Contributor Spotlight: Dani Heinemeyer

January 27th, 2015

10365597_719269900385_6212773860607550769_oDani Heinemeyer’s story “Seasons of Staying” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 16, out now.

How long have you been writing?
When I was in elementary school, I’d type up stories at my mom’s office and give them to family members as Christmas presents. I’m sure my uncle wanted nothing more than a laminated story about sponges from an 8-year-old. (I wrote a lot of stories about household cleaning supplies. Also murderers. I can’t explain it.)

What’s your connection to the Midwest?
I grew up in the small town of Madison, South Dakota. I also studied creative writing at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

How has the Midwest influenced your writing?
Almost all the stories I write now are based in or involve South Dakota in some way, although there was a time when I actually tried to distance myself from my roots. When you spend your entire childhood in a small town, I think it’s easy to underestimate where you’re from, and to romanticize bigger places in your head. But I realize now how unfair that was. Some of the smartest and most thoughtful people I’ve ever met are Midwesterners, and I try to demonstrate that sensitivity in my stories. South Dakota will always be my home. I often find myself writing stories that explore what home means to different people, and whether or not you can choose to be happy wherever you are. There’s this fierce loyalty that Midwesterners have to their home and to each other that I haven’t experienced anywhere else, and I think it’s really amazing.

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 read an article a few months ago that said the reason for this is because of the Midwest’s inherent quietness. I think that’s true. Midwesterners take things as they come, without much fuss. We keep things close to the vest. Because of that, our writing is subtle and hushed, and not as demonstrative as other regional genres. I think it can also be a struggle for writers to depict vibrant characters in a landscape that is, by its nature, filled with sameness: flat and open cornfields, pastures, dusty gravel roads. Of course that’s not all there is in the Midwest, but that’s mostly what people think of when they imagine it. We have to create excitement in a landscape that’s generally void of it.

How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?
I think social media is important to promote writing, although I don’t use it very well. I’ve pretty much mastered Facebook, but the other platforms are still a mystery to me. It just takes so much time to get good at it. Then when I do spend time on social media, I feel guilty for not accomplishing anything else.

Favorite book?
Probably Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, or Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. I’m also a big fan of all the Harry Potter books, and I’ll stupefy anyone who disagrees with me.

Favorite food?
Taco Bell and candy. I have a very balanced diet.

If you could have coffee (or tea or a beer) with any literary figure, alive or dead, who would it be?
Mary Shelley.

Where can we find more information about you?
On www.daniheinemeyer.com, Facebook, or Twitter (@DaniHSomething). I promise I’ll start getting better at social media soon.

Beyond the Lake Prize: “Our Lady of Cleveland” by Brian Petkash

We asked the winners of the 2014 Lake Prize (featured in Issue 16) about their work and the inspiration behind their stories. Read about all of the fiction finalists, and the poetry finalists here.

Fiction winner Brian Petkash discusses his winning piece “Our Lady of Cleveland.”

Midwestern Gothic: Your piece explores work in a way that the general population doesn’t typically experience – every day at your character’s job is life and death, in a way. What drew you to telling a story about this profession, and are there any parallels to work without the same stakes?

Brian Petkash: A specific inspiration or attraction to a work can be fairly loose. This one started with wanting to tell a Cleveland-centric story, but it wasn’t this one. This story happened somewhat accidentally.

I was working on an (as-yet-unpublished) novella set in a rather rundown yet richly historical part of the city, The Stockyards. I researched. I walked the streets. And as I researched and walked the streets, witnessed the skeletons of these old—but at one time beautiful—brick buildings that housed so much industry, so much humanity, so much death, story ideas appeared in front of me. Throw in a few pictures of runaway cattle I found while researching at the downtown library, a story my father told me of his childhood field trip to a Cleveland slaughterhouse and seeing the whole process from beginning to end, the World Series collapse of the Indians, and a Stockyard knocker, and the potential pulled me away from the novella. The story developed as I wrote it, a confluence of these ideas and the necessary act of sitting my ass in the chair and writing.

