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.

Bruce Taylor On His New Book, Breaking Forms, and Fish Chowder

credit: Justin Patchin

credit: Justin Patchin

by Chloe Ackerman 

I will never stop being amazed by the awe-inspiring power of words. In my studies as a creative writing major at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, I have consistently found myself motivated by the writing processes of other writers. I was especially excited to have the opportunity to interview Bruce Taylor—former poet laureate of Eau Claire, and professor emeritus at UWEC—about his new book Poetry Sex Love Music Booze & Death. Bruce Taylor will be reading from this book at The Local Store in downtown Eau Claire at 5PM on Monday, October 8th. Be sure to swing by and pick up a copy!

Bruce Taylor Book.jpg

Chloe Ackerman: Has your poetry style evolved over time? If it has, how has it changed? 

 Bruce Taylor: As a young poet in the 60’s I would say, along with many others, things like “the sonnet is where old poets go to die” What I didn’t know I meant was I wasn’t good enough to write one. It takes a while to get your chops. Formal poetry is easy to do badly but hard to do well. You try.

CA: Have you noticed any changes in the poetry or literary scene around Eau Claire?

BT: I don’t know if more folks are writing across the Chippewa Valley, though it seems so. There are certainly many more venues to share: the readings at places like the library, The Local Store, The Pablo Center, publications such as Local Lit, Barstow & Grand, Twig. And the CVWG is directly responsible for injecting new energy and interest in writing. For a population the size of ours, the CVWG list an extraordinary number of writing groups, and book clubs.

 CA: At what point in the poem writing process do you decide to put it in a form?

 BT: Very early, and you don’t “put” it into a form as much as coax, tease, worry, beat it in that direction. The form can always be abandoned, and the poem turns into something more free (er) verse, and often better. Or you can simply cheat. We call it “pushing the envelope.” I have some 16-line sonnets, 3-line couplets and an envoi-less sestina. A form is only as good as it can be challenged, stretched, adapted. Still only about half of my poems are in traditional forms. The new book brings them together for the first time in one volume.

 CA: What question would you like to be asked that gets at the core of you as a writer and/or your writing?

 BT: You just asked it.

 CA: On October 8th at 5pm you are reading from your new book, Poetry Sex Love Music Booze & Death, at a Local Lit: Off the Page event in the Local Store. What do you hope people will take from this event and other events in the series with other local authors?

 BT: A book.

 CA: Is there anything else you would like to share?

 BT: I make a very good fish chowder.


On Eating Fire, Following the Research Trail, And Enduring, Enduring, Enduring: A Q&A with Tessa Fontaine

credit: Annie Agnone

credit: Annie Agnone

BJ Hollars

During my time at the University of Alabama, I had the pleasure of sharing the classroom with nonfiction writer Tessa Fontaine, whose debut memoir The Electric Woman, has received rave reviews from Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Vogue, among many other venues.  Additionally, her book been named a New York Times Editor's pick, as well as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick.  Which is the long way of saying: I’ve got some pretty talented friends.  On October 19, Tessa will host the program “Recklessness, Obsession and Wild Abandon” as part of the Chippewa Valley Book Festival’s annual dinner at The Lismore Hotel.  Purchase your tickets here.

Read on to learn more about Tessa, her writing, and the books that inspired her own.

 BJ Hollars: In graduate school, your work explored an array of topics—from Alabama ghost stories of hoboes riding the rails to Jacques Cousteau.  Did your interest in immersive journalistic techniques, such as joining the last sideshow, seem like a natural progression, or were you spurred to action due to your mother's health issues?

 Tessa Fontaine: I love writing nonfiction because it gives me permission to follow the trail of something I find interesting as deep into the story as I can go. That's what I loved about those earlier nonfiction projects I was working on, and it's the same thing that prompted the beginning of my investigation into the sideshow. But I think my mom's illness—and her impending trip to Italy, from which I didn't think she'd return—that gave me the final push to actually join up with another life entirely. I didn't really know much about immersive journalism before that, but I was hungry to be swallowed by another world, since the one I knew seemed to be falling apart. 

BH: Over the years, I've regularly taught your essays with students, and they're always astonished by your bravery.  Specifically, your willingness to leave school to pursue a life wholly unknown to you.  Can you describe those first moments when you transitioned from graduate student to fire-eating bally girl?    

TF: The transition from graduate student to fire-eater wasn't immediate. In graduate school, you are valued for your brain, for what kinds of things you can think and write. In the sideshow, while quick wit and a fast tongue are important, the most fundamental skill was a physical ability to endure. So I found myself, in my first few days out with the sideshow, still trying to define myself and connect with people by how I could talk about myself, by my accomplishments. But there was always work to be done. Packing and scrubbing and eating fire. So I quickly adapted, understanding that the way to be valued out on the road is to eat fire with such confidence and allure that the audience can't help but buy tickets for the show inside. To work for hours putting up the circus tent without complaining that you're too tired, or the sun is too hot. It was a shifting of work values and skills, neither one better than the other, but a definite rearrangement. 

