On Writing and Selfishness

By Cara Hillstock

Morbach, Germany, 2013: I’m lying on a bed in a spare bedroom, listening to my grandfather watching odd sketch comedies in the living room and my grandmother watering flowers on the balcony. The clock tower of our village chimes one in the afternoon, and I almost fall off the bed. The collection of short horror stories I was reading was so creepy, I have to see what the author had to say about them. But when I turn to the afterword, I find this instead:

"Writers love their words. They have to. They spend much of their time isolated, hunched over a keyboard, squatting at a screen until their eyes burn and their spines scream and their wrists stiffen in protest. And all they have to show for the sacrifice is a scattering of glyphs that sometimes seems to have no meaning in any language. To then assume that barrage of symbols will take on a comprehensive narrative and satisfying arc is truly an act of arrogance.

"But writers go one step further—we expect people to not only read the words, to not only piece them together into a coherent story, but we demand adoration for our act. And, occasionally, a little bit of cold coin." — Afterword: From the Ashes, Ashes, Scott Nicholson

Reading this set off a surge of anger that I could only communicate to my grandmother through a flurry of inarticulate German-esque sputtering. After she walked away, shaking her head, I had to sit for a little bit to calm down and figure out why, exactly, I was so bothered.

The author acknowledges the arrogance of writing directly, before anyone has the chance to call him out on it—as if to say that because he knows what he’s doing is stupid, it’s okay. He knows writing is dispensable in our culture and that to “demand adoration” for it is ludicrous when placed in a practical context. So he beats you to the punch. Nicholson’s afterword taps into a kind of defense, a maneuver many artists tend to use when faced with the fact that their craft has no practical value to the world. Writing isn’t growing food, it’s not tending to wounds, it’s not building houses. Artists spend their whole lives subject to a barrage of criticism because they should have a “real job,” something helpful that contributes to the future of society, or at least our wallets—teaching, managing, or accounting. It’s no wonder we are on the defensive about our art. But why do we feel the need to defend ourselves in our books, in our journals, in the confines of our own heads? Why do we feel the need to justify ourselves and our craft, even when no one is asking?

It is obvious that one who writes is one who believes himself or herself worthy of having written. We write because we believe we have something to say, something worth reading. It’s arrogant — not because we presume that our worthless selves have something important to say, but because everybody in this world has something equally meaningful to say, and we’re just the assholes who think we deserve to be published for it. We’re not doing anything special, or particularly important. In this, Nicholson’s afterword has a point.

But when confronted with the reality of the selfishness and lack of practical value of our craft, we try to pretend it’s somehow a noble and selfless endeavor. To make ourselves feel less like terrible people for choosing to do something that has personal value to ourselves but not to the practical world at large, we try to fool ourselves into thinking we are writing to set the world “right” in some small way. We force in morals and lessons. We add token minorities. We side-eye the future of the planet. We stop writing what is natural to us and instead hope to change the world and make it more accepting, or fair, or just. Miniatures of The Celestine Prophecy, small moments like the woman in Housewife Down who is respected during her trip to India – unlike the vain women who flew with her – because she looked up the dress code before going.

Writing is selfish. We write because we have something to say, and because we feel the need to get something out. We write because it feels good to us, not necessarily to other people. We can’t avoid this reality. Even when we present people with a new perspective in the hopes that they’ll learn something from what we’ve written, we’re generally hoping they’ll shift their perspective closer towards what we think is right. Even when we hope what we say will have some impact, we’re still waiting for other people to take the action.

Cara Hillstock is a junior in English with an emphasis in creative writing. She is currently writing for a top-secret video game collaboration and will appear in the movie Hell Town.

On Time and Writing Processes

image A conference with Julianna Baggott (above) helped graduate student Heather Etelamaki think about time, her anxiety about it, and about putting it to better use.

By Heather Etelamaki

In junior high and high school, I wrote nearly every day, both in the morning and right before bed. I was mostly a notebook kind of gal. The two novels I worked on over the course of five years were written in wide-ruled notebooks with bright, solid color covers or with Lisa Frank illustrations splattered over them. I didn’t notice problems until I started rewriting one of the novels in a new notebook—a three-subject with a royal blue cover and no pockets—sharpening the characters and reworking scenes. The sap was alleviated, but my main character was still not fully there, and the plot and alleged romance therein were falling apart. I didn’t know where to go, and so I moved on to other stories.

I still write fiction and am determined to write young-adult novels. These days, I still write in notebooks but not exclusively, and I don’t do the kind of writing I did in high school anymore; unless I have a solid stretch of time, I’m only able to sit down for 15 minutes or so to write. These little spurts aren’t doing the work they should be.

After having the opportunity to meet with Julianna Baggott during her visit to Kansas State last week, I found myself even more aware of my current writing process. In my conference with her, we discussed the idea of practicing writing for 10,000 hours, which builds off Malcolm Gladwell’s idea in Outliers and which, Baggott explained, breaks down to three or four hours a day every day for ten years. Practice is how you grow and improve. Baggott herself works on many projects at the same time and has published such a breadth of work across all genres—there is no doubt she has surpassed her own 10,000 hours. I’ve done a lot of writing in the last ten years, but not enough to achieve results like that. 

Outside of the revelation of 10,000 hours, I’ve always had a preoccupation with time. The manuscript I shared with Baggott, for instance, is set around 1997-98, and relies heavily on a nonlinear timeline. In the three drafts I’ve worked on, I have arranged and rearranged scenes to find the flow that works best with the plot. I’ve been conscious of what is referenced—everything from arcade games to the music videos the characters see on MTV. Time not only drives everything we know, but it also tells us where we are and how far we’ve come. It shapes our perception of the world.

Time also brings me anxiety, and in my conversation with Baggott, I felt that anxiety start to set in. I fear I’ll never be able to write like I did as a teenager again. I thought about the fifteen-minute writing increments on my to-do list  each day and about all the writing I could do if I were a vampire a la Twilight who never had to sleep again. Fifteen minutes isn’t nearly enough.