As for the character’s profession, I admire the blue-collar workingman’s attitude of Cleveland (and a lot of the Midwest), and that particular job in that particular industry was as blue-collar workingman as it could get. But I also wanted an industry that more or less died, that left little behind of its presence, and whose inevitable absence partially signaled a larger movement for the city as a whole. At one point, in the 1920s, say, Cleveland’s prosperity placed it as one of the nation’s largest cities. But by the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s there was an undeserved shift for such a grand city. (Well, when your river catches fire, among other things, perhaps it’s somewhat deserved.) Cleveland wasn’t alone; other Midwest cites felt similar economic and social shifts. (On the plus side, Cleveland’s more and more a city shifting toward revitalization, and I love that.)

I wanted the story to capture that movement, that shift, on a number of levels. I hope, even if only in a small way, the story captured that.

Purchase a copy of Midwestern Gothic Issue 16 (Winter 2015)

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Brian Petkash was born and raised in his beloved Cleveland, Ohio, a focal point of many of his writings. He’s a graduate from the University of Tampa with an MFA in creative writing. Currently living in Tampa, Florida, and working as both a marketing professional and a teacher of high school literature and creative writing, Brian’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in El Portal and Southword.

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Contributor Spotlight: Devin Kelly

DSC_0759Devin Kelly’s piece”Bill’s BBQ – CLOSED” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 16, out now.

How long have you been writing?
Not too long, actually. I wrote a certain vein of moody poetry in high school and gave it up in college because I didn’t feel good or strong about it. I had a lovely English teacher in college, Susan Greenfield, who inspired me to find that innocent, childlike approach to writing creatively that I still really embrace. She pushed me to apply to MFA programs, and I owe her a huge debt always for where I’ve gotten in the one to two years since.

What’s your connection to the Midwest?
I was born and raised in Washington, DC, and spent some memorable summers in the Shenandoah Valley in West Virginia growing up. But I also spent a great deal of time with my father’s family in Rochester, New York, which is where I feel the kind of Midwestern character begins, at least on the eastern side. I hope I’m not too out of bounds in saying that. But cities like Rochester, Buffalo, Erie, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Toledo, Lansing, and more are all cities I’ve been to and cities that share this kind of roughened spirit and character, one of resilience, maybe? Or maybe that’s too generalized. But there’s always been something beautiful to me about Rochester. It’s where I’m typing these answers out now. I feel a certain affinity with it.

How has the Midwest influenced your writing?
Most of the characters in my prose seem to stem from some kind of outskirts Midwestern scene. This kind of notion where any problem, however small, can be a test of character, or play at our notions of sorrow, loss, and love. I like letting my words dangle in open space. Float between the branches of trees and such. See actual stars. I feel very strongly that writers should care about the landscape of their language, and the Midwestern landscape is very accommodating to our roughened English vocabulary. When it comes to my poetry, I’ve been a avid reader of Philip Levine, Larry Levis, Steve Scafidi, and some newcomers like Jamaal May. Many of them work within this spacious landscape of the Midwest, and you can feel how they care about their words and their characters. How they let their words turn and move just as anyone’s dreams might. I think our Midwestern poets are some of the best ones we’ve got.

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?
This is a great question, and one I have to think very hard about. The USA is certainly a regionalist country. We are steeped in it, and it’s often quite beautiful and often quite strange. The South has long had this kind of gothic vibe in its writing that’s now very much established. I mean, the list goes on for days, with some of our best writers: Faulkner, Welty, Percy, O’Connor, Dickey, Styron. I’d have to go on forever to do it justice. And I think the South is still very much a mystery to the rest of the nation, perhaps a mystery we’ve grown fond of. Black and white writers in the South had an agenda, something to prove, coming out of the antebellum years, and they’re still proving it today. In that vein, no one has ever set a spotlight on the Midwest and said “you’re nothing,” not in the same way that this country set fire to the South during the Civil War. The Midwest has very much been a necessary place to journey through in this country’s history. I mean, look at the transcontinental railroad. So many of these small towns dotting the middle of this country’s map tie their existence to the railroad. And I think that’s part of it, and I think it is a shame, because the literature coming out of the Midwest today is extremely good and extremely charged and really lovely and striking, and it deserves its place on the pantheon. But things might change soon. There’s a lot of wonderful poetry coming out of Detroit, with Jamaal May, who I mentioned above, at the forefront, and magazines such as yours are also making a case for this Midwestern regionalist push. I have hope.

How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?
I got off Facebook a year ago and have no plans on returning, and I think it’s done wonders for my writing, or, at least, for maintaining the discipline of my writing. I miss it desperately sometimes, though. I have friends who might only read this if it happened across them on Facebook, and now they might never know about it. But I can’t complain. I’m on Twitter, though, which feels less personal and more flexible, in some regards. And there’s certainly something I enjoy about that.