BH: In writing about learning to eat fire, you note, “The only way to do it is to do it,” adding later that “There is no trick.”  For me, this seems an apt metaphor for many of life's difficulties.  (Robert Frost's line "The only way out is through" also comes to mind.)  When grappling with the loss of your mother, did you find yourself experiencing a similar sentiment?  Does grief, too, transcend the notion of a trick?     

TF: I think grief absolutely transcends the notion of trick. In the face of a profound and sustained loss, as was happening with my mom for years, there's an understandable desire for things to change. For there to be some shift, some miracle, some departure. I came to understand why so many people find themselves alienated from their loved ones in the face of a long-term debilitating illness—choosing to be distanced. While my mom was sick, I kept waiting for something to change, and the heartbreaking and exhausting reality that she wasn't going to get better was almost impossible to accept. But ultimately, that's all there was to do. There was no trick, nothing to make it easier or faster. There was just this: endure, endure, endure.

BH: Some have compared your spirited prose and adventurous spirit to memoirist Cheryl Strayed's work, in particular, her bestselling book Wild.  Did Strayed's work—or the work of other writers—inform The Electric Woman? 

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TF: Yes! I love Cheryl Strayed's spirit and am honored to be compared to her. I think stories of people—especially women - doing physically amazing things are some of my favorites. I had a lot of other books open near me while I wrote The Electric Woman as well—Lidia Yuknavitch's memoir The Chronology of Water, Justin Torres' novel We the Animals, anything by Anne Carson, Jazz by Toni Morrison—I keep a pretty wide array of books open around me and imitate their prose as best I can. 

BH: What don't readers know about your book or your experience writing it?

TF: For me, writing is one of the greatest exercises in empathy. To write the characters in The Electric Woman, I had to think of them as both real human beings, and also characters, versions of the real people, since it's impossible to show all of who someone is. And to do that, as is necessary with a fictional character as well, you have to show all sides—the good, the bad, and the ugly. The lovely things they do and their flaws. I think it helped me become a better person— to have to think through a person's best sides as well as their mistakes. It created such a swell of empathy, and I'm very grateful for that. 

Cirenaica Spotlight! On “Palpable Energy”, Poetry, and Loss” An Interview with Wisconsin Poet Laureate Karla Huston

Karla Huston

Karla Huston

by Emily Hurst

Calling all poets!  Are you looking for the chance to work closely alongside Wisconsin’s poet laureate?  Excited to share your poetry and contribute to the growth of other poets?  The Chippewa Valley Writers Guild has you covered! 

This summer, Wisconsin poet laureate Karla Huston will host a three-day writers retreat titled, “Speak, Write, Memory: On Writing Poetry By Searching Within,” from June 28-July 1. In addition to working closely with Karla, this retreat also will include a guest visit from poet and novelist Jon Loomis (The Mansion of Happiness, the Frank Coffin series, among others).

Read on for a Q&A with Karla Huston to learn more about her writing as well as what she is looking forward to this summer at Cirenaica.  

EH: What do you feel is going to be a unique experience or aspect about this retreat?

Karla Huston: There is an energy that's palpable in any writers retreat as folks get to know one another and feel comfortable sharing what they have written. It's like magic.

What part of the retreat are you most excited for?

Karla Huston:  I'm most excited to meet those who attend. It's always a pleasure meeting people who are invested in poetry and the arts. I love their stories about how they "came to poetry" or how poetry found them.

Who would most enjoy and benefit from this retreat?

Karla Huston:  Anyone who writes or is thinking about writing might benefit. Even beginners! The ideas and exercises can be used for poets and prose writers, alike. 

How would you say your latest book Grief Bone is unique to your previous work and poetry in general?

Karla Huston:  My book Grief Bone is about loss. The poems are perhaps less personal and with less (maybe) sass. But readers beware! Most poets are consummate liars. You can't believe everything they say as the "literal truth." Perhaps a metaphorical truth is more accurate. Poets are artists, and they may take an idea and create a new way to express that idea. 

What can people expect to take away from this retreat?

Karla Huston:  It is my hope that attendees will take away an abundance of energy (and inspiration?) for their own writing. They can also expect a handout that (I hope) will be useful to them after the retreat!

Don’t miss this fantastic opportunity!  Click here to apply for this unique experience!  

A Q&A With Poet Jeannie Roberts On Her New Chapbook, Writer’s Block, and Inspiration

Photo:  Volume One

Photo: Volume One

by Emilia Hurst

Jeannie E. Roberts is the author of four poetry collections and one children’s book, her most recent being a chapbook, The Wingspan of Things. I recently had a chance to chat with her on an array of topics.  Check out what she has to say!

