Interview

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

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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?

 NG: 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.

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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?

NG: 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?

NG: 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?

 NG: 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.

Once again, Nick will be reading at the Local Store/Volume One Gallery for Local Lit: Off the Page on Monday, March 11th at 5PM. You can purchase Orient here, and North of Order here.

 

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.

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.

Poetry, Pizza, and Politics with Eau Claire City Council Member Emily Anderson

Dr. Emily Anderson

Dr. Emily Anderson

by Chloe Ackerman

Under the pen name, Max Howard, City Council member Dr. Emily Anderson wrote her novel Fifteen and Change. This book follows a boy named Zeke, who works at a pizzeria and chooses to join the fight to raise the minimum wage.  I had the opportunity to sit down with Anderson and talk to her about her new book. Anderson described how the topic of having a living wage is significant to her life and experiences, how she wrote the book in several forms, including villanelles, and how it is difficult to identify genre while creating literature. 

To celebrate her book, on December 19th, Emily Anderson will be having a book reading, with pizza, at The Plus on Barstow Street in Downtown Eau Claire.

CHLOE ACKERMAN: What made you want to write the book Fifteen and Change?

EMILY ANDERSON: It’s directly personal to me because I’m a writer and also an academic. Right now, I have a Ph.D., I can get a job, it just won’t be a living wage job. I was involved with a fight for living wages for graduate students and adjunct professors while I was in Buffalo, New York getting my Ph.D., so that was a personal fight. One of the advantages of that fight, or one of the things that I drew strength from, was that we were also coordinated with a Fight for 15 Movement. We were protesting in solidarity with fast food workers and others in the service industry, and that was really great to be a part of that broader labor struggle, so I was kind of carrying that in my mind. The second thing is the knowledge that 43% of kids in Eau Claire schools now are in the ALICE statistics, which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. Basically, low income affects 43% of Eau Claire residences, and that’s so many children in our schools. Many kids are in a position much like the character Zeke in my novel who are really struggling with all the problems that economic inequality can create. I wanted to write something that reflected what is a really common experience that gets treated as a very unusual or special experience. The overarching structure of the series that the book is a part of is on social issues, and that is the one I felt I had the most personal connection to. 

In addition to other forms, This book makes use of the villanelle, which are 19-line poems. How did you go about writing this book within such confines?

For me, writing is easier when there are some limits or some constraints. Each little poem is about 50 words, and I had to do exactly 192. I kind of had a sense of what should happen every 20 poems or so to add a movement or pace to the narrative. I mapped that out and then went in and put those smaller pieces together, so it made structuring the narrative really easy, which was great. I write prose fiction as well, and I feel like I learned a lot about saving myself some time by knowing how many words something should be. I normally work more organically so having an imposed structure helped a lot.

Do you see any crossover between your work as a council member and your writing?

So much. I am motivated by the same concerns of wanting to make the world a fairer place and wanting to do my best to amplify the voices of people that are fighting for equality. So that’s definitely a motivation that I share, but I also think that the work of writing is actually really similar to politics. One thing I think of a lot is, the poet, Percy Shelley, who called poets, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” because it’s creativity that breathes life into an idea and once an idea has life, or momentum, or energy, it captures people’s imaginations that’s what it takes to change the world. I think you see that a lot in politics, for good or ill, that people use language in imaginative ways, and it captures people’s hearts. This stuff happens whether it’s good or it’s bad. It’s a real power.

Is there a person or something that has influenced you a lot in your writing or in your work?

I think I wouldn’t have been able to continue being a writer if I didn’t have amazing teachers, friends, and family members that are always encouraging me and supporting me. I think I have been really lucky with the kinds of relationships I have in my life, and I don’t think that I would be able to persist in a rejection heavy career if I didn’t have people that have my back. 

What do you hope your readers will take away from this book?

