Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold: 10 Questions With Dorothy Chan

Rebecca Mennecke 


For Dorothy Chan, the newest assistant professor of English at UW-Eau Claire, writing is a non-stop process; she writes as often as she can. Her reading from her recent collection of poetry, Revenge of the Asian Woman, will be a highlight of the Chippewa Valley Book Festival at 6PM at the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library on Oct. 23.

In anticipation of her latest book, we thought we’d familiarize ourselves with her previous book, Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold. Described by poet David Kirby as “steam punk on steroids… plutonium-powered and neon-lit,” Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold explores themes like feminism, Asian culture, food, and sexuality in a fresh way. 

I had the opportunity to chat with Chan about some of the themes she has explored in her writing since the very beginning. 

Rebecca Mennecke: What inspires you to write a poem? 

Dorothy Chan: Lots of things but mostly food, sex, fantasy, fetish popular culture, and Asian American identity. Oh, and power. I think it's important to surround yourself with interesting people. That way, you're always inspired. Sometimes, one of my close friends will say something funny, and the next thing you know, I'm typing up notes on my iPhone. At certain points of the year, I'll have over 200 notes on my phone just from things I overhear, fantasies I have, dreams from the night before, etc. It's the poet's job to always remain awake, alert, ready to take in new ideas.

RM: How on Earth do you title a poem (or a book) that explores so many different elements? Specifically, I’m super interested in your poem “Ode to Psychics, Hookers, Shark Bone, and Free Iced Tea.” How did you decide on the titles that appear in the final version of your book?
This is what I tell my students: aim for titles that are five words or more. Excess. Create full titles that tell stories – that are full of dimension. Back in my MFA, my poetry uncle, Alberto Ríos taught me that "The best line of the poem is the one that I am reading. And that does not exclude the title."

RM: How do titles and the poems themselves work together to create meaning in your work?
DC: Titles should tell stories in themselves. When you open a book of poetry, I think it's important to first fall in love with the titles. Look down the page at the table of contents. Make observations. And then of course, once you read the poems themselves, more meaning is created and observed.

RM: Feminism. Asian culture. Food. Sexuality. How do you weave and intertwine each topic so seamlessly?
DC: I believe all these topics are naturally connected. Intersectional feminism is the way I live my life. It's the way I structure my classes and choose my reading lists. And intersectional feminism is of course linked to sex positivity, along with culture. Food is also this common language for the world. I'll leave this open-ended, but I think you can tell a lot about a person based on the food they eat, the food they prepare, the food they order, and the food they try.

RM: You write a lot about food! It makes me hungry just reading your work. What’s your go-to writing snack?
DC: And Rebecca, you win the award for best interview question of all time! I love Pocky, Koala's March, jalapeño chips, and salt and vinegar chips. If I had all the money in the world, I'd be eating Jean Philippe pastries and macarons while writing. I also love green tea and iced black coffee.

RM: In Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold, you explore some complex relationships with your parents and your family. How do you recommend writers explore complex relationships with people who are important to them through the writing process?

DC: I'm bad, but I'd say don't worry about it.  I find that many times, young writers worry too much about writing about a family member, especially a parent. Again, don't worry about it. Your feelings are valid. 

RM: You write a good number of sonnets in this book. How did you come to like this type of poem? Was there a specific poem or poet that inspired you to use this form?
DC: I could go on and on about the sonnet for days, but I believe the sonnet is the perfect form. Think about it: fourteen lines, ten syllables per line – it's really the amuse-bouche of poetry – it's that palate teaser that makes you want more and more, makes you go on and on. I fell in love with the sonnet during my undergraduate at Cornell. There, I worked closely with Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. In Lyrae's classes, we not only wrote sonnets, but we also wrote sonnet crowns (7 sonnets in a row). Then, over the years, I experimented with this form, from my chapbook Chinatown Sonnets, to what I like to call my specialty – the triple sonnet.

RM: You also break up your poems in this book into three sections.  How did you decide the different sections?

DC: A triptych is just so romantic. It reminds me of the years I studied art history. When writing a book of poems, I think about the overarching narrative, along with the speaker's development.

RM: In your poem, “My Mother the Writer,” you talk about how your mom is a writer too. You also dedicate this book to her! How did your mom help shape your writing?
DC: She's always been undyingly supportive of my career as a writer.

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RM: What writers or writings have inspired you?
DC: A lot! I will first say my mentors, Norman Dubie, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Alice Fulton, and Alberto Ríos. I'm currently reviewing Rae Gouirand's The History of Art and Lee Ann Roripaugh'sTsunami vs the Fukushima 50 – these are two gorgeous collections. Of course, I'm currently reading my poetry sister, Taneum Bambrick's debut, Vantage, which won the APR/Honickman Prize. I love everything in the Spork Press catalog. I love Richard Siken's poetry. I've been recommending the novella, Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata to everyone I know, since the summer. And, I'm excited for E.J. Koh's forthcoming memoir, The Magical Language of Others, along with my Spring 2020 course reading lists, which include Vantage, along with Mess and Mess and by Douglas Kearney, Tender Data by Monica McClure, Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel, Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy, and Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls: A Memoir by T Kira Madden.

RM: You also have strong female and Asian representation in your poetry. What impact do you hope your perspective has on future writers?
DC: Always practice and preach intersectional feminism. 

Be sure to hear Dorothy read from her latest work from 6pm-7pm on Wednesday, Oct. 23

Chippewa Valley Book Festival: Rebecca’s Top 7 Picks 


by Rebecca Mennecke

Most kids get to go to the zoo on the weekend. Or, perhaps, they go to the playground, to sleepovers, or to see a movie. When I was younger, I was dragged to authors’ book talks and  signings. Correction: I was willingly dragged to authors’ book talks and signings. A letter from my first-grade teacher revealed I was “sparkly-eyed” when talking about how I met David Shannon – the author of No! David. The author list continues: Marie Lu (author of Legend) Marc Brown (the mastermind behind the Arthur books), Patrick Carmen (author of Skeleton Creek), Lemony Snicket (author of A Series of Unfortunate Events), and so many more. I grew up immersed in literature, so it’s no surprise that I’m super pumped for the Chippewa Valley Book Festival this year. 

But, I’m a busy lady. As much as I’d love (seriously, love!) to go to every one of the events, there’s no way I can cram them all into my already-bursting schedule. Here are my top-picks for this year’s festival, and why I know I can’t miss them. 

1.) Girl Rising: Changing the World One Girl at a Time


Tanya Lee Stone's Girl Rising: Changing the World One Girl at a Time discusses one topic I’m personally passionate about: girls’ education and the positive impact it has on society as a whole. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a feminist. I wrote an entire column for my school newspaper, titled Bad Feminist based on Roxane Gay’s TED Talk Confessions of a Bad Feminist. As a writer, and as a human being in general, it’s crucial to know the importance of women empowerment in society. This could be me channeling my inner Emma Watson here (“If not me, who? If not now, when?”), but this is one event you won’t want to miss.

Wednesday, Oct. 16 from 7pm-8pm at Centennial Hall (Room 1614), UW-Eau Claire

2.) Don’t Call Me Crazy: Navigating Mental Health with Compassion, Understanding, and Honesty

I have anxiety. It’s a fact of my life. But, I’m not alone in that respect. At least 20 percent of Americans have a mental illness. Yet, it seems like talking about mental health can be really tricky, leading many people to skip conversations about it altogether.  Kelly Jensen, the author of (Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation about Mental Health is shaking things up by openly talking about mental illness. (Cue the enormous collective gasp.) This is a book I’m seriously in love with, and I know you will be too. 

Thursday, Oct. 17 from 5pm-6pm at Schofield Hall, UW-Eau Claire

3.) Making the Unseen, Seen: Giving Voice to Diverse Characters in Fiction and Beyond

Achieving diverse representation is something we all as writers aspire to achieve in our writing. However, it can be really tricky to achieve not just representation, but representation that has agency and is meaningful. This talk will walk writers through that complex topic of diversity in writing  with the fantastic read, If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi

Monday, Oct. 21 from 6:30pm-7:30pm at the Memorial Student Center Ballroom, UW-Stout

4.) A Font and the Search for One Man’s Fate

If you know me well, you know I work hard to make my handwriting look impeccable. I love looking up “study inspo” on Pinterest just so I can look at neatly-printed notes, and I keep a hoard of colorful pens and markers around my apartment just for that rare moment when I want to try my hand at my own “study inspo.” How the handwriting of Frenchman Marcel Heuzé became a modern cursive computer font is a mind-blowing story that attracted me immediately. When I saw this book on the new book shelf at the library (where I work), I snatched it before any of the other librarians could. 10/10 would recommend. 

Tuesday, Oct. 23 from 7pm-8pm at the Fall Creek Public Library

Wednesday, Oct. 23 from 10:30am-11:30am at the Menomonie Public Library 


5.) Revenge of the Asian Woman: A Reading with Dorothy Chan

Besides being the new assistant professor of English in the English Department at UW-Eau Claire, Dorothy Chan is a brilliant poet who takes on seemingly ordinary topics like sex, food, Asian culture, and family while serving up some fresh (and savory) takes. Her poetry is a delightful read, and so I know I’m more than a little bit stoked to attend her book talk. (Plus, let’s talk about that title: “Revenge of the Asian Woman.” Talk about powerful. I want to know all her titling secrets.) 

Wednesday, Oct. 23 from 6pm-7pm at L.E. Phillips Memorial Library

6.) The Great Believers: Where Fiction Meets History

I couldn’t escape Rebecca Makai’s The Great Believers even if I tried. And, believe me, this is a good thing. Besides sharing the phenomenal same first name, we share the same home – Chicago. (Okay, I cheat. I’m from the suburbs. But, close enough.) This book is seriously phenomenal (and, not to mention, it’s a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer in fiction and the 2018 National Book Award). Also, this book is available literally everywhere. Every time I go to a bookstore, the book is waiting right there on the shelves. I’m pretty sure the bookstores are trying to subtly tell me to buy every copy. Tickets for this event are free, but reserve ‘em ahead of time here

Saturday, Oct. 26 from 7:30pm-8:30pm at the RCU Theatre, Pablo Center at the Confluence 

7.) Barstow & Grand: Issue #3 Release Reading


One of the beautiful parts of being a part of the Chippewa Valley community is that we have an awesome literary community, jam-packed full of talented writers. Barstow & Grand offers just a snippet of those talented writers, and so I’m not kidding you when I say this issue will be phenomenal. The Issue #2 release was more than just a book release; it was a joining of great creatives and literary minds from around the Chippewa Valley collectively celebrating words. It’s on a whole ‘nother planet to hear writers read their own work. Check all these fabulous local writers out yourself at the new issue’s release. 

Wednesday, Oct. 23 from 7:30pm-9pm at Lazy Monk Brewing 

As much as I wish I could attend every event, my busy schedule says I have to choose carefully. This is only one short snippet of the talented writers who are presenting their hard work, and they’re all about topics I’m really passionate about. You might find other topics that are way more interesting to you. You can only find out by checking out the event lineup for yourself at the Chippewa Valley Book Festival website, found here. You never know the neat things you’ll find there…

"Oddly Enough" season 2 creeps Onto Converge Radio in October 

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by Rebecca Mennecke


What’s that sound? No worries, it’s just season 2 of the local radio drama series, Oddly Enough creeping onto Converge Radio (99.9) beginning at 6 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 4 and running every Friday through Dec. 13. 

This local radio drama comprises the so-good-it’s-spooky work of local writers and radio masterminds resulting in ten episodes involving supernatural and sci-fi elements. Karen Drydyk, the showrunner, assures listeners that the new season will offer “a gasp, a giggle, and the chance to embrace our world in all its weirdness.” 

Drydyk said it takes about a year to put each season of fictional episodes together. After the writers finish the scripts, they do a table read, record and then spend significant time “crafting the auditory experience of each episode.” 

