Tag Archive: fiction


(Courtesy of Willow Books/Aquarius Press)

Started in 2007, Willow Books, an imprint of Aquarius Press, is still in its childhood. Yet the six-year-old Detroit-based press is rapidly becoming the Motown Records of book publishing.

As America’s top Black-owned and operated record company and business, Motown Records signified a new day. The cultural icon’s chart-topping singles and often-imitated sound embodied the struggle for progress and optimism of a long-dispirited people.

Under owner/publisher Heather Buchanan-Gueringer’s direction, Willow Books’ mission is no different. The press develops, publishes and promotes underrepresented writers.

If a publisher’s personal triumphs show a press’s future successes, then I’m confident Willow Books will thrive as a luminary on the literary landscape. Heather Buchanan-Gueringer, an award-winning publisher-editor-arts consultant, is a former State Officer for the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and a past Vice-President of the Great Lakes Independent Publishers Association and American Business Women’s Association (Ambassador Tri-County Chapter).

A past COO of the Wayne County Council for Arts, History & Humanities, Buchanan-Gueringer founded Aquarius Press in 1999 and continues to publish top talent from across the nation, many through the Willow Books literary imprint.

The press cut its teeth through partnerships with universities and literary organizations such as the National Book Foundation, Poets & Writers, Cave Canem Foundation, Inc., Poets House, Springfed Arts, Wayne State University, Chicago State University and the University of New Haven, among others. The press also hosts conferences such as the Idlewild Writers Conference and the LitFest Spring Retreat, and regularly exhibits at Associated Writing Program’s (AWP) Annual Conference.

(PHOTO: Alan W. King)

Willow Books’ mission of developing underrepresented writers stemmed from Buchanan-Gueringer’s service as a past executive director of the Detroit Writers’ Guild. She continues the literary imprint’s mission as an adjunct professor, most recently teaching at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and the College for Creative Studies.

As an arts consultant, Buchanan-Gueringer served on the planning committee for what is now the Virgil Carr Cultural Arts Center. She also founded the Metro Detroit Performing Arts Center. Buchanan-Gueringer, a musician as well, serves on the board of the Orchard Lake Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.

In addition to Buchanan-Gueringer, Willow Books is blessed to have award-winning writer Randall Horton, PhD., as its poetry editor. Horton’s honors include the Bea González Prize for Poetry, the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, and fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and Cave Canem.

Also on Willow Books’ staff are poet/photographer Jerriod Avant (editorial assistant) and award-winning poet Curtis Crisler (contributing poetry editor). I’d say, with that staff and their credentials, Willow Books is in good hands.

I’m honored to be among its word crooners such as Makalani Bandele, Krista Franklin, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, and Derrick Harriell. The six-year-old press lost its baby teeth with its word warriors such as Kelly Norman Ellis, Tara Betts, and Tony Medina. (You’ll find Willow Books’ complete line-up on its authors’ page.)

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The unsurpassed excellence and sophistication the musicians and singers brought to Motown Records lives on in the works and accomplishments of Willow Books’ award-winning authors, many of which are professors with advanced degrees.

The fairly young literary imprint flexed its new muscles with the Literature Awards, Open Reading Period, and Emerging Writer Chapbook Series. This Saturday, Willow Books will flex those same muscles with its 2nd Annual LitFest, a mini conference/retreat with readings, book fair, networking and workshops.

In partnership with the Gwendolyn Brooks Center at Chicago State University, this year’s LitFest will include manuscript sessions, a panel discussion, public readings, and an open mic. It will also feature Willow Books Literature Awards Finalists’ Reading and Awards Ceremony, where the press will announce its poetry and prose winners. (Download the brochure here)

Most events are free and open to the public but require registration. (Download and complete the LitFest Registration Form). For more info, please visit Willow Books LitFest. You can also keep up with the press by liking the Willow Books Group Page.

Graphic Novella in the works!

ImageFor my third semester project, in the Stonecoast MFA Program, I decided to team up with the incredible Cory Thomas to collab on a graphic novella. The illustrations are Cory’s interpretation of my short story (tentatively titled THE HAGAKURE OF CORNBREAD OTHELLO) that he completed so far for this project.

I’m hoping Cory and I can continue this and sell it to a publisher. I got a good sign from my homie, the wonderful poet Bianca Spriggs, who sent me some resources on a publisher that puts out comics and graphic novels. Keep your fingers crossed. Check out an excerpt from the graphic novella here.

The Ear Hustler (flash fiction)

(PHOTO: stfudii)

“YOU LOOK GOOD,” the guy tells the woman. They’re standing behind a teacher in a coffee shop where the audio selection shifts from jazz to acoustic world music to blue grass, then back to jazz. Grounded coffee beans claim the space with their fragrant presence.