One of the things that I try to emphasize in the book is that when Zeke becomes more directly active politically, it’s because he loves the people around him. It’s something that he does with a spirit of both love and also playfulness, and it’s this idea that getting involved and making change happen can be something that is playful and happy. It has to do with love and good feelings and not just like some abstract principle, and it can be a baby step and not necessarily a big step to make a difference. 

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

One thing I’m thinking about a lot as a writer these days is the question of form or genre. I never know when I start a project what the form or genre is going to be. That’s something I learn as the ideas form and come together. I feel like people ask, “What do you write? Do you write fiction? Or do you write poetry?” And I always have a hard time answering that question, because I don’t know what something is until I am done making it, and even then sometimes I don’t really know exactly what it is. I think form communicates with content in a way that makes the genre a challenging thing to pin down. 

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Is there anything else you would like to share?

Yes! I have a book party on the 19th of December, and anyone can come. It is going to be at The Plus at 7:00pm, and there is going to be pizza because my book is about pizza. 

Traveling 34 Years through UW-Eau Claire Summer Theater History with Wil Denson

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by Chloe Ackerman

Dr. Wil Denson is a professor emeritus of theater arts at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and in his new book Life Upon the Wicked Stage”: Director’s Cut he recounts the summers that he spent working with the Summer Theater in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He describes the plays, the good times, and past traditions, as well as all of the people he worked with over the years. 

Denson’s book allows those who were once a part of Summer Theater, or those who were in the audience of a Summer Theater production, to relive the time that was shared. It is also an excellent record of some of Eau Claire’s art history. In this interview, Denson talks about his process writing this book, how writing books differs from writing plays, and what it was like to relive his experience with Summer Theater while writing his book. “Life Upon the Wicked Stage”: Director’s Cut, can be found at The Local Store, or it can be bought directly from Wil Denson by mailing $15 to Wil Denson, P.O. Box 1828, Eau Claire, WI.

CHLOE ACKERMAN: What made you want to write your book “Life Upon the Wicked Stage”: Director’s Cut?

WIL DENSON: Over the years, a number of people have suggested that someone should write an account of Summer Theater here in Eau Claire. Since I was the person most closely associated with it, the writing seemed to fall, logically, to me.

Also, University Summer Theater closed in 1998, twenty years ago last summer; the time seemed right.

I wanted to ensure that the memory of our work was not lost. I worked with Summer Theater for over twenty-five summers, and it formed a large and important part of my life. For many seasons, Summer Theater WAS MY LIFE. I didn’t want it forgotten.

Finally, hundreds of UWEC students were involved and deserved to be recognized.

This book is nonfiction about the history of the UW-Eau Claire Summer Theater. Although you were with the program for much of the time that it was running, was there any research that you had to do to write this book? Did you learn anything or rediscover anything that surprised you in the process of writing this book?

I joined the company in 1966 during its second summer. And, although I knew and worked with personnel from the first summer and with people from every year thereafter, my memory was not sufficient for everything I hoped to include. 

Therefore, I spent about five months reading old newspaper reviews and articles, interviewing former personnel and examining production programs and photographs.

My greatest surprise in researching came in discovering the sheer number of people who had gone on to success on the national professional stage as well as in Hollywood film and television. I hadn’t actually forgotten these past people, I’d been in contact with many of them over the years, but I didn’t realize how many there were.

In the book, you mentioned plays that you wrote, Company 10 Musical, Life Upon the Wicked Stage, Remembering the Valley, and many others for the Summer Theater to perform. What is your process for writing a play? Does this process differ from writing other types of literature, like this book for example?

It’s difficult to describe the playwriting process in a short space, plus I suspect each writer works differently. I began with an idea that I hoped was viable, a story that would sell tickets. (In choosing stories for Summer Theater, the very specific EAU CLAIRE AUDIENCE was taken into consideration. What were they most likely to be drawn to?) Then I roughed out “an action” – what happens in the piece, the plotting, the setting, characters, etc. For our situation here in Eau Claire, my next step was determining if the idea was possible: could we financially afford the scenery, costumes, etc., and could we find actors, designers, director and technicians who were able to successfully bring the work to our stage. (Some ideas are simply too hard or too expensive to produce.) 