Despite this, I think a lot about writing and felt a great kinship with Baggott’s belief in writing in the head, which she sees as a small part of the 10,000 hours. She explains that writing in your head is a way to visualize setting and action and try things out: language, various scenarios for plot, and character motivation. It’s still writing, just in your head. I often spend solitary roadtrips home in the writing headspace—I play out scenes and find myself drawn to scenarios with my characters that don’t make complete sense until I’ve written them down on the page. I sometimes even talk to myself, working through characters and their reactions to new situations. I pretend I’m explaining them to someone else: this is what she feels and thinks. Trust me. I know these things.

Time, once again, makes me nervous. I often find myself without a spare moment to write things down, and I worry that all that time in my head will have been for naught. When I was a teenager, there was no question in my mind about the words spilling onto the page. But now, after so many hours in the day working through my characters and plot in my head, I lose things. Sometimes I remember, but other times, details disappear. I often forget to follow through from brain to paper, and in that disconnect, I do  a disservice to my own writing practice. When I do sit down to record it, there’s often writer’s block.

“But what do you do when you’ve written something in your head and you go to commit it to paper and it doesn’t work out?” I asked Baggott. Again: time and anxiety. The fear that I will never make real the stories in my head. That even when I do, the stories will never work even after all that time spent in my head. She told me to just work through it. Sometimes it’s going to work well, but often it’s bad writing. And you just keep moving forward, rewriting over and over again. In other words, it’s after the initial push where the story comes alive. It’s about being fearless.

Baggott closed our conference with the advice to be selfish with my time. Selfish. That word stopped me. It’s something I try not to be—after all, I grew up being taught to be considerate of others, to share. But even as these thoughts crossed my mind, I realized that she was telling me to be a different kind of selfish: to take charge of my time, to carve out whatever time works best for me right now at this moment, to break that fear that comes with time. I even thought about it in the same way I take charge of time in my fiction, whether that is situating my characters in a specific place and time, or arranging and rearranging the nonlinear timeline. You’re ready, Baggott told me. Your talent deserves time. Give yourself two hours of solid writing, at the very least. Exhaust yourself.

As I wrote  this, I slowly approached three and a half hours of writing time. I listened to the Divergent soundtrack, and I kept going back to play the first five songs over and over again. In between bites of scrambled egg and toast, I picked up where I left off with this post the previous night. I wrote seven poems for Poet in a Box, and then I returned to this post. My new goal is to get back to the kind of writing I did in junior high and high school. Fearless writing, with no questions, with faith that everything will get done. Sneaking it in between grading and lesson-planning and writing papers. Writing and reading every day, until I have to pull my brain away.

Heather Etelamaki is a first-year graduate student in the creative writing track at Kansas State University. She spends a great deal of her free time recording childhood memories in notebooks, thinking about what it would be like to go to concerts in the 1980s, and drawing parallels from Disney and superhero movies to Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 

On National Poetry Month

By Stephanie Kartalopoulos and the students of English 463 

Tuesday, April 1: the day after March, which came in like a bone-chilled lion and left like a windy, 70-degreed little lamb. The day when we start to think that April’s showers might bring May’s flowers. April Fool’s Day. Sure, April 1, is all of these things, but it’s also something more: the first day of National Poetry Month. 

Huh? What’s that?

You see, the Academy of American Poets created National Poetry Month in 1996 to bring more visibility to poetry and the ways that we celebrate it as a vital part of American culture. Schools, publishers, bookstores, libraries, poets, and poetry enthusiasts all across the country celebrate it differently. Interested in having a “Famous Poets Costume Party” where you dress up as Elizabeth Bishop and serve a cocktail called “The Skunk Hour” to your friend who dresses up as Robert Lowell? Go for it! Want to hold your own poetry memorization throw-down with your friends? Go ahead! Want to mimic NaNoWriMo but with poem-a-day prompts? Just do it, baby! All of it works. There are so many ways to celebrate poetry and enjoy the idea of poetry and poets.

This term’s English 463: Introduction to Poetry Writing classes are celebrating National Poetry Month in style. We’re talking about revising our first drafts and thinking about the “business” of poetry and what it means to submit your work to literary journals. We’re sharing our favorite poems. We’re reading Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s second poetry collection, Apocalyptic Swing. Ten thousand kinds of “fun” will find their way into each poetry workshop. It’s true. You’re jealous. You want to be there.

But before that, there must be, in true American style, a grand kick-off. English 463 students got together for a fun Sunday night of sweets and stanzas. Essentially, we ate a lot of chocolate desserts; created improv-style group narrative poems that revolved around the themes of books, YouTube videos, and the paleo diet; and played poetry games that involved breaking into teams and speed-writing lines towards collaborative poems. Whenever we had ties, we dropped it like it’s hot, poetry style: with rap-poetry battles. We got silly and laughed a lot. The sounds of our voices escalated along with our sugar highs (and there are no chocolate cookies left over and no chocolate banana bread to testify to this. It was awesome.). When we played our poetry games, we included farm animal noises. We used big, ambiguous words like hope, fear, and dreams—the words that are often considered “no no” words in the poetry classroom—on purpose. To put it in street-talk terms, things got real.

We even wrote down, on note cards, what poetry means to us. For your enjoyment and to kick off whatever amazing National Poetry Month celebrations you can imagine for yourself, here are some words on poetry from the Spring 2014 English 463 students:

I like poetry. Whether it’s nonsense or an epic, it’s pretty neat.

Poetry is a path into a person’s mind that is vague and complex. I find it as an adventure.

Poetry, to me, is saying the unsaid, what people cannot voice.

Poetry is a lighter next to two unlit candles.

I love the depth of emotions that poetry can access while still being unique to every person that reads it.

Poetry is the most creative form of writing because it gives you the freedom to express a feeling but hide it through symbolism.

Poetry is a dirty sink.

Poetry can bridge you to yourself, if only the proper materials were placed in plain sight.

Poetry gives emotions personality.

