Old Notebooks and Old Habits

imageAn old Hogwarts journal helped Heather Etelamaki rediscover her writing process.

By Heather Etelamaki

I spent much of the last few weeks of my summer vacation writing longhand at the only coffee shop in my hometown of Marysville. I sat at a corner table, sipped iced tea, and nibbled on cheesecake while poring over an old blank Hogwarts journal I found in my childhood bedroom.

Over the last year, I’ve been trying to reconnect with my roots as a writer. For instance, Marysville has always been present in my work, in one way or another, and certainly is there in spirit in each of my short stories. I still freewrite longhand, but lately it’s rare for me to sit and draft a full story with anything other than my computer. This blog post, for example, was written entirely by fingers to keys. I am not in a coffee shop, but I am drinking tea with lemon.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written fiction longhand, but in junior high and high school, the only thing I remember typing up, aside from short story projects for English, was a terribly melodramatic, didactic piece-of-shit novella I wrote the summer before I entered ninth grade. Longhand was the most beneficial way for me to write. I carried brightly colored spiral notebooks everywhere so that I could dive right back into the scene at any moment.

At the end of this summer, I listened to the audiobook of one of the first Young Adult novels I ever read: That Summer by Sarah Dessen. Dessen writes in the afternoons (http://college.unc.edu/2011/04/21/sarah-dessen-on-her-10th-novel-her-writing-process-and-growing-up-as-a-tar-heel/), and though she has faced her share of difficulty (http://sarahdessen.com/3942/blog/abandoning-and-listening/), she keeps moving forward. Aside from the influences her work has had on me in terms of her well-developed settings and characters, I recognized similar things in my own writing process. For instance, I tend to write later in the day too (a habit I developed as a teenager writing late into the night while lying in bed).

But Dessen isn’t the sole reason for my return to old writing habits—I blame my reinvigorated interest in longhand on J.K. Rowling. I spent my summer job listening to old episodes of PotterCast as I folded reports and refilled printers with paper, and Rowling’s habit of writing longhand was brought up many times. I’d seen this in various videos, too, in which the camera focuses on Rowling sitting at a table in a coffeeshop furiously writing in a notebook, her face cupped in one hand.

As an adult, my sense of writing craft has been more sporadic than when I was a teenager. It’s a struggle to sit down regularly due to crazy schedules and more responsibility (I still don’t know how to adult). But I’m trying, even if it means a mere hour or two each day. I carry my blank journal around with me everywhere, writing down thoughts and questions and parts of scenes when I have the chance. Perhaps this return to old habits is not necessarily a case of becoming a better adult or a born-again teenager—it’s just ​about being a writer. This is me and this is my craft. 

Heather Etelamaki is a second-yea​r graduate student in the creative writing track at Kansas State University. When she isn’t writing Kansas-based YA fiction in her Hogwarts notebook, she can be found catching up on all the LGBTQ YA in her reading list or speculating on who will play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them.

Don’t Thank Them For Their Service — Listen Instead

imageDuring his visit to Kansas State University last week, Phil Klay read from and discussed Redeployment, which is long-listed for the National Book Award.

By Liz Culpepper

Last week over lunch, fiction writer Phil Klay and I talked about the gulf between those who have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and those who have not.  

I asked Phil how veterans have responded to his book, Redeployment. He said he’s mostly gotten positive feedback. He also said he’s heard from some people – civilians and veterans – who are critical of his words and characters. 

The criticism confounds me because Phil has a right to tell his stories in any way he sees fit. These are his stories. There is no definitive war experience. In order to grapple with war and what it does to individuals (and to nations), many more stories must be told.

My husband deployed for three long combat tours with an Airborne infantry unit based out of Vicenza, Italy. He spent a year in northern Iraq in 2003-04. In 2005, he deployed to Kandhar, Afghanistan, for a year. And for fifteen months in 2007-08, he deployed to Paktika, Afghanistan. 

As I drove home to Fort Riley after lunch with Phil Klay, I thought about some of the questions and comments I’ve heard over the years:

“How often do you get to see him?”

 “My boyfriend almost joined the Army reserves once. He didn’t want to have to kill people, so he became a volunteer fireman instead.”

“Do you get to visit your husband when he is deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan?”

“If it’s so hard to be married to a soldier. Why don’t you guys just leave the Army behind and go do something else?”

 “Has he ever killed anyone?”

Maybe at the time, I felt these comments betrayed ignorance or naivety about the situations American soldiers and their families face. But at least people were curious. However, none of those questions elicited the same anger and frustration that one phrase does: 

“Thank you for your husband’s service. And for what you do, too.”

My husband and I have talked about it at length over the years. And it came up again last Thursday with Phil Klay. 

What exactly are people saying thank you for?

