Tag Archives: writing

William Ruehlmann, journalist and educator, retires from VWC


Dr. William Ruehlmann, a journalist and author who taught at Virginia Wesleyan College for 18 years, gives a wave and a smile. Photo illustration courtesy of Meghan See/The Marlin Chronicle.

Stories do not come to the writer. He must go out and meet them, and when he encounters one he must fasten himself to it like a fat man on a free lunch.

— Dr. William Ruehlmann, Stalking the Feature Story

William Ruehlmann is an educator, a journalist, and the author of two terrific books, Saint With a Gun: The Unlawful American Private Eye and Stalking the Feature Story. For the past 18 years, he’s been a professor at Virginia Wesleyan College, teaching young people how to contribute to the world through writing and reporting. At VWC, he’s been the guiding force behind the award-winning campus newspaper, The Marlin Chronicle, and a longtime national leader in the Society for Collegiate Journalists.

He’s retired from VWC, which is why I am writing this. I was one of the fortunate students who gained practical knowhow, inspiration, and even a much-needed senior year kick in the behind from him. Students saw him off May 6 at the college, in a hospitality suite in which a projector showed picture after picture of an educator surrounded by his students. Naturally, we took more pictures.

I studied U.S. history at VWC after I got out of the Navy, but I spent a fair share of time with the communications students and contributed a few columns to The Chronicle. I remember discussion of reporting, fact-checking, ethics, and structure with Ruehlmann. His trust in students to make decisions when covering difficult topics. And how many of the stories written for his classes – rewritten and sometimes re-reported after his notes (always in green, as it is a less punishing color than the dreaded red pen) – were among the first that got me noticed by The Pilot.

I remember learning from Ruehlmann that writing, perhaps especially journalism, isn’t about the writer, but about the subject and those who will read what you write about it. In Stalking the Feature Story, he wrote:

Some egocentric scribes just can’t seem to prevent themselves from popping in and out of their copy like ‘Tennis anyone?’ types in midcentury melodramas. They interpose themselves between the reader and the subject, setting up a picket fence of I’s across their page.

Stay out of the story unless you affect it in some crucial way. Keep your eye on the material, not the mirror.

He led me to that water, anyway. I’ve tried to be as good as can be about drinking it.

Ruehlmann has a way of making the tough lessons a bit more tender. He is one of the first of many mentors and friends who have helped me learn that writing is something you need to feed in return – with fact, with judgment, and voices other than you own. When you get out of the way, and write at the service of the story, writing fulfills the writer. Better yet, it probably gets read and fulfills the reader.

Writing for Ruehlmann’s old paper, The Pilot, I returned to VWC in 2006 and spent time with The Chronicle staff while they made decisions about their coverage of a great tragedy, the murder of a security guard at the campus. Young journalists, many of them feeling the crime so profoundly, carefully consider each and every word they would publish. The decisions were to be their own decisions, with only the gentlest of guidance from their mentor. I remember a line from their editorial:

We are changed.

This past month, The Chronicle carried the news that Ruehlmann was retiring. The man ain’t done, The Chronicle reported. He’ll travel. He’ll keep writing his book column for The Pilot. He’ll write.

Ruehlmann, asked what he would miss about VWC, told The Chronicle‘s Kaitlyn Dozier:

The students. Unequivocally, absolutely, and entirely. I look around this newsroom, at the hundreds of students I have loved and who’ve loved me back. Yes, I will miss them greatly.

Meghan See, editor-in-chief of The Chronicle, told Dozier:

But he wasn’t just a good professor. He taught more than just classroom material. He showed me how not to be afraid of voicing my opinion, uncovering the truth, and sticking up for something I believe in. I honestly think that without Dr. R, I wouldn’t have uncovered my passion for journalism. I often catch myself thinking, what would Dr. Ruehlmann do?

I had a bit of a smile on May 6, when amid the party I first saw The Chronicle‘s report on Ruehlmann – the story of the heart and soul of that paper ran downpage, below the fold. The staff had led the edition with the new student government officers, a room squeeze, and so forth. You know – the news of the community.