Emilia Hurst: What advice do you have for writers wanting to pursue poetry? 

Jeannie Roberts: My advice to writers wishing to pursue poetry is this: read as much poetry as possible, including the classics, sign-up for writing workshops, and invest in guides to understanding and writing poetry. There are a number of handbooks available. For beginning poets, The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser is a good one. Also, attend a local writing critique group, and write, write, write ― every day, even for a few minutes. The more you write the better you become at your craft. Lastly, if you find that poetry is truly your passion, one you'd like to make a career out of, think about obtaining a degree or two, perhaps even an MFA in creative writing.

Can you explain the process you go through when writing a poem? 

My process depends on what kind of poetry I'm writing. If it's an ekphrastic poem, words inspired by a visual image of some sort, the image really drives my words and imagination. If it's a poem inspired by an experience, usually a first line or a title emerges. From that emergence, my words tend to flow quickly. If it's a poem that requires research, which many of my poems do, I begin researching (accuracy is important). When I begin a poem, the first few drafts are handwritten, in pencil. Around the fourth draft, I transfer my words to a Word document, where I revise it. Usually it takes between 10 and 15 drafts until I'm satisfied with a poem. Toward the end of my revisions, I record myself reading the poem; I read it multiple times, listening for awkward transitions. It's here the fine-tuning takes place, small word changes, etc., until the flow and cadence feels right. A poem is meant to be read aloud; its aural integrity makes all the difference. 

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Typically, writing energizes me, especially creative fiction; however, dry, technical writing tends to exhaust me. I love a good dip into the imagination, that is what truly enlivens and energizes me. 

What can you tell us about your latest collection? Is it more different or similar to your past collections and how so? 

My latest collection, The Wingspan of Things, is a poetry chapbook published by Dancing Girl Press (Chicago, IL). This book is dedicated to my son, includes sixteen poems, and its cover displays my nature photography. Most of the poems included in this collection have been published in journals and other online magazines, including Volume One's Local Lit section. Some of the poems in The Wingspan of Things have also appeared in my other poetry collections (Beyond Bulrush, Nature of it All, and Romp and Ceremony), but there are some new poems included, too. The work in this chapbook is similar to Nature of it All (Finishing Line Press, 2013) with many poems about nature, in particular birds, butterflies, and other winged-creatures. It contains moments surrounding and memories of my son, and suggests the fleeting nature and flight of things, including parenthood. Jason Splichal, local teacher, writer, and founder of Sky Island Journal wrote this about my chapbook: "The Wingspan of Things is a luminous journey through landscape and memory, and Roberts' elegant craft and subtle sense of rhythm are constant companions throughout the collection. Few poets can transport readers, from the tactile to the spiritual, the way she can." 

Do you believe in writer's block? 

I believe there are fallow periods for writers, not necessarily block. Fallowness can be a time of inactivity, where new ideas can develop and percolate. Thirteenth-century Persian poet Rumi sums up this idea of fallowness (which is liken to winter) quite nicely in this quote: "Do not think the garden loses its ecstasy in winter. It is quiet, but the roots are down there riotous." 

Where do you most often get your writing inspiration? 

I find inspiration just about anywhere, but especially while exploring our natural world. Outdoor activity, biking, hiking, and walking, exhilarates my Muse. I do find that prayer and meditation, quieting the mind, listening internally, has also been an integral part of my writing process and inspiration. 

I'd like to add . . . The majority of my work includes richly crafted descriptions of our natural world. Through the cycle, impact, and imagery of nature, I try to create a framework where the reader can find meaning and commonality within their own lives. My poetry is typically written in free verse, but I also enjoy exploring poetic forms, including found poems and crown sonnets. Within my work, I tend to use the same literary devices, including assonance, metaphor, simile, analogy, imagery, alliteration, internal rhyme, rhythm and rhyme.

Sci-fi Sister Act: An Interview with Caroline Akervik and Ruth Rankin


Recently, I got a chance to converse with Caroline Akervik and Ruth Rankin – sisters and co-authors of a new YA sci-fi book called Halcyon. Check it out ...

BJ Hollars: Tell us a bit about Halcyon. What's the book about and how did it come to be?

Caroline Akervik and Ruth Rankin: Halcyon is a Young Adult Science Fiction novel about a teenaged girl who discovers that things are way more complicated than they seem at her new school.  

It’s hard enough to always be the new girl at school for Hailey Schick. She’s managed to irritate the ruling clique at the school and Trevor, the boy she sort of likes, is total social outcast. Nothing is as it seems at University. Preston and Chelsea rule the school with an iron fist and are obsessed with stomping out all nonconformity. There is more going on here than the usual cutthroat high school games. Eternally young sentinels from the parallel universe of Halcyon have infiltrated their school and plan to use it as a launching pad for a planned takeover of Earth. Hailey and Trevor may be all that stands between Earth and a takeover by the militaristic Juventus.  Halcyon blends elements of the Gossip Girl with The Hunger Games. 

