This is a post about a community Christmas cookie.
Bear with me, and hello! Happiest of holiday seasons to you and yours!
And back to the aforementioned cookie…
It was Christmas Eve Eve, and I’d waited too long to secure anise seed, a necessary ingredient in my favorite Christmas cookie, one I make religiously, each and every year: German Springerle.
I visited four stores on my search for the elusive, black licorice-scented seed and found none. I lamented supply chain issues and the state of commerce in particular and the world in general. But not for long, because Christmas.
In a last ditch attempt to keep my cookie tradition alive, my husband suggested I ask for anise seed on our village’s FB page. Within the hour, I had offers of fennel seed and star anise–the latter of which I believed just might work.
Because this is not a baking blog (you’re welcome), I won’t bore you with the recipe–unless you want it (I don’t believe in secret recipes). But suffice it to say the cookie turned out great with the substitution. Yes, it takes a village.
You probably have your own community cookie story. Maybe it’s an actual cookie. Maybe it’s something a little more poignant.
As Epiphany approaches, the Wise Men in our nativity set inch closer to the scene. These smart guys (rightly) get a lot of press. They brought pretty important ingredients to that out-of-the-way stable.
Our nativity set also features some more colorful comers–a rough-looking fellow bringing a chicken and eggs; a woman bringing several loaves of bread balanced on her head; a drummer and a bagpiper bringing the tunes.
Me, I’ve been bringing the music, this year, my first full year as a cantor at my Catholic parish and for weddings and funerals. And this singing way of things has found its way into my home-life (working on a Von Trapp vibe over here!) and my writing-life. In my novel-in-progress I ask: Can our songs save us? And in my recent nonfiction, I try to bring my voice closer to my heart.
If you know me out on Twitter–land of snark–you’ll know that in addition to cookies, I am the one who brings the shrimp ring to a party. (My Midwestern child-self would be duly impressed.) Snark aside, I try to do my small part at a time when it seems we’re all pulled apart, party-less.
Because, we can’t make all the good stuff entirely on our own. It takes community.
Community is why I started this blog way back in 2017. And it’s why I will continue to hype the poets and writers and literary-scene-makers of the Rust Belt in 2022.
My most-viewed interview this year was that with Cleveland native poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis, whom I got to meet in person–and even break bread with–at Lit Youngstown’s Fall Literary Festival in October. A festival I helped to plan, along with so many other members of that literary community.
The literary world just recently lost Joan Didion. The places she wrote about and from are not my places. But she has a lot to teach us about writing about place. I’m taking this quote of hers into 2022 as inspiration:
A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.
Joan Didion, The White Album, 1979
Whatever place you’re shaping, whatever community you belong to, thank you for being here.
All the best in 2022, stay well, and keep in touch!
Hankering for Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, and more? Check out my categories above. I hope you’ll follow me here, if you don’t already, so you never miss a (quite infrequent) post. ~Rebecca
I am not a poet, though some of my prose has aspirations. However, if writing is about invention–and re-invention–maybe my prose knows something I don’t.
How glorious to reinvent ourselves through our writing, over and over, on the page (or screen). I do find invention the most exciting part of being a fiction writer, blogger, and even a marketing professional–well, second only to the excitement of connecting with likeminded creative folks.
Remember in-person literary events? I’d almost forgotten that some of my favorite writerly faces can been seen in the literary wild, outside of their confining Zoom boxes. For those of you readers who’ve been around these blog parts for a while, this festival gave the pleasure of meeting several of my Rust Belt interviewees in person for the first time: memoirist and poet Robert Miltner, poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis, and novelist Margo Orlando Littell. Also, in small-literary-world news, a writer friend I made while attending a writing retreat in Virginia in the spring made it to the fall conference (hi, Rebe!).
So, what exactly goes down at a literary festival? The “gathering in” night at a downtown art studio included a cookie table, a local tradition. And, not only did I cookie, but I also put on my brave writer pants and read a short piece at the open mic (following maybe some of my best advice for speaking–or singing–in public).
The first full day of the festival, I moderated a craft session on writing memoir; attended a panel discussion on rewriting women into history (take that Jack London–just trust me); attended a poetry discussion on transforming grief into a gift; and took an epistolary poetry workshop. Yes, me, the non-poet. At the risk of total embarrassment, here’s my epistolary poem from the class:
A hotel bed big enough for the four of us, but it sleeps only me. I could say I wish you were here,
but Youngstown, this place I only discovered when I was no longer young, feels like mine
alone. Here, the people talk like me, the nasal accent that cuts through a crowd. You will love
a campus like this someday, a place that will watch you become a stronger you, tempered
like the steel of this place. Your Youngstown might be Annapolis or College Park or Cambridge.
You know we can't afford the Ivies, right? Do your homework, get a good night's sleep, and know
I love you.
One of the coolest aspects of having a literary festival on a college campus is the other arts to be found. A short walk took me to a university art museum that was featuring an installation by artist Diane Samuels. My photos don’t do her work justice, so you’re going to want to check out her site. Here, you see Moby Dick, Romeo and Juliet, and The Overstory–with every word of those texts hand-transcribed on various materials. The quilt-like pieces are gorgeous from afar or up close, where you can read every word.
From the art museum, we then had dinner–pierogi and halushki–at a local, historic stone church, where after, in the sanctuary we heard from a jazz trio before the evening’s creative readings. (See pics above.) From there, I followed the locals to a tiny jazz and blues club where we heard, you guessed it, live jazz and blues–some originals and some covers of Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, and other sing-alongable songs. And my weekend just kept getting more art-full.