What exactly does that look like when it comes to season 2? I chatted with Karen Drydyk to find out more about this thrilling new radio drama masterpiece. 



Rebecca Mennecke: What should listeners expect from this season? What are you looking forward to in the release of season 2? 

Karen Drydyk: Listeners should expect some twists and turns, some regional geographic nods, and a few surprises. I’m most looking forward to our first and last episode of the season, but that’s because I think they’re relevant for me and other Millennials. 

RM: What makes Oddly Enough a unique storytelling experience, as compared to other radio drama series? 

KD: Oddly Enough is a unique experience because it’s a fictional account of sci-fi and odd concepts. No other local (and very few national) radio dramas focus on episodic sci-fic topics. 

RM: This is a locally created radio drama series! What is it like to work with folks around the Chippewa Valley on this project? 

KD: My favorite part of working as a showrunner for Oddly Enough is working with the incredibly talented inhabitants of the Chippewa Valley – from writers to production staff to voice actors. We have such a vibrant community, and I’m honored to bring their talents and voices to the airwaves. 



One of the writers behind two of the episodes, “Memory Root and Bough,” and “Wrong Number,” Jim Jeffries (also known as: Jane Jeffries’ husband) said it’s pretty sweet to get to work with such “amazingly creative” people. 

Rebecca Mennecke: Can you walk me through the creation of each episode from start to finish? 

Jim Jeffries: My wife, Jane, and I work as a team.  Usually each of us has an idea for a script and write the first three pages.  Then we switch scripts, revise what was written by each other, and then advance the script about three more pages.  We are more objective (ruthless) with each other and are not worried about hurting each other's feelings. We end up cutting a lot of dead wood.  

RM: What makes Oddly Enough unique as compared to other radio dramas? 

JJ:  I like the local feel of the scripts in a Twilight Zone universe.

RM: What makes writing for print different from writing for radio? What are some tips you have to keep in mind? 

JJ: We love radio because we don't have to worry about sets, costumes, blocking, or memorization. And the sound wizards at Converge are awesome to work with for sound effects.

After the writers finish up their reads, the “sound wizards” at Converge radio takes over to make the episode in its final form. One of those sound wizards is Alexx Stadtlander, a UW-Eau Claire student and the producer of every episode. 


 Rebecca Mennecke: Converge Radio works on adding in music and sound effects to the radio drama. Can you tell us more about the work you have to do to reach the final product of season 2? 

Alexx Stadtlander: The final product for each episode takes anywhere from 3 hours to 6 or 8 depending on how detailed the writer wants the episode. As the producer I have a sound effects library that I get most of the sound effects and music from. If an episode calls for footsteps I'll find it in my database and listen to 2-4 recordings to find the sound that fits the episode best. I do the editing and recording in Adobe Audition so once I find the right sound effect I place it in the correct spot of the recording. Sometimes if I can't find a sound effect I like or the writer is looking for a specific sound I get to find something close and then edit by putting filters on it, I like having the freedom to put my own little twist on the sound effect. 

RM: How does adding music and sound effects change the storytelling process? 

AS: Music and sound effects bring the radio drama to life. It starts with a few voice actors that we record in the studio. They do a good job bringing their voice and character to life but if that were to air on the radio it wouldn't hold the listeners attention very well and the story wouldn't make as much sense. The sound effects add depth to the story and help bring it to life. Footsteps show that the character is walking around or is anxious and pacing around. The campfire ambiance shows that the scene takes place outside at dark. Without those little cues the story is not as exciting.

RM: What was it like to work on Oddly Enough? What is your favorite part of working on this project? 

AS: It was a lot of fun to work on "Oddly Enough". I was part of the recording process for this season and I was the only producer this season so it was a lot of work but I enjoyed all of it. My favorite part of working on this project is the people I get to meet. I get to listen to really interesting stories written by local residents and then I get to meet and work with the writers.

Last season featured five spooky episodes, but this season,  the Oddly Enough team has doubled their efforts with ten jaw-dropping episodes including: 

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  • Friday, Oct. 4: “Cornfield of Love” by Laura Buchholz 

  • Friday, Oct. 11: “Go the Extra Mile” by Deb Peterson 

  • Friday, Oct. 18: “Memory Root and Bough” by Jim Jeffries & Jane Marie 

  • Friday, Oct. 25: “The Legend of Gassy Gus” by BJ Hollars 

  • Friday, Nov. 1: “The Colony” by Deb Peterson 

  • Friday, Nov. 15: “Civil Dialogue” by Laura Buchholz 

  • Friday, Nov. 22: “Hold Your Nose and Make a Wish” by Deb Peterson 

  • Friday, Nov. 29: “Wrong Number” by Jim Jeffries & Jane Marie 

  • Friday, Dec. 6: “The Tinkerer” by BJ Hollars 

  • Friday, Dec. 13: “7 Inches of Snow” by Laura Buchholz 

In addition to listening on the radio and via online streaming, “Go the Extra Mile” will also be performed live on October 29 as part of the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild “Sound and Stories” series.  Tickets are available here.

More information can be found on the Oddly Enough Facebook page here

Finally, to get caught up on last season’s episodes, check out our Midwest Radio Drama portal available here.

Riding And Writing: An Interview With Ron Davis

Rebecca Mennecke

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In wintertime, some UW-Eau Claire students used to ride down the hill on lunch trays from the campus cafeteria.When Ron Davis was a freshman at UW-Eau Claire, he would ride his first motorcycle down the hill from his apartment by the former Shopko building and park it down by the science building. After class, he said it was “pretty humiliating” to bump start it in front of all the other riders. Years later, he’s still riding with his BMW G310GS – his fifth BMW. In the time between that first motorcycle and his current one, Ron Davis has seen, heard, and experienced a thing or two. Davis recounts these life experiences and his love of riding in his recently published collection of articles and essays, Shiny Side Up: Musings on the Improbable Inclination to Travel on Two Wheels.

I had the chance to catch up with Davis about Shiny Side Up and his love of riding – and writing. 

Rebecca Mennecke: What inspired you to write your book about motorcycle riding — Shiny Side Up?

Ron Davis: About five years ago I had written a number of stories for motorcycle mags and for Wisconsin Public Radio, and the editor of BMW Owners News asked me if I would write a monthly column. I didn’t think I could come up with something every month, but he said, “Just give me one year.” Five years later, I had a bundle of more than 50 essays, and a publisher urged me to compile them into a book. I had thought of that before, but this was the first time I had been offered a book deal. It’s hard to say what inspires me as a writer. All my life, once I get an idea for a story, my brain won’t let me rest until I get it down on paper. It may have something to do with the fact I come from a family of voracious readers, and my father was a newspaper guy. It’s always been, I can’t not write, for some reason. For instance, I recently did a story for Volume One about a tragic circus accident that happened in Eau Claire in 1901. Somebody had mentioned a kernel of the story to me, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it until I did the research and wrote the story.

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RM: I’ve never ridden a motorcycle before, but I still found your book to be humorous, quite clever, and extremely relatable. How did you balance your writing to appeal to both folks in the motorcycle-riding community as well as folks like me who have never touched a motorcycle before? 

RD: Many of the stories in my columns and in the book have a pretty thin connection to motorcycling. In fact, once, after a story called “The Grand Adventure” was published, a reader sent in a letter to the editor asking, “What the heck does this have to do with motorcycling?” My answer was, “Not very much,” but my editor gives me a lot of rope. I write about personal experiences that somehow, luckily, resonate with readers – riders or not.

 RM: You have quite a bit of humor in your writing! How can a writer learn to incorporate more humor into their work, as you have done in your essays? 

RD: I guess most of the humor in my writing is self-deprecating. I think that’s often the key to being successful with humor. If you watch stand-up comedians like Jim Gaffigan, you’ll see much of their humor is based on confessing to their own imperfections. There’s a connection, maybe a kind of relief to hear, or read, someone else talk, write, about human foibles—pride, impulsiveness, conceit, etc. Your question made me remember a creative writing class I took in high school. We had to turn in journals and the teacher, with whom I was hopelessly infatuated, would read them silently as we worked on something else. I could tell when she was reading mine, and sometimes I would catch her giggling about something I wrote. That forever hooked me on trying to incorporate humor in my work.

RM: You also have a very down-to-earth tone throughout the book. How do you achieve that fun, casual manner of writing?

RD: I try to write like I’m telling a story to a friend. It’s strange how many hours you can spend crafting a story on paper to make it sound “casual!” When I taught writing classes, I used to force university students to tell a partner their stories before they started their first draft, and I think that gave them a little insight into what worked and what didn’t.

RM: In chapter 12, “A Long, Strange Trip” you argue that riders “attach special meaning to the phrase, ‘The journey is the destination,’ but sometimes our destinations can change the way we feel about our journeys.” Did you find this phrase to be true when you were writing the book? 

RD: “A Long, Strange Trip” – about a story of a Nazi work camp survivor and his family – turned out to be one of my favorite stories. I initially wanted to write the story just for the subject’s family since, though really amazing, it had never been put down on paper. But it made me rethink my own life also. I think writing has always been a way of learning about myself, and when you see your writing in print, hear it on the radio, or get a response from a reader, it also changes your self-image.

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RM: Riding motorcycles is clearly something you love a lot! What was it like to incorporate your love of riding into your writing?

RD: Truth be told, I’m not a die-hard rider anymore; in fact, the older I get and the more dangers I see for riders, the more it scares me. I guess I’m more what you would call “an enthusiast.” No pun intended, but writing about motorcycling is just a “vehicle” for me to write about the things that make us human.

RM: Let’s talk about your clever titles! “How to Lose Friends and Influence Absolutely No One,” “The Happy Camper,” “We Are What We Speak,” “Welcome to My Nightmare: The Parking Lot,” and so many more! How do you come up with such great titles? 

RD: I’ve never been very good at writing headlines for features and news stories, but you have much more freedom when it comes to columns and essays – it’s okay to be obscure or to turn a hackneyed phrase or basically steal a title from elsewhere. It’s fun to fool around with those. Usually I write a few, wait a while, then settle on one; sometimes I get overruled by an editor.

RM: You also have some pretty fun pictures and graphics throughout the book. How do you use images to work with your writing? 

RD: I guess one thing that has made my columns and essays unique is I usually try to include some sort of image with them that ties in. Just like my need to write, since I was a photography teacher for 30 years, I can’t resist the impulse to include some kind of image. Even for my stories that have been featured on “Wisconsin Life,” I try to offer my own image for the web archive.

RM: Although your book focuses primarily on riding, you also explore other themes! How do relate your other life experiences back to motorcycles?

RD: Sometimes you have to kind of amalgamate experiences, which is permissible in the kind of writing I usually do. Motorcycles have been a part of my life, off and on, for a long time, so it’s usually not too hard to weave in some sort of connection. In my last column I wrote about a rather unfortunate high school experience where a former girlfriend knocked me off my feet in front of half of the school with what I later surmised was a five pound purse. I sort of co-mingled that story with another time I was jealous over seeing a different girlfriend on another guy’s Royal Enfield motorcycle.

RM: In chapter 33, you say “The more I learn, the less I’m sure I know.” How can this also be true of writing, as it is with riding? 

RD: Every time I get something published, for a moment I feel pretty good about myself as a writer, then I read somebody else. Like right now I’m reading a lot of Richard Russo, and I am instantly humbled. Every writing project presents new and unique challenges, just like every road I cover on a bike. Like Heraclitus once one wrote “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” You can never step into the same river, just as you can never ride the same road when you’re on a bike.

In addition to teaching high school and university classes in writing, photography, and publishing, and working as a social media writer for the tourism industry in Northwest Ontario, Davis works as an associate editor and columnist for BMW Owners News and has had writing appear in BMW Owners News, BMW Motorcycle Magazine, Volume One, Our Wisconsin, Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Wisconsin Life,” and the National Writing Project

“Not A Good Fit: Overcoming Rejection And Learning To Thrive In The Literary World”: Interviews with the Writers


by Rebecca Mennecke 

The phrase “turning lemons into lemonade” is a common colloquialism in the English language – particularly in the Midwest. But, what does it mean to turn lemons into lemonade when the lemons are rejection letters and you’re a writer, not a lemonade-maker? 