Next, I tried to put the ideas and characters on paper, actually writing the dialogue, describing the characters and scenery, presenting the action, etc. 

Finally, of course came the proofreading, edits, an infinity of re-writes, etc. (A huge advantage in writing for our own theater was the possibility of doing re-writes with the piece already on stage in rehearsal; if we found that something didn’t work as anticipated, I could re-do an act or a scene on the spot and make it more suitable).

The chief differences separating playwriting from other writing forms are its reliance on dialogue, its dependence on visuals and its immediacy. A playwright has to continually show the story to the audience; they cannot tell the plot the way a fiction writer does, the action must be seen. The playwright must ‘place the characters in action, doing something.’ A character is revealed best by what they do. 

Too, the ‘live audience factor’ features in prominently. In a film or novel nothing can be altered; what is written on the page or seen on the screen is set in stone and cannot be changed. But in a play, audience reaction is possible and hugely important; a production changes from night-to-night. A playwright is able to take advantage of this.

Since this book covers a lot of your life and you experienced and saw a lot of what was in this book, what was it like to write “Life Upon the Wicked Stage”: Director’s Cut?

What struck me most in doing the book was how much the writing took me back in time. Every day when I sat down for my three or four-hour sessions of work, I was transported back in time, back to summer mornings thirty-five or forty years ago. I vividly remembered people and places and shows I hadn’t thought about for seemingly a lifetime. Writing the book became an exotic time-travel-like experience for me. (When former actors and technicians heard I was working on the book, many of them contacted me, and we rekindled old friendships and shared old memories, thereby furthering my feelings of time travel).

What do you hope that readers will take from this book?

I hope the book brings back memories of our thirty-four years of productions, of opening nights and strikes and rehearsals. I want readers to recall the hundreds and hundreds of people involved in Summer Theater and the thousands of performances we gave. I hope it brings back a smile and a memory.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Given the changes in economics and audience tastes, it seems unlikely Summer Theater as we knew it can ever return to Eau Claire. Everything has become too expensive, too difficult, too complex. Audience tastes have changed; people have moved on with their careers; the competition has become too intimidating. TV offerings, film, sports, local music festivals, etc. all are greatly expanded and have become too difficult to compete with.

But Summer Theater accomplished what we set out to do. Over fifty of our people now work professionally on Broadway, in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Minneapolis. Hundreds of our student actors, designers, directors, and technicians were able to learn more about their craft. Thousands of Chippewa Valley residents came to enjoy and appreciate the art of theater more due to our work. The number of then-young children who saw our work and decided to launch their own careers in theater has been tremendously gratifying.  

Looking back, our thirty-four summers became golden to me and, I hope, to the community – but can never return. 

(If you read the letters in the back of the book, you will gain a better appreciation of audience reactions.)

The theaters of the Chippewa Valley were all influenced by our work. For example, the Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild, the Eau Claire Children’s Theatre, Fanny Hill Dinner Theatre, etc. were all conceived and initiated by former UWEC-Summer Theater performers, directors and technicians. Summer Theater at the University was in large part the start of theater in the Valley. I’m very proud of that.

Finally, during the several readings/book signings I’ve done throughout the area, it’s been extremely gratifying to meet former performers and technicians and to hear about their families, lives, and successes.

Exploring Children’s Literature, Writing Processes, and Libraries with Rob Reid

Image: Volume One

Image: Volume One

by Chloe Ackerman

Librarians open doors and create portals to thousands of possible worlds. Rob Reid has worked much of his life to show to young kids that libraries are fun places. When he worked as a librarian he toured libraries and performed raps that he wrote using the names of children’s books. Now he’s a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire where he teaches how to use children’s literature to future educators.

