Contributor Spotlight: Wendy Vardaman

September 11th, 2014

vardaman2-12Wendy Vardaman’s piece “Midwesterners in Paradise” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 14, out now.

How long have you been writing?
I’ve written poetry seriously for 20 years, ever since I finished a brief & inconsequential stint as an academic. Before that I was writing papers for classes and a dissertation. I went to grad school in order (I thought) to make a living as a poet, but my dissertation on American multiethnic autobiography was a mix of the scholarly and the creative—literary analysis and theory, ethnography of work collected from my students, personal nonfiction—and not of interest to anyone but me. I don’t regret having a PhD though. I’ve written book reviews and interviews for the last 10 years, and during the last 5, I’ve gone back to writing literary criticism of a sort, along with creative nonfiction. I come closer to bringing my scholarly and creative interests and writing together all the time, though it’s taken a while to get there. At some point I’d like to be able to write both things simultaneously and effectively for an audience, however small. With illustrations, glitter, fabric, equations, and/or animated puppets.

What’s your connection to the Midwest?
I went to high school in downstate Illinois, where my mom and brother still live. I’ve lived in Madison, Wisconsin, 14 years after spending many years in the Northeast and Northwest—it’s the longest I’ve ever been anywhere. I’m still not sure what, if anything, I am, north or south, east, west, or Midwest, but I think moving around and experiencing different parts of the country (as well as living outside the country) has given me perspective on what the Midwest is and offers.

How has the Midwest influenced your writing?
So many ways. For starters, there are many Midwestern authors and artists and organizers, past and present, who have influenced me as a writer and as a producer of others, and those two things, writing and producing writing, exist in some feedback loop with each other in my work.

Then there is the incredible artistic resource that Midwestern cities represent, in particular, for me: Madison with its world-class university and engaged community, both creating endless intellectual and cultural public programs; Milwaukee with its wealth of sophisticated, inspiring, and down-to-earth activist-writer-artists; and Chicago, an amazing resource for visual art, theatre, poetry, performance poetry, public art, architecture, dance, music—I go there often for readings, theatre, art exhibits—but it’s deeper than that. Chicago has this long history of bringing people from different races, classes, and cultural backgrounds together, and the artistic innovation that comes out of those colliding forces, from the community theatre movement to improv to slam to jazz, is the cultureshed that all Midwestern writer/artists have the privilege (whether or not we realize it) to be nurtured by.

Living in Wisconsin has also given me an incredibly supportive statewide writing community. Wisconsinites like to do things together and are good at getting organized—amazingly, that extends even to poets. As co-editor of Verse Wisconsin for five years, I’ve gotten to hear about and draw inspiration from so many different poets, kinds of poets, and programs that incorporate and support poetry throughout the state. One of my favorites of these is First Wave at UW – Madison, a hip hop and urban arts community that brings internationally known speakers, readers and performers to town. I’ve been to the summer Hip Hop Educators’ Institute twice, getting to take workshops in everything from poetry and cypher to intersectional identities to tagging to hip hop culture. I’m not going to be in any rap battles (performance and improvisation aren’t my strengths), but I love that Madison, Wisconsin, is on the cutting edge of an international movement in hip hop and critical pedagogy, and that serendipity has definitely affected my aesthetics and what I value in poetry and performance poetry.

For that matter, so has the political turmoil here the last few years, which has pushed me to be more of a public poet: one that strives, as current laureate of Madison with Sarah Busse, to make poetry public; to be open to the political content and uses of poetry; and to engage as an editor in certain kinds of activism, essentially an editing of witness. The book that Busse and I recently published and co-edited with Shoshauna Shy, Echolocations, Poets Map Madison, Cowfeather Press, is one manifestation of that editorial mission—providing space to voice the local and seeking out poetry that reflects the demographic and aesthetic diversity of the city.

The Midwest seems to call me to organize and to help build community. I’m not sure I would be that kind of writer/person in another part of the country.

Why do you believe there has never really been a regionalist push for Midwestern writing in the past like there has with the South or even the West Coast?
So many reasons! I don’t think I can do justice to them all. For starters of course there’s the invisibility of the Midwest to coastal folk. We’re the “fly-over” and that’s not a metaphor. I’m not sure that we can do much about that with respect to truly coastal critics and venues. We can organize ourselves better to create a more visible presence. The internet helps, of course, and I really appreciate venues like Midwest Gothic that look to do that, but more importantly, we need to think of ourselves as Midwesterners with a regional identity and some investment in it. We need to help each other become the best writers we can be and promote each other’s work in big and small ways.

That might start with educating ourselves about what the Midwest is—one or many? It’s complicated by the large geographical territory, as well as some of the historical divisions and frictions within it. Urban versus rural, for instance. I think Midwesterners need to recognize that our cities, as much as our farmland, make up the region, and that the cities have always been important. I went to a conference recently on Midwestern literature and was pretty surprised to hear scholars talking about the region as if Sinclair Lewis and August Derleth were still the last best thing to happen here. As if “Midwestern literature” was something that existed in a rural past. As if it was some inherently pastoral thing that couldn’t exist without the family farm. So that’s one problem. What is Midwestern writing? It’s what Midwesterners are writing. Now. Including graphic novels and slam poetry and wacky musicals and storefront plays and The Onion.

We also need to read and learn more about Midwestern writers. The April “Midwest Remix” issue of Verse Wisconsin is a collaboration among many guest curators who contributed their own content to it. We were really impressed by the range and diversity of voices represented—each of the curators is a Wisconsin-based visionary and expert with respect to poetry and to the region, or the many regions, that comprise the Midwest.