The guy has close-cropped white hair. He’s wearing a gray sports blazer over tan khaki pants. He’s much older than the woman, who’s dressed as if she’s heading toward the gym or as if she’s just finished jogging and came inside to cool off, having had the sun bake her complexion a pumpkin hue when it seemed to scream its heat over everything uncovered.

The teacher taps his fingers on the countertop. He took his students out for a writing exercise. He told them where to set up, and figured he had enough time to grab a drink and get back before his students noticed him missing. He needed something cold for his dry throat made dryer by the 78 degrees. He watches the couple, who, at first, appears to be father and daughter—that is, until he sees how the old man is holding her shoulders.

The woman looks no younger than 25, yet something about the touch still seems inappropriate—the old man rubbing her arms and squeezing her flesh, how his touches linger. That she doesn’t shrug him off says she’s comfortable with this, that he’s done this before. It says she even enjoys this as he leans back and slowly rolls his appraising gaze over her new body. “How much weight did you lose?” he asks.

A woman making drinks tells the teacher his Green Tea frappuccino is ready. She tops it off with whip cream while the teacher smiles like the young woman who tells the old man, “I lost thirty pounds.” The teacher pops the straw through its paper sheath; he slides it through the dome cover and into his drink, which a student will later say looks like guacamole and sour cream, stunning the teacher with her imagery.

But at the moment, the teacher sips the gooey goodness of milk, ice, and green tea powder. The old man asks the young woman, “How did you lose the weight?” The teacher nearly chokes from her response: “I got divorced.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today, the weather was so good, I took my poetry students (only two showed up for class) out to Wisconsin Avenue NW in DC’s Georgetown. Their assignment was to people watch–observe how strangers interacted with one another. The students were supposed to also observe the strangers’ body language, and then create a flash fiction story. I took part in the exercise and wrote the story below.

(PHOTO: Peter Dworin/ NYTimes)

A BIKE MESSENGER WHIZZES BY, running late for a delivery she should have made an hour ago. She has one more time for a client to complain before she’s fired. She flies by the sound of Bengal music wafting from the red Honda Civic that waits for the traffic light to turn green.

She passes the cyclist whose rolled up yoga mat is in her bike’s rear basket rack. She passes a guy late for an interview. He’s got a folder with copies of his résumé. I should have worn a watch, he thinks. He puts his face against the glass panes of an art shop, and then bolts when the store’s clock tells him what time it is.

The courier passes the woman rolling her bag along. I don’t know how I let the sales lady talk me into buying this, she thinks. The pink and green rose pattern is so ugly. The courier passes a woman on the phone outside Long & Foster Realtors. Then the courier’s gone before a green Saturn whips a U-turn ahead of the silver Audi station wagon that’s about to pounce the intersection on the green light. The Saturn turns before the officer in the tinted out black Denali with strobe lights notices. It turns in front of the old guy who’s waiting for the cross walk signal. He shakes his head at what he thinks was a careless maneuver.

The old guy’s wearing black dress slacks under a mud-colored Parka and lily pad green winter hat. I should’ve checked the weather before I left home, he thinks. I’m burning up out here. It’s 65 degrees, for Christ’s sake. He looks around and spots a writer and two girls. Who’s that guy scribbling in his book? the old guy continues. What are those two girls doing up on that wall?

The old guy shoves the thought from his head when he’s nearly trampled by three students from Duke Ellington School of the Arts skateboarding down Wisconsin Avenue. One of them is a junior. He’s brave enough to wave at a teacher from his department, as if the junior didn’t have an art block class to attend. The skate boarders avoid the woman pushing a stroller up the sidewalk. The woman’s a young mother—she couldn’t be older than 21.

(PHOTO: Travel Smart)

The mother snaps her head away from the couple who both look as though they stepped out of a Calvin Klein ad. Supercuts! the young mother thinks. That’s where they got their hair cut!

The couple laughs and points at a bald man in the passing pick-up truck. Pick-up truck dude’s smoking a cigarette and wearing a button-up shirt with too many medals to be a civilian. He stares at the writer and two girls hanging out on the wall. I fought in Vietnam for what—so some hippies could sit on some wall instead of working and write about nothing.

He shakes his head. And people like them wonder why republicans want to cut funding for the arts, he continues. Well, I’m all for it. Stop wasting that money and put it towards something useful, like war. But those comments are lost on the writer, who’s preoccupied with another old guy walking up Wisconsin Avenue in a biker’s jacket that probably fit him three decades ago. Now, the jacket grabs at his shoulders and elbows like officers subduing a perp on the run.

The writer glances up at his students staring at what’s across the street. To where, he doesn’t know or care. His attention’s on the woman in black tights and a light sweater. Every step she takes, her athletic legs flex like a whisper that teases him for looking—that is, until he remembers his fiancée at home. Next to her, the woman in black tights is Medusa. Every time he’s around his fiancée he pinches himself. That his fiancée is still there after the pinch, that he hasn’t awaken from what feels like a dream, only proves how lucky he is. The teacher’s jarred from his thoughts when one of his two students asks, “Mr. King, are we going to do this until five o’clock?”