The novel developed from conversations that Ruth and I had while waiting for my kids to finish swim lessons more than ten years ago. It took us a very long time to understand the story, the characters, and the problem that they face. 

BJH: Can you tell us a bit about your collaboration.  How did you two meet?  How did you decide to write together?

CA & RR: We are sisters. We’ve always talked about and discussed books that we have both read, or wanted to read. So it was a natural next step to try and write something together. We also both like to read the same genres, so we just kind of brainstormed what types of novels we would like to read as avid young adult fans. There is a really special energy about YA literature that drew us to the genre. We started with the question of “What if…” That question led us down the rabbit hole to Halcyon, a world where a sinister order of the eternally and unnaturally young rule.

BJH: What was that writing process like?  What are the upsides to collaboration?  The downsides?

CA & RR: We live in different states, California and Wisconsin, respectively, so it takes some imagination and lots of shared docs to write together. Collaboration requires some creativity. We discuss ideas and possible story developments over the phone. Brainstorming with another person who knows the characters and the story arc well is very powerful, but you do have to work your way through arguments/discussions when our visions or ideas diverge. And if that fails, there is always rock, paper, scissors. 

BJH: What advice do you have for folks working in the young adult genre?

CA & RR: Both of us read a lot of YA lit. Our advice to those interested in writing in the genre is to not write “down” to young readers, rather to assume that they are a discerning and demanding readers. However, there are some real distinctions to YA lit. YA books tend to be less wordy and get to the action faster. YA readers are less patient with authors. The best way to write in a genre is to actually read the genre. You get a sense of what the readers expect, and it can shape how your narrative comes together. 

BJH: What else would you like to share about the book?  Any lessons learned along the way?

CA & RR: We are debating the idea of writing a sequel to this novel. Earth may not be safe from the Juventus, so we may need to see what Hailey and Trevor are up to next. As far as lessons go, we’re not entirely sure how we ended up writing a Young Adult Science Fiction novel. As you grow in understanding your characters, they choose their own path, and, as the author, you have to make it work within the framework of the novel. When you’ve finished writing something, and you reread it, you have to come away from the experience knowing that you have written honestly and from the heart, no matter what the genre. 

Spotlight Writer: Lauren Fisher

Lauren Fisher (and her dog Betty)

Lauren Fisher (and her dog Betty)

By John Paluta

Lauren Fisher is a recent graduate of the University of Alaska Fairbanks with a degree in Art/Photography. In September of 2017, she became an editor for Volume One. Below is a brief interview on her thoughts on Volume One and the journey that brought her here:

How are you settling into the role of associate editor?

The Volume One staff is phenomenal and welcoming, so settling in has been pretty smooth!  I just need to reintroduce the Oxford comma and ditch the double-spaces after sentences, and I’ll practically be native. ;)  There’s a smidge more to it than that, but I am looking forward to contributing all I can to the publication.

Is Eau Claire to your liking? I understand you come from Alaska. That’s certainly a change!

There’s opportunity to engage with your community wherever you go, but Eau Claire really takes it up a notch.  My husband and I have had a really fun time discovering the “city life.”  We both grew up miles out of the town or in small communities – fewer than 500 people – so being able to step out of an apartment into the hubbub is a new experience.  We’re trying to make the most of the great local entertainment and products, and of course how fresh locally-produced food is!

Is there much of a ‘culture shock’ that came from traveling this far south?

I was expecting to get a bit of culture shock, but I think it’s rougher on you Midwesterners than it is on me!  Folks don’t seem to appreciate their region being referred to as “down South,” or having me correct them when they call snowmachines “snowmobiles.”  Seriously, though, while the culture is a lot different in the lower-48, it’s more like moving to the real world than entering a foreign land.

What brought you into the realm of writing? Did you know that you wanted to become an editor?

When I was in high school, I decided I wanted to be a journalist.  I was curious, unsatisfied and indignant; I think I just liked the idea of being able to ask questions and feel entitled to the answers.  The desire to edit came a little later, probably while I was in college.  I worked as an English tutor for a year, and got on as an editor at the student paper.  I found that editing is a really fulfilling activity.  Communicating using writing is the fun kind of challenging, so I get a kick out of communicating about communicating.  It’s also really special to collaborate with someone to take their writing to the next level, even if it just takes a comma or a hyphen.

What sort of writing do you like to do during your free time? I read your piece ‘The Making of a Maze’ and loved the intro!