Rob Reid explains his process and motivation for writing the songs, activities, and musical activities for his new book, 200+ Original and Adapted Story Program Activities, in this interview.

CHLOE ACKERMAN: What has had the most influence on you as a writer?

ROB REID: I have always been a writer but not always a published writer, and I found that my published niche was writing for my peers. Before I came to the university where I teach children’s literature, I was a children’s librarian in public libraries both here in Eau Claire and in Pueblo, Colorado. I came up with a lot of original ideas to kind of encourage kids to come to the library and hopefully make them lifelong book lovers. Then I found out that my peers were really interested in what I was doing. Then I made a connection with the American Library Association. They have a publishing arm called ALA Editions and they bought my book Children’s Jukebox which was a subject index of children’s recorded music. So if a daycare worker came in and said they want a song about friendship or frogs there wasn’t any research tool like that out there. I listened to about 200 children’s recordings and divided up the subject headings. I found the publisher then when that book was published they said, “what do you want to do next?” Which is something you want to hear an editor say. Then I was doing multigenerational story programs for grandma and grandpa or mom and dad and the kids and we called it family story time. That was the second one. I was lucky to find that publisher because then they kept saying what’s your next idea and so I have published 13 books with the ALA. This is my 20th book overall and 13th with them. The marketing editor and I are calling it the lucky thirteen. 

What is your writing process?

I basically pitch an idea to an editor, they say let’s go with it, then we set up a deadline that looms over my head for a year. I don’t write well without a deadline, and sometimes I do other kinds of writings too, so I do my own little deadlines. I find that kind of crucial for me, and it helps to be in a teaching environment as well because you have deadlines all the time. It helped my writing to quit the library field and come over here to UWEC because I used to work a nine to five job. I had four kids at home, they are all grown up now, and once everybody was done eating and in bed, I would try to write at night and I was exhausted. Over here at the university, I can have an early morning class, a mid-afternoon class, and in between grading and meeting with students I’m still fresh, and I have an hour or two to write. So that is helpful. 

What is your process for writing the songs, dances, story programs, and activities that go into your books?

I sit in a chair and a lot of the material comes because I want to match an activity with a particular children’s book. This is what librarians do with story programs and then follow it up with a finger play, musical activity, or a movement activity. You probably grew up knowing “The Wheels on the Bus” and “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” and I got tired going on a bus or going on a bear hunt over and over, so I started “We’re Going on an Elephant Hunt” and it created that new version of that old thing or instead of the wheels on the bus it’s “The Wheels on the Sports Car”. 

It’s not all just adaptation, it’s a lot of original stuff too. I’ll have a picture book in mind, and I’ll think back and I go “what would be a fun activity to do with it?” I like to fill up a legal pad with just broad ideas, then put them together, go to the computer, and take different verses that work well together then read or sing them aloud. It takes several passes before I finally have something. Then I like to test it on somebody besides myself. When my kids were little they were around so I could test it out on them. My wife is, unfortunately, the person now. 

As I say, in one of my books I get as much satisfaction coming up with a little four-line poem as I do with a 50,000-word book. A lot of it is poetry, it’s almost all poetry if you boil it down. I get a lot of inspiration from camp songs and things like that. I do a lot of audience participation stories where the kids make sound effects to an original story. A lot of it is just sitting back in a chair and just having a pen and a paper and just starting to scrawl stuff. 

Are there any lessons that you hope the teachers, librarians, parents, and kids who use your programs and activities will take away from this book? 

The main thing is that the library is a fun place to go. I did a lot of outreach as a librarian with these activities and stories. I would get in front of groups of kids, and if nothing else if they see me and say, “hey, there’s that guy from the library,” and tell their parents, “let’s go down to the library.” You try to make lifelong library users, and, I’ve written about this in Volume One, libraries are as relevant today as they have ever been despite everybody thinking the internet’s here, we don’t need it. You know the L. E. Phillips Memorial Library had 400,000 people go through their doors last year. Almost half a million people, so don’t tell me the library is not relevant. 

