Award-winning novelist and Laurus alumnus Timothy Schaffert discusses networking, revision, and why you should write your favorite author a fan letter.
PhD candidate and fiction writer Claire Harlan-Orsi’s candid discussion of the publishing world makes this our most entertaining interview yet.
by Sharon Olds
It was Sunday morning, I had the New York
Times spread out on my dormitory floor, its
black print coming off dark silver on the
heels of my palms, it was Spring and I had the
dormer window of my room open, to
let it in, I even had the radio
on, I was letting it all in, the
tiny silvery radio voices—I
even let myself feel that it was Easter, the
dark flower of his life opening
again, his life being given back
again, I was in love and could take it, the ink…
by Sharon Olds
After we flew across the country we
got in bed, laid our bodies
delicately together, like maps laid
face to face, East to West, my
San Francisco against your New York, your
Fire Island against my Sonoma, my
New Orleans deep in your Texas, your Idaho
bright on my Great Lakes, my Kansas…
These two poems are highly emotional pieces, one about emotional love and one physical. I think I’m attracted to them because they are easy to read and understand but are still impactful. They’re an example of poetry that’s not high and mighty or written to be understand only by a select few intellectuals. They get personal. -Daley
I am resentful Mona, sitting in a hard pew in the fourth row of a gaudy Catholic church. Feet crammed into pointy fuchsiaflats at Jane’s needless funeral. Resentful: feeling or expressing bitterness or indignation at having been treated unfairly. I have definitely been treated unfairly. The anger and resentment I once felt is slowly subsiding. Who would have thought a ten-cent pistol would be the cure. The air is thick and reeks with heavy incense. It chokes me. I stroke the underside of my tightly-wound bun. There’s a hair sticking out of it. I wrap my fingers around it and pull. Ugh. And the priest, the poor priest, balding, body slumped behind the podium. His face, old and wrinkled and wasted. Wasted on Him. “And now a reading from John…” His voice, clear and deep, echoes around the cavernous belly of the church. Too bad I’m the only one here.
Just get the decaying bitch into the ground. The money that is going to this joke of a farewell could be going to me, should be going to me. The priest, a holy father, standing before me, at the head of the helm, trying to bring this ship safely into bay, trying to send my mother’s soul to heaven and for what? I should tell him not to bother. “…I’ve said these things to you so that you will have peace in me. In the world you have distress. But be encouraged! I have conquered the world. Thanks be to the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen…”
I am bored Mona. What a joke. Faith. All of John 16 is about having faith in God’s plan for Jesus and that we should not worry or be afraid for him because he is returning to God and that God loves us for loving his son and Jesus loves us too, for loving him. Capital H. I. M. I guess I am supposed to find some sort of peace in the fact that Jane will rise to heaven and experience all of the “glory” that it has to offer. Fuck that. I sent her there with my own two hands, and I think I would do it again. I would do it again.
I remember Daddy lecturing me about Da Vinci and how totally awesome he was. I remember him telling me that I would be the next big thing, that I would be the next Da Vinci. He would always tease me that I didn’t have any eyebrows, just like the “real Mona.” He would say that I have a destiny. I hope he wouldn’t be terribly disappointed in me now, seeing as I’ve dyed my normally white blonde hair a terrific shade of red. I remember before he took Jane to rehab for the second time, before the car crash that got him killed, he told me that all I had to do was find my mentor, someone to shape me into the frenzied, fantastic artist I was destined to be. I hope he is watching me now. I think he would be proud. I’ve found my mentor.
Mrs. B told me a story once. I had come to school with a black eye that day, but she didn’t say anything about it. She’s cool like that. It’s not that she didn’t notice it, she just wanted to save my dignity, or something, so she didn’t ask questions. Or maybe she already knew what had happened. When Mrs. B’s daughter was young, around seven, she had been driving with her cousins along a back road in dusty western Nebraska when a truck t-boned them. Thankfully, no one was hurt. Her daughter later told her that the Ninja Turtles t-shirt she was wearing had saved everyone. Mrs. B told me I needed to have that kind of faith. I needed to believe that everything would be ok. She said it didn’t matter whether I found my faith in a superhero shirt or God or even myself, I just needed to believe that the world had a way of working itself out. Faith: complete trust in someone or something. It’s funny, the only people I have ever met who have faith are the ones who have had everything pan out for them. They have solid jobs, good kids, attractive spouses – platinum and cashmere and Pucci and pretty children. The works. I pat my bun again. Fuck. It’s fraying. I tug out four more pieces of hair, wrap them into a ball, and put them into my purse.