Poetry is a medium for pure expression—it’s mostly written, and I feel I can best express thoughts and feelings through rhyme and short haikus. Especially when it’s off the top of my head.

Poetry is a dead laptop propped up on knitting needles.

Poetry should make your heart ache.

I love poetry because it allows you to express yourself in a creative way. Poetry rocks my socks!

I’ve always felt like poetry came from everything—a good conversation, a bad conversation, a series of questions. It’s the way a worm wiggles out of dirt. But more than anything, it’s my pain, my sorrows, my happiness, my fears. Poetry is my only true outlet that I’m not afraid to share.

Poetry is amazing because of its density. I think that those able to portray feelings and ideas in such a short space are incredible!

Poetry is what cannot be properly said in regular conversation.

Poetry is the inner thoughts of the weird parts of your brain that stay latent.

Poetry, to me, means filling in the blanks: capturing the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of life.

Poetry can be whatever you want; it can come from everywhere.

Poetry is for EVERYONE—it doesn’t discriminate. 

We, the collected voices in Section A and Section B of English 463: Introduction to Poetry Writing, wish all of you a fantastic National Poetry Month!

This post was written by the students in the Spring 2014 sections of English 463 and their teacher, Stephanie Kartalopoulos, who is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Kansas State. The students in English 463 include improv actors, a philosopher, dancers, fiction writers, a Ryan Adams fan, a haiku enthusiast, a burrito slinger at Chipotle who participates in the KSU Marching Band, a geologist, and a Women’s Studies major. 

On the Importance of Being Human

By Sam Killmeyer

One of the job candidates who came a few weeks ago said to me, quite emphatically, that if I really wanted to continue on to a Ph.D. program and stay in academia, I needed to remember to be human.

I laughed, thinking his advice was offhanded, but he was serious. He asked what hobbies I had, what I loved to do that informed my writing. He said he boxed, went fly-fishing, and without those things he wouldn’t survive. He spoke to academia’s competition, the posing, presentation, the imposter syndrome—that sinking feeling that you’ve somehow tricked everyone around you into believing that you are intelligent or well read. And as he spoke, I was reminded of how every time I step in front of the classroom to teach, whether I’ve prepped or am winging it, I recite what has become my Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) mantra: fake it until you make it.

And though I often feel like an imposter in graduate school, I feel that the community at K-State reminds me that I am competent, that I am still human and not just a computer or an actor or a product packaged on an educational assembly line. My professors know my name; we share beers at candidate receptions and are continually asked ‘so what?’ Academia is such a competitive place to live—my mother sends me many emails about poets’ day jobs—and as Ph.D. decision letters are mailed or journals accept work, we are explicitly compared to each other and implicitly compare ourselves. We often wonder who is the best or the smartest or most well-connected in a field where rankings are ultimately a matter of opinion or interest—no wonder I think any publication I receive is sheer luck.

I suppose this competition is part of a contract we accept by entering academia (and English in particular, where grants are few and poetry books sell mainly to other poets). But I’m writing this post while sitting in on a lecture about how kidneys work at KU Med with my boyfriend (there’s a delicious lunch afterwards) and wondering if studying the human body is different than studying the literature those bodies create. In the previous hour, I’ve tried diligently to figure out what each diagram on the Power Point means. I think one was a cell membrane; at the very least, I patted myself on the back for remembering what ATP meant. Eventually, though, I’ve begun to take the graphics more as abstract expressionism or smiling monster faces. 

This lecture is so much different from the classes I attend every day. I’m currently in a lit theory course, where lecture could be encouraged, but instead we learn by feeling our way through a text, usually blindly, in a group discussion format. I’m not sure if it’s a science/humanities binary or a giant med school/small masters program binary, but one of my favorite things about studying English is that anyone who has read the book can take something from a class. Here, I am learning how cell transport works, and the lecture is surprisingly lucid, but I have no idea how this membrane fits into the larger system or what I will take away from this hour.

One of my favorite things about studying English, though it got me in trouble working in high schools, is that there is never only one right answer to the best questions and that these questions are ones everyone has asked, from fellow grad students or my grandma. I’m sure the same is true for med school, but it seems to take a lot of prerequisites to get to a class with the good questions whereas anyone can pick up a novel and start asking. On revision days, I often wish writing could be precise in the same way that this lecture is. But in the end, I think it’s the exploration that makes it stick and makes it worth studying, the grappling with a particular passage that remains years after the book is closed. 

When I grapple with texts or with my own writing, I find a fundamental need to respond, to argue with Charlotte Bronte over the wordiness of her novel. And I think that move to response is what I miss most in this kidney lecture and what I really see as the difference between feeling like a imposter or feeling a human. My response is my engagement with both academics and the world. Perhaps that’s my writer’s mentality, or perhaps everyone in this lecture hall is responding through the notes tapped out on their keyboards, but there hasn’t been a single question and I know I couldn’t hold my tongue as long as they can. And I suppose that’s why I study poetry rather than medicine.

Though this blog will be posted as we return to the mid-semester grind, right now it’s spring break, and I’m in a classroom trying not to laugh at a graph depicting flow rate in a gradient from pale yellow to deep gold. I’m an imposter in a kidney talk and I’m thinking about being human. About how being human is more than a collection of function cells but about taking up boxing. Because I am a better writer, and happier person, when I am engaging fully with the world around me—whether in a classroom or hiking a mountain.

I didn’t go on any grand adventures this week, but I did repot some plants, spilling dirt across white carpet as a philodendron fell from its hanging pot. I danced at a wedding. Painted (terribly). Read some Lorca and went rock climbing. I haven’t read all the classics; I haven’t even read the theory for next week. But I did eat some excellent tacos.

By the time this post is published, I’ll be back in the daily schedule of readings and teaching and trying to keep my head above the paper. It will be harder and harder to remember to do those things that remind me I am human. 