Tidal Basin Review Doing Big Things!

(PHOTO: Tidal Basin Review) Click the artwork to view larger image.

If you’re like me, you probably wondered what brought on the unseasonably warm weather a couple of weeks ago. And, like me, you’ll see the cause of that was the scorching new issue of Tidal Basin Review (TBR).

I’m honored to have some work alongside writers who get down on this issue’s theme of beauty. In his poem “Essence And Object,” Kyle Dargan’s speaker, looking back on his childhood, is talking to his lover about the ways TV socialized him and other black kids:

We were born then wrapped
within the age of prancing

images. Before I could be
weaned from the picture box—

its bright screen, bass, relentless
colors—hip hop commenced

proselytizing that I should want you
swollen, that I should want you

plush […]
[…] pelvis more

elephant head than arrow.

Damn! And, as a grown man, the speaker still struggles with that socialization, “trying to see the shapes/ etched in my head, the bodies,/ as the beauty I expect/ to shatter beneath.” But his informed understanding of how this “suckled ideal” misleads many youths helps him prevail. He rejects what he calls “a gene-coded hunt/ for figure-swells and heft” with this realization:

This ethereal tug I feel
between my groin’s creases,

I need it to be instinct and nothing
a television taught me of want.

[…] Let me be merely mammal—sniffing,
groping—let me crawl from thought

towards your fragrant, burdened hills.

I’m with you on that, bruh! I’m also with TBR’s mission of propelling the current artistic landscape. “Our vision is to amplify the voice of the human experience through art that is intimate, engaging, and audacious,” according to TBR’s vision.

(PHOTO: Tidal Basin Review) TBR's editors, clockwise from top: Truth Thomas (Poetry), Tori Arthur (Fiction and Non-Fiction), Fred Joiner (Poetry), Marlene Hawthrone (Photography), Randall Horton (Editor-in-Chief), and Melanie Henderson (Managaing Editor).

In its young existence, TBR, which came about in 2010, has already established itself as a journal that’s as much about community as it is craft. This past August, the journal took action on behalf of the ill-equipped DC public schools’ libraries when it co-organized a reading and book drive at the Marvin Gaye amphitheater in DC’s Watts Park.

That Saturday event kicked off a series of book drives around the city to help benefit DC Public School libraries. Poet and public interest lawyer Brian Gilmore called the event a shift in approach to the educational shortcomings of a community attempting to take back control of education for city youths.

“Instead of complaining about a broken school system that is not designed to work for children of color, and never was, this is a grassroots effort to fill in a much-needed gap,” Gilmore said on the day of the event. “It also…sends a message to the children that someone really does care and you are not just a number on a ‘No Child Left Behind’ report.”

(PHOTO: Thomas Sayers Ellis) The Black Issue!

And TBR’s online advocacy is just as active. Their past issues have challenged the post-Black notion, while highlighting DC’s go-go scene. The theme for the next issue is cultural pride. These are TBR’s ways of creating a space that supports a full representation of the rich American landscape.

There are many highlights in TBR’s “beauty” issue. But, in the interest of time (I want you to go over to tidalbasinpress.org and check them out!), I’ll end with Jacqueline Johnson’s “Hair Stories,” a poem in which Johnson’s speaker cherished those times she got her hair done in her aunt’s kitchen. Here’s the second part of a four-part poem:

Hours later the ritual would begin;
a towel thrown across my shoulders,
Dixie Peach run all around edges of my hair.
Your boys jack knifing through the
kitchen missing the hot grease cans.
You always started at the back,
hot comb hissing like an angry panther.

Your technique impeccable, mother of
three sons, never burned me.
Edges so rough, so uncooperative,
so niggerish, they always reverted back to
their African ways at the first sight of rain.
Despite bending my ear beyond its capacity,
hot iron teeth left  burn marks,
African American tribal scars.
Each kink a bouncing black cloud
becoming a language
running from Aunt to niece.

You can read the rest of Johnson’s poem, or check out the entire issue, by clicking here. Past issues are available here! (Click on the cover of each issue to see inside.) Check out the Basin Rising newsletter. You can purchase a print version by emailing tidalbasinpress@gmail.com.

Interested in subscribing to Tidal Basin Review? Click here to get started.

(PHOTO: Helen Peppe) Indigo Moor during his presentation Thursday.

During his discussion Thursday, Indigo Moor had a question for his fellow Stonecoast grad students. “How many harmonica players does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

He looked around at the puzzled expressions of writers straining their brains to figure out the punch line. Then everyone laughed when Indigo quoted a harmonica player: “We don’t worry about the changes, man. We just blow.”

