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By Valerie Horres
Luisa A. Igloria’s poem “Status, News Feed, Most Recent, Last” can be found on page 51 of Vol. 6.1 and viewed online: http://silkroad.pacificu.edu/LuisaIgloriaStatus.pdf
VH: What there some particular event that sparked the creation of this poem? What was the inspiration for this piece?
Luisa A. Igloria: I’m going to have to confess that I initially wrote this poem as part of a submission for another journal’s call for Facebook-themed poems. I wrote two for that submission, but they didn’t interest the editors at that journal, after all. I continued to work on the poems, though–this one in particular engaged me most because I liked the mixture of tones emerging in it: upbeat, perhaps in some places a little cavalier or a wee bit punk, maybe even borderline irreverent, but also increasingly, toward the end, earnest and wistful. The title is of course self-explanatory: “Status, News Feed, Most Recent, Last.”
VH: How did you go about picking the images for the poem? Was there one that you started with and the rest follow? What was your process to create this poem?
LAI: This second question is related to the first one–so I’ll continue by saying that after I decided to write the poem as an abecedarian, other decisions seemed fairly easy to manage. I knew that because of the subject of the poem–which is in part the sheer welter of information that comes through the specific social networking experience that is Facebook, and also the randomness of such information–I wanted to arrive at some satisfying emotional justification for all the different images that came into it.
Picking images was easy–I simply looked at my Facebook news feed when I was writing–the poem gives away the date (June 01 last year) I was working on it; and it’s true that on that day a number of news sources (New York Times, etc.) ran the headline of the story about sculptor/visual artist Louise Bourgeois’ death. I didn’t lift lines whole from other people’s status posts – but I think I worked in some of the typical threads one might encounter there – those that write environmental/nature-themed posts (Earth Hour), those who write about where they’ve recently traveled, those who play games (Farmville etc.), gush about tv shows (Glee, etc.)
The last few lines of my poem echo a sentiment that many other poems have written of in their own way and in their own time — about the weird or wonderful serendipity of human encounters, and that despite the odds, they can and do happen.
VH: You write “O agony and ecstasy, our lot on this blue-green/ planet.” Are those two feelings the only ones we can experience? Is there a way to lessen the agony and extend the ecstasy, or is there reason for experiencing both?
LAI: You ask, “are those two feelings the only ones we can experience?” I like to think not; only, they do seem to define some of the extremes of human experience. I believe in nuance. But in this particular line or part of the poem, I think I’m speaking to the idea that the reason we recognize one state is because we also know the other. I don’t know if there is something in my particular upbringing or background that has predisposed me to such a worldview, but I believe that all experience is yoked to its opposite; that we are capable of deep feeling to me signifies that we have also opened ourselves deeply to everything that life might offer of both pleasure and suffering. We need to experience both because our understanding would be imperfect and untrue if we only knew one state. Is there a way to lessen the agony and extend the ecstasy? I don’t know that a formula for that has been discovered — but I think that poets try to find some respite, or some way at least to meet experience more deeply–in language.
Luisa A. Igloria is the author of Juan Luna’s Revolver (2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize, University of Notre Dame), Trill & Mordent (WordTech Editions, 2005), and eight other books. Luisa has degrees from the University of the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she was a Fulbright Fellow from 1992-1995. Originally from Baguio City, she teaches on the faculty of Old Dominion University, where she currently directs the MFA Creative Writing Program. She keeps her radar tuned for cool lizard sightings. To visit her website go to http://www.luisaigloria.com.
By Valerie Horres
Karin Lin-Greenberg’s short story “Weight” can be found on page 119 of Vol. 6.1 and viewed online: “Weight”
VH: After reading just the first sentence of your story, I was immediately curious about how you came about creating this piece. What was the inspiration for it? Did it start off as a story about one subject and then morph into something else? If so, what was the process by which it transformed?