Why do you want to write this book specifically?

I used to have a contract with Library Sparks Magazine where in every issue I would have an article, like a lesson plan for Story Time, and I would always like to have original stuff in there. Then the magazine went out of business, and I’m kind of at the age now where I don’t write like this as much anymore; I have other writing projects that I am putting my energy into. So I realized that some of the older books that are 25 years old or so, they’re not necessarily out of print, but people aren’t buying them as much now. This would be kind of fun to pull all that material that people might not have access to anymore and put it in one place, kind of like a one-stop shop 200+ ideas for mostly a children’s librarian, or it could be a parent or a teacher to use with kids. We collected them all together. Like here I have a bunch of “Hello” activities divided up into different themes “animal”, “my world”, and “the literary world”, that’s where I put the library raps. We have some spoonerism stories, that’s where you take parts of words and flip them around so I have some original ones of those. Instead of telling the story of “Little Red Riding Hood”, I tell it as “Little Rude Riding Head” and throughout the story, it’s “Once a time upon there was a gritty little pearl named Little Rude Riding Head…” then the kids try to decipher it. Then there are some “Goodbye” activities too, and I have a picture book called Wave Goodbye that’s based on a poem, “Wave high, wave low, I think it’s time, we gotta go. Wave your elbows, wave your toes, wave your arms, wave your nose…” That kind of stuff. We reprinted the lyrics of that in here, too. The idea was that rock star’s have greatest hits albums, so that’s like my greatest hits album. 

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Is there anything else you would like to share?

People will probably gawk at the price a little bit. It’s a pricey book because ALA Editions is a publisher geared towards institutions versus individuals. So schools buy it, libraries buy it, you can get it right now through ALA Editions Publisher, I just checked Amazon they don’t have a price listed yet, but they will have it up there soon. If you gawk at the price, then that’s understandable, it’s $50, but it’s a lifetime’s worth of material especially if you are working with young children. 

An Interview With Amanda

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by Emma O’Shea 

This past week, I got to chat with Amanda Zieba; a young adult novel author, professor and avid writer. We talked about what she has in the works for her new publishing venture, her opportunities for writers on her website and the content of her blog. 

Emma O’Shea: Can you delve into the phrase "word nerd" and how it correlates to your style of writing and teaching?

Amanda Zieba: I love everything about words. I love their power, their precision, their diversity. I love the entertainment and joy they bring into my life. I love consuming words and using them to create. Words are amazing. When it came time to write my author bio and set up my website, these themes emerged again and again. I decided to call myself the “word nerd” because it satisfyingly encompassed all the ways I love words, and succinctly defined me.

Can you tell me a little bit about your venture with KWiL publishing and what you're working on now?

KWiL is a new traditional publishing company in Milwaukee. I met Abby Nies Janowiec, the founder and president, at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) event last year, and we hit it off right away. Throughout the past year, we have been working on taking the exciting concepts of geocaching and regional/state facts and molding them into a “read it again” worthy early chapter book. The first book in this series is in the nearly-finalized manuscript stage (illustrations soon to come!) and has a planned release date in spring 2020.

What book(s) have fortified you as a writer?

My answer for this question isn’t going to quite match up with the project I mentioned above, but the overall lesson is something that has deeply impacted me as a writer. Author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley wrote the Newbery Honor Award-winning novel, The War that Saved My Life and its sequel, The War I Finally Won. These novels have been very instrumental in my thinking as a writer. In them, Kimberly tackles very tough topics. Neglect, war, alcoholism, reactive attachment disorder, self-worth, physical disabilities. This woman is fearless on the page and does not back away from anything. And yet, she is gentle. At no point in time do her stories feel inappropriate or inaccessible for young readers. And THAT skill truly amazes me. Holly Black is another children’s writer who tells honest stories about hard things in a way that does not “dumb it down” for kids. Kate DiCamillo is yet another. It is their stories of real life, told honestly for children, that fortifies me not only as a person but as a writer who aspires to do the same.

