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!

eggplant heroes.JPG

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!

"Stringing Out Your Dirty Laundry for the World To See": 5 Questions with Priory Writer-in-Residence David McGlynn


Lawrence University professor David McGlynn is the author of several books, including One Day You’ll Thank Me, A Door in the Ocean, and The End of the Straight and Narrow. His writing has also appeared in Men’s HealthReal Simple, Parents, The New York TimesSwimmerBest American Sports Writing, and numerous literary journals. This summer at The Priory Writers’ Retreat he’ll host a writing workshop titled “Flirting with Disaster: Turning Personal Obsession into Memoir.” Read on to learn more about David, his writing process, and how to string out “your dirty laundry for the world to see.”

B.J. Hollars: Your memoir and nonfiction writing transcends a range of topics, from collegiate swimming, to personal tragedies, to parenthood.  Do you find that subject matter changes your writing style or process?  Does subject dictate form for you?

David McGlynn: That’s a shrewd observation, and absolutely true. Yes, subject dictates for me. My stories and essays (and especially the nonfiction) come from individual images or moments that, for whatever reason, cauterize in my mind. The narratives grow around those small, shining moments. When those moments are funny – for example, when they have to do with parenting energetic boys – the piece will be funny. When the moment is sad or tragic – as when writing about the murder of my friend – the story will be sad, too. I try to follow the momentum of that initial image as far and as fully as I can.  

BH: In A Door in the Ocean you recount your swimming career amid the backdrop of your own coming-of-age, as well as the death of your friend and swimming teammate.  The book is riveting, and highly personal.  How do you decide which parts of yourself to share, and which parts of yourself to leave out?

DM: Deciding “how much of yourself” to put into a project is the classic memoirist’s dilemma. We want to reveal enough to make the story interesting and compelling, but not so much that we’re exposed to the point of humiliation. I try to ignore the second part of the dilemma as much as I can. Over time, I have come to believe that there isn’t much a writer can say that hasn’t been said or experienced by other people before. Maybe it’s a product of having come of age in the 1990s, when everyone, it seemed, was writing a tell-all salacious memoir about an array of once-taboo subjects. But it’s often the case that revealing what feels like our worst secrets doesn’t amount to the lightning strike we think it will. And, in my experience, readers tend to appreciate a writer willing to be real. So I say, be real! Let it all hang out! String your dirty laundry on the line for the world to see! You can always take it out later if you feel you’ve gone too far. Chances are, you’ll quickly see that every other window has dirty laundry hanging in it, too.


BH: In One Day You'll Thank Me: Lessons From an Unexpected Fatherhood, you reflect both on being a father and a son.  What did you learn about these dual roles in the writing process?  Any surprises along the way?

DM: Meditating on fatherhood and son-hood was integral to One Day You’ll Thank Me. I don’t think any parent can think about his or her role as a father or mother without also considering their own experiences being parented. Writing about my relationship with my dad, while at the same time writing about my relationship with my sons, taught me to be gentler and more compassionate toward my father, and to take myself less seriously. My dad was trying the best he could; as a dad, I’m only doing the same thing. As far as surprises go, I was certainly struck by how fiercely I still love spending time with my father. I hope – and since my oldest is now a teenager, this is no guarantee – that my own sons will one day want to spend time with me.

BH: At this summer's Priory Writers' Retreat, you'll be teaching a workshop that explores navigating the "treacherous waters" of turning life into stories.  How do you know when a real-life occurrence is story worthy?

DM: A story is worthy when it produces an image that sticks in your mind. When it’s the kind of moment (and it doesn’t have to be big) that you’d tell at a dinner party or around a campfire – when it’s one of the moments or experiences that makes you you. The experience may be cataclysmic or it may be totally pedestrian, nothing more than a quiet moment that struck you. The art of the story is in the telling, not in the moment itself. Learning to pay attention to the details and to make the experience come alive is the thing.

BH: Finally, what are you working on now?

DM: I’ve been neck-deep in a novel project for the past several years. Like One Day You’ll Thank Me, it’s about parenting – only instead of a funny send-up about parenting boys, the novel is about caring for children who are sick and the strains and sacrifices their parents must make. I’m hoping to see it come to fruition in the next several months.

Want to work with David this summer? Click the button below to apply!