I guess saying thanks is fine. But honestly, I don’t want to be thanked. My husband doesn’t want to be thanked. But we do want to tell our story.

The best thing people have ever done — the thing that makes me feel less lonely and less burdened — is ask to hear a story.

In 2009, our family was living in New Jersey. After those three combat deployments, we were trying to figure out how to be a family again. I met a new friend for drinks. She didn’t know anyone else in the military. Over beers, she said, “Tell me your story, Liz. Start at the beginning when Tim first joined and tell me about all the places you’ve been and what happened there.”

So I told her. About the good times and the bad times. About the things that kept me up at night. Telling my story was a relief. It helped me be honest with myself and honest in the writing I’ve done since then. Asking me to tell my story was far better than thanking me for what she imagined my husband had done in combat. 

For the last couple weeks in Elizabeth Dodd’s Advanced Nonfiction course, we’ve been workshopping memoirs. I wrote about a young Army soldier who was horribly burned while deployed with my husband’s unit to Paktika in 2007. I sat with his mother the night he died at a military trauma hospital in my hometown.

It was freeing to write that story (I’ve been messing with it for years) and to share it with my classmates, who are in the midst of their own stories. I don’t want soldiers to be put on a pedestal. I just want their stories to be told and heard.

And that’s all they want. They don’t want to be thanked. They want to tell their stories.

I hope more veterans – and spouses of veterans – find their way to K-State and to other writing programs across the country because the men and women who have served our country as well as their family members deserve to tell their stories. But more than that, I hope we listen.

Liz Culpepper is a first-year graduate student in creative writing. She is working on a collection of essays that explore the connections between war narratives, women’s relationships during and after war, and language within military family life and culture. 


Fifty Shades of Banned Books

imageEnglish graduate student Megan Birdsey reads on Bosco Plaza as part of Banned Books Week activities last week at Kansas State University.

By Lexiyee Smith

I hate a lot of things. I hate fruit punch, ads on Youtube, and that feeling when earbuds get ripped out of your ears—but most of all I hate E. L. James’ disturbingly popular novel Fifty Shades of Grey.

That’s why to help celebrate Banned Books Week last week, I read a section of Fifty Shades out loud at the Bosco Plaza in front of the Union. In between readings of Allen Ginsburg, Ray Bradbury, and Maurice Sendak, I read for five minutes about Christian Grey spanking Anastasia Steel with his belt. It’s not that sexy (spoiler alert, neither is the rest of the novel), but that passage does highlight the nudity and sexually explicit content that the American Library Associate cites as two of the main reasons why people want to ban the book.  

Before I decided to read from Fifty Shades of Grey, I thought about reading from a Harry Potter novel. Although they’re some of my favorite books, none of those novels have romanticized abusive relationships or misinformed portrayals of BDSM. There’s no Harry Potter and the Chamber of Whips and Chains (and if there were, I bet it would be a lot sexier than Fifty Shades). It would have been easier to read Harry Potter, or Fahrenheit 451, or even Captain Underpants. But if I had read anything other than Fifty Shades, I feel like I would have missed the point of Banned Books Week completely.

"You can’t stop bad ideas by suppressing them," Dan Ireton, assistant professor and undergraduate and community services librarian at K-State Libraries, said during Friday’s panel discussion, "Banned Books: A Conversation about Censorship."

His comments about censorship helped me form my own ideas about why I felt it was so important to read a book I had so many issues with. “We need to stop infantilizing audiences,” Dan said, “and change the conversation about banned and challenged books away from telling someone not to have an idea, to asking them to think about why something is a bad idea.”

Fifty Shades of Grey has sold more than a hundred million copies, so at least a few people must think that something in that book is a good idea. I, obviously, am not one of them. However, instead of banning this book, or any book, I want a conversation about why exactly so much of Fifty Shades is such a bad idea. Ideally, I’d like an open dialogue about sexuality in literature, about racism and violence and everything else that the ALA cites as reasons books have been banned or challenged—but I’ll settle for just a conversation about why it’s a bad idea to let a manipulative and emotionally unavailable man spank you with a belt.

I still hate Fifty Shades of Grey, and I probably always will. But I realized over the course of last week that what I hate even more than Fifty Shades is people who would rather try to ban a book than have an open discussion about it. Censorship is not the only way to preserve harmony, loyalty, and discipline. As Dan Ireton put it, “Freedom of ideas is crucial for social order.”

Lexiyee Smith is a second-year K-State graduate student in creative writing. If she had enough time, would seriously consider writing Harry Potter and the Chamber of Whips and Chains. She grew up in Texas.

In Residence

imageElizabeth Dodd (left) and Janie Elizabeth Miller pose on the porch of the Shotpouch Cabin during a collaborative residency in Oregon State’s Spring Creek Project.