I’m flattered that you liked “The Making of a Maze” intro.  I was fond of it, so I’m glad it played.  I don’t do as much writing in my free time as I should, but when I do sit down to make words on my own time, they’re generally either rhetoric or fiction.  I write a lot of arguments because I think they’re great mental exercise – they require research, reasoning, and consideration for how your words will be interpreted.  As for fiction, I’d like to someday learn how to tell stories like Margaret Atwood, George Orwell, Piers Anthony or Ayn Rand.  I am fascinated with how fiction can be used to communicate concerns about political and social issues without scaring people off or boiling their blood.  That’s a long way off, though.  For now I’ll deal in fact.

I understand you have an interest in photography. How did you come to love the art of picture taking? Do you plan to utilize your skills in journalism and photography in tandem at Volume One?

I’m a little less enamored with photography than I once was, but I still appreciate the technical challenges of capturing light and preserving memories.  I do have a few ideas for photojournalistic projects with Volume One, but they’re back-burnered until I’m fully integrated into the writing/editing gig.

How excited are you to be the new associate editor of Volume One?

I am still thrilled to be working at Volume One.  Sometimes I’m sitting at my desk, writing or corresponding or editing, and it just hits me all over again that I get to do this job.  I’m having a difficult time reconciling the fact that I don’t really believe in “luck,” with how incredibly lucky I am.

Spotlight: Sarah Lou Richards On Songwriting

Sarah Lou Richards

Sarah Lou Richards

By BJ Hollars

I first meet Sarah Lou Richards on a rainy night in August.  She’s scheduled to play the Sounds like Summer Concert series, though given the uncooperative weather, is forced to cut the show short.  

Concertgoers pack up all around me, squeezing the water from their drenched blankets as they head back toward their cars.  But since my family and I are already soaked beyond saving, we take our time, and in our casualness, eventually make our way toward Sarah Lou.  

I introduce myself, tell her how much I enjoyed her music, and mention how great it would be to have her drop by one of my creative writing classes some time if it ever fit her schedule.

“Of course!” she says.

“Really?” I say.  

And then, a few months later, she makes good on it. 

The following April I meet Sarah Lou for the second time.  She’s riding out more miserable weather, this time in the visitor’s parking lot hut on the UW-Eau Claire campus.

She is unmistakable in her red-rimmed glasses, her leather boots, her guitar case slung over her shoulder. 

“Hey there,” I say, nodding to the hut.  “I see you’ve found our green room.”

“I’ll take it,” she laughs.

We thread through the swarms of students until making our way to my office.

“So you’re on tour?” I ask.

“I am,” she agrees.  “But I’m also helping my dad.  He just bought a new house in Menomonie, so today I’ve spent most of the day sanding boards and painting bathrooms, that sort of thing.”

“The glamorous rock star life,” I joke.

Sarah Lou offers a warm, Midwestern smile, one that reminds me that when she’s not busy being a rock star she’s busy being a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a fiancé, a friend, and today, my visiting lecturer. 

“So you graduated from here a few years ago?” I ask as we settle into my office.

“Yup, exactly.  I can’t really remember the year,” she says wryly.  “We won’t talk about that.”

What we do know—minus her exact graduation year—is that she studied to become a music teacher.  Though after a fortuitous visit to Nashville, she decided to try a new path: packing her bags and moving to Music City in August of 2007.

“I was totally taken by it,” she says of Nashville.  “I didn’t play guitar and I hadn’t written any songs yet, [but] I learned very quickly that Nashville is definitely a songwriting city, so I just kind of scrambled and started to make it happen.”

“So you were kind of just ‘driven by the dream’ so to speak?”


“And never looked back?”

“Nope, definitely not.”

Admittedly, I’m more than a little inspired.  So many dream big, and yet putting oneself in a position to achieve those dreams is often easier said than done.  But not for Sarah Lou.  Rather than put her dream on hold she made it her priority, and after eight years of doing odd jobs in addition to her music, at last, music’s her job.

“Most months I can pay my electric bill,” she jokes.

Though it hasn’t been easy, the journey has been a joy.  And her music (which she describes as “folk Americana, with some country roots”) has benefited from that journey.

“It’s a lot of storytelling,” she says of her lyrics, “pretty relatable stuff.  And I definitely take a lot from my own life and the lives of those around me.”

Which means many of her songs are deeply personal, which can be complicated, she explains, when collaborating with others.

“It took me a really long time to find a collaborating partner,” she tells me.  “Nashville is really big on co-writing, which is awesome, but a lot of times its totally a cold call.  You just walk into a room with somebody you’ve never met and sit down and write a song.  And in that aspect, that’s how songwriting is just like any other job: you go and you do your job.  But for me,” she continues, “that’s been kind of tricky because it’s so personal.  Sometimes its scary because things come out that are really honest, and you know that listeners, even if you’re writing about something that’s not about your own life, that’s how it’s heard.  That can be intimidating—to be that brave, that honest.”

But it’s that honesty, I reason, that allows for relatability as well.   

Later that afternoon, she’ll encourage my students to interpret a few of her songs.

What do the lyrics mean to you? she’ll ask.