Karin Lin-Greenberg: This story started out with the narrator’s voice. I lived in Missouri for two years and taught there. Sometimes my students would tell me that I had an accent, and they’d ask me where I was from. I grew up in New Jersey, and I don’t think I have that stereotypical accent that people associate with New Jersey (think MTV’s Jersey Shore), but my students let me know that I definitely sounded like I wasn’t from Missouri. So my goal with this piece was to try to capture a particular voice that sounded like it was from a particular place, and I wanted this voice to sound different from the way I speak. So the first step in writing this story was to listen to people talking (I suppose this could be called eavesdropping). I’d go out, listen, and then I’d jot down some phrases that caught my attention. One example of this is the phrase “fixing to make dinner,” which I overheard one day while I was grading papers in a coffee shop. The word “fixing” was what was interesting to me about that sentence; growing up, I’d only heard people say, “I’m going to make dinner.” So I gathered phrases like that and then I just started hearing Darlene’s voice come together in my mind. I hope her voice sounds somewhat authentic in the final version of the story. Once I had the voice, the story followed.
When I got back that afternoon, both Wes and L.J. were wearing brand new overalls, which were covered in dirt but were still stiff with newness. Neither of them was wearing a shirt, and they each held a hoe and were working the soil. Above each of the older plants, the ones they’d started weeks ago, three wooden stakes were tied together in the shape of a teepee so the stems could have something to lean on as they grew taller. All in all, the whole thing looked pretty professional, like they really knew something about what they were doing.
— Excerpt from “Weight”
VH: What about gardening drew you to use it in this piece? How do you find the best symbols to use in a story? When you are writing a story, do the symbols pop up first in your process and then the story line and the message grows out of them, or do you start with a plot or a message you want to impart and the symbols follow?
When I was in Missouri, I decided to start a garden. I lived on the third floor of an apartment building, so I only had a balcony on which to garden. I got all these buckets and some sacks of soil and tried my best to grow vegetables. I had no idea what I was doing; I knew nothing about using good soil and composting and fertilizing. I managed to get the plants to grow (and grow and grow; I hadn’t yet learned how to trim plants back so they don’t get to “Jack and the Beanstalk” proportions), but I wasn’t very successful in getting many actual crops to develop. Every day when I went out to the balcony with my watering can I was confronted with plants that were tall and leafy and green without any tomatoes or peppers or other vegetables on them, and I suppose that image made its way into the story. At that time, I was also getting a lot of rejections for my stories with notes from editors on the rejections saying things like “too quiet” or “too restrained,” so I decided that I wanted something “loud” to happen in this piece. I’d been writing a lot of stories with characters who were passive—they would notice and observe, but they wouldn’t do much—and I think those little notes were a reminder that readers are interested in characters who act and don’t only observe. So I had the image of the garden that didn’t produce crops and then the goal of writing a “not quiet” scene, so then I ended up with the idea of Darlene smashing the plants. And then I had to figure out why she’d do such a thing, especially after her brother and son had spent so much time on the garden. As for symbols, I don’t worry too much about symbols and symbolism as I’m writing. I’m more concerned with character and plot, and I think symbols emerge later. When I’m writing fiction, I never, ever start with a message that I want to convey; if I have that urge, I’ll write an essay instead of a story.
VH: In the last paragraph of your story, the narrator notes that “All of us here are trying to coax something out of this place, and who knows what will come of our efforts.” This resonates on a much higher level than just the garden she is trying to grow. Do you think that we all, like the narrator, are stuck and limited to coaxing something from the different places in our lives? Can we do more than this, or are we just watering and waiting and hoping that something good will grow out of what we do? Read the rest of this entry »
By Valerie Horres
For the next few weeks this blog will feature interviews with several of the writers who have pieces published in Vol 6.1 of Silk Road. The first such author is Charles Finn, whose nonfiction story “A Secret Hideout of Leaves and Mud” can be found on page 114 of Vol. 6.1, as well as viewed through this link: http://silkroad.pacificu.edu/ASecretHideoutbyCharlesFinn.pdf.
Finn’s vivid descriptions of a child traipsing through nature were what initially drew me to this story. The evocative language reminded me how as a little girl my own backyard was a place of magic, how the discovery of a small pebble or a daffodil budding earlier than the rest of the flowers could fill me with a magnitude of delight, the purity of which I have not felt in many years. Like many of the other pieces in this issue of Silk Road, “A Secret Hideout of Leaves and Mud” holds a nostalgic tone, one full of longing for the sensation of wonder that only children seem to possess. This story speaks to the fear of growing up and leaving something behind in childhood which can never be found again.
VH: What inspired you to write this story? For instance, was there any particular event that provoked you to write it, something that made you think back to this location and the sustenance it provided for you?