Another phenomenon that we saw working on Echolocations, which solicited poems recognizably set in Madison and referencing some public place within the poem, is that Midwestern writers themselves may not necessarily value what’s local to them. May not think the local is worth writing about. May not name the local if they do write about it. The point we tried to make with the anthology is that if we ourselves don’t write about our place, no one else will. It’s not like New York, with people coming through and saying, “Look at me. I was here at the Brooklyn Bridge” or some other famous monument. I mean, seriously, everybody knows what the Pyramids and the Eiffel Tower are—why put those places in the title of your poem but not the names of local stores, parks, buildings, street corners, co-ops where you live? And why not talk about the place you live when you have a larger platform—regional or national—to do that? I’m always encountering writers from Wisconsin at national venues who never mention where they live or read work that witnesses events, people, and places nearby. I’ve started to see it in terms of colonialism: I worry that many of us have accepted the dominant narrative that nothing significant culturally happens here, that we’re the fly-over zone, that we have to connect with writers in New York City or San Francisco or Los Angeles to matter and that those are the people/places that will validate us as artists. Which is completely untrue. Everything and everyone we see around us is worthy material, and it’s up to us to witness our local places/people/stories and to make connections with writers, artists, and activists close by. So much artistic innovation occurs all the time right here—we need to document and value that. I believe that for most of us, building local writing communities and learning about/engaging with other local arts circles, will make our writing lives more meaningful, too.

How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?
I have a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a Tumblr blog, and an author website. I also contribute content to some of those things for Verse Wisconsin and Cowfeather Press. I share links to my own writing that way, and I misuse Tumblr egregiously by posting long-form essays there instead of fun visuals & gifs, but I’m more interested in using social media to share articles and exciting art projects by others, as well as observing how it can be used creatively to build writing / artistic/ activist communities and movements that take advantage of and cut across geographical and demographic boundaries. When Verse Wisconsin was publishing poems about the Wisconsin protests in 2011, we did it through Facebook notes, as well as on our website. I’m in awe of Milwaukee’s Overpass Light Brigade, a grassroots arts-protest organization that started three years ago as a local action and built an international community through Facebook. I admire the way that hip hop pedagogy uses Twitter and the hashtag #HipHopEd to hold public, weekly conversations about the discipline among an international community of scholars, teachers, artists, and other interested people. Wisconsin author Lynda Barry’s Near-Sighted Monkey is an incredibly creative Tumblr blog that does so much more than promote her or her work.

Favorite book?
I’ve lived too many lives as a reader, student, writer, editor, reviewer, publisher, and mother to just pick one, but I’ve always enjoyed challenging, quirky, innovative books with interesting language, whether novels, plays, poetry, or something else. Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, Joyce’s Ulysses, Mules and Men and Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neale Hurston), One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), the complete poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson, Beloved and Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Shakespeare’s complete works—especially Hamlet, King Lear, and The Tempest, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom and The Sound and the Fury, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Orlando, Shaw’s Saint Joan, Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson, Jane Austen’s novels, and Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll series “for kids” are a few of the books that have been really important to me at one time or another, and that list is always growing. The book I just finished reading (and loved) was Building Stories, a graphic novel/poem in a box by Chicago author Chris Ware. Right now I’m reading new work by two stellar performance poets I admire, Douglas Kearney (Patter) and Chicago native Patricia Smith (Shouda Been Jimi Savannah).

Favorite food?
Chocolate or hummus. But not simultaneously.

If you could have coffee (or tea or a beer) with any literary figure, alive or dead, who would it be?
I’d much rather have a literary party where I get to invite 20-30 writer-artists (living & dead) and listen (while becoming invisible) to what they have to say to each other. Or better yet, have them work on a project together while they talk. Let’s say a poetry mural for the front of my house or a poetry couch.

Where can we find more information about you?
My author website is wendyvardaman.com. My blog live art(s) art live(s) (not about me) is at wvardaman.tumblr.com. The major projects I work on with Sarah Busse—Verse Wisconsin, Cowfeather Press, and the Madison poet laureateship—reflect my aesthetics and community-focused thinking about art. Two articles particularly in Verse Wisconsin deal with that: “poetical economy/exchange: kitchens, coffee shops, cluttered tables, communities” and, with Sarah Busse, “(di)Verse Wisconsin: Community & Diversity”.

Contributor Spotlight: Fritz Swanson

fritz-u289Fritz Swanson’s story “The Thirty-Third Degree” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 14, out now.

(Illustration by Jason Polan of Franklin, Michigan.)

How long have you been writing?
My mother was the village librarian in Parma, Michigan, west of Jackson. I’ve been writing at least since I was in elementary school, sitting in the bay window of the library looking into the street. I recall walking from the library down to the railroad tracks, making up stories about the buildings that weren’t there. There was a cement slab across the street, between the library and feed elevator, and all the kids knew that there used to be a jail there. A little one room village jail, and it had been hit by on old trolley car (Parma was the end of the line, and the building the library was in used to be the final depot). The trolley car had jumped the tracks, crashed into the jail, and knocked the whole brick building off its foundations. One thief had been in the jail, as the kids told it, and they said he was still running.

The trolley cars were taken out a generation ago, but the scar where the tracks had been was still in the pavement of Main Street, so we all new it must have been true.

At that time there was a an old hobo who lingered in town, and my mother took to calling him Rocky Balboa. He’d come in and curse her out in some cant no one could understand, and once he left a dead raccoon in the book drop box. She’d yell at him to get on out, and I just knew he was the old thief that had escaped, though I suppose the years didn’t all line up. He was sour smelling, and thin as a rake.

But once, during the strawberry festival, he came down into the cool basement of the United Methodist Church where you could buy slices of strawberry pie, and he sat down at the old upright piano they used for choir practice, and he played some complicated rag time, which was the first time I had ever heard music of that sort, and I decided people were more complicated than they appeared.

What’s your connection to the Midwest?
My great grandfather was an old Swede in Crystal Falls in the Upper Peninsula where he was the baker, and his old wife sold flowers from her garden. Their son was a school administrator over in South Haven, Michigan, where he married the gym teacher, who was herself defended from minor Scotch-Irish gentry that had settled in Illinois at the start of the 19th century. Granddad (after he died) gave his body to the University of Michigan, where he had gotten his Masters 50 years earlier, and where his future bride had been secretary for Biggie Munn before he became head coach for the Spartans. My mother’s folk settled in the mountains of Northern West Virginia just south of Pittsburgh. They won their land as payment during the Revolution. I supposed my family has been living somewhere around the Great Lakes, or in the Ohio River Valley, for as long as there has been a country. It was the West when the earliest showed up, and its status as “middle” west has arrived around our ears slowly.