Favorite book?
Oh gosh. I’ll name more than one. The Collected Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. Also Ondaatje’s Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Larry Levis’ Winter Stars. Mark Richard’s Ice at the Bottom of the World. Steve Scafidi’s Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer. Noy Holland’s Spectacle of the Body. There’s too much good to go around. Any book written by anyone who can turn a word, a line, a sentence, and make it delightful in its feeling.

Favorite food?
Chicken wings lingering for a day under a heat lamp at the Argonaut Diner in Yonkers, New York. Also, a good burger. With good sharp cheese.

If you could have coffee (or tea or a beer) with any literary figure, alive or dead, who would it be?
Probably Breece D’J Pancake, at some shoddy bar down in West Virginia. Not enough people know about him, but his one book did wonders for me. And I don’t much care if we talk. I just want to see which beer he chooses and how quick he puts it down.

Where can we find more information about you?
I’m on Twitter @themoneyiowe, and I have a website here: devingkelly.wordpress.com. I also host a reading series with some lovely fellow writers in NYC, and we’re located here: deadrabbitsreading.wordpress.com.

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Issue 16 Reviewed at The Review Review

Midwestern Gothic Issue 15

The fall issue of Midwestern Gothic got a nice little review over at The Review Review by Molly Rose last week. Here’s an excerpt:

Midwestern Gothic Fall 2014 explores loss and family through its stories and poems. Death fits autumn, the season of Dia de los Muertos, Samhain, dying plants, and animals preparing for hibernation. Family is also apt, as relatives gather to mourn, contact their ancestors, feast and celebrate Thanksgiving. Death and filial love and duty are universal themes, but they are addressed by the contributors in specifically Midwestern ways. The magazine’s cover image perfectly represents this sad, sweet harmony: a grey, cloudy sky, with spots of sunlight, blanketing a grey US metropolis. The magazine is moving, clever, and darkly humorous. Some pieces are wholly depressing, but the best ones bear witness to suffering and resolve in catharsis. Motifs include agriculture, alcohol, and loneliness.”

Read the full review of Midwestern Gothic Issue 15 (Fall 2014)

And, when you’re done, pick up a copy of the issue!

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Interview: Sarah Crossland

author photoMidwestern Gothic staffer Jamie Monville talked with poet Sarah Crossland about crafting, the spirit of the Midwest, finding inspiration in cinema, and more.

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Jamie Monville: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Sarah Crossland: The first time I went to the Midwest—I grew up in Northern Virginia near D.C.—it was on a family vacation where we packed up our Toyota Previa and drove around to pop culture meccas and dead presidents’ homes in Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, and Illinois. While other kids were getting sunburned on beaches, that summer we paid tribute at the Rock ‘N’ Roll and NFL Halls of Fame, visited the Longaberger factory with its basket-shaped office building, and wandered the grounds of Ulysses S. Grant’s vibrant green homestead, White Haven. Like any place where you do not live and only visit, I came to think of the Midwest as a constellation of images: the hot oil that still clings to Cozy Dogs just pulled out of the fryer, the tiny mechanical chairs that carry you to the top of the St. Louis Arch, the taxidermied animals in the museum beneath it. It felt more American than any place I’d ever been, in a complex and welcoming way. These kinds of discrete experiences are what I focus on so much in my poetry, and both spectacle and tourism are huge themes in my manuscript Tomorrowland.

It wasn’t until I moved to the Midwest (Madison, Wisonsin) in 2011 to pursue an MFA in poetry that the constellation began to blur, and I began to understand the spirit that threads through it all, what at the time made the strange seem everyday to me, and everyday strange.

JM: How were you influenced by the Midwest during your time at University of Wisconsin-Madison? Is the work you do today still influenced by your time in the Midwest?

SC: Having grown up in a suburb of a large city—what I like to call a “consumer conglomerate,” rather than a town—moving to the Midwest encouraged me to take a deep breath and pause much more often. Though it was partly the product of being in a studio MFA program with full funding, I began to wait a lot more. For poems, of course, but I also begin to stitch every night (I cross stitch), bake homemade bread, and play more music (I play the harp). Instead of spending 20 minutes banging out a first draft of a poem and editing in between quick bursts of other activities, I’d spend hours at my computer, quietly churning, tinkering with small words, examining everything.