Could you tell me a bit about your blog and what got you started?

I love my blog. I am proud of my blog. I probably spend more time writing my blog than anything else. Every Wednesday I post a piece of writing wisdom. It may be a tip or technique, or about a helpful resource I found, or an inspiring book I read. Sometimes I share writing prompts or pieces of a workshop that I have taught. Occasionally I share a short story. I post a lot of different things, but the intention and purpose are always the same. TO HELP WRITERS. When I first started taking my writing seriously (about seven years ago) I was hungry for writing wisdom. But everywhere I looked, help seemed inaccessible due to distance, price or exclusivity. It was so frustrating (not to mention demoralizing). Now that I have some knowledge, I want to share it. Not only that, I want to make it as easy as possible for people who are interested to get it. So, I give it away, one piece at a time, one Wednesday at a time, on my blog.

What does literary citizenship mean?

Being a good literary citizen means contributing to the literary world in any positive way possible. Not sure what I mean? Look at the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild. The Guild is a role model literary citizen. Through planning events, lifting up writers, sharing literary news and resources, offering residencies and so much more, they are making the literary world a better place. THANK YOU CVWG! Being a literary citizen is awesome because, in addition to helping others, you are also able to grow and learn and experience writing in new ways.

Are there any new opportunities for writers in the works?

One opportunity I am really excited to share is Story Seedlings. Writing a story is hard work and knowing how to start can sometimes feel like the biggest part of the battle... especially when you’ve never written a story before. Story Seedlings is a digital download product that features 24 prompts that will help you construct your story, one scene at a time. Specific story elements that are covered include characterization, world-building, conflict (internal/external) and resolution. In addition to the prompts, I offer tips and resources to enhance your story. Story Seedlings is also an excellent way to build a daily writing habit.


If you want to know more about Amanda’s work and her opportunities such as Story Seedlings, check the links below! 

Chippewa Valley Book Fest's Past, Present, and Future: An Interview with Fest Co-Chair Mildred Larson

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by Chloe Ackerman

The Chippewa Valley Book Festival began on Monday, October 15th and goes through Thursday, October 25th, spreading literary events across the Chippewa Valley. The festival’s lineup includes a variety of events like writing workshops, dinner discussions, events for children, and much more, so there is something for everyone!

I had the chance to sit down with Mildred Larson, a co-chair of the festival, who has been with the Chippewa Valley Book Festival since the very beginning. We talked about how it has grown over the years and what she is looking forward to in this year’s festival.

CHLOE ACKERMAN: How did the book festival start?

MILDRED LARSON: The book festival started out as a partnership between the L. E. Phillips Memorial Library and the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center 19 years ago. I was working at the public library, we had a grant from the American Library Association for a series of authors and discussions, and we needed a co-sponsor separate from the library. We found the Literary Arts Committee from the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center. Their representative was Karen Loeb, now a retired UWEC English department faculty member, so she and I did that grant. It just seemed to work well, and I think that’s how it got started. We were able to get a few more grants to bring more authors in so obviously it wasn’t the size of the current festival. At first, it was called The Festival of the Turning Leaves. I think people didn’t quite get the pun of turning pages in a book and fall, so that was kind of lost. We decided to change the name to something more obvious, and it became the Chippewa Valley Book Festival.

Many people have helped with the festival over the years, but the UWEC English department has been very helpful all along. Nadine St. Louis, who has passed away, was an English professor and poet and one of the first chairs of the book festival committees. After she passed away, we started to have a memorial poetry reading at the festival in Nadine’s honor at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation. The theme of this year’s reading is called Words Without Borders: A Celebration of Poetry in Transition. It’s at 4:00 p.m. on Friday, October 19th.

How has the Chippewa Valley Book Festival grown since it began in 2000?

