Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Dispatches from the 2014 West Virginia Writers' Workshop: Day 4

After four days of readings, writings, workshops, book launches, visits from campus dignitaries, and what turned in to over 200 live-tweets, the 2014 West Virginia Writer’s Workshop ended yesterday at noon, in Colson Hall.  

The last day’s event was a Panel on Publishing (one of the most popular events from the 2013 Writer’s Workshop last year, actually).  The lovely ladies from PageSpring, Lynn and Katherine came, as well as the fantastic poet, Renee Nicholson, (fresh from her Friday book-release of the book, Roundabout Directions to Lincoln Center) our insanely prolific department chair, Jim Harms and the publishing power-couple, Allison Joseph and Jon Tribble, who match their exemplary poetry with tireless work for the Crab Orchard Review, and the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry.  

Mark Brazaitis moderated the panel, and fielded excellent questions from the audience, such as

-I am a new writer.  Where should I start sending my work to?
-How do you organize a chapbook manuscript, or any manuscript for a book of poems?
-How do you deal with rejection as a professional author?

As you can imagine, everyone on the panel really brought their A-game.  For the answers they gave to these and other questions, take a look at my live-tweeting of the event, at:

Our writers and participants bid their sweet adieus after that, and we were left to reflect on the excellent weekend.  

Natalie counted out our Shann Palmer Memorial Scholarship Fund, and we realized that because of the generosity of the participants this weekend, we have an actual scholarship in place! Thank you to everyone who donated.  We know Shann would have been so delighted by our fundraiser.  I was walking around with my envelope, and lottery tickets on Saturday at the open mic, and everyone wanted to add something, and talk about Shann.  It was really wonderful. I will post details regarding the scholarship to our social media account in the coming months, so please stay tuned.  

You must forgive me for the late-ness of this post. I am back to my work-a-day routine, and while I will be posting to the workshop Twitter account regularly, there won’t be any more live-tweeting for a while.  More importantly though, I have been voyaging into the dark forest of Facebook for the first time in a couple of years, to set up an official Page for our Workshop.  While it is still very much a work in progress, you can find us (and please like us) here:

I expect to be posting to that page pretty regularly, and you can too, of course, because Facebook is a supernatural entity or something like that.  

Of course I must extend Mark’s thank yous to everyone who made this workshop possible, including all of you here in the English department and in the College of Arts and Sciences at large, who assisted our participants, attended (or read at) our readings, made everyone feel at home in Morgantown and at WVU, and generally gave us all a writing-weekend to remember.  Next year promises to be another great series of workshop events, so tune in to Facebook, Twitter, and this Blog to hear all about it, as the third week of July 2015 rolls around.  

Also, thank you dear reader(s), for reading my posts and reports on all of the happenings, and letting me be that obnoxious person with the camera, and the open laptop for four days straight.  


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Dispatches from the 2014 West Virginia Writers' Workshop: Day 3

By now, all of the writers and participants at the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop have really gotten in to the groove here in Morgantown, and are used to insightful craft talks, brilliant readings of poetry and prose, and generally a fantastic writing community.  Today was no exception.  Our writers had a chance to read and share their work, as well as hear wonderful speakers describe what’s at stake in their writing, and how those issues affect us all.

We started off bright and early at 9AM, with the winningly charming Katherine Matthews of PageSpring Publishing giving us a crash-course on reading your own work, with a craft talk titled, “Reading Out Loud: Performing in Front of an Audience.” Katherine was able to pull on the talents of our excellent workshop participants to get suggestions for what defines a “good” reader, before people paired up, practiced, and reported back. After such a great craft talk, I bet everyone felt even more ready for the two special readings offered today and tonight. As Katherine said, if you are a writer, you are inevitably going to be called upon to read your work, at one time or another. Be prepared!