Huge Changes: All-New Summer Writers Retreat for 2019

We’ve got big, huge, exciting news to share for 2019! Check out our latest press release …


Chippewa Valley Writers Guild To Host New Writers’ Retreat in Eau Claire, Wisconsin


EAU CLAIRE, WIS. – From July 18-21, the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild will host its inaugural summer writers’ retreat at a new location in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Situated on 120 wooded acres just miles from downtown Eau Claire, The Priory Writers’ Retreat seeks to provide a vibrant, inclusive, and collaborative experience for writers of all genres.  

This summer, The Priory Writers’ Retreat is thrilled to welcome four writers-in-residence: Dasha Kelly Hamilton (“Power Lines: Crafting Poems with Punch”), Nickolas Butler (“Stepping into Story: The Theory and Practice of Fiction”), Mary Mack (“Finding the Funny: Make Millions with Humor (Just Kidding)”), and David McGlynn (“Flirting with Disaster: Turning Personal Obsession into Memoir”). Additionally, the keynote speaker, former Wisconsin poet laureate Max Garland, will present “What I Learned on My First Day of Writing or Don’t Quit Your Job.”

Clockwise: Dasha Kelly Hamilton, Nickolas Butler, Mary Mack, and David McGlynn

Clockwise: Dasha Kelly Hamilton, Nickolas Butler, Mary Mack, and David McGlynn

For the past three summers, the CVWG has hosted writers’ retreats at Cirenaica, an intimate, cabin setting in Fall Creek, Wisconsin.  This summer, they’re excited to bring the spirit of Cirenaica to their new location in order to create additional opportunities for writers to create and collaborate alongside one another in a shared space.  “When writers come together for three days of intensive, yet rejuvenating, writing and fellowship, there’s no limit to the magic that can occur,” says CVWG director B.J. Hollars.

The 450.00 cost includes three-nights lodging, on-site meals and drinks, personalized instruction and critique, field notebook, craft talks and keynote address, bus transport to and from the Pablo Center at the Confluence, complimentary ticket to the Writer-in-Residence Reading, and all other on-site events.

FOR MORE INFORMATION on The Priory Writers’ Retreat (including daily schedule, available workshops, and applications), go here:

Contact CV Writers Guild Director B.J. Hollars at

The Priory Writers’ Retreat grounds

The Priory Writers’ Retreat grounds

Love Hurts (But Less So with Stories and Music!)


The Sound and Stories Series was born of a single premise: everything’s better with music.  Even stories—as powerful as they are—can be amplified by the perfect musical note.

 (If you need proof of the magic of sound, we dare you to watch the shark attack scene from Jaws.  Without the famous orchestral accompaniment, the scene’s a bit of a yawner.  But we digress…)

On Thursday, February 13 at 7PM, the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild is excited to host the second in our Sound and Stories Series: “Love Hurts.”  Just in time for Valentine’s Day, this event will feature stories of heartbreak and hilarity by local writers Laura Buchholz, Garrett Denney, Jodie Arnold, Tom Giffey, and Jay Gilbertson.  Their stories will be accompanied by famed musicians Peter Phippen, Victoria Shoemaker and Tiit Raid.

We can’t say too much about the stories without giving them away, but if you like breakups (wait—who likes breakups?), ski jumps, online relationships gone awry, and the mysteries of love, life, and death, then you’ll need to be sure to snag your ticket today. 

As for the music, if you’ve never heard Grammy Award nominated flutist Peter Phippen, singer/songwriter guitarist/flutist Victoria Shoemaker and percussionist/visual artist Tiit Raid, you simply must.  Click here for a sample of their work.

Left to right: Peter Phippen, Victoria Shoemaker, Tiit Raid. Credit: Peter Phippen / Facebook

Left to right: Peter Phippen, Victoria Shoemaker, Tiit Raid. Credit: Peter Phippen / Facebook

What are you waiting for?  Be a part of a magical evening, and come celebrate love in all its variations!

When You’re A Twenty-Year-Old That Wants To Write


by Emma O’Shea 

I sit in a small coffee shop as the light dissolves below the snowy ground outside, to listen to the lyrical lines of fellow peers. Almost entirely made up of twenty-something-year-old Eau Claire university students, we gather around to share what we have written. Whether it be poetry, prose or none of the above, we share our stories, creative lines and emotional turmoil in hopes that it will resonate with someone. Some walk to the microphone taking a breath before looking up at the clustered crowd, while others march up to the microphone with solid conviction. Yet, everyone seems filled with a sense of elation as their final words twirled out of their mouths into the room. All of us came together to grow into the community of writing that nurtures our love for the written word.