By Elizabeth Dodd

After I swept the tiny seed-shapes of mouse turds from corners of the good wood floor, from the surface of the desk, and into the dustpan I emptied outside in the grass, I wondered how often I’ve lived in the company of mice. Long ago, in the summer my mother scalded her leg pouring the creek water she’d boiled for drinking into a glass pitcher and it scalded her leg, the memory-peg of damage-to-a-parent that a child won’t ever forget, there were mice in the cabin. One night when my father lit a fire in the stone fireplace—river stones they were, probably hauled from the creek that was our water source, and the reason my mother boiled our drinking water in the first place—blind and nearly-hairless babies tumbled from the chimney, squeaking like the sap in a just-lit log we thought it was until suddenly we realized, and he scooped them out, quick, from the hot flames. For a day or two we tried to nurse them back to health, offering warm milk in an eye-dropper, tiny things who never opened their own eyes and were buried outside in the granite-flecked Colorado earth. A tiny one-room cabin in Montana where the man I loved then went up into the attic and came down looking sick, there were so many mice he could see dead from the poison someone had already set out and a few others looking back at him, over the torn insulation, the 12 X 10 foot space above our heads a nest of death and he couldn’t stop thinking of plague, or hanta virus, and the thoughts stayed with him till he had me drive an hour through winding high-mountain roads to the emergency room where the doctor told him he was fine, really, he just needed to move his bowels. Another cabin in Idaho where a wood rat came out of the baseboards one evening and my brother’s wife yelled and threw her shoe, and we stuffed the prescribed wads of steel wool in the hole which, each morning, we found scornfully shoved back into the room, the little bruiser of a rodent refusing to change its routine for us, and outside on the lid of the woodbox, on the front porch, every single day, we’d find the neat scatter of droppings in exactly the same place. Once again, I was sleeping where other lives went on about their own furry business, just on the other side of the cedar- and hemlock-paneled walls. My business was luxurious: I was at a writing residency.

A few times in my life I’ve been granted such opportunities: twice at Yaddo, the famous mansion in Saratoga Springs, New York, where I slept in what were obviously old servant quarters in odd ends of the house (one of which was rumored to have been the place where Raymond Carver had stayed) and looked out on the Edith Wharton-y gardens and wrote poems and an essay. I don’t believe there were mice, but there were bats, and some of the other writers reported at breakfast that they’d been chasing the animals with long-handled nets available for that very purpose. I wasn’t sure that was the smartest thing to do, but it was exciting. Then I typed on the very first laptop I ever owned and obsessed about backing up every document before I actually changed clothes and went down to dinner in the formal dining room. Once my “residence” was my very own tent, which I pitched in a big, grassy meadow near Mount St. Helens, where a group of scientists and writers had gathered on the thirtieth anniversary of the 1980 eruption that sent ash as far east as Montana and Wyoming. I spent the days following scientists around and learning things I’d never thought to study in school, and started drafting poems and an essay. I wrote longhand in a notebook and hoped it wouldn’t ever get soaked in a rainstorm before I could get home to type things up. If there were mice around, I didn’t know it, but chipmunks scuttled around, hoping to steal something, probably from the man who hung prayer flags on his tent and always had granola, or dried mango, or something else to share. More recently I stayed in a brand new suite of rooms in Eureka Springs, in a 1950s era house that was a little Frank Lloyd Wrightish, which I figured was appropriate since three writers were there, all of whom at least said they appreciated the bad pun. The house had belonged to a woman from Chicago who retired to Eureka Springs and after she built it she didn’t look after it well, so when the writer’s colony board of directors acquired the place, they had to tie the house to the largest trees while a new foundation was poured.  I saw the pictures, so I know this is true. I went for long walks in the hills of the resort town and worked three essays at once, all of which sort of bled into one another in a relaxed, resort-ful way which I still haven’t sorted out. There were definitely no mice, but an electric-blue skink lived just outside the front door and I kept trying to get a photo of him with the phone which I was forbidden to use in the building (we all were quiet as, well, church mice there) but he was too quick.

The last, the one I just returned from as the semester began, was in Oregon. An initiative called the Spring Creek Project allowed two artists who would benefit from talking and working together (“synergistic,” the website said). A poet (and painter) who teaches in Washington and I applied together; we knew we’d benefit from the time because, as Janie said, “we’ve been in conversation for nearly two decades.” She studied creative writing and painting at K-State years ago, and even though then I was her mentor, she’s moved way beyond that stage in her career. We’re colleagues now. We both were writing about extinction, and efforts to avoid extinction, and the human predilection to doom other species to extinction. We picked a reading list together and read the same books to talk about. Janie spent a lot of time in the clearcut across the creek and wrote an essay about paperclips as an invasive species. I hiked in the restored forest around the cabin and in larger sections of state forest up the road that was slated to be logged soon and kept plugging away at one of the essays I’d started in Eureka Springs and overhauled some poems I’d been keeping in a drawer for a few years (okay, not really—they were in a file on the thumb drive I brought, but I like the dead metaphor of “in a drawer” since I’m writing about extinction these days). And I thought about all the resources—time, energy, space, transportation—get funneled towards artist residencies; what a luxury, I kept thinking.