Chances are, Ruehlmann would not agree that he was the heart and soul of The Chronicle. Were this post on paper, he’d probably write a note right here (in green, of course) about how it’s the students who breathe life into their newspaper. He might mention later, in the hall or as we passed on the wide field near the chapel, that the editors of The Chronicle played his story just right.

Ruehlmann taught classes called Advanced Newswriting and Feature Writing and what have you, but what he taught all along were judgment, skepticism, open-mindedness, passion, freedom, and that there is truth, or sometimes truths, that must be discovered and shared.

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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. VI: Columnist Mike Gruss of The Virginian-Pilot


Would you buy tapioca from this man? I did, and how. Now I have too much tapioca. Thanks a lot, Mike Gruss, features columnist at The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk, Va. Courtesy photo.

As the columnist for The Daily Break – feature – section of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, Mike Gruss has been followed around by a ringmaster. He has compared a Jeopardy champ to one of America’s famed wearers of the John Henry name. And he has written with wit and heart about the things that make the Hampton Roads, Va., region a great place to live, even when our local governments appear to be in a stupid contest.

And he does this three times a week, even. Not too shabby.

Gruss was kind enough to agree to answer a few questions via email. As always, there were no backsies.

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

  1. Alex Trebek. Wait. That’s probably what everybody says.
  2. Do you remember that one scene in Field of Dreams? No, not the one with Kevin Costner. No, not the one with James Earl Jones. Right, Burt Lancaster as Moonlight Graham. Now remember the guy who sold the unnecessary hats to Moonlight Graham’s wife. That’s who I like to think of myself as.
  3. Also, former William & Mary quarterback Lang Campbell.

Q: Tell us about this newspaper technology all the kids are talking about.

Ayech-tee-tee-pee-colon-backslash-backslash-doubleyou, doubleyou, doubleyou, dot, pilotonline, all-one-word, dotcom, slash, gee, are, you, ess, ess. Or facebook.com/gruss. Or twitter.com/mikegruss.

Q: Until a recent misunderstanding, I savored dressing like a ringmaster and repeating people’s orders in the cafeteria of the bus station at Granby Street and W. Brambleton Avenue. Naturally, I enjoyed your recent excursion with Ringling Bros. ringmaster Brian Crawford Scott, who, for a living, trades in what someone with a tendency to misapply musical terminology might call in relievo: “Your literary genius will be eternalized.” Can you explain the experience? And how did you look in that jacket? Be sure to speak up.

Brian was a great hype-man. The energy and language he brought to the most boring tasks we presented him far exceeded my expectations. Having him trail me for a couple of hours meant a lot of awkward stares, but it was worth it. Plus, that jacket was the awe-some, especially if you’re really into steampunk. It was also heavy. And made with real Svarokvski crystals. I didn’t get to wear it. In fact, I believe it was the first time it was worn outdoors because it’s worth a boatload of money. I was nervous he would trip on the sidewalk and rip a hole in his pants.

Q: You recently wrote about the hot Southern brand. As a transplant, do you feel the South’s marketing push slowly sinking into you like brine into the supple hide of a cuke? (Extra “unpaved street cred” credit: To paraphrase Insane Clown Posse: Freaking grits – how do they work?)

I disagree with the premise of the question. While, yes, technically, I am a transplant because I was not born here, and while yes, I still cheer for Cleveland-based sports teams, at point does one get to claim a stake in the South as their own?

I’ve lived here eight years. I’ve paid more taxes in Virginia than in any other state. I’ve made more charitable donations in Virginia than any other state. I’ve been called for jury duty twice in Virginia. (None in Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, or Illinois, where I’ve also lived.) I’ve voted more times in Virginia than any other state. My wife and I own a house. When do I get to start identifying myself as a local?

Haha! You said cuke. I don’t know what that means. Maybe I am a transplant?

Regarding grits, would it be too stuffy, too inside baseball to respond: ‘Nobody does, man! Grit force, man. What else is similar to that on this Earth? Nothing! Grit force is fascinating to us. It’s right there, in your face. You can feel them pulling. You can’t see it. You can’t smell it. You can’t touch it. But there’s a force there. That’s cool!’

