Tag Archives: odu

Tunnel Traffic is back; New Jersey is ‘nice’


The Tunnel Traffic reading series shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, a Johnny Cash reference in which "shot" means "gathered writers to read a poem or whatnot" and "just to watch him die" stands for "just so people listening have this realization, basically, a kind of epiphany about the world." See? This cutline is totally not libelous, right Travis A. Everett, founder of the series? Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. — The Tunnel Traffic reading series returned last month, and it will continue this week at Borjo Coffeehouse near Old Dominion University.

The reading prompt, recently announced by series founder Travis Everett, a poet and and ODU student in the MFA Creative Writing Program, is say something “nice” about New Jersey. As regular readers of the blog know, I’m also a student in the program.

The next Tunnel Traffic is at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, at Borjo, located at Monarch Way and W. 45th St. in Norfolk. There is nearby metered street parking and some garage parking. Plenty of drinks and eats.

Here’s a video from the last one, and a brief Q&A follows.

Here’s the Q&A with Everett:

Q: The topic/prompt is “say something ‘nice’ about New Jersey”? Why is “nice”  in quotes?

We’re just following an old typographic “convention” for providing additional emphasis, John.

Q: New Jersey, as in the state, yes?

The Wikipedia disambiguation page for ‘New Jersey’ informs me that there’s a Bon Jovi album, and two battleships by the same name. Our fault, for introducing the ambiguity. If you have something ‘nice’ to say about Bon Jovi’s New Jersey or either iteration of the USS New Jersey, please do.

Q: We’ve covered a lot of ground here. Anything to add?

I have a lot of “nice” things to say about glam metal.

And that’s the whole interview. As a wise man, his guitarist, and Desmond Child once wrote:

You get a little but it’s never enough.

Show up Wednesday. Maybe Tico Torres will show up to sign autographs, though I am legally obligated to tell you he will not. Anyway, if you want to rock the mike by reading the lyrics to “Bad Medicine,” don’t do it all ironic. Rock the mike with sincerity, baby.

Playing us out is, well, you know:

P.S. Everett was the subject of a Belligerent Q&A last year, available at this link.

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Writing Craft, Vol. V: Novelist and short fiction writer John McManus


I spoke with Norfolk, Va., fiction writer John McManus earlier this week for a Belligerent Q&A. This is a follow up with some of his responses to questions emailed earlier this summer.

A full disclosure reminder: McManus is one of my professors in the Old Dominion University MFA Creative Writing Program.

In addition to being a wonderfully wise, insightful and encouraging educator, McManus is the author of a novel, Bitter Milk, and the short story collections Born on a Train and Stop Breakin Down. 

McManus is one of the core contributors to “If You Read The Paper,” a terrific feature at AltDaily. Worth checking out, especially on Fridays when McManus is writing the column.

And you can read more by and about McManus at his site via this link.

Without further ado …

Q: I hoped to focus on one story, “Mr. Gas,” before asking some more general questions. Generally speaking, the story deals with a teen’s relationship to his homebound mother and a relationship with a boy who works at the Mr. Gas, where he buys milk for Mama. This originally was to be a larger work. What did you originally envision the story to be?

The story is all that remains of a terrible novel draft I wrote in the winter and spring of 2000.

Q: What led you to reconsider “Mr. Gas” as a short story? How did you refocus the story?

In March 2001, when I sat down to revise the novel, I started deleting the parts that made me cringe to read them. After two weeks I was left with about ten pages. As I recall, I had the Radiohead song ‘Nice Dream’ on repeat during this process, which helped in my effort to refocus, if not to focus.

Q: There are a number of images that strike me in the story, but one of my favorites is Jason’s journeys to get milk for his mother. Given the apparent roles in their relationship, this simple mission, undertaken for various reasons, really resonated with me. Would you talk about how you develop images that are both concrete and how you find them within the story, if that is the case?

I hope you won’t think me disingenuous for saying I can’t talk successfully about how I developed images in ‘Mr. Gas,’ because I don’t seem to have conscious memories of craft choices I made while writing it. In general I’d say I try to enter a meditative state where I can just stare semi-absently at things until the solutions strike me, and then do that again and again until finally, if the story ever comes to feel right, some metaphorical systems will have magically developed that function together properly in a way that makes both literal and figurative sense. Since this lucky process happens once in a while when I write stories, I’ve wasted time in the foolish hope that it might occur in a novel as well. But novels turn out to be a different deal.

Q: There’s a real history to the characters, especially Mama and Jason, that comes across seemingly effortlessly and informs the events and certainly informs the events of the story. Sometimes I struggle with making the past of characters come across. How are some ways you address that issue without engaging in large stretches of backstory?

I think I tried to make the characters’ pasts implicit in what they desired and lacked and yearned for and wished had happened and dreamed.

Q: I’ve struggled with whether to discuss the ending, because I hope people will find the story. Safe to say, there was a bit of surprise to it in how it explores what Jason seems to want or has been programmed by to want and fear – so even that possibility that an object of desire might have feelings back, something that simple becomes a revelation and a source of conflict. When I say “surprise,” that may not be the word, because groundwork is within the narrative, but it was presented in a way I had to think about. It’s not simple, which, of course is a point of literature compared to, say, a potboiler. Do you work toward that kind of complexity going into it? Does it come about naturally?