But it’s also a necessity. In each of these spaces, I grew expansive and made connections I wouldn’t have otherwise, and I found myself writing long, clause-y sentences where one thing merged with another and the energy of the word “and” seemed to carry me back into memory (my mother’s been gone for nearly 30 years but I remember her shout so clearly) and forward into hope—hope of all kinds. I hope the cougar Janie heard behind the cabin is allowed to keep his or her private, sharp-toothed life in the restored forest. I hope the skink has a gentle winter in Arkansas. I hope the species I’ve been studying in New Zealand have a fighting chance—the flightless kiwi that murk around in the forest and are sometimes called honorary mammals; the weta, a cricket the size of a mouse, for example. I hope I keep a sense of that expansiveness from the summer experience even while fall turns into winter; I hope I can protect that rich, focused relation between thinking and writing from the KSOL headaches, and the perennial problem of parking near campus, and the fact that the email might go out just when I want it most. And since I hope those things I’m going to work harder to make them come true. Facebook doesn’t really need me. My smart phone makes me dumber as a writer. I suppose sometimes I really do need to shut the door. Probably most people who might read any of this blog won’t want to go sleep in a cabin with a bunch of mice, but I think every writer needs “space” (mental and literal) for expansive writing. I think everyone needs to be nudged a little into thinking about how the personal connects with all the larger-than-the-self stuff—the lives that go on independent of yours. And I hope that this very semester offers everyone at K-State the chance to talk with people in ways that enliven their imagination and their sentences, as well as the chance to shut the door and think about how one specific connects with another, and another, and another.

Elizabeth Dodd teaches creative nonfiction, poetry, and literature classes at Kansas State University. Her latest book is nonfiction: Horizon’s Lens, from University of Nebraska Press. 

On Ambivalence and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

By Carrie Cook

My husband loves the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. No, he hasn’t done it (he eschews all cameras), but he did take some of his Facebook friends to task for pooh-poohing it, citing the 100 million dollars raised for ALS research. Criticism abounds. He is engaging in a Sisyphean game of whack-a-mole: Wastes water! 100 million! Useless social-media activism! 100 million! Stem-cell research! 100 million! His support is utterly uncritical. Why? I have ALS. He believes that hundred million dollars can pardon my death sentence.

I’m more ambivalent. Ambivalence is interesting. It is conflict; it is the war waged between the heart and the head, and those battle wounds are always raw. It’s something I try to engage with in my stories: to make my characters conflicted about each other, to leave you feeling equal parts hatred and love for them as well. If you feel that – well, I’ve done my job, because you will keep thinking about them, turning them over in your head, trying to resolve the conflict.

For the last few weeks, I’ve tried to resolve my own ambivalence about the Ice Bucket Challenge. I don’t care to watch or comment on the videos – even the ones dedicated to me. I am unable to engage with the most prolific ALS fundraiser of all time, one that has given ALS some of the street cred usually reserved for breast cancer and type 2 diabetes. I’m happy for that kind of awareness, I really am. But then I see gems like this popping up in my Facebook feed: “The Ice Bucket Challenge mimics what it’s like to have ALS.” This is not even remotely true, but the let-your-anesthesiologist-paralyze-you-without-actually-putting-you-under challenge doesn’t seem to be catching on. The idea that ice water mimics ALS symptoms is a retcon*, designed to give the challenge’s origin story a little more heft. More likely, it has its roots in the polar bear plunge, where people jump into a cold pool or lake for the charity of their choice. Because I am a pessimist at heart, I think the Ice Bucket Challenge is more suited to a viral breast cancer awareness campaign targeted to sororities, because wet t-shirts plus ice – well, you get the picture.

And then there are the haters. Everything popular (even Chris Pratt, possibly the most perfect human ever assembled) gets pushback; that’s just the way we’re wired. California’s in a drought and by 2050 we will all be trading wet naps in a dry, post-apocalyptic wasteland, so why are thousands of people dumping buckets of water on their head? Save it for the children! And can’t we see, say the most curmudgeonly (curmudgeonliest?) among us, that this is just another instance of internet slacktivism, designed to make people feel like they’re doing something – #Kony2012, anyone? Then there’s the ALS Association itself: bloggers report 73% of donations to ALSA goes to overhead, and the association even tried to trademark the words “Ice Bucket Challenge.”