Join Max Garland, Eric Rasmussen, Elizabeth de Cleyre, and Katie Venit at the “Not A Good Fit: Overcoming Rejection And Learning To Thrive In The Literary World” event from 6pm-8pm on Thursday, Sept. 19 at the L.E. Phillips Memorial Library, where they will focus on how writers can spin the negativity of rejection into a positive. 

Rasmussen, de Cleyre, and Venit will kick off the event at 6pm with their presentation “If At First You Don’t Succeed: A Conversation on Persevering Beyond Rejection.” Garland will follow with his presentation, “Befriending Failure: Lessons from the Whitman School of Condemnation, Defamation, Denunciation, and Vilification, or So You Think You’ve Been Rejected?” 

We had the opportunity to chat with the writers/masterminds behind this event to learn more about their backgrounds with rejection and how they turned those literary lemons into lemonade.

Chatting with Max Garland 


Rebecca Mennecke: This presentation focuses on overcoming rejection and learning to thrive in the literary world. Can you tell us about your experience with rejection?

Max Garland: I think "rejection" in the literary sense of the word is simply a part of writing. It's really a part of any human process or endeavor, isn't it? You offer things and sometimes your offerings are accepted as useful to others, and sometimes not. But whether a poem or story or essay is accepted or rejected really has very little to do with the deeper reasons for writing.

RM: What can make rejection so frustrating for a writer?

MG: When a writer is starting out, rejection may seem like a judgement on the "person" rather than the work. Writers may begin to concoct conspiracy theories – how unfair the literary world is, how it's "who" you know, rather than "what" you know. Or writers may become discouraged and doubt the validity of their words. But doubt is part of any heartfelt endeavor. If you need to write to make sense of your life, then you continue, and, in the long run, the "success" of that continual effort will be dictated by how satisfying the writing process seems to you, how important the discoveries you make while writing become to your life.  

RM: As the winner of the 2017-18 Brittingham Poetry Prize, the winner of the Cleveland State Poetry Center Open Competition, winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry, and the poet behind several successful publications, do you still find it challenging to face rejection?

MG: For every publication or prize there have been many more times when the outcome hasn't turned out the way I wanted. I don't really consider those outcomes as rejections any more than I consider those prizes to signify success. I consider both as part of writing.

RM: How do we as writers turn something as negative as rejection into something positive?

MG: I'll paraphrase the poet Rilke, and say that "doubt" need not be a hindrance, but a signal that you're approaching something important, and you have a decision to make – embrace the doubt, live with it, knowing that it's part of the challenge, or give it the power to stop you. 

RM: Walt Whitman had to appreciate his own work, Leaves of Grass, before anyone else really did. How do you recommend writers gain that kind of confidence with their own work?

MG: Walt Whitman was an undaunted soul. He felt doubt, and was not above calculated professional intrigue, but his reasons for writing ran deeper than discouragement. He was audacious, ambitious, and had a sense of "self" that seemed to transcend the typical understanding of that word. He wrote as if his words came from the shared human experience. When I think of Whitman, I think of something the poet Mary Oliver said. She said it was never a matter of whether or not she was going to write, but a matter of whether or not she was going to love her life.

Chatting with Eric Rasmussen

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Rebecca Mennecke: This event focuses on the theme of rejection. Can you tell us about your experience with rejection?

Eric Rasmussen: I started submitting work, including short stories to literary journals and novel manuscripts to agents, about six years ago. The rejections started almost immediately after that and haven’t stopped since! As I’ve learned more about the publishing industry and what writers who eventually get published go through, I understand more than ever how rejection functions in the writing world. But even with that understanding, rejection is still something I struggle with. No more than a few days go by where I don’t receive a rejection, and that still stings.

RM: You have around 1,300 rejections! What do you do with a piece of writing after it is rejected?

ER: One rejection doesn’t prompt any changes. A dozen or so will prompt me to dive back into a piece to add another coat of polish, cleaning up sentences or trying to add creative flourishes. By the time I hit three or four dozen it’s time to think about bigger revisions. What could be added or taken away to make the story sleeker, more engaging, closer to something that lit journals or agents are picking up, or weirder and more unique so as to stand out from the pile?

RM: What makes rejection so frustrating for writers?

ER: Once a writer gets over the emotional response to being rejected (I’m not good enough, it’s not fair, the people who rejected me are mean/stupid/biased/etc.), what remains is the question of what to do with a rejection. How do I use this to improve the writing? The frustrating part is that rejections can mean so many things (that) they are essentially meaningless. Maybe your piece didn’t fit with the issue, or is too close to something recently printed, or is about a topic the editor has seen too many times before. Maybe your writing skills need some work, or your bio isn’t impressive enough. Maybe the editor ended up soliciting most of the pieces for the issue. Maybe your ending isn't dynamic enough, or your characters aren’t likable enough, or the situation is too quiet. Or not quite enough. Good writers will do their best to collect evidence of what they need to improve, but unfortunately, squeezing evidence out of a pile of rejections is an incredibly difficult task.

RM: As an editor, what are some characteristics of pieces that are rejected? What makes a piece "rejectable”?

ER: At the lowest level, not following submission guidelines and errors in basic writing and proofreading skills make a piece rejectable. After that, there are a whole pantheon of reasons, most of which vary by editor. We all like different things, as evidenced by the unique collection of books and TV shows and movies we all love. So, part of submitting is a game of statistics, of finding someone who loves the type of thing you’ve written. I wrote a story that got rejected about forty times because no one liked the ending (I assume this is true, because none of my writing friends liked the ending.) The forty-first editor who read the story loved the ending and accepted the story. That’s how most slush pile successes work.

RM: How can writers get over a fear of rejection?

ER: Sadly, I have no good answer here. I struggle emotionally with rejection all the time. With every new piece, I try to write something more engaging, more entertaining, more tuned to the marketplace. But I would also be betraying my craft if I didn’t write things that I wanted to write, things that I found profound and creative and worth putting on paper. Someday I hope to find where both those concerns overlap, at which point my acceptances will come a tiny bit closer to balancing the rejections. Until then, I wince a little bit whenever I check my email. But at least I understand better than ever before that it’s all part of a process that everyone goes through.

Chatting with Katie Venit


Rebecca Mennecke: This presentation is about overcoming rejection. Can you tell me about your experience with rejection? 

Katie Venit: Well, I’ve been rejected a lot. I’ve been rejected quickly, and I’ve been rejected after months and months and months of waiting. One of my happiest moments as a writer was when I got a “higher tier” rejection from one of my crush journals. This is a rejection, but also a note that says they liked it, it just wasn’t quite exactly right for them and please submit again. I was so excited to get that rejection – even more excited than any of the acceptances I’ve gotten because I haven’t quite managed to get anything accepted at my first-choice journals.

RM: What can make rejection so frustrating for a writer? 

KV: For me it’s the black box of rejection – not knowing why a piece wasn’t picked up. Was it just not a good fit for them or was there something wrong with my piece – something fixable but that I just can’t see because I’m too close to it? I’ve been trying to place a particular piece for over a year—easily my favorite thing that I’ve ever written, but no one wants it. Is it because it sort of a hybrid piece that doesn’t fit into clear boundaries of flash fiction or prose poetry? Or is it just bad and no one could like it but me? I think I have good taste, but it’s also a very personal piece for me, so I don’t know.

RM: How can we as writers spin something as negative as rejection into a positive? 

KV: Someone told me to think of submissions as an opportunity for relationship building. So I try to think of rejections as just a part of the start of the relationship. Let’s say I meet someone I think might make a good friend and ask them to go to a monster truck rally with me. They say no, that’s not their thing. Well, now I know that’s something we don’t have in common. That’s a data point. It might turn out we don’t have enough in common to have a long-term relationship, or it might be that that’s the only thing we don’t share. I gotta keep asking and trying to see what future there is with us. How they refuse my invitation is important, too. Are they classy and kind, or scornful? On the topic of writing, I make a note of the places that say why they didn’t pick up the story. Those are the places that I will submit to more quickly in the future. If the rejections are snarky or inconsiderate, I don’t really care to have a relationship with them, so I can safely take them off my submission list for future pieces. In the flash fiction world, there’s a really prestigious online magazine that took a year to respond to my submission and just said, verbatim, “we’re going to pass on this.” That’s no way to form a relationship with a writer. If you asked your new acquaintance to a monster truck rally and they just said, “no, I’m going to pass,” and walked away how would that make you feel? For me, personally, it’s a sign that they’re not a good fit for me because I value life’s niceties and appreciate the acknowledgement that making an invitation and submitting a story is a vulnerable act. So I suppose the positive would be to look at it as relationship building. Which journals do I want to continue to have a relationship with? Which are a good fit for me, and not just the reverse?

RM: After a piece is rejected, what do you do with it? 

KV: After each round of several rejections, I’ll look at it again and decide if, with distance, I can see how to improve it. And eventually, after 10, 20, 30, 40 rejections I’ll probably give up on it if my passion for it is gone. I recently submitted a piece to only one place and it was rejected, and I don’t think I’m invested in it enough to keep trying.  It depends on how strongly I feel about it. I find submissions to be incredible tedious, so I’m not going to bother if I don’t love it. But it all comes down to priorities and what brings you joy. I couldn’t care less about seeing my name in print—I’ve seen my name in print regularly for 25 years because I’ve been in journalism and freelance writing. That drive for me is spent. The joy of writing, for me, is in the writing and revising. If I enjoyed writing and revising a piece, but it’s not getting picked up and I don’t feel passionate about it anymore, then it’s done its job and I’ve gotten all the joy out of it that I’m going to. So I let it go. The only time I still get an additional jolt of joy out of publishing is when I publish locally because then people tell you they read it and enjoyed it and then you can build a relationship with that person. (Bonus: it’s also easier to place a piece in a local publication like Volume 1’s local lit column or Barstow and Grand.) But random people living in California or Estonia who read your piece on a smaller flash journal don’t tend to reach out to you. Maybe it’s different if you’re published in larger venues. I don’t know yet.  

RM: After getting rejected, do you ever get nervous about being rejected again? How can writers move past a fear of rejection? 

KV: They say that little kids have big emotions because everything is a new experience for them. They scrape their knee and it’s awful, the end of the world, because maybe it’s the first or second time that’s ever happened to them. But eventually, by the time they’re 40 years old, they’ve scraped their knee so many times that it’s not noteworthy anymore. Slap a bandaid on it and get on with your day. I’ve heard the same thing happens with beekeepers. The more you get stung, the less it matters because you’ve been stung so many times before and survived. The novelty wears off. Same with rejection, I think. I used to be sad about it, like, down in the dumps for a couple days, but really quickly into my submission journey I stopped caring. Partly it’s because I got used to it, and partly because I realized what I was just talking about, that seeing my name in print doesn’t call to me. The thing I still struggle with is submissions because I’m a working parent of young kids, so above all else I value efficiency and efficacy. My free time is so limited, and if I spend that not writing (which brings me incredible joy) but submitting, only to be rejected very often, one wonders what’s the point (which is why I will so often abandon pieces). I sure hope the purpose of this panel was not to be purely motivational, because I will not succeed in that. I’m not the person who’s going to tell you to keep trying and not to give up, that it will eventually happen if you just keep going. First of all, that’s just not true. I could try to play for the NFL with every fiber of my being, and it’s not going to happen. I could try to be the next JK Rowling, but the odds are pretty similar. However, I will tell you not to give up on something just because it’s hard or it hurts sometimes, because it won’t always be that hard and it might not always hurt. But eventually you have to figure out where your bliss is and chase it. Maybe that’s writing fan fic in a composition book that you hide under your mattress and never show anyone. Maybe that’s trying to see how quickly you can rack up 100 rejections. I’ve done both, and I know what brought me more joy, and that’s my path. Your path is your own.