Following our coffee-break, Renee Nicholson offered a craft talk titled, “Literary Citizenship” on how to participate in the world of the arts.  She was able to talk about her own work with the arts, including book reviews, attending conferences, and subscribing to literary journals. A workaholic like Renee always has her irons in many different fires, so she was definitely the best person to talk to, regarding how to spread out your talents over many artistic modes, in order to better your career as a writer, as well as get the most satisfaction and fulfillment of the things that we as writers already enjoy.  Our open discussion veered into practical issues of non-profit organizations, sustained attendance at local writing and artistic events, tax forms (and I am still traumatized by those, thanks to working on the Appalachian Prison Book Project’s recently bestowed 501(c)3 status) Renee’s golden retriever (her name is Gelsey), co-authorship, memoirs, volunteering, and a really special chance to reflect on the power of narrative medicine, which is currently one of Renee’s projects. What was so special was hearing Renee’s description of how reading and writing transforms you if you let it. She’s the kind of literary citizen that we all need in our community! Everyone really resonated with Renee’s talk, and we were discussing it for pretty much the rest of the day.  

During our lunch, the high school workshop had their reading, showing what they had worked on all weekend, including practicing their skills at writing introductions for each other. I wrote introductions for Renee and Natalie last year, and I know that any writer/colleague can relate to the challenge, of offering succinct homage not only to a writer, but to their writing. It was a great reading (though I am not including pictures from this event because we were hearing from minors) showcasing some great rising talent from young writers in West Virginia, and I think Natalie should be proud of everything that her student writers accomplished, and accomplish every year at this workshop.  

Following our high school readers, every participant was invited to a reading by Marie Manilla and our department chair, Jim Harms. Marie read from her book, The Patron Saint of Ugly which tells the story of Garnet Ferrari, a girl with port wine stains on all over her body that look like the map of the world.  In a vibrant reading from early in the book, Marie shared a collection of anecdotal love stories that traverse the Atlantic ocean, from Calabria, Italy to West Virginia, as she introduced one of the organizing questions of her novel - what makes us saints, and what makes us sinners? (I was grinning from ear to ear during the reading, since it resonated so profoundly with my own experiences coming from a large Italian family.)  Marie has written in a language that I literally understand, but her novel also speaks to the universal strength of the familial voices that overpower our inner monologues, and what can happen to you when you let someone speak for you, and rob you of your own voice.

I don’t need to tell you that our esteemed and erudite chair of the English Department, the epic poet Jim Harms gave us an amazing reading, do I? Because he did.  It was amazing.  There were stories about his lovely family, and werewolves (and according to Jim there is a large population of werewolves here in West Virginia), and Jim was also impressed with the board that Renee had filled with all of her literary citizenship options, and that no one had erased yet. (As you can see Renee’s talk really set the tone for the day.)

We had a short break after our readings, and then off to the last workshop of the day, before the Open Mic. Night.  I had the privilege of sitting in with Renee on Natalie’s High School Workshop, where Renee talked about poetic line breaks, and we all talked about character naming and metaphors.  After that, I did a (pretty shameless) bit of plugging for the English Department.  I have been working at the New Student Orientation this summer, and had written a handout  to ease my first-year students in to the major, as they register for their classes.  So I decided to make a high-school accessible version of this handout called, “Why You Definitely Should Be An English Major.” And while some of the high school students seemed more amused by the comics that I found on Tumblr to decorate the handout, at least they have some things to think about regarding the English major as they prepare for college.

Our Open Mic. tonight at the Mother India Restaurant in downtown Morgantown, and it was fantastic, that’s all there is to it.  We were treated to a lovely collection of readings by writers who had really taken Katherine’s “Performance” craft talk to heart. Perhaps my favorite readings were Dave Essinger’s completely deadpan reading of The Cat in the Hat in the voice of Garrison Keillor, or Carol Scot bringing us home with a poem inspired by the Ohio Turnpike, which asked the question, “Is a poem an emergency?” Honestly though, everyone brought their A-Game tonight, for perhaps the best Open Mic. I have ever been to.  Thank you readers, thank you writers, and thank you Mother India for hosting us!

Here is a pictorial recap for today! Tomorrow I will be live-tweeting our last event: a round-table discussion on publishing, and blogging some final thoughts regarding the Shann Palmer Memorial Scholarship Fund. Until tomorrow, happy summer writing!


