Continuing the Poetic Journey

By Suzanne Simons. 

The work of a poet is many-fold – to ferret out gems in ordinary lives on ordinary days, encourage us to imagine, connect with one another, transform the personal to the universal or nearly universal, highlight beauty, shine light on injustice, help us feel more deeply, pay attention to the present and our place in it, to understand truth with big and little “t”s. The poet does this through imagery, rhythm, patterns, diction, literary devices and all within a container of story.

There are many definitions of poetry. Carl Sandburg wrote “Poetry is the report of a nuance between two moments, when people say, ‘Listen!’ and ‘Did you see it’ ‘Did you hear it? What was it?’ ” Meena Alexander added, “In this time of violence, the task of poetry is in some way to reconcile us to our world and to allow us a measure of tenderness and grace with which to exist.”

My first semester in the poetry sequence of the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College has been one of immense pleasure, challenge, connection and depth. I was surprised and delighted at the ease which poetry rolled out of me, and on demand. While much of my writing career has been focused outward on telling other people’s stories and observing events, with poetry I got to participate and also share some of my own stories that need telling. I was also surprised and delighted by my enjoyment of writing patterned poetry. Other than writing haiku, this was a new experience, and couplets short and split, heroic sestet, tercet, spatial, and villanelle were among my favorite forms for the lyricism they provoked and the mathematical challenge they demanded. Much of my patterned poetry began as free verse. Placing poems within an assigned pattern and crafting them further improved the quality.

Creativity often flourishes better inside a container or basket of parameters, and I would like a substantial number of poems in my thesis collection to be patterned. Sometimes a poem fits naturally into a pattern, sometimes not. For example “At Dusk, Salmon Spawn” fit easily into the villanelle structure. “Beach Chairs” I literally dreamed in sestina, illustrating the usefulness of keeping a dream journal. On the other hand, “Traces of Ritual” was not going to be wedged into a pattern, regardless of which one. At least for now. Work with patterned poetry has also inspired me to teach it. I recently taught a community poetry workshop on revision for the Olympia Poetry Network, and patterns were one of the techniques I encouraged participants to try. In spring, I will be part of teaching another community poetry workshop more focused on specific patterns. In my spring poetry program at Evergreen, “Poetry for the People,” I will put a fair amount of emphasis on reading and writing patterned poetry.

In order to further their craft, poets need to read broadly and deeply, drawing ideas of content and form from others. Key readings this semester were Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town, Dorianne Laux’s and Kim Addonizio’s The Poet’s Companion, Miller Williams’ Patterns of Poetry and the many Writer’s Almanac poems I read and annotated. Hugo’s book taught me that reality is merely a jumping off point of imagination and meaning. Laux’s and Addonizio’s book was inspiring for the amount of creative and innovative writing prompts and in very useful categories, such as family, erotica, witnessing and place. Several of the exercises I tried became poems. The book also is of great value for discussion of craft, such as imagery, music of the line, simile and metaphor, etc. Williams’ work opened up a whole new world of patterns and made them accessible with clear definitions and engaging examples. Whenever I think of spatial poetry, I think of Jo McDougall’s “The Black and Small Birds of Remorse” shifting from foot to foot.

Key activities which deepened my understanding of poetry and poetics were annotating poems from Writer’s Almanac. This exercise gave me an opportunity to read and reflect on a variety of contemporary poets, themes and styles while applying some common poetic language and terms I learned from MFA director Brian Turner’s handout. The book annotations helped me to read more closely and consider which concepts might apply to my own work. Writing an essay on a nonfiction book was a brilliant assignment which led to developing concepts of how the book might spawn a collection of poetry. An alternate option for this assignment could be to write an essay on a novel and how it might work as poetry. The essay on the sonnet encouraged me to consider the pattern in depth through a close reading of Sara Henderson Hay’s Story Hour. Similarly, the annotation on Jimmy and Rita was an opportunity to consider the verse novel. Of course, writing poems, whether through exercises or full-blown drafts, and the final assignment of revising, were the pinnacle of the semester. Choosing only six to revise was difficult, and I believe that several poems that didn’t make the cut are important to bring to the world after further revision, such as “Double Nickels,” “Duotone,” “The Dark Side,” “Unpacking,” “After Dinner,” “First Swim of Fall,” “Hometown 1973” and “Tale of Two Lakes.”