How has the Midwest influenced your writing?
I think I might have started this magazine if you guys hadn’t. When I was a boy, in the first grade, we had a huge map of Michigan up on the wall in our cafeteria, and our teacher read us Paddle to the Sea by Holling C. Holling. I knew even then that my Grandmother’s grandfather was a river boat captain on the Ohio River, and the whole idea of this inland sea way, this water system, that ran from Nova Scotia down to New Orleans, that we were this other country, this old French Country that might have been… I don’t the question can be underestimated. My son, Oscar, named for my grandfather, has a map of Michigan that I painted in his room, just like the one from Parma Elementary that I grew up with.

Why do you believe there has never really been a regionalist push for Midwestern writing in the past like there has with the South or even the West Coast?
I’d hate to speak ill of anyone. I can only say that the lack of a cohesive literary culture in the region has always pained me. I only want to do my part in making one. But in doing it, we need to make a grand claim of territory. I claim Old France, all of it, as our domain. This is an ancient place, home to Mound Builders centered in Cahokia, French aristocrats speckled along the water ways from Quebec to Detroit, to La Salle and St. Louis and New Orleans; British settlers, German farmers, Swedish Miners and Finnish Lumberjacks. We’ve embraced Polish factory workers, and Arab Merchants, Somali school boys, and all the dispossessed freed slaves as they marched north out of the shadow of Jim Crow. And each has remade this place as their own. The Midwest belongs to so many different people, so many different cultures, so many different gods. We claim the edges of the prairie, the western mountain ridge of the Appalachians, the great Canadian Shield north of Lake Superior. If you are going to say we are the Middle West, mean it. There is the East, the South, the West. And we are the crossroads, the main arterial path, the fertile collision.

We are Mark Twain’s country, and the birthplace of Ambrose Bierce. Jay Gatsby walked the shores of Lake Superior when he was a boy, just as Hiawatha had done before him. This is Carl Sandburg’s prairie we’ve inherited, and we sit underneath Frank Lloyd Wright’s sky.

When George Washington came out to the edge of his domain and started the war the colonist refused to pay for, this was the land where the French and the Indians were. This was the land he saw.

How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?
I’m on Twitter and on Instagram pretty regularly, in both cases as @fritzswanson.

Favorite book?
I think it’s a four-way tie: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, The Eros of Mourning by Henry Staten, Nine Stories by Salinger, and From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell.

Favorite food?
Meatloaf.

If you could have coffee (or tea or a beer) with any literary figure, alive or dead, who would it be?
Benjamin Franklin. And all we would do is set type.

Where can we find more information about you?
fritzswanson.com (though that needs to be updated), or on Twitter and Instagram @fritzswanson

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Welcome Jamie and Lauren!

We’re delighted to welcome Jamie Monville to the staff as our newest intern. Jamie is passionate, dedicated, and we’re thrilled to have her join us!

In addition, we’re excited to announce that former intern Lauren Crawford has been promoted to our Editorial Assistant—we are so excited for this, and all the awesome projects she’s going to be helping us out on!

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Jamie Monville is a senior studying English the University of Michigan. She has been known to fall in love with beautiful sentences, flawed characters, and home decor. Jamie has a passion for hand lettering and creating handmade unlined journals. She is looking to purse a career in publishing after she graduates.

 

 


Lauren Crawford recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from the University of Michigan. She has a penchant for telling jokes poorly and a passion for writing in the margins. She loves science fiction novels, Suprematism, and survival horror video games, and has begun to run out of places to properly store her books. Currently, she is applying to graduate school, and hopes to become a professor one day.

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Issue 15 cover and contributor listing

Summer, we hardly knew ye! But that’s okay, because we get some fantastic autumn treats in the Midwest. I mean, cider mills, color tours, Saturday tailgating…can’t beat it! And to openly welcome the change of seasons, here it is, the cover for Issue 15 (Fall 2014)!

Issue15_Fall2014_cover

Cover image copyright (c) Michelle Pretorius.

And what an absolutely rock-solid line-up we have in this issue. Check it out:

Issue15_Fall2014_contribs

We are so excited for Issue 15, and hope you will be too. It is slated to release October 1, 2014—mark your calendars!

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Contributor Spotlight: Monica Berlin and Beth Marzoni

berlin_marzoni8Monica Berlin and Beth Marzoni’s jointly-written piece “Once, the Nomenclature of Boulevard & Thoroughfare Turned Common” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 14, out now.

How long have you been writing?
Well, hard to say. We’ve always been, even when we weren’t. We’ve been in conversation for more than a decade—a conversation begun in the winter of 2002. The easiest answer to this question, or the oversimplified answer, is that we’ve been consciously making poems together—the poems of which [Once, the nomenclature of boulevard & thoroughfare turned common,] is a part—for just over two years. Before that, we made poems in correspondence for a few years, and before that we both wrote alone. And we have continued to write alone, but even then our writing lives are the center of gravity for all of our conversation. The whole time we’ve known each other, and then maybe even before we knew each other, our lives a gathering of seeing and looking and listening that led us here, to these lines, these rooms, and that may continue, or that may evolve into another.

What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Our work together is dependent on that landscape. The landscape is the vocabulary for that work. It’s where we live, or rather where we sometimes live. One of the ways we both find the poems really interesting is that our connection to the Midwest is not the same—that it doesn’t mean the same thing to both of us at the same time. Beth thinks about the landscape photographer Robert Adams, who once said that his job was to go into the landscape that he feared the most and to keep photographing it until it no longer scared him. Monica has tried to figure out how to stop apologizing for the Midwest, how to stop turning away from it, to learn how to be in it, to know it in whatever way we can ever really know any place. We’ve sought to learn to recognize it, sometimes for the recognition that might mitigate its size and shape, its diverse topography and oceanlessness, sometimes to learn to accept it for what it is—sometimes saturated, sometimes parched, always stretching wide and long (Christ, how long is Illinois!) even as it also narrows.