In general I tend to structure a story somewhat like this: the main character, in this case Jason, wants something, maybe wants it so desperately that it seems downright out of the question. Various types of conflict bear down on him to prevent him from getting the thing he wants. He struggles forward anyway, dealing with more and more kinds of conflict (as well as more and more of those kinds of conflict) until it seems impossible to proceed. At this point the climax has to happen in a manner that answers whatever question the story has been asking (the question typically being ‘will the character get the thing he wants?’). For the climax to be satisfying, it has to seem both surprising and inevitable. One way to do this is for a thing that has seemed inevitable to happen in a surprising way. Another way is to show that the character has been believably blinded to the inevitable until a climactic moment when the thing that has blinded him somehow vanishes like an evanescent fog.

Q: I love the idea of writing down the opposite of what happened in a journal, and the idea of multiple truths, and how this comes back so organically in the story. Did you have that idea early on or was that something you found in the process of writing?

The opening line, about Jason’s mother telling him the way to keep a journal is to write the opposite of everything that happened, sounded good to me at the time, but now I look back and find it cloying and trite. I’m glad you love the idea, but it makes me cry inside to think about it, as it does to look back at almost anything I wrote this long ago. At least you chose a story from Born on a Train. My first story collection, Stop Breakin Down, seems no better than juvenilia to me now, and if you ever read so much as one story from it, there will be no old-timey photo booth and no Dippin’ Dots.

Q: You tell your students to write every day. Why is this so important? How do you make time?

If you’re not currently working on a project, it might not be so important to write every day; you could take six months off and come back and start anew and that would be fine. But if you’re writing a novel or a story, its setting and mood and style and plot are things you’re teaching yourself fluency in, the way you teach yourself fluency in a language. With any language you’re studying now or that you attained post-adolescence, you’ll start to forget it little by little after just a single day of not speaking or thinking or reading it.

Q: Where do you prefer to write? For example, I can write just about anywhere but I despise interruptions and certain kinds of noise. It can be tough for me to focus.

In October I bought a house in Colonial Place, and I use for my office an upstairs spare bedroom through whose windows I can see crepe myrtles, pine trees, the sunrise, the street, Haven Creek. This is far and away where I prefer to write. For two years in Norfolk I lived in houses that for various reasons weren’t conducive to serious creative thought, and so I sought a cafe where I liked to work. Nothing felt right. There are some new coffeeshops that might have served me well in 2008 and 2009, although you’re right that in public noise can always be a problem; these days I like to write in silence.

Q: I tend to play with dialogue, hoping to find characters in exchanges, and I practice writing full paragraphs. Do you still do writing exercises? How do you experiment?

In the early stages of writing a novel there’s plenty of exploratory writing during which I let characters think things or do things that almost certainly won’t wind up in the final draft.

Q: Who are you reading?

Today I finished The Literary Conference by César Aira, an intriguing little novella about a writer and mad scientist whose quest to clone Carlos Fuentes goes desperately wrong and threatens to destroy the city of Mérida, Venezuela, and probably the world. In my backpack is Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron, which I’ll start reading when I finish answering these questions. My favorite new novel so far in 2011 is Open City by Teju Cole.

Q: What are you working on now?

I’m close to finishing a novel that I’ve been rewriting steadily since May of last year, at which time it had lain untouched since 2006 in the form of a sprawling, baroque, and semi-unreadable 700-page draft. Today it’s a svelte 370 pages. When it’s truly done, I’ll turn my full attention to Cooch: The Musical. Also I’ve got about five stories left to write or revise in a new story collection. One of those stories, ‘Blood Brothers,’ will appear this fall in the anthology Surreal South ’11. You can read a slightly different version of it in Rusty Barnes’s excellent Appalachian literature blog “Coffee and Fried Chicken.” Another story called ‘The Ninety-Sixth Percentile’ came out in The Harvard Review this year.

Q: One of the things I’ve enjoyed about the MFA program is reading and critiquing the work of other students. I learn a lot by considering other people’s work, and by hearing their responses to my work, in addition to critiques from professors. Do you share work with peers? What do you look for in criticism? What do you dislike?

It’s been a while since I’ve shared work with peers, but I’m preparing to show my novel to a few friends. I guess at this stage the criticism I’m looking for most would regard what’s missing, unclear, tedious, implausible, lugubrious, or overly obvious.

Q: You are one of the organizers for this year’s literary festival. Is there anything you can tell us about the lineup or the theme at this point?

The theme is ‘The Lie That Tells the Truth.’ The schedule is online. Guests include Megan Stack, Joy Williams, Billy Collins, Naomi Shihab Nye, Young Jean Lee, Porochista Khakpour, Yola Monakhov, and Scott Heim.

Q: I’ve written about my regard for the work you are doing as a contributor to AltDaily. Why do you continue to take the time to contribute? Why does it matter to you?

I appreciate what AltDaily is doing for Norfolk. When they perceive that something’s missing in social or civic life here, they immediately go about filling in the hole. They’ve completed so many successful projects in 2010 and 2011 that I feel exhausted just pondering it. I contribute each week because I want AltDaily to succeed and because they let me write uncensored about whatever I want and because I admire many of their writers and because the weekly column lets me feel like I’m no longer wasting my life by spending hours on end reading political blogs.

Q: Is there anything else I should have asked but didn’t? Or that you’d like to discuss?

I wish that you had asked me who I think you are.

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Belligerent Q&A, Vol X: Novelist and short story writer John McManus


John McManus is reading in this photograph. Courtesy photo.

Norfolk, Va., novelist, short story writer, educator, and columnist John McManus visited France earlier this summer, dealing a crushing defeat to my dreams of getting this Belligerent Q&A posted in June 2011.

