdue. I’m pretty sure it was in my mailbox the next day, leading me to believe that someone at the university had grabbed my packet out of the postal worker’s hands, pulled my story out of the envelope just far enough to read the first few lines, then thrust it back into the postal worker’s bag, saying, “No, no. Don’t leave this flaming pile of shit on my doorstep.”

Reading that form rejection, I was stung. Shocked. I remember standing at my mailbox, trying to swallow, but my throat wouldn’t work.   

That was the day I realized that I might not be as awesome at writing as I thought. That was the day when I could have given up and become an angry salesman, but instead I started writing more. Reading more, too, a lot more. Taking graduate non-degree classes at Butler and IUPUI, eventually going on to get my MFA at Warren Wilson. I got humble, and I got to work. That was the day I became a writer.

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

Oh, so many people helped me. You know that quote by Obama that got so much play at the end of the summer, the one about how, if you built a business, you didn’t build it by yourself? Well, I am not a self-made writer. Robert Rebein at IUPUI taught me how to revise by having me work on (and re-work and re-work…) a single story over the course of a semester. Debra Spark taught me how to read like a writer. Erin McGraw not only taught me eight million things about writing, she modeled how to teach, how to be a writer, and how to be fierce. My agent pushed me to make big changes to my book, then advocated for me and sold the thing.

That book—it’s built from other books, too. Lightning Song by Lewis Nordan was a model for the book, as was Girl Talk by Julianna Baggott. I learned how to thread a secondary character through a book from Walter Kirn’s Thumbsucker, and Dan Chaon, unbeknownst to him, taught me more than a few ways to build backstory.

All of which makes for another good reason to “be a writer”—so I can give back to the community, and help a few writers at least a tenth as much as other writers have helped me.

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

I distinctly remember the first time I read Civilwarland in Bad Decline by George Saunders. My burgundy Lay-Z-Boy, the upstairs room, afternoon sun slanting across the carpet. His stories were magical and gross and so, so funny, but more than anything, I was stunned by the fact that his characters sounded like guys I had grown up with. They sounded like the voice in my head. I remember looking up again and again, thinking, You can do this? You’re allowed to write like this? And that’s when I realized that my writing voice didn’t have to sound like a neutered British person with a thesaurus fetish.

https://i0.wp.com/lh4.ggpht.com/daronlarson/SEGyWWotrQI/AAAAAAAABD4/zvO7z9Kd2FE/George_Saunders%5B5%5D.jpg


I know: that lesson is probably totally obvious to everyone else. I’m a slow learner. But then I found out I wasn’t the only one. Saunders himself spent several years writing a failed novel in which he was trying to sound like Hemingway. It took him a while, too, to give himself permission to use his own voice, his own sensibility, to make his own noise.

You remember earlier when I said that writers used to seem like mythical creatures? The fact that Saunders’s voice sounded familiar made him real to me. The fact that his background didn’t include prep school and backpacking through Europe, but instead a working class childhood in Chicagoland (like me!) and a series of weird jobs after college (like me!) made it seem like maybe I could be a writer, too. Which makes me love him even more.   


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

The most important thing is to make space for writing in your life. A physical space is helpful, but a temporal space is essential. Protect that space. Be a dick about it. Your biggest supporters—the people who love you, the ones who tell you, “Chase your dreams, dude!”—will also be the ones who will undermine you hardcore. They’re not doing it because they want you to fail; they’re doing it because they love you and want to spend time with you and don’t understand why you’re shutting yourself up in a room and shouting NOT NOW and JESUS, WILL YOU PLEASE STOP KNOCKING at them.

At first it will be hard and you will feel like the worst person in the world, but the good news is that, over time, these people will learn to expect and respect your writing time. And when you try to violate it and hang out with them instead of working on that hard scene, they’ll say, Why aren’t you writing? Go back to the room. Later we’ll order Aurelio’s, and Dustin will see how many straws he can wedge into his nostrils, but for now, get out of here. Quit whining, put your fingers on the keyboard, and see what happens.

Writer and professor Cathy Day has a terrific blog post that is framed as her last lecture of the semester. It’s about the relationship between publishing and the question her students really want to know: But am I a writer?

Here are a few exquisite tidbits from her post:

In my experience, a writing apprenticeship is about 5-10 years long. The timer starts the day you start taking writing seriously—meaning you stop thinking of writing as homework and start incorporating it into your daily life.

The apprenticeship period is key. I have addressed my own ten-year apprenticeship in a previous post: Get Back to Me in Ten Years

And other writers in my interview series have also set 10 years as a crucial developmental period. Check out Robert Flynn’s interview here, and Molly McCaffrey’s interview here.

The Great American Novel
Jenksinson’s Boardwalk, Point Pleasant, NJ
summer 2012

Day continues to quote from and respond to her students:

You say things to me like: “I just want to publish a book and hold it in my hand.” Are you sure that’s all you want? Because these days, you can publish a book and hold it in your hands fairly easily. What I’m trying to talk about are all the different ways to publish. Only you can decide what it means to you to be meaningfully published.

This is one of my favorite points from the post. How it’s not just about being published, but deciding for yourself what it means to be “meaningfully published.” And the thing is, this will change over time. As soon as you have reached the level you wanted to achieve, you’ll set a new level.

Day, who has published two books and achieved lots of acclaim for her writing, closes with the following point:

I’m 43 years old, and I thought that publishing a book meant I was a writer, but I was wrong. Convincing yourself each day to keep going, this means that you are a writer.

Read the whole post here: http://cathyday.com/2012/04/30/last-lecture-am-i-a-writer/

And keep an eye out for my interview, How Cathy Day Became a Writer, coming this fall!

I took an intro to philosophy class and learned Plato’s theory of the forms,
which blew my mind with its assertions about the nature of language
and the spaces between us, the idea, the image, and reality.
After that I took an intro to creative writing class.
Those two classes, combined with some other experiences I had
outside the classroom, changed how I saw the world.

MATT MULLINS is a writer, musician, experimental filmmaker and multimedia artist. His first book, Three Ways of the Saw, debuts this week from Atticus Books, and his fiction and poetry have appeared in Mid-American Review, Pleiades, Hunger Mountain, Harpur Palate, Descant, Hobart, and a number of other print and online literary journals. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Ball State University where he is a faculty fellow with the Emerging Media Initiative. His recent works of interactive/digital literature can be found at lit-digital.com. Read excerpts, find info about readings, and more at his blog.

Read more by and about Matt:

Book: Three Ways of the Saw

Title story: “Three Ways of the Saw”

Story at Bull: “The Bachelor’s Last”

Story: “I Am and Always Will Be”

How Matt Mullins Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Matt for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

As soon as I understood enough about fiction and poetry to be fully impacted by the things going on inside what I was reading, I felt an immediate urge to try and join the conversation.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I was a solitary kid who read a lot.  Sci-fi, fantasy, history, non-fiction, all kinds of things, though nothing you’d call literary.  I loved being transported by books, and wished I could do it for myself, but I never ventured to try beyond the first paragraph of a Star Wars knock off with a protagonist named Reb Starbayer.

Around age twelve I got distracted by music.  I spent many hours wearing headphones and setting the needle back over the same section of an album while teaching myself how to play the guitar.  I started a rock band my freshman year in high school.  By my senior year we were playing high school dances.  I’d go on to play in working bands for many more years.

But when a record label didn’t materialize out of nowhere to limo me off to LA the instant I graduated high school, I came back to reality and did what my parents expected me to do and went to college.  I had no idea what I wanted to be.  I was considering journalism. Then I took an intro to philosophy class and learned Plato’s theory of the forms, which blew my mind with its assertions about the nature of language and the spaces between us, the idea, the image, and reality. After that I took an intro to creative writing class.  Those two classes, combined with some other experiences I had outside the classroom, changed how I saw the world.  I became a creative writing major and started focusing on learning how to write fiction and poetry.  Next thing I knew I had an MFA, a Ph.D. and manuscripts in hand.

The following is a video poem by Matt Mullins and Michael Pounds:

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

From the standpoint of how others have helped me evolve as a writer along the way, I can say that the teachers I had in graduate school were instrumental.  They exposed me to a wide spectrum of writers, taught me the language of critical examination, and showed me how fiction works.  Likewise, the many excellent writers I’ve known as peers have been helpful in both practical and aesthetic ways.  Every editor who’s ever encouraged me by publishing my work has also helped.  But I think I’ve found the most help in the writers I’ve read.  Nothing is of greater help to someone who wants to write than a great book.

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

Hubert Selby Jr.  Diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis as a teenager while serving in the merchant marine, he was given a year to live.  He underwent an experimental treatment that saved his life but essentially left him unable to work.  Having no money or education or support, he supposedly said, “I know the alphabet. Maybe I could be a writer.”  Then by sheer force of will and hard work he became a writer of outsider fiction who ran parallel to and beyond the Beats.

“I was sitting at home and had a profound experience. I experienced, in all of my Being, that someday I was going to die, and it wouldn’t be like it had been happening, almost dying but somehow staying alive, but I would just die! And two things would happen right before I died: I would regret my entire life; I would want to live it over again.” - Hubert Selby, Jr.

Two of his novels, Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream were made into films.  Along the way, his chronic pain caused him to fall into heroin addiction for a few years, but then he kicked it and remained clean for the rest of his life.  He lived to be a grandfather in his seventies.

Last Exit to Brooklyn is an important book for me.  It’s lyrical.  It’s dark.  It’s profound.  It’s technically and structurally unique, and it completely humanizes people who the self-righteously judgmental in our society would consider to be moral outcasts.

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

Hail, Writer!

Consistency is the hobgoblin of the little mind, but that hobgoblin knows a lot of really, really good stories.

Your friend in deed,

Matt

Here was some sense and some beauty in the midst of a life where everyone argued about money because no one had any, where the house and the car were always falling apart, where I was dropped off to chain-smoking babysitters who seemed to fulfill their obligations solely by ensuring that I did not die on their watches.

Daniel Bowman Jr.’s first book is A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country (VAC Press, 2012). His work has appeared in journals such as The Adirondack Review, American Poetry Journal, Art House America, Books and Culture, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal (Hong Kong), Istanbul Literary Review (Turkey), The Midwest Quarterly, The Other Journal, Pyrta (India), Rio Grande Review, and Seneca Review. He lives in central Indiana where he teaches at Taylor University.

He can be found on the web at http://danielbowmanjr.com.

Read more by and about Dan:

Book: A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country
5 Poems: Art House America
More Poems: Pyrta

How Daniel Bowman Jr. Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (er, or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Dan for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I’m one of those people who feels like I didn’t so much choose to be a writer as writing—as literature and the arts—chose me. I read a lot as a kid. Something about the worlds inside books seemed more real, more true to me than anything else. Here was some sense and some beauty in the midst of a life where everyone argued about money because no one had any, where the house and the car were always falling apart, where I was dropped off to chain-smoking babysitters who seemed to fulfill their obligations solely by ensuring that I did not die on their watches. I was a sensitive kid, and it was to me a hardscrabble childhood much of the time, and the best consolation came in the form of nature and books—being outside in every season, and reading. Years later, my impulse would be not just to read, but to write. At college, I took the Intro to Literature course and it seemed perfectly inevitable to me that I would live with books for the rest of my days.

I remember seeing an interview with Barbra Streisand once where she was asked if she had doubts that she would “make it” when she was young and trying to get her first break. And she said, essentially, “No, never. I knew I was born to do it, and that it would only be a matter of time. There was nothing else for me.” And I understood that there was not a bit of arrogance in her answer, only that sense of inevitability. I feel like that about writing. It’s nearly absurd for anyone to think that he or she will “make it” as a writer, however you define that, or if you bother with such notions at all (many of us do, I suspect, but pretend we don’t). I always just knew I had to do it or die trying. If I couldn’t write books, I couldn’t do anything.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I read and read and read. When I got to college, with the upbringing I’d had and the choices I’d made, I saw that I was far behind. I wasn’t even the best poet on my own campus, a tiny liberal arts school. So I overcompensated, became obsessed. I read everything I could get my hands on. At Roberts Wesleyan, it was a very traditional program, so I studied Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, the Romantic poets and the Victorian novelists, and then one single course offered to seniors called “Contemporary Literature,” a thing you, for the most part, had to discover on your own if you were going to discover it at all.

The courses drawing on the canon were what I needed, but I also knew that I could not write like that, that people didn’t say things like, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on.” I needed to find poems that I could emulate. I spent my time in the library and in the dusty little used books stores of Rochester, NY: Rick’s Recycled Books, Brownbag Bookshop, Greenwood Books…. I read and bought books more or less indiscriminately.

Rick's Recycled Books / Photo by Doug Manchee

Mary Oliver, when talking about learning to write, privileges reading above all. She says something like (in A Poetry Handbook, which I don’t have here in front of me), “If given the choice between reading and taking a poetry writing workshop, the young poet should almost always choose to read.” That was the path I took. Of course, I surrounded myself with people who were like-minded and could help.

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

I remain close to several of my undergraduate professors. William Judson Decker taught literature and had an expertise in the Romantic poets. He also loved Raymond Carver and Tess Gallagher and Anne Tyler and Frederick Buechner…he was a great reader and one of the most thoughtful teachers, and men, I’ve ever met. Though he was not a writer himself, his influence on me has been profound.

After an MA program, I was employed in the business world for five years, during which time I was publishing a lot of poetry and had become friends with Jack Leax, who was teaching at nearby Houghton College. Jack’s friendship and mentoring helped me to persist even when it seemed I wasn’t making any progress toward my goals.

I did the low-residency MFA program at Seattle Pacific University. Gregory Wolfe, our program director, is the editor of Image, a journal of “art, faith, and mystery.” The faculty included poets Jeanine Hathaway and Jeanne Murray Walker, and like every low-res program, they brought in many terrific guests. It was just the perfect place for me, the perfect opportunity to improve my craft and finally piece together the manuscript that would become my first book. Greg and the faculty of the SPU MFA gave me a place where, for the first time in my writing life, I felt at home. The friends I made in the program help me every day of my life; even just seeing a quick line from them lets me know I’m not alone.

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

As a poet, I’ve always been inspired by García Lorca—both his life and his work. He endured suffering in many forms, and also was very playful and wildly creative. Coming from an “old world” culture, Lorca valued what he ultimately would call “duende,” a kind of dark and powerful force he saw at work in authentic art. As he refined his thinking about duende, Lorca concluded that great art depends on a “vivid awareness of death,” a “connection with a nation’s soil,” and “an acknowledgment of the limitations of reason.” This paradigm has been extremely helpful to me. Lorca first saw the power in the place he came from, the people and traditions and art. I think I do the same thing.

Simone Weil urged us to “love the country of here below,” as “God saw fit that it should be difficult yet possible to love.” I am crazy about that idea, and I gravitate toward writers who have chosen to love places, writers who maintain a “connection with…soil,” with places that are difficult yet possible to love. To me, Lorca epitomizes that tradition; to grossly oversimplify, it became the lens through which he saw the world. His place informs his poetics. Wendell Berry is another example, though he is a writer who has stayed in his native place.

I come from a little Mohawk River town at the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, a beat up and forgotten piece of ground that is easy to dismiss. No one has written more eloquently about the Mohawk Valley than Richard Russo. The people in his upstate New York novels, those are my people, that’s my place, those are our stories. My family came to New York from the Palatinate region of Germany in the spring of 1710. That is three hundred years! So of course, like Lorca, like Russo, I’m haunted by that soil and those people, and I often write from and about that place, though I do not live there anymore.

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

Ora et labora.