Chatting with Elizabeth de Cleyre

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Rebecca Mennecke: This presentation is above overcoming rejection and learning to thrive in the literary world. Can you tell us about your experiences with rejection?

Elizabeth de Cleyre: My experiences with rejection aren't especially unique. I imagine all writers can attest to the cycle of submitting, receiving a rejection or an acceptance, and then doing it all over again.

RM: How do you continue writing after rejection?

EdC: I view writing and publishing as two separate yet overlapping entities. Rejection doesn't make me write any less; if anything, it prompts me to write more. This may be an extreme way of looking at it, but how one writes in the face of rejection seems akin to how one lives in the face of death. We know it's inevitable, but do we stop ourselves from writing as a result of it?

RM: As an editor, what do you look for when deciding what makes a piece “good” or “bad”? 

EdC: "Good" and "bad" are subjective terms I avoid as an editor. I'm in service of a piece of writing or a publication, so I ask myself what the piece/publication is aiming to do, and whether it's accomplishing it. What I look for in a piece changes depending on the context of the publication. I don't think pieces are good or bad, as much as they are the right fit for the right venue at the right time. Which, in many ways, is trickier than just naming something as good or bad.

RM: What do you do with a piece of writing after it is rejected?

EdC: After a piece is rejected I either send it to another venue as-is, or I decide to revise it before sending it out again.

RM: What makes rejection so hard for writers?

EdC: Personally, rejection is hard for me because I put so much of myself into my work. As storytellers, it's up to us to make meaning out of events in life. So often we make meaning out of a rejection, and that meaning is usually, "I'm a bad writer." There are so many factors that go into placing a piece (timing, voice, subject matter, context, the editor's subjective tastes, whether that publication has run a similar piece recently) that it's really impossible to determine why it wasn't accepted. Ever since I dropped the story and started to view rejection as a kind of protection or redirection in my career, it's helped me take it less personally. 

Learn from Max, Eric, Katie and Elizabeth on Thursday, September 19 beginning at 6PM at the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library.





Finding the Writer You Wanted To Be

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B.J. Hollars

Eight hours prior to check-in for our inaugural summer at The Priory Writers’ Retreat, I pressed my keycard to the front door of our facility, slipped inside, and—within moments—learned I wasn’t alone.  Equally enthusiastic about the retreat was a house finch, who fluttered in after me, then disappeared down the hall.


For those of you who know me, starting my day with 40 minutes of uninterrupted time with a bird is about as good as it gets.  But on this particular day—a day when I had more than a few matters to attend to—40 minutes with a bird was precisely 40 more minutes than I could spare.  I gave chase, then begged that bird to reroute himself out of The Priory.  When that didn’t work, I took drastic measures: lulling him into a stupor with one of my more boring lectures, then capturing him in a net and releasing him back into the wild. 

Optimist that I am, I pegged that bird’s presence as an auspicious sign.  Things were looking up! 

But the following day, when a second bird couldn’t resist an uninvited tour of the facility, I’d had about all the “auspicious” signs I could handle.    

Birds and all, our first go-round in our brand-new space was, based on the feedback I’ve received, a smashing success.  Of course, like any working draft, there’s always room for improvement.  And now we know exactly how to improve. 

For me, the best moments were also the quietest: early mornings walking past the rec room to spot dozens of writers beginning the day’s work.  They were as quiet as church mice, which seemed fitting given our location at a former monastery. 

 Throughout the day that silence gave way to spellbinding conversations, dozens of which occurred spontaneously as poets and prose writers gathered around their workshop tables, anxious for the chance to share and be heard. 

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In the evenings, we were treated to a keynote address (Max Garland!), live music (Eggplant Heroes!), and an adventure downtown (Pablo Center at the Confluence!  200 Main!  The Lakely!).  By Sunday morning—following a scorching day and a rainy one—we gathered in the Main Hall for the final craft talk of the retreat. 

And then, just like that, the enthusiasm and life that had powered The Priory for three glorious days, suddenly faded.  Ready or not, it was time to leave.  Writers reached for suitcases, and after many long hugs and many exchanged email addresses, we returned to our normal lives.

I returned home exhausted and rejuvenated all at once.  As I began lugging everything out of the car, I remembered the red "welcome" book I’d asked participants to write in during the opening day.  “Give me a line or two about your experience here,” I’d said. 

And they had.

Seated on my living room, I read the writers’ comments for much of the afternoon.  Each note was a poignant reminder of why we do the work.  And a reminder, too, that this work is essential.

"I have been writing for many years,” one writer remarked.  “I'm a college professor...and direct the writing center on campus. However, it was not until this retreat that I find myself as a writer, not just an academic. A writer! The type of writer I wanted to be when I was ten years old but lost sight of over time..."

 For me, his words were the purest explanation for why we needed this retreat.  Because all writers—and all artists, I’d argue—need a place to go to find their truest selves.  For the majority of our lives we live in a world in which art is viewed as a luxury.  But as so many of us have long argued, art is no luxury, but an essential part of our humanity.  It’s the kind of work that builds empathy, encourages dialogue, and demands serious thought that extends beyond a soundbite.  Art can be entertainment, sure, but that’s only one of its functions.  For the artist, art is the vehicle with which we move through the world.  It is the gift we have to give, and the one that helps us find meaning, even in the mundane.   

 All of which brings us back to the intruding birds—which, by some measures, might be considered mundane.  But not for a room full of writers, who saw that second bird and transformed him into a poem, a story, a song.  By the time we waved farewell to one another, we were seeing the world a little wider than we had when we arrived.  And there’s nothing more auspicious than that.  

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To continue this momentum, today, we humbly ask for your support.  In honor of Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday we’re pleased to announce our “Leaves of Grass(roots) Writers” fundraising campaign.  Consider becoming a sustaining member for as little as 5.00 a month and watch your impact in action.  In addition to funding our many creative endeavors, your gift also ensures the long-term viability of our program.  This is the year we plant the roots that keeps our organization strong.  With that stability will come new projects, as well as new opportunities to reach new audiences and new demographics.

Words are not cheap, and neither are organizations committed to words.  Make today the day this Guild becomes YOUR Guild.  And in doing so, help others rediscover that writer they always wanted to be. 

Be inspired, inspire others,

BJ Hollars

Executive Director

Photo credit: Justin Patchin Photography.

Dear Writer, How Do I Get Paid?

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By Amanda Zieba

Dear Writer, 

I’ve been submitting my work to literary journals for a while now, and I’ve been lucky enough to get published in a few of them! While this totally boosts my confidence as a writer, the journals also aren’t paying for my work. Now that I’ve been published a few times by non-paying publications, I’d love to try and get paid for my work. Any suggestions on getting published in a paying market?


A Writer with a Mortgage

Dear Writer with a Mortgage,

How do you make money as a writer? Now there’s a million-dollar question, right? If you are anything like me, you’ve probably Googled this exact phrase (a few times) only to come back up from the black hole of the internet feeling even more lost and confused. Get rich quick schemes and advertising gimmicks blur your vision from the real goal… earning money from doing something you LOVE.


The answer is simpler than you might think. The first step to making money as a writer is to write. In a minute I’m going to show you all sorts of great websites and platforms that will actually pay you for your written work, but in order to be successful with these opportunities, you have to have written something to submit. There have been times when I see a contest or a submission call and draft a piece on the spot to send. Sometimes it works, but more often than not, if I dust off a piece from the past, look at it with fresh eyes, adapt it as necessary and send in writing that was NOT contrived, forced, and rushed, my success rate is much higher. So, keep that in mind as you browse through the below opportunities. Always keep writing. Even if there is not a deadline in sight… keep writing. Not only will this very obvious advice help you to improve your craft on a daily basis (yes, daily!), you also never know when a journal entry, poem, long-winded rant – I mean essay – will prove useful in the form of a submission.

Now that we’ve got that taken care of, let’s get down to the business at hand. How do you make money as a writer? Below you will find several paying markets for writers of all genres and levels of expertise. The great thing about most of the opportunities listed below is that they are on-going throughout the year, so no matter when you feel the urge to submit (or the mortgage payment is due) there will be a paid writing opportunity ready and waiting for you.

Funds for Writers

C. Hope Clark is a mystery writer, but her larger claim to fame is her award-winning website Funds for Writers which sends out (and archives) a weekly eNewsletter featuring “30 paying opportunities in the form of contests, grants, freelance opportunities, and publishers/agents.” Delivered each and every Friday, this eNewsletter is the perfect way to quickly learn about paid writing gigs. In addition to this weekly treasure trove of submission calls, C. Hope Clark also pays writers $50 for articles about making money as a writer. Here are two pieces that I wrote for her several years ago. My next articles in the newsletter, reprints from my own site, will appear later this year. Her most recent contribution to the paid writing community is a book titled: Writing Contests with Hope where I’m sure she’ll tell you even more ways to earn money as a writer.

Freedom with Writing

Freedom with Writing is another similar site. You can either sign up for their weekly email or browse their website for paid writing opportunities that match your genre or topics of interest. Submission calls are organized into groups and presented in batches of writing opportunities. For example, their website currently lists: 10 Themed Calls For Short Stories that Pay $100 to $300 and 10 Publishers that Pay Writers $200 Per Article.


If you are a fiction writer and like writing prompts, then the weekly Reedsy email is one you are definitely going to want to sign up for. Reedsy is a company that sells self-publishing resources, so most of their efforts go toward marketing their services, but every Friday morning, they also deliver an email with five themed writing prompts. Pick a prompt, write to it and submit it within the week. Reedy’s editors will pick one submitted story to post on their blog and also pay you $50. I know this opportunity is legit because back in March 2017, I won.


Submittable is a submission manager platform that also lists hundreds, probably thousands, of submission opportunities. The site is also used for admission to camps, scholarships applications and a variety of other limited-quantity type events, so the entire site isn’t devoted to writing. But a large part of it is. My favorite thing about this site (other than its ability to help you keep track of where you sent in your work and the results) is that you can search by topic, genre and type of opportunity. Parenting. Science Fiction. Grants. Awards. Nonprofit work. Chapbook. Juried. Native American. Thriller. If you are an impatient kind of writer (aren’t we all!) you can browse by due date and select something that has a quick deadline to decrease your wait time. Again, this is where having a cache of pieces in the wings is helpful. An hour of searching could uncover a dozen opportunities to submit (and get paid for!) things you have already written! Go check it out. Pick out a handful, and toss your hat in the ring.

Women on Writing

Women on Writing is a website that holds contests for flash fiction and creative nonfiction all year round! Varying pay levels for prize winners and publication opportunities await the winning writers. I have made it into the second round of judging (top 20) in the contest before, but no prize money yet. I submitted for their Spring Quarterly Contest, so fingers crossed! The great thing about this contest is that you can pay an additional $10 with your entry fee for a critique of your piece. The opportunity to get unbiased feedback is so rare, and to do it at such a bargain price is unheard of!

Our Wisconsin

For the nonfiction writers of the guild, Our Wisconsin is a magazine that “celebrates all that is great about the Badger State.” You can see their list of departments that run articles each month here and their contributor guidelines here. Payment for publication in this magazine is not publicly stated, however, the website does say, “Story and photo packages that we print covering a page or more in the magazine are compensated with an appropriate freelance writer’s fee. Short submissions we print that are a few paragraphs in length, or photos we publish that cover less than a page in the magazine, are compensated with our thank-you gift of a freshly baked Amish pie.” How very Wisconsin.