The second day of the conference, I played hooky. It’s true. Rule-following me. Of course, before that I did my duty as part of the planning committee and worked at the book fair (which was a lot of fun!). I also took poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis’ poetry workshop about writing from family history (one of her best tips: to avoid sentimentality, get very specific and use details sparingly); I’m still working on that poem. And later, I took a poetry workshop on the Golden Shovel form (news-to-me: it has nothing to do with a shovel shape). And then, I played hooky.
For the several years I’ve been attending this literary festival, everyone’s told me I must make it to the Butler Museum of American Art, a short walk from the conference venue. This time, a couple writer friends and I made it, took the tour, the whole thing. Reader, there was an Edward Hopper. I knew I was in the right place. (Pictured: Edward Hopper’s Pennsylvania Coal Town, William Gropper’s Youngstown Strike, Henry Martin Gasser’s Intersection, Grant Wood’s In the Spring, a name-that-abstract piece I didn’t take a good enough picture of the id card, Peter Maier’s Horse-Power (Ben)–a floor-to-ceiling rendering of a Clydesdale painted on metal–and Alfred Leslie’s High Tea.)
After my fill of American art, I enjoyed dinner (Italian, if you’re keeping track) and literary conversation that alternately had me jotting notes (the TBR pile grows ever taller) and laughing. There again, my idea of heaven. To cap off the final evening of the festival: another reading (at another downtown art gallery), this time by Jan Beatty–raw, real, and revelational! I can’t wait to dive into this one, too.
Huge kudos to Lit Youngstown director Karen Schubert and outreach coordinator Cassandra Lawton, the board, and planning committee folks–for another successful literary festival. It felt like a miracle that was over too soon!
Have you ever been to a literary festival or conference? What were the highlights for you? Did you stay in your literary lane or reinvent yourself in a weekend? Do you enjoy creative readings? What makes a reading memorable for you?
I’ve been terrible about keeping in touch, but I hope you’ll check in here. What are you reading, writing? What authors have moved you, lately? Are you getting out to any in-person activities?
Hankering for Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, and more? Check out my categories above. I hope you’ll follow me here, if you don’t already, so you never miss a (quite infrequent) post. Thanks! ~Rebecca
OK, this is pretty niche. But read on. You will be rewarded with a new puppy pic if you do. (Bribing is the new blogging.)
Avid followers of the ol’ blog will maybe recall me quipping that I plan to be an opera singer in my next life. That’s a quip, and not a promise (or threat), since I don’t really believe in next lives or in my opera-singing chops–unless that next life comes with brand-new designer equipment.
However, just as the world was shutting down with the pandemic, and singers were shutting up, I was getting started. Singing became a passion, rekindled from my youth, that I could pursue with gusto–albeit solo–during an otherwise dreary time. Now, provided the pandemic doesn’t throw yet another wrench in the works, I’m practicing my “Ave Maria” (of the Schubert variety) to sing at a wedding ceremony, next month.
Which got me to thinking of another kind of performance: the creative reading. You know, the poet or writer, so awesome on paper, attempts to translate that awesomeness to the air (of your local art gallery, bookstore, or coffeehouse–machines grinding and screaming in the background). We pull for that poet, we really do. We yearn to feel we are in the presence of confident genius. We want to feel enveloped in that voice and meaning. Something akin to Luciano Pavarotti at a football stadium or Celine Dion in Vegas. We want to feel moved. Yet, so often, we feel the poet’s unease, and we can’t enjoy the performance due to flashbacks from that disastrous middle school talent show when we lip-synced to Milli Vanilli.
Yes, one is public singing and one is public speaking, and I’ve conflated the two. But I’ve found that the big-strokes prep is much the same for both.
And so here you have a list, because lists are comforting in their orderliness–especially during times of trepidation (say, like doing public anything during a pandemic). And you have a list in descending order, which should be all the excitement you need on a Friday, right?
5.Embrace the trepidation. In my experience, talking yourself out of nervousness at performing in public doesn’t work. (God love my mom who used to @ me about meditation before a ballet performance.) Have some Jedi mind tricks that work to psych yourself out of nervousness, please teach me your magic. For me, only practice–singing or reading a piece over and over and over–calms the fear. (And if I’m still terribly fearful, I haven’t practiced enough.)
4.Stand (or sit) up straight, and breathe. I know I sound like your mom. Really, it’s about the lungs and diaphragm and other anatomy-ish stuff. And yes, breathing to sing is different than breathing to live. But I would recommend to anyone who has to speak in public that they try breathing like singers do. And, just as singers concentrate on phrasing, so too should readers–especially poets, where line breaks can make or, ya know, break a piece.
3.Take it slow, and enunciate. In singing, we talk about onset and release, but it’s mostly about starting and stopping the right way. In creative readings, the same careful attention should be paid to enunciation. Of course, once the nerves kick in, we want to race to the finish. Fight the urge! Pretend there’s an accompanist or a metronome, keeping you from speeding up, and be sure you can hear every word you say, so that your audience can, too.
2.Make eye contact. Not like salesman-creepy eye contact. But do look up from your words now and then and into the faces of those lovely people who’ve shown up or logged on–and are missing their latest TV show binge–for your words.