I’d never lived anywhere near a body of water before, so part of it, I think, was how steady and patient the lakes were in Madison. They took forever to freeze when I was there. Just watching them—from the English building, from the terraces, or from the highway, it reminded you how much time you have. That willingness to wait, to rest, to not write sometimes, is one of the most valuable lessons I learned in Madison, and it’s changed the way I approach my work.

JM: What do you think is the biggest difference between Wisconsin and Virginia, and how has it affected your poetry?

SC: Madison and the city where I went to college, Charlottesville, are actually very similar—just that Madison’s much bigger and has infinitely better beer, and Charlottesville has a much more substantial urban exploration culture. Living in Wisconsin, though, I experienced real, relentless, sequential seasons for the first time in my life. Virginia will vacillate between 30 and 70 degree weather in winter sometimes, all in the same week, which means that you’re never sure what to wear (flip-flops the week before Christmas?), and you never feel like you’re writing according to time. Winter in Wisconsin was, of course, vast. But so was fall and spring and summer. I found that in Wisconsin I had a much stronger sense that I was writing “winter poems” and “fall poems” that felt full of the season, something I could rarely say in Virginia.

JM: At Woodbridge Senior High School, Center for the Fine and Performing Arts you concentrated in Creative Writing and at the University of Virginia you had an interdisciplinary major in Fiction, Poetry, and Folklore. Have you always known that you would be a writer?

SC: The joke is that I wrote my first screenplay when I was five. It was a bastardization of The Lion King, called The Lion King, and for the longest time I wanted to find a copy of it in my house, because I had every other piece of writing I’d ever done saved. It took me a few years to realize that I actually wrote the screenplay before I learned the alphabet, so somewhere there was a “screenplay” of violet squiggles and shapes that looked something, but not quite, like lions. I wrote a lot of plays in elementary school for my friends to perform (we never did—seven-year-olds aren’t very reliable), and for the longest time I wanted to be a screenwriter. That all changed in high school when I discovered metaphors, which for me are the meat of the whole thing. Once I fell in love with language itself, I wanted to write in ways that would revel in the decoration, the artifice, the craft. I found that it was hard to do those kinds of things in screenplays, so I drifted away from them—though I’ve periodically returned to the form as a hybrid with poetry.

JM: Why did you choose to focus on poetry for your MFA instead of Fiction? Do you still use elements of Fiction in your poems?

SC: I just think I found what I was looking for: I tend to write very lyrical prose and narrative poetry, so most of my projects end up meeting in the middle. Right now, I’m researching for a new a book about the Romanov sisters, Raspution, and the Russian Revolution, and I know that the poems will be instancial, but woven together will tell a story in many voices.

Some of my work is much more traditionally narrative than that. Last year, when I was reading a lot about the Civil War, I wrote a long narrative poem, “Impostress,” about a fictional young woman who disguises herself as a soldier to fight in the war. Character building is essential in a work that long (it’s more than twenty pages), and I found it even harder to change from summary to scene in poetry than in fiction. Dialogue also usually presents problems—I’ve found that people are skeptical of quotation marks in poetry, but sometimes I think it’s really just the best way to organize speech when you have several people speaking in a poem.

JM: According to your website, crafting also is a passion of yours. Some of your creative writing projects have taken the form of blackout poetry of atlases, handmade journal making and in 2009 you co-founded the hands-on, DIY literary-arts magazine Glass, Garden. The connection between both crafting in the form of physically creating something—like a journal—and crafting in the form of writing poetry—or creating it from an atlas—seem very connected in these three projects. How do you see the connection between these two versions of “crafting”?

SC: I love the book as a physical object. I would really like to study art more, so I could make illuminated books like William Blake. That would be my dream way to publish—letter-pressing my books in editions of twelve or fifteen, with calligraphy and water color and gold leaf. One of my favorite publications is McSweeney’s, which was the model for Glass, Garden, and I think they just get it so right. I want what I make to be beautiful. It’s an old-fashioned idea by now, but there is so much pleasure in the excess—you can become devoured, in a way, by the sublime.

JM: At least two of your larger works, God Factory and a manuscript that you’re currently revising—62 Short Films on Creation—as well as a creative project involving 3D glasses and poetry seem to be influenced by cinema. What interests you about cinema, and why do you think it so often finds itself in your poetry?