Katherine Matthews talks about the need to practice your own readings before you perform them.  Her number one hint? SLOW DOWN!

Renee Nicholson tells us how to be the best literary citizen you can. 

In a book about Italians talking about life in Italy, you have to talk with your hands.  This wasn't a problem for Marie (she's a pro) but it was a problem for her photographer.  Sorry this is so blurry!

Jim Harms reminds us to watch out for werewolves. 

The MFA program's own Shaun Turner. Also, be warned: because of my angle, the beautiful poet Jessica Guzman is in pretty much all of these Open Mic. pictures.  I didn't want to move around too much because it would distract the readers.  

Dave is reading The Cat in the Hat, in the voice of Garrison Keillor.  I promise you this happened.  'Pretty sure that both Mark and I were crying with laughter.  

So, is a poem an emergency? Ask Carol Scot!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Dispatches from the 2014 West Virginia Writers' Workshop: Day 2

Today was one for the history books at the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop: Readings! Visits from University Presidents! An archive of music sold by Kentucky Fried Chicken! Book releases and sales! What I’m saying is that if you are not following us on Twitter and Facebook, you might be missing out...

Today, participants enjoyed a continental breakfast at Stalnaker Hall, and another chance to visit our Literary Journal Display before hearing our reader from last night, the poet Jon Tribble, give a craft talk called “Going Long: Tackling Poetic Sequences, Long Poems, and Book-Length Projects” in Elizabeth Moore Hall. Jon provided a thought-provoking discussion about the benefits (and pitfalls) of creating longer work, the way that only a poet can. Mixed in with his talk, were really useful insights regarding the practical aspects of publishing longer works, and the limitations placed on publishers, editors AND writers regarding text length.  Jon’s language and manner was so accessible, even when his ideas were more abstract. Issues of intentionality were also highlighted in the talk.  It turns out that early on in the writing of Jon's poems about working in an American fast-food chain (and can I point out his amazing knowledge of KFC trivia? Did you know that KFC used to sell music albums?), he claimed he never intended to make them into a book! You can tell when you listen to Jon, that he’s an incredible teacher AND writer.  He makes the work matter, by showing you how it matters to him.

David Hassler was unfortunately too ill to attend the workshop this year, so Mark Brazaitis offered his second craft talk of the weekend later in the morning titled, "SETTING the Table for a Great Prose Work (and Maybe Even a Great Poem)". Pulling on pretty much all of literary history (because he is so well-read) Mark provided perfect examples of how setting not only informs plot, but also creates it.  He followed it by answering some practical questions about pacing, and how to properly use transitions, before leading the participants to a fabulous writing exercise, which included describing the actual setting we were using: the Lounge of E. Moore Hall! For some reason, people were really drawn to describing this beautiful, historical room as if a murder had just taken place there.  I mean that was part of the prompt, but in all honesty, what is it about gorgeous architecture that takes peoples minds' to really dark places?

After lunching on our own, all of the participants of the workshop came to cheer on perhaps my two favorite WVU MFA alumnae friends: Natalie Sypolt and Renee Nicholson, during their reading. Also attending and (offering a wonderful introduction) was our University President, Gordon Gee! President Gee didn’t forget his photo opportunities (including a selfie with the workshoppers) before he departed, but he also picked up a copy of Renee Nicholson’s new book of poetry, Roundabout Directions to Lincoln Center, from Urban Farmhouse Press

After being eloquently introduced by Renee, Natalie (the recipient of the Glimmer Train New Writer’s Award) gave a reading that was - as always in Natalie’s prose- visceral and evocative, while resonating with her discussions of point of view and setting that she had with her high school workshoppers later that day. And she was kind enough to write a beautiful introduction for Renee as well, touching on Renee’s recent foray into narrative medicine. She is working with Professor Jamie Shumway, the former Associate Dean of Medical Education in the West Virginia University School of Medicine, on his memoirs, since Professor Shumway suffers from ALS. Many people from Professor Renee Nicholson’s department: the Department of Multidisciplinary Studies were also there to cheer Renee on at her book release, so in with truly multidisciplinary style, she made sure to include pieces of Professor Shumway’s memoir integrated with her own wildly intelligent, rollicking, humorous, and heartbreaking poems.  Renee’s tastes and writing styles differ depending on which genre she is writing in (and she excels in all three: poetry, fiction, and nonfiction) but her passion, and her loves are embedded in every word, and on every line.  Congratulations to these two alumnae (and super-friends who actually met at this workshop): Renee Nicholson, and Natalie Sypolt, on all of their excellent achievements!