How has the Midwest influenced your writing?
This way: Marianne Boruch writes: “Never the self congratulating East with its historical weight such a burden, or—in reverse—the blow-it-off-don’t-look-back (yahoo!) of the West. But an ache, a doubt—too many doubts—a shadow, a shrug, a feel for hope and desperation in equal amounts. So we apologize without reason, or because we’re prophets, or because we’re bored, or because we really are sorry about everything and haven’t a clue what to say. Or because we’re just curious and that thought might open up a new trap door to yet another cellar of pain or discovery…. But it is a discipline. One has to stare longer, be stranger, as needed.” And, also, like this: Nancy Eimers’s saying, “But somehow this Midwest—or my introverted version of it—makes possible a certain receptivity out of which passage just may come. Passage—transport—is what I tremble for each time I begin to write a poem or find myself in the middle of one. // What the Midwest is to me is a place to be from, a place to live.” Yes, those ways. And others.

Why do you believe there has never really been a regionalist push for Midwestern writing in the past like there has with the South or even the West Coast?
We aren’t sure that that’s true, and believe us when we say we’ve thought about this a lot, considered it from many different angles and perspectives. And we think the designation, regionalism, in American Literature is usually the work of critics, not writers. The writers we know aren’t interested in being Southern writers or California Writers or god forbid Midwestern writers. They’re just writers. Which is all we ever are first. Subject matter or approach, for any and all of us, may make the case for school or period or style, but no more would we say that New York writers only make New York the matter of their work any more than we would insist that writers from Iowa were only allowed to consider a cornfield. To do so, of course, would diminish the labor of the imaginative realm, every writer’s first and most essential tool. It would also diminish the fact that we are each individuals who live in a place, or who have lived many places. To say that the stuff of our own lives—what we know and are a part of—is the only matter that matters in the reading of our work, or in the making of it, is to restrict that passage of which Eimers refers, to dead-end the passage by suggesting that the only kind possible is out the door onto one’s own front stoop.

How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?
Hm. Well, we love the Great Lakes twitter feed, and are devoted to Lake Superior, despite his pithy hubris. Honestly, we don’t have much patience for social media, but we also recognize that it’s a thing, a thing that we all do. There’s the issue of time, there not being enough, ever. Every tweet or status update or blog post we read, even from a Great Lake, is time spent not making a poem, or reading a poem, and so we both minimize that distraction, because, well, the world is distraction enough. Maybe it’s selfish or unfair to say so, but we rely on others. We have, thankfully, good friends who give a shout out when they read something of ours, and for that we’re grateful.

Favorite book?
It’s an impossible question, but in the best way. So, here’s the truth: we love a lot of different books and we need them all, not all on the same day or for the same reason, or ever for the same reason, but they are all with us, always. What’s in our piles these days: everything. At the top of those piles and for a while have been Ralph Angel’s Your Moon, Marianne Boruch’s Cadaver, Speak, and Bogotá by Alan Grostephan. What are the favorite books of this work, these poems? Muriel Rukeyser’s U.S. 1, James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Patricia Hampl’s Spillville. Most honestly, though, there is nothing that this work hasn’t loved us reading, and it has made use of it all—even the weather reports.

Favorite food?
Is coffee a food? Clementines. By the five pound bag. Also Thai—in particular, Thai at this place called, we kid you not, Amazing Thailand. It is in Minneapolis. You can thank us later. Also we like pie and pomegranate Popsicles.

If you could have coffee (or tea or a beer) with any literary figure, alive or dead, who would it be?
We are both sometimes shy. We sometimes find it difficult to have coffee (or tea or a beer) with strangers, especially ones we might admire or have crushes on or envy. So, ultimately, we would probably pick a friend, and one who we don’t get to see as often as we would like. We’d probably take Nancy Eimers and Bill Olsen out for sodas. Monica would have coffee. Beth likes to keep things unpredictable.

Where can we find more information about you?
We both have websites—monicaberlin.com & bethmarzoni.com. If you would like to read more of our work, poems are available on-line at Better: Culture & Lit, DIAGRAM, Meridian, New Orleans Review, Quarterly West, and TYPO. Our book, No Shape Bends the River So Long, is coming out from Free Verse Editions at Parlor Press later this year—just in time for your holiday shopping!

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Contributor news

Kaitlin Dyer, who’s work was featured in Issue 14, recently had a chapbook accepted at Dancing Girl Press for a February/March 2015 publication.

Darci Schummer, who’s work was featured in Issue 12, has a new collection of short stories, Six Months in the Midwest, out now by Unsolicited Press. For details, check out the publisher’s website.

Kerry Trautman, who had work featured in Issue 9, has a new chapbook, To Have Hoped, to be published by Finishing Line Press. For more information, check out the publisher’s website.

Congrats, all!

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Upcoming events / readings

Lots of great stuff on the horizon, and we hope to see you at some of these wonderful events!

ABOVE ALL MEN BOOK TOUR

Eric is at it again, and will be in Austin on Friday, September 5, at Malvern Books, and in Dallas on Saturday, September 6, at The Wild Detectives.

BOOK FESTIVALS

What: Kerrytown Bookfest
Where: Ann Arbor, Michigan
When: September 7, 2014
Additional details: http://www.kerrytownbookfest.org//

What: Detroit Art Book Fair
Where: Detroit, Michigan
When: September 14, 2014
Additional details: http://www.dittoditto.org/2014-detroit-art-book-fair/

What: Pygmalion Lit Fest
Where: Champaign-Urbana, Illinois
When: September 25-28, 2014
Additional details: http://www.thepygmalionfestival.com/

READINGS

Pygmalion Lit Fest
When: Saturday, September 27 @ 5 PM
Where: The Blind Pig, 120 N Walnut St, Champaign, IL 61820
Who’s reading: Amanda Kabak, Andrew Ruzkowski
Additional details: http://www.thepygmalionfestival.com/

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Interview: Justin Hamm

Justin Hamm PhotoMidwestern Gothic staffer Kelly Nhan talked with author and poet Justin Hamm about embracing the Midwest, crumbling small towns, the museum of americana, and more.