CF: I can almost always remember the exact moment that leads to a piece of writing. What I was reading or thinking about that spurred me to put down the first few words of an essay or poem. ‘A Secret Hideout’ is unique in that this isn’t the case. I remember the circumstances, but not the actual trigger that prompted my memory of the hideout I write about. It is also unique (for me) in that it grew out of a writing class. As a rule I don’t put much faith in such things – workshops, writing groups, even MFA programs – but in the summer of 2009 my good friend Dr. Neil Browne at OSU-Cascades in Bend, Oregon was teaching a two-week class on the personal essay and invited me to sit-in. I balked at first, seeing my aversion and skepticism, but I also knew deadlines could be helpful, and at the very least it seemed a good way to get another essay out.
On the first day of class we were asked to imagine a place, any place. Earlier we had been discussing Faulkner’s invented Yoknapatawpha County and perhaps for this reason my thoughts went back to my childhood home of Waterbury, Vermont. As I sifted through my memories, my attention became centered on the dead end street where I grew up. As images tumbled past I hurried to write them down until I was led to the very end of the street and the “hideout” that resided there; a place I hadn’t thought about in years.
VH: Did you have to imagine most of the details for this story, or were there vivid memories you could draw on from your childhood?
CF: I had no specific memories of times spent at the hideout. What I had were vague impressions, the feel of being there, and maybe this is why the essay has such an elegiac tone to it — I had to create language around sensations instead of events. Granted, I could recall the damp soil, rotting leaves and the shifting patterns of shade, things like that, but what my friend and I actually did was difficult to bring back. I know we “hung out” in the best and truest sense of the word, and that we conducted ourselves in classic little boy fashion: burning ants with magnifying glasses, whittling sticks, talking about everything and nothing. But all this was background for what? I kept asking myself.
VH: Do you think we lose something in the process of growing up that we can never get back?
CF: I think as we grow older and burden ourselves with responsibilities (real and imagined) we yearn for simpler more carefree times, times when our days were open-ended and less structured, when they unfolded of their own accord. I also think as we grow older we often lose touch with Nature, literally as well as figuratively. As I began to write I saw these ideas converge, and I realized that’s what the hideout represented for me; a carefree time when I was in direct contact with the natural world. As the essay began to take shape I also remembered being that little boy and how the first hints of self awareness began to surface, and what felt like a knowledge of a reality beyond the perceived. There was an epigraph to the essay (I don’t know where it went) “… for childhood is certainly greater than reality,” from the Poetics of Space, a fantastic little book of philosophy and the nature of houses by Gaston Bachelard. When I struck upon this, I knew I had all the elements I needed for the essay.
VH: Do you think that having this hideout, a place to imagine and create as a child, influenced the person you became as an adult? Did it have anything to do with you becoming a writer?
CF: The honest answer is no. My whole childhood, which was half feral, informed me more than anything else. I grew up in a different time. When being outside all day on my own or with friends – away from adults – was the norm. That’s what was important. Unstructured time, down time, time to be bored, to be curious, to poke around streams and fields shaped who I became. Richard Louv has written an important book on the matter, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. I grew up as (possibly) the last generation where we did or do not suffer from this. As to becoming a writer, that would have happened no matter where or how I grew up. It is the nature of my childhood, the opportunities it provide (such as the hideout) that influenced the type of writer I would become.
VH: Did you make any significant changes to your story as you were drafting it?
CF: Originally the essay had a different ending, an epilogue of sorts that was a specific memory, a ritual my best friend and I performed to become “blood brothers.” I remembered this scene only belatedly, and was surprised it hadn’t come to me right away. For space reasons it couldn’t be used and so for Silk Road I looped the essay back to the epigraph by Bachelard as well as the quote by Thoreau. I’ve always thought of memory as a kind of time travel. It is Thoreau’s stream he goes fishing in. Firmly ensconced in middle age, I now wonder how I got here. I wonder if I really was that little boy. It seems like another life and lifetime ago. Childhood, with its inherent and incumbent innocence is a holy land. One of the tragedies of life is how quickly we grow and have it taught out of us.