But while the candidate urged me to remember to be more than academia, I also think that there’s no better place than grad school to remind us to be human. I spend so much time thinking about humans, about how art influences life, and I really believe that literature, and art in general, is meant to help us live more fully and engage authentically with this world. This morning I read a Lorca poem about bull fighting and afterward needed to go for a run, play some soccer. The energy in his lines was transferred to me, and the same thing happens when a good poem somehow comes out of my pen, energy to be added into the world.

Lorca says that we write in the face of our own mortality, that true art is inspired by death because death reminds us to live. The posing and imposter syndrome that permeate academia are constructions,  constructions built to support reading and writing. Probably because we can’t justify our ends as easily as medicine, the worth of a poetry workshop is not as easily measured as board certification. But I think writers and those who study English should embrace this ambiguity, stop comparing ourselves to the sciences, and remember our humanity. Let’s get out of the ivory tower once in a while, camp in a dugout on the bank, and go fly-fishing. Doing so would remind us that we’re human: we’re fallible, and we can write from there.

Sam Killmeyer is a second-year graduate student studying creative writing. She’s a bit behind on grading but did manage to hike the Konza before the spring burning.

On Suzanne Roberts, Scalpels, and Stories…

imageA one-on-one conference with visiting writer Suzanne Roberts (above) created some initial anxiety for M.A. student Lacey Brummer but then led to insight.


By Lacey Brummer

I learned early on to embrace sharing my creative writing with peers and professors. It’s become a vital part of my writing process, where I let my story go from my own head and let readers color in the parts of the world that I didn’t see. Granted, that embrace usually comes after the fact. It’s always intimidating to know that people are going to approach my creation with a scalpel and maybe even a butcher knife. I usually require a good amount of mental preparation, working myself up to apathy, distancing myself from my work so when the knives come out, they don’t cut me, too. Some critiques still sting and stir up my self-doubt—it’s almost impossible to avoid. But there are always suggestions and critiques that spark a fresh idea, help me solve a problem I’ve been stuck on, give me a renewed interest in my writing. That’s what I live for as a writer—an hour or a day or a week later, when the other nicks and scrapes start to heal. 

Sharing my writing with an outside professional, someone not normally invested in my academic success, on the other hand, was an entirely new experience for me. That “professional” status seemed a world apart from my student world of learning and struggling and messing things up. On Friday, I was one of several K-State creative writing grad students scheduled to meet with Suzanne Roberts, author of Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail and one of K-State’s visiting writers, to talk about one of my stories. Logically, I knew the feedback process would be about the same as a classroom workshop. Logically, I knew I should be excited for the opportunity to get one-on-one feedback from such an accomplished writer. But my mind doesn’t always listen to logic, and in the morning before our conference, I was all sorts of anxious. One-on-one meetings tend to be more intimidating for me than group settings, where I don’t have to be the center of attention. And somehow, meeting with a professional writer outside of my academic bubble made the stakes seem higher, and I felt an increased pressure to prove myself as a real writer, as someone who belonged in this profession.

My anxiety ebbed a little bit when Roberts walked into the conference room and introduced herself. She was friendly, nothing at all like the holier-than-thou “professional” I had envisioned, and she wore a fun, colorful dress not unlike something from my own closet. Logic regained its footing in my mind. Roberts is only human, I told myself. She’s friendly. She’s here to help me. This is a good thing.

The plot of the story I’d sent Roberts centered on rock climbing. I’d never tried it before (as you might imagine, there aren’t many opportunities to rock climb in Nebraska, where I’m from), but the gravity-defying sport fascinates me, and it seemed like a fun thing to write about. It’s always been on my list of extreme sports, along with surfing and skydiving, that in theory, I wanted to try but in reality seemed impossible or too terrifying to even attempt—something, in other words, reserved for my imagination, and therefore, for writing.  Most of what I knew from rock climbing came from TV and movies, and I did a little research online to learn the vocabulary, the equipment, and the logistics. Unfortunately, my class deadline came too quickly, so I didn’t have a lot of time to research, but I hoped my details were at least plausible.   

As it turns out, Roberts is quite familiar with rock climbing. Until she revealed this to me, our conference had started out quite well, and I was feeling optimistic.  She had asked me what I was most worried about in my story, and, while I didn’t like being put on the spot to answer a question, she agreed with my answer that my ending needed some work. We chatted about what I had been intending, how it maybe wasn’t working, and it felt almost like I was talking to a classmate, a professor, someone on relatively equal grounds. But when I didn’t have any other questions, she jumped to her next order of business—rock climbing. When she told me that she had done quite a bit of rock climbing, I could tell by her voice that I had gotten things wrong. This brought on quite an “Oh, crap” moment. I braced myself for an attack, waiting for her to disparage me for all of the details I got wrong: You have no business writing a story about rock climbing.  

Her actual words weren’t much better. “There are some technical issues,” Roberts told me. “Most of this story would never happen.”  Her tone, however, was much nicer, and a moment that could have made me feel two inches tall became an enjoyable conversation. She shared her knowledge of rock climbing, giving me insight into the lingo that I might not have learned online. While she emphasized the importance of accuracy in writing a believable story, she did so by sharing a funny story about one of her students who refused to read a piece because in a single scenic paragraph, it described the behavior of hawks incorrectly.

With those technical issues out of the way, and a potentially awkward conversation transformed into a very helpful one, we talked about other details of my story—the characters, my narrative style—and my own writing goals. By the end of the conference, I felt invigorated, excited to get back to my story and revise. In other words, despite all the hype and anxiety of talking to a published author outside of the classroom, the conference was the same as most other workshop experiences. 

Workshop is always going to be a little painful. I’ll always have a few scratches to show for it. In this case, it was a giant gash right through the plot of my story, and a whole lot of self-inflicted bruises. But that’s what my story needed, and I know I’ll never be a writer if I can’t handle the sight of blood. 

Lacey Brummer is a first-year M.A. student in English focusing on Creative Writing at Kansas State University.

‪On Finding Connection in Jake Adam York’s Poetry

imageTwo couplets from “Self-Portrait in Plate-Glass Window” by Jake Adam York (above) inspired and saddened Kansas State English major Ora McIntosh.


