This past semester I finished my MFA thesis, and thus, my MFA! Even though I have been writing poetry for years, I entered my program as a creative nonfiction candidate, and my thesis is a collection of intertwined essays about growing up in Pennsylvania.
Along my journey of writing, I have read many, many essay collections. Last year, I read an article titled "9 Women Writers Who Are Breaking New Nonfiction Territory" on Bustle. I have read many of the authors on this list, including favorites Roxane Gay, Maggie Nelson, and Angela Morales. However, the article got me thinking about women authors in the world of creative nonfiction, and this year, I made it an effort to find and read more collections of essays by women. Here are my top five.
Circadian by Chelsey Clammer (Red Hen Press)
In Chelsey Clammer’s newest collection of essays, Circadian, which also won Red Hen Press’s Nonfiction Award, she examines the way we shape our identities and thus our lives. Clammer strays from linear storytelling, and instead, explores the boundaries of the lyric essay. Whether she is explaining her alcoholic father’s actions through mathematics or offering a quiet contemplation of what to do with his ashes, she seeks to find the human emotions in all situations. Her essay, “Then She Flew Away,” about the suicide of a young woman, is one of the most heartbreaking pieces I have ever read.
It’s Just Nerves: Notes on a Disability by Kelly Davio (Squares & Rebels)
In her first book of essays, loosely collected into a memoir, Kelly Davio explores what it is like to live with a chronic illness in today’s world. Sometimes, her stories are funny. At other times, her tales are angry (or at least I felt angry!). Always, however, her precise insight and wit are displayed as she tackles health care systems, social events, and family relationships.
Portrait of the Artist as a Bingo Worker by Lori Jakiela (Bottom Dog Press)
I’ve read (and of course, loved) previous work by Lori Jakiela, including her memoirs and her poetry, so of course, I purchased and read Portrait of the Artist as a Bingo Worker, a collection of personal essays. These essays, which read as a series of snapshots from Jakiela’s life, explore everything from teenagers’ jobs to relationships with parents to glimpses of a writer’s life in today’s world. Approaching her world with humor, Jakiela loves the working-class world around her – and it shows.
300 Arguments: Essays by Sarah Manguso (Graywolf Press)
Sarah Manguso’s slim collection of essays reads like a contemporary Biblical text of the Book of Proverbs, with snippets and slices of advice and insight about life. This book is not one that you can sit down and read in one setting. Instead, it is a work where readers will want to read a little bit at a time, taking in both the wisdom and language of Manguso’s words.
The Long Weeping: Portrait Essays by Jessie van Eerden (Orison Books)
It’s no secret that the current political climate has called attention to Appalachia, but often this region, at least in the eyes of modern media, is met with scorn, with little to no regard to the people who live there. Jessie van Eerden's book, The Long Weeping, is a beautiful book of essays, exploring subjects of the Appalachian world often misunderstood, or even ridiculed, by many writers and artists. She looks at poverty and hardship, never backing down from the grim, but often hard beauty, of deep rural life, all the while cloaking her work in the gritty spirituality that coats her memories and her world. As writer Ann Pancake explains, “Van Eerden is brave enough to say the hard things. She’s strong enough to love the hard places.” A stunning collection!
Brr...it's cold here! And since the house is finally quiet in the lull between Christmas and New Year's Eve, I thought I would catch up on all my news (even though, yes, I am a regular on Facebook).
It's been a busy semester, and probably the most exciting news is that I finished my MFA from the University of Arkansas at Monticello. It's been a three-year process, and I think the fact that my MFA studies are truly over will hit me when I get my diploma in February.
I've had some nice surprises in the publication world. First, Drafthorse published my work of flash prose, "Why All Small Town Jobs Are Obscene" was published in their Fall issue. Then, my poem "First Lessons in Laundry" was published at the start of December in Masque & Spectacle. Finally, Rattle showcased my poem, "Where Girls Still Ride the Beds of Pickup Trucks" online (after the poem was published in the summer print edition).