You can find a list of Wisconsin Magazines to reach out to individually here. The Wisconsin Writers Association put together this list of contests and publishing opportunities that can be viewed here and Author’s Publish website created a list of 32 Literary Journals that Pay which you can see here. The Wisconsin Council of Writers gives out awards, accompanied by a monetary prize annually, and the Wisconsin Writers Association has also curated a list of paying awards.

Really, all it takes is a little patience and time to dig for the opportunity that is a good fit for you… and writing… and the ability to wait.

I hope that this list will get help you find a way to be paid for doing what you love. Don’t forget to share your success and exciting news with the guild once the paycheck arrives! If there’s something we love more than writing, it’s sharing the joy that comes from it with writing friends!

Happy writing,

Amanda Zieba

Learn more about Amanda and her writing by clicking this link!

"If Mama Ain't Happy, Ain't Nobody Happy": An Interview with Writer/Director/Performer Katie Venit

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by Lauren Becker

Mother’s Day weekend is almost upon us and we know just how you can spend it.

Join us at the Pablo Center May 13th at 7pm as we round out this season's Sound & Stories series with one final installment. 

Celebrate alongside local writers and storytellers Allyson Loomis, Yia Lor, Brooke Newmaster, Patti See, the Eau Claire Women in Theater (ecWIT), and musician Jerrika Mighelle for an evening of songs and stories on the vast and varying experiences of motherhood.

In preparation for this event, we had a chance to chat with the event’s director and storyteller, the tremendously talented Katie Venit.

Lauren Becker : For those of us who aren’t as familiar, could you tell us a little bit about the nature of the Sound & Stories Series?


Katie Venit : Sound and Stories is a series that combines the talents of local musicians with local writers and other spoken word performers. It's a great little event in an intimate space at the Pablo.

LB : Could you give us a teaser on what we can expect from the evening?

KV : Sure! All of our performers are women, and many of them chose to explore mother-daughter relationships, either through the perspective of the mother or daughter (or in the case of ecWIT's dramatic reading, both). Most pieces will be personal essays (with one fictional piece). We'll also have performances about mothering sons. So it's not just pieces about being a mother, but also having a mother. I'm really excited about the diversity of the ages represented in this show. Often when people think of motherhood, they think of new mothers and that astonishing time. But as this evening will illustrate, motherhood just begins when the baby is born. It just gets more interesting.

LB : Could you share with us some insights you’ve made about the brilliant artists you’ve had the pleasure of getting to know through your time spent planning this event?

KV : They're hilarious. Not every piece that we experience at the Sound and Stories event will be funny or have humor in it, but as people I think they're each delightfully funny. I also went into this process trusting the artists to do their best work. I figured all I had to do was tell them where to be and when, maybe with a little nudging to make sure we stay on theme. That faith has been completely justified. They're each so, so talented.

LB : Can you speak on how various manifestations of motherhood will be communicated with those who have never experienced it?

KV : That's a good question. I think the job of every good writer is to help the reader or audience understand an aspect of the human experience that they might not be familiar with. If we've done our job right, you won't have to have been a mother, or even had a significant relationship with your mother, to recognize some aspect of your own life in our stories. We've all known mothers, though, whether they were our own or someone else's, and we've all loved a woman who was a mother. I think this will appeal to everyone, mother or not.

Deb Brown, member of ecWIT and one of the artists who will be guiding us through this intimate evening of exploration, offered this thematically relevant quote courtesy of N.K. Jemison’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms : “In a child’s eye, a mother is a goddess. She can be glorious or terrible, benevolent or filled with wrath, but she commands love either way. I am convinced that this is the greatest power in the universe.” -

Can’t wait? Neither can we. Purchase your tickets here.


The Beautiful & Complex: A Conversation with Heid E. Erdrich

Lauren Becker

credit: Chris Felver

credit: Chris Felver

On April 25, the Chippewa Valley Book Festival, in partnership with the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild and the UW-Eau Claire Department of English, have the pleasure of hosting acclaimed author, poet, educator, and interdisciplinary artist Heid E. Erdrich.

Heid has authored six collections of poetry, is the editor of two anthologies of literature by Native writers, and has been the recipient of numerous writing awards highlighting her beautiful and complex work. Heid grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota and is Ojibwe, enrolled at Turtle Mountain.

Throughout the evening, Heid will read from her own recent work and present brief poetry videos, “poemeos”. These poemeos are made through the collaboration of an all-Indigenous team of artists, animators, filmmakers, and composers. Join us at 7PM in the Woodland Theater in UWEC’s Davies Center.

Lauren Becker: Could you speak a little on what you’re looking forward to sharing with us on the 25th?

Heid E. Erdrich: The poems and poem videos (tiny films and animations) I'll share are part of my most recent book and one coming out later this year. My most recent book of poems focuses on forms of communication and expressions, everything from cave art to music lyrics and cell phones. The more ways we find to communicate, the less we seem to understand one another.

I'll read some new poems and talk about the anthology I edited for Graywolf Press and that came out in summer last year, but is in its fourth printing already!

LB: What’s led you to this path of creation and advocacy?

HE: I am pretty much as creation made me - someone who has always been interested in art, words, justice and deep listening to the world. Poetry has always been a part of my life and I've loved collaborating, but did not find the time and company to really engage it until recently.

LB: Could you speak on your experience collaborating with all-Indigenous teams of creatives?

HE: My team of collaborators were, first of all, my friends and colleagues. We worked together in a lot of settings including with choreographers and in community development, so I knew they would understand my aims in making short films and other art projects based in poetry.

LB: Your work has been characterized as ecologically centered, deeply complex, critical, strikingly beautiful, and simultaneously ironic. What does your creative process look like?

HE: It often looks like daydreaming, walking around an urban lake, laughing at the absurdity of the world, texting pictures and ideas back and forth with visual artists and reading aloud to groups of people so I can hear where my voice works and what does not work.

LB: Before attending this event, is there anything you wish your audience would know more about?

HE: It would be great if audiences came to poetry readings without any worries that they might not "get" a poem. Not all poems need to be figured out. Sometimes it's just fun to let the words flow over you, to enjoy the humor or other tones. I usually give time for questions, too, so the audience can ask about anything the poems bring up. I like my audience to expect an enjoyable evening with some laughs, even.

LB: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

HE: I really appreciate being invited to these literary events and it's how I make my living, in fact. As my 94 year old Dad in North Dakota says, "People actually pay you to read poems, huh? Well, how about that!"

How about that indeed!

You can check out Heid’s latest collection of poetry, Curator of Ephemera at the New Museum for Archaic Media here.

For those who would like to form a better understanding of the traditional homelands of the Nations of Wisconsin, please visit

Giving the "Green Light" to Emerging and Established Writers

The green light has officially been lit! UW-Eau Claire graduates Ashly Curtis and Caitlin Bittner started The Green Light Literary Journal in May of 2017. They both had a desire to support fellow authors, both emerging and established, by sharing their work with a wider audience. While anyone can submit to any issue, Caitlin and Ashly especially like to feature new voices and artists who have never been published before. They want to be the “green light” for their contributors.

Editors Ashly and Caitlin

Editors Ashly and Caitlin

The Green Light Literary Journal is an online only publication that publishes several regular issues throughout the year while also publishing “special” issues. Some of the past special issues have included Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and National Poetry Month themes.

 After receiving a large number of great poetry pieces, Caitlin and Ashly decided to showcase as many of them as possible, featuring one poem per day on their blog for the entire month of April. Later, each post will be compiled into a complete, fourth special issue for National Poetry Month.

 Submissions to The Green Light Literary Journal are accepted on a rolling basis. Caitlin and Ashly are grateful to have “met” many wonderful writers, photographers, and artists while working on the journal. They have learned a lot from their experience so far, and they continue to learn from their contributors and friends every day.

In addition to publishing issues, The Green Light Literary Journal also provides weekly writing prompts on their blog for writers and photographers alike! They also publish book review intermittently on their blog.

Always striving to promote writing and art, Caitlin and Ashly have created a sustainable online journal with a strong following and a wonderful, supportive community of writers. And they want you to be a part of it! They hope to inspire future writers/submitters to get out of their comfort zone and create something.

Click the button below to learn more.

Poetic Marks & A Modern Day Presence: Insight From Poet Jennifer L. Knox

Jennifer L. Knox

Jennifer L. Knox

By Lauren Becker

Join us on April 10th at the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library for an evening of surprises, as poet Jennifer L. Knox takes us through a reading and discussion on the surprising nature of poetry. 

In preparation for this event, we had a chance to gain Knox’s insight into what we should expect from the evening.

Lauren Becker: So, we’re going to talk about surprises and poetry. This begs the question - are they pleasant surprises? Or unpleasant? 

Jennifer L. Knox: Hopefully the surprises will be somewhat pleasant, but I can’t guarantee they’ll all feel like finding a $20 bill in your jeans pocket kind of surprise. 

Could you give us a bit of a teaser as to what you have planned for the evening? 

I'm going to read some poems from my books (perhaps even some new ones) and talk about how they surprised me— either by the way the ideas for them entered my brain, in the process of writing them or by the way people responded to them.

Some of us who aren’t as familiar with poetry may chalk it up to archaic, melancholy haikus about ponds. You’ve proven time and time again that’s not the case. What are your thoughts on the presence of humor and jarring language in poetry?

Poems and poets are as varied as styles of music; we each have a different song in our head. And there are different kinds of humor; I enjoy subverting the expectations of the reader—that's the incongruity theory. It's like hard-wiring surprise into a poem, and one way to accomplish this is to use diction and ideas that people don't ordinarily expect to see in a poem. When most people think poetry, they think of poetic-ness, and beauty and truth and ponds, as you mentioned. They don't necessarily think deep-fried Twinkies or mad cow disease. Using language that surprises helps me create an epiphany for the reader. 

When you’re writing, do you ever stop and think “where the heck did that come from?”

JK: Every day, Lauren! Generative writing comes from the same spot in the brain as lying, so when we're generating words on the page, nothing's off limits. It's like that game where you stand in the glass box and try to catch the dollar bills blowing around—you'd grab anything that blows by. Editing happens in the same part of the brain as accounting; in this phase, we must imagine the readers receiving our words and empathize with them.

Many of us who are just beginning our own long journey of poetic writing may look at your work and ask, what path did you take to get here?

I learned to love poetry by writing it. I believe it creates physical sensations in the brain, like exercising. A poem is a puzzle you make that only you can solve. But what has kept me writing poetry is my community of poets and writers, many of whom I met while earning my MFA, but there are others. My poetry people have been my ace in the hole.

What do you hope folks take away from this upcoming event?

I hope they're excited to write and read more poetry!


If this hasn’t enticed you enough, Kathleen Rooney summarizes why we so desperately need the artistic work and insight of individuals such as Knox, now more than ever.  

“In the face of ecological meltdown, art gains extra urgency and Jennifer L. Knox is one of our most urgent ecological poets. In the face of the Anthropocene—the geological era in which we are living, when human activity has irreparably damaged the earth—Knox laments our losses and celebrates what we have left. Her creativity—with its obsession with extinction—is driven, like much creativity, by death, but is animated with an unmistakable life force. The humor and sadness in each of her poems invites the reader to mourn what can never be regained environmentally, and also to make the most of whatever it is that remains.”

—Kathleen Rooney, O, Democracy!

Check out Knox’s latest book, Days of Shame and Failure, here! 

Barstow & Grand Issue #3: Your Name in Print


By Lauren Becker

For those who may be new to the Valley, Barstow & Grand is an annual print journal, published in the fall, that highlights writers connected to western Wisconsin's Chippewa Valley. 

We’re happy to share that submissions for issue three are now OPEN! And to celebrate, we asked the editor we all know and love, Eric Rasmussen, to share a few words.

Eric Rasmussen

Eric Rasmussen

Lauren Becker: Could you give us a brief snapshot of the history that's built Barstow & Grand into what it is today?