By Ora McIntosh

While reading Jake Adam York’s book of poetry Persons Unknown, I was captivated most by two couplets from “Self-Portrait in a Plate-Glass Window”:

The quiet holds them the way
dark will hold all color

and one memory will look like another
and staying will seem stranger than having come

‪Perhaps it was instinct that dictated my enjoyment of these particular lines. By this, I mean something in York’s poem briefly made contact with something in me, and as a result I decided I liked those lines. I felt a sense of sadness having read those lines, and part of me wonders what the driving force was behind why I liked them. However, the aspiring creative writer in me was unsatisfied with merely “liking” something. Thus I endeavored to discover why it was that I was so drawn to this part of this poem. After a lot of thinking and re-reading I realized I enjoyed “Self-Portrait in a Plate Glass Mirror” so much because it spoke to a certain truth: hurt and triumph can never truly be forgotten, especially in the case of the African American. In fact, the very mention of quiet in the poetry  draws on these ideas because for so long African Americans were silenced and eventually a time came when noiselessness could no longer satisfy.

‪In chapter 18 of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, a character called Brother Tarp gives the narrator a link from the chain he once wore, presumably an artifact from his subjection to a chain-gang. For nineteen years he wore that chain. Long after he’d freed himself, Brother Tarp still walked with a limp, still carried the chain from a past he could not so much as forget. The fact that he kept the chain seemed that much more confusing to me. I couldn’t stop wondering why Brother Tarp would keep such an object on his person at all times. Don’t misunderstand: I fully comprehended the “signifying,” as Brother Tarp later says, that the object holds (a reminder of his history as well as why he joined the Brotherhood in protest), and as such, I could understand keeping the link as a reminder of his past. However, for a while I could not fathom why this character would keep the link wrapped up in cloth and stuffed in his pocket at all times.

After reading York’s poem, I was able to understand that, much like those York lines I am so drawn to, Brother Tarp held onto that chain the way “dark will hold all color.” Whether beautiful, ugly or in between, the darkness absorbed all and reflected a shade only a combination of elements could bring about. I feel that this is the statement York was trying to make: that African Americans are like a canvas and they take in all the colors painted upon them, all the gentle brushes and stabbing strokes, and they hold onto them and never let go.

‪Making a connection like this is interesting to me in that I feel better able to understand the dynamics of American culture. For example, the complication of our nation’s racial history and the concepts our nation celebrates during the month of February demonstrate the fact that slavery and segregation are things not easily forgotten. This is not just because such events and institutions shaped our country, but also because many individuals refuse to let the past lie, much like when York expresses how the “dark will hold all color.” In fact, the second couplet from the four lines above speaks directly to this culture and history because York is drawing on the bizarre conditions of entering a place and failing to leave despite the bad conditions one is forced to live in by staying there.

See, it isn’t so much strange that slavery happened or that social inequality occurred because humans are bound to make errors. Instead, what’s strange is that, though York’s poem was just published four years ago and explores our inability to move beyond our nation’s history of oppression, poems like York’s are still relevant and necessary today. “Staying will seem stranger than having come,” York’s poem expresses, and isn’t it? Americans pride themselves with having come a long way in regards to social and racial equality. However, York brings to our attention that we haven’t quite let such things go. For example, despite our nation’s testimonies of fairness, housing discrimination (many times due to race) still occurs. So maybe it isn’t strange that injustice happened in the first place. Maybe what’s strange is that despite the fact that we see the injustices, thanks to individuals like Jake Adam York, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., we still hold onto them like so many vibrant colors. Maybe what’s strange is that we stay the same.

Ora McIntosh is a senior English major with an emphasis in creative writing and a member of the McNair Scholars Program at Kansas State University.

Burritos, Banjos, and Bougainvillea: On Moving Someplace New for Graduate School

imageWhen she moved to Florida, Stephanie Kartalopoulos learned to let new sights (alligators!) and sounds (country music!) enter her world and her work.

By Stephanie Kartalopoulos 

I used to think that country music was a myth. This is today’s confession.

Well, not exactly the existence of country music per se. I knew, from the speakers blaring music at all hours at The Border Café, where I ate too many tortilla chips and chicken enchiladas during my undergrad days, that there was such a thing as country music, Dolly Parton, and a band called The Dixie Chicks. I just never knew that people actually listened to it by choice, that people purchased CDs willingly, and that country music was as much “a thing” as the music I knew and loved and that seemed to bear the “cool kid” approval rating all around Boston. Country music seemed like a very far cry from Luscious Jackson, Pearl Jam, and a then-new band I had come to love, Death Cab for Cutie. Country music—or, rather, contemporary country “pop” music—was pretty much a laughable idea amongst my classmates and friends.

But then it smacked me in the face. Country music. It was loud, it could get twangy, it often included a banjo or a trilling mandolin, and some guy would sing about I don’t know what—heartbreak or how great it is to sit by the lake with a cooler of beers—but it was unmistakable. Country music. And I heard it while I was standing on a street corner in the swampy, late-summer Florida heat. I was waiting for the cross-walk traffic signal to allow me to cross 13th Street. My goal for that day—one of my earliest in this Florida town I had just moved to—was to find my way around the campus of my master’s program, find the English Department and fill out the paperwork necessary for a new grad student to get paid, and get my student ID. I waited for the light to change and stared at cars speeding up the street. And all I could do was listen to the country music that was blaring from a big, black pick-up truck that was made even bigger with oversized tires. All of the windows were down. That stereo was cranked up pretty high. The driver seemed to be shouting the lyrics and laughing. He was even fist-bumping everyone beyond his side window in time with the music. Maybe it was a really good song. The truck was waiting for the light to turn green, too, so I got to hear a good portion of the song and his lyric-screaming. For the first time, I had to accept the fact that people choose to listen to country music.