Learning how to write is self-exploration. We use it to capture our nostalgia, create whirlwind stories, and as a therapeutic rescue to the thoughts that bombard us all. During the tumultuous years of college, we lengthen our concepts of who we are, and we mold our skills to different degrees. For some of us, this means taking the risk that accompanies trying to become a writer and sticking with it into the unknown. We gather in writing workshops and cluster together on cold weekend nights, to nurture our passions and encourage our bounds of comfortability to expand.

Delving into the uncertain world of writing is intimidating and nerve-wracking. When we are still attempting to get a concrete grasp on ourselves, we are also traversing an environment in which you must put yourself out in the open; raw and genuine. It’s something new and maybe slightly frightening, but also where we feel most empathetic towards one another. You take deep breaths up until you’re in front of the room with your poem between two shaking hands or you’re sending submissions into any contest you can find. It’s all about trying to find your own way when there isn’t a solid path or set guidelines that you should follow. 

Writing is an unnerving world for college students, but it’s something we push ourselves through because of what writing means to us. Writing is an endless means of creativity and expression, exemplifying the humanness of storytelling and connection through emotion. Through writing, we learn more deeply about ourselves. As Joan Didion wrote in her book of essays, The White Album, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Talking about Academic Opportunities, Family History, and Motivation with Mary Shaw

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by Chloe Ackerman

Mary Shaw reflects on time that she spent with her family in Ukraine in her collection, Plum Season: A collection of poetry, prose, photography, and conversations. It was released on December 8th at Dotters Books; she read her book to a warm room full of love and eager ears. Shaw is majoring in critical studies in literature, culture, and film at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. In this interview, she recounts her writing process, academic opportunities, how she kept motivation, and what it was like to show her family what she created. 

CHLOE ACKERMAN: Can you tell me about how you got the opportunity to create and publish this book?

MARY SHAW: I got this opportunity through a grant from the school through ORSP, so that means that I will be presenting in the spring at CERCA as well. Dr. Theresa Kemp, who is an English professor here, actually told me about it and convinced me to apply.

CA: What was it like writing everything in this and putting together this book? 

MS: Putting it all together and writing it was fun, obviously. This is something that I had wanted to do for a very long time, but I am very bad with deadlines, so it was stressful in a way. Also, my self-consciousness would come in sometimes and be like, “this is not good enough,” so I learned a lot about moving forward and pushing even when I felt like it was difficult to keep writing.

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CA: Did you write a lot of Plum Season before you knew you had the grant to write the collection? 

MS: Yes, I did. Most of the poems I had written either in Ukraine or immediately once I returned from Ukraine. There are a few things that I wrote extra for this specific collection. Especially the conversations, I went through old interviews I had on my phone and transcribed them, but all the photography was taken in Ukraine.

CA: Did you have any kind of process for this while you were writing? 

MS: I had a very loose process. Again, I’m not good at self-regulating, or keeping myself from going out, and actually staying home and doing it. My process was to sit down for fifteen minutes, and, whether I wrote something and ended up writing longer than 15 minutes or I wrote nothing, at least I sat down for fifteen minutes and tried. Most of the time when I did that, I ended up writing longer, so it was just getting myself into the seat every day for fifteen minutes to do that.

CA: Was there anything you learned about yourself while you were there while you were putting this collection together? 

MS: I learned that I can indeed write okay after a little bit. I learned that I need to push myself if I want to get results, and the outcome is only on me and nobody else. I learned that even once I do write, and I feel that it’s poor, if I keep writing and keep working on it, it does improve.

CA: Did it make you look at the time you spent in Ukraine differently? 

MS: Definitely, I heard some saying a while ago that if you want to write about yourself, don’t write the day after. You need time to process what had gone on and look at it objectively. Looking back after two years and thinking about how I wanted to write this, I definitely thought of my time in a different way. Whatever I was writing, these were the memories that I was going to keep, and these were the memories that would live on. Now that I wrote it down, it would only ever be like that on paper. If I go back to Ukraine tomorrow, it’s not going to be anything like what I wrote. Memories, they keep things alive. 

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CA: What was it like for your family to see the finished product of the book?

MS: My dad’s usually a pretty silent guy, but he was very proud. My sister was really giddy. My mom’s funny. I would show her it, and the first thing she would do is be like, “okay I found a mistake”, or she’d be like, “I don’t like this picture, use a different one”, or “I think you used the incorrect grammar there”. But when all was said and done, she was crying at the release, and she cried each time she read it and she was very proud of me. I think they’re all very proud and happy that there is something on paper of our family history.