In America, we don’t look backwards, even if it’s only a month or so. We can’t get  within 1,000 meters of a month or so, I think, because we don’t use the metric system. Or, say, go back to 1799, when France adopted it. Philosopher Concorcet once said: “The metric system is for all people for all time.” A prediction that was only off by an inch or so.

Let me note I was surprised to learn practicing one’s chosen art in the French countryside is more enjoyable than answering a series of foolish questions emailed by one’s student (well after the semester ends, granted ) for said student’s blog.

C’est très choquant!

And that’s right — McManus is one of my professors in the Old Dominion University MFA Creative Writing Program.

This is necessary full disclosure, but if you read this blog regularly (1) you are my Mom, suddenly computer literate, and (2) you already know I have more conflicts with these interviews than the Catholics had with the Huguenots from 1562 through 1598.

Zinged you there, France. (The Google translate function is giving nothing French for “zing.”)

Point being, McManus is the author of a novel, Bitter Milk, and the short story collections Born on a Train and Stop Breakin Down, and he earned the Whiting Writers’ Award in 2000.

Félicitations pour cet exploit!

And McManus, as I have written for TReehouse Magazine, is one of the authors of “If You Read The Paper,” a terrific feature at AltDaily. Every Friday, at least, you should check it out.

And, look, I don’t want to overhype this, but this Belligerent Q&A is for all people for all time.

Et maintenant sur avec spectacle …

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

This question has stymied me for weeks. My three examples of not knowing who I think I am: (1) the weeks I’ve spent unable to answer it, (2) Being and Nothingness, (3) my responses below.

Q: You are an award-winning fiction writer, an educator, a world traveler, and an AltDaily columnist. Do you consider yourself the less self-referential James Franco of Hampton Roads?

Scanning down to this second question before answering the first would have taught me who I am, although I would argue that a difference between Franco and me is that he wants to obtain a PhD whereas I do not.

Q: Your storied appreciation for the work of Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has popularized a nickname, “Cooch.” I often dream that you and the attorney general will star in a by-the-numbers buddy cop show/procedural on CBS. What would your nickname be and why? What crimes would you like to tackle?

If, after my writing partner and I produce our forthcoming musical about Ken Cuccinelli, the attorney general remains willing to star with me in a buddy show, I’ll deem our musical to have failed. Let’s refashion the cop show in the iconoclastic-loner vein of cop dramas a la Dexter, although I’ve never watched Dexter and so could be wrong to assume that’s what he is. My character would be a forensic expert in an ancient Rome where forensic analysis is as advanced as ours albeit with mechanical equipment. The show would be filmed on location so I would move to Italy. Nickname: Rullus. As I contemplate this, I realize how much I’d like for Cuccinelli to play a character who worships pagan gods of antiquity, so I retract my earlier answer. There’s a role for him as a leery, superstitious coroner who spends his off-hours in the city’s many temples, making offerings to god after god.

Q: When two vowels go walking, which one does the talking?

Earlier I was listening to The National’s album Boxer and remembering how for years the LP was tainted in my mind by my belief that Matt Berninger was singing ‘your mind is racing like a pronoun’ rather than the real lyric, ‘racing like a pro now.’ That misheard lyric irritated me so much that I listened rather apprehensively to their 2010 album High Violet, waiting for similarly irksome lyrics. If I were to answer this question, someone might read my response and think thoughts about me that are similar to ones I thought unfairly about Berninger.

Q: When you take over for retiring U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, what will be your first three agenda items?

  1. Taking down the gigantic pictures of Pat Robertson at the Norfolk Airport.
  2. Taking down the ‘No Right Turn’ sign on southbound Llewellyn Avenue at the approach to Delaware Avenue. (Was there ever a more absurd ‘No Right Turn’ sign?)
  3. Abolishing the electoral college.

Q: Why won’t The New Yorker publish my PBS NewsHour fan fiction?

When The New Yorker rejects a story of mine, I resubmit it as work of a different genre (e.g. dance critique, slice-of-life sketch, cartoon) and sign the cover letter ‘Malcolm Gladwell.’

Q: You are co-directing the Old Dominion University literary festival this year. How many days will be dedicated to Tami Hoag’s thriller Night Sins? And what else can we expect?

With apologies to Orson Welles’s 1970s-era Carlsberg beer ads, the ODU literary festival is probably the best literary festival in the world. Tami Hoag isn’t on this year’s schedule, but as you know I co-direct the festival with Michael Pearson and so I don’t have autonomy over these matters.

Q: If I make it through the ODU program and earn an MFA, will you and your fellow professors Janet Peery and Sheri Reynolds take me to one of those old-timey photograph places on the Virginia Beach strip? What costumes should we wear? Then can we go to Dippin’ Dots afterwards, please?

Yes. Shackleton and other Endurance crew members. Let’s play it by ear.

Q: France, huh?

In May I was in residence at the Dora Maar House in Menerbes, France, a hilltop village in the Luberon Valley about halfway between Avignon and Aix-en-Provence. The only non-wonderful part of this fellowship was having to leave at the end.

Q: By the time you come back, there may be a Chipotle in Ghent. Will you be extending your trip?

This question reveals how pathetically long it’s taken me to answer your questions.

Q: We’ve covered so much ground here. What else would you like to say?

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than that I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

You can read more by and about McManus at his site via this link.

In the next few days, I’ll post a more serious craft discussion with McManus here at the blog.