Charles Finn is the editor of High Desert Journal, a literary and fine arts journal out of Bend, Oregon, dedicated to further understanding the people, places and issues of the interior West. His writings have appeared in over 50 journals, anthologies, newspapers, and consumer magazines. He lives in Bend, Oregon, with his wife, Joyce Mphande, and their two cats, Pushkin and Lutsa.
By Tanna Waters
Have you ever hugged a famous poet? I have. Well, two famous poets, but I don’t want to brag. Such are the perks of interning for Pacific University’s MFA in Writing program, one of the top five rated low residency programs in the nation (Atlantic Monthly). I mean, sometimes I took famous poets to New Seasons Market, and sometimes I took them to the airport where I had to say goodbye. And sometimes these poets taught this prose writer a thing or two she didn’t know before, like how to elicit emotion from the sound of a single word.
Later, when I became an editor, the education didn’t stop either. Although the stigma of the editor is to teach the writer not to make mistakes, writers also have something to teach editors. This is often unbeknownst to the editor—that’s why my advanced editing professor made us interview published writers on their experience with editors. At the time, I had wracked my brain as to who I could interview, but it came to me: who better than a poet whom I had once hugged? Dorianne Laux. Below is an excerpt from the interview I had with Laux, which is now available in Volume 6.1 (Spring 2011).
I met poet Dorianne Laux when she was a guest writer at Pacific University. During her visit, she directed a poetry workshop I attended. It quickly became apparent she is a no-nonsense tough critic with a poet’s heart. I followed up her visit with an interview.
Dorianne, a prolific writer, has published a chapbook, Superman: The Chapbook (2008), The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry (1997) as a co-author with Kim Addonizio, and four other books of poetry: Smoke (BOA Editions, 2000); What We Carry (1994), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and Awake (1990), nominated for the San Francisco Bay Area Book Critics Award for Poetry. Her latest full book of poetry, Facts About the Moon (W. W. Norton 2005), won the Oregon Book Award.
I began the interview by asking questions about her process and her work in general. I see her poetry in the same vein as that of Billy Collins, characterized by elegant yet simple language. My opinion aside, I asked her to describe her poetry to someone who may not be familiar with it, and she said, “I guess you could say I’m a free verse narrative poet, but that is so dry and lifeless. I write about life, significant moments that rise up from all the ordinary moments, and begin to sing: Pay attention!”
And she does. My favorite poems include one about the ugliness of her husband’s face, “Face Poem,” and the burial of a hummingbird in the backyard, “Hummingbird,” both from Facts About the Moon. Dorianne gets her inspiration from daily life. She sees poetry in “washing the clothes, doing yard work, watching people, birds, eating a sandwich, talking to my husband, shopping with a friend. I really don’t discriminate.” She reads for inspiration too, “which ranges from poetry to fiction, non-fiction, the news, cereal boxes, signage. The various media that inundates our lives can sometimes inspire.”
Once she finishes her poems, Dorianne has friends, colleagues, and her poet husband, Joseph Millar, review her work before she shows it to the editors of a publishing house. “My husband,” she says, “reads each new poem and lets me know if it’s worth working on. If he says little, I know it’s missed the mark, if he starts right in making suggestions, I know I’ve got something. Once in a great while he says, ‘You nailed it!’ but those times are few and far between.”
Although much of her editing is done before it gets to the publisher, I asked her if once her work was in the publishing house an editor had ever made a change that she absolutely hated. I wanted dirt on some evil-editing practices, but Dorianne simply said, “I appreciate their suggestions and take them as often as I can. There are times I become married to a stanza, a line, an image, a word, and can’t seem to let go of it. I have had good luck with my book editors as I tend to agree with them when they make suggestions. I was especially happy with the late A. Poulin, Jr., editor for BOA Editions, Ltd., who was very good at seeing last lines I didn’t need and chopping them off.”
Editing poetry is less about editing for grammar and line, Dorianne confirmed, and more about concepts. “Al Poulin would call me up in the middle of the night, his time—he was on the east coast and I was on the west, so it worked—and ask me to read him a new poem. Then we’d just talk about the poem, what it was doing. He picked it apart word-by-word, and would ask, ‘Do you really need this [in the poem]?’”
She credits Poulin as one of the “two best hands-on editors of poetry that ever lived.” Editors now take a “fairly hands-off” approach, which Dorianne explains “is no reflection on the editors of today. Times have changed. There are just so many books out now, and editors don’t really have the time. I think editors choose books they know are going to be fairly polished when they come in.”