SC: I had kind of a religious upbringing on movies. My parents began to showing me classic films when I was young—my dad loves horror movies, and my mom is partial to whodunits and Hitchcockian thrillers. When we go to watch a movie, my partner and I often joke that the last time I saw whatever we’re about to watch was when I was eight, so there are always things that went over my head that I only get now, watching them as an adult. There are so many things, for example, in the movie Grease, which I’m pretty sure we all missed.

But as to why I return time and again to cinema, I think it’s so easy to become enthralled by the images, by the pretending. And there’s that social contract where everyone in a theatre sits and all agrees to stare quietly ahead, suspending their disbelief. It’s Victor Turner’s idea of communitas—that ecstatic moment of community where everyone is there together, going through the same experience. I’m also very interested in that idea of an American pantheon—the old gods (and goddesses) of Hollywood. Most of us are in awe of the dead, but the dead of Hollywood get to be immortal—they get to keep on living as they flicker on the screen.

JM: Which poet and or writer has most influenced your style?

SC: Oh, it’s Colin Meloy, the lead singer and lyricist of the Decemberists. I know I have some friends (and mentors) who will groan when they read this, but I think Colin Meloy is one of the few people out there right now who is successfully balancing the lyric and narrative impulses in an incredible way. I studied epics at length in college—my favorite’s the Finnish epic The Kalevala—and folklore feeds a lot of my work, just as it does for Colin Meloy. To borrow from Eliade, a lot of Decemberists songs, at least my favorites, illuminate the profane for its moments of surprising sacredness. I haven’t written a murder ballad yet, but perhaps in time.

JM: What’s next for you?

SC: As I mentioned above, I just started researching for a new book about the Romanovs and the Russian Revolution, and it’ll have a large cross-section with Russian fairy tales, folk lyrics, and magical traditions. This is the first full-length collection I’ll be writing that will be 100% based on research and one single subject, so it’s kind of a gentle behemoth in my mind. Every time I read about the assassination of the czar’s family, I have trouble sleeping. I’ve had nightmares in which I am Alexandra Feodorovna in that room of bullets. But even more horrifying are the stories of the peasants who don’t get to have individual names in history. I’m taking my time reading and thinking, but I still wonder how I will be able to capture everything—how to do justice to the material. I keep a black box of notecards on my desk, the notecards in alphabetical order, with titles like “Measles” and “Aftermath” and “Four Brothers.” I’m still a ways from beginning to inhabit their voices, but I can feel it building steadily. It’s that patience again—you have to have faith in the work, that it will come to you, even as you coax it slowly along.

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Sarah Crossland has been the recipient of the 2012 Boston Review Poetry Prize, a 2013 AWP Intro Journals Award, and the 2013 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, and was recently named one of Narrative’s 30 Below 30 Emerging Writers for 2014. She currently lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she serves as the production editor of Devil’s Lake and is currently researching for a book of poems about the Romanov daughters, Slavic folklore, and the Russian Revolution.

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Welcome new MG staff!

We are so excited at the new staff joining us starting this month: interns Hannah Bates and Stephanie Mezzanatto, and copyeditor Mackenzie Meter!

We’re thrilled to welcome them to the Midwestern Gothic family!

Hannah Bates is a junior studying English at the University of Michigan. Summer 2014, she won a Hopwood Award for poetry. Hannah developed her love of writing among other young Ann Arbor slam poets back when teenage angst and boys best characterized her poetry. She enjoys running, hiking, and travelling to where the mountains are, even though Michigan will always feel like home. She hopes to see much more of the world before concluding that Lake Michigan, apple orchards, and four resplendent seasons are some of her favorite things.


Mackenzie Meter is a born-and-raised Michigander with a love for running, hammocking, and homemade soups. She currently works as the marketing manager for an Ann Arbor brewery, where she gets to write about (and enjoy) excellent beer. A lifelong reader, writer, and lover of words, she couldn’t be more thrilled to be a part of Midwestern Gothic.






Stephanie Mezzanatto is a Northern California native, who is currently a senior at the University of Michigan studying Creative Writing and Literature. Her obsessions include her two pit bull mixes, crisp pages, old architecture, and environmentalism. Stephanie lives for the click of the keys as stories flow from fingers to screen, the squish of clay in her hands as she sculpts, and the dim of photography dark rooms. After graduation, Stephanie wants to work in publishing in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she was born and raised, and hopes to publish her own novel someday.