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Kelly Nhan: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Justin Hamm: I’ve lived in Illinois and Missouri my entire life. When I was younger I thought a lot about other places I might move when I got older. I decided I’d stay put if I could catch for the Cubs. Otherwise, I figured I would be a writer for Weekly World News. I’d travel around the country looking for bizarre stories, Bigfoot sightings, that sort of thing (this was before it occurred to me that Batboy was probably just made up in somebody’s basement). This was my version of the run-away-and-join-the-circus dream.

But I stayed. Studied, married, moved states from Illinois to Missouri. And at some point, maybe six or seven years ago, I started to become deeply interested in the region, in its particular people and stories. Within a short time I got married, lost my mom, and became an adult, and I guess in the madness of all that change, I wanted to grab onto something that rooted me. The intensity of the seasons felt important, and the way the fields look different here depending on the month—every small thing I’d taken for granted growing up suddenly mattered. I felt like I’d uncovered a connection that had always been there but that I’d maybe been too immature to see. It was an important moment for me as a writer, certainly, but even more so as a person.

KN: How has the region influenced your writing?

JH: Embracing it has been one of the most important steps in my growth. Place always attracted me, as long as it was someplace other than here. Early on it was Frost’s New England. Later, I worshipped Southern writers and, to an extent, Western writers. Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Rick Bass, and Cormac McCarthy—I wrote mostly fiction, trying to channel them when I wrote, and I cultivated a flashy, ultra-masculine gimmick of a voice.

But whatever was real and authentic at the heart of these writers, I didn’t have anything like that. All my examples at the time were Southern; I didn’t know any writers who could show me how Illinois might sustain literature the way, let’s say, Mississippi could. Finally, without any expectation of publication, or really any plans to even show them to other people, I started writing poems to work through the hard period I mentioned above. There was no workshop deadline, no pressure to impress anyone, and I wound up writing plenty of impressively awful stuff, but also some of the first poems that I think sound like me. Many of those better poems dealt in some way with Illinois, and later, Missouri.

Jason Jordan, who edits decomP, read my first chapbook a couple of years ago, and I don’t remember the exact quote, but he said something to the effect that he equated my poems with being raw and authentic. I’ve never received a compliment that moved me more.

Lessons in Ruin Hamm CoverKN: What can you tell us about your upcoming poetry collection, Lessons in Ruin?

JH: Naturally, I’m excited about getting it out there, and I’m making sure I enjoy the whole process of publication. I never took for granted I’d get this opportunity, and I don’t take for granted that I’ll get it again. The book will be available at Amazon and from select bookstores September 1st and can be pre-ordered from my website justinhamm.net right now.

The poems are mostly narrative, sometimes gritty and sometimes funny (I hope). They’re about Illinois and Missouri and social class and memory and speaking in tongues and death and rust and vengeful birds and accordionists and baseball. Oh, and most of all, they’re about relationships—to home, to parents, to children, to partners, and to friends.

At one level the title offers a way the poems might fit together. They are nearly all in some way or another about this idea of ruin: the physical ruins of place; the emotional ruins of people; or else ruin as a verb, meaning the ways we participate in damaging others, ourselves, or situations. There’s also a strain of a story running through all of them. I hope it is a book that works as a whole as well as at the poem level because I put a lot of work into assembling it with that in mind.

KN: From having read some pieces from the collection, we noticed that you evoke these images of deterioration, of “ruin”, and even include specific names of the people from these scenes. Where do these images come from? And is there hope amidst that ruin?

JH: I’m in the car and moving through the landscape around here a lot. So the inspiration for these images comes from what I see, what moves me: the collapsing barns and abandoned farmhouses and rusted out old cars I pass on my morning commute through rural Missouri, the crumbling small towns with their empty Main Street storefronts dotting the route back home to Illinois, and the forgotten factories here in the town where I live today. They come out of language, too—often, following the language results in images I didn’t expect.

The people are composites, drawn from my own experiences growing up in a blue-collar family along with what I continue to pick up in the course of daily life. Around here—and really anywhere, I guess—you don’t have to look hard to find people who are up against it. Sometimes the people come partly or even purely from the imagination, too. It can be hard to separate out exactly how much of each influence goes into making them. I worry less about that and more about whether they’re honest depictions.

Despite the ruin, and despite the hard luck, there’s definitely still humor and perseverance and tenderness and hope in the collection. Again, honesty demands that. And so you have the humanity of the accordionist who plays to comfort the widow, for instance. The tenderness of the father who wakes early to make pancakes for his daughter. The curious compassion of the small boy who wants to understand his grandfather’s pain at having to sell off the family farm. The awe the husband feels at the woman his wife has grown into during their time together. Or the independent spirit of the mechanic who understands that sometimes he must blow off work and let his daughter blow off school so they can fix the car together and people-watch all day.

KN: What inspired the goal behind your literary journal, the museum of americana and its stated interest in reviving pieces of American obsolescence?

JH: Really it started with my fascination with history in general and Americana in particular. It’s so rich and strange that I hate to think any of it might be forgotten (or worse, scrubbed away by those who refuse to acknowledge it). But at the same time, I didn’t want to be another Antiques Roadshow or American Pickers either. At least not exclusively. I love what those shows do, but I thought what would keep the literature vital would be to try to do something new or interesting with the artifacts it chooses to uncover.

At one point early on in writing the poems that would eventually become Lessons in Ruin, I thought what I was writing toward would be a sort of grab bag that used Americana as raw material for something new. I quickly found out that I wasn’t ready to make what I saw in my head come out on the page. It was too big of an idea at the time. But I thought a whole group of people contributing their particular interests in Americana could come together to make something like what I envisioned. And it has gone far beyond that.

KN: Does working as an editor for a literary journal and reading other people’s work influence your own writing?

JH: From a craft perspective, it doesn’t have that much influence. We have an incredible editorial team, and I try to stay out of their way until we get closer to production. So my role has more to do with coordinating our general vision and then coming in to talk about final decisions. What this means is I’m lucky enough to read mainly the best of what we’re sent. I’ve heard other editors say they learn a lot about what not to do from reading submissions; because of the nature of what I read, I learn more about what possibilities exist, and also about how others interpret a vision that started with one of my own failed projects. It’s inspiring. Constantly reading good work from writers I don’t know makes me want to join the conversation.