Personally, I just can’t get worked up over these claims. People waste water every day: as they warm up their showers, or fill their pools, or water the lilies in front of their picture windows. It takes more than 1,000 gallons of water to make a t-shirt, and I guarantee every one of us has a collection of unworn cotton shirts sitting at the bottom of our closet – but this waste is invisible, so there’s no concerted effort to stop it. The slacktivism? Well, all kinds of things find popularity, from silly bands to swallowing goldfish – why shouldn’t we attach trendiness to social activism? In a summer bookended by Elliot Rodger, the MRA mass murderer, and Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who shot the unarmed Michael Brown, I really don’t have an issue with people looking for something uplifting, something easy they can do in order to make the world a little bit better. Finally, according to Politifact, Ice Bucket naysayers earned a pants-on-fire rating: the ALSA uses 79% of donations for “purposes that advance its stated mission” – and it dropped its ill-advised adventures in branding.

I think the root of my ambivalence lies within that 100 million my husband likes to cite. It’s possible that money could result in an actual, viable treatment. It’s happened before. What would I give to see my forearms plump with gently sloping muscle? To be able to shake hands, to wave gracefully, to flip the bird to drivers who cut me off? What would I give to even arrest my ALS in its current form, recovery be damned? To simply not get worse, to be able to keep my voice and my legs and my arms just as they are, even if I would still suffer the occasional humiliating fall or need help to button a shirt? But that’s just a fantasy. Matthew Herper points out the gains made in Cystic Fibrosis research – the drug Ivacaftor – made possible by a grant from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. The drug treats only a small portion of sufferers, those 4-5% with a specific genetic mutation, and it costs each person $300,000 per year. That’s the reality: small, expensive achievements, gained inch by $100 million inch. Does that make it unworthy? Should they stop trying? Of course not. My conflict is my personal stake; I live in my body, and I have to prepare for what I know is inevitable. I don’t know what I would give, but I know what I can’t – hope. I spent eighteen months in a diagnostic limbo hoping that I had anything other than ALS, and it nearly destroyed me. The conflict between hope (that feathered thing that won’t shut the hell up) and my reality rages whenever I see someone post yet another video of another celebrity dumping ice water over his head. But for that, I would dismiss the Ice Bucket Challenge as simply more proof of the internet’s inherent absurdity. And I would do it without a second thought.

*Do not click! Internet time suck ahead!

Carrie Cook is a second-year K-State graduate student in creative writing. She also has a degree in Apparel and Textiles with an emphasis in fashion design, and she enjoys purchasing fabric and then not making anything out of it. Last year, she completed her goal of using her entire GI Bill, and she recently started collecting rejection letters.

Word and Play

imageCamille Dungy’s trip to Kansas State included a stay at the Konza Prairie.

By Brennan Bestwick 

Before I met Camille Dungy, I heard her laugh echo down the stairwell. Her joy fills a room, any in fact, and I shared many spaces with Camille during her visit at Kansas State last week. It started with a conference in the basement of K-State’s English building. I was excited but nervous. As I soon learned, the key to overcoming my nerves was the same needed to improve my poems. I had to loosen up, to play.

I struggle with line breaks, always have, and Camille quickly zeroed in on this. My anxiety in writing poetry is as much visual as it is contextual. I want my poems to move on the page, the lines to vary in shape and size freely, yet I lean towards symmetry. When the lines aren’t tight and compact, I’m uncomfortable. I had a difficult time explaining this concern to Camille, though I didn’t need to. She understood. With pen in hand, she showed how some lines could break to play with the reader, to misdirect, so some lines’ meanings come into dispute as you continue reading. The return key holds that much power. Together we played with the text, and the humor I hoped to achieve in my first draft began to reveal itself. My poem grew layers. It asked more of the reader. As Camille would say, if the poem does not mean more than one thing, it means nothing.

The instructor’s manual to Camille’s lesson is her latest collection, Smith Blue. The best example of this is “Prayer for P-,” an elegy for a friend. Despite its tragic tale, the poem is written as an acrostic, the first letter of each line spells out the words of a poem, “Prayer” by C.P. Cavafy. When I asked Camille why she wrote it this way, she smiled. Because it was fun, she said. The play kept the story beneath the tragedy in focus. Smith Blue is often a collection of catastrophe, both environmental and personal, but you may not know it. The poems dance on the page, they deceive, they play. They mean more than one thing.

After my conference, fellow grad student Cormac Badger and I interviewed Camille, but it felt more like a conversation among friends. Between moments of laughter, we discussed Camille’s experience with loss and her grave reminders about the swift depletion of the natural world. We ended the interview by talking about the end days, but even this was interrupted by our chuckles, talks of “go bags” and an apocalypse-ready utility belt Batman would envy. As we talked, I came to understand the next step in the process of word and play: sharing it.