Eric Rasmussen: It all started with BJ Hollars and the work he did in establishing the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild. Watching him build the organization was very inspiring, and I wanted to play along. So, we brainstormed what else the local literary community might need, and where that intersected with my skills and the skills of those who might want to participate. After lots of years working with literary journals and trying to get published in literary journals, creating a local publication made the most sense. We hosted some organizational meetings, put together a staff, and just like that we’re gearing up to produce our third issue.

As both a fiction writer and an experienced high school English teacher, can you speak to the importance of literary opportunities such as this for beginning writers?

Most writers start by writing for themselves. A lot of the advice new writers hear fits with this idea. “Write the story you want to read,” things like that. For many poets and authors, writing can continue to be an act of self-discovery for their entire lives, for which they often receive loads of support from friends and loved ones, and that’s a powerful and worthwhile thing. But some writers desire to take that next step and share their work with strangers, and this requires a subtle yet profound shift. What the writer wants to write must take a back seat to what the reader wants to read. Life is short and money is tight, and people will only read what appeals to them, not what appeals to the author. For this reason, the literary journal game becomes an important rite of passage for many creative writers out there. It’s a little Darwinian, but what makes your writing better than the other dozen (or hundred or thousand) pieces in the slush pile? When a writer is able to push through the inevitable heartache that accompanies sending out work and receiving rejections (and all writers receive loads and loads of rejections), they can ask the question “How do I better appeal to a reader?” And that is where all improvement in writing begins.


For those of us who may be hesitant to submit, for fear of putting ourselves out there, what would you tell us?

Sending out your writing is like going to the gym (all stereotypes of writers not being fitness oriented aside!) At first, it sucks. No matter what. For everyone. But if you stick with it, changes will occur. Progress will be made. Guaranteed. It’s never as fast as we want it, and the steps we take are usually less dramatic than we envision. But one day, almost as if out of nowhere, you’ll take a step back and admire your list of publications, or your manuscripts, or your agent and book contracts, and you’ll be so thrilled you kept at it. And if you keep working, there’s nothing stopping you from achieving whatever goal you’ve set.

If you had to summarize the beauty of Barstow & Grand in only a sentence, how would you capture it?

Barstow & Grand seeks to fulfill a humble mission: to support, grow, and professionalize the community of writers associated with the Chippewa Valley. (Stolen from our website, but I couldn’t say it any better!)

What are you most looking forward to in this next issue and where is the publication growing from here?

After issue #2, we received a letter from a submitter whose piece we rejected. He explained that at first, he was pretty sore about the whole process, but then he took our suggestions, revised the piece, and it was picked up by a publication that, in all honesty, is way more prestigious than we are. This story fits with our mission exactly. I would love to see work from those folks who have submitted before, especially those whom we’ve rejected, to see how their writing is improving. And I’d love to see submissions from the area’s authors who have proven themselves in other publications if we’ve successfully earned their esteem. More than anything, I can’t wait to hand copies of the journal to the issue #3 authors. That moment makes the mountain of work this journal takes worth it.

➜ Are you ready for that moment? Submit your work here

➜ Support the literary community of the Chippewa Valley by purchasing past issues of Barstow & Grand here!

5 Reasons To Apply To The Priory Writers’ Retreat This Minute


B.J. Hollars 

For the past three summers, I had the great privilege of welcoming writers from across the country to Cirenaica—our wondrous writers’ retreat in the Wisconsin wilderness.  In total, we hosted 16, 3-day sessions, and in doing so, created a nurturing environment where 160 writers could write, workshop, listen, learn, and thrive. 

This summer, we’re thrilled to bring the spirit of Cirenaica to our new location at The Priory. Originally established as a monastery for Benedictine nuns in 1964, today The Priory serves as an ideal location for creativity to flourish.  Situated on 120 wooded acres just miles from downtown Eau Claire, Wisconsin, the property features 48 single-occupancy, air-conditioned rooms, several common areas, and no shortage of natural splendor.  And from July 18-21, it’s all ours.

As the snow begins to melt and I turn my eyes toward summer, nothing makes me more excited than the prospect of joining you and others for three days of creation, collaboration, and celebration.  While there are dozens of reasons why you should apply, I’ve narrowed down my list to the top five.  Read on, and then, apply today!  Your writing deserves it.


1.)   Personal Feedback From Writers-in-Residence.

The Priory Writers' Retreat (1).png

At some writers’ retreats, you get to brush shoulders with greatness.  But at The Priory, you get a lot more than that.  For our inaugural summer, we’re thrilled to welcome four incredible writers-in-residence: Dasha Kelly Hamilton (poetry), Nickolas Butler (fiction), Mary Mack (comedy/humor writing), and David McGlynn (memoir/nonfiction).  When you apply to work with these writers, you’ll really work with these writers.  By capping each workshop at 12, we guarantee it.  Each day you and your fellow participants will partake in a private workshop led by your writer-in-residence.  Not only will your creative work benefit from this process, but you’ll be playing a vital role in supporting the creative work of others, too.  In doing so, we all improve our writing, and we all learn collectively.

2.)   Learning Beyond Genre.


One way The Priory Writers’ Retreat distinguishes itself is by fostering an environment in which all writers of all levels and genres can learn from one another.  While our individual workshops focus on genre (fiction, poetry, memoir, and comedy writing—interpreted broadly!), participants will have the opportunity to learn from all of our writers-in-residence by way of daily craft talks.  Simply put, our poets can learn from our prose writers and our prose writers can learn from our poets.  In addition to shared learning, this interdisciplinary approach is geared toward encouraging collaborative opportunities.  What happens when you put 48 writers in a room together?  We’re about to find out!   

3.)   Field Trips.

credit:  Justin Patchin

Hailed as an “outdoorsy cultural mecca” by Time Magazine, Eau Claire, Wisconsin is, indeed, a city on the rise.  And there’s never been a better time to check us out.  (Want a preview?  Just click here!). While much of our time will be spent on The Priory’s 120 wooded acres, on Saturday night we’ll board our chartered bus to downtown Eau Claire.  The evening will begin with a reading by our writers-in-residence at our brand-new Pablo Center at the Confluence.  Then, our bus will shuttle folks to various downtown locations, including The Brewing Projekt and The Lakely—two of our city’s finest establishments.  Grab a drink, enjoy some live music, and celebrate your work alongside new friends.

4.)   Putting the World on Pause.


As every writer knows, there are always plenty of reasons not to write.  Our house is a mess, the laundry needs folded, the dishes need washed—the list goes on.  At The Priory, we create the conditions for you to create.  Each participant will enjoy a private room, as well as all on-site meals and drinks.  When you’re with us, you don’t waste a minute cleaning, or folding, or placing a single plate on the drying rack.  Your only responsibility is to be a writer and to give every minute to your craft.  Trust us, by the end of our retreat, you’ll leave feeling happy, rejuvenated, accomplished, and inspired.   

5.)   The Best Friend You Haven’t Met.


A successful writers’ retreat depends on many factors: the writers-in-residence, the offerings, the food, the rooms, the property, the list goes on.  Yet it’s the participants who ultimately ensure a retreat’s overall success.  That’s right.  It’s you.  And you.  And you.  By bringing us together in this shared space for three uninterrupted days of writing, reading, learning and relaxing, we’re merely creating the conditions for the magic soon to come.  No one leaves our retreats without a few new writer friends.  Writer friends, I’ll add, that often serve as great editors, too.  There’s nothing we love more than watching these friendships blossom over our shared love of writing.  Join us, and make a friend, and be a friend, too. (Also, refer a friend and, upon acceptance, receive 10.00 off your fee!)

So what are you waiting for?

Click the button below and apply today!


Dear Reader - March 2019


Dear Writer, I just had a piece critiqued by my workshop group. While they gave me a lot of good feedback, some of their feedback is steering me away from my original vision for my piece. Should I ignore their advice, or are they right and my original idea is flawed? How do I know what’s right?

Sincerely, A Story Torn in Two

Dear A Story Torn in Two:

Writing workshops are tremendous.

These groups--comprised of folks united in a common goal of getting better at putting words on the page--are usually the first spot where our stories, poems, essays, etc., land. Until now the only other people who've seen our writing are the occasional friends or family members we've foisted our work on, begging for any kind of feedback.

But people are busy. No time for the fine-tooth-comb deep dives. We get the cursory, "It's good," or in the event someone really didn't like or understand the piece, we might be on the receiving end of the distinctly Midwestern, "That's different."

So we set out in search of like-minded souls who have stories of their own to share, who like us have had a piece rattling around the inside of their heads long enough, who have taken a story as far as they can on their lonesome. And though workshops provide myriad benefits, they aren't without their pitfalls.

A big challenge is that writing workshops are filled with writers, and sometimes* writers tend to approach a text as writers instead of readers. As we read through a piece of writing, the machinations of our own creative engines** creak to life, and when we come across elements that aren't working for us, we begin to think of ways we'd fix them. That's fine. But when giving feedback we need to rein it in a bit. Maybe develop the equivalent of one of those tiny stop signs which appeared at the bottom of standardized test pages, warning us we'd reached the end of the section. Most of the workshops I've participated adhered to three basic guidelines for giving feedback***, which helped foster that diminutive mental stop sign:

  1. Identify what you think the author intended with this text (this part of the process is invaluable, as it lets the author know if what they were going for landed with their readers). 

  2. Identify what's working well for you in this piece (huzzah for validation!).

  3. Identify areas which caused you to stumble or where you had questions (if a majority of group members point out the same parts or have similar questions, it's a usually a good indicator of something getting lost in translation between the brain and the page).

During workshop, folks would go around the circle, or whatever shape we happened to be meeting in****, and speak to the above guidelines. Whoever's piece was being discussed would listen and take notes, and afterward, have the opportunity to ask clarifying questions.

While it can be a bit overwhelming to receive that much information in one go, there's an unspoken rule***** inherent in writing workshops which helps keep things manageable: after thanking everyone for their insights, you get to return to your piece of writing and can then listen to or ignore as much or as little of the feedback as you want to; you get to decide what's going to help you the most.

So embrace your original vision. Hold onto it with all the fervor and excitement you had from the outset, and use the advice from your workshop that'll best help you to tell the kind of story you want to.


*Okay, often.
**That sounds really pretentious. Apologies.
***This is neither the only nor best way to structure workshop, just what's worked for me.
****Generally, I've found circles or ellipses conducive constructs for effective feedback. Oftentimes comfy chairs were involved.
*****Though maybe it should be spoken, or even bellowed at the top of every meeting. 

P.S. Or, to put it much more succinctly, Neil Gaiman writes, “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Poetry & Pi(e): An Intersection

Dasha Kelly Hamilton • Credit: Va’Na Barki

Dasha Kelly Hamilton • Credit: Va’Na Barki

Lauren Becker

Interdisciplinary. A term defined by Google’s dictionary as “Relating to more than one branch of knowledge.” A buzzword. A mindset.

 Perhaps you’re in the mindset that if you go to a coffee shop, you’re in a space limited to casual chats and creamer. If you go to a museum, you’re in a space limited to mummies and dinosaur bones. I think we can all say that we were once in the same boat, believing that everything had its “place”. Believing that history didn’t belong in my dream of someday becoming a rodeo cowgirl. Or that calculus didn’t belong in your dream of becoming a children’s author.

As it turns out, many things that we once thought of as polar opposites are actually quite intertwined. For example, the art of poetry and the art of mathematics. On March 14, we at the Guild, along with our collaborators at the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters, are hosting an event that will make math and spoken word’s cross-over crystal clear.

Join us at Pablo Center on National Pi Day for a reading and discussion led by acclaimed poet, writer, artist, and founder of Still Waters Collective - Dasha Kelly Hamilton. Throughout the evening, we’ll celebrate the beauty that is interdisciplinary thinking, with the help of coffee from Shift Cyclery and Coffee Bar and pies from Randy’s Family Restaurant. . Thanks, too, to the UWEC Student Office of Sustainability for sponsoring student tickets.