Jane liked Blow. She liked smoking blow, she liked snorting blow, she even liked to blow. She wanted me to like blow, too. Blow: to be carried, driven, or moved by the wind or an air current. If instead of being moved, carried, or driven by the wind, I was to be moved and battered by the dealer, then maybe this definition is useful. Blow: what tended to land between my jaw and brow bone when I refused to drop to my knees and…blow. Jane always had her fucking dealer around. As soon as Daddy died the dealer came strolling in. Daddy out, dealer in. Daddy’s body wasn’t even in the ground yet before the bastard moved in. I assume now that it was part of her payment: she had to house him. She couldn’t afford blow, not after Daddy was gone, seeing as he made all the money. Sometimes I think it would have been better if she had just let me starve. Blow on the kitchen counter, blow on the porcelain bathtub, blow on the coffee table, blow in the kitchen cabinet next to the cereal. Jane blowing the dealer on the couch.
The list goes on.
I would do it again.
“Mona. Mona, is there anything you want to say in memory of your mother before we continue?” The priest again. Why doesn’t he get it? I’m the one who put her in that fucking casket to begin with. Silence. Silence usually works. I just say nothing until everyone around me feels uncomfortable enough to move on.
“I can say something.”
Oh God, no. Mrs. B showed up. Of course she did. I wonder how long she’s been here. She’s just so, so, so optimistic. Sometimes I wish she would just say, look sweetie, you’re fucked, give up now. Instead she’s turned into my personal cheerleader, encouraging me to pursue physics and chemistry and biology. She says I have a gift. I was the only one in lab to successfully complete a DNA gel as well as determine the molarity of an HCL solution using calcium carbonate. She never noticed the day I stole the sample of arsenic.
“Jane was a woman who lost her way. She battled with an addiction to cocaine but was supported by her loving husband for the years that he was alive.” What a fucking cunt. I can’t believe she would even dare bring up my father. Dammit. My hair is a mess. One, two, four, seven pieces of hair going into my purse. “Unfortunately, it was the addiction that cost Jane her life, but she always made an effort to remain in contact with me regarding her daughter’s education despite her dependency.” Call it what it is. She was a coke whore who didn’t care about her only daughter. “We hope that Jane is in a peaceful place now.” Mrs. B. Why did she have to say that? Jane was always high; she didn’t give two shits about me. She was on the PTA for Christ’s sake. What an embarrassment. Before she went to the meetings she would snort a line. She would take her tiny glass vial with her to the meetings and snort another line in the bathroom. She would come home and snort another line. I know the only reason none of the other parents ratted on her was because they were equally fucked up or because they knew what happened to kids who got put into foster care. Thank God I’m only six months away from my eighteenth birthday. I don’t have to worry about that now. Was it foreshadowing when Mrs. B suggested I have faith in myself? Was she able to predict what I would do? Did she mean it as a warning? Tiger got to hunt; bird got to fly; man got to sit and wonder: why, why, why? Tiger got to sleep; bird got to land; man got to tell himself he understand. Preach Kurt, preach. Why, why, why?
I would do it again.
“Mona? Honey? How are you doing? Is there anything I can do for you?” whispers Mrs. B. Her soft manicured hands close on top of mine.
“No.” I said. The priest looks up at me from his sermon, pity and disappointment radiating from his eyes. Maybe he is disappointed I didn’t dress for the occasion. My strapless black fitted dress and wide-brimmed fuchsia hat, worthy of the Kentucky Derby, were too fabulous to waste. Besides, today is a day for celebration.
“You do seem to be holding up well, your eyes aren’t puffy in the slightest!” whispers Mrs. B again.
“Why did you say all of that stuff about Jane trying to act like a good mom? You should have just been honest, there’s no point in lying now.” I said loudly. The priest glanced up but kept plowing through the sermon. This sort of thing must happen a lot.
“Mona, your mother might have been an addict, which is despicable, and she definitely exposed you to a lot of abuse which is unforgivable. But she tried to overcome her demons, and there was no doubt about it, she loved you. She loved you to the very core.”
“Go fuck yourself Mrs. B. That bitch deserved to die. She was a pile of shit. Because of her my father died. It’s because of her that I would get punched in the face for telling her dealer to fuck off. It was because of her. It was her fault.”
Silence. I close my eyes and let my head fall backwards over my shoulders. Silence. I would do it again. I think I would do it again. Fuck! I tug at my bun. Five, seven, ten pieces of hair. I shove them all quickly into my purse.
“Mona? Do you need to take a break from all of this? Why don’t we step outside?”
I would do it again. Silence. “I’m fine Mrs. B.”
Mrs. B stared into her hands and twisted a thick gold band that circled the middle finger on her left hand. “Look honey. I know this isn’t the best time to bring it up, but I have to mention this to you. This week, I can’t be sure of the day, but this week my sample of arsenic went missing.”
Holy fucking shit she knows. She knows I took it and put it into Jane’s stash. It wasn’t hard. Mrs. B passed the element samples around for us to see on Monday. I kept the arsenic in my lap while all the other samples got turned in. And Jane keeps a mortar and pestle right on the coffee table. I just had to grind it up and sift it into the stash. Arsenic is naturally gray, but there was enough cocaine to even out the color.
“I am hoping you can send the word out to your peers. It needs to be returned to me. It takes so little to seriously hurt someone. It was a five gram sample after all.”