The next day, a large crowd filled K-State’s Little Theater for Camille’s reading. Her joy filled a much larger room now. She read from each of her collections, some new prose, and two sections from “Prayer for P-.” When she wasn’t reading from the page, she was making us laugh. When her hour was through, she handed me a collection of poems she recommended during our conference. A crowd engulfed her before we had the chance to talk about it, but I was struck by her generosity, as I had been throughout her visit. 

Later, at a reception, I thanked Camille for all of the time and attention she gave me. She smiled, shook my hand, and told me to share the book she gave me, to share it with as many people as possible.

When we choose to take writing seriously, we must not take ourselves too seriously. We need humor. We need to find our balance between word and play, within the text and outside of it. Sometimes this means breaking form and cutting a line shorter, deceiving our readers, inviting them into the conversation. Sometimes this means, simply, that we must laugh. Laugh among death and catastrophe and chaos. Let them all exist within the same stanza, the same hour in a day. Then share it. When you make the choice to write seriously, you enter a community. This community extends beyond class workshops. It’s attending readings, trading books, being an active listener when work is shared. Camille taught me this.

Brennan Bestwick is a first-year K-State graduate student in creative writing. When he’s not stressing over line breaks, he reads comic books and watches re-runs of Gilmore Girls.

On Finding Poetry


By Traci Brimhall

Originally from Little Falls, Minnesota, and a resident of nine cities since, I’m glad to have finally made Manhattan and Kansas State University my home. Though I’m here to teach creative writing classes, poetry hasn’t always been a part of my life. Growing up there were the usual rhymes sung at doubledutch and lullabies (“The Owl and the Pussycat” a memorable favorite), but I didn’t start writing poetry regularly until high school. I studied it in college, and my Norton anthology from my first poetry class traveled with me through five moves. Upon graduating college, I stopped writing, got a house, started working something I considered a “real” job, and then I got very, very bored.

Fortunately, that “real” job was at a Shakespeare theater, and one of the actors there was also an English professor. When he found out I’d studied poetry in college, he started leaving books of poetry in my mailbox at work. Every time I showed up to unlock the doors for another showing of Twelfth Night or Hamlet, I’d discover Rainer Maria Rilke or Stephen Dunn waiting for me. Though I loved the poets like Edna St. Vincent Millay, T.S. Eliot, and John Keats I’d studied in school, reading living poets and poets in translation renewed my love for poetry.

That kind of diversity of reading is something I hope to bring to every class—understanding the poetic traditions and forms that shape the poems being written today, as well as the talented voices around the world. The essayist Rebecca Solnit said: “Books are the solitudes in which we meet,” and through poetry books, I’ve met political poets, people grieving or in love, parents, doctors, insurance salesmen, mystics, sincere writers and ironists, writers praising and lamenting. It’s given me a new way to understand the world.

Another thing I always bring to the classroom is a deeper understanding of how a poem is made. Emily Dickinson once wrote: “Split the Lark—and you’ll find the Music,” and while our dissections in workshop are gentle ones, I want to show everyone the talent and complexity of writers we study, as well as help them see their own gifts. It’s important to recognize that a line of poetry (or an image or a metaphor) is good, but crucial to know how it works. Why does a shift in tone in a poem make you laugh? Why did the juxtaposition in the last line make you cry?

Wildcats, bring me your larks. Let’s find their music.

Traci Brimhall joined the Kansas State University Department of English in August as an assistant professor. She is the author of Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton, 2012), winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award.

Meet the New Graduate Students

The new semester has started, and we’re still organizing our purple shirts by gradient and trying to remember our passwords for the copy machine.

To help everyone get back in the new-school-year groove, we asked our incoming creative writing MA students to introduce themselves by answering a short questionnaire.


Name: Jack Lawrence Anderson

Hometown: Dwight, Kansas

Alma mater: University of Kansas, Webster University, Hogeschool Voor De Kunsten Utrecht

Primary genre: Romance de Gare or Airport Novels

Please tell us something interesting/unique about you: While illegally working as a bike messenger in the winter in Toronto, I almost ran over Elton John. I brushed up against his fox fur as he gasped.

If you could transform briefly into a literary character, who would you want to become and why? Sun Wukong (the Monkey King in the Chinese classic Journey to the West): Who wouldn’t want to be less than and greater than man?


Name: Cormac Badger

Hometown: Shawnee, Kansas

Alma mater: Kansas State University

Primary genre: Fiction (short?)

Please tell us something interesting/unique about you: I’m a big ol’ Japanophile, spent part of last year there

If you could transform briefly into a literary character, who would you want to become and why? I would be that one guy from that one Murakami novel that goes down in a well. That sounds nice. I’d do that.


Name: Brennan Bestwick

Hometown: Randolph, Kansas

Alma mater:  Kansas State University

Primary genre:  Poetry

Please tell us something interesting/unique about you: I spent the last three years working in the health-care industry. Though I never imagined working in a hospital, learning the ins and outs of the surgical world was fascinating.