The students will offer their interpretations, Sarah Lou will nod, and then, she’ll provide insight into her true intentions.  Not that she necessarily has a preferred interpretation of her music.

“If [a song’s] received exactly as you intended, there’s something rewarding about being that clear,” she tells me.  “But it’s also really special if something totally different is taken from it.”

Connecting with listeners, Sarah Lou explains, is what matters most.

As we wrap up our conversation, I ask her to tell me about the highs and lows of being a musician in Nashville.  “Do you get a little of both?”

“Well I don’t think we have time for all the low moments,” she grins and then proceeds to tell me her high moment.

It occurred on her second day in Nashville.  After a full afternoon of unpacking in the sweltering August heat, Sarah Lou, her father, and her friend, took a break to visit some of the better-known music hot spots the city has to offer. 

“Let’s just pop into the Ryman,” Sarah Lou suggested—the home to the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974.  Hailed as the “Mother Church of Country Music”, one look at the expansive auditorium explains why: it indeed resembles a church, complete with stained glass windows filtering colored beams upon the 2600 seats below. 

“They had a recording booth in there where you could do, for 15.00, basically a glorified karaoke track,” Sarah Lou explains.  “So I did two Patsy Cline songs, and as we were leaving some guy came up to me, and he was holding a guitar, and he said, ‘I just heard you recording. Why don’t you get on stage?’  And so I sang ‘Walking After Midnight’ on the Grand Ole Opry stage on the second day I lived in Nashville.”

I shake my head.

“Sometimes life just conspires on your behalf.”

“Right.  And to have my dad there, you know?  It was a really good sign,” she smiles, “that I had made the right move.”

Spotlight: Drs. Audrey Fessler and Jeff Vahlbusch

Jeff Vahlbusch and Audrey Fessler

Jeff Vahlbusch and Audrey Fessler

By B.J. Hollars

No entry-level creative writing classroom is complete without a reading of Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry”, a poem that pleads with students to simply let poems be.  

Admittedly, it’s a task easier said than done, especially when so much of students’ educational lives now involves synthesis, analysis and deconstructing a thing into its simplest parts.  By poem’s end, the resigned narrator laments that despite his pleas, readers will likely still tend to beat poems “with a hose / to find out what it really means.” 

Yet what happens when we allow meaning to take a back seat to musicality?

For a decade now, Drs. Audrey Fessler and Jeff Vahlbusch have been doing just that, organizing the International Poetry Reading—a one evening event each spring dedicated to encouraging community members to recite poems in languages from across the world.  And that’s the beauty of the event: a chance to appreciate the sound of diverse languages, as well as to honor the cultures of the people who speak them.  

The impetus for the International Poetry Reading began long ago, during Jeff and Audrey’s time as junior faculty members at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland.  

“It was a small college, it was a small event, and it lasted for an hour, maybe an hour and a half, “Jeff remembers.  “Perhaps 20 people read in five or six or seven languages.  We loved it, we thought it was magical.”

“And then we arrived here at UW-Eau Claire,” Audrey continues, “and thought, ‘This would be a wonderful kind of gift and tradition perhaps we could institute here.”   

In 2006, Jeff and Audrey organized the very first International Poetry Reading here in Eau Claire.  They kept expectations low, hoping for five or six languages to be represented.  They were shocked to find the reality far exceeded their expectation: no fewer than 30 languages were represented. 

“We were blown away,” Audrey says.  “We just barely made it into our little two hour allocation of time."

They not only exceeded their expectation in terms of participants, but in terms of audience members as well, so much so that folding doors were soon spread wide to make room for overflow rooms. 

“Our startlement and joy at the initial community response has kept us motivated for a long time to continue,” Audrey notes.

“Have there been any moments that really stand out in your mind?” I ask.  “After all the poems you’ve heard and all the languages, what really resonates with you two?”

“The ones that have hit home for me, often, are when you expect someone to read and they sing,” Jeff says.  “Where you expect someone to read and they chant.”

He goes on to describe an instance in which a woman from Cambodia leaned into the microphone, informing the audience that in her country they don’t read poems, they sing them.

“And she stepped back from the microphone and in a crystal clear, little but incredibly impressive voice she sang for four minutes,” Jeff says, his eyes glossing over in memory, “and it was evocative, amazing, and wonderful.  And it brought down the house.”  

Audrey adds that for her, the most memorable moment involved being “plunged into silence.”  

“At this event people listen with all their might because they’re hearing languages they’ve never had the opportunity to hear before,” she explains.  “They’re hearing sounds that they might not have known the human voice was capable of making.”

After 45 minutes or so of intense listening, all sounds were momentarily silenced as a reader shared a poem in American Sign Language.