CA: Did you show Plum Season to your mom as you wrote it? 

MS: Yeah, I showed her my first draft, and then she saw the one at the release party. I didn’t really keep her up-to-date regularly, it was more like I wanted to do it on my own and then show her because I knew she would want to insert herself. I let myself do some things and then let her see it after I already finished.

CA: Is there anything else you wanted to share about your book or about this opportunity? 

MS: I think, just a plug, I didn’t think this would be possible for me to do at my age, and I really encourage any students at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire to ask their faculty advisors about grant work and CERCA. Honestly, while you’re here, you might as well go for all of the possibilities that you have at hand.

Dear Writer - January 2019


Dear Writer, 

I’ve been working on a piece for a while now. I’ve been thinking about it, writing it, revising it, having friends give me feedback, etc. But I feel like no matter how many times I come back to it, or how many different ways I try to write it, something doesn’t seem to be working. I’m afraid that it might be a lost cause, which is painful because it seemed like such a good idea. How do you know when to abandon a piece? How can I tell if I just need to step away from the piece for a little bit, or if it’s not worth coming back to? 

Banging my Head Against the Keyboard

Dear Banging My Head Against the Keyboard,

I know the feeling! And I’m afraid there isn’t a good way to know, in my experience, if a piece is truly, unequivocally dead, or merely (to borrow from Miracle Max) “mostly dead.” I’ve been dancing with some stories and longer ideas for over a decade, and haven’t been able to tell what’s what with them completely, no matter how long I let them languish.

But, I do have some ideas. Perhaps they will be helpful. 

First, stepping away from a piece need not be abandoning it. If it helps you to think of them as totally separate acts, then go for that interpretation. When I am sitting with a piece that just isn’t working, some time away often does seem to help. And the nice thing about it is that you can step away for as long as you like. Perhaps after a few weeks or a month you feel refreshed and ready to take another swing at it. During that break, you may even come up with a new idea that helps it come together better. 

Or perhaps you never feel called to revisit the piece and move onto completely new projects. That’s okay. Letting go of an idea can be immensely freeing. It is your work, and yours alone, and only you can decide what is worthy of your attention. And just because a piece is not completed does not make the process of working on it not valuable. You’ve no doubt learned things from this process, and those lessons, those small joys, and colossal struggles, cannot be taken away no matter what happens.

I have another thought: submit the damn thing. Send it places. See if anyone likes it. See if you get a personalized rejection letter. See if someone wants to publish it, or wants to work with you on editing it. You never know. One of the biggest joys to me of publishing a piece, even in a publication with a tiny readership, is that once a story has a home like that, I feel like I no longer have to think about it. It is “finished” in a way that is outside my control, and that frees my brain up for other things. 

Even if it is not accepted, there may be some value in letting it exist outside of yourself, having it be exposed to an audience that isn’t close to you. See if it has legs. See how far it can travel. You can always keep tinkering if you like. 

The glorious thing about abandoning a piece of writing is that it doesn’t disappear. You can pick it back up again whenever you like, or never again, and either choice is fine. As long as you keep writing, keep reading, keep working, keep experimenting, you are living the writing life. And that is, as Julie Schumacher puts it in Dear Committee Members, “despite its horrors, possibly one of the few sorts of lives worth living at all.”

I imagine this may not be the practical advice sought, but when it comes to stories, practicality can only take us so far. 


Writing, Wine, Women, and Collaborative Community: A Conversation with Jo Ellen Burke of 200 Main Gallery

200 Main Gallery, 200 Main St, Eau Claire

200 Main Gallery, 200 Main St, Eau Claire

By Chloe Ackerman

I met with Jo Ellen Burke of 200 Main Gallery, and she told me about her hopes of bringing together Eau Claire’s creative community with their future events. The gallery’s latest attraction is Eau Claire’s first wine dispenser. Gallery patrons can buy wine and hang out before local events, read, write, or meet with friends. 

As Burke gave me a tour of the gallery, she explained how Eau Claire’s diverse art scene has seen much of its success because of constant collaboration and support from local artists and venues.  We also talked about the history of the 200 Main Gallery’s building (200 Main St., Eau Claire), how Eau Claire’s art culture has developed over time and the gallery’s new series of literary events focusing on local women writers. Join us on our virtual tour!