I am also looking forward to my work in the following journals that should be published in the next few months: Common Ground Review, cream city review, and New Plains Review.
This semester, between teaching and finishing my MFA thesis, has been crazy. I am so thankful for some down time.
Even if it's freezing outside.
When I was in junior high/high school, I never had to write the dreaded essay titled "What I Did On My Summer Vacation." It's too bad, really, because now that I think about it, my summer vacations, complete with part-time jobs, summer camp excursions, and other adventures, would have been great subjects for poems and personal essays!
It goes without saying that I didn't get everything done that I wanted to over summer break. But, does anyone, really?
Still, I did have a few late summer publications. First, Colloquial: A Poetry Review published two of my poems at the beginning of August. My poem, "Where Girls Still Ride the Beds of Pickup Trucks" was published in Rattle's most recent issue highlighting Rust Belt Poetry. Finally, this past Thursday, my short work of creative nonfiction, "What Gets Lost in the Fog" was published in the first edition of In Layman's Terms.
Every year, JCC compiles a summer reading of book suggestions from the JCC community. So far, for me, it's been a great reading year!
The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan I have always been fascinated with both the natural and man-made histories of the Great Lakes. (I have lived relatively close to Lake Erie most of my life). Dan Egan's exhaustive study focuses on the effects of invasive species in the Great Lakes, and his scientific writing is geared toward a nonscientific audience, so to speak, so that all readers who are concerned about the future of this great natural resource will understand the complexities of the Great Lakes ecosystems.
In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi One summer day in 2014, Susan Faludi receives an email from her estranged father announcing that he had a sex reassignment surgery in Thailand. Faludi’s memoir is an intriguing read that explores both the past and the bonds that tie us to family. But it’s also a quest that investigates the ideas of identity and sexuality in today’s ever-changing world.
True Vine: Two Brothers, A Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of Jim Crow South by Beth Macy Beth Macy's exploration of two Albino African-American brothers who disappeared into the realm of the "Freak Show World" during the early 1900's is a fascinating read. Yes, the author meanders a bit from the focus of her book, but following her recorded research is well worth the effort in this wonderful work of journalism.
The Radium Girls by Kate Moore The Radium Girls by Kate Moore has been compared to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and for good reason, as both books explore the injustices of the medical world, while presenting a few human story about those affected by these injustices. I have read many books about the Radium Girls, the dial painters of the 1920s and 1930s, who were taught to Lip, Dip, and Paint (Yes, putting radium in their mouths on a day-to-day basis) in order to get a neater brush stroke for the watch dials. Yet, Moore, unlike many of the scientific studies I have read, presents the stories of these women, and their suffering, with a strong narrative voice. As a reader, I found myself in these girls' lives as they painted their watch dials, as they showed off the glowing radium on their skin (they had been told that the radium was not dangerous), and finally, as their health slowly deteriorated, starting with loose teeth and bleeding gums and sore joints, as they died a slow and painful death (there is one horrific scene in the book where a dentist goes to examine one of the woman's mouths, and her jaw breaks loose in his hands). I sometimes, found myself turning away, but I always came back. So far, The Radium Girls is the best book I have read this year!
The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston The rumors of a lost city in Honduras started long ago. Native people spoke of a beautiful city of wealth tucked deep in the jungles, lost to outsiders, but an important part of legend and history to the indigenous residents of Honduras. Yet, because of the dangers of both man (drug trafficking) and environment (jungles), the city remained just that: a haunting legend. Douglas Preston's The Lost City of the Monkey God explores both the legend and concrete history of "Casa Blanca" or White City. Cataloging previous explorations before he joins a team of explorers in 2012, Preston reviews myth and fact of this legend. For those of you looking for a pure adventure story, you may get lost in all his research and history. Still, his chapters dedicated to the actual expedition are exhilarating as he and his team face many dangers. Yes, I couldn't help but think of Raiders of the Lost Ark when I read this book, but that's okay, because Preston's fantastic work of journalism convinces us that there is still mystery left in this world.
Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family, and the Mystery of Our Hidden Genes by Emily Urquhart Diversity, and what really defines diversity, has been on my mind lately. Emily Urquhart’s memoir, Beyond the Pale, takes a look at diversity and differences in ways I have not really considered. Urquhart wrote her book about albinism after her own daughter was diagnosed with this condition. She is a folklorist, so her book is more than just a memoir – it is an exploration of albinism through a more academic lens. It’s an interesting and powerful read.
Earth Day is right around the corner, and one way to celebrate is to read a good book about the natural world round us! As an English Professor, I could tell you to read the environmental classics such as Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, and Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams. Yes, these are great reads, but I also want to offer the following books as choices. All are recently published (or will be officially published soon), and are from alternative voices that may not always be found in the nature writing canon.
Rants from the Hill: On Packrats, Bobcats, Wildfires, Curmudgeons, a Drunken Mary Kay Lady, and Other Encounters with the Wild in High Desert by Michael P. Branch ( Random House, 2017)
I have always wanted to visit the American deserts. Having grown up in a world of green, I wanted to see a different landscape, one that I was certain would be beautiful in its own way. Michael Branch's collection of essays, Rants from the Hill, many of them previously published in High Country News, allowed me to see the The Great Basin in Nevada, where he and his family live. Branch's work is new to me, and I wish I had discovered him sooner, as I found his essays both humorous and insightful. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of his essays is the fact that he writes from the perception of not just an environmentalist, but a father. This insight, I believe, is especially interesting, considering that it seems that much of American nature writer is grounded in the figure of the lone, male writer (a point that Branch himself makes in the book). Note: I received this book as an advanced copy and it won't officially be published until June -- but it is worth the wait!
The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man's Love Affair With Nature by J. Drew Lanham (Milkweed, 2016)
In a series of linked essays, naturalist J. Drew Lanham details his life growing up in rural South Carolina. Narrating both family stories and describing the natural world around him, Lanham's essays are, at times, funny, other times, angry -- but no matter the tone, his words are always thought provoking. His piece, "Whose Eye is on the Sparrow" about his first outing with a BB gun will stay with readers long after they close his book.
Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello (Sarabande Books, 2017)
A curious look at the interactions between humans and animals, Elena Passarello's book of essays examines natural history by imitating medieval bestiary collections. In this work, we can examine Mozart's relationship with his pet Starling or explore space with Arabella, a spider who traveled with astronauts. There's even the bizarre story of Mike, a chicken who lived over a year without his head! A fun and engaging read.
April is National Poetry Month! if you are not writing poetry, you should be reading poetry (Ideally, I would love if everyone did more of both). In the last few months, I have read three great poetry collections that everyone should put on their reading lists.
Echoes of Tattered Tongues: Memory Unfolded by John Z. Guzlowski (Aquila Polonica Publishing, 2016)
Part poetry collection, part work of lyrical prose, Echoes of Tattered Tongues takes the reader into the life of John Guzlowski. whose parents barely survived Nazi Germany. Patching together fragments of memories, Guzlowski traces his parents' lives through the concentration camps, through refugee camps, and through immigration to the United States where his family struggled to build a new life while trying to forget the past. Still, as we all know, the past is never easily forgotten, and any reader who picks up this book, will not forget Guzlowski's work.
In Which I Play the Runaway by Rochelle Hurt (Barrow Street Press, 2016)
In her newest collection, Rochelle Hurt explores the idea of place in America through surreal stories that reek of rust and grittiness. Where else will a reader be able to hear the story of someone born "a fleck of mill trash" as described in the poem, "Self-Portrait in Hurt, Virginia" or the tale of the constant limbo of residents in the poem, "Self-portrait in Between, Georgia"? Between these portraits is a retelling of the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy ponders her fate and wonders the true meanings of family and home. A fascinating read!