1. Speak up. Are you soft-spoken? Is there background noise at your venue? Ask for a mic. Want to go mic-less, you better see #4. You’re going to need to push that breath to be heard.
Your turn: what are your favorite public speaking or creative reading tips or tricks? What are you reading or writing this week? How’s everything?
Puppy! (Did you think I’d leave you hanging?) Meet Rufus, the dog I never thought I needed. But who could resist? And, now for more bribery, meet me over at FB or at @MoonRuark over at Twitter and IG, for more Rufus and more Rust Belt-ness.
Hankering for Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, and more? Check out my categories above. I hope you’ll follow me here, if you don’t already, so you never miss a (quite infrequent) post or more unsolicited advice. Thanks! ~Rebecca
We shall not cease from exploration, and at the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
Greetings from my post-vacation fog. It’s been a while. How are you? I’m sharing one vacay photo here–a bit of exploration along a river’s edge in Ohio. (See more photos over at my page on FB.) Ahead of me there, to the north, is Lake Erie, though this kayaking newbie didn’t make it that far. I did spy several great egrets, some red-winged blackbirds, and a row of tiny ducklings on this one outing. (Thanks for the pic, Dad!)
Much of my vacation was spent on, in, or near the water–just how I like it–but you know I got some reading in. I brought along a good mix of fiction, essays, and poetry and finished up Fierce and Delicate: Essays on Dance and Illness by Renée Nicholson, which I adored. (Look for a review over at Goodreads at some point.)
My vacation felt extra-celebratory, this year, as I had just finished up the first (very exploratory) draft of my new novel. (The first chapter, as it stands now, was published in the latest issue of The Halcyone Literary Review.) I’m enjoying this period of simmering–keeping the novel draft on the back burner a while. (May it grow rich for my absence!)
Have you had such a fallow period in your own writing? What do you do while you’re letting a manuscript rest? I tend to fill my writing time with reading, and it’s been fun to pick up potential “comps”–novels that might compare in some way to mine. Among them is the new historical, coming-of-age novel, The People We Keep by Allison Larkin–so far, so good. (Though I have to say I feel a little offended that books set in the 1990s are now labeled “historical.” Wasn’t that just last week?)
What are you reading or writing this week? What’s your favorite writing advice? What kind of exploration are you on?
Let’s keep in touch in the comments here, over at FB, at Goodreads, or at @MoonRuark over at Twitter and IG. (What did we do before all this socializing. Oh yeah, socialize irl.)
Looking for Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, and more? Check out my categories above. I hope you’ll follow me here, if you don’t already, so you never miss a (quite infrequent) post. Thanks! ~Rebecca
For many years, the Lordstown Complex, a GM auto factory in Northeast Ohio, was a landmark along my drive home to family.
“Not long now,” I’d mutter to myself or say to my kids, if they were with me, and we’d marvel at the sea of cars in the auto plant’s gargantuan parking lot—and at the cars we couldn’t see, being made inside the plant’s operations. Lordstown, something like a prayer and a beacon both, calling me back to the place I still call home.
Poetical references aside, Lordstown was an economic hub for the area, for decades. In the 60s, when my dad first moved to the Cleveland area, met my mom, and married, that plant was making the Chevy Impala and then the Pontiac Firebird. And the people who worked on the line were making salaries better than anything my dad could make as a draftsman. But we all know what happened to auto-making over the next few decades. And, with each pass in recent years, that Lordstown plant held fewer cars in the parking lot, meaning fewer employees working fewer shifts making fewer cars. Last I remember in its history as an auto plant, Lordstown was the home of the Chevy Cruze. I hate to disparage, but how many Cruze drivers do you know?
It was with this point of reference—a familiar setting—that I came to Edward McClelland’s debut novel, Running for Home, out now from Bottom Dog Press. An accomplished journalist and writer of nonfiction—I loved his How to Speak Midwestern—McClelland has covered and written about the post-industrial Midwest, from which he hails, for a long time. This is the first novel for the Lansing, Michigan, native–and it hit home for me.
Running for Home opens on the Empire Motors body plant, “a permanent symbol of my hometown, as well as a gateway to opportunity,” says the narrator, high-school student and runner, Kevin. What follows is a story of the fall of industry in a place, coinciding with the rise of “a slight Midwestern youth,” our protagonist, in this coming-of-age story.
From the jacket copy: “In this moving new novel, [Kevin] deals with a rough high school and a vanishing factory town through a devotion to his running sport and his caring family. Aided by a spunky girlfriend, a humble-wise coach, loyal teammates, and his earned self-awareness, he learns the value of reliance and home.”
What sets this coming-of-age story apart? A narrator with a voice and a passion that ring absolutely true. And they should. McClelland ran track and cross country at his high school, across the street from a Fisher Body plant. McClelland creates a Michigan town setting that leaves no detail of the early 80s unexplored; from the fashion and games popular with teenagers—like windbreakers and Galaga—to movies and music—like All the Right Moves and The Sex Pistols.
In this novel, the author doesn’t shy away from questions of economics and environmental concerns, things that are often at odds when it comes to industry. From Kevin’s perspective as a runner, we get a good view. There’s “the ever-visible rainbow slick on the river’s surface, the effluent of automaking” and the sweetly sick smell of chemicals on the air. Once the plant closes, Kevin both appreciates being able to breathe a little easier and knows life will be tougher, going forward. It hits home when his dad must take early retirement.