JO ELLEN BURKE: Often people will just come in and work. They’ll work on their computer or read at the bar. During the week we are open Wednesday through Saturday noon to ten or eleven depending on what’s going on. As I show you around, you can see, we have a lounge area with some merchandise for sale, but it’s also a meeting room for book groups or writer’s groups. It can fit about eight or ten people. We really like the privacy of this room; it’s kind of a cozier spot. 

You might like the idea that the whole place used to be a book bindery, so as a book bindery they kept their paperwork in a vault instead of a bank. Paper was precious; there was no way to back books up in terms of a computer, so they treated it as a very valuable source. Now the book bindery’s vault is where we keep our wine.

CHLOE ACKERMAN: Is a lot of the art throughout the gallery by local artists? 

JB: It’s pretty much local artists except for just a few. There’s a sculptor from Wausau, and we have a ceramic art teacher from Sturgeon Bay, and then we have another ceramic artist from Lake Geneva, and the rest are pretty much from Eau Claire.

I do a lot of textile work, so I do the mirrors and napkins, and I like painting on textiles, so that’s a lot of what I do along with some painting. A lot of the work around here is from Terry, who’s my partner and is a sculptor and a painter. Terry sculpts a lot of horses; you’ve probably seen them at the Oxbow. He did the big tall steel horses that were downtown for a while, they called it Tres Caballos

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Could you tell me what types of events you hold that bring together different facets of the local art scene, and about the upcoming events? 

JB: We will have writers and authors. We are also going to have demonstrations. For example, Terry does live painting, and we auction off what he’s painted. So you can come and watch him; he’s very comfortable painting in front of people. 

We’ve had two musicians here. We like to have live music and collaborate with the area musicians. We had Robin Mink on guitar, and we had Julie Majkowski on flute. We really like the ambiance that that’s created for the arts through music as well.

Our only restriction is space, but it’s a cozy atmosphere; people feel comfortable here. In January or February, we are going to launch what we’re calling 200 Main Mobile, and that’s a means of getting artwork out to the public and to public businesses and nonprofits.

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Why did you choose to host events highlighting local women writers?

JB: One of the big things that we believe in is an array of art.  We believe in music, theater, writers, and others, and we know we have so many great authors in town. As we talked about writers, we saw many events that were highlighting the great writers in our area, but we didn’t see too many that focused on women. 

I felt it was timely, and it is a nice opportunity to focus on women writers. We decided that, on the first Wednesday of every month, we’d host something called Women Writers on Wednesday. Now, we’re thinking we should probably do it more than once a month because there are so many great writers, but we’ll just start with every month for now. 

The first natural choice was Cathy Sultan. She is so knowledgeable and articulate. She writes beautifully, and she has this expertise in the Middle East that is really instructive. She was here on the 5th of December. We ended up selling out the first day; we filled thirty seats with free tickets.

In January, we’ll have Patti See. Then in February, we will have Molly Patterson, and we are eager to have her and get to know her a little better. In March, we are going to have Jan Carroll, and we have others that we are reaching out to.

There is such a great writers community in this town. People really support each other, people like BJ Hollars, he’s a wonderful person and I think he’s done a great job collaborating with writers and bringing some light to the talents that we have here. The Pablo Center has done wonderful things for writers, too. We want to really support and continue that kind of momentum. There’s this wave in the creative economy here. I think it’s less of a wave, and it’s embedded in our culture now in a way that is very positive and strong. 

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CA: I grew up in Eau Claire, and I can tell that the art scene has definitely grown since I was younger. 

JB: Yeah, it’s such a different city. You might remember just five to eight years ago, you’d go downtown and there was nothing going on. Now, thanks to Volume One and other investors like Zach Halmstad, it’s really made a difference.

Not to get too philosophical, but our community has embraced the arts so well, and I think the momentum for the arts has just really carried on. The factors in the creative economy are somewhat like silos. I think that theater is a silo, music is a silo, the fine arts are a silo, and writing is a silo. I think if we can do a little more collaboration and meshing of those, it creates a better and more fluid art scene. I am hoping that we can be a part of that and show the respect that we all want for the other disciplines of the other types of art, so it’s a win-win.

From Query To Publication

Walter Rhein


Two years ago my friend Dan Woll, the author of North of Highway 8, approached me with a manuscript.

“I’ve got this book,” he said, “and I think there’s something there but I can’t quite make it work, and I’m sick of trying. How about this, you work on it for a year and if we can make something of it, we’ll publish it as a co-authored project.”