 Academy associate director, and editor of Wisconsin People & Ideas, Jason Smith shared a bit about the nature of Poetry and Pi(e) and his take on the term “interdisciplinary”.


Lauren Becker: Given the nature of this event, what has your experience at the Wisconsin Academy taught you about interdisciplinary studies?

Jason Smith: Sometimes the best conversations happen when different disciplines collide, whether by design or by accident. These “creative collisions” can complicate our understanding of a person, place, or thing by providing a different lens through which to see, say, the mathematical precision found in haiku or the beauty of carbon atoms arranged into a graphene nanotube.

LB: As a Madison-based writer, what's your perception of the literary scene here in our Valley?

JS: I think that what is going on in the Valley is exceptional and a model for other areas in Wisconsin that want to help grow what I see as one of our state's greatest potential exports: excellent writing. Of course it doesn’t hurt that you have committed community partners—the CVWG, the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library, UWEC, Pablo, Volume One etc.—and people like BJ Hollars and Nick Butler working together to cultivate the scene, and I’m not even counting Shift!, the Oxbow, and the other local hangouts that host and promote Valley writers.

LB: What do you hope folks will take away from this event as a whole?

JS: Well, first I hope they enjoy the poetry. Dasha is an incredible poet, and her performances resonate with people from all different background, poets and non-poets alike, and this is a rare opportunity to just kind of submerge oneself in the world of her words. I also think that this is a great opportunity for people to get together and talk about the great poets we have in Wisconsin. I am continually amazed at the depth of talent we have in our statewide poetry community, and the ways in which Wisconsin poets support each other—showing up for readings, teaching classes, reviewing chapbooks. Right now, Wisconsin is a great state for poets and writers.

LB: What sparked your interest in partnering with us?

JS: Well, at the Academy we believe that Wisconsin ideas move the world forward. So, we like to work with organizations that help writers and artists to achieve their goals—to get their writing seen and heard—while bringing people of all stripes together to take part in our state’s literary heritage. I admire the work the CVWG is doing, so it just seems like a good fit.

A good fit indeed!

Excited to come to a better understanding of how our world is connected?

Purchase your tickets for an interdisciplinary evening here.



"On What Does Art Depend?": 5 Questions on Craft with Poet Nicholas Gulig


by Alex Zitzner

 I first heard Nick read at the Oxbow in 2017 as part of the Chippewa Valley Book Festival’s prodigal poets returning read, and then was fortunate enough to work with him at the CVWG’s Winter Writers Retreat in 2018. From those experiences, I became interested with his work and its intricacies. I purchased his book length poem North of Order (YesYes Books), read it all during a lonely week in New York while riding the subway from museum to museum, and it got me stoked. Since Nick will be returning to the Chippewa Valley on Monday, March 11th to read at 5PM at the Local Store/Volume One Gallery as part of Bruce Taylor’s Local Lit: Off the Page series, I reached out with a few questions on crafting his latest book Orient (Cleveland State University Poetry Center) to dive deeper into how he approached this body of work.

Alex Zitzner: I never really gave Brian Eno’s ambient work a listen until you mentioned in your interview with Speaking of Marvels that you were listening to Music for Airports while writing Orient and this made me think about the spaces where there is no text within the book and how that creates an environment, similarly to how Eno creates an environment without language. For instance, “Some Pornographies” is laid out over 11 pages with each stanza of the poem being 14 lines, instead of it being one long poem taking up the entire pages it would need vertically. With this, I was wondering what your approach was to structuring the poems within your book in relation to how they interact with the “white” space of the pages?

Nick Gulig: Eno’s idea of music as “ambience” was important to the book in the way that you describe, first because it constituted, quite literally, the physical environment in which so much of the writing of the book took place. But also, and maybe even more so, ambience, as Eno talks about it, de-privileges both the music and the maker in a way that helped me think through what it was that I was trying to do with Orient. As a writer, when I watch/listen to American foreign policy—which the book does, to a large degree—I’m immediately uneasy with the extent to which the notion of genius, the seductive myth that underpins the tradition in which I work, runs parallel to, and is to that extent complicit with, the project of Empire. As an artist, it feels important to understand that the opportunity to make art, to spend the vast majority of a long life painting, writing, making music or whatever, is a real gift, a privilege that most folks in the world don’t have. This fact should matter and be important to you. I don’t mean to sound condescending here, but it really should, like ethically and as a matter of principle and awareness. You shouldn’t take the time it takes to write a poem for granted. I spent four years writing Orient. During that time I did very little else besides read and write and revise and take breaks to think and also not to think. I did the majority of the research for the book at a private school in Denver that I got paid to go to. The tuition there is something like 60 grand a year. Sure, after that I worked, but, like barely. I had a fellowship and scholarships that let me read and write and stare at trees all day. Try explaining that, say, for example, to someone who has to work three jobs because they were thrown into the world on the wrong side of a redline in Milwaukee; it’s do or die in an environment like that. Explain that to the mother of a daughter living in a war zone who has to pack up what’s left of her life and cross the desert, the ocean, in search of something only maybe safer. I wrote that book because I was able to write that book, and when I look too long at what allows me to be able to live the life I do, it’s hard not to notice the extent to which what I have depends upon and is only possible because of what others don’t have. The American middle class, for example, of which I am a part, and which presented me a thousand and one opportunities to pursue a life of letters, exists in large part at the expense of other, intentionally less fortunate communities. We drew lines around those communities, extorted money from them in the form of predatory loans, built taxable white wealth, and then erected a social safety net around the kinds of white communities that I grew up in. This is not a new relationship. And that matters, or, at least, it should matter. It should matter in the same way that the grotesque number of military bases we have around the world should matter to me. The things we do to and in other countries has to matter to me and to my poems if my poems are only possible because of the context I was born in. To what degree does this context depend on the hell that other people have to go through in places I can’t name and that I’ll never see with my own eyes except through the distorting lens of media. That’s the central question behind Orient. On what does art depend? And in the face of the range of answers to that question, the notion of the individual “genius” as its traditionally been championed in the West doesn’t hold up. Individualism, as an ethos, doesn’t hold up, not nationally, and, thus, not artistically. Eno understood this. He understood that we create within the context of our communities, in specific environments, and he let that become his music. Ambience is the antithesis of the Empire because it privileges context, environment, and under-emphasizes I. At the same time, this privileging is also a refusal. It’s a refusal to impose an order upon an other. Said differently, ambience is the attempt to create an opening into which the other might wish to enter, a static softness that is, at the same time, a form of welcoming, a space in which what’s made, or, in my case, as a poet, what’s said, might exist in conversation with the static of the other voices that surround it. That’s what white space is. It’s the static of other voices, other languages, experiences, most of which I can’t understand or make any kind of sense of, but which surround me nonetheless and upon which the privilege of speech depends.

 AZ: As you note, many of the poems in Orient began with, “transcription, (mis)translation, erasure, and collage.” This is very fitting for what the themes of the book are (noise, language, religion, war, politics, the desert, among others), so could you explain what your process were or how those processes affected the poems and their subjects?

Nick Gulig: In part because I had grown sick of my own voice and in part because I wanted to begin with the voices of/noises made by others, I began Orient through a process of transcription, translation, erasure, and collage. After speaking with a professor of middle eastern studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School, I made a binary list of “energies” or “forces” he helped me understand as coming into contact/conflict in the desert regions on which American foreign policy has focused since I was old enough to know so. For example, my first memory of war, which I try to bring into the book, happened when I was nine or ten years old. Thus, the vast majority of the life that I am able to recollect exists in direct, violent relation to this region and its people, both of which I have little to no understanding. Orient was my attempt to “understand” and I used this list as a conceptual window into a world I didn’t know but to which so much of what I do know, and thus, who I am, is tethered. Using this list, I spent a year transcribing media that I intuitively linked to one side of the list or the other. For example, one of the binary oppositions on my list of was “the sacred and profane.” This meant that I listened to and transcribed Pentecostal sermons, on the one hand, and hardcore pornography on the other. I read the Bible a lot, listened to black metal, studied the Qur’an, etc. It was fun, surreal disturbing. At the end of a year, I had this discombobulated document of language gleaned from discordant sources tethered to my binary concepts, and from that shitshow soup of language I started writing poems in the hope that the poem might become a place where these things might finally work together, make a kind of world together, by which I mean, of course, make meaning.


AZ: When considering negative capability in Keats terms of creating work with a level of uncertainty (which I think once again follows the themes of Orient), most poems appear to be documenting shifts in thought, whether in the present or past, and working through them with that uncertainty. I may be off with that observation, but how has negative capability affected your poems? When did you first become interested with the idea and either implementing it in your work or noticing it was there?

Nick Gulig: I’ve been wrestling with Keats and negative capability since 2009 when I took a class on Keats’ letters with the poet Dan Beachy-Quick at the University of Iowa. My most recent version of this wrestling is to think of negative capability as a kind of haunting, a possessing that is also a possession. In either case, I experience it as an emptying of self. When one possesses, one becomes an other (an Imogen or Iago), when one becomes possessed, the self submits to the possessor. Again, I’m drawn to it because its relational, but it has to move both ways, reciprocally, consensually, like a dance. If it doesn’t, if one privileges one reading of negative capability over the other, it becomes colonial, authoritarian, American. In Orient, the ghost flits from one thought to the next, from one perspective to another, dragging a kind of residue behind it in the way a spider might leave a half-transparent trail behind herself as she moves from one mooring to the next. The web, of course, was also one of the ways that Keat’s tried to think through negative capability. The thing (a glittering circuiting) that’s there but also not there, the absent-presence between the cold hard facts of the world that maps the depth of their connections. It is from these depths, at least for Keats, the poem arises.

AZ: One name that I recognized from your second note was Maggie Nelson and I thought of her poetic essay book Bluets and how you both work in that style. Once again, I may be off, but who were you reading while writing or editing these poems, and how did they influence you?

Nick Gulig: For me, Nelson’s Bluets is the most important book that’s been written in the last two decades, maybe three. I’m teaching it for the first time this semester and I’m super nervous because if my students don’t love it, I’ll hate them and they’ll fail. Most of what I love about that book is the way it moves. Bluets moves like a George Oppen poem, for example, a discrete series of illuminations that exist in the space between the essay and the poem, the certain and the uncertain. Its interstitial. There are these long pauses between the sections in which you find yourself suspended in mid-air before you land again on solid ground, but only for a moment. It’s an imitation of life, in that sense. As such, Nelson intelligently refuses to last too long in any single clarifying claim before her speaking picks you up a second, third, fourth time etc. and carries you off into the absence of not-knowing. She says that it’s a book about the color blue, but really, it’s a book about negative capability, of the struggle to feel at home in uncertainty and mystery and doubt

AZ: I’m guessing you get this question a lot, so my apologies if I am not furthering anything, but what advice do you have for poets, whether unpublished or already having a multitude of books?

Nick Gulig: This is a boring answer, but it’s the only one I have: Read. Buy books, support artists, and read. More specifically, read the things you don’t already like, that make no sense to the you that you are now. If the meager life I’ve lived thus far has taught me anything, it’s that most of what we think we like aesthetically eventually becomes something we no longer like aesthetically. This is a good thing. If your tastes aren’t changing it means that you aren’t changing, which means you’re dying the only death there is to be afraid of, the one that happens slowly over time, in increments, a little bit each day. Art should help us live.

You can purchase Orient here, and North of Order here.


JUST ANNOUNCED: Eggplant Heroes to Play at The Priory Writers' Retreat!


Musicians are some of our favorite writers. And Eggplant Heroes are some of our favorite musicians. In the spirit of collaboration and shared learning, this summer The Priory' Writers’ Retreat is THRILLED to host the always-literary Eggplant Heroes for a Friday night concert!