After our writers were able to workshop in their genres for the day, we had some free time for dinner and meetings.  I was lucky enough to have a chance to provide a one-on-one conference for a high school student, where we workshopped a piece of her fiction.  It was a real treat to read the work of young people so invested in their art, and I give Natalie all the credit in the world for driving her workshop students to such great writing in only one workshop weekend!

Our evening reading tonight was given by Allison Joseph, and Mark Brazaitis.  Allison’s poetry really got the night rolling, with her wry, yet sweet reflections on child development, popular culture, and - to quote Allison - the “naughty” stuff. She also sang for us, which Renee, Mark and I agree, really takes your reading to the next level.  I feel like the next time I give an academic paper, I need to learn how to juggle (did you know that Mark can?) or jump rope, or something to really enhance my performance.  Allison puts almost all other readers to shame.

Rounding off our night was Mark’s reading from his luminous work, Julia & Rodrigo. Mark sure knows how to hook a reader (or a listener) on page one.  Despite the fact that he has been pulling double (triple? quadruple?) duty this workshop weekend, we all loved listening to him read, and provide us with even more concrete examples of what his craft talks make so clear: that there is no one more generous, and real on the page than Professor Mark Brazaitis. It must be tiring to be the heart and the soul of the West Virginia Writer’s Workshop each year, but like everything Mark does, he makes it look easy.

Tune in tomorrow for more recaps of fantastic readers and writers enjoying their weekend in Morgantown. Until then, here’s a highlight reel of some pictures from the day.


 Gordon Gee loves writers! Also bow ties!

Natalie described Renee as dressing like she was captaining a yacht.  But then Renee read a poem about her passionate adoration of Prince, so she's clearly a multifaceted writer. 

The wonderful Jessica Guzman introduces Allison Joseph. 

Allison holding the room in the palm of her hand.

The hardest-working writing professor in West Virginia this weekend: Mark Brazaitis brings it home at this evening's reading. 

Jon Tribble talks about long-form poetry. 

Renee's introduction this evening: "Mark is probably winning another award while I am introducing him now." 

Call for Papers: ACL(x)

ACL(x) is an experimental conference/forum that the American Comparative Literature Association holds once every few years that looks at ways to reconceptualize literary study and explores alternate modes of presenting information at conferences. Here's the call for papers for the 2015 conference. Note that, if you get a paper accepted, the conference will pay for your hotel and some of the food, which is how public life works for famous academics and Chelsea Clinton:


What if things were different? What if academic ideas could be expressed in units of 40,000 words, rather than in units of 9000 or 90,000? What if we organized literary study around, not the long eighteenth century or the nation-state, but around the years 1740-1840, or an ecological or physiographic region? What if we imagined that the division of humanities inquiry into disciplines, or the structure of the PhD, looked radically different? The American Comparative Literature Association invites proposals to participate in its experimental conference, ACLX. ACLX Otherwise, the spring 2015 conference, will be held on the campus of the University of South Carolina, Columbia, at the Inn at USC, the weekend of February 5-7, 2015.

Concepts or practices developed in and around ACL(x) are designed to potentially affect the ACLA’s official spring conference, as well as make their ways into journals, workshops, and individual or collaborative acts of scholarship or conversation, including the ACLA’s current State of the Discipline Report. Thanks to the generous support of the University of South Carolina, and its Comparative Literature program, Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, College of Arts and Sciences and Provost’s office, lodging and most food for conference presenters will be free. The organizers specifically invite presentations on the following topics, with 250-word proposals due by September 30, 2014.