If you could transform briefly into a literary character, who would you want to become and why?​ Remus Lupin, though not the Remus caught in a war, the Remus known as a dazzling Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. How exhilarating and rewarding it would be to cast evil from a classroom to the delight of every student in a desk.


Name: Liz Culpepper

Hometown: San Antonio, Texas

Alma mater: Texas A&M University

Primary genres: Non-fiction and poetry

Please tell us something interesting/unique about you: I spent six years in Europe and Asia.

If you could transform briefly into a literary character, who would you want to become and why? I’d be Hollis Henry, the protagonist in William Gibson’s Zero History. She’s smart, poetic and cool. Plus, she travels light.


Name: James “Hunter” Gilson

Hometown: Overland Park, Kansas

Alma mater: Kansas State University

Primary genre: Short stories

Please tell us something interesting/unique about you: While working at the Kansas State Agronomy Farm this summer, I had the opportunity to walk through a seemingly countless number of wheat fields, clean out grain bins, operate a bagging machine, and stack bushels of wheat. Additionally, I learned a good deal about tractor pulls and why they are, in fact, incredible.

If you could transform briefly into a literary character, who would you want to become and why? Jeremy Mars from Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners.” I’d like to live in one of Kelly Link’s stories, and Jeremy’s story is my favorite.


Name: Seth Kristalyn

Hometown: Iola, Kansas

Alma mater: Pittsburg State University

Primary genres: Fantasy, metafiction, fabulist fiction,

Please tell us something interesting/unique about you: I am originally from North Dakota and a big hockey fan. I have more hobbies and interests than I can find time for, including writing, reading, fishing, running, painting miniatures, playing roleplaying games, listening to and playing music, and watching movies.

If you could transform briefly into a literary character, who would you want to become and why? I would become Nick Carraway from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to observe the world through the eyes of a disillusioned 1920s man. I would like to do so to truly feel and comprehend the strong emotional fracturing of Modernism.


Name: Tim Lake

Hometown: Topeka, Kansas

Alma mater: Washburn University

Primary genre): Fiction, primarily fantasy

Please tell us something interesting/unique about you: I was born in Frankfurt, Germany, the same city where Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born.

If you could transform briefly into a literary character, who would you want to become and why? Harry Potter. I can’t think of anything that would be more fun than waving a stick around and changing the laws of physics.


Name: Robert J. Sanders

Hometown: Kalamazoo, Michigan

Alma mater: Western Michigan University

Primary genre: Poetry

Please tell us something interesting/unique about you: I was born in Anchorage, Alaska. I ride a custom motorcycle that I modified and repainted myself.

If you could transform briefly into a literary character, who would you want to become and why?​ Galdalf from Lord of the Rings. He is wise and has a zen-like calm about him. His life philosophy is a lesson in not taking things for granted and in never missing an opportunity.


Name: Christopher Sims

Hometown: Columbus, Indiana

Alma mater: Indiana University

Primary genre: Fiction

Please tell us something interesting/unique about you: I have a special interest in the graphic novel and actively work on illustrating my stories.

If you could transform briefly into a literary character, who would you want to become and why? Claude Lantier. Then I could experience the maddening forces behind the noblest fool’s errand: the pursuit of one great masterpiece.


Name: Adena J. Weiser

Hometown: Manhattan, Kansas

Alma mater: Kansas State University

Primary genres: Speculative and historical fiction

Please tell us something interesting/unique about you: I can play the first few chords of “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley on my secondhand acoustic guitar.

If you could transform briefly into a literary character, who would you want to become and why? Toby from Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood because she is an intriguing, resourceful survivor who talks to bees and is an expert gardener. Toby is a strong, fully fleshed character who explores her spirituality and cares for and about others while existing in an ecological apocalyptic world.

So Long, Farewell

By Stephanie Kartalopoulos 

May 13, 2014. The temperature in Manhattan is supposed to range between 60-70 degrees this week with mostly sunny skies. The trees are in full bloom; small, strange spiders are starting to pop up in the most random places—they’re skittering across a computer keyboard, crawling around a bulletin display in Eisenhower Hall, peeking up from shower drains; and purple and white irises are in bloom all over campus. This is not the scene for a Von Trapp song at the end of the day. This is, instead, Kansas State in the early half of May.

The entire campus is under the throes of one great big caffeine buzz: many students are cramming for their final exams. K-State Creative Writers are revising their poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction and trying to beat early drafts into the kind of wild submission that will inch them closer and closer to greatness. Faculty members are grinding their elbows into their desktops while grading projects and papers. Everyone is looking forward to the  blissful idea that seems almost within arm’s reach: 

Summer Vacation.