KN: Who are some of your favorite Midwestern writers?

JH: There are so many great ones connected to the region in one way or another. Cornelius Eady is a favorite. I also love Jim Harrison and Norbert Krapf, William Trowbridge, Dan Chaon and George Bilgere. Sandy Longhorn’s Blood Almanac and Michael Walsh’s The Dirt Riddles are two Midwestern poetry collections that have meant a lot to me. And Cindy Hunter Morgan is a name to pay attention to—both of her chapbooks are excellent and she’s working on a full-length collection right now. I’m lucky enough call fiction writer Chad Simpson and poet Michael Meyerhofer my friends, and both are immensely talented. I also love classic literature, probably more than I’m supposed to if I want to be hip and contemporary. So Illinois poets Sandburg and Masters are major figures to me. And I can’t leave out Chuck Berry or Bob Dylan. They’re giants.

What’s next for you?

Good question. Lessons in Ruin has provided basic direction for about six years. Even now, I’m writing new poems that seem to belong to that project. I’m not going to stop writing them if they come.

But at the same time, I’ve been working on other things in small bursts along the way. I have a handful of poems rooted in English folk music and fairy tales and I want to get back to exploring those. And I have a chapbook length collection of flash fiction/short stories that are after the spirit of those Weekly World News articles I loved as a kid. I’ve been publishing them individually for a couple of years and hope to eventually see them published together, if they’re good enough.

Lessons in Ruin came out of a process, and it will be interesting to see if it holds up when the next idea strikes. I kept a very general theme or connection in mind, but under the umbrella of that connection, I let the poems figure themselves out and do whatever they seemed to want to do. I tried to be as open as possible to anything that might suggest itself, trusting my own obsessions as a writer or poet would create the cohesion I needed. Later, when I had a lot of poems, I began to carve the book out. I felt like I was sculpting it rather than building it. That’s why it’s hard for me to imagine what the next larger project might look like. If the process holds, I probably won’t know until I’m most of the way there what it really wants to be.

Lessons in Ruin is available for pre-order at justinhamm.net.

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Justin Hamm is the author of a full-length collection of poems, Lessons in Ruin, and two poetry chapbooks. He is also the founding editor of the museum of americana. His poems or stories have appeared in Nimrod, Cream City Review, Punchnel’s, Hobart, Quiddity, and the Bob Dylan-themed anthology The Captain’s Tower. Recent work was also awarded the Stanley Hanks Memorial Poetry Prize. His website is justinhamm.net.

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Contributor Spotlight: Eric Boyd

DSC00465Eric Boyd’s story “Thundersnow” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 14, out now.

How long have you been writing?
I started out when I was fourteen, I was visiting family in North Carolina, where I was born; a buddy of mine messaged me on AIM and said we ought to write a screenplay together. I don’t remember why that idea came up, I don’t remember, but we did it. At the suggestion of our high school video teacher, we posted the thing to some website and got a surprising amount of interest. Of course the script was never filmed, it wasn’t very good, but one of the guys who wanted to do it ended up becoming a big music video guy. He just did a thing with Matthew Mcconaughey not too long ago. Anyway that director reached out to us years later, when I was seventeen, and we did some adaptation work for him. I think we each made like twelve hundred bucks on a few drafts for some thing that never happened. That’s still the biggest chunk of change I ever made from writing, and that was before I even started doing short stories.

What’s your connection to the Midwest?
David Lynch told me to meditate; he said it to me through a television. It was late and I was tired and in a bad place. I mean, I was willing to listen out for any kind of sign to get me out of where I was. At that time I was eighteen and I was here in Pittsburgh, where I’ve lived most of my life, working at a damn drugstore at the time, having customers throw febreeze at my head and everything. What else was I doing? I was ready to go away. So I took Lynch up on his physic offer and moved out to Fairfield, Iowa, because I knew he practiced TM [Transcendental Meditation] and there was a school out there that did it. So I attended the Maharishi University of Management for a little while, meditating and studying video, mostly. That town was great. I miss it and I made a lot of friends there that I believe I’ll have for a good long while to come. There was this weird magic to that place. One time, I was playing pool in the Rec room of the Men’s dorm, and I saw a tornado. The outward facing wall of the Rec room was all glass and I could see everything. A barn flew through the air, perfectly intact, like it was going in slow motion. Then it just fell to the ground out in this field about a mile up. That tornado was coming straight for the campus but I really didn’t have any fear of the thing. It ended up going right around the town; it’d been going in a straight line and then it just moved around us. Later someone told me that the Maharishi promised the school that a storm would never affect the campus—or maybe it was because the town was flat and the campus was on a hill. I have no idea. What the hell do I know about weather? In Iowa it’s all crazy.

Incidentally, I did meet David Lynch while I was at the school. Everyone knew my little story about how I came to be at there, and Bobby Roth [the head of the David Lynch foundation] introduced the two of us. He goes, “David, I want you to meet Eric Boyd,” and Lynch comes up, shakes my hand, and says, “Oh yeah! The one I spoke to through the TVVVV!” He got a kick out of that.

How has the Midwest influenced your writing?
When I started meditating, I had this huge explosion of work. My first short stories, a lot of poems, short films, screenplays, songs. All of that. I guess that could have happened anywhere but I’m really glad it was in Iowa. Like I said, that place had a real magic to it, and it truly felt like I was in America. What they call a microcosm? There were so many people from different regions of the world, all out there in the heartland to capture this very spiritual thing. Plus they wanted an education and all that. So it was very much like a pilgrimage, searching for the American Dream or something. All these crazy people out in the cornfields. We used to walk on coals in this area called ‘Strawberry Fields’. It was apple pie, truly; in fact, that’s where I first learned of American cheese on apple pie! I still eat that to this day, but up here in Pittsburgh they just fucking microwave it and it’s disgusting.

Anyway, in Iowa there were so many burnouts and failed seekers, and I was certainly among those folks. Everyone was an underdog in some way, if only to society, or themselves; to their aching souls. That’s definitely in my work, I think. I hope. The idea that everyone is fighting for or against something. Everyone wants something to believe in, if only to get them away from the world.

Why do you believe there has never really been a regionalist push for Midwestern writing in the past like there has with the South or even the West Coast?
Probably has to do with edges. Look at a map and you can see where California ends. When the coasts stop, they stop. The Midwest is a little vaguer. It seems more like a mindset than a place, sometimes. It has that blue collar attitude and Pittsburgh certainly has that, but at best Pittsburgh is Appalachia. It’s probably those edges that people can clearly see. The Midwest is the heartland, right? Think about that. Where does your heart actually stop? You have the organ, sure, but it pumps blood to every part of you. The Midwest is like that. I don’t care if you’ve lived in Miami all of your life, you’ve probably eaten corn trucked in from Iowa. That was a part of you. So I think it’s harder to pin down in that regard.

Also, the voice is hard as hell to get right. Midwestern English is hard to pin down. It’s like Indian with all the different dialects. Pittsburghese is pretty hard to get right if you haven’t been there, and it’s totally different from Philly slang, but then that’s why you see more California and New York literature. Maybe it’s easier. I don’t know. I think, for my story, I ended up doing slightly more Southern drawl than Midwest twang, and I’m definitely a little ashamed of that. So maybe it’s more difficult to make a movement out of that. It seems to be taking off in Europe. I think, over there, they’re starting to really see the Midwest, especially the grittier authors like Frank Bill or maybe Don Ray Pollack, as being authentically American. Frank Bill is huge in France now, I’ve heard. It always takes the States a while to catch up, even with ourselves.

How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?
I didn’t even have a cell phone for the longest time. I used a payphone a few blocks away from my apartment, and people kept saying, “But what if there’s a fire?” Well, call the firefighters. What the hell am I going to do about a fire? But I finally got a phone when I was about twenty-one. I still don’t have a smartphone, so I don’t know much about Instagram or any of that. I’ve got a facebook, and that’s pretty strictly for messaging friends, keeping in touch with people. If someone, like a fan, adds me on there, I’ll usually accept—but it’s mostly just for personal stuff. I don’t share too much on there unless it’s really important.

Mostly I’m on tumblr. I started a page a long time ago. In fact, I had a page before the one I have now, and I got no idea where that even is anymore. But I post a lot of stuff on there. Around 2008, when I was in Iowa, I started writing six word stories/poems. I was really into Hemingway at the time—in fact, I just bought damn near all of his work recently, but I haven’t cracked back into any of it yet—and his six word story is a knockout. Of course everyone thinks so, but that started me on writing my own. I had an old desktop computer that must have had a thousand or more pieces saved on it; I’d write a hundred at a time some nights. That thing crashed years ago, but I started my tumblr page and began posting six worders every day. Nobody cared much. I mean, I was getting maybe two or three people to like my stuff day in, day out. But eventually, I guess I was just doing it enough to where the tumblr gods, whoever they are, decided to ‘spotlight’ me on the poetry section of the site. I thought I was just going to be featured on that for a month or so; I was posting everything I had. Photos, poems, prose, drawings, scripts. Everything, just trying to make the most of it. But I never got taken down. I’ve got a bunch of followers because of that. I think I’m one of those people where—say you sign up for tumblr and they ask you what you like, and you say mayonnaise or something—they suggest you follow my page. I suppose it’s nice. A lot of people message me, asking for six worders. I enjoy doing that because it keeps me on my toes. They get a piece of writing and I get to try compressing someone’s entire life into six words. It’s a fair trade. In fact, I probably get more out of it than they do. I get to sharpen that knife, you know?

Past that I’ve got a few other things. I’ve got a twitter, but that’s mostly a dump-site for my tumblr posts. Every once in a while I’ll tweet something. The other day I tweeted a clipped version of this chili recipe I came up with. We didn’t have anything in the apartment worth eating on its own, so I threw a bunch of crap together and it ended up being pretty good. The secret ingredient there was espresso grounds.

Favorite book?
That’s tough for me to say. I really don’t read too much. I go in spurts. In Iowa I read a good deal, mostly JT LeRoy—whose work I think became criminally underrated after all that crap happened and the critics soured on her—and I read a lot of technical manuals. How-to’s on filmmaking and woodworking. Stuff like that. In jail I read a lot of Rimbaud and Céline. Real bitter shit. I watch more movies than anything else. But lately I’ve been trying to read more. I read Tobacco Road not long ago. It’s taken me over a month to get through Catcher in the Rye, and it’s not from a lack of interest; it’s just hard for me to read sometimes. If I’m ever stuck, but I really want to pick something up, Bukowksi’s Post Office or Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises have always been staples. The best book I’ve read in a long time, especially because I felt so close to it, was Cain’s Postman Always Rings Twice. Even though I just discovered that book, I feel like I’ve been ripping that guy off for years. The voice, the style, the pacing. When I write, I imagine a character telling me a story, and I hear it the way they tell it to me; I’m just a dictation machine at that point. Postman does that. You feel like you’re in the room, hearing this story. A while back, someone asked me whose work I thought spoke to me; they said how they felt my shit was like Denis Johnson—who’s a guy that I only read because so many people compared my stuff to his, and he’s good, but I didn’t see it that much—and I said I dug James M. Cain. I went on and on about Postman. They said, “That book is like seventy years old.” I guess that was supposed to mean something. I still don’t know what.

Favorite food?
Hot dogs. I couldn’t live without them. I’m pretty happy so many companies are starting to do uncured, all-beef ones. A little healthier, maybe. I don’t have any interest in living forever, but if I can spend fifty cents more for a hot dog that isn’t guaranteed to give me cancer, I’ll eat that hot dog. I’ll just stick them on a fork and heat them off the burner on the stove, like I’m camping out. If you do that, make sure you use a fork with a rod-through handle—plastic or wood, whatever—so you don’t burn yourself. But yeah, hot dogs. I also worked at a Thai restaurant for two years, so that grew on me. I quit there recently. I need a job now.

If you could have coffee (or tea or a beer) with any literary figure, alive or dead, who would it be?
I mentioned Frank Bill before, and I did have pizza and beer with him in Louisville once. A good man. Past that, I really don’t know. I want to meet people, not figures. It’s hard to meet an idol. I can’t imagine meeting with someone like Hunter Thompson and not feeling depressed after. Something about shaking a hero’s hand, feeling their bones compressing in yours. It ruins something, I think. You don’t know if they’re false idols until that moment, so I’ll skip it.

Where can we find more information about you?
Like I said, I’m on some of those different websites. Folks are welcome to reach out. And let’s face it, if you want to talk to me, you probably don’t have many friends—I’ll try to be your friend.

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YOUTUBE VIDEO OF ME TALKING ABOUT DAVID LYNCH / MEDITATION
(look at that hair)

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What We’re Reading (Summer 2014): Averno

ww_bannerIn this series of summer posts, MG staffer Kelly Nhan will be exploring books and music, festivals and goings-on, anything and everything Midwestern-related, and reporting her findings.

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Averno, by Louise Glück

Averno, Louise Glück’s eleventh collection of poetry published in 2006, hinges around the Persephone myth (each of the two sections includes “Persephone the Wanderer” in different iterations) in which Persephone, traditionally considered the queen of the underworld but also the goddess over crops and plant life, is abducted and raped by Hades. Glück riffs on this tale, out of which she reaps content that places the collection in a distinctly elegiac and contemplative American “confessional” tradition, albeit with a sparse, terse and ambivalent tone throughout; Glück’s lyric draws on the dark hymns of Sylvia Plath. On the most basic level, she shares a similar interest in death and loss in her poetry, a theme that the Persephone myth serves well: Averno was considered the “entrance to the underworld”, the epigraph notes, and the collection’s opener “The Night Migrations” notes, “It grieves me to think/the dead won’t see them—these things we depend on,/ they disappear”.

The changing of the seasons, particularly the onset of autumn, becomes an extended conceit for the inching effect of age and decay, perhaps becoming more palpably felt for the senior poet herself, who has had a long and celebrated career over her seventy years. “October”, perhaps the collection’s most affecting piece, uses this conceit as a vehicle for the speaker’s self-expression: “It does me no good; violence has changed me./ My body has grown cold like the stripped fields; now there is only my mind, cautious and wary, with the sense it is being tested”. These weary “confessions”, however, cannot be taken as pure expression, but rather a performance of confessing.

Often, Glück creates a distance between the poetic voice and the reader. The voice, although quite often in the first person “I”, moves from character to character, embodying Persephone and Demeter, her mother, and also shifts perspective. We gain access to the thoughts of the characters within, but the narration remains fairly flat in affect, which even borders on academic discourse in the first appearance of “Persephone the Wanderer”: “Persephone’s initial/ sojourn in hell continues to be/ pawed over by scholars who dispute/the sensations of the virgin…”.

41cg81kxisL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This emotional distance, in contrast to the collection’s themes of death, rebirth, and trauma at large, shakes the reader at first. Glück seems to prefer the short, heavily enjambed line and terse diction. These lines are most often spoken in retrospective voice, as in “October” (“I stood/ at the doorway,/ ridiculous as it now seems”) or even an unspecified omniscient third-person narrator sweeping over the characters in the Persephone myth. The effect produced is a coolness in her speakers, who in this collection stand in a liminal space and re-tell their transformation or experience. Averno deals with the process of a discursive retracing after trauma, specifically through the vehicle of Classical myth. In laying side-by-side what can be read as intimate personal details as in “Echoes”, detailing a move out to “lake country” or “Fugue” (“My childhood:/ closed to me. Or is it/ under the mulch—fertile./But very dark. Very hidden.”), and the retelling of the Penelope myth, Glück asks the question: How do the small details of a life become reframed in cultural and personal memory as mythic, and thereby worthy of retelling?

In the two versions of “Persephone the Wanderer”, Glück creates two possible endings to the myth: in the first she lives, and in the second she dies. The poems exist between these two possible realities and operate within this gap. She provides two interpretations that frame the myths and in their unfolding, completely alter the outcomes thereof. Many of the speakers in this collection exist in this paradoxical location, between life and the afterlife, earth and the underworld, god and human, the “smallness” of personal consciousness and the grandiosity of myth. This nebulous space leaves the reader, at times, (purposely?) lost in the abstract, unable to grasp the familiar referents that make up experience. Not only is this a disruption of unquestioned dichotomies as those listed above, but also ambivalence about truth-telling and the reading of “pure expression”. Her critical look at the process of memory, even in the case of a well-recorded Classical myth, is reflective of her larger tendency to hesitation.

At times, the speakers retrace their steps and qualify or negate previous statements, even those that initially read as off-the-cuff aphorisms. Following the thought processes of the speakers is often jarring, bordering on discomfort, for the reader. For not only do the words retrace, but the speaker often jumps from one thought or image to another in sparse free verse, largely leaving the thought process out. Glück also uses repetition of phrases that show the process of revision in the words of the speaker. The speaker in “Prism” notes, “The room was quiet”, then right after, “That is, the room was quiet, but the lovers were breathing,” and “In the same way, the night was dark”. Then, “It was dark, but the stars shone”. Eschewing definitive, fixed statements, the personal is less sure and as detractors of the “confessional” might say, less hubristic. It hesitates, it wavers.

Although Averno utilizes the Persephone myth throughout as either the foreground or as more of a meta-textual element for some poems, the variety of themes and tropes with which it engages leaves the collection feeling a bit disjointed. Overall, Glück’s post-confessional lyric works well within the conceit, which allows for a nuanced look at the oft-retold myth. Her diction and syntax often refuse readers’ attempts at close reading in the academic sense despite their surface simplicity. Although these formal choices do contribute to the project of the collection, some pieces wander too far into the oblique and elision, especially in such pieces as the twenty-two section-long “Fugue”. What Glück lacks in diverse images, she makes up for in sudden drops in syntax or heavy enjambment, formal qualities that are jarring but effective for her project.

For fans of Sylvia Plath, Anne Carson, and Rae Armantrout.

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Kelly Nhan is a senior studying English and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, and originally from Connecticut. She loves finding good coffee places, exploring cities, reading good poetry, and chatting about feminism. She is interested in going into book publishing, or eventually going to grad school to study post-colonial literature and feminist theory.

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