The author is also adept at dramatizing and characterizing the generational differences among auto workers, like the narrator’s father and grandfather before him. What did cars mean to men, especially, through these decades? To build one with other men on a line? What does it mean when your life’s work is sent elsewhere? Of course, what is done to a place is also done to the psyche of a place. From this book, I got an insider’s view, including of union operations—and what striking and winning or losing looked like in this era of plant closures and relocations.
What propels the plot, outside of the external forces of the town’s industry declining, is Kevin’s striving for success on the track. His passion is crystal clear:
I ran because I was a runner, because running was my nature. I believed the fastest form of myself was the most perfect form of myself.
In writing fiction, we are often taught to have some kind of a “ticking clock,” to propel our plots and keep our readers turning pages. In this novel, the ticking clock is a stopwatch, and, race after race, we root for Kevin’s success in a sport where fractions of a second mean the difference between success and failure, between a scholarship to college or a ticket to an uncertain future.
What I liked the most—and you might guess by the novel’s title—is that this is not a story about success by getting out. That is an all-too-common trope. But it’s not only a trope in fiction. In an American era of urban sprawl and overcrowding, the post-industrial Midwest still has many places that lose more people each year, many young people among them, than they gain.
Leaving is easy. Just ask me. Staying, despite–or maybe because of–the odds is harder.
Do you have a favorite coming-of-age story set in your native place? Did you stick close to your hometown? Do you run? I’d love to hear about it. And, what are you reading or writing this week?
Want more Rust Belt writing, author interviews, book reviews, writing advice, and more? Follow me here. Thanks!
Mother’s Day. Memorial Day. Let’s not forget the significance of the month of May for the lowly short story!
Yes, May is Short Story Month. You didn’t know? You didn’t send a card? Well, me neither. But I didn’t want this busiest of months to pass without sharing a bit of good news with my loyal Rust Belt Girl followers–that’s you.
My short story, “The Pearl Diver” has been published in the latest issue of CutBank, the literary journal of the University of Montana. You can read the opening excerpt here–or purchase an issue if you’d like to read the whole thing (and more fiction and poetry goodness therein).
My pearl-diving main character has never been to Montana (nor have I), but I sure am glad she and her story struck a chord with the journal editors there. It probably won’t surprise you to know that this story is set in Ohio–at a fictionalized SeaWorld Ohio, in fact. The fact that this SeaWorld no longer exists makes it historical fiction, I guess, though the story takes place in the 90s, which feels like just yesterday to me.
Where I grew up in Northeast Ohio, we were just a half hour or so from SeaWorld, and the summers we visited for killer whale (remember we used to call orcas “killer whales?”) and dolphin shows; visit the penguins; and admire the human water-skier pyramids were the best summers. Of course, that was a different time, and we look at animals in captivity differently now.
I don’t remember if my parents ever bought me a pearl from the SeaWorld pearl diving exhibit, where divers, ya know, dove for pearls in a pool. But it was fun to think about working as a diver (I can’t dive well, myself) in a pool, kept captive for a summer–much like the animals swimming around in their tanks. What trouble might an almost-sixteen-year-old girl diver get into over such a summer? (Lots, as it turns out.)
I wrote the first drafts of this coming-of-age story in grad school (ages ago) and it landed me on a couple finalist lists for contests. But “The Pearl Diver” never found a home until now. And it’s a beautiful home–check out those illustrations and cover art!
I hope you enjoy the excerpt, and many more stories, as we close out Short Story Month.
Happy reading! ~Rebecca
Let’s chat! Comment below or on my FB page or find me at Twitter @MoonRuark. Want more Rust Belt writing, author interviews, book reviews, writing advice, and more? Follow me here. Thanks!
Ohio Apertures (2021) is Robert Miltner’s latest work, a collection of short creative nonfiction pieces that comprise a memoir. The author of two books of prose poetry, poetry chapbooks, and a short story collection, his memoir represents a cohesive journey. From stories of youth to young and older adulthood; from reflections of Ohio to the American West and trips abroad; from journeys by foot and by car—the car such a potent symbol of the post-industrial Midwest—the reader journeys with the author, and it is a satisfying and solace-making trip that doesn’t look away from the remains of Midwestern heydays past. Miltner provides the objects of his looking and perceiving and also the vehicle of that looking, and I think that matters in studies of observation, in studies of life, which is what we readers want in memoir—the particular and personal expanded to the universal, expanded to include our lives, too.
The objects Miltner ruminates upon in these short essays are often small—he’s so good at detail. There’s the watch pocket in a pair of Levi’s; the pneumatic tube at the bank drive thru; the crescent roll of youth and croissant of maturity; the sound an old car makes, like “sarcastic laughter”; the song that was playing at the bar after he was robbed as a young man. There’s a lot of music in these pages—a few of these pieces feel like they have their own soundtracks—but most of the music comes from the lyrical quality of these essays. And the quiet, the white space, the musical rests, the silence that is, Miltner says, “both the context for prayer and prayer itself.”
Always, the author returns to Ohio, the name alone like a song, and to the state’s flowing rivers and Great Lake Erie and its shale coastline that makes for violent, crescendo-like waves at its cliffs. My favorite piece in the collection is the last, “Black River Bridge,” an ode to a bridge that the author has traveled many times to cross his home-town river. He speaks to it, lovingly, in this essay: “Poor Black River, you lonely stepsister in this sad fairy tale of Ohio rivers…No one, lost river of industry, dark river of my youth, kisses your mouth each night along your shale and sand shoreline.” Though somber in tone, the piece ends optimistically, or in a tone I like to think of as Northeast Ohio optimism—which is as tempered as our steel.