This should have been the first sign that I was in for a wild ride. I had chosen to move to Florida to attend an MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Florida—my top choice program because I believed the diversity of the faculty’s writing styles and interests in poetry would stretch my imagination and give me space to honor my voice as a poet—but I hadn’t had the capacity to understand what it would mean to move someplace so different from the northeastern and urban landscapes I knew. While I was prepared to not see skyscrapers everywhere I turned and to not have access to an amazing subway system, I hadn’t had the wherewithal or the experience, really, to understand that living in Florida really meant a vast change in the external visual cues that would influence my writing and that each day I would face a different set of cultural values that would expand the way I think and understand how the people around me make decisions and live their lives. I had never really been exposed to college football (and SEC football in particular) and had no way of understanding what it meant to go to a school that was home to the Florida Gatrors. And—well—then there was country music. It all seemed really strange to me. 

Before I moved, I hadn’t known that living in Florida would lead me inside a WalMart for the first time. I hadn’t thought about the nature of chain bookstores and whether they help or hurt a town’s demographic of readers. Nothing had prepared me for the way that a weather prediction of rain would bring frustration instead of relief. The rain in Florida, especially in the summer months, doesn’t cool the air or slink its way to the ground easily and calm-inducingly; rather, it’s a furious beast that seems to throw a four year old’s temper tantrum. It’s loud, it arrests the world on which it falls, and the aftermath—steam that rises from every inch of the ground—can seep its way into every inch of your skin and leave you feeling sweaty and sticky and yearning for the smell of bar soap everywhere you turn.

Before I moved to my Florida college town, I also hadn’t known how living in a specific college town with its own identity that revolved around the university and its own celebrated businesses and traditions meant “Go Gators!” signs in nearly every store-front and spirited Gators fans everywhere I turned. It also meant early fall Woodie Guthrie tribute concerts in the public band shell and long lines outside the door of the local burrito shop and down the street every day at lunch time. Living in what I considered a quaint “small” town brought many nights watching films from the independent theater’s most current whimsical film series; easy navigation through a surprisingly good public library that would loan you as many CDs as you wished for two weeks at a time; and experiencing the beautiful thing it was to have a bar that became “your” bar—because it was at the edge of your neighborhood, it served cheap beers and fried tofu wedges to sustain you through meandering Thursday night conversations, and you and your classmates were not at all likely to run into your students there. Before I moved to Florida, I had never seen an alligator (I thought they, too, were the stuff of myths), gone swimming in a natural spring, shucked an oyster, or thought about the parasitic nature of romantic-looking Spanish moss on the trees all around me. I never knew that by accepting a graduate program’s admissions offer, I was also accepting an invitation to participate in the kind of life that a particular town championed.

All of these things mattered. Everything that would become a good memory, everything that would become a sign of survival and endurance, and even my first exposure to country music. Moving to my Florida town for my graduate program meant not only the work that I would do in my classes and the time I would spend both refining my voice and stretching the language in which my imagination took root, but it also meant learning to live my life in an entirely new way, and as a Floridian. I was faced with different options for how to live my life on a daily, tangible basis than what Boston—or New York and New Jersey, before that—could have possibly offered me. I was being exposed to new things that would expand my own lexicon and would, in turn, expand my own mental storehouse for imagery, metaphor, rhythm, and sound in a poem. I was being invited to relate to the world around me in ways that would not only help me grow as a person living in the physical world but also help me evolve as a poet who deals with the questions of compassion and judgment that can make each poem’s speaker come to life and find the authority necessary to articulate the poem truthfully.

 In short: moving far away from my northeastern upbringing, my proclivity for city life, and the landscapes that were familiar to me expanded my notion of what it meant to live my life. I learned that my poetry could happen virtually anywhere (even when I am on the public bus to the movie theater and a representative from the local Pentacostal church is handing out promotional booklets and is loudly advertising church services to everyone around me). I learned that a little bit of twang on the radio never hurt anyone and that it could even write its way into a stanza in one of my poems. I learned that alligators looked like dark, baked logs—hopeless and somehow beautiful—as they slept during the day under that hot sun and that bougainvillea glistened and sparkled after an April rainstorm. I learned that life could be astronomically enriched by embracing a Florida town that was entirely new and unknown to me. I learned, just a little bit more fully, what it meant to live my life in the moment and wherever I found myself.

Stephanie Kartalopoulos is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in Poetry at Kansas State University. She earned her Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Missouri and her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Florida. Her work is forthcoming and most recently appears in journals that include Radar Poetry, Thrush Poetry Journal, Matter Monthly: A Journal of Political Poetry and Commentaryand Barn Owl Review.

On Genre Fiction

imageThe work of Anne McCaffery (above) inspired Kansas State University senior Fetch Sellers to explore fantastic worlds of her own.

By Fetch Sellers

I started writing for the same reason that I kept reading books as a child. I liked to go to another world, to live in someone else’s world. One of my favorite series was Anne McCaffery’s Dragon Riders of Pern, which had dragons and a world just dissimilar enough to our own that I loved it. I enjoyed the characters’ struggles to protect each other and to maintain justice.

I began writing and continue to work on fantasy stories because I don’t want to write about a tough class and how much homework it has or about the struggle to find a job coming out of college. I want to read about characters adventuring through a world containing magic, or telepathy with creatures, or monarchies competing for lands and loyal followers.

I attempt to create plausible worlds so that my stories aren’t set in a place too hard to think of. When that’s done, I create a group of characters, usually based on people I know, or quirks in people I have encountered, because I want each character to be believable and have a moderately natural feel to them. One my typical bases is my best friend because she’s strong willed and adventurous, which always makes for a good female character. Good female characters also can’t be pushed around or let things just happen to them and wait for someone to save them; we’ve all seen the helplessness of some female characters, and most girls I know hate that portrayal.

My characters will then work towards a goal that will be either be unattainable or have plenty of obstacles in the way; nothing worth having is going to be easy, and sometimes the best read is about an insurmountable problem and how the characters faced their failings. In my  story “By Sides” the characters manage to overthrow part of the enemy monarchy, but they don’t stop the war they were meant to. The disparate main characters grow and make a good team, but they don’t manage the happy ending their nations wanted, keeping the characters from being perfect and unbelievably good at what they were sent out to do.