When We Were Birds by Joe Wilkins (University of Arkansas Press, 2016)
Through a jagged road map of place, Joe Wilkins traces the rugged landscape of America, intertwining memory with observations of the outside world. In this journey, Wilkins not only recalls his own life by detailing letters and odes to his son, he also speaks for the injustices of those whose own voices are often lost in their struggles. I have been a fan of Wilkins' work for many years now, and this newest collection did not disappoint me.
The week started out with a snowstorm (here in Western New York/Pennsylvania, we didn't get hit nearly as hard as the East Coast) and a closed college. Now, however, I am officially on Spring Break. I joked on my Facebook page that I would start out my Spring Break shoveling snow. Yes, that is what I am going to be doing.
On a brighter note, my essay "The Great Egret" has recently been published in Zoomorphic. (The picture above was published in Zoomorphic along with my essay, so I have to give credit to the editors, James Roberts, Susan Richardson, and Stephen Rutt, for the great job they do with this journal!) The essay can be read here.
What are you doing this weekend? If you live in the Snow Belt areas of the Great Lakes, you may be huddling indoors waiting for the Lake Effect Snow to stop! And if you are, why not turn on Radio Free Nashville (which also streams live) and catch Everyday Poetry hosted by fellow Rust Belt Poet/Western Pennsylvania native Sandee Gertz.
Every Sunday morning, 11 am - Noon CT (Since I live in the Northeast, I catch the program at noon), Sandee talks about poetry of the everyday life. In between readings and interviews with poets, she also plays music that reflects our world today. So far, she has discussed and poems from the following books: Waiting for the Dead to Speak by Brian Fanelli; The Art of Work by Jen Fitzgerald; and Voices from the Appalachian Coalfields edited by Mike Yarrow and Ruth Yarrow. Last week, work from my chapbook Wearing Heels in the Rust Belt was also featured!
I have known Sandee for many years now, and her book, The Pattern Maker's Daughter is one of my favorites. (You can see my review of her book here at my old blog.)
This Sunday, she will be talking about the poetry chapbook, Dynamite by Anders Carlson-Wee and the book, Mercy Songs with work by both Anders, and his brother Kai Carlson-Wee. More information is available on Sandee's Facebook page. More information about Radio Free Nashville can be found here. Don't forget to tune in!
This year, poetry, unfortunately, was shoved to the side. My teaching responsibilites and my writing as a MFA student have both pushed me towards prose, so that is what I read. Here is my list of the top reads for 2016. If you have read other lists, then some of these picks may look familiar. However, you may also notice that some popular books, such as Lab Girl by Hope Jahren and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi have not been included (even though I read, and loved both).
The Girls by Emma Cline
I have to admit that I don’t read a lot of fiction (shamefully), but for me, The Girls is one of the best books I have read this year (fiction or nonfiction). A coming-of-age novel set in the late 1960’s, Emma Cline’s work is, in many ways, a retelling of the Charles Manson cult murders. Unsettling and haunting.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
If I really had to name the best book I have read all year, Evicted by Matthew Desmond, would be the one. Desmond, in this brilliant work of journalism, takes the reader to the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee to record the stories of eight different families struggling to live in poverty. His findings explore what it is like to live off $20 a month after the rent for a run-down apartment has been paid or the troublesome path renters often take to find new homes after they are evicted from their current residences. One reader noted that this book is a must read for anyone who wants to run for public office. I disagree. Evicted in a must read for any American.
Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey
Ghostland is not a book about ghosthunters. It is also not a mere guide to haunted places in the United States. Instead, in this intriguing read, Colin Dickey explores the ghostly locations in our nation to make more sense of our past. Included in his travels are explorations of such places as the Myrtles Plantation in Louisiana, and the Sarah Winchester home in San Jose, California. The next time you want to know about truly scary stories about America, turn off the television and pick up this book!