Periodization: What do we think history is, that it makes periods? What do we think periods are, that we organize the profession around them? It’s easy to point out the challenges with existing schemes of periodization – but can we imagine alternatives that are, if not better, at least useful for something? What would literary study look like if we came up with alternative periodizations, whether on a national/linguistic basis, a regional basis, or for the planet as a whole? Participants in this panel are invited to share in advance an alternative periodization for some scale of literary study, and to use their allotted time on the panel to discuss, explore and debate their scheme. Please send abstracts to Alexander Beecroft (

Queering Comparative Literature: What happens when Comparative Literature meets Queer Theory? How might we theorize the comparative gesture across both of these fields at once? What do Queer Theory’s border crossings offer to the practice of comparative literary today? Participants in this panel are invited to think about the intersections between Comp lit. and Queer Theory taking seriously the interdisciplinary, transnational, and transformative dimensions of each. The idea is not to create definitive disciplinary statements but rather to think about how Queering Comp Lit opens new avenues for thought in both fields. Please send a 250 word abstract and short bio to Jessica Berman (

“Soft Power”: The State of the Discipline vs. the Department of State, or the geopolitics of comparative literatures

While the US government has become keen, particularly in the post-9/11 era, to encourage the instruction of historically understudied languages in institutions of higher learning, it has also continued its equally historic practice of issuing travel warnings, often imposing travel restrictions, for regions deemed to be “high risk” areas. These warnings and restrictions have not been without consequences for students, both undergraduate and graduate, and faculty researchers with an interest in the impacted areas, whether with regard to study abroad programs, academic exchanges, or scholarly research. At the same time, the US Department of State has proposed, under the rubric of its “soft power” doctrines, the critical importance of “understanding” other cultures, including their literary history and contemporary knowledge production, even at times controversially “embedding” scholars in its diplomatic and military ranks. Meanwhile, US universities, encouraged by the expansion of global scholarship, have been establishing partner programs with national educational institutions around the world, from Latin America, to the Gulf, to China, often incurring restrictions imposed by the host countries on otherwise longstanding protocols of academic freedom, human rights, and social justice. What are the consequences for the “state of the discipline” of comparative literature of these apparent political and intellectual contradictions and compromises? How have different geographical regions of inquiry and instruction been variously impacted? And what might be learned from their respective responses to these 21st century geopolitical pressures and opportunities? Please send abstracts to Barbara Harlow (

Publishing: What is the best way to share research and engage with other scholars? How do institutional structures produce new opportunities and constraints to move beyond the traditional monograph and journal article? In practical terms, how do we make alternative publications meaningful to the profession? Please send abstracts to Michael Gibbs Hill (

Graduate Programs: The recent MLA report on the state of graduate education in literature was long on vague suggestions, but short on specific institutional recommendations. This panel invites current or former Directors of Graduate Studies to reinvent the graduate program from the ground up. No mandate for seminars, exams, or dissertations; they might be included, of course, but ought to be justified within the framework of the only mandatory goals: to be institutionally possible, and to prepare students for scholarship and employment in or around literature. Please send a description of your relevant experience, and a paragraph describing some basic ideas for the program you’ve imagined, to Eric Hayot (

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Dispatches from the 2014 West Virginia Writers’ Workshop: Day 1

It was a beautiful day in Morgantown to kick off the 2014 West Virginia Writers’ Workshop! After registering in Stalnaker Hall (and getting to peruse our literary journal display) participants enjoyed a Welcome Lunch in Elizabeth Moore Hall, and an impromptu writing exercise led by our own fearless leader and Director: Professor Mark Brazaitis. This chance to write-on-the-fly was followed by an opportunity for our participants to read their pieces aloud, as a means of introducing themselves to the other members of the workshop, and, as Mark said, to bookend the entire weekend with writing and sharing: once at the beginning, and then once towards the end of the weekend, when the Workshop will host its famous “Open Mic Night.”

Participants wrote this afternoon in memory of our beloved fellow writer and workshop participant, Shann Palmer.  Shann passed away in December of last year. To honor her memory, her humor, and her warmly shrewd voice on the page, the workshop is selling raffle tickets for books and writerly prizes.  The money will go to pay for a fellow writer to attend this Workshop.  We know that Shann would’ve loved to help other writers find their way, and this is our chance to do the same.  For more details about the Shann Palmer Memorial Scholarship Fund, please see  Assistant to the Director, Renee Nicholson.

Mark then gave the participants an amazing craft talk titled, “Eye-opening Openings.” As well as establishing good ground rules and tips for how to write an opening (or find an opening in what you have already written). The workshop participants also engaged in a spirited discussion of what’s at stake in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, how to make an opening appear trustworthy (or not) and what kinds of openings we like, or don’t like, or even love to hate. Mark included an excerpt from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (which almost caused me a moment of fan-girl squealing, but I restrained myself) before letting us look at his own excellent examples of work with opening lines.

Next, all of our participants got their first chance to workshop their own pieces within their genres.  With Natalie Sypolt at the helm to workshop writing from our high school group, this year, the workshop has also brought the poet Allison Joseph to Morgantown, and Mark Brazaitis will be workshopping fiction and nonfiction all weekend here as well.  After a glowing review from last year’s participants regarding their talks on publication, two editors from PageSpring Publishing, Lynn Bartels and Katherine Matthews will be workshopping polished texts from our participants this weekend, and offering advice for writers ready to take the next step with their work.  No other writers’ workshop that I know of offers this unique service, coupled with the kind of in-depth mentoring and advising that the ladies from PageSpring give us here. We are extremely lucky to have them at the workshop.  

The evening culminated with two readings in Colson Hall.  Dean Robert Jones of the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences first stopped in to welcome all of this year’s participants and wish them good luck and happy writing, after which the poet Jon Tribble had the room in stitches with his deep, detailed, and occasionally heartbreaking descriptions of working in the American fast-food industry. Then our own beloved Ethel Morgan Smith brought the house down with her witty, nostalgic excerpts from Reflections of the Other: Being Black in Germany that delved into the complex vibrations between homesickness, pedagogy, female friendships, and the racial divide.

It has certainly been a productive and enjoyable first day of the 2014 West Virginia Writer’s Workshop.  All of you social-media mavens: friend us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter with the handle: @WV_Workshop.  (I have been live-tweeting all of the day’s events, and I will be continuing for the rest of the weekend, so we’ll have fun, I promise.)

Until tomorrow, enjoy these pictures!

Listening to our readers after our first writing exercise in E. Moore Hall.

 Amazing readings!

 Mark introduces Dean Jones at the first night's reading in Colson Hall.

 Dean Jones was kind enough to stop by and welcome all of our writers this evening!

Here, we are learning a lot about Kentucky Fried Chicken from the brilliant poet Jon Tribble.

Professor Ethel Morgan Smith read poignant, and sometimes hilarious anecdotes from her time in Europe, chronicled in her book, Reflections of the Other: Being Black in Germany. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Our very own Gail Adams

Glenn Taylor and I were among Gail Adams' Morgantown fans who made the trek to Buckhannon this past Sunday evening to hear her read at Wesleyan. We even got to have dinner with her! Gail is, as Glenn said, "the real deal," and it was a pleasure to listen to her stories and her wisdom about writing ("keep reading!"). And, as with poetry, it's possible to listen in Gail's stories for runs of iambs and for consonant and vowel patterns. Quite simply: she has a great ear—and good writing, as she knows, is about its sounds.

Before heading home, Glenn and I stopped at the Buckhannon Dairy Queen. Pretty awesome sign, huh? And the sky... yep... that's awesome too.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Remembering Sophia Blaydes

Sophia Blaydes, a much beloved member of WVU's Department of English for 34 years, died this past week.  She remained an active presence in the university and Morgantown communities after her retirement, most notably as a founding member of both the Literary Discussion Group and the Committee of Retired Faculty.  We will miss her greatly.

Here are links to an obituary in the Charleston Gazette and a lovely blog post by one of our department alumni, David Fleming: