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The Sierra Nevada Review is now open for submissions!

​The 2018 Sierra Nevada Review is now open for submissions! We welcome your unconventional, surprising, and risky poetry, literary nonfiction, and fiction from September 15th to February 15th. Visit and become a part of our 29th volume. Visit for submission guidelines.

DIY Poetry Scene – Part IV

I have a colorful chat with the the founder and inspirational muse of Poetry in the Port, Damian Rucci.  Rucci, a “no-holds-barred” visceral poet, details his experience in creating a lasting and impactful poetry scene as well as some tips on starting your own readings!

Poetry in the Port occurs on the first and third Thursday of every month at 7pm at Espresso Joe’s in Keyport, NJ. Poetry in the Port is a showcase of local writers and poets. The night begins with a featured readers set and followed by an open mic.

Hosting your own open mic is vital to allowing your community see the talent that is in the neighborhood. In the case of Poetry in the Port, it is beneficial for local businesses as well!

Check it out below!!

DIY Poetry Scene – Part III

I sit down before an early spring Words on Main event to speak with the bi-weekly spoken word reading’s founder, Cord Moreski. Morseski, a poet and a teacher, details what it is like to start your own poetry scene and helpful information if you are interested in starting your own!

Words on Main occurs on the first and third Friday at 7pm at Dino’s on Main in Asbury Park, NJ. Words on Main is a showcase of local writers and poets. The night begins with a featured readers set and followed by an open mic.

Hosting your own open mic is vital to allowing your community see the talent that is in the neighborhood. In the case of Word’s on Main, it is also beneficial for local businesses!

An Interview with Brenna Womer

We at the Review are just as excited as you are for the 2016 edition to hit the shelves! Get hyped   for its release with a little interview with Brenna Womer, one of this year’s awesome contributors. Check out what Brenna has to say about writing inspirations, her piece “Frâiche” that we’ll be publishing, and which review is right for you.

What was the first experience with writing you had?

From a young age I had the desire to keep a journal and would go through phases where I’d commit to writing an entry every day. But I was inevitably dissatisfied with my inability to give adequate weight to my experiences, and often, I ended up tearing out the pages days later and ripping them into tiny pieces because I was embarrassed. Writing was stressful because I expected everything I wrote, every idea I had, to be spectacular. I quit writing for years, then picked it back up in college with fiction, and after a few semesters I learned it was okay to just get my ideas down, to play around with words and characters. When I took the pressure off myself, writing became fun.

What are some authors that you’ve read that have helped you to develop your writing style?

Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From was the first collection of short stories I ever read and I was greatly influenced by his use of domestic settings and his masterful creation of tension between characters. My stories are very character-driven and I strive to write characters as complex and relationships as tumultuous as Carver’s.

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt will always be one of my favorite collections. I love Aimee Bender’s portrayal of characters, often women, during periods of disruption and adjustment. I also enjoy her discussion of female sexuality—what sex means to different characters and how they use it. These are themes I like to explore in my own writing.

In Junot Diaz’s book This is How You Lose Her—another of my favorites—not only am I immediately drawn in by the voice and his use of language, I admire the bold way he writes about class, race, sexuality, and masculinity. He consistently tackles difficult themes with honesty and authenticity, and his stories always leave me in awe.


What inspired your piece “Fraîche”?

“Fraîche” was actually born of a prompt in my graduate fiction workshop. Our assignment was to write a story using a borrowed form, and because eating is something I love so much I consider it a hobby, I thought I would try to write a story in the form of a menu.

What was your writing process for this piece?

Well, I began with the idea of a menu, and because I’m interested in relationships, periods of adjustment, and sex, I thought I would have the main character on a first date. I am a woman and I’ve been on dates, so it just felt natural to write this from a female’s perspective. I honestly didn’t even realize the story was in second person until I was finished and read back over it. I love to read second-person stories but haven’t written many myself, so I was relieved by how painlessly the point of view was established. I’d like to think second person helps alleviate some of the main character’s angst in this story because of the POV’s innately perceptive and instructional tone.

I didn’t have a strategy for weaving the menu items into the narrative, so I started looking through recipes for meal ideas. As I put the menu together, ingredients started sparking my own memories, so I decided I would write the story as a string of word associations and disjointed, worried thoughts as they might occur to someone on a first date as they read down a menu. It really was a fun piece to write!


Where’s the weirdest place you’ve ever written?

Oh goodness. The other day I had been revising a memoir piece at a coffee shop for about four hours when I finally made myself pack up and go. But I kept writing in my head and while I was driving home I had this idea for a sentence, so at a stoplight I opened up my laptop on the passenger seat and typed manically until the light turned green. Cops use laptops while they’re driving, so that makes it okay, right?

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

As I touched on when I was telling about my journaling failures, putting pressure on yourself to be endlessly insightful and eloquent will do nothing but foster self-consciousness and frustration. Start with a prompt and see where it takes you. If there is a character you want to flesh out or a place you would like to describe but you don’t yet have a story they fit into, just write what you have. The notepad in my phone is filled with random ideas, notions, and mini character sketches I jot down while I’m at work or happy hour or eating dinner, and when I’m stuck on a story or looking for inspiration, I scroll through those notes. Also, it’s fun to look back at the notes and find the seed of a now 10-page story.

My biggest piece of advice, though, is to pay attention. Be nosy. Listen in on conversations, watch people, ask a lot of questions and be sure to listen to the answers, and if you are curious about something, don’t just let it flit by without pursuit.

How do you know the literary magazine you’re sending work to is the right fit?

Reading literary magazines is the best way to figure out whether you think they would like your style, and it’s also a great way to keep up with how the writing community is evolving. I’m very fortunate to be a part of the English Department at Missouri State University where the Creative Writing faculty is very focused on keeping up with what’s new and exciting in the writing world. And because they are, one of my professors decided we needed a literary magazine library. It is a great resource, and if I’m wondering whether or not my writing would fit with a particular publication, my first move is to run downstairs and see if we have their magazine.

If you don’t have access to the publication, at the very least you should be able to find something on their website, most likely under the submissions tab, that will give you an idea of what they like to publish. Our library didn’t have a copy of Sierra Nevada Review, but when I read on their website that they prefer work that is unconventional and experiments with form, I thought they might be interested in a flash piece in the form of a menu. And I’m so happy they were!

Be sure to pick up our 2016 copy this summer, and look for Brenna’s work in the poetry section!

Signing out,



Brenna Womer is a Creative Writing graduate student at Missouri State University where she teaches composition and serves as an Assistant Editor of Moon City Review. Her work is forthcoming in Grist’s Online Companion and the Sierra Nevada Review and has been published in NEAT. and Midwestern Gothic.


Hayden Takahashi is an English undergraduate student at Sierra Nevada College where she currently serves as an Assistant Editor with the Sierra Nevada Review.


Part Two:

An Interview with Allyson Dwyer

Check out the conversation I had with local playwright and poet, Allyson Dwyer!  Hailing from Matawan, NJ, Allyson talks to me about what it is like being a writer in an up and coming scene as well as what Beatles album she feels her writing most embodies.  Allyson is a frequent open mic reader and a featured poet at both Damian Rucci’s Poetry in the Port and Cord Moreski’s Words on Main, the two local poetry readings at the Jersey Shore.



Writing Scared

by Brandon Dudley

Something I learned very early in the Sierra Nevada College MFA program, thanks to my mentor Alan Heathcock, was how helpful fear can be in the writing process. According to Al, he knows he’s doing something right when he’s nervous hitting the submit button on the work. That’s something I’ve tried to remember every time I send out a story.

Fear, at its best, means the writer is tackling something close to their core. They’re tapping into something important and meaningful and harboring genuine emotion. They’re exposing something true about themselves.

That doesn’t mean the work is necessarily in any way autobiographical. It could be about getting stranded on Mars, or getting attacked by a bear, or being hunted by a witch (you’ll have to forgive the movie references, I’m writing this on the day of the Oscars). But the subtext is true; the emotional core of the story is true.

It’s something I’ve noticed editing the Sierra Nevada Review this year. The stories that risked some form of exposure, that created some genuine fear in the writer before they hit submit, those were the ones we enjoyed, admired, and, with many, accepted.

Something else Al told me early on resonated here as well: “The greatest grief of human experience is that we are all separate.” We are all bound within our own bodies, and the closest we can get to true empathy—to understand the world as another person sees it—is through storytelling. And that’s what made it so obvious that those writers were exposing something true: we felt that connection. The separation was erased, just for a moment, because the writer was willing to put a crucial piece of themselves on the page.

I thought about that often as I read the work submitted to the Review. All other elements being equal, the stories that risked exposure in some way always rose to the top. By exposing themselves, by subjecting themselves to that fear, these writers were more likely to bridge the gap separating them from the reader. It doesn’t always work, of course, because our experiences vary so widely that what resonates in one reader might not in another. But more often than not, that bravery lifts the reading off the page and creates a genuine empathetic experience. And the work that risks little or nothing? Well, it feels like reading little or nothing.

By writing to expose yourself, you’re actually writing toward others. It doesn’t push people away, as I’d at times feared, it invites them in. Instead of making them recoil, it makes them want more. We are people greedy for connection, and the best way to make that connection is to take risks, to lean into your fears, and write until it scares you.


Part One:

So You Want to Start Your Own Poetry Collective?

ONE OF THE perks of being in a low-residency MFA program for an aspiring poet is that she belongs to a community of writers. The low-residency program at Sierra Nevada College is undoubtedly a sanctuary for me, an aspiring poet in said MFA program, and provides not only useful tools for my studies but also allows me to enter an intense program surrounded with like- minded individuals. But when the residency ends, when the silent shores of Lake Tahoe are but specks of cloud dew on the plane, I am back in New Jersey and am searching for a continuation of a poetry scene. It’s great to be able to curl up in the corner of my tiny apartment five blocks from the boardwalk of Asbury Park, listening to the Atlantic Ocean instead of the Lake while studying. There is a sense of personal gain, as my corner is now plastered with poems I need to edit or thoughts I need to put to poems. But a girl can only have a conversation with a wall for so long before she wishes for her words to bounce around the streets of her city.

Asbury Park is the Detroit of the Jersey Shore. Once a bustling resort town, it now exists in the shadow of its former self, with Bruce Springsteen echoing through the vastness of Convention Hall. Topping the state’s list of most dangerous cities in the Garden State, it is now just beginning to see a revival. There is a bustling downtown that was not present ten years ago, a new hotel opening in the heart of the boardwalk area, and droves of hipsters gentrifying and spreading their influence faster than plague rats. Famous for its music history, there is also a lot of art and great food to be found throughout the revived areas. This is the all necessary to make any great scene, so the lack of a writer’s group or poetry collective has been a serious concern of mine. I just needed to meet the right people.

Before the beginning of my last residency, I was invited to a local poetry reading by friend and mentor Laura McCullough. She was reading from her forthcoming collection, Jersey Mercy. I happened to be free that night (from the chains of corporate retail slavery that night) and wanted to check it out. The reading was at Espresso Joe’s in Keyport, about twenty or so miles north from my little corner. I had the foresight that if I went I would be able to speak with those like-minded individuals, who also felt like there was a serious lack of a scene at the Jersey Shore.

Cue Damian Rucci. A native to the Bayshore (which includes aforementioned Keyport), this no-holds-barred poet is kicking ass and making poetry his life. Poetry in the Port, his bi-weekly series on Thursdays at Espresso Joe’s, features poets and an open mic for all types poets, whether seasoned or recreational. In his ruffian stature and words, I found a warm embrace to join his fold since he greeted me with a similar desire to reinvent the Jersey poetry scene. Damian, as the backbone to the collective I am part of, will be featured in this blog series as it progresses.

When I am not busy listening to the talents of my clan twice a month on Thursdays at Poetry in the Port, I am at Dino’s on Main in Asbury Park for Cord Moreski’s hosting of Words on Main. Cord is another local poet and collective leader, a kind and intelligent lover of all things words. Every other Friday, Cord gathers with fellow writers at an Italian eatery on Main Street in the city. He follows the same format as Damian, a set of featured poets and a free-for-all open mic. Cord will also share with us some words of wisdom in the coming weeks.

Chelsea Palermo, another New Jersey native and poetess, is the ringleader for the Ministry of Artistic Intent. A talented writer with a beautiful reading voice, Chelsea hosts this monthly workshop in the confines of the Waterwitch Coffee shop. The workshop invites local poets and writers to host a workshop within the group. After the workshop, attendees are invited to share some words with an open mic. We will hear about her tips in creating a poetry scene later in the blog.

The first video blog will be an interview with active playwright and poet, Allyson Dwyer. Allyson is a currently an MFA candidate at Augsburg low-residency program in Minneapolis, Minnesota for playwriting. She will also provide some insight on what it is like to be a writer in a burgeoning poetry/writing scene.

With this blog, I hope to to show you how to create your own local poetry scene within your community.  There is much more than a sense of inflated ego that comes with presenting your art to the world! Hopefully one day you can make a collective that has the power to melt people’s faces off.

Or at least singe their emotional receptors!


Hello From the Other Side: Some Editorial Observations

by Brandon Dudley

As a writer, the submissions process feels a lot like feeding a picky toddler. You offer them the best meal you could possibly make, a meal that includes so much of what they love that there’s no way the child could turn down.

But they just spit it right back at you.

And you don’t know why. You never know, because they barely speak to you. Once in a while, you might get a couple words of explanation, but usually it’s the equivalent of,  “I like this some days but not today.”

So you throw up your hands and go back to the kitchen.

I joined the staff of the Sierra Nevada Review because I was hoping to figure out what goes on inside . And I’ve figured out a few things that might be helpful, or at least comforting, to other writers.

1. Luck helps.

Sometimes, when submitting your work, you just get unlucky. You wrote a beautiful story in second person that just happened to be too much like the second person story we accepted a month ago. You could never know that the reader who happened to get assigned your submission hates dark, twisted pieces, or that we’ve just read one too many depressing stories about dead cats, or we’re just not in the mood for another weird sexcapade again.

So don’t take it personally. Of the 1,300 people that submitted to us between September and February, only about 35 were accepted. That’s an acceptance rate of .027 percent. Even at a small lit mag like ours the odds are long, with or without luck. If you keep working at it, though, luck will eventually break your way. That said….

2. You can help yourself get lucky.

There are things you can do to help improve your luck. Some have been covered ad nauseam on other writing web sites: keep the cover letter short and sweet; format your work properly; follow all the submission guidelines; read the magazine before submitting; polish, polish, polish; etc.

Follow all that advice. You are not the exception to that advice.

This has been covered before, too, but it can’t bear repeating enough: you must grab the reader’s attention right from the start. Because lit mags face a constantly growing pile of submissions, it’s incredibly rare that you’ll get the chance to recover from a weak opening. If you’ll allow me another metaphor, it’s like going on a date. You need to be on top of your game from the time you sit down at the table. You don’t get to be boring and derivative all through dinner and then hope you can wow them with a toe-curling goodnight kiss.

You have to grab the reader right away. Impress us with your language, your plot, your characters, your dialogue. Because we’re looking, desperately, for something to hold on to. We want stumble across something beautiful and tell everyone: Look at this! We really do.

So start strong. That means don’t start with a character’s name, then ramble on for a page about their traits and backstory. That doesn’t make a reader care about the character or the story. Show us the character in some unique and interesting light, or throw us into a conflict from the first line. Impress us with a lyrical, short description of the setting and plants us in a place so deeply we feel like we’re there, then populate it with interesting characters and compelling situations.

Start the date out right, and maybe you. That said…

3. You do not need to shock us to get our attention.

It’s surprising how many submitters go for the gross or strange right off the bat. Usually, this just backfires.

You want to start your story with a graphic scene of violence? How about sending in that piece about the weird and probably illegal act with the dog? You want to start your submission with an anthropomorphic penis riding a camel? Guess what? So did the last submitter (except it was a burro). We’ve read all those stories.

If we can go back to the date metaphor, this strategy is sort of like sitting down at the restaurant, opening the menu, then asking your date if they want to have sex on the table.

All I’m saying is a little foreplay would be nice. Build up to it. Makes us care about the characters, the plot, the conflict, before you throw the truly crazy stuff at us. We’re not prudes. We like the weird. And to be honest, sometimes we like it right from the start. But the key thing is it has to be done well, it has to exist for a reason, and it has to be done for more than just shock value.

In the end, the only thing you can do is your best work (weird or not). Polish it until it shines, send it in, and while you wait, start it all over again on your next piece. More than anything, this gig has taught me patience is key. Great work gets turned down for so many reasons, many out of the writer’s control. But great work will get recognized in the end.

Writers in the Woods Interview Series: Rebecca Makkai

Writers in the Woods Interview Series: Rebecca Makkai

by Carly Courtney

Rebecca Makkai is the Chicago-based author of the novels The Hundred-Year House, winner of the Chicago Writers Association’s Novel of the Year award, and The Borrower, a Booklist Top Ten Debut which has been translated into eight languages. Her short story collection, Music for Wartime, was published in June of 2015. Her short fiction was chosen for The Best American Short Stories for four consecutive years (2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008), and appears regularly in journals like Harper’s, Tin House, and New England Review.

You can purchase Music for Wartime here and on most online book-retailers:

What is your favorite story from graduate school?

I have a Master’s in Literature from Middlebury College in Vermont. You go every summer for five summers and then you have a master’s degree… but I met my husband there! He was literally the first person I met: I got out of the taxi with my suitcase, and he was the first person that I met. I was like, “He’s really cute!” Then “No, you’re just thinking that because he’s the first person you met at graduate school,” and then I ended up marrying him. We had some wonderful professors, and because it was a summer program, they were from all different institutions. Oskar Eustis, who was, at the time, was already a theatre director (now he’s the director of the Public Theatre in New York- he’s a major director), taught my contemporary modern American theatre class and it was incredible. This is a guy who does not himself have even a college degree, but he was the most dynamic professor that I’d ever had. I remember him, on the third day of class, talking about “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” and he just started openly sobbing, tears falling down into his beard (he had a big bushy beard), just totally unembarrassed, sobbing about this play. It was one of those classes I would retake in a heartbeat. It would be my first choice of any class I’ve ever taken. I was so excited to get up the mountain to hear him speak that I got a speeding ticket!


Have you ever published anything you were positive you’d get in trouble for? What was it? What happened?

I’m terrified about a lot of stuff I’ve published. Once your stuff is out there, you do get really bad reviews, it’s inevitable, and sometimes very publicly. Unfortunately, on a bad day, that voice can be in your head as you’re writing. “This is what people aren’t going to like about it, this is what people are going to mock it about, this is who will be offended by it.” You do really have to turn that off. I’m really scared about the book I’m writing now because it’s about the AIDS crisis and that’s not something that I was personally affected by. I know that there will be reviews that question my right to tell that story, or are really eager to point out any way that I got it wrong, and I just have to be okay with that. I thought a lot about whether it is what I really want to publish, and it is. I can’t control what story I want to tell any more than people can control their dreams; you tell the story you want to tell. I just have to be okay with the fact that I’m doing the best I can, I’m trying very hard to get it right and to do justice to the people whose story this is, and I’m going to try my best not to upset anyone, but just the fact of its existence, there is going to be some people who have an issue with it.

What was the weirdest place you’ve ever written? Did anything come of it?

I think you have to be able to work in all different places, you can’t just be able to work in your one special spot. I’m sure I’ve written in weirder places, but what sticks out in my mind is when I wrote a whole story sitting on the floor of an airport during a flight delay. It was very short, I wrote the entire thing right there. It’s a story in my story collection called “Everything We Know About the Bomber.” It was right after the Boston Marathon bombings, right after they caught the one brother and killed the other. So, CNN is playing this endless loop in the airport of basically every photo they could obtain of these people, every fact about their lives, so that’s basically what I wrote. I wrote this really short, weird story that was not directly about them, I changed all the details, but it basically just reads like this absurd news report of all these details, everything we know about this one bomber. I don’t think I would have ever written it somewhere else, I wouldn’t have written it if CNN hadn’t been in my face, I don’t normally write watching CNN, but I guess this is what happens if I do, and it was published in a literary magazine and it’s in my story collection, so good things came from it.


Do you have a favorite story in your story collection?

You know, I have to tell you something. I’ve been touring for this book for almost a year and no one has asked me that! I think I do. There’s a story in there called “Good St. Anthony Come Around,” and it is actually, in a very different way than my novel in progress, about the AIDS crisis. It’s set in New York city, it’s about artists, so it’s very different than the novel. It’s the last full story that I wrote for the collection. I wrote it as an entry into the world I was going to be writing about in the novel, I thought I wanted to write about [the AIDS crisis], I wasn’t sure, I was trying it out a little bit with this story. And I really love that story! It’s not a story that other people pick out as their favorite, though. It cracks me up; there are certain stories that people always bring up in interviews, and that readers will talk to me about which stories they like, and some of them never get mentioned. Not that people didn’t like them, maybe they’re just quieter stories, because if I do bring them up I get the “Oh yeah!” but they just don’t get mentioned, and “Good St. Anthony” is kind of one of those. People will occasionally bring it up, but it doesn’t seem to stick out to other people the way it sticks out to me. I think it’s probably that it might not really be the best story in there, I like it a lot, I think it works, but for me I like it because it’s what I’m obsessed with right now. It’s the world that I’ve now dove into, and this was the beginning of that. I think I like it for other reasons than just its artistic merit.

Do you think it’s a good exercise to write a story about what you plan on writing a novel about?

Not necessarily, no. It’s not something I’ve ever done before, or something I ever plan to do again. I have to say, it wasn’t entirely deliberate. It wasn’t like I said, “I’m going to write this story because I’m going to do this novel.” I didn’t realize back then how very much my novel would be about AIDS. I thought it was only going to be a small part of it, and partly it was the writing of this story and the research that convinced me that my novel should be more about that. The only risk of that for a lot of people might be that you write your interest out of it. If you write the short story, and if it worked, then why write the novel? Except for the fact that both are about AIDS, everything about the story and my novel in progress is completely different, different city, different characters, different themes, different tone.

What is the most inspiring book you’ve read in the last 5 years?

I don’t read books for inspiration, I might be inspired artistically, but I don’t read to be told how to live my life or to feel a certain emotion. Sometimes you read to be deeply disturbed or to be mildly entertained, so I’ll answer it in the sense of being artistically inspired. This happens every time I read Alice Monroe, who most people acknowledge is our greatest living short story writer. Every collection of hers ups the ante for me on what I realize is possible in short fiction, and it makes me step up my own game. For that reason I’m usually terrified to read her because every story I read of hers it’s like, “Oh no, I made more work for myself because I have higher standards and new ideas.” But of course I’m still going to read her, I just space it out a little bit. The last collection of hers I read was her last collection called Dear Life and it had stories in there that just blew apart… not my conception of what a story can be, she’s not doing anything that experimental with form or tone, but more these little moves she makes that if you look at them from a craft perspective as a fellow writer, you can see what she’s doing, even if you don’t know how she did it. It’s like being a magician and watching a magician who’s way  better than you, to the point you can’t figure out how they did their tricks, but you know you have to try,  because now that you know that its possible you want to do that too.

If you were a super villain, what would be your goal?