Q: When do you think the Norfolk Police Department will let me and my tasteful example of haute couture go back to the bus station cafeteria?

Have you tried Megabus?

Q: When Mal Vincent says “we” in his movie reviews, whom else is he talking about? Can only he see them?

Wait, what? You seriously didn’t know? Ha! I thought this was common knowledge. The other half of the ‘we’ is Pippa Middleton, of course.

Q: In my imaginary exit interview at The Pilot, I suggested they turn my cube into a gift shop. What would you like them to do with your desk when you retire?

Build a Viking ship. Wait. That’s probably what everybody says. Build two Viking ships. I have a big desk.

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

I’m honored The New York Times Magazine thought me worthy enough to include in the Q&A section. This is a great honor and the culmination of a lifelong dream.

In closing, here is the greatest music video ever. This is not safe for work. Also, it will make you stupid. I don’t mean over time, either, but immediate stupidity. Frankly, you should not watch it. You are making your own bed if you click on this video. I know you’ll make the right decision:

How magnets work:


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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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Ted Danson reschedules Norfolk appearance at Prince Books


I never wanted to be a photo cutline. I just wanted to be close to Norfolk, Va., author Mike D'Orso. Photo by John Doucette.

It’s back on, baby.

Ran into Prince Books owner Sarah Pishko this evening in Norfolk, Va., where it is always sunny except when it is not, and she said Ted Danson is scheduled to come to Norfolk next month. And so it’s sunny again.

As you may recall, Danson had to cancel a planned visit in support of his recent writing project with local writer Mike D’Orso, Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them.

Danson was called away suddenly to battle the Yakuza, all of it at once, with his mighty anti-Yakuza Level 5 Power Handsome. Or he had to do some voice work for a cartoon. Okay, the latter is what discerning readers might call true.

Still, why do you hire the Danson and hide the handsome behind cartoon hijinks? Hollywood has been so confused ever since it went to the talkies.

D’Orso also sent out an email announcement this evening. And, so doing, he confirmed my crack reporting, which involved going to a store and running into somebody. Eat it up, Columbia J-School – two sources in a blog post! That’s like a hat trick, but with two things instead of three. Or a double threat. Because you can’t fight math.

D’Orso wrote:

We now have a new date and time set for Ted Danson to come and join me (and all of you – those can make it) in a discussion/signing of our book, Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them. The event will, as before, be held at Prince Books in downtown Norfolk, on Saturday, May 14, at 12 noon. As before, Ted will only be signing copies of the book (no other memorabilia).

Amusingly, D’Orso signed off in his email thusly:

Hope you can make it. It should be fun. – Mike D.

Amusing because Danson recently guested in the Beastie Boys video at this link, which is not safe for work unless your corporate pissing contests are a wee splash more than figurative. One of the Beastie Boys calls himself Mike D. Maybe that’s not really amusing, but it’s enough of a coincidence for me to get out of this post without bringing up the Yakuza again.

Anyway, the discussion and book signing starts at noon, Saturday, May 14, at Prince, 109 E. Main St., at the corner of E. Main Street and Martins Lane. If you head to Prince, there’s metered street parking and a couple city garages within easy walking distance. There’s also some free parking in the TowneBank lot behind the building on the Martins Lane side.

Previous posts with D’Orso can be found here. The book’s website is here. D’Orso’s website is here.

A glimpse of Danson in the Beastie video follows in this potty-mouth trailer:

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UPDATED: Ted Danson coming to Norfolk for talk with Mike D’Orso


During a recent reading at Borjo Coffeehouse in Norfolk, Va., author Mike D'Orso points out something in a book he is holding. The microphone pretends to understand, but the microphone has a painful secret — illiteracy. Photo by John-Henry Doucette.

• • • • • • • • • • •

April 27

It’s back on, baby. Ran into Prince Books owner Sarah Pishko this evening in Norfolk, Va., where it is always sunny except when it is not, and she said Ted Danson is scheduled to come to Norfolk next month. And so it’s sunny again.

And you may recall, Danson had to cancel a planned visit this month to promote his writing project with local writer Mike D’Orso.

Danson was called away suddenly to battle the Yakuza, all of it at once, with his mighty anti-Yakuza Level 5 Power Handsome. Or do some voice work for a cartoon. Okay, the latter is what you might call true.

Mike D’Orso also sent out an email announcement this evening. D’Orso wrote:

We now have a new date and time set for Ted Danson to come and join me (and all of you – those can make it) in a discussion/signing of our book, Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them. The event will, as before, be held at Prince Books in downtown Norfolk, on Saturday, May 14, at 12 noon. As before, Ted will only be signing copies of the book (no other memorabilia).

• • • • • • • • • • •

April 19

Ted Danson has postponed his visit, according to Prince Books.

Prince hopes to have a new date to announce in the next week.

Mike D’Orso, in an email announcement, said Danson had to do a movie shoot:

Ted was extremely apologetic and we will set a new date soon. Sorry to all for the inconvenience. But rest assured he is still coming.

• • • • • • • • • • •

April 9

Welcome back to the blog that does little more than tell lame jokes about blood-spitting rock’n’roll bass players repping high-end insurance products and walk-up whatever Norfolk, Va., author Mike D’Orso is doing. Look, it’s a niche. When you see one, you gotta carve it out before James Franco does.

A while back, I wrote about D’Orso’s collaboration with Ted Danson, Oceana: Our Planet’s Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them, published this past month by Rodale Books. D’Orso — he’s a friend, full disclosure — recently did a reading and Q&A at Borjo. It was great stuff, but it was light on Danson.

Now D’Orso says Danson is headed to Hampton Roads for an appearance at Prince Books, one of the last independent bookstores in these parts. A discussion and book signing starts at 1 p.m., Saturday, April 23, at Prince, 109 E. Main St., at the corner of E. Main Street and Martins Lane.

D’Orso, via email, said:

We’re going to have a nice casual sit-down conversation for the first half, then open the floor to any and all questions not pertaining to ‘Cheers,’ ‘Damages’ or ‘Bored to Death.’

So fire up those Becker, Body Heat and Three Men and a Little Lady questions.

Just kidding. Maybe just stick to ocean acidification, commercial fishing and so forth. Though if you want to ask something cheap — say along the lines of Apparently our planet’s oceans are endangered; what can we do to save them? — it’s been done. Got there first, didn’t I, Franco?

Regarding Danson, D’Orso added:

He – and I, if people want it – will then sign books before I toss him back in my Camry and drive him back to the airport.

And while you’re at Prince, maybe you could buy some books. It’s National Poetry Month. Twenty percent off poetry. Not bad, if you’re into that sort of thing.

If you head to Prince, there’s metered street parking and a couple city garages within easy walking distance. There’s also some free parking in the TowneBank lot behind the building on the Martins Lane side.

Please don’t park in Pete Decker’s space. It simply is not done.

Nothing left to say, so it’s boilerplate time:

Here’s a link to info on the Danson-D’Orso book.

Here’s a link to a recent video interview with and story on D’Orso by The Daily Press.

Here’s a link to D’Orso’s site.

Here’s a link to a James Franco fansite run by a lady named Vanessa, who will pay or already has paid good money to see Your Highness.

Finally, here’s an absolutely pointless link to the very post you are reading right now.

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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. III: Travis A. Everett of Tunnel Traffic


 

 

Travis A. Everett, who is from Texas, wears a hat with not one but two Ts on it in this photo. He is the founder of Tunnel Traffic, an occasional reading series. Texans seem to like a certain kind of alliteration. Photo by John-Henry Doucette.

Tunnel Traffic is an open-mike reading series that generally is held at Borjo Coffeehouse near Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

The series was developed by Travis A. Everett in coordination with the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University. One of its sponsors is Barely South Review, the program’s online literary magazine. By way of full disclosure, I’m a student in the MFA program and was one of the fiction readers for the review this past year.

I recently traded emails with Everett, since the next reading is coming up on Wednesday, April 13. The topical reading series is meant inspire new work and provide reading experience for students, according to the webpage. Writers write to prompts announced before each reading. The vibe is meant to be low-pressure and casual.

In addition to his studies at ODU, Everett is a poet and the founding editor of escarp, a text message-based review of “super brief literature.”

This Belligerent Q&A is about Tunnel Traffic. In case you missed the photo cutline above, let me mention that Everett is from Texas. I wonder if that will come up.

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

  1. An accident waiting to happen
  2. A typography/design geek
  3. A weekend programmer

Q: It seems to be an interesting choice to name something Tunnel Traffic and expect people from Hampton Roads to want to experience it. Please describe your marketing plan in a limerick, haiku, or rhyming couplets.

I come from West Texas
where sky is the coolest thing
you can drive under

Q: The bling, the flashy cars, the reality shows – hasn’t the public had enough of the ostentatious lifestyles of the creative writing community and its twisted, insatiable passion for the subversive forms of fiction, poetry and narrative nonfiction?

Well, I think that’s actually one of the problems contemporary literature faces. So the equivalent of a Benz and a bottle of Cristal is a stuffy reading voice or a highly referential style that both resist non-writers — and the reality-show analog is writing about a writerly life like it’ll matter to anyone who isn’t a writer. There’s room for that, of course, but I also think it’s a really self-fulfilling prophecy to bemoan the lack of readership for very writerly books of poetry and prose. So in that sense, yeah — I think the public has had its fill of a specific kind of writerly lifestyle.

Q: Your readings are “topical” – please explain. Does that mean topical like a Jay Leno monologue, or topical in a way that prolongs one’s will to live?

Or topical like anti-itch cream? So you can listen to one late night monologue and hear a joke about, let’s say, a runaway Toyota, and you might laugh. But a single joke doesn’t show how far the content can stretch. Let’s say it’s topical like a roast, or a slam-dunk contest: shedding the usual rules of the dance give it a relaxed, fun, informal atmosphere with an undercurrent of both inter- and intra-personal competition.

In some sense it doesn’t matter, on The Tonight Show, if Jay has the best Toyota joke or not (as long as his joke is at least funny) because he’s not in a topical context. But if you take a number of late-night hosts and other comedians and let them know you’re having a runaway-Toyota-joke-night, they’re each going to be looking for an angle no one else will take and as a result they’ll cover a lot more territory, territory they probably wouldn’t have opened up as individuals outside of that context.

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

If you commit to coming, a topical prompt will help you write something you probably wouldn’t have written otherwise. 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 next Tunnel Traffic reading is scheduled from 8 to 9:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 13, at Borjo at W. 45th St. and Monarch Way. The topics are Easter eggs and/or gunpowder. Members of the public are welcome to come out either to listen or to read.

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Mike D’Orso book signing Wednesday in Norfolk


Norfolk, Va., writer Mike D’Orso will discuss and sign copies of his new book this week at Borjo Coffeehouse near Old Dominion University.

D’Orso, an award-winning author and formerly a journalist with The Virginian-Pilot, collaborated with the actor and environmental activist Ted Danson to pen Oceana: Our Planet’s Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them. It was published by Rodale Books earlier this month.

The event is being held by Prince Books, a terrific bookstore in downtown Norfolk that for years has supported local writers – even when we haven’t had anything to sell.

Prince Books is one of the best things about downtown Norfolk. I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise.

The discussion and signing is at 7 p.m., Wednesday, March 30, at Borjo, 4416 Monarch Way, Norfolk. That’s at the corner of W. 45th Street and Monarch Way. Pretty much all of the parking around there is metered before 8 p.m., so bring a couple of quarters.

As regular readers of this blog may recall – love you, Mom – Mike spoke with me for a couple of posts earlier this month, including guest starring in the inaugural edition of the inexplicably and, let’s face it, only relatively popular Belligerent Q&A feature.

Also a more serious discussion on one of his great journalism stories can be found here.

Hope to see you Wednesday at Borjo.

They have coffee and grownup bevs for sale. Just throwing that in there.

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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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