À la prochaine.
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Next Tunnel Traffic reading Wednesday at Borjo in Norfolk


Maybe it's true that you can indict a ham sandwich, but prosecutors are busy with this guy. Photo of former state Del. Phil Hamilton courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

The next Tunnel Traffic open-mic reading is tomorrow, Wednesday, May 4, at Borjo Coffeehouse near Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

The event is open to the public.

Tunnel Traffic is a topical reading series, meaning writers write to a prompt in advance of the reading or read something that aligns to the prompt. For tomorrow’s event, the prompt is “anything with the word ‘test’ in it,” as per series creator Travis A. Everett.

Perfect end-of-the-semester topic. Ode to my Classical Rhetoric exam?

Yo, St. Augustine

you freewheeling scamp

rhetor of God

the hippest of Hippo

linguistic test of faith

holy multiple choice

you KO my GPA …

Really writes itself from there. Unlike the second essay question. And let me mention how I’m not in the poetry program.

I wonder what we’ll hear tomorrow.

We’ve been reminded this week about ODU’s former Virginia state delegate hiring program and all. I’m sure Mace and Crown staff will get around to covering it after we get a freaking Chipotle in University Village or something.

Say, I feel another poem-like thing coming on. I call it “Quid Pro Oh No”:

A delegate tried to secure funding

for a state university

with a string attached

and unlike the assembly

that bestows such funds

it wasn’t general at all – no! –

the string was specific,

tied to the assemblyman himself,

job hunting, job getting

in a ‘corrupt arrangement’

federal prosecutors allege.

Boy. Need to work on that last line. And I didn’t get the word “test” in there. Nuts.

Oh yeah, Tunnel Traffic.

As I wrote here last month in a Q&A with Everett at this link, the series was developed by Everett in coordination with the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University. A sponsor is Barely South Review, the program’s online literary magazine. I’m in the MFA program, by way of full disclosure. It’s pretty awesome, so I’ll hope you’ll check out these links in this graf.

This is a casual, fun event.

As Everett said last month, via email:

Seeing how other writers approach the same task can help expand your sense of what words can do. It’s a low-pressure way to get reading experience.

The reading starts at at 8 p.m., Wednesday, May 4, at Borjo at W. 45th Street and Monarch Way, Norfolk. More about Tunnel Traffic at this link.

A few oh-by-the-ways:

  1. I’ve started keeping track of some local arts events at this page, so please check it out if you are so inclined. Send events for consideration to jhdouc@verizon.net. Mostly I’ve tracked Tunnel Traffic, ODU readings, and stuff my pals are doing, but I’ll list other stuff, too. In exchange for a job at your organization. Just kidding, U.S. attorney’s office!
  2. Additionally, this blog’s new homepage address is www.jhdoucette.com. Bookmark or avoid as religious doctrine dictates.
  3. People accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty. Even former state lawmakers.
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Poetry that recognizes the struggle against sexual assault


Breaking the Silence, Speaking for Peace, a poetry reading to raise awareness of the struggle against sexual assault, will be held Monday, April 11, at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

The reading features several ODU poets, including Luisa Igloria and Tim Seibles. They will read poems that speak to survivorship, peacemaking, healing from trauma, or the struggle against sexual assault.

The event is sponsored by the MFA Creative Writing Program at ODU and the ODU Women’s Center. The reading is from noon-1:30 p.m, Monday, April 11, in the James Lynnhaven Room, Webb Center, Norfolk. Admission is free.

By way of full disclosure, I’m an MFA student at ODU.

Igloria, director of the MFA program, said via email that she had been looking for an event to commemorate National Poetry Month. Wendi White, graduate assistant with the Women’s Center, approached Igloria about holding a joint project.

White works with the center’s Sexual Assault Free Environment, or SAFE, an educational program on sexual violence and relationship issues. She’s in her first year with the MFA poetry program.

White, via email, said the poetry event will help raise awareness about sexual violence and help people prevent it – with attention, of course, also paid to the issue of sexual assault on college campuses. Regarding the connection between poet and audience, White added:

This is a very powerful transaction that can transform how the reader sees the world, and therefore, the world itself. … (P)oetry can create empathy for survivors and lift up the possibility of peace in a way that moves people to action.

Serving the Old Dominion University community since 1976, the Women’s Center is the oldest center of its kind on a Virginia college campus. Our programs and services address the special challenges and opportunities women students encounter as they pursue their academic goals. Also, recognizing the critical role that both women and men play in creating a world that is free of gender bias, our goals include promoting healthy relationships and a safe and equitable environment that is free of barriers to all persons.

Said Igloria:

When folks hear of either one – poetry, or women’s/gender issues – I think that it may still very well be the general perception that these are ‘fringe’ types of topics but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. …

This reading event is open to the university, as well as to the general public. Folks can participate by being part of the audience and coming to hear great poetry read, or by reading one or two short poems. It can be either their own original works or by another poet, as long as the poems selected address the general topics of violence against women or our struggles in general to create peace in our world.

It may seem like this is a broad umbrella, but I think this makes it possible for different voices to participate in the activity.

Featured readers include Til Cox, Tyrice Dean, Travis Everett, Jennifer Graham, Igloria, Renee Olander, Noah Renn, Seibles, Marion Charlene Thomas, Cesca Janece Waterfield, and White.

For more information or to participate, reach White via wewhite@odu.edu or (757) 683-4160. Members of the public who want to read must contact White before Wednesday, April 6, to sign up.