My characters have suffered in my happiness, and prospered in my depressed bouts: I was having a great few weeks when I wrote the main characters’ death scenes n “By Sides,” but I was having a rougher time when my orphaned characters in “Walkers of the Path” found someone to take care of them. I always write in the fantastic because the ordinary is all around us; if I wrote in this world, I would wonder why it was impossible to have a life like my characters’.

The thrill of it all comes from the escape of the surroundings. I have my own ordinary world to muddle through, so my writing gets flung to other planets or set in a parallel to a past or future time. I include cyborgs, anti-gravity machines, corrupt medical corporations, warring monarchies, mages of all flavors, space-travel, overpowering A.I., aliens, shapeshifters, and even the occasional vampire in the works I’ve at least begun.

In fantasy, everything from the world itself to the characters’ personal quirks is under my control. Anything I decide about them goes; one of my characters is great at her job, but the corporation is evil, and she’s being forced to get robotic hands she doesn’t want or need, so I get to throw  mental turmoil into her narration. I create corporations that are good, evil, and simple sellers of goods that provide no further role. I design monarchies with generations of history that culminate into subterfuge and warfare: a second son sends a group of specialized mages to perform a series of coups that steal the rank of crown prince for him from his previously better liked older brother.

I go through the entire writing process to create stories that other people can enjoy and use for their own escapes from the mundane. I want to provide a pleasant break from reality and daily troubles for my readers in the same way that my favorite books and series have done for me.

Fetch Sellers is a senior Life Sciences major at K-State. Fetch has taken fiction workshops with Katy Karlin and has been working on editing her current project, “By Sides,” for possible publication. Fetch is always working on more stories—right now, a sequel to “By Sides,” which is titled “Paramount Paragon.”

The Vulnerability of ‘Writing What You Know’

By Stephanie Hutaff

When I was a child, Little Women was one of my favorite novels, and in it, Jo was my favorite character. Jo is ingenious and bold, practical and spunky. And she is a writer, a career that I dreamed of as a young girl obsessed with books. When Jo is unable to survive on the meager profits of her sensationalized short stories, her love interest, Professor Bhaer encourages her to write what she knows, a storyline that parallels author Louisa May Alcott’s journey to writing Little Women. Of course, Jo becomes successful when she uses her life experiences to inspire her writing, just as Alcott did with the success of the novel based loosely on her own family.

I, too, have found that my greatest success in writing comes when I write non-fiction, pieces that flow from my own experiences and interests, that rely on me to capture the world around me and let its energy flow from my fingers to the page. When I began the process of my master’s project in creative writing, I knew that my work would fall in the category of non-fiction. At first I hoped to share the unique experiences of other military spouses, a topic that is relevant to me; as the wife of an Army officer, I live the life I sought to share with my readers. But the more I researched and prepared to write, the more I yearned to give voice to my own journey. I hoped to enlighten readers to both the struggles and joys of committing oneself not only to spouse, but to a lifestyle.

In my series of essays, I am exploring some intense emotions: the dejection of realizing my marriage can’t always be my husband’s priority, the worry and fear that accompany a deployment and the elation of a reunion after months apart, the frustration of attempting to fit simultaneously in two vastly different worlds, and the dual loneliness of being a civilian in a military environment and a military spouse in a civilian one.

As I write, I am often taken aback by my own hesitation to put some of these experiences on paper.  Even before I share my writing with my committee, even when my soundless words are only stored in my Mac, the act of emitting these emotions plagues me with a new, more fresh one: vulnerability. Every writer takes the chance that her work will be scoffed at or her ideas misinterpreted, but I am not speaking of that fear of rejection or inadequacy. I am speaking of the fear of revealing oneself, the vulnerability of admitting to emotions often hidden, the vulnerability of weakness, the vulnerability of being thoroughly, unapologetically human.

And yet, as all writers do, I write on, revealing my world not only to my readers, but also to myself. Through this process of overcoming vulnerability, I have gained insight into those memories that plague or delight me. I have looked back on my journey and found meaning in some moments, confusion in others. But even in these murky areas of messy emotion, there is truth. Truth about my experience and human experience, the messiness of life. Perhaps it is in those emotionally charged, messy moments that my readers will connect with me, follow my path, and emerge with their own new understandings.

Stephanie Hutaff is a second-year M.A. student at Kansas State University.

The Annotated Michael Mlekoday

image

By Daniel Hornsby

Your friend writes a book. You get your hands on the book, and then you read the book. No, first you skim the book for any references to things you’ve experienced with that friend (because the biographical fallacy is alive and well). Only once you’ve scanned the book for nods to things you’ve done together do you finally read it.

Michael Mlekoday is my friend, and, yes, he has written a book. The book is called The Dead Eat Everything. It’s a very good book. A great book, actually. I know I am biased, but I’m not the only one who thinks it is amazing. The people at Kent State University Press think so, as does Dorianne Laux, who picked Michael’s book for the Wick Poetry First Book Series (a series that, my poet friends tell me, is highly regarded). She says: “Yes, wow, this Michael Mlekoday is the bomb!” and: “Mlekoday’s melodies are woven into his lines, each taking us somewhere unexpected, to places and people foreign and familiar at the same time.” I have to agree. 

And of course, once I could get a copy, I looked through the book to see what I recognized. (Because if you were a creative writing major in college, you likely had the fantasy that one day you and all your friends would be famous, and that people would look back at the mundane things you did or places you hung out and treat them with awe and reverence. The used bookstore where you worked would be the next Shakespeare and Company. The bar where you spent all the money you had earned at the used bookstore would be tantamount to some café in Montparnasse or Montmartre, etc. You get the idea.) So I found myself searching the book for references to places and people I knew, yes, but on top of this, I discovered poems I’d seen before, in the five years I’ve known Michael. Now I will share these things—the people, the places, and the poems—with you. 