“100 mg. It takes 100 mg to kill someone.” I blurt out.
Mrs. B slowly turns her head to look me in the eye. She gently lifts a finger to wipe the smudged mascara from under my eyes. Her hands smell like vanilla and lavender.
“Is that so, Mona? Then I suggest you put the word out quickly. You seem to have a way with your peers. You wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt.”
She doesn’t even suspect me. I got away with it. The ten cent pistol. Daddy would be so proud of me, to know how smart I’ve become.
Read our Q&A with Adriana Martinez here.
Three-time Pushcart Nominee and PhD candidate Jill McCabe Johnson discusses how reading and editing for others can broaden perspectives and help writers improve their own work.
Your poems are by far the most memorable, talked about pieces from last year’s issue. Have you continued to develop themes of sex and nostalgia in your work?
So my very first publication was in a kids’ magazine in the early 80’s. I had written a little rhyming poem about going to the dentist. My mom still has it on the refrigerator! I was pretty proud of myself, but then again I was about 8 years old. I published work in my high school and college literary magazines, which was also really exciting. I remember loving to hold the bound publications, to see my voice there on the page alongside other voices—that symphony of unique language brought into conversation by a journal or magazine. These many years later, I do still love that feeling of flipping through literary journals (whether I am in them or not) and just hearing the subjects and voices of the pieces speaking to one another.
How has participating in the publishing process changed the way you approach your work?
I guess how I might answer this question is to say I think the challenge is actually to not let the publishing process change your work on the one hand. Being a poet, or really any creative writer, is going to involve a lot of rejection. Part of the work of a writer is knowing when that rejection is just part of the process or when (or if) it means anything at all about their actual work. When I’m writing, my audience is rarely ever a magazine. I write; I see what I’ve done; and then I think about what publications might be good homes for what I’ve written. Sometimes I’m right; sometimes I’m wrong. And that hasn’t changed that much over the years.
Has it enabled you to connect with other authors/editors/publishers who helped you develop as a writer?
I’ve had the good fortune of working with a few editors at presses and at journals who have really impacted me. Ed Ochester, for example, who edits a journal called 5 AM, wrote to me one time after I had sent him a batch of poems and he said something like, “these are powerful poems, but it seems like your poems end way before you think they do.” He had sent my poems back with a few of the lines cut off at the end, and I realized in looking at them that he was totally right, that I often wrote past my own endings. This little moment has stayed with me, and I continue to ask myself whether the poem is already over when I am in the revising stages of pieces. So that’s one example.
Have you ever seen the work of a peer or former student in a magazine, or, alternatively connected up with a writer after reading their work?
Because I am not an editor myself, one of the Senior Poetry Editors at Tupelo Quarterly, this now happens more often where I see someone’s poems that really strike me, and get the pleasure of meeting them later. But when I see the work of former students in literary journals that arrive at my office, I am thrilled. It can be a tough thing (in a world that wants us to do so many other things other than reflect, and write, and be careful with our language) to stick with your writing, to keep doing it in the face of messages that could say it doesn’t matter. So when I see a former student’s work in a publication, I think mostly about how awesome it is that they kept going, kept writing!
Is being published in a student publication like the Laurus a good first step for someone interested becoming a writer?
I published many of my first poems in my college literary magazine, and I think it’s a really significant step in the development of a writer too see their work alongside their peers, to feel that sense of community in their work being collected together in one place. When you look at your own work in that copy of Laurus, you can think: here’s what happens at UNL, and here’s what us writers have made together. That’s an important moment of community. And of course, if you want to continue with your writing, it’s a good way to get a feel for how the submission process works as well.
Stacey Waite has published three prize-winning collections of poems, recieved three Pushcart nominations, and been awarded a National Society of Arts & Letters Poetry Prize among other honors. She currently works as Associate Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
In this interview Phd candidate and prize-winning author Gabriel Houck discusses bridging the gap between academia and the realities of the publishing world.
Marianne Kunkel, former managing editor of the Prairie Schooner and Associate Professor of Creative Writing and Publishing, explains the surprising impact small publications can have for new writers.
Our newest cover features the art of Ashley Ryba. In the photograph, you’ll see a clay model of a city: like the Laurus, a miniature of something larger. But, look closer and you’ll see that what edges the buildings isn’t a park: it’s a forest, or it was. This photo is a detail from Out of Sight, Out of Mind, a three-part installation representing the hidden processes of environmental degradation.
Tactfully provocative and refreshingly novel, Ryba’s works lend a new tone to environmental debates. Like good poetry, they welcome us with familiar forms (clay, grass, pop bottles, the cityscape), then, amicably and with a little humor, usher us to the turn: The grass is fragile, or surrounds us rather than receding. The pop bottles are solar lamps. The city is not an end in itself.
To view all of Ashley Ryba’s installations and follow her work, visit www.AshelyRyba.com.
Ryba’s “Breathing Box” in downtown Lincoln, NE.