His advice to his peers, looking to write in multiple genres, was not to be the person who blows, or makes light of another genre. This was Indigo’s graduating student presentation Taming the Hydra: From Jacking to Mastering Multiple Literary Forms.

For an hour, Indigo covered various genres from the ground up, went over the differences between singular arts (writing poetry and/or fiction) and collaborative arts (writing stage scripts and/or screenplays), and the pros and cons of writing in multiple genres.

It was the perfect way to start the sixth day of the Stonecoast MFA winter residency. Today, which also marked the second half of the 10-day retreat, we started our poetry workshop with Jeanne Marie Beaumont.

Prior to Jeanne’s workshop, I took the Writing On Race and Difference mixed-genre course that Deb Marquart and Alexs Pate led. The first half of the residency, poet and activist Martin Espada was the guest poet. I really enjoyed his craft talk I’ve Known Rivers: Speaking of the Unspoken Places in Poetry.

“Some places are forgotten through negligence,” Espada said. “Others are forgotten deliberately.” And sometimes those places aren’t mentioned because the unspeakable happened. During his talk, Espada used the poems of Nazim Hikmet (Turkish poet, playwright, novelist and memoirist) and Etheridge Knight (an African-American poet) as examples of writers giving voice to those who dwelled in such places.

For both Hikmet and Knight, who spent time behind bars, prison was an unspeakable place until they enabled the voices of other prisoners through their poems. In that case, Espada said, “Poetry humanizes, giving the prisoner a face and body.” Espada’s visit culminated with the poet reading to a full house later that evening.

(PHOTO: Helen Peppe) Martin Espada during the guest reading.

There were faculty readings just about every night this week. I read and got to hear students in poetry, creative nonfiction and popular fiction flex their literary muscles on the open mic. There was even a Romance: Happy Hour, sponsored by the popular fiction students who write romance stories.

Amidst all this, I managed to find time to talk with Indigo Moor. We both write in multiple genres (I write poetry and creative nonfiction, while Indigo–who published two poetry collections, Taproot and Through the Stonecutter’s Window–has written creative nonfiction, a stage play, a screenplay, and is working on a novel).

I told him I have a hard time switching back smoothly from creative nonfiction to poetry, without writing prosaic stanzas. When he said that’s what his Thursday talk would be about, I knew I’d be there.

During Indigo’s presentation, I couldn’t help but notice some similarities between his and the one Cait Johnson led five days earlier. Both Cait and Indigo talked about writing across genres. But, while Cait’s specifically focused on poetry and creative nonfiction, Indigo’s included popular fiction, stage scripts and screenplays.

(PHOTO: Helen Peppe)

And I’ll admit that the thought of writing in those genres can seem as daunting as going up against the beast of many heads. This literary hydra, according to Indigo, is not unlike the Lernean Hydra that Hercules killed.

But, unlike the Greek god, our role as writers is to tame the hydra—not kill it. And taming the hydra entails knowing the pros and cons of writing in multiple genres. Among the cons were the time, energy and practice invested into the efforts.

“If you think about how much energy you put into the genre you write in, you have to put more energy into the next genre because you’re carrying baggage from the previous one,” Indigo said, adding that the effort is worth it. If an idea doesn’t work in one genre, a multiple genre writer has other avenues to express that idea.

Taming the hydra also included both prose writers and poets entering other genres with an understanding of the rules. Prose writers experimenting with poetry have to start by distilling their sentences down to its essence, while balancing the lines that carry imagery with those that carry statement.

In poetry, Indigo noted, sentence structure takes a back seat to musicality. He advised the poets to do the opposite, which involves them knowing the art of the simple sentence. In prose, the sense of music takes a backseat to the story line. “It’s so easy to look at fiction and say, ‘It’s not as hard as poetry,’” Indigo said. “That’s not true. You have to learn how to write in an expansive form.”

(PHOTO: Stock)

Cait Johnson raised some eyebrows and made a roomful of writers blush when she talked about orgasms. According to Cait, a Stonecoast faculty, the best orgasms happen when two people are vulnerable and intimate with each other.

To hear her tell it, that same intensity’s achieved when writers engage in other genres. Cait’s wise words resonated with both students and colleagues during her presentation Passionate Bedfellows: What Poets and CNF [Creative Nonfiction] Writers Offer Each Other.

For starters, poetry offers the magic of words.

“Writers are magicians,” Cait said. “Words are magic.” And part of that magic are the imagery and rhythms that affect people physiologically. “Writing poetry itself is a healing,” the multi-genre instructor added. “I believe we are a culture suffering from disconnection.”

What makes creative nonfiction significant is its knack for smoothly incorporating research information into prose. “That’s what’s going to help your poetry,” Cait said, “if you can ground it in something real and something juicy.”