 “Suddenly there was nothing there for most audience members’ ears,” Audrey explains, “but there was this beautiful body in motion of poetry that had so much eloquence and grace and perfect intelligibility to audience members…” 

Of course, moments such as these don’t just happen; they require lots of work.  And for the past decade, Jeff and Audrey have dedicated hundreds of hours each year to their effort.  There are a range of duties to be fulfilled, though perhaps most complicated of all is creating a booklet which allows audience members to read each poem both in its original language as well as translated into English. 

“There’s an awful lot of work to do in just putting together the book,” Vahlbusch says, “…formatting all of these different scripts and languages—some of which our computers can’t handle—is a very, very exciting kind of work.”  

“So how has the International Poetry Reading contributed to the Chippewa Valley?” I ask.

“One thing we have thought for years,” Jeff explains, “is that this is an event in which we in the Chippewa Valley get to see what an amazingly diverse place we actually are, and how many different people’s languages and traditions, ethnicities and races, come together in this small spot in Wisconsin to live together.”

He’s right, and were it not for events such as this, perhaps we’d never stop to notice the depth and range of our community.  

Art often finds a way to bring people together, I think, and in this instance, the collision of poetry and culture seems to do just that, as well as instilling a deeper affection and appreciation for the place that we call home.       

I’d hate to lose such an event, and when I ask Audrey and Jeff if it’s really over, Audrey says, “We would like it not to be the end. It has certainly been a great labor of love for us both.”  

She goes on to say she’s hopeful that someone else might be willing to carry it on for a while.

“Free training,” Jeff says with a smile.

“And a ton of gratitude,” Audrey adds.  

This year, the tenth International Poetry Festival will be from 7:00-9:00p.m. on Wednesday, May 4 in the Ojibwe Grand Ballroom in the Davies Center on the UW-Eau Claire campus.

If it is, indeed, the last chance we have to come together in this way, be sure to clean out your ears, listen carefully, and savor as much as you can.


Music courtesy of Lulzacruza

Spotlight: Nick Meyer on The Formation and Future of Volume One

By B.J. Hollars

                                                                                           Volume One  publisher and co-founder Nick Meyer in the archive

                                                                                          Volume One publisher and co-founder Nick Meyer in the archive

“Watch your head!” Nick Meyer calls back to me.

            I do, ducking to avoid the low vent in the bowels of the basement of Eau Claire’s Local Store

            “Thanks for your concern,” I say, following after Nick’s 6’5” frame, “but I’m a little more worried about your head.”

            In truth, I hardly have to duck at all, though when I do, I rise up to spot a wall lined with boxes directly ahead of me.

            “So this is the archive,” Nick says.  “It’s where we keep all the back issues.”

            All 300 of them. 

            Certainly Nick Meyer needs no introduction.  At 22, he—along with Dale Karls and several of their friends—decided to create an arts and culture magazine in the city, though at the outset, were wholly uncertain about the magazine’s future.

            “This publication may very well be a one-time exercise in futility for us,” the inaugural issue’s opening statements reads.   “Depending on what kind of response we receive, it might continue.”

            It did continue.  It continues to continue.  And our valley is better for it.

            Nick and I meet to talk on his 37th birthday, which, as it turns out, happens to coincide with Volume One’s 14th birthday.

            “Well happy birthday to you both,” I say.

            “Thank you and thank you,” Nick smiles.

            Though I’ve long heard rumor of Volume One’s origin story, I’ve never heard it directly from Nick.  However, given the abundance of birthdays in that basement, it only seems natural to harken back to the old days.

            “What was [Volume One] initially supposed to be like for you?” I ask.

            “The whole reason it started—my personal story for it—was there was a band called the Buddyrevelles, who I thought was the greatest band in the world.”

            Nick discovered the local band while attending a show on the UWEC campus in the fall of 1998.  Four years later, long after the band had made good in Chicago, they planned a homecoming show in Eau Claire.  Nick was anxious to spread word of their return; the problem, though, was that he found it impossible to spread the word in print.  After the traditional media outlets passed on the story, Nick began to wonder how he might create a publication specifically aimed at local arts and culture.

                                                      Issue one of  Volume One

                                                      Issue one of Volume One

            Volume One was born soon after, arriving into the world on March 1, 2002—exactly 23 years after Nick.

            Years later, Nick began to realize that it wasn’t just the Buddyrevelles’ music that inspired him so deeply, but what that music came to represent: proof, as he put it, that “amazing art can be made anywhere—including a place like this.”

            For many, Volume One has become synonymous with community building—a tangible, bi-weekly reminder of the power we possess when communities come together for a cause.  Though in the case of the Chippewa Valley, it’s hard to put a finger on just what our “cause” may be.   Perhaps it’s simply to continue to grow the place that we call home.

            “So many people pulling in the same direction on a place is a powerful thing,” Nick tells me.  “And we’re lucky in that way because a lot of communities don’t have that vibe going at all.  There are places bigger and smaller than this that just sort of exist—and there’s a few people here and there—but this community’s been able to find this wave of energy and keep it building and growing, and it hasn’t even crested yet.”