1. IN MINNEAPOLIS, MY FATHER (pgs. 5-6)

     Once, drunk, at dinner, he said:
     If only we were more like the dogs

     we could smell Death’s haunches,
     we could whip flies with our ears.

I remember this one from a workshop the two of us took together. I was an undergraduate at Kansas State University; Michael was getting his master’s degree. The poet who taught the workshop was very old, but also very kind to us. He rocked back and forth when he thought about things and called us “brilliant,” whenever we shared our poems.

After a while, Michael began to take over the workshop, and much of the fun of the class came from watching Michael and the professor go back and forth. The professor would talk about Wallace Stevens or Hart Crane, and Michael would talk about Elizabeth Bishop or Geraldine Brooks, then the professor would imitate Bob Dylan and Michael would quote Chuck D. Don’t get me wrong—Michael was always respectful to the professor, who has since retired, but sometimes I was confused as to who, exactly, was teaching the class.

___

Michael grew up in Minneapolis, just like the poem says. His father owned a bar there before he died a few years ago. Michael went to school in the Twin Cities, too, before coming to Manhattan, Kansas, where I met him. 

This poem, Michael notes in the back of the book, is in debt to Eduardo C. Corral’s “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes.”  I met Eduardo Corral once. I drove him from his hotel to the university. He asked me where I was from. I told him Muncie, Indiana. He smiled and pretended to know where that was, or actually knew. Either way, he was friendly, and later that day, at a Q&A, he explained how, as a child, he translated English for his parents when they went to doctor’s offices and stores—whenever they had to deal with Anglophones. He said the librarians were the only people who looked his parents in the eyes, and after that he spent all his time with books.

As for “In Minneapolis, My Father,” I saw this poem again years later, in a literary magazine I subscribe to. I’d heard Michael had a piece coming out in it, but I was still surprised to see him in there, along with big names like Charles Simic and Kevin Young. It took me a moment to recognize the poem, and then I remembered a few of the lines, the things Michael has told me about his father, and the professor rocking back and forth.

2. THE MOTHERLAND (pgs. 46-48)          

     There goes Zachary. That’s Ryane, Christy.
     Here’s the tire swing from the backyard,
     the bartender from the old speakeasy.

     Everything you see
     from the corner of your eye
     is a flag about to be set on fire.           

This is most certainly a reference to a bar in Manhattan, Kansas, that Michael attended with near-nightly regularity. (If you live in Manhattan, you know the one—Auntie Mae’s.) A basement dive, rumored to be a speakeasy, though we later found out it opened sometime in the 1970s. This is the bar where I first heard Michael read, when I was a freshman in college.

For Michael, the writing of poetry and its performance were learned at the same time. He started out in slam poetry, a genre of dramatic monologues that pits poets against one another in competitive slams, hence the name. (His team, from the Twin Cities, won the national championship in 2009—he’s since coached the team to another national victory.) When he came to Kansas, he and a friend started a weekly poetry night at the aforementioned dive bar. The first poem I heard him read was a piece called “The General,” from the point of view of a gym teacher who prepares sixth-grade kids for the metaphorical war of their lives. I loved it.  I hate to be the one to romanticize a poet-friend, but it was clear Michael borrowed the conviction of a preacher along with the rhythm and sensibility of hip hop.

From then on, he hosted the occasional slam and read weekly on poetry night. At one point, I showed some interest in performing, and he took the time to come over to my apartment and coach me in the key slam techniques (volume control, the dramatic pause, pacing, etc.). Not long after that, we were friends, and a year later he moved into the house I was living in, a place we called the Dead Birdhouse due to the flocks of swallow corpses we’d find in the basement.

After he left Kansas for his MFA in Indiana, Michael came back for two weeks in the summer and stayed with me, in the same house we’d lived in together. We had a lot of time to hang out—I only worked a part-time job and he had the whole two weeks to visit with friends. Eventually, he came up with an idea to record one or two of his poems over music, podcast style, to have something to share on the Internet. I was in a band, and I had some recording equipment around, so I said sure, and we got to laying down tracks with guitar and drum machine.

“The Motherland” was one of the poems we recorded. Its lines are filled with references to his friends (see the quote above), the dive bar, his hometown, the things he likes to eat and drink. It’s an unabashedly nostalgic poem, and a sad one (“Play your favorite songs/for everyone who will listen,/and the way the old records bend/like dementia—that.”). Since we recorded the piece, I’ve moved to Michigan to get an MFA, too, something I know I wouldn’t have done without knowing and living with Michael. Every now and then I come across the mp3 of “The Motherland” on my computer, give it a listen, and feel nostalgia not just for the things Michael describes, but for the poem itself and the time in which we set it to music.

3.  SELF PORTRAIT WITH BLIGHT (pgs. 29-36)

     Real prophets shoplift. Real prophets
     pretend to be ghosts. And they learn to move
     like the quiet and the dead […]

Like Michael, I was raised Catholic, then grew out of religion just as I fell into writing. Michael was there for all of that, and in his writing, I see the language of the religion I grew up embedded in some of the earliest moments in which I was deeply moved by writing.

In Revelation, John prophesizes that the Book of the Lamb holds the names of everyone who will go to Heaven when they die. In the back of The Dead Eat Everything, there’s a list of names of people Michael would like to thank. About two-dozen of them: mentors, friends, rivals, his mother and his grandmother. If you know Michael, these are the people he talks about, the people he quotes, and the people he loves. When I got to the end of The Dead Eat Everything, I saw my name, the last on the list before his mother and his grandmother, and I was—and am—happy to be among them. And I’m sure it sounds stupid, even maudlin, but by now I know Michael and I have doodled our names across each other’s lives, and that my name in the back of his book is one of many more doodles, along with the names of everyone else he loves, written down over and over again. I would guess that in Michael Mlekoday’s heaven, all these people would be there, eating everything.

Daniel Hornsby is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Michigan, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Journal, and Unstuck. He is working on a novel.