Recently, I asked the author a few questions about this collection, about his writing process and projects, and about writing in community:
Robert, Ohio Apertures is a lyric memoir in short pieces. You’ve written a lot of poetry and fiction, but this represents your debut memoir. What do you like about creative nonfiction? Were there things you could say about your life that you couldn’t say—or hadn’t said yet—through other mediums that you said in these pages?
I view myself as a writer, which I use in the comprehensive sense, rather than identifying by a single genre, because it feels restrictive. In terms of genre, I’ve felt compelled to “contain multitudes.” Writing in a new genre is like acquiring a new language; it’s like becoming bilingual or, for me with Ohio Apertures, trilingual. I used to think adding genres would be about learning the guidelines for new puzzles. Any new genre is like a puzzle, and what is produced is a piece of writing that is one solution to the puzzle. In that way, my collection of short stories was, for me, a collection of individual solutions to a general question regarding the art and craft of short fiction. What I discovered was an art akin to drama, to theater. I create characters then put them in situations; or, I imagine situations then insert characters. Variations on puzzles. What I learned was a way of speaking through masks, wherein the first person singular “I” is not me being lyrical, but some other person engaged in narrative action—it’s not me speaking.
When the first person singular “I” speaks in a poem or a creative nonfiction, that’s me. It’s like revelatory song lyrics or confessional poetry. And it’s risky to speak for yourself, and safer to speak through a character. In looking back at And Your Bird Can Sing, my collection of short fictions, there are several pieces that are very autobiographical, and so much so, that I can now see them as memoir that I didn’t recognize as such. So here is what my response to your question has been arching toward:
What I like about creative nonfiction, or lyric memoir, or lyric-narrative memoir, is the element of risk. Of being open and honest and as true as is possible to the material. It’s the risk of being vulnerable.
Ironically, while I was shaping individual pieces of creative nonfiction—memoir, lyric essays, narrative nonfiction, travelogue pieces—into a book where I was experiencing the most lyric freedom, I was concurrently shaping a new manuscript of poetry in which I was developing these sparse, minimalist prose poems that I can only define as not exactly a-lyrical, but more like lyric zero; they’re textual equivalents to Edward Hopper paintings: empty rooms where we sense the presence of people who are absent. Crazy, huh?
It’s like I transferred all my lyrical attention from my prose poems into my creative nonfiction memoir. The risk was exhilarating and the results of both manuscripts generated exciting new material through which I have discovered this: choice of genre is really about where I stand in relationship to the subject matter. It’s like the Wallace Stevens poem in which he writes, “I was of three minds,/Like a tree/In which there are three blackbirds.” If I read the three minds as the three genres I write—poetry, fiction, and now nonfiction—the blackbirds can be seen as the creative impulse. But what’s most interesting to me is that Stevens isn’t really addressing the puzzle of the three minds—instead he’s telling us that the blackbirds are in a tree. For them, it’s about where they perch. And for me, now, writing is about where I stand, finding the site that allows the best relationship to the subject matter.
I asked your friend and mine, memoirist David Giffels once if memoirists have great memories—I thought,how else to capture a moment from one’s distant past? He told me that, for him, there’s a lot of research involved, even for personal memoir—research in the way of interviews of family and friends who might have a different perspective on a past event. Can you tell us a little about your research process for one of the pieces in this book?
David is a brilliant nonfiction writer; he came into the creative nonfiction room through the journalism door. His The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt really made me keenly aware of the necessity of detail, exactness, and precision in crafting creative nonfiction. His work showed me possibilities that lead me into the creative nonfiction room. I was also influenced by the Appalachian Ohio writer Richard Hague, whom I met when we were in college together; he came to creative nonfiction through the poetry door. In his Milltown Natural, about growing up in Steubenville, Ohio—a city that is categorized as both Rust Belt and Appalachia—Richard fleshed out his collection of creative nonfiction pieces with memorable details that made his Steubenville three-dimensional. But he did something else: as a poet writing prose, the level of attention to language, syntax, the sound of words and the rhythm of sentences showed me the possibility of lyrical prose. He wonderfully disrupted my sense of how poetry and nonfiction are like lost cousins.
One of the epigrams in Ohio Apertures is from W. G. Sebald, whose creative nonfiction is mesmerizing because almost every third sentence is like a labyrinth: “You adulterate the truth as you write. There isn’t any pretense that you try to arrive at the literal truth. And the only consolation when you confess to this flaw is that you are seeking to arrive at poetic truth.” Sebald argues for the craft of writing, the attention to make art—that the idea of poetic truth is akin to an aesthetic truth. Sebald laid down the dictum to balance the literal with the poetic, and, of course, poetic license is as valid here, due the lyrical nature of both poetry and memoir. But I learned in writing my book that while the poetic/lyric/aesthetic truth is the goal, it can only be accomplished when the literal truth—much of it sharpened into precision—is researched.
The piece I recall researching the most—or perhaps the most satisfyingly—is “Desperados,” which in early drafts was very much a linear narrative only. Denver’s Capitol Hill in the 1970s; a sort of “bank” robbery; the Broker Bar on 17th Street; the culture class of the bankers, lawyers, and part-time college student working for a shady landscape company. The need for such geographical precision necessary for linear narrative is like filming a documentary. But the challenge in this piece was to get the poetic/lyric/aesthetic to be equal, co-present, operating almost like it was a character in the narrative. I began to imagine this piece as a film I could see, with me as the director and lead actor. The numerous references to film, to movie acting, the final scene where I imagine film credits, I had to research that. And when I decided a good film needs a soundtrack, I turned to Glenn Frey of the Eagles. I had to know the songs that were released before the day of the robbery, and that had me running down song lyrics.