One of my goals for earning an MFA is to learn to write quality poetry that doesn’t sound like journalism with line breaks. I believe I achieved this and largely due to faculty mentor Gailmarie Pahmeier. Her feedback on my poems, exercises, essays and annotations – via e-mail, snail mail and phone conference – was abundant, affirming, inspiring and very useful. She taught me how to open a poem, tighten diction, count those feet and meters, and poets to read that I might find useful due to content and/or form. In other words, how to craft elegant, meaningful poetry. She also shared suggestions and insights which resonated deeply and provided ideas for future poems and collections. This ranged from making “Traces of Ritual” into a series of poems or numbered poem, and using the four elements of fire, air, water and earth as a framework for my thesis collection.

Re-establishing a regular writing practice is another goal for my MFA. While the setting bounced back and forth between my favorite coffee shops and writing at home in my pajamas, I did mostly stick with my intention of writing and reading much of three days a week. After an initial adjustment, I also settled into a pattern of prioritizing my writing and related graduate work over teaching – and it felt wonderful. In the course of my professional life, I have felt most satisfied and felt my work most valuable when engaged in jobs or projects I believed in. My enjoyment of writing had petered out in journalism at a time when I needed to find a creative medium truer to who I am and also be a medium for continuing social justice work. Poetry satisfies both needs. In writing poetry, I choose whether to focus on present, past or envision the future. From working on a variety of poems this semester, I learned that my most satisfying writing was about the present and asking the reader to consider the everyday gems that land in our laps and that we also share with others. In teaching poetry and as a board member of the Olympia Poetry Network, I experience the power of poetry to connect people across age, class, race, gender, religion and sexual orientation. As John Gardner wrote, “True art is by its nature moral. We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for and analysis of values…Moral means nothing more than doing what is unselfish, helpful, kind and noble-hearted, and doing it with at least a reasonable expectation that in the long run as well as the short we won’t be sorry for what we’ve done. Moral action is action which affirms life.” As the word “moral” comes with the baggage of rigidity, perhaps “best” or “true” are more fitting. Our best action affirms life. Our best poetry affirms life.

Works Cited

Gardner, John, On Moral Fiction. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1979. Print.

Nastasi, Alison, “20 Poets on the Meaning of Poetry.” Flavorwire. 8 Sept. 2013., on-line.

Fire and Forget, an interview with Brian Turner


 Fire and Forget 4

Fire and Forget:  Short Stories from the Long War (DaCapo Press, 2013, edited by Roy Scranton & Matt Gallagher), offers stories from fifteen writers who are or have been directly involved in recent military conflicts.  Their writings deal with the immediate experience of war and its aftermath, as well as the impact these experiences have both for the soldier and for the family and community which awaits him or her upon returning home.  The following is an interview between Brian Turner, author and contributor to the book, and Sarah Colby, a graduate student in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College.

Sarah Colby:  Poetry is your chosen genre, and one for which you are well-known.  Why did you decide to write a short story?

Brian Turner: When one of the editors, Roy Scranton, approached me with the idea, I was excited by the challenge he’d placed before me. I liked the possibilities that fiction and war fiction might offer, especially given the parameters of the project that Editors had in mind. Much of the fiction on war that’s written in our time seems steeped in the tradition of war journalism and, to some degree, reality television. That is, it comes across as hyper-real. I wanted to try something in the vein of Ismael Kadare—an Albanian novelist whose work is deeply influential—and I knew that the editors might see the merit in that approach (alongside the writers they’d assembled into the book).

SC: You say that Kadare is “deeply influential.”  In what ways?  How can a writer of fiction achieve influence?

BT: At some deep and human level, stories and moments have the ability to cross literary borders—from the poem to the story to the novel to the essay, and so on—while also crossing the borderlands of nationality, culture, time. The political parallels I find in Kadare’s work echo into our own time—so much so that when I had the chance (in 2010) I traveled to Albania to try to get a sense of the landscape which produced Kadare. The main thing here isn’t Kadare and his work. The main thing is to try to learn as much as you can from those who intrigue and challenge you.

SC: The title of the book, Fire and Forget, comes from a term that refers to the launching of weaponry that, once fired, seeks its programmed trajectory and target with no further involvement from the soldier.  Less than 1% of Americans are involved in direct military service.  One of the recurrent themes in the stories seems to be about a feeling of disconnection with the American public.  We as a nation are, it seems, engaging in “fire and forget.”  We have deployed the military to engage in conflict and then turned back to our daily lives without further action or thought.  How do stories like these about war and its aftermath change our collective understanding of conflict, especially these recent ones which have been so extended and are ongoing?

BT: I’m not sure that these stories will change our collective understanding of conflict, though they may help some to more fully appreciate the profound and lifelong impact war, violence, the potential for violence, and, more generally, aspects of military service which are mostly inaccessible to those who’ve never served. These stories offer inroads for some readers, I hope, to become surprised, challenged, stirred up, conflicted. They may help to remind us that the war comes home with the warrior. We live in a damaged world and it is a world of our own making. If a complicit narrative rings true, then perhaps that will call us, as readers, to consider our own complicity. If an indictment rings true, the same logic holds.

SC: You say that “the war comes home with the warrior” and that these stories can help remind us of that.  As I read Fire and Forget I felt that even though these stories are, in large part, written with the traditional beginning, middle and end, they all seem at the same time rather open-ended.  None of them really offers a solid “finish” to the experience of war.  Can you envision a story where war truly ends? 

BT: In terms of “war” stories, I imagine the story would have a coffin. And then another generation. And then a coffin. Another generation, another series of coffins. And then, silence, maybe. One season blending into another.

SC: One of the stories in the book is written by Siobhan Fallon, who writes stories about the experiences of the families – spouses, parents, etc – who stay behind.  Do you think this story belongs in this book where all the other authors are soldiers?  Why or why not?

BT: For many here in the States, war is purely an abstraction. It’s difficult to recognize it on our doorsteps, in our living rooms, in our conscious and subconscious minds. Part of the genius of Siobhan’s work is that her narratives create the necessary bridgework to bring the war(s) home to American soil, to recognize that which many turn away from and ignore or otherwise have little to no access. Through the imagination, she helps us to better see the world we actually live in.

SC: When Here, Bullet, your first volume of poetry about Iraq, was published in 2005, there were not many stories and first-hand accounts of this war in print. Now there is a growing number of books about Afghanistan and Iraq, related in theme but quite varied in the ways that theme is addressed.  With so much being published do you think there is room for more stories about these conflicts?

BT: There is always room in the world for a great and necessary story told exceptionally well, regardless of subject material.

SC:  In past wars, first-person accounts by way of journals and letters were an important source for documenting the experience of war.  Due in great measure to the ephemeral nature of current communication, (email, Skype, etc.) the conflicts in which we are now engaged are turning out to be among the least-documented in terms of first-person accounts.  What value do you see in soldier’s writing, even if it is not for publication?

BT: I’m especially interested in preserving the voices of those who were low on the food chain. That is, I’m not as interested in the accounts of high-ranking officers and the politicians with whom they share flights to and from the battlefield. I’m far more interested in what life is like from a ground-level vantage point. In terms of understanding war, civilians caught up in war have a tremendous amount to teach us about the wars which soldiers and journalists and historians so often write about. Fear, boredom, pain, loneliness, love, anger, loss, and more—war adds to the definition of these words we share. Some of these soldiers have the ability to share with all of us the new and profound nuances which have been added to these words. They can help us to fully appreciate the complex nature of the world we live in and inherit.

SC:  As an accomplished writer you could turn your hand to any topic.  What motivates you to write about your experiences with war?

BT: I do see my work beginning to wander across the expansive landscape of the imagination. I’m compelled to write about topics that at a surface level appear to be about war. The underlying theme is love and loss, though—that’s what the poems have been about all along. If I shift the overt landscape of the poem or story or essay in my future work, love and loss will surely remain the constant underpinning for it all.

SC: In conclusion, do you have any encouragement or advice for those of us who would like to begin writing, and for those of us who would like to write at a level commensurate with the authors in Fire and Forget?

BT: As my uncle told me when I was a boy—The world waits for all that you will bring it. It doesn’t often feel like it, but it’s true. If you find yourself wandering through the aisles of your local bookstore, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. I do the same. I wander the aisles with my head canted to the side as I read the new titles printed on the spines of those books, year after year, because I’m eager to find the book that you’ve written, perhaps, dear reader, dear writer—that gorgeous, painful, sublime book I want so much to read and be augmented by.