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As their website notes, “Eggplant Heroes is a musical collaboration including Duffy Duyfhuizen, Joel Pace, Olaf Lind,  Max Garland, Lucas K. Fischer, Caleb Horne, and Dan Zerr. Blending multi-part harmonies with guitar, trumpet, violin, mandolin, and bass, Eggplant Heroes present an eclectic mix of originals, literary adaptations, mountain gospel, and folk—Americana music in the full sense of the word.”

Check out their music here!

And apply for our retreats by clicking here!

Deadline to apply is May 1!

Have a Little Faith: Confronting the Complexities of Writing with Nickolas Butler

Credit: Jeff Rogers

Credit: Jeff Rogers

Lauren Becker

If you live in the Chippewa Valley, there’s a good chance you know Nickolas Butler. But even if you don’t live in the Valley, there’s an equally good chance you’ve come to know his intimate storytelling. Following up Shotgun Lovesongs and The Hearts of Men, Butler is set to release his latest novel, Little Faith this March. In anticipation of his March 4 reading at Volume One, Butler agreed to share his time with us, giving fellow writers and readers insight into the process that’s brought us his latest work.

Lauren Becker: Religion can be a difficult subject to navigate, especially when trying to convey the complex relationship community and religion have in rural spaces. What led you to tell this story?


Nick Butler: I’d been thinking about the Kara Neumann case since 2008 when her death came to light.  It was just a horrendous story and something that still resonates with any adult who was alive at that time, but especially those with children. So I knew I wanted to write about something like that, something related to faith and prayer-healing, but that seemed like a very dark rabbit hole indeed. Then, about three years ago, I decided the way into the narrative was to create a grandfather character and to show the really unique and magical relationship between grandparent and grandchild.  The real tension of the book would be drawn between generations in a family – faith, parenting, forgiveness, love, trust, hate… I felt like I had the makings for an incredibly special book.

LB: Can you speak a little on the personal pilgrimage you may have had to go on to write this novel?  

Nick Butler: Every book is a pilgrimage.  Every book you write is a complete leap of faith.  You never know how people are going to interpret things; if they’ll enjoy the narrative or characters.  And it’s a lonely endeavor; it’s thousands of hours of staring at a computer screen conjuring make-believe out of the ether.  And when the book is done, I always feel incredibly bereft, just lost for between six to twelve months before I pick myself back up and go on to the next one. It’s an incredibly strange way to make a living.

LB: Your novel grapples with some of our most intense and intimate journeys we experience in life. Those of death, spirituality, and of course, family. If you could summarize Little Faith in just a few words, how would you convey the ideas that pervade your writing?

Nick Butler: For me, the best novels always confront three key issues: family, place, and something (money, work, love, pride, faith, etc.) worth fighting for; so in everything I write, I’m thinking of those three components.

LB: You note in the preface to your book that this novel was inspired in part by true events. With that in mind, how much of these vivid characters are inspired by the very real folks in your life?  

Nick Butler: More than a few characters in Little Faith are inspired by real people which can be a difficult and emotional consequence of writing a very personal novel.  Look – I don’t know how NOT to be influenced by the people I love, namely my family and friends. I also don’t know how to write about the world I’m struggling to understand, the world I’m trying to celebrate, the world I’m trying to critique, without incorporating my own feelings, perceptions, and history.  So it often seems that my books very much have the fingerprints of real people all over their pages. 

LB: Throughout writing this novel, and perhaps at its conclusion, did you find any ties to current events within your writing?

Nick Butler: I think that much of the political divide in our country can be traced back to organized religion, it’s another way for politicians to stir discord amongst us.  Little Faith isn’t attempting to explain that divide or to place blame. Little Faith is a story with characters, it’s a fiction. But as I was writing the book, I was certainly cognizant of certain national political discourses, certain trends…  I’m also personally very interested in political conversations about quality-of-life issues and end-of-life issues, as well as confronting global climate change, and rural versus urban political dynamics. All of these ideas drip into the art, but it’s important to understand that the art isn’t “about” those ideas.

LB: Your novels are well known for their heart and ability to move us deeply through connection to home and rural spaces. Could you speak about the importance of setting in your writing?

Nick Butler: I like a book with atmosphere; I like being transported somewhere.  Right now, I’m reading Ellie Catton’s The Luminaries which is famously set in New Zealand during a 19th Century gold rush.  It’s incredibly evocative and sets the characters against the landscape.  I like that sort of book. I think of: East of Eden, Sometimes A Great Notion, or The Shipping News.  And writing about rural Wisconsin just comes easily to me because, guess what – it’s right out my front door.

LB: What are you hoping to communicate to readers that didn’t grow up in rural areas?  

Nick Butler: I’m not sure I’m trying to communicate anything. My philosophy has always been to write a narrative that compels a reader to turn pages and a narrative populated by characters that a reader can at least somewhat identify with, even if they don’t necessarily like that character.  I try to write round characters, and I try to push myself – to move past easy impulses and to complicate the writing in hopefully new and authentic ways. Basically, I don’t worry about my readers. There was a time in my life when I had NO readers and back then, I was writing for myself, for my own enjoyment.  I try to remain in that space.

LB: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?  

Nick Butler: Read a book.  Any book. But hopefully one of mine.  Thanks.

The Chippewa Valley Writers Guild is thrilled to host Nickolas Butler as our fiction writer-in-residence for this summer’s all-new Priory Writing Retreat. When asked to comment on our upcoming retreat, Butler had this to share:

“Every year I sincerely look forward to the summer CVWG Writing Retreat.  It’s a weekend that I always enjoy for so many reasons. Greeting writer-friends that I’ve worked with in the past and certainly meeting new writers as well.  I like that sense of discovery, of potentially working with a great new voice in American literature. And too, the food, camaraderie, bonfires, and beer aren’t bad either.”

Inspired? Wonderful. Click here to sign up to secure your spot at this summer’s writing retreat!

3 Questions with Max Garland--Deliverer of Keynote Addresses and More!

credit: Justin Patchin

credit: Justin Patchin

Former Wisconsin poet laureate Max Garland is the author of The Word We Used for It, winner of the 2017-18 Brittingham Poetry Prize. Other books include The Postal Confessions, winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry, and Hunger Wide as Heaven, which won the Cleveland State Poetry Center Open Competition, and a chapbook, Apparition, from the University of Wisconsin Press. This summer, he’ll provide the keynote address at The Priory Writers’ Retreat.

I recently chatted with Max to learn more about his experiences as a rural letter carrier, humility, caffeine, and Dylan Thomas. Read on!

B.J. Hollars: This summer you'll be giving the keynote address for our inaugural summer at The Priory Writers' Retreat.  First, no pressure (though this address will surely go down in literary lore as the moment dozens of writers reaffirmed themselves to their craft).  the talk is titled "What I Learned On My First Day Of Writing" or "Don't Quit Your Job."  Without giving too much away, what inspired this talk?

Max Garland: After working almost 10 years as a rural letter carrier on the route where I was born, where I lived, my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles lived, my first true love lived (we were 6-year-olds at the time), I quit that job, placed the last letter in the last mailbox on Rural Route 7, Paducah, Ky. 42001, and drove my mail car 442 miles to the Iowa Writers' Workshop for my first official day of Poetry School. My talk is a cautionary tale inspired by the mixed results of this journey.

BH: Over the years, you've had the privilege of working with thousands of writers in a variety of settings.  What conditions do you find to be the most conducive to creativity?

The conditions I find most conducive to creativity are attentiveness, humility, and the stubborn conviction that you are the one best equipped to tell your own story, and also, of course, there's caffeine. I realize these aren't really "conditions," but more like qualities or attitudes, and in one case, a psychoactive drug composed of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, which, coincidently, are the four most abundant elements in the human body.

BH: Finally, was there a poem or poet or piece of writing that inspired you to take the poetic plunge?  If so, what, specifically, inspired you?  A line?  A phrase?  An idea?

MG: Writing that inspired me early on? I'd have to say the Elizabethan cadences (I didn't know it was poetry at the time), of the King James Bible rolling off my grandmother's tongue in her western Kentucky accent. Then in college we were assigned a poem by Dylan Thomas that went-- "Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs/About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green/...Time let me hail and climb/ Golden in the heydays of his eyes/ And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns/ And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves/ Trail with daisies and barley/Down the rivers of the windfall light.."  By the end of that poem, when I read, "Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means/ Time held me green and dying/ Though I sang in my chains like the sea," I thought my head might fall off. The words were simple, but the order cast them like a spell. I was a goner. 

Hear Max’s keynote address this summer at The Priory Writers’ Retreat! Click below to apply!

Jokes So Good Even a Llama Will Listen: 5 Questions with The Priory's Comedy Writing Writer-in-Residence Mary Mack


You know her from Conan, Last Call with Carson Daly, Comedy Central, WTF with Marc Maron, and more. Now, get to know folk humorist Mary Mack this summer at The Priory Writers’ Retreat. Mary’s writing workshop—”Finding The Funny: Make Millions With Humor (Just Kidding)”—is open to all writers of all levels. Whatever you write (stories, op-eds, eulogies, whatever!), Mary will help you find the funny!

I really chatted with Mary between stops on her comedy tour. Read on for more on Mary!

B.J. Hollars: How did you find your way into the comedy world?  Do you remember the first joke you ever heard or ever told?

Mary Mack: I started on a dare while teaching music and band in Nashville, TN. This was after my polka band broke up and I told my roommate I missed performing. It was a way to perform where you didn't need an entire band or even an instrument. My first joke was fictional. It was about how I was the first house clarinetist hired for NASCAR. I wrote a six minute story about it--way too long. I don't think it went great, but I was just shocked I could write something and people would listen. Nobody had listened to me in my family of eight growing up, nor was anyone really listening when I taught beginning band. They just wanted to make noise, understandably. Even silence (not laughter!) was welcomed when I was on stage after that: At least they were listening. Because of that, I got hooked on both the writing and performing.

BH: What, in your opinion, is the key to making people laugh?  Is there a key?

MM: Yes. Scientifically, it's catching people off guard, not with something shocking, but something unexpected that makes them laugh. There's a lot of variables, so the key is never the same! Know your crowd and you situation maybe? Also, it helps if it seems like you are having fun while you're up there!

BH: If comedy can be taught, how do you teach it, and how have you learned it?

MM: Observation! Analyze WHY something is funny. It can be any situation, not just a stand up show.

BH: Can you share a bit about how your own work moves from the page to the performance?  Do you revise?  Try out the material?  How is your process similar (or different!) to what writers in other genres do?

MM: I write down something I think is funny with sort of a set up and punch format, but fluid (just with caution that I'm not abusing the audience's time). Then, I go for it on stage at an open mic usually. Most times, it goes pretty bad. Or if it does get laughs, I'm usually suspicious of that. I tape all my sets on my phone. Then, LISTEN, REWRITE, REVISE, TAPE, TRANSCRIBE, REVISE, REPEAT FOR YEARS AND YEARS till you think something might be finished. I get instant feedback in stand up via a live audience's reaction; whereas, if you write a novel, it takes forever to get your feedback. Sometimes I read my essays on stage so I can revise them. All the slow parts, I try to shorten or repair when I feel the audience has lost interest there. But I'm having trouble finishing a book. I can't necessarily expect to get immediate feedback on every paragraph. This is part of the reason it's taken me so long to write a book. I'm addicted to the live trial and error!

BH: Finally, what was your proudest moment as a comedian?

Doing well on my Grand Old Opry debut this past December was a highlight of my career. That Nashville crowd sits there for hours, so to get them to enjoy a non-musician feels good! And they don't really have comics on, so they aren't a trained comedy crowd which feels even better. The second biggest highlight of my career is when a llama listened to my entire hour-long set at the Washburn County Fair. I thought it was a stuffed animal, but 45 minutes into the show, he turned his head a little. I was elated.

BH: Bonus question: Any good stories from the road?

MM: Too many, but they aren't often appropriate. 

Want to find your funny with Mary this summer! Click the button below to apply!