Igloria wrote that she’s still determining what she’ll read.

Thinking about and preparing for it makes me think of how very central and very important language is in shaping the realities of our lives, globally as well as where we are; and I think poetry has this capacity for making us aware of the effects of language, and for speaking very intimately to us as well as addressing concerns that are universal.

When I listen to (or read) a poem, I feel very much in the presence of a very human experience; poetry makes me feel like a witness to human events that are important and real, no matter how ‘small’ they may be. Perhaps that’s why I recently ranted (a bit) about the way National Poetry Month is being ‘celebrated’ in some popular venues.

A link to that post at Igloria’s blog can be found here.

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Writing Craft, Vol. II: Kristin Naca (Part 2)


This is the last part of a discussion with Kristin Naca, the Spring 2011 Visiting Poet in Residence for Old Dominion University’s MFA Creative Writing Program, that took place this past June. There are two upcoming events in Norfolk, Va., featuring Naca that are open to the public. Admission is free. You should check them out:

  • From noon to 1 p.m., Wednesday, March 16, there is a craft talk called “The Secret Tradition: How Translation Revolutionized 20th Century Poetry.” The talk will be held in the Burgess Room, 9024, in the Batten Arts and Letter Building, at the corner of West 45th St. and Hampton Boulevard, Norfolk, or across Hampton Boulevard from the Ted Constant Convocation Center.
  • And at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, March 17, Naca will hold a poetry reading at the University Village Bookstore. Copies of her book will be available for purchase and signing, and refreshments will be provided. The bookstore is located at 4417 Monarch Way, Norfolk, at the corner of Monarch Way and West 45th St.

Naca is the author of Bird Eating Bird. What follows has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: When you read the third draft or the fiftieth draft, do you know that you have it?

(Laughs.) Sometimes. Well, when it’s encroaching on really finished, I’ve probably been working on it for a while and typically I’ll be able to figure that out that it is done, that the plaster is setting. I think the trick for me is I’m pretty open. I didn’t care how long it was going to take me to finish a poem. There were a couple of poems that were published in a really different version that were reworked for the book.  Sometimes you really just need the right word from somebody and it will motivate you to work really hard at your work. … Like the last poem (in Bird Eating Bird), “Catching Cardinals,” Prairie Schooner published an earlier version of that poem. It went from a poem that looked like a baptism poem about the kid. It told the story that it wanted to tell in that form and then my advisor said I don’t want this to look like a composed poem, so she asked me to break it up into quatrains and then I did that. And then my girlfriend at the time saw it published in quatrains and she asked why it was in quatrains. When she said that, it helped me rekindle a memory of being in a poet, David Wagoner’s, class. David is a really well known poet who is a phenomenal teacher. He has a lot of poems memorized and he could just do off the top of his head. He was a poet who tried to help all of us at University of Washington train our ear. It was very much his idea that these numbered kinds of stanzas are more like musical measures. So a couplet is really supposed to work musically as a couplet in and of itself. So he would recite Wallace Stevens, and then it was like oh I can hear the couplets. I don’t need to hear them for the story to be told, I need to hear them because rhythmically it makes a song. … Then working with my friend who is a formalist … I’ve always tried to write formal poems to train as I write my work but finally I felt like this form, the quatrain form, would force me to cut out all the unnecessary language, for one, and it would shape the story in a way that I wouldn’t be in control of, but if I worked the form it would heighten the effect of the poem.

Q: I hadn’t even thought of that but given the topic …

Yeah. I think I only learned that from taking a form workshop to varying degrees of success. Every time I took one I got better. ‘I’d better do this because this poem is going to be so cool.’

Q: The class we’re taking is an Asian American lit class and one of the themes that we’re talking about is assimilation and I wondered if you could talk about that poem (“Catching Cardinals”) and assimilation.

That’s a great question. This is a form of community established in the United States that inaccurately, historically combines conservative politics with conservative forms. I don’t know why that is but if you know the history of poetry, you history of form, cultures around the world are writing in various set forms. And I think the book of poetry that helped me get over the hump to learn how to write in quatrains was Songs of Gold Mountain, which was a book from Chinese migrant communities. The translations are pretty remarkable. They’re able to translate the meter of a couplet in the original poem. The translations are beautiful and demonstrate how different a couplet is in English, a British sort of influence, a Western influence, to what the couplet does coming from the East. There is a great deal more melancholy in the couplet from the East. It’s sort of relinquishes control. It’s haunting. I was teaching and Asian American poetic class that fall and finally I had the music of the couplet that I wanted to write in my ear. At first I’m doing something like classic borrowing but from an Asian form, not necessarily a British form. … I’m going from a Western concept but then from an Eastern concept I’m learning that sense of melancholy and this is the kind of couplet. It was an amazing opportunity for me. … Then there’s like resistance. People who don’t know that history will easily read it as a Western treatment.

Q: Is that frustrating?

It’s actually a little demoralizing. I think people sometimes like the sound of the poem but don’t understand. I don’t know that any one poet or any one audience could ever understand all of the treatments that I was using. Or the historical conversations that are happening … I don’t know (how) to feel about it but I definitely know that I do feel. I guess it’s just lucky if people get anything. … To hear certain lines in your voice and your construction and how you are translating – how you know a certain line or a certain thought – that has a lot of meaning for me. Maybe I talk to people who see the poems or good or relevant, but so much of the subject matter in the book it’s completely theological to them. That’s a little bit of an intensifying of my experience. … It’s kind of a sad reminder. You can’t teach people everything and you can’t say everything either.

