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." 

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