Those literal details, augmented by mirrors and movie screen allusions—as well as resonant images, emotion, language play, leaps and jump cuts—bring together the literal and the aesthetic for a poetic closure to the piece.
In a recent post here at Rust Belt Girl, I talked about the idea of writing companions, authors we avid readers and writers follow faithfully and who shape our work. In your essay, “Into the Bargain,” you describe finding a volume of Raymond Carver’s poetry, Where Water Comes Together with Other Water at a bargain book store, and you’re “entranced and transported.” The book becomes a “talisman” for you, for what it helps you discover about yourself upon reading and re-reading. Can you tell us more about what this writing companion did for you as a poet—and a writer and as founding editor of The Raymond Carver Review?
Toward the end of that piece, I contrast J. D. Salinger’s The Cather in the Rye,a book that I felt I identified with in my adolescence, with Raymond Carver’s Where Water Comes Together with Other Water, a book that I identified with during my mid-life transition. There are books and libraries and reading throughout Ohio Apertures. I was a shy, bookish middle child who stuttered, and I became a high school teacher and then a university professor, and an author. Actually, I went on to write my doctoral dissertation on Carver’s poetry, more from a sociological lens than an aesthetic one. Raymond Carver was a sort of mirror in which I could catch a glimpse of myself: an awkward child, a kid who liked to fish, a man who was drawn to rivers and lakes, a multiple-genre writer who began as a poet, eventually a university professor, and ultimately a man who came to understand and accept his human flaws enough to seek forgiveness and atonement.
The brilliance of Carver’s writing, and in particular his poetry, is his gift of stated or implied metaphor. The water of two rivers—one the past, one the present—that converge to carry him into the future resonates imagistically in Ohio Apertures. Carver was a very autobiographical writer, so much so, that at times much of his work can be read almost like creative nonfiction. Having read his letters and manuscript drafts in library archives, as well as interviews and biographical studies, many of his poems and stories are autobiographical. He wrote what his second wife, the poet Tess Gallagher, especially in his late poetry and in many of his autobiographical stories, calls “lyric narrative poems,” that is, poems in which the poet, or more so the poet’s imagination, become the hero of the narrative. That sounds to me much like a way to describe a lyric memoir, especially one that arcs toward a “poetic truth.” As a scholar-writer, I founded The Raymond Carver Review as a scholarly journal that would recognize Carver’s impact as a writer, and the quality and value of the body of his work. He was just 50 when he died, in his eleventh year of sobriety. During his last few years be began to write essays, prose poetry, and screen plays.
From my perspective as a writer and Carver scholar, I can see he was finding new sites, new places to stand in relationship to his subject material, new ways to grow as a writer.
Can you get us up to speed with what you’re working on now?
The past two years have been an amazing culmination of several concurrent projects. I published a book of prose poems, Orpheus & Echo, in the three-in-one book Triptych by Etruscan Press in March 2020; I finished Ohio Apertures, which was published by Cornerstone Press in March; and I’ve finished a new book of prose poems, Capital of Sorrows, that is under review. The pantry is empty, so to speak.
I’ve been re-reading some of my travel notebooks, and working on some new drafts of poems; I expect I’ll see what tendencies the poems take, looking for a pattern to occur that may shape a next book of poems. I’m re-reading an early draft of a novel that I’m returning to, looking to reshape and revise it into a new draft. It’s an historical novel and there have been some recent books that I’ve acquired, as research, so as to expand my original draft. I put the book aside because I couldn’t solve the puzzles the genre posed, but I’ve re-imagined the book and will write my way to a different solution than I did the first time around. I’ve located copies of some letters written by the character whose section is epistolary, and two books, both recent, are packed with new information I will cull for what can expand the character. And for another character, one who is complex yet relatively unknown, I’m drawing from the use of cinema and documentary, the site where I’m going to stand in, as I revise that section. Also, I’m sketching out notes for a book of long pieces of creative nonfiction, tentatively titled Mid-Century. While re-reading my travel notebooks I’ve come across several pages of questions I would have liked to have asked my father if he were still alive. How interesting it is that I’m ending this interview with an idea for a second book of creative nonfiction, based on questions addressed to my late father, like one would address in an interview.
Robert Miltner is the award-winning author of two books of prose poetry, Hotel Utopia and Orpheus & Echo, and a short story collection, And Your Bird Can Sing. A professor emeritus of English at Kent State University Stark and the Northeast Ohio MFA in Creative Writing, Miltner lives in Northeast Ohio.
Like this interview? Comment below or on my FB page. And please share with your friends and social network. Want more author interviews, book reviews, writing advice, and general Rust Belt goodness? Follow me here. Thanks! ~Rebecca
This idea came from Cherie over at ThatBlogWhereCherieMovestoGermany, who got the idea from They Call Me Tater, who found it at Ashley’s Blog, who found it at The Boundless Books Blog. Whew! Why not join in, or leave your own answers to a few of these questions in the comments?