Do I have to be a villain, does it have to be a bad goal? I think I would have pretty good goals: free alternative education for everyone, and do away with Monsanto. Maybe some people would see those as evil, but that’s the thing about villains, they believe they’re right. Nobody thinks they’re a villain. But, for me being like, “Yeah I’d do away with Monsanto, and I’d have Montessori schools for everybody, and all the food would be organic,” someone else might see that as the most villainous plan ever.

Who’s your favorite author to follow on twitter?

There are certain people who are just hilarious, and there are certain people you just grudge-follow, the people who just humblebrag a bit too much. You like to follow them for the wrong reasons. There are people who are just genuinely hilarious and relatable on social media. One of them is Danielle Evans, she’s a short story writer. She only has one book out so far, called Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. She’s just really funny, on Facebook especially. There’s a writer, Jami Attenberg, who lives in New York. It’s partly that she’s really funny, and partly that she has these hilarious pictures of her pug that you kind of can’t look away from.

Do you listen to music when you write?

No. I really feel strongly about it actually. I know plenty of writers who do, I don’t judge them for it or anything, but I always advise my students not to. You need the musical part of your brain engaged with your writing. And if the musical part of your brain is busy listening to Beyoncé, or even to Bach, you’re not tuned into the rhythm of your own sentences. I know some people argue that the music helps infuse their writing with a sense of musicality, but I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think you’re borrowing the rhythms of Bach to put into your sentences, that doesn’t make any sense. I will occasionally listen to music before I write, but it’s more to recapture the mood I was in when I started writing a piece, or listen to a piece that has always meant something to me in relation to what I’m writing, but I do feel like it messes with me. Especially if there are lyrics. It’s like having someone shout in your ear; you don’t realize it, but it really is! If there are writers out there and it works for them, and they are serious, published, amazing authors, I take their word for it. When students say it works for them, I don’t believe them for a second, and I try to convince them that they’re wrong. Especially if they’re not doing well. If they’re making a lot of grammatical mistakes and the sentences aren’t flowing and I’m writing “awkward” in the margins a lot, then I say, “Hey listen, I think I know what your problem is: take the headphones off! Jay-Z is not helping you write this story.”

I know your novel in progress has a cult element: have you ever interacted with a cult or cult members in real life? Was it a preexisting interest?

I was never in a cult or anything, but I will say I had a very weird religious upbringing. My mom was ostensibly protestant, but she and my dad were also both, and still are, deeply into astrology and reincarnation. I kind of don’t want to believe that stuff, but it’s weirdly accurate. I would test her on it, and it was really, bizarrely accurate. My dad got into this, not cult, but occult religion. Occult, to some people, means Satanist, but occult just really means that there are secrets within it, and you have to get to different levels before you can learn the secrets. It’s called Anthroposophy, and he and his wife are really into that. My sister became an evangelical born-again Christian in college, and she’s 10 years older than me, so that was a big part of our household. This isn’t a religious thing, but I just like to laugh about it: my mom sent me to Amish farm camp one summer, so I was exposed to the Amish. And then, my sister started letting these Mormon missionaries into our house, and then the Mormon missionaries were coming once a week, and then we were going to a Mormon church for a month or two. I came out of it completely agnostic, like, I’m going to look at this all from the outside, I’m not in on this anymore. My sister is still really, really religious. It is a little bit of a rift between us. We still get along, but we really don’t see eye to eye on that. I also had a friend in high school who had grown up in a cult in Ohio. It was a boarding school, so when she went home she was still a part of this “group.” Actually, I did also write a story about a cult, but it totally failed. I think because it didn’t really work and I was still interested in [cults] that I felt like bringing it into my novel and seeing if I could make that interest work there.

Did you like “The Cat Poem” from All Def Poetry?

I liked it, but I didn’t think it had a lot of substance to it. I think a lot of spoken word poetry is very performative, which is great, that’s the point, but sometimes we get so into the performative aspect that we forget the person isn’t really saying anything, but it was cute.