Cait’s presentation fell on the second day of the Stonecoast MFA winter residency, where I’m starting my third semester. The previous semester, I had a wonderful time working with Joy Harjo as my mentor. During our time together, I produced new poems, including the imitations that accompanied my annotations.

Through Joy’s guidance, I strengthened those poems through revision. Joy and I also took a deeper look at T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song for Prufrock” and other poems, and Amiri Baraka’s Transbluesency.

(ARTWORK: Courtesy)

I remembered telling Joy that after reading Eliot’s poems, I saw how rich his poems are with details, how they felt complete without giving too much away to the reader.

That was my takeaway: to write complete, detail-rich poems that are open enough for the reader to come to their own conclusions or discoveries.

What I discovered, going through Amiri Baraka’s Transbluesency and looking at what changed in between the first and last collections included in that volume, was a shift in his influences.

Baraka’s early collections seemed informed by his personal life, while current events–both domestic and abroad–inspired his poems half way through Transbluesency. The jazz music and musicians influenced Baraka’s later poems in the volume. And that’s how my twice-a-month phone conversations with Joy went during my second semester.

The first night of the residency, I was glad that Joy, despite the airline losing her bags, made it in time to present at the Flash Faculty Reading that included Tony Barnstone, Sarah Braunstein, Annie Finch, Nancy Holder, Cait Johnson, James Patrick Kelly, and Debra Marquart (who, with Alexs Pate, is teaching the Writing About Race and Difference workshop that I’m in for the first part of the residency).

Joy read an excerpt from her upcoming memoir, which she noted took her 14 years to write. “I kept running away from it,” she told the audience during her reading. She repeated it to me and Amanda Johnston, my Cave Canem sister who is starting her first semester in the Stonecoast MFA program.

It was good to see Joy. I made her laugh when I told Amanda that, in terms of my poems, Joy was my fitness instructor during the second semester. Joy’s feedback on my poems was helpful. Because of her suggestions, I now consider various levels on which my poems work. I also include more details and I’m not afraid to write long poems.

Joy laughed when I said her suggestions have my poems posing like bodybuilders, showing off their new muscles. She laughed louder when I told Amanda that the entire second semester Joy forced my poems to do extra bench presses despite them being tired and wanting to relax.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Cait Johnson

Cait Johnson pushed us just as hard during her presentation, when she paired up students in creative nonfiction with those in poetry.

The added advantage of both genres is that poetry’s a shortcut to empathy, while creative nonfiction teaches poets how to tell detailed and engaging stories.

The class exercise involved poets finding a story line in their poems and turning it into prose, while creative nonfiction writers wrote a poem describing a character or setting from their pieces.

“That’s what this presentation’s about—lighting things up,” Cait said, before turning to Mary Karr and Li-Young Lee, two writers who’ve successfully used elements from both genres to light things up in their work.

In Viper Rum, Karr’s creative nonfiction influences are in the autobiographic subject matter she tackles in her poetry collection. Each poem’s a revelation of Karr’s demons such as alcoholism and her suicidal thoughts.

Karr’s blending of the techniques paid off, according to a reviewer at goodreads.com. “Fierce, brilliant work here. Like exploring an open wound,” the reviewer wrote. “Not for those unwilling nor unable to explore…go outside the bounds of textbook time-lines.”

Li-Young Lee went outside the bounds with his memoir The Winged Seed, what an amazon.com reviewer called “part poem, part waking dream, part remembrance.” What makes this memoir unconventional is its beautifully crafted lines.

(ARTWORK: Courtesy)

“He takes us on a journey to his psyche,” Cait said. “He makes us feel, with him, the immense experience from the inside.” Lee’s blending of both poetry and creative nonfiction grounds his lyrical Winged Seed in the stories of real people.

Though Lee’s mostly known for his poetry, his memoir is an example of what Cait said happens when creative nonfiction students experiment with poems while working on their memoirs: they come back with “a mother lode” of imagery to bring back to their creative nonfiction.

Of Li-Young Lee, Cait concluded, “He’s writing about writing; he’s writing about memoir, and he found his way in.”

(SKETCH: Gregory Culp)

Editor’s note: This is a work of fiction I wrote back in 2007. It first appeared in The Spoof, an online publication like The Onion that publishes satire. I thought I’d repost it here and introduce you, dear reader, to Geritol Hightower.

At 72, Hightower leads the fight against agism. Say “Iron Man,” and Marvel Comic fans automatically assume you’re referring to Tony Starks from the Avengers crew.

But unlike the superhero, 72-year old Geritol Hightower didn’t need a shrapnel wound to the chest nor did he have to sell out to the Vietnam Communist party to become Iron Man.

“How do I feel being compared to a comic book character? You’re a reporter, right? How would you feel if someone compared you to Clark Kent or Peter Parker?” he says reclined in a cushioned wicker chair at his Miami home. “It’s kind of sick if you ask me. I’m flesh and blood while this…this thing prances around with his friends. And he’s a super-hero?”