So, what do editors at publishing houses edit for to make poetry publishable? Dorianne was relaxed about a manuscript she was waiting to hear back on from the editors at Norton. “I send polished work. My friends and colleagues have looked the work over and I’ve taken it as far as I can. I’m waiting for the copy editor to get back to me about my latest book and expect there will be plenty of small questions I’ll have to consider, but nothing major.”
Since poets seem to have more freedom with their work than other writers, I wondered how much choice they have regarding the titles of their poetry collections. My understanding is that generally publishers pick a title they think is marketable, but since poetry has such a small market, Dorianne says that she typically gets to pick her own titles too, though she says “I have been over-ridden. I was going to call my first book Skipping Stones and my friend, the great poet Philip Levine, said ‘What about Awake?’ I loved it immediately. Al Poulin was concerned that it might be confused with the monthly illustrated magazine printed and published by Jehovah’s Witnesses. We convinced him that it wasn’t going to be a real problem.” Probably not. Her poetry doesn’t exactly have the same audience as the Jehovah’s Witnesses magazine, since she often questions a god rather than affirming him.
I also wondered about the turn-around time for a collection of poetry since collections aren’t edited as heavily as prose. She says that, for her, a book typically takes a year to come out, with some poems going through hundreds of rounds of revisions. The ordering of poems is also her choice. “And my husband’s,” she says. “He ordered my last two books. I helped, of course, but really, it was his idea and then we simply played around a bit here and there. Other friends put in their two cents as well. It takes a village! My first two books were in my own order and my editor liked it. He did ask me to take a few weaker poems out and replace with stronger, newer poems, but I inserted them where I felt they fit best.”
I was also interested in Dorianne’s role as an editor. She was modest, saying, “I’ve been a guest editor for publications like The Pushcart Prize, The Cortland Review, and a number of other small presses, but I’m simply choosing the best of what I’m sent.”
But really, Dorianne was an editor when she came to that workshop at Pacific University. I didn’t have any poems for her to look at, but another student, Amy, brought in a poem about a female Jesus. Amy asks in her poem if the masses would have listened when a female Jesus preached. Would her enemies rape her? Amy’s anger about the sexualization of women was clear in the poem, and came out in the lines “I wonder/how Jesus would fare/with tits and a warm pussy.”
Dorianne paused at the line, said, “That’s interesting. But this is Jesus, woman or not. Let’s be gentler here.”
The suggestion that Dorianne made for the last line was “in a body like mine,” connecting the image to Amy the poet. The line is more gentler and resonant than the original, yet still physical.
Had I more time for the interview, I would have asked Dorianne if she remembered that class, and if she would consider her responses to be editing or teaching, or if perhaps sometimes those things were the same. I would also like to know if she gets to edit her husband’s poetry since she spent so much time describing how he edited hers. I did have time to ask her what she had learned about herself from the editing process: “That I need it. Every writer needs a good pair of eyes and ears, not their own, to see the work fresh. I don’t always take a suggestion, but there have been many times when days, weeks, months or even years later I look again and say, you know, he or she was right, and make the change. Writing takes time. A poem needs time to settle.”
By Valerie Horres
Our whole lives are about making connections: connecting to other people, connecting one thought to another. We gather up information like strands of silk and weave them into a spider web—every idea and image connects so that when one fiber is plucked the entire web vibrates. All of the data collected in our brains informs and deepens our understanding of the thought or concept presently on our minds.
So when we read a story like Beowulf and hear the one sword that can defeat Grendel’s mother is so large and heavy that only Beowulf can wield it, we automatically think of King Arthur and Excalibur legend. We remember how important it is that only one person can draw Excalibur from the stone, and as a result we understand the magnitude of Beowulf being the only person able to wield the giants’ blade. Likewise, when we read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, reading another story from the time period will help in understanding how England society functioned in those days, and help us comprehend the motivations and actions of Jane Austen’s characters.
No matter what, stories and poems can used to deepen the understanding of another story or poem. It could be using contemporary pieces to help explain the time period in which a story is set, or it could be contrasting a historical text with a modern tale in order to exemplify how the culture or landscape of a place has changed. It could be juxtaposing two texts with the same themes—all of these methods will assist readers in understanding the texts they are studying.