Q: When I read the reference to your uncle in Manila I just think it takes the poem to a whole other place. The way I process things is it makes me think of things from my own life. But I don’t think I would have noticed certain lines that I noticed had I not taken this class.

That’s a good argument for those kinds of cultural studies and ethnic studies classes. The reason you do that is you don’t know anything in the first place.

Q: What do you want people to take away from your work?

Try to understand to let the poem effect you and to open your heart to the poem. If you can do that it really cuts down the barriers. If I could request anything, not even tell people to do it is, especially if they don’t understand it, is to read it with their heart first.

For more information on Naca, please visit her site here.

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Writing Craft, Vol. II: Kristin Naca (Part 1)


The following discussion with Kristin Naca, the Spring 2011 Visiting Poet in Residence for Old Dominion University’s MFA Creative Writing Program, took place this past June. It was for a class, and she graciously has agreed to let me publish sections of it. As I posted recently, there are two upcoming events featuring Naca that are open to the public. Admission is free. You should check them out:

  • From noon to 1 p.m., Wednesday, March 16, there is a craft talk called “The Secret Tradition: How Translation Revolutionized 20th Century Poetry.” The talk will be held in the Burgess Room, 9024, in the Batten Arts and Letter Building, at the corner of West 45th St. and Hampton Boulevard, Norfolk, or across Hampton Boulevard from the Ted Constant Convocation Center.
  • And at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, March 17, Naca will hold a poetry reading at the University Village Bookstore. Copies of her book will be available for purchase and signing, and refreshments will be provided. The bookstore is located at 4417 Monarch Way, at the corner of Monarch Way and West 45th St.

Naca is the author of Bird Eating Bird. The poems include three languages, Spanish, English and Tagalog. I started out our talk asking about some poems that appear in Spanish and then in English, though the translations are not mirror images. I have edited the following for clarity and length.

Q: When did you start writing in Spanish? Was it for the MFA project, your first book?

I think I was revisiting the interest I had even as an undergraduate. My Spanish … really wasn’t in my bones in any way at that age. I’d been in Spanish class a lot but hadn’t really explored whether I had any personal connection to it. At that time I did, but I feel like I didn’t have the resources at that young age to align my memory and to get a thoroughly immersed in Spanish like I did in my MFA project. It shouldn’t have the same relevance to me when I was that young. Once I was out on my own longer … As an artist, you’re really crafting yourself and your personality. My personality and who I was is really interlinked in what I was studying.

Q: (One poem in Spanish is called “Seguir”; the English version is “Seguir: To Follow, Keep On, Continue.”) The title of the translation, it’s almost like there aren’t the words in English to explain this one Spanish word.

I think the title is very much like it’s own dictionary entry, you know? I’d been working on a few different words with that approach, in particular words where the concept was complex, and the construction of what they mean. I wasn’t sure I understood the translation. … The word is like a concept of time and how we experience time. … Imagine like how the word works in time, that’s what I think I was trying to find a metaphor for. It’s like a really weird word. Sometimes you can use it to cast out into the future and sometimes it talks about what has happened in the past and sometimes it’s related to the future. … It’s a verb that has a past and a future to it. I was trying to work with these phrases that were like reflections, and I think even “Todavia No” is even like one of those choices. … The concepts of something not quite being there or something still being there.

Q: I wondered how you are assembling the images and the words that get you where you want to go. Does it start with just one idea?

I don’t know if this unusual. I ended up just observing what was in my immediate environment, and tried to write down anything I could observe in detail and also in another language, when I was in Nebraska. Interestingly enough, this is in the details of nouns, but it’s what I can see around me.

Q: Did you write it first in Spanish?

First in Spanish. I was trying to demonstrate where the fragments of my Spanish were. Like, where the ragged ends of my lexicon were. If I didn’t know a word … Sometimes the word isn’t at my finger tips. And then there’s alliteration. I’m definitely someone who will alliterate until I hear the word I’m looking for. I’ll do that in Spanish and I’ll do it in English, too. …

Q: “Todivia No” was one of the poems where I read it and I wished that I had written it. One of the things I struggle with is structure and it just seems, it’s so hard to explain. I just can’t picture it being written another way.

I have a friend who writes fiction and she’s kind of a young literary fiction writer, and she says don’t you feel like you can just futz around with in for ever, when I was in the last two months of editing it, and I was just like no, poems are … at a certain point you cannot rearrange it. That’s when you know. If the poem has a life of its own then someone else can read it see the intangible elements. I think maybe because I’m a relatively young writer too, when you’re compositing a certain way. I guess the best way to describe it is reaching negative capability. You really do empty yourself out and try to comply to the will of the poem. If you hear that there is a poem in there or if you hear that there is a poetic dimension that are just like around the corner, the you let go of what you want the poem to be, what you were trying to force the poem to do, and eventually you let the poem come tell you how it’s supposed to go. It’s not the easiest process. It’s just like, strip down your ego, you know? And say my original intention is not what’s important. What’s important is the intention of the poem that’s there. Or at least the poem that’s better. (Laughs.) I don’t know if you feel that way writing stories.

Q: I do. Actually, I had a workshop last year where I kind of got out of my own way.

That’s exciting. It’s exciting and it’s hard to do. And once you do it once it’s like now I have to do that 100 more times or as many times as I need to. That can be a scary process.

Q: You had very little Spanish when you were a kid?