            When I ask Nick to reflect on his years with the magazine—on what it means to him—he admits that he probably doesn’t reflect nearly enough; mainly, because he’s always looking forward. 

            Though for a moment I do catch him reflecting, watching as he flips through the humble, 24 black-and-white pages that became Volume One’s first volume.

            Over the years the magazine had grown tremendously both in terms of page count and readership.  But it’s grown in other ways as well, including its ability to provide jobs for over 20 of the most talented writers, designers, editors and advertising teams in the region.  More recently, Nick has also found ways to pay contributing writers for specific content as well—a step he believes will not only ensure Volume One’s high quality content for years to come, but will also better reflect his own values related to compensating writers and artists for their work.

            Nick and I wrap up our conversation, ascend the stairs—and after one last happy birthday wish courtesy of me—part ways and get back to our jobs.

            But before leaving the parking lot, my eye catches on the many bumper stickers lining Nick’s car.  Each sticker reveals his support for one facet or another of our local scene, though one sticker, in particular, stands out. 

            There it is, innocuously positioned near his right taillight: 

            I ❤︎ EC

            It’s a message so simple it can fit on a sticker, yet so complex that—300 issues later—we’ve hardly begun to explain all the reasons why.

Interview music courtesy of Lee Rosevere

Spotlight: Andy Patrie on Half-Life

By B.J. Hollars

We meet at Sacred Heart Church in the early evening—a place I’ve never been, but one Andy Patrie returned to daily for five years as a child.

            “I went to school next door here to the church,” 40-year-old Patrie tells me as we slip inside the propped wooden door leading us into the foyer.  “I spent a lot of time in this church, and probably a great deal of my 20s trying to figure out what that meant.”

            For Patrie, poems became the perfect vehicle for untangling his oft-fraught relationship with his faith, a “messy divorce” of sorts that ultimately inspired a series of poems on God, guilt and growing up, all of which inhabit the center of his soon-to-be released second collection, Half-Life

            Yet faith is but one of many themes Patrie tackles in its pages, the most prominent theme, perhaps, explores his candid assessment of his own mortality.        

            “I was doing dishes and the name ‘half-life’ came to me,” Patrie says, “and I thought, ‘There it is!  Now I have sort of a focus for this collection.’”

            While many of his poems explore the realities of reaching mid-life, for Patrie, this milestone is hardly a crisis.  His poems are more celebratory than elegiac, more filled with wide-eyed-wonder than a dirge-like lament for the past.  Whether recounting male-pattern baldness (“Black hole / swallowing strands of light”) or a kayaking trip with his wife (“The lake assures / it will flip / these kayaks / and dip us / as we slip inside”), Patrie always manages to excavate the beauty in the mundane.

            Tied to the subject of mortality is legacy, and I ask Patrie what he hopes his nine-year-old child, Simon, might one day take from his father’s work. 

            “That’s a great question,” Patrie says, leaving it to linger for a moment as the church returns to silence.  “I often think of [my wife] Adrienne as the person I’m writing for, but I would say oftentimes I’m thinking about Simon, too, and these little mementoes, I guess, for him, as he approaches these milestones, and what that will mean for him.”

            Patrie explains that the collection’s most personal poem is its last—one simply titled, “Simon.”

            “Simon is just really different,” Patrie says, “and I know every kid’s different, but in that sense of how he approaches what it means to be a boy.  There’s some gender nonconformity going on…so that poem really became just a way to say to him that it’s okay, it’s cool, with me, with us.”

            I smile though the night’s grown so dark he can’t see it.  By the glow of my computer screen, Patrie reads a poem, and then, at our interview’s conclusion, we leave that place, exiting through the same propped door we’d entered.

            Outside, an elderly man awaits us, and, in the kindest way possible, makes clear he’s curious about what we were up to in the church.

            “Not to worry!  There’s a simple explanation,” I explain, “we’re just two grown men reading poems in the dark.”

            Thankfully, before those words leave my mouth, Patrie offers a simpler explanation, explaining to the man that he’d attended the school many years prior, and that he’d just completed some poems on that experience.

            The answer seems to satisfy the man, and after a bit more conversation, he promises to see to it that the church door gets locked before the hour grows too late.

            We thank him, and then, after Patrie and I say our farewells, we get into our cars and drive off.

            In the rearview I spot the church’s twin towers, and between them, the circular stained glass peering out.

            Call it what you will—a marvel, a miracle, a mistake—but for me, our time in the church was nothing short of revelatory.

            How curious, I think, that for a man exploring life on the outside of faith, on this night, the doors remained open.


Half-Life will be available for purchase at Red's Mercantile and The Local Store in mid-March. 

The book release will take place at The Plus on March 19.

Interview music courtesy of Lee Rosevere