Joined by two auburn-colored women apparently in their mid-30s — whose rippling backs and carved buttocks are visible through the thin fabric of their two-piece bikinis — he takes off his shades while one of the women rubs the throbbing vein at his left temple after patting down the onyx shine the perspiration gives his cool, charcoal-colored skin.

A two-time Olympic Gold medalist and the Ironman Pro champ five consecutive times, Geritol defeated Puerto Rico’s Gustavo Badell and Australia’s Lee Priest in the 2005 competition.

Right now, he’s the most sought after power-lifter turned body builder, appearing on the cover of the current issue of Iron Man Magazine with Fitness Olympia’s spokesperson and hardbody model Timea Majorova.

(SKETCH: Danomyte)

Growing up, Geritol knew something wasn’t quite right when he discovered he could out-lift most men twice his age. At 15 years old, all he wanted was to be noticed by Carla Dibbs, who he’d had a crush on since elementary school.

Attempting to catch her eye, while playing a prank on a faculty member, he and his boy Drink Water lifted their high school gym teacher’s car three feet off the ground and walked it to another parking spot. That day etched him and Drink Water into high school history.

Geritol smiles as if the moments were reeling before him.

“Man, we didn’t know what girl troubles were before that happened,” he says. “But afterwards, we damn near needed a stick to beat off the ones that were begging for a bit of our time.”

“Things were different when we were coming up,” Hightower continues. “It was 1949. We had just gotten the right to vote and went crazy with whatever little freedom we had.”

During that time, the U.S. had entered into World War II, and with his father off fighting, he took a job at Dino’s Diner in Silver Spring, Maryland as a short-order cook, earning 43 cents an hour.

“We were hard workers, our generation. You don’t get that from the kids these days. And certainly not that wannabe-cartoon figure,” says Hightower, taking a bite of his veggie club and munching his beat chips before washing them down with a wheat grass smoothie.

“This generation doesn’t understand that. Most of them looking for a quick way to everything. Some even turn to violence for a means to an end,” he says. “Well, for you young people out there who think robbing old folks is fun, you won’t be the first or last to be introduced to a good ol’ fashioned, never had it quite like this, ass whuppin’.”

He continues, “I’m talking ’bout giving one of those type of beatings where the paramedics checking to see if you still breathing. Just try me.”

(IMAGE: Milosh Kojadinovich)

Geritol remembers such a case, when a young man assaulted him in a 7-11, wildly wielding a switch blade. The guy, who stood at 6′ 4″ and 320 lbs., had Hightower by four inches.

He acted like he was going for his wallet in the back pocket, then delivered a fierce backhand that sent a bloody tooth spiraling out of the boy’s mouth before he stumbled backwards.

After disarming his attacker, Geritol was still beating the boy when the cops arrived. It took 10 men clubbing him with nightsticks and shocking him with tazers to handcuff him while they strapped and rolled the kid out on a gurney.

“It’s not just the young. People, in general, see an elderly fella and dollar signs pop up where their pupils oughta be. Shiii.. Folks’ll never be done exploiting us,” he shakes his head. “Some guy from the drug company asked if I would be in one of his commercials for Viagra.”

Just then, the women start chuckling. Geritol stops abruptly, and without being verbal about it, he shoots them a look that says get the hell out the room! One makes her way to bring him some more beet chips while the other goes to prepare him another vegetable shake.

“I looked that fella in the eye,” he continues, “and said ‘Is you crazy, boy? Would a healthy man such as yourself allow his likeness to be used on a poster for herpes and gonnorhea? Get the hell outta here ‘fore I beat your ass off GP.’”

The interview’s interrupted again when Geritol’s eyes expand like rubber “O’s” after answering his cell. Then he jumps up. “Iron Man Mag wants to know if I’m available for a cover shoot with Lenda Murray and Anja Langer,” his pitch rises with excitement. “Hell yeah! How many 70-something year olds you know that can say they shared the covers with two legendary hardbody models?”

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Rachel's self-portrait

When I wrote about Rachel Eliza Griffiths back in March 2010, the post focused on her skills as a photographer who’s credited for a number of author photos that appear on the backs of several poetry collections.

And after publishing two of her own—Miracle Arrhythmia (Willow Books, 2010), a Small Press Distribution best-seller, and The Required Distance (The Sheep Meadow Press, 2011)—I’m excited about her third collection Mule & Pear (New Issues Poetry & Prose), which is available for pre-order on AMAZON and due out this September.

Voices from the novels of Alice Walker, Jean Toomer, Toni Morrison and others inspired Rachel’s speakers in Mule & Pear. “Each struggles beneath a yoke of dreaming, loving, and suffering,” according to the publicist. “These characters converse not just with the reader but also with each other, talking amongst themselves, offering up their secrets and hard-won words of wisdom, an everlasting conversation through which these poems voice a shared human experience.”

(ARTWORK: New Issues Poetry & Prose)

Poet and educator Frank X. Walker elaborated on what Rachel’s created with this collection. “Griffiths gifts us with deleted scenes, alternate endings, and a VIP pass to wander the sets of some of the greatest literature of our time,” Walker writes in the blurb. “The reader won’t be able to resist the urge to reread Hurston, Morrison, Larson, et. al. or put this new way of seeing perhaps a new poetry technology down.” He added, “But what else should we expect from an artist who sees the world through so many mediums?”

And Rachel mixes the mediums by providing a book trailer for Mule & Pear, which I will review for a later blog post. The trailer’s gotten Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville’s (SIUE) attention. “The book trailer includes images of black women, Nina Simone’s song ‘Feeling Good’ as the soundtrack, and short excerpts of writings, presumably poems by Griffith,” according to the SIUE Black Study Blog, an online platform where Black studies, technology and active citizenship come together in an exchange of ideas among African-American academics.

Of Rachel’s book trailer, the blog notes, “The women in the video are shown in different poses, some wearing far out attire.”

Rachel’s attire consists of many hats she wears as a poet, writer, photographer, and painter. Her literary and visual work has been widely published in journals, magazines, anthologies, and periodicals including Callaloo, The New York Times, Crab Orchard Review, Mosaic, RATTLE, Puerto Del Sol, Brilliant Corners, Indiana Review, Lumina, Ecotone, The Acentos Review, PMS: poem memoir story, Saranac Review, Torch, The Drunken Boat, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, Inkwell, Black Arts Quarterly, African American Review, Comstock Review, Hambone, and many others.

“And many others”? My friend is a busy woman. Others have also taken notice. “I’ve been hearing about or more accurately viewing Griffiths’ presence on the black poetry scene for a minute now,” according to SIUE’s Black Study Blog. “Griffith had already been building and establishing herself as a noted poet and photographer.”

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Rachel's self-portrait

Part of establishing herself was the “Ars Poetica, Photographs by Rachel Eliza Rachel,” an ongoing documentary on African-American poets, that opened in Brooklyn’s DUMBO community that month. I wrote an advance story on the exhibit in my March 2010 post.

Ever since I’ve known her, I’ve always been impressed by her talent and low-key demeanor. We met each other in 2007 at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets. I’ll never forget her kind and warm presence.

She loves hugs, is always encouraging her friends to be their best selves, and is genuinely happy for the accomplishments of others.

She’s not one to boast about her own accomplishments. When Rachel and I reunited during my second time at Cave Canem (CC), I didn’t know my CC sister was working on the “Arts Poetica” exhibit, or that she had three collections of poems and a novel done—all of which were manuscripts at the time.

Knowing Rachel, she wouldn’t have told me about her credentials and accomplishments. Or that she received the MA in English Literature from the University of Delaware and the MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. I had to do some digging to find out she also received fellowships including Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, Vermont Studio Center, New York State Summer Writers Institute, Soul Mountain, and others.

“And others”? You mean there’s more? Yeah, Rachel has definitely been busy—and she’s got a trailer, too! “I’m excited about the implications of a book trailer focusing on a volume of African American poetry,” the SIUE blog stated. “The release of this video further solidifies her reputation as poet and visual artist.” There, you have it. Check out the trailer, then preorder your copy of Mule & Pear!

The Residency II

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Jaed Coffin

Jaed Coffin drew a diagonal line on an easel pad and called it the spine. That’s the idea of identity, he told a room of writers at a presentation Friday. Coffin drew a wavy line that curved along the diagonal one, and called it the narrative.

Then he shaded in dots where the lines intersected. “Every time your narrative crosses the spine is a moment your reader is committed to your story,” Coffin said during his presentation The Indecent Proposal: How to Sell a Book in Fifty Pages.

His session was among the 18 of 22 Faculty Presentations that have already occurred since the Stonecoast MFA summer residency started. I’m seven days into it.

Earlier that day, we had our second poetry workshop with Joy Harjo, who’s among the faculty for this half of the residency.

The first day was amazing. Harjo gave us an in-class writing assignment to either talk to or riff off our obsessions, the thing that comes up a lot in our poems. My obsession was the city. When I read my list of things I’m drawn to in urban settings, Harjo noted that everything I listed were sounds.

On our second day with her, each person brought in a poem from a poet we considered to be our poetry ancestor. I brought in Sonia Sanchez’s poem “Ballad”. We went around the table, invoking the voices of our ancestors.

Harjo’s fascinated by dreams and what they tell us. “The dreams have been my teachers since before I was born,” she told us. “There’s a lot of material in them.” She suggested that, if we really wanted to get intense with our dreams, then we should wake ourselves up around 3 a.m. to record them.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Joy Harjo

“A poem is an energetic system,” she said. “It’s very important, when we’re working on a poem, to pay attention to our dreams…that’s our library in a sense.”

That’s how we start every workshop session, which results in Harjo’s wise words echoing in my head throughout the day. When a workshop member asked what if you don’t dream, Harjo suggested taking a natural supplement. “If you’re not having dreams,” the instructor said, “vitamin B will trigger them.”

And that’s how it’s been these seven days—writers having deep discussions before the dew dries on the grass. So you can see how there’s so much to take in. Add both the faculty and graduating student presentations, and I’m convinced I need a second head to hold everything I’ve learned this residency.

After staring at the schedule, I settled on Jaed Coffin’s presentation on preparing an effective book proposal that delivers and sells the idea, that shows an agent/editor the writer understands his/her story, and gets them paid. According to Coffin, a pitch should have three parts: an A, B and C.

The “A” is the writer’s basic story. “In memoir, I think of this as your most raw experience,” Coffin said. On what writer’s should consider, he said, “It’s the elemental experience you triumphed [or] overcame.”

The “B” is your story’s story, which puts the situation/experience in context. “Often times, this larger story that deals with your experience deals with place, setting, era, epoch, region and issue,” Coffin said.

Then there’s “C”, the transcendental story. According to the instructor, it’s the synthetic effect of both “A” and “B”. “This,” he said, “is where the conflict and tension emerges.”

(COVER ART: De Capo Press)

Using his own autobiographic books—A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants and Roughhouse Friday—Coffin filled in the template with his experiences.

With A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants, the “A” (basic story) was the biracial American kid becomes a monk. “A simple, fundamental experience,” the instructor said. “We all have narratives with which we tell our lives.” On what writers should consider, Coffin added, “What story am I trying to tell about my character, that fundamental nugget.”

The “B” (context of situation/experience) is that his story happens in his mom’s Thai village. “There’s that one thing that tweaks the story to where they’ll be conflict,” the instructor said.

Then there’s “C” (transcendental story): the “fact I was a monk in my mom’s village complicates our idea of what it means to be American,” Coffin said.

The process was the same for Roughhouse Friday. The “A”: there’s a bar in Juneau where guys fight. “There’s something kind of charismatic about bar fights,” the instructor said. “No one looks away from a bar fight.”

The “B”: most of the guys in the bar are of Tlingit and Haida ethnicity. “Suddenly,” Coffin said, “the fight begs the question, Why?

The “C” answers that question: the guys fight because of their ethnic identity and their cultural history. This also adds to the discussion on what it means to be American. “Somehow the merging of my experience and identity come to this larger thing,” Coffin said. Without that “larger thing,” the instructor noted, the book doesn’t have staying power. “If you just want to talk about your experience, that’s fine,” Coffin said. “But I don’t think your book will last.”

Another thing that guarantees staying power is what’s called “the spine,” which Coffin defined with an excerpt from an email his editor sent him. “It’s the thing that you keep coming back to,” writes Rebecca Saletan, of Riverhead Books. “Make a lot of digressions as long as you keep coming back to the spine.”

(COVER ART: Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Coffin elaborated. “No narrative is a straight line. Good books tend to meander,” he said. “Good writers always have a good sense of the spine. That’s what keeps the reader engaged.”

Among Coffin’s examples of text with “a good sense of the spine” is Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which is chronicles the struggles of the Lees, a Hmong family from Sainyabuli Province, Laos, and the misunderstandings that arise between their culture and the health care system in Merced, California.

What makes books like The Spirit Catches You successful is the “take away,” what Coffin noted makes the reader pass or recommend a book to someone else. The instructor added that most writers don’t know what the “take away” of their books are yet. “The take away is something you have to earn,” Coffin said. “I can sell a ‘C’”—the thing that’s constructed in the mind beforehand—“but I can’t sell a take away.”

When submitting a proposal to agents, the instructor noted, writers will need three things: an overview, chapter summary, and writing sample—a framework that goes against conventional wisdom, which required a longer list of items included in the proposal.

Coffin recounted a story about the mistake he made earlier in his writing career. He submitted a 140-page proposal that resembled a press kit, which included a market analysis. He advised both nonfiction and fiction writers against this. (While his presentation was for nonfiction students and the rules for other genres are slightly different, he noted that his framework also applies to fiction students.)

On bypassing conventional wisdom, Coffin said, “If you can hook an agent in five pages, to hell with a market analysis.” Chapter summaries should be no more than 15-page chapters, he noted. “Every chapter summary should have an event,” Coffin said. “A physical action should occur.”

And for nonfiction, he noted, a writing sample should be 25-65 pages. Coffin said, “No one wants to buy a 1,000-page manuscript from a no-name author.”

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