Author You’ve Read the Most From:
In fiction, probably Ian McEwan or Alice McDermott (I try not to miss anything from her; she visited with an online book club I belong to, not long ago, and was as lovely as her prose. #authorswoon.) In nonfiction, David Giffels, who writes about my native NE Ohio with a keen eye and a big heart. In poetry, Ross Gay, who never fails to challenge the mind and delight the senses.
Best Sequel Ever:
I don’t read many series, but Marilynne Robinson’s masterpiece GILEAD, set after JACK, which was most recently published, is one of my all-time favorite novels. (I have yet to read the other two in the series: LILA and HOME, the latter of which is on my nightstand waiting patiently for me.)
I’m always reading a few at a time. Right now, I’m reading THE MERCIES by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, set in 1600s Norway; WILD SWIMS, a collection of short and flash fiction from Dorthe Nors, who is Danish; and thumbing through THE KALEVALA: TALES OF MAGIC AND ADVENTURE by Kirsti Makinen, all to inform my own writing of a historical story I’m working on set in Finland.
I’m also reading OHIO APERTURES, creative nonfiction by Robert Miltner; and RUNNING FOR HOME by Edward McClelland, which I plan to talk about here at the blog.
Drink of Choice While Reading:
Typical American: coffee. Black in the morning and with a little cream and sugar in the afternoon.
E-Reader or Physical Book:
Physical book. In a pinch, a PDF on my computer, but my hand-me-down Nook (yes, I’m that old) just collected dust, so I never upgraded.
I do love a good audio book, but I was finding that I was filling all my quiet time in the car and on walks with those stories, instead of using that time to hammer my own stories out in my head.
Fictional Character You Probably Would Have Actually Dated in High School:
Well, I was a ballet dancer in high school, so can we change this to “movie” character–and let’s go with Mikhail Baryshnikov in WHITE NIGHTS. (And, let’s change “actually” to “in my dreams.”)
Glad You Gave This Book a Chance:
I didn’t read much poetry until a handful of years ago, when a friend recommended Marie Howe to me. Her book MAGDALENE is now a favorite.
Hidden Gem Book:
THE NEW MIDWEST by Mark Athitakis is a guide to modern-day fiction of the Rust Belt and thereabouts that was published by a hidden gem press, Belt Publishing, out of Cleveland. I love books set in NYC and L.A. as much as the next reader, but it’s nice to find good ones set closer to home.
Important Moment in Your Reading Life:
Reading Ross Gay’s THE BOOK OF DELIGHTS, when I thought: Oh, I can write toward joy, too.
Never say never, but I’m generally not a romance reader.
Longest Book You Read:
Lately, Caitlin Horrocks’s THE VEXATIONS–and it was worth every single word.
Major Book Hangover:
See above. I was so sad when that book ended, so sad to be thrust out of Erik Satie’s turn-of-the-century Paris, I went to thank the author on Twitter. Then I bought a signed copy from her local bookstore and am anxiously awaiting it. Can’t wait to begin the story again!
Number of Bookcases You Own:
In the house? Lots. There are four avid readers here. In my office, I have three small bookcases made for me by my dad. (Thanks, Dad!)
One Book You Have Read Multiple Times:
I have read ANGELA’S ASHES by Frank McCourt several times–once just before taking the Angela’s Ashes Walking Tour in Limerick, Ireland, on my honeymoon. It was drizzling and gray that day, as a small group of us traipsed around McCourt’s hometown and saw the sights from his celebrated memoir.
Preferred Place to Read:
On the porch, if the weather’s nice.
Quotes that Inspires You/Gives You All the Feels From a Book You’ve Read:
“A crooked way / the world wends, and the rivers, and the prophets.” That’s a line from a poem by Dave Lucas called “River on Fire.”
That I don’t have twice (or thrice) the time to read.
Series You Started and Need to Finish (all books are out in series):
Ross Gay. Do poets and essayists have fangirls? I don’t know. But I admire his work greatly and am so thrilled I will get to meet him at my favorite literary festival, Lit Youngstown’s 2021 Fall Literary Festival. Registration is open. Why don’t you meet us there?
Worst Book Habit:
Reading a half dozen books at a time and losing them all over the house.
X Marks the Spot: Start at the Top LefT of Your Shelf and Pick the 27th Book:
Gabino Iglesias’s COYOTE SONGS
Your Latest Book Purchase:
FIERCE AND DELICATE: ESSAYS ON DANCE AND ILLNESS by Renee Nicholson
ZZZ-Snatcher Book (last book that kept you up Way Late):
I’ve been reading THE MERCIES before bed–it’s so good I wish I could stay up all night, reading it, but also I don’t want it to end!
“Know that you will never fall asleep on a beach again.” That’s what I tell would-be mothers when they ask what to expect of motherhood (because the books don’t tell you the half of it). Oh, of course I tell them the good stuff, too: an enlarged heart and sense of purpose and connection with a tiny body-and-soul that needs you like water, like everything.
And grief. To mother is to grieve–even if not actively–to know that one day this little being’s light will be extinguished. And we hope and pray that it happens after our own light is long gone, but we know that it will happen. Motherhood is carrying that knowledge around with us everywhere, while stoking our kids’ lights to make them brighter. To make them last.
In the coming-of-age novel, The Remnants of Summer, debut novelist Dawn Newton plumbs the depths of grief after our 14-year-old protagonist, Iris, falls asleep on the beach while babysitting not her child but her younger brother–who drowns.
“Iris is sinking.” So begins the novel’s summary, and Newton expertly weaves water into grief and redemption throughout this coming-of-age story set in a lakeside, working-class community in the 70s. It is grief-laden, this novel, but it’s also a balm–not only because the author taps into the nostalgia of youth, but because the author taps into the resilience of youth.
My best childhood days were spent at the lake. What better reward for lake-effect snow from December through March (and sometimes April) than summer at the water’s edge? The Remnants of Summer is set not far from Detroit, Michigan, but you’ll find your lakeside town in this story, I promise. You’ll remember the bike rides and trips for ice cream, the fishing and daydreaming. You’ll be reminded of the way the sun turns the rippling lake to sparkles.
Of course there’s a flip side to the idyllic lakeside story. The lake has taken Iris’s little brother the summer before, on Iris’s watch, and now the lake doesn’t shimmer like it always did. Her relationship with this place, her home, has changed; what’s more her relationships with her parents and older sister, Liz, have changed, too. Why won’t they blame her outright for her brother’s death, already? Instead Iris blames herself, over and over, and tries to keep afloat as she works a summer job and gets together with friends–but grief puts a shadow over everything.
Meanwhile, a serial killer has nabbed and killed several children in Michigan. This development is less a plot point than atmosphere–but true-to-history-atmosphere–and not germane to the story, except that it allows for Iris to ruminate on death and guilt outside her family situation. Likewise, she considers those soldiers missing and presumed dead–a neighbor’s cousin is MIA–in the ongoing war in Vietnam. These historical points set the scene, but I admit to wondering if this quiet coming-of-age novel was about to turn into a mystery. And I admit to thinking that a plot thread along those lines, woven through the family saga, might have been a good way to raise the stakes even higher.
When a neighbor’s uncle, a man about twice her age, makes a sexual pass, Iris considers new feelings, and new questions come burbling up: Did she want the attention? To feel special? Was she attracted or scared of him, or both? I was glad for these coming-of-age questions to round out Iris’s character and rescue her from her sinking grief.
I was also glad for the ending, which doesn’t wrap things up too neatly. Anyone who has experienced grief for a lost loved one knows there’s no wrapping it up. Grief ebbs and flows, and you ride it as best you can.
I won’t soon forget Iris. And I won’t soon forget the gorgeous prose the author uses to make this summertime story feel like it was mine for a time–language, characterization, and setting the novel’s strongest elements. One of my favorite passages, describing a summer concert on the water:
“…she told Iris she and her husband lingered around the edges of the circle the boats made in the water, listening for the faint strain of the pitch pipe, then the blend of the rich voices, from bass and baritone to soprano, voices mingling with those of complete strangers from the other side of the lake, in search of the harmony that hung in the air, waiting to be sung.”
How do you define “beach read” and what’s your favorite one? Got a favorite lake? Who writes your favorite settings the best? What are you reading, this week?
Looking for more Rust Belt book reviews, author interviews, and more? Check out my categories above, and find me on my FB page and over at Twitter as @MoonRuark
*Thanks to the folks at Mindbuck Media Book Publicity for sending me a copy of the novel for review! Pre-orders are available now, if you’re interested.
A few weeks ago I took a Master Class, online, through the Academy offerings of A Public Space. The focus of the class grabbed me, even before the reputation of the master teacher, Danish author Dorthe Nors.
“Literary companions” was the focus; I was intrigued. The class blurb defined literary companions as “the writers one reads who are essential to one’s own work and writing life.” And, I have to admit, the more I started thinking about my own literary companions, the more I started thinking I might be a little loose, literary-ly.
Dorthe Nors (whose latest short story collection Wild Swims is on my teetering TBR tower) delivered an engaging lecture with a lot of insights into her own long-term literary companions: Ingmar Bergman and Tove Ditlevsen. Nors was also funny–noting that the best literary companions have already made their contributions to the literary world (in that they’re dead).
She posed a few questions to the class through our computer screens. Among them: who were your literary companions as children, as adolescents, in young adulthood, and as emerging or established writers? From an obsession with Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking stories as a little kid, I moved on to Judy Blume. You remember, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, don’t you? In college, I read all the Tom Robbins novels, Jitterbug Perfume, included. But these companions have come and gone, like the phases of life (and like a few terrible boyfriends along the way).
For writers, literary companions, Nors said, can help us find our voice and our material. But literary companions are just as important to avid readers. I bet you’re thinking of your favorite author, right now, aren’t you?
If there’s been an author who I’ve kept close to my side in recent times, as I’ve been working on my latest novel manuscript, it would be Tove Jansson, whom I fawned over here. And I don’t see letting her go any time soon. I admire Jansson for everything my writing is not: minimalist, with a keen eye for life in and of the natural world.
But there’s more to “literary companion” than the “literary” part. Nors’ discussion on the companionship she felt to her special authors–at a time when she felt very much alone, having gained some international fame (and subsequently lost some writing friends)–was very thought-provoking and touching.
And it took me back to why I first gravitated to books–why we all do, probably. At least in part it’s for solace, companionship when we feel friendless, and escape to a place where we feel we belong. And isn’t it glorious when we can escape with a cherished companion?
Do you have a writer or writers you would consider literary companions? What are you reading or writing this week?
Have you taken advantage of the many online offerings of classes–master and otherwise–during the pandemic? Have any good class recommendations for us?
Looking for Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, and more? Check out my categories above, and find me on my FB page and over at Twitter as @MoonRuark