So why not make use of this phenomenon in the classroom? Why not widen the lens students use to comprehend literature? Read the rest of this entry »
I thought I would take a little break from our typical blogging format to talk about the kinds of things editors think about. One of those things is troublesome word pairs. And there are hundreds of them.
The General Problem with Troublesome Word Pairs:
The problem with troublesome word pairs is that either the words sound exactly the same, but are spelled differently, or that people get them wrong so frequently in speech that it “just sounds right” to say (and write) them wrong. I once read a story about a writing teacher, who exasperated by one her students’ frequent confusion over burrow and burro, wrote on the student’s paper that he didn’t “know his ass from a hole in the ground!” Ouch.
As an undergraduate, I wondered why I had to keep my “Discrete Math” class on the down low, a class that I often missed because I came down with a few serious illnesses that term and felt “nauseous.” Of course, back then I was a biology major, so I had an excuse. Right? Not really. It is important for writers, be they mathematicians, biologists, or doctors writing notes for their poor, mono-stricken patients to have a clear understanding of the usage of these five troublesome word pairs.
What the Experts Say
First, let’s get a solid understanding of what the dictionary has for the definitions of these two words:
Discrete: (adj): constituting a separate entity: individually distinct <several discrete sections>
Discreet (adj): having or showing discernment or good judgment in conduct and especially in speech: prudent; especially: capable of preserving prudent silence
Ok, so what I gather is that discrete (as in my math class), deals with distinct and separate elements. The other discreet reminds me of Victorian ladies who have the good judgment to not talk about unsavory topics while in polite society. Read the rest of this entry »
In efforts to lead memoir writers away from too much “telling,” many writing instructors encourager us to consider our experiences in the form of scene.
“Think of your life as though it were a movie,” a few instructors have told me.
“But I can’t remember all those details,” I’ve replied to these instructors (and myself).
“You don’t have to,” my instructors said. “Show—don’t tell—and in doing so the emotional truth will be conveyed.”
For me, this guidance helped loosen the Truth Leash enough so that vivid scenes could emerge and by golly, those instructors were right about arriving even closer to an authentic rendering of experience. I’m here to say that if you’re writing narrative nonfiction for Silk Road, please embellish upon what you remember exactly. Don’t make up events. That’s going too far. But do enhance remembered events with sights, sounds, and smells—even if you have to make them up.
That said, there comes a time in narrative nonfiction when reflection is necessary as well. Great narrative nonfiction balances showing with telling—show and tell. When evaluating Silk Road submissions, I look for scenes that draw me into the writer’s experience so deeply that I feel as though I am behind their eyes. Lock-step with these scenes, I must also be drawn into their hearts through reflection that can be in either the story moment (what the narrator felt and thought at the time of the scene) or in the authorial moment (what the narrator feels and thinks at the time of writing the scene).
Some writers to whom I’ve given this advice have asked for a ratio. What percentage do I show, and what percentage do I tell? The short answer on this is, maddeningly: it depends on the subject and the style of the piece. Striking the right balance between showing and telling isn’t easy to do. Many writers struggle to keep pacing tight, voice consistent, and action compelling while pairing reflection with scene. But the best narrative nonfiction does just that.
Early on during graduate school, right here at Pacific University, I reluctantly attended a poetry lecture delivered by Ellen Bass. I say reluctantly because at the time I held deep-rooted and uninformed suspicions about the relevance of poetry to creative nonfiction (my area of focus). But Ellen single-handedly changed my mind about the connection between the genres and also gave some of the best nonfiction writing advice I have ever received. She said that great poems often reveal something surprising for the reader, or better yet, surprising for the writer.
If you discover something while writing, you’ll do well to help the reader experience that discovery with you. And then, they will experience something while reading.
Honest exploration of past events will give you the opportunity to see yourself in a different light. You are a character in the story you are authoring. As an author, you will have heightened awareness about that character who is—you.
It’s all very circular and sometimes mind-boggling, but if you are doing this with an open heart, you will learn something about yourself. I promise. And when you do, tell or show us what you learned. Reveal your character’s vulnerability and capacity for change. Let the author be the voice of authority. Let the reader in on your discovery and you will earn their trust.
Josie Sigler tells the story behind the story of “Breakneck Road”:
This story has its inspiration in both Michigan and Maine, two states I love and have lived in on and off for most of my life, despite my general predilection for rambling. There is an old abandoned dirt road on Mount Desert Island in Maine called “Breakneck Road”; it was built in 1777 and people use it now as a hiking path. One winter, I walked there often, and knew I’d use the name in a story someday. On the days I didn’t walk, I jogged along the road near a small power station on the island. A good friend had just had a baby, and I had been marveling about how tiny he was. Near the station, an empty Coke box sat for days on the side of the road untouched by the plow. The very first time I saw it, I thought: that baby would fit curled up in there. Even having thought that such a thing could be possible, I had to slow my pace each day and glance down into the box; I felt very strongly this strange responsibility to the could-be baby. The feeling of “Breakneck Road” was born in the split second before I experienced the relief of finding the box empty each day.
I set the story in Michigan once I had an inkling of the plot partly because Joe is based on my dad, who is as married to the mitten state as it’s possible to be. My dad was a single dad for awhile, and Joe’s somewhat bumbling care for the baby mixed with his utter commitment to doing the best he can with what he’s got is what’s really at the heart of this story, what I hoped to convey. But I had also been wanting to write about the people who live at the temporal, economic, and geographical edges of the industries for which Michigan is famous. This was partly inspired by an article I read about a man who hunts and sells raccoon meat in Detroit now that the wilderness is taking back the more decayed parts of the city. Joe’s career as a thief, easily my favorite invention moment in writing the story, was inspired by my wish to demonstrate how logical the choices of so-called criminals are when you consider the stark divide between being middle class and poor in America. I loved writing the lines about thieving being a family trade, passed down from generation to generation, just like any other family business. Joe’s father, who by most people’s standards isn’t much of a father, has given him the skills he needs to survive and be a good father.
Last year’s Fiction Editor Aaron Kier reflects on Silk Road‘s history working with Josie Sigler:
While an associate editor at work on Issue 4, a moment of magic happened: a story entitled “My Last Horse” by Josie Sigler landed in my inbox. The more I read, the more I was transported – to a place both rugged and frail, populated with characters fiercely independent and inextricably bound together, through a narrative unique yet immediately familiar to my soul. It was the most deeply human and touching story I’d encountered in a long, long time. And it broke my heart.
So, a year later, while reading as Fiction Editor, without realizing it, I was searching for something in the submission piles that was eluding me. I was looking for magic. Which finally prompted me to do two things. First, I reread “My Last Horse,” and after I’d finished weeping, I searched out an email address for Josie Sigler and dropped her a note asking if she had a story she wouldn’t mind sending us. She sent four. Every one filled with her distinctively gritty yet musical prose, telling tales unexpected and hard-hitting and rooted in the depths of human failing and redemption. In some ways, “Breakneck Road” was merely the best of the four – because if page counts and shameless favoritism hadn’t prevented it, I’d have published them all. Ultimately, what won us over in this story is precisely what sold me on Josie Sigler in the first place: unquestioned belief that even the most bankrupt, broken and seemingly unworthy are transformed in the face of real love. Therein lies the magic.
Josie Sigler’s stories and poems have appeared in Water~Stone, Copper Nickel, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Harpur Palate and others. Her chapbook, Calamity, was published by Proem Press. Her book of poetry, living must bury, winner of the 2010 Motherwell Prize, was published by Fence Books. Her story “Deep, Michigan” received a special mention in the 2009 Pushcart Prize Anthology. She was recently awarded the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency for 2011 for her short story “El Camino” (published in Roanoke Review). She writes a lot about the several stranded Midwestern towns in which she grew up, the cities that came after, and the Maine island she calls home.
Last week’s blog began a discussion on the Yi language, but this week I think you should hear it. Visit
In the video, Aku Wuwu reads the poem “Calling Back the Soul of Zhyge Alu” in the Nuosu (Northern) dialect (translated by Mark Bender of OSU, who is not the speaker in the video). He is wearing a traditional wool cape worn by the Yi people in Sichuan.
The poem, when read by Aku Wuwu in the Yi dialect, is so passionate, and although I don’t understand the words, I can sense the emotion from the sound. It would be hard to interpret this poem as a poem of wonder or that it has a sense of peace. Rather, it is a poem of longing and passion.