Yeah. Practically none. It was only like when certain relatives would come in from New York City. When my grandmother would come in from, I think she was living in Maryland. My father would speak Spanish only to them, and not to us.

Q: I just want to tell you, in “Uses for Spanish in Pittsburgh,” a line I love: “Still I remember he spoke a hushed Spanish to customers who struggled in English, the ones he pitied for having no language to live on.” One of my favorite lines.

Thanks. I really appreciate that. … I think my parents were very much like the economics of learning certain languages just don’t make sense. And Spanish doesn’t make economic sense. Though my father said that he heard a quarter of the globe would speak Spanish by 2000. But he wanted us to learn Chinese. He was much more in favor of us learning Chinese than Spanish. He thought that was more economically viable.

Q: Similar to my mother’s experience with Italian. The kids didn’t speak Italian. The words my mother and uncles carried forward are the words I heard when I got in trouble.

(Laughs.) The cursing and sometimes swearing, right? That’s gotten me in trouble once or twice with Tagalog.

Q: Did you have the same experience with Tagalog?

It’s exactly the same kind of thing as you said. We learned like body parts. My mother’s family is like I guess third-world poverty working class, and whatever I learned in terms of body parts were much more crude than I think people in the city were learning and, while I was aware that the Catholic Church is a power in the Philippines and there are elements of shame, like shame for the culture or social rules, I didn’t really understand how that shaped the language I learned. So I met a another Filipino writer and she was a year behind me and we talked about the shame involved in openly talking about sexuality. At the time any Filipino I knew was just saying the body parts and such. When I repeated it back (to the other student) when she heard me say – and apparently it wasn’t just like the names of body parts but I was also saying phrasing I didn’t know, and it had been vulgar. When the whole things went down, she blushed. I didn’t know Filipino people could blush. She just turned beet red. She was like afraid of me for the things I had learned to say. It was like in a really crude form. It was a little bit of class difference in what my family was teaching me, and her background. … I think the story of my life is I’ll come into contact with a language other than English and I may not know the dynamics of the way I’m learning it or a full sense of what I’ve learned or what I’ve actually heard. And then I have an opportunity to learn. … Luckily I realized I enjoyed learning about language. I had no idea I would enjoy learning about languages until I got further along in my studies.

Q: Did you feel personally that language was missing, that you wished you had more of it?

I really wanted to learn it. I was really good at languages until I was 13. When I started studying Spanish in high school …  generally, I was a really bad student, but that didn’t relax my curiosity about it. And when someone tells you not to it’s just burned into your memory in a way that it’s an indelible thing that you must have. That couldn’t have been more clear to me in that it developed into a profound interest in studying Mexican American writers. And then having them become my circle of thought and colleagues, and then I could not not pursue it. Everything is pointing in the direction  of this is what I should do. It was the first time I had a scholarly pursuit and my scholarly pursuit was hand in hand with like a natural curiosity.

Q: The poems are so personal and powerful, does it come just a core part of your personality at that point? Was it just real effort or was it both?

I think you’re asking the age old questions. I think what I learned in my MFA, though I couldn’t really express it, was I had more intellectual faculty than I thought I did. … I think when you’re an MFA student your main goal is to become a better writer, not to write a book. You’re going to write an entire manuscript, for instance, but it’s sort of like you don’t have to worry about it. You have to do it in order to graduate. The real opportunity should be to learn as much as you can, change and grow as much as you can. I learned that you just have to really study you craft and that so much of the world will sort of unlock for you if you work on it. It was sort of my passport into a community.

I’ll post more of this discussion shortly. For more information on Naca, visit her site here.

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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. II: Kristin Naca


Kristin Naca is the Spring 2011 Visiting Poet in Residence for Old Dominion University’s MFA Creative Writing Program in Norfolk, Va. In addition to working with some really lucky MFA students – including me – there are two events that are open to the public (and free). She’s amazing, so I hope you can make one or both:

  • From noon to 1 p.m., Wednesday, March 16, there is a craft talk called “The Secret Tradition: How Translation Revolutionized 20th Century Poetry.” The talk will be held in the Burgess Room, 9024, in the Batten Arts and Letter Building, at the corner of West 45th St. and Hampton Boulevard, Norfolk, or across Hampton Boulevard from the Ted Constant Convocation Center.
  • And at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, March 17, Naca will hold a poetry reading at the University Village Bookstore. Copies of her book will be available for purchase and signing, and refreshments will be provided. The bookstore is located at 4417 Monarch Way, at the corner of Monarch Way and West 45th St.

Naca is the author of Bird Eating Bird, a great collection of poetry chosen for the National Poetry Series mtvU prize by Yusef Komunyakaa, the 1994 Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry. Naca teaches at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. She was born in Washington D.C. and raised in northern Virginia.

I spoke with Naca in June for a class at Old Dominion University, and will post a couple of excerpts from that talk in the next few days. Today’s post contains her responses to a recent email exchange, and if this “Belligerent Q&A” seems light on my customary foolishness, it may be because the subject will be grading me.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

  1. A wandering poet
  2. A distracted yogi
  3. A wishful filmmaker

Q: You interviewed Yusef Komunyakaa for a certain cable channel. How did you come to join the international conspiracy to keep music off of MTV?