It’s grown in a lot of different ways; we have expanded the number of days, and we’ve expanded to include more locations. This year, we have programs in five public libraries: the Eau Claire Public Library, and then also in Menominee, Chippewa Falls, Altoona, and Fall Creek. We’ve tried various locations around town, for example, we have had programs for several years at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation. We have programs on university campuses, and this year for the first time we have a program at UW-Stout.

We’ve also added different kinds of events, such as writing workshops and a theatre event. The biggest addition has been authors in the public schools. We have ten authors coming to public schools in Eau Claire, Menominee, and Mondovi so it varies each year. It’s a wonderful experience for the kids. We have writing workshops for children and a Young Writers Showcase.  For the showcase, young writers submit writing to be selected by English honors students at UWEC.  Those whose work is selected will read at the Grand Theater in Eau Claire on Sunday, October 21st in the afternoon. It's fun and lively, and the children are excited to read to an audience.

What are you most excited for in this year’s Chippewa Valley Book Festival?

I am most excited about moving some of our programs into the Pablo Center. Barstow & Grand, David Treuer’s Native Americans and the Imagination, and then the third one at the Pablo Center is Caroline Fraser, author of Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. David Treuer’s talk will be in the JAMF Theatre, the Barstow & Grand release party will be in one of the rehearsal rooms, I believe, and then the final one, Caroline Fraser, will be in the big RCU Theatre which is a large auditorium. So we will be using three different spaces in the Pablo Center.

What kind of connections do the authors in this festival have to the Chippewa Valley?

We have local authors and we also have authors coming from Los Angeles, California, Spartanburg, South Carolina, and other faraway locations. This year we have three authors who are regional or local, there is Nickolas Butler who is going to be at UW-Stout, there’s Thomas Pearson who is going to be at the Fall Creek Library talking about frac sand mining, and then Molly Patterson who will be at the Menominee Public Library. Every year we have sort of a mix of local and regional writers and writers from around the country.

What do you hope those who attend The Chippewa Valley Book Festival events will take away from them?

I mostly hope they enjoy themselves. We look for authors who are going to be exciting presenters and we have scheduled a great range of types of literature and topics, so people should be able to find whatever’s of interest to them. For writers, we hope some of them will be inspired by the writers we bring, and then the people will maybe find some reading they want to follow-up with.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Because it’s a long festival, it’s sometimes hard to get all the events out in front of people. I hope people will go to the website and look for more information on the authors and the programs. I hope that they will be coming all the way through October 25th when we have two very excellent programs; there’s Molly Patterson and there’s Heather Swan who is going to be at the Chippewa Falls Public Library. She has a book about honeybees, and it’s a very beautiful looking book. I am certainly hoping that people will continue right through the 25th of October.

Telling the Truth about the Middle East through Cathy Sultan’s New Novel Damascus Street

Cathy Sultan

Cathy Sultan

By Chloe Ackerman

Writer Cathy Sultan grew up in Washington D.C. where she yearned to know more of the world. In 1969 her wish came true when she met her Lebanese husband and moved with him to Beirut, Lebanon. She quickly fell in love with the city. When the Lebanese Civil War broke out blocks away from their home in 1975, they continued to raise their family in Beirut until it was no longer manageable.

Cathy Sultan uses her experience and unique knowledge of the civil war in Lebanon to write her latest book Damascus Streetthe sequel to The Syrian. Sandy Tolan, author of Children of the Stone, which was a 2015 L.A. TimesBook of the Year finalist, wrote "Her insights into the region's history and politics go far deeper than your average thriller, exploring U.S. imperial meddling, the heartbreak of Palestinian refugee camps, and the complex and fragile construction of Lebanese society. Damascus Street will stay with you."  Damascus Street recounts the story of American physician Andrew Sullivan, whose fiancée is kidnapped by an important Lebanese ex-political figure. This book follows Sullivan’s thrilling mission to get her back. The following is an interview with Cathy Sultan about her latest book.