The cliché is that “summer vacation” means easy novels to read, simple part-time jobs in cupcake shops to make enough money for beer during the Fall 2014 football season, and lots of easy, long outings spent nursing a glass of wine late into the night, with little to no consequence, in the back porch bar area of pick-your-choice restaurant in Beachy Town, USA, with a bunch of easy-going friends. The cliché is that “summer vacation” is the time when you think you can stay young and carefree forever. The cliché is, well, a total cliché. 

Around here, we know a different reality. Let’s try this instead:

Summer vacation: \SUM-mer vay-CAY-shun\ noun;

  1. The time when student creative writers can dive deeply into creative projects that don’t need to work within a professor’s writing prompts (or graduate writing project requirements) but that are entirely their own.
  2. The time when faculty creative writers can write freely and blissfully with a much smaller “to do” list interfering and the wonderful gift of free time to play, research, visualize, and mold ideas until they become sketches, drafts, and then, hopefully, journal-submission-worthy pieces of literature.
  3. The time when everyone can be free with their imaginations, live life, experience new things, and lose themselves in the richness of the world around them. These memories-in-the-making, after all, will find their way into poem drafts, essay paragraphs, and plot elements or character development for future works of art.

We’re looking forward to this and hope that you are too. And we hope that you’ll tune back in to the blog come late August when the Fall 2014 term starts up. Have a great summer, everyone.

Stephanie Kartalopoulos is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Kansas State University and recently completed her Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Missouri. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in journals that include Laurel Review, Harpur Palate, Phoebe, 32 Poems, Subtropics, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, Grist, and Barn Owl Review.

On the first Driptorch Fiction Reading

By Dillon Rockrohr

Seventy-two people filled the rows of K-State’s little Campus Creek Amphitheater on Friday evening to hear local fiction writers share their work. The ingredients of the moment—a sun just starting to set, a breeze arriving and exiting, a perfect warmth, and the sounds of stories— coalesced into a truly satisfying first gathering of the Driptorch Fiction Reading Series. 

The first Driptorch event featured work by four writers: undergraduates Ora McIntosh and Cormac Badger, graduate student Hamza Rehman, and instructor Chris Nelson. The pieces covered a diverse scope of themes and voices — from Ora’s coming-of-age tragedy about two boys who meet at camp and support each other through the turnings of life to Cormac’s hallucinogenic account of a deadbeat’s spirit journey and the elk-man who confronts him there; from Hamza’s magical realist narration of a painting at the Beach Museum, the painting itself a depiction of a story by Borges, to Chris Nelson’s second-person history of a small southern town backdropped by the Blue Ridge Mountains, forgotten once and remembered again. In less than an hour and a half, we lived so many lives.

Driptorch developed out of a conversation between a few of us undergrad creative writers and Professor Katy Karlin. We mentioned our desire to see the creative writing community in Manhattan become something vibrant. We dreamed up a community in our Little Apple with creative writing weaved into its fabric, where the craft of storytelling comes in from the margins and where writers sharing their work with each other and the community is celebrated. We see the spark of this sort of place in fantastic events like Poetry (and Short Prose) on Poyntz. With Driptorch, we hoped  to add to that by opening up an outlet specifically for fiction. Maybe we could help turn the communal spark into a controlled burn. 

To be honest, we had no idea how many would make it out to a reading put on by four undergrads who had never organized an event before. Then seventy-two people gathered, students and faculty and community members, to enjoy the stories in the sweetly convivial atmosphere. This tells us that Manhattan is a town that values creative work. The creative spark is not so dim here; it is pulsing with life.

In reflecting on the reading, on the significance of storytelling and why it feels so human, I imagine ancient meetings by primal fires, the assemblies of villages in moonlit town squares where a figure stands to tell the town its history, its myth, and I wonder if it might have felt much like Friday evening. Something so fundamental exists in the stories told by human voices that feels different than the silent scanning of words. There’s life in them, relationship, truth even in the fiction. We cannot make whatever we want of the person reading; there they stand, and they’ve got something to tell us. We feel the rocks underneath us, catch the other humans in our peripheral vision, sit in the tug and pull of the wandering breeze, and listen to the reader spin fictions unwrapping subtle truth. To exploit the metaphor of the driptorch — fiction, like art, like poetry, consumes and burns up the reality around us, ever so carefully, in order to make the real come alive to our eyes once more.

For all these reasons, we can’t wait to do this again, and we’re planning the second installment of Driptorch for this fall. We hope to make this a monthly event next year, and in order to do so, we are already looking for new readers. If you would like to share your fiction with us and the Manhattan community, please send a submission of your work to driptorchmanhattan@gmail.com. A big thank you to everyone who came out to the first, and let’s make this thing happen again.

Dillon Rockrohr is a junior double-majoring in English and philosophy. In the fifth grade, his team won sixth place in a national Bible quiz competition.