The liberating thing about conspiracy is the mechanism is shrouded in secrecy. I just do my part. I had been a finalist for the National Poetry Series in 2007, and they let me know a few months prior to the judging. But when I was a finalist for the NPS mtvU prize in 2008, they did not let me know ahead of time. So, I had already let it go. The day I learned about it, I was just really hungry and stopped at Los Robertos in San Antonio, Texas, for a taco when the NPS staff called to tell me I won this cool prize. From that point on, I only do what I’m told. Even going to NYC. Even talking to Yusef and praising his genius and influence. Though, hopefully, some of that’s rubbing off on me.

Uh … Hasn’t it been more than a decade since MTV showed videos? I think it’s time to let it go.

Q: Recently, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker cut $2,000 in annual funding for the state’s poet laureate. Additionally, the U.S. poet laureate, presently W.S. Merwin, rakes in a cool $35,000 per year. Why should any American support lavishing such sums upon the arts when the top executives of our nation’s noble lending institutions can barely stay knee-deep in foie gras entier with truffles and prickly pear salsa?

Most people are starving for art in their lives. They don’t understand the water supply has been tainted by giant entertainment industries. So, most Americans can’t fairly judge what they’ve been estranged from. Even though art’s deep inside them. Even though people truly are made of art. Remember regular people are moved to produce art when they’re in love and when they’ve suffered a great tragedy. It’s at those times they recall what’s in their bones. That it becomes clear mundane utterance will not suffice to express the complexity of feeling that makes up their lives.

Also, I wonder exactly who believes art should be de-funded? It’s obviously a larger than life-size gesture about something that’s a pittance to the overall economy – even in Wisconsin. It’s a cultural imperialist’s move, don’t you think? Isn’t meant to dislocate people from their language, from expression. Part of a conversion philosophy that tells us we should be afraid out of our minds about fiscal blah blah blah. And shouldn’t everything go? Art, then public transportation, then homeless shelters, health care, veteran’s benefits, safe food, retirement, and most definitely education.

Q: When is it time to rhyme?

All the time. Rhyme all the time. Rhyme to the time and repeat.

Q. We’ve covered so much ground here. What else would you like to say?

Is it warm in Norfolk? It snowed in Minneapolis again last night. And we’re in a heat wave, a balmy 28.

Boy, the world is full of good sports. Again, a more serious craft conversation will follow. For more information on Kristin Naca, visit her website here.

And if you’re ever in San Antonio, Naca recommends the carnitas taco on corn at Los Robertos.

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On AltDaily’s “If You Read the Paper”


A new essay is posted at TReehouse Magazine on a great feature at AltDaily, a local alternative news and opinion website in the Hampton Roads, Va., region.

The (week)daily feature is a regular stop for me when I surf online. As the essay says:

(If You Read the Paper) has shown itself to be a flexible, funny, often astute barometer of local news, how it is gathered, and how the gatherers may fall short.

This essay followed up on some reporting (some might say bloviating)  I did about a year back on the local alternative outlet scene, and my hope that they would cover the health, importance and quality of The Virginian-Pilot, our local daily paper and my former employer.

As the essay notes, Jesse Scaccia of AltDaily had a much better idea. Hope you’ll check out the feature, TReehouse (run by former PortFolio Weekly editor Tom Robotham) in general, and AltDaily, too.

Links to some other essays and journalism I’ve written for Tom are on the right rail of this blog.

In other local alternative media news, Jeff Maisey of Veer Magazine, an alternative monthly print pub and online outlet, has launched Afr-Am, a new pub aimed at the African American community.

Haven’t seen it yet, but it’s supposed to be on the stands around town. We had another pub around here called Mix that Landmark, the company that runs The Pilot, did, but it folded.

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Barely South Review features Dennis Lehane


The new edition of Barely South Review is now online, and among its many new features is an interview/essay by Tony DeLateur with Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River and other novels.

DeLateur is a pal from the Old Dominion University Creative Writing program. He does a nice job walking through Lehane’s general chop-busting of writerly writers and the critics who love labeling, and slides into the advice:

Responding to the aspiring writer’s first great hurdle, the blank page, Lehane simply said, ‘Gut it out…the only answer is the answer that nobody wants to hear: you just have to put your ass in a chair and write.’

And capping his take on Lehane:

Dennis Lehane’s ability to execute intricate, believable stories that rise naturally from characters’ actions has garnered him both success and recognition. In addition to his print work, Lehane was tapped for HBO’s The Wire, a sprawling drama hailed by many critics as one of the greatest television series ever made. Three of his novels have been adapted into feature films. All this is proof enough to certain bitter writers that his work is too universal, too simple. But after hearing this author expertly dispatch preconceived notions about what a “crime author” should value, I left believing that only two types of fiction exist: stories that work – that have journeys which contain drama and emotional depth and action – and those that don’t.

So I hope you’ll read the story, if you dig Lehane or writing in general. The advice is fairly common sense, of course. I just like Lehane.

I also pulled out my notes from Lehane’s talk last year at the ODU Literary Festival, and here provide some high points.

Lehane on Lehane:

I’m a bastard child of pulp fiction and high art.

On writing:

You should always write the book you want to read.

You can’t be an author without being an outsider, a round peg in a square hole.

The relationship when I write is a very intimate and charged relationship between me and an imaginary reader.

If you’re going to write a novel, you’ve got to know how to plot. Tell a story, move it forward, have a beginning, middle and end. … People read for story. … You have to engage the reader in telling a story, and nobody can tell me different.

On when you meet an ass of a writer:

It’s cause they never had friends.

And (though you miss a bit without Lehane’s delivery) on graduate students in MFA programs and such:

I always write 20 pages into a book of a character sitting in a room. You guys actually turn them in.

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