CHLOE ACKERMAN: Your book Damascus Street tells the story of a man whose fiancée was kidnapped in Syria by a former intelligence chief after a civil war in Lebanon. What is your writing process for such a serious topic 

CATHY SULTAN: I think it is my ability to imagine the impossible. After all, I am writing about the Middle East, and particularly Lebanon, which I know intimately, and where skullduggery is an everyday occurrence.

This book includes many specific dates and historical events that took place in the Middle East; what kind of research was involved while writing this book?

I am a news junkie and so I read extensively about events as they unfold across the Middle East. Most of the research in the book is first-hand knowledge and other than fact-checking on some events and dates, I needed little research. Some of the events in the book, like the explosion that took the life of an important intelligence chief, happened a block from my apartment. Our building shook and I was there to cover it first-hand as the aftermath was reported. He was such a colorful, shady, and important figure with four different passports, and once the rumors began flying about who he actually was and what he did, I began collecting any and all articles I could get my hands on, assuming I would get to use it in some future work. When I got to that part of Damascus Street, I knew it was the right moment to get out my notes and reconstruct his assassination, the details of which, without much invention on my part, were true. 

Are there any challenges you face as both a fiction and a nonfiction writer?

Other than accepting the challenge from my editor to take on fiction, I have not faced many challenges. Writing fiction is actually more fun. No footnotes, no intense fact-checking and I get to use my imagination, which works overtime, due, no doubt, to the exciting life I have had the privilege of living. I don't rule out returning to nonfiction, particularly if Lebanon is attacked, but in the meantime, I feel that fiction gives me the vehicle to tell what I perceive as the truth, only through fiction I get to hook into fast-paced thrillers which makes it easier for the reader to learn something while enjoying a good read.

According to your website, you wrote the memoir A Beirut Heart: A Woman’s War as a project for your children. What made you want to write the novels Damascus Street and the first book The Syrian?

Yes, I began writing A Beirut Heart for my children, but I soon discovered that it was also a way to mourn my loss of a city I loved. Although I didn't know it at the time, I was also discovering a way to combat what came to be called PTSD. For a very long time, I could not even read sections of A Beirut Heart without crying. Over the years I have gotten better but the trauma of war never disappears. On the upside, the experience of war has not only defined my life, it has driven my motivation to better understand the destructive forces of conflict across the Middle East and to place blame where I know it belongs.

The trilogy which includes, to date, The Syrian and Damascus Street, centers on regime change in Syria. The characters involved in carrying out the West's agenda, and those willing to risk their lives to stop such an atrocity, are the people I want to see rule our world. I know for a fact that our mass media has distorted the news coming out of Syria, and I took it as a challenge to refute those reports and incorporate more accurately what is really going on in the region.   

On your website, you explain how it was frustrating before you wrote your memoir that when you wanted to tell stories about your time living in Beirut during civil war, no one seemed to want to listen. Have people approached you since you started writing your books to share any of their stories relating to the Lebanon Civil War? 

I did find it frustrating and at times hurtful when no one initially wanted to hear me talk about my life in Beirut during the war. Once A Beirut Heart was published attitudes changed. People's aversion to things they can't comprehend is part of human nature. I also attribute that attitude to the fact that we as a country have never had to face the challenges of a war. A conflict far from home enables us to "turn it off" and pay it scant attention. When we are confronted with someone who actually lived through one of those wars, it disrupts our complacent lives and makes us uncomfortable. State-side, no one has approached me about their own Beirut stories, but in Beirut, among my friends, we often reminisce about the years we shared together and that forever changed our lives.

What do you hope the readers will take from this book?

I hope my readers will better understand the West's intervention in Syria and the motivations behind such destruction and upheaval. I also hope readers will realize mass media oftentimes, with its close affiliation with the military, industrial complex, has a political agenda in promoting war. Remember Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction lies!

To purchase Damascus Street, visit The Local Store