Playing Dead: A Journey through the World of Death Fraud by Elizabeth Greenwood
How does one fake his or her own death? In this work of investigative journalism, Elizabeth Greenwood explores this very question. Besides relaying stories of those who have tried to fake their own deaths (and have failed), Greenwood also interviews those who actually make it a business to help anyone who wants to disappear and even talks to people who sincerely believe that Michael Jackson is not really dead. A fascinating read.
The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero by Timothy Egan
Timothy Egan’s book, The Worst Hard Time, is one of my favorite American history books, so I never pass up the chance to read any of his work. His newest book takes the reader through the life of Thomas Francis Meagher, an important figure in Irish history, and who later became an intriguing character in American history as well. Intriguing, well-researched and well-written, The Immortal Irishman will introduce most readers to a part of history that doesn’t seemed to be explored.
Alligator Candy by David Kushner
In this memoir (which is very much also a work of journalism), David Kushner reaches back into the past to recover the events that occurred before the murder of his brother, and then explores what life is like afterwards. What the reader gets is a book that yes, could be read as simply a work of true crime, but is more a memoir of how we face loss and grief, especially when the very worst happens.
The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson
In her newest book, Maggie Nelson intertwines her own autobiography with an account of the trial of a man who allegedly killed her aunt – an aunt she never knew - over 35 years ago. More than just a retelling of family history, Nelson also explores violence, grief and what we all believe is a sense of some kind of justice, in America today. A stunning read.
Angels, Burning by Tawni O’Dell
Tawni O’Dell’s newest novel opens with a murder. A teenage girl's body is found in a sinkhole of an abandoned coal town. Chief Dove Carnahan, who hides family secrets of her own, takes on the investigation. What follows is more than just a murder mystery. Yes, much of the plot revolves around Dove seeking to find who committed the murder. Readers of mysteries, however, may be a bit disappointed as the plot and subplots veer off into many different directions so that the book is more than just a whodunit story. Instead, readers will be treated with an exploration of character development and physical setting. Some readers may think that O'Dell approaches her characters with only stereotypes in mind, but I found that she navigates the back roads and people of Pennsylvania with a refreshing eye, pointing out the grit, stubbornness, and yes, sometimes violence that harbors in the northern Appalachia landscape. This may be my favorite O’Dell novel since Coal Run, published in 2004.
Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here by Angela Palm
Angela Palm grew up in a place that wasn’t found on a map, in a landscape that seemed to constantly hover between drought and flooding. Riverine in her lyrical memoir that explores her relationship with a past that intertwines her identity with the land, her family, and even a man who is incarnated for murder – a man she once loved as a child.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
It seems that since the election, J.D. Vance’s memoir about growing up white and poor in Appalachia has gained a lot of attention. Lucky for me, I read Vance’s book before all the fanfare. While some readers have suggested that his book feeds into the stereotypes of White Appalachia, I found his portrayals of both people and rural life brutally honest.
Indeed, it does seem as the whole world has gone crazy in the last six months or so. Thus, I have been taking a break from the news, from social media, and from school, to just catch up on my reading and writing. In fact, outside of visiting family and friends over the next week or so, I just plan on cuddling up and burying myself in my early Christmas presents of books.
Right now, I am reading Punctuate's first print issue, which contains my short piece, "Note to Old Irishtown Road." Punctuate is a relatively new journal that publishes creative nonfiction. In fact, Poets & Writers just listed this great journal as one of Nine New Lit Journals that need to be read. I am thrilled that my work has been included in its debut print issue as I have read its online work for over a year now. It's definately a journal to watch!
I am a poet and professor from rural Pennsylvania. This page is dedicated to my publishing news and events; for book reviews published online go to the Reviews tab above. For my own personal reviews, explore the Book Picks tab.