Initially, I was skeptical. I knew Dan to be a very talented writer, but it’s always difficult to find a publisher for a manuscript. I have relationships with Perseid Press and Harren Press, but I didn’t feel inclined to leverage those situations to get a co-authored work published. That meant if I took on the project, I’d be starting from scratch.

However, I had just finished The Literate Thief for Perseid, which had several books queued up ahead of it for publication. I had some time on my hands, so I concluded the least I could do was jump into Dan’s manuscript and see what I thought.

The manuscript had the working title ‘Fortune’s Fools.’ The book followed the lives of a young boy and a young girl. The story contained a philosophical exploration of mundane moments of ESP; like when the phone rings and you intuitively know who is calling. Everybody has had an experience like that, so it’s a relatable way to begin a discussion on a subject that people are curious about, but are also tempted to dismiss. I thought it was a strong hook so I kept reading.

The manuscript was as Dan presented. It had moments of really great writing and strong ideas, but it tended to lose the thread. Rather than read it through to the end, I began to do rewrites as I went. I figured I’d either finish the book, or give up at some point, but at least I was being productive. As I worked, I would send the rewrites to Dan to get his input.

“How are you doing this?” he asked.

“Doing what?”

“How are you rewriting a story that you haven’t even finished reading?”

“I’m picking up the narrative clues that you put in the book and I’m emphasizing the ones that most appeal to me. I trust your instincts as a writer so I think it will go somewhere. I hope it works!”

Throughout the process, I always thought there was the possibility that the book could become unwieldy, or the narrative structure I perceived would break down. But I had free time because of the delays with ‘The Literate Thief,’ so I kept working. The book eventually did have a sort of ‘Huckleberry Finn’ breakdown where the narrative took a sharp left from where it seemed to be heading. But by then, I could see how the book was supposed to end and we made the corrections.

It took a little over a year, but we finally produced a fun paranormal/romance/historical/thriller. I liked the fact that the book fit into so many categories because that meant it would be easy to market and therefore more attractive to a publisher.

About the time we finished, I saw an article about Amazon’s Kindle Scout program. Like it or not, Amazon essentially runs the publishing industry today. They have all the emails of everyone who has ever bought a book, they can push whatever they choose and make any novel a bestseller. The first place we submitted our manuscript, now called ‘Paperclip’ was to Kindle Scout. However, about a month after our submission, Amazon informed the world that they were dismantling the program. The news was rather irritating because it struck Dan and I as being a big waste of our time.

From there, we went through the usual process, scouring the Internet and web pages like Submittable for potential markets. I always enjoy working with the small presses that have developed loyal reader groups. Yes, getting placed with one of the major publishers would be like winning the lottery, but it’s just as likely. I’ve always been more inclined to follow the Michael Perry method of getting your work out there and making a big enough pile that somebody eventually starts to notice.

I found a small publisher out in West Virginia called Burning Bulb Publishing that had a Facebook group with nearly 40,000 members and I sent them a query letter.

Within a few weeks, Burning Bulb requested the manuscript, which is always a major achievement in itself. A lot of writers discuss how often they get rejections, but sometimes it is not emphasized how many books get rejected without an editor ever reading a single page of the work. As a writer, it’s easy to become dejected at a rejection letter, but it’s important to remember how difficult it is to get an honest evaluation. Editors and publishers never say, “I didn’t even look at this because I don’t have time right now, good luck placing it elsewhere.” Instead, their form letters contain language like, “Your work wasn’t right for us,” and you get those letters even without sending an excerpt from the actual manuscript.

The acceptance process always takes a few months, and during that time we continued to look for alternative homes for the book. When Burning Bulb finally offered us a contract, I was allowed a glorious day of going through my submission list and withdrawing ‘Paperclip’ from the dozen or so other places where it was still under consideration.

One publisher on Submittable had been evaluating the book for six months, and they wrote me a very kind email saying that the manuscript really stood out and that they had been strongly considering it. They even offered to help with promotion upon release. That email was encouraging because the next time I have a manuscript ready, they will be among the first publishers I contact.

Both Dan and I have similar expectations for this novel, it’s a small release with a small press and we hope that people find it entertaining and thought-provoking. We are already starting to organize library appearances, and public reaction has been encouraging. This is the start of a new journey, and I’ll be posting updates on my web page to let you know how it goes. Thanks in advance for the support!

Walter Rhein can be reached for questions or comments at: