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!

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