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Read an excerpt of Above All Men at Joyland

We’re delighted that acclaimed journal Joyland has decided to feature an excerpt of Eric Shonkwiler’s Above All Men (MG Press). From the Joyland site:

Occasionally, Joyland‘s Midwest section highlights great small presses based in the Midwest. This excerpt is part of the novel Above All Men published by MG Press, the micro-press affiliated with the journal Midwestern Gothic.

Read the entire excerpt here.

For more information on Above All Men, including how you can get yourself a copy, click here.

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Autoplay reviewed at American Microreivews & Interivews

Sebastian H. Paramo recently reviewed Autoplay at American Microreviews & Interviews, and had this to say:

“Babcock’s collection as a whole soars with possibility, myths, and wonders. One can imagine each poem as a miniature figurine of childhood or a toy in a giant sandbox that plays together well as a whole universe. Each one plays a part in creating this beautiful ode to Ohio and the small wonders of our lives.”

Read the full review.

And for more information on Autoplay, click here.

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Voices of the Middle West 2015

We are ecstatic to announce 2015 Voices of the Middle West: A Celebration of Writers and Independent Presses. Created in partnership with the University of Michigan’s Residential College, Voices of the Middle West is a festival celebrating writers from all walks of life as well as independent presses and journals that consider the Midwestern United States their home.

RSVP on our (open to the public) Facebook event.

The lineup of writers and panels this year is second to none, and we hope you’ll come participate with some of the best and most exciting voices our region has to offer.

The keynote will be delivered by none other than Stuart Dybek, author of two new collections, Ecstatic Cahoots and Paper Lantern, and many other works. There will be a reception open to the public after the keynote, where Mr. Dybek will be available to sign copies of his books, available to purchase by Literati Bookstore.

The day will also feature a panel discussing Midwest as Place and Midwestern Fabulism, plus discussions on publishing and conversations with U of M faculty and students. The lineup is absolutely stacked, including authors such as:

  • Matt Bell
  • Anna Clark
  • Caitlin Horrocks
  • C.J. Hribal
  • Naomi Huffman
  • Allison Joseph
  • Laura Kasischke
  • Alissa Nutting
  • Anne Valente
  • Marcus Wicker
  • Steve Woodward

There will also be a bookfair featuring over 30 publications and presses with Midwestern roots from 10 AM to 5 PM in the atrium (main level) of East Quad.

The goal of the festival is to bring together students and faculty of the university, as well as writers and presses from all over the Midwest, in order to provide a perspective of this region and to showcase the magnificent work being produced here, the stories that need to be told…the voices that need to be heard.

Held on the campus of the University of Michigan, Voices of the Middle West will take place on Saturday, March 21.

Check out the links below for more information, including directions and maps, a list of bookfair exhibitors and information on all of the panels. Additional information will be added in the coming weeks.

Also, please feel free to RSVP on our (open to the public) Facebook event.

There is no cost to attend the festival, and we invite you to stop by and see what we’re all about. Hope to see you there!

About / General Information

Event Schedule / Directions and Parking

Presenters

Bookfair Information / Exhibitor List

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Interview: Sarah Busse

Sarah BusseMidwestern Gothic staffer Lauren Crawford talked with acclaimed poet Sarah Busse about Wisconsin landscapes, how she’s helped create a home for Wisconsin writers, and more.

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Lauren Crawford: What is your connection to the Midwest?

Sarah Busse: Not quite as deep as big bluestem, but close. I was born and lived in Iowa until I went to college. College and graduate school years in Minnesota, and now the past eight almost nine years in Wisconsin. Took time out in between those chapters to live in Seattle, WA and San Mateo, CA, but mostly, yeah, the upper Midwest. On the other hand…while my dad grew up in Indiana, my mother’s family has lived in Maine since just after the Revolutionary War. (“As soon as we started stealing land in this country, our family got some of it,” is how she puts it.) I believe I have strong echoes of those Maine ancestors in my writing voice as well.

LC: In what ways has the Midwest influenced your writing?

SB: How hasn’t it?

I think I’ve been aware for a long time—at conscious levels now but in earlier years maybe not even articulated for myself—that as a Midwesterner I needed to write and speak my own truth or else it would get scripted for me by people who knew little about the region. A stranger on an airplane once told me I didn’t seem “like I was from Iowa.” “Why not?” I asked him. “You seem…more sophisticated,” he said. Whatever. See?

Those outside scripts are dangerous in their simplification and tendency to caricature. The Midwest to me is a multi-layered, complex environment. Prairie, savannah, deep woods. Lakes, rivers, drought and flood. Severe weather in every season. Rust belt and farm belt and strip mall. Shifting populations and ethnicities…I love it all. We think of the Midwest as a place of rootedness, but I see the region rather as profoundly restless. The winds—real or internal—never stop blowing, populations and individuals pass from here-to-there by one wave and another, people moving in all directions. Some of them stop and put down roots, then the next generation grows up and moves on. Sometimes we come back. We keep our eyes on the horizon, pray to sky, try to build something while we’re here.

I also want to say something about growing up “Midwestern nice” and how that is a difficult inheritance for a writer… it is one of my particular inheritances from the region. There is a subtle (or not so subtle) tension between the Midwestern culture of nice and the honesty a writer needs to do her work. With each iteration, I have struggled with this—am still struggling with it. I don’t know if I smile hello at everyone, but I feel like I should—and should is a dangerous word.

LC: Your first full-length collection, Somewhere Piano, offers a whimsical glimpse into your life and your experiences as a mother, poet, and Midwesterner. What inspired you to write about these themes, and how did you begin assembling them cohesively?

Somewhere Piano Sarah BusseSB: Well…I write about what life hands me. I am all of those things: a mother, a poet and a Midwesterner (among other selves that maybe I will write in the future). And I dare to insist that a person who has that life also has a life with moments interesting enough to be worth a poem or two.

Those identities of mother, Midwesterner, poet…they provide the setting for my poems, perhaps more than the themes. I think my themes are the same as most: love, and death, anger and desire and the shifting spaces between those big words. What else is it to find yourself human in the world?

As for any kind of cohesiveness—I think of myself as stitching pieces and fragments together—one of my poems is titled “Landscape Quilter” and that’s a trope I return to for myself. Within that piecework, however, I try hard for ragged edges, rupture and interruption, for gap—to allow the white space and the unspoken equal opportunity. I think it’s important to leave space for the reader (sometimes more than the reader wants). It excites me when you can see some of the needlework in a quilt. The human, fallible trace.

LC: Wisconsin’s landscapes play a major role in many of your poems, setting tones and helping to construct vivid imagery. How did you come to embrace this region and its often overlooked beauty?

SB: Maybe it’s a question of paying attention to the not-beautiful, to the ordinary, outwardly mundane moments and finding the numinous within. This is something one is more or less forced to do growing up in the Midwest, in a landscape which we are told is not sublime, not extraordinary. Of course, growing up here, we all have experienced the extraordinary, the sublime, the terrible, as every child does…so we have to figure out how to convey that without betraying the understated contours of our place.

I don’t think I’m doing anything unusual here. A poet tries to catch at moments usually overlooked—in the landscape, in the conversation patterns, on the bus ride home. It’s our job to keep our feelers out.

LC: A lot of your works draw parallels between two seemingly disparate themes—one benign, and one stirringly austere. An example of this is showcased in “We’re About to Boil the Eggs When,” which involves your children helping to make the eponymous snack while you clandestinely watch a crow attack a rabbit’s nest. Why do you think it’s so important to delineate the quotidian and the dramatic simultaneously?

SB: It’s interesting that you (and you’re not alone, by any means) see this poem as two very separate realities—I wonder which you would label “benign.”

Actually I think this points out a common misunderstanding of my work, when readers assume that a domestic scene is “benign” in any way. That is not my experience or understanding.

Nowhere is there more pressure—constant, unyielding pressure, than within the private walls of the household. When I think about it (and my kids are 13 and 9 now) parenting makes me break out in a cold sweat. It keeps me awake at night, if I let it. The job is harrowing.

I guess what intrigued me in this situation in the poem enough to write it was the parallels. We all have to eat. We all have to kill to eat. The rabbit mother was working on sheer instinct, just like I was in the kitchen. And she made the only choice she could make, to try to save her only remaining kit. And yet, by driving off the crow–actually five crows–she only delayed her baby’s death, gave her kit a few days of blind pain. Did she make the “right” choice? And what about me? Do I make the right choices? How will I ever know?

I guess the point I am trying to make, in this statement and in the poem, is that the quotidian IS dramatic. Life and death, blood and fur right out the window. Eggshells in the kitchen. It’s bloody. Let’s not lie about it.

LC: Much of your poetry employs a childlike fascination with the world around you, as if you’re discovering something for the first time after living with it for millennia. This technique allows your subjects and themes to be infinitely rich and diverse, whether you’re looking out your kitchen window or watching autumnal leaves fall, as in “Flicker.” How did you first begin to develop this skill, and how have you primed your eyes to see beyond the obvious?

SB: I feel like I do discover the world every day. It’s a privilege to see sun hit the leaves at a certain angle, or to overhear the cadences of conversation between two people on the street. I wonder what the alternative would be—we go around once on this big blue ball and every day is a series of amazements. If we don’t acknowledge that, we’re squandering the main gift, not to mention our senses and our intelligence.

Reality has layers—and to see multiple layers at once is a poet’s job and also the work of a lifetime. I’m not yet as good as I could be, as I would like to be. Every day I go back and try again.

LC: You and fellow Poet Laureate of Madison, Wendy Vardaman, have long worked together to establish a home for Wisconsin writers, most notably through the creations of Verse Wisconsin and Cowfeather Press. Why did you feel compelled to build these unique podiums, and what have you learned from this group of writers?

SB: It’s important to me to recognize that Wendy and I inherited a project from Marshfield WI poet Linda Aschbrenner—she published Verse Wisconsin’s precursor, Free Verse, for 11 years.

That magazine was eye opening for me. When I moved to Wisconsin, it provided almost immediate community for me as a writer. And these were poets whose work I could read and who I could meet around the state. Suddenly I realized I was reading a poetry magazine cover to cover because I knew these writers, and wanted to see what they were working on in the new issue… This made me completely rethink what I thought I knew about “worth” or “value” in writing, about community and a writer’s needs and how a writer relates to community.

Other people than me have made the point that strong communities inspire great writing—think of Bloomsbury, or the ex-pats in Paris, or the Beats, or contemporarily Cave Canem, Kundiman, the list goes on and on… We spur each other on. And by encouraging each other to raise the bar on our own work, we raise it for everyone. Wendy and I wanted to insist that good—important—work can be done and is being done right here at home. When we inherited the project, we kept this belief, and a focus on “community” front and center in the project.

LC: You describe yourself as a “feminist, a flirt, and a restless heart,” all of which are demonstrated in your writing. You negate monotony while exalting the everyday; you watch your children grow and your seasons change. You connive beautiful contradictions that somehow, when tacked together, become a complete, cogent whole. Why did you choose those three words in particular, and what word would you add to the list, after having written Somewhere Piano?

SB: Well, again it gets back to my penchant for bringing together disparate ideas and leaving the gaps between them to speak for themselves…to leave space for the reader to interpret the distances (if there are any) between those terms. To list each of them together complicates the ideas, and (I hope) the individual they describe.

What would I add now? I would say I am still a feminist, a flirt, a restless heart… and also a fiction.

LC: What’s next for you?

SB: Ah, there’s the question. I look forward to living the answer. Wendy and I still run Cowfeather Press—we’re bringing out two anthologies this fall. But mostly in this season, post-Verse Wisconsin, I’m enjoying just having a little more space in my life once more to work on my own writing.

This person you interviewed, Sarah Busse, doesn’t write much any more…I’ve started using the name Sarah Sadie, as a way to shift into new territories and see what else I had to say—my poems appear now and again (a big thank you to all the tireless editors and readers doing the necessary work to keep the literary community (and communities) healthy and growing). And I blog about the intersections of poetry and theology at patheos.com, at a site titled Sermons From the Mound.

It’s a grand adventure, all of it—and I’m so grateful to you for asking these questions and giving me an opportunity to mull the answers.

**

Sarah Busse is one of two Poets Laureate of Madison, Wisconsin (2012-2015). She co-edited Verse Wisconsin from 2009-2014 and is one half of Cowfeather Press. Her full-length collection, Somewhere Piano, published in fall 2012 by Mayapple Press (Woodstock, NY), was awarded the Posner Award by the Council for Wisconsin Writers. She has been awarded the WFOP Chapbook Award, the CWW’s Lorine Niedecker Prize and a Pushcart Prize. She teaches at the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival and online at the Loft. She publishes under her own name and also as Sarah Sadie, and currently blogs on the intersections of poetry and theology at patheos.com, in the Sermons from the Mound column.

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