Brian TurnerPhoto by: Kim Buchheit

Brian Turner is the author of Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise. His poetry and essays have been published in The New York Times, National Geographic, Poetry Daily, VQR, The Georgia Review, and other journals. He is a co-editor of The Strangest of Theatres: Poets Writing Across Borders (McSweeney’s, Fall of 2012) and his memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country, will be available in 2014. He received a USA Hillcrest Fellowship in Literature, an NEA Literature Fellowship in Poetry, the Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship, he US-Japan Friendship Commission Fellowship, the Poets’ Prize, and a Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation. His work has appeared on National Public Radio, the BBC, Newshour with Jim Lehrer, and Weekend America, among others. He teaches and is the Director of the low-residency MFA at Sierra Nevada College.

Sarah Colby

Sarah Colby was born in northern New Mexico and raised in the Rocky Mountains.  She earned an MA in Art History from Brigham Young University. In the process she met and married her husband, an active-duty Chaplain in the U.S Army, at present stationed in Hawaii.  When not unpacking from her latest move, she occupies herself teaching art and art history, exploring places and cultures, and writing poems.  Her experiences as a military spouse in war time have motivated her to seriously pursue writing.  She is currently an MFA graduate student in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College.

The Power of Imagination

Review of The Tiger’s Wife
By Téa Obreht           

Written by Katherine Gallagher
13 May, 2013

The Power of Imagination

In her novel The Tiger’s Wife, Téa Obreht has eloquently embroidered an illustration of myth and realism into a world of kindness, distress, and unlikely characters that come to life with the illumination of each fable.  Her artistry allows the reader an opportunity to visit diverse imaginary places while her characters each have a past that erupts into the present construct of man, woman and beast.

The narrator of her novel is Natalia Stefanovic, a no-nonsense, science-driven, young doctor who is unwilling to consent to the superstition surrounding her.  She lives in a fictional Balkan city with her mother, grandmother and grandfather when, as she states, “the war started quietly, its beginning subdued by the decade we had spent on the precipice, waiting for it to come.”   Within this sentence is the construct of malevolence.  A constant threat can either frighten one to the point of catatonics; push one over the edge into non-belief, or anything in between.  Obreht intuitively describes fear in the older people and doubt in the young and when the inevitable does happen, no one is prepared for its onslaught.

As Natalia’s country is gradually demolished by war, it exacts a challenge to volunteer with the University’s United Clinic program.  On this goodwill mission to administer inoculations at an orphanage, she travels into Brejevina, where “…before the war, the people of Brejevina had been our people.”  The sorrow demonstrated is apparent while the grief is so faintly laced into those few words that rereading them is almost necessary.  Brejevina now lay across the border; a border resolved twelve years after the war to separate nationals that were once one.

After learning of her beloved grandfather’s death in the obscure city of Zdrevkova, she sets out to retrieve his personal belongings.  His copy of The Jungle Book, a treasure he carried in the breast pocket of his jacket throughout his life, has become the object of her skepticism about the circumstances surrounding his death.  On her quest for the truth, she inadvertently pieces together bits of his life that she either knew from his own words or from the legends that formed around him.

Her pursuit takes her to her grandfather’s childhood home, the village of Galina, a community swathed in parables.  As Natalia’s journey crosses into this world, her understanding of the superstitions surrounding the village becomes the focus of an unraveling of what she once believed to be fairy-tales.    In the village she encounters a modern day family digging around a hillside looking for the grave of a relative who was not allowed a proper burial, thereby placing a curse on their lineage.  They believe the cure for their current ailments is the performance of a necessary ritual rather than medical attention.  Natalia cannot persuade them otherwise, and so begins the mingling of reality and folklore.  Obreht’s use of this intriguing tale charmed my interest, and as I planted one foot into this spell of enchantment, the other was struggling for solid ground.

Memories reveal times of Natalia and her grandfather visiting the zoo to see the tigers, and later of a chaotic city with a zoo in ruins.  A memory of walking with her grandfather in the dead of night to an undisclosed destination along the city streets resulted in her first glimpse of an elephant that had been abandoned and near death at a former circus site.  The elephant was being tempted by a young man to follow him to the zoo, and about “…how, despite everything, despite closure and bankruptcy, the zoo director said bring him in, bring him in and eventually the kids will see him.”  My mind revealed a sobering picture of an elephant, a superb being of great stature, of intelligence and understanding, a creature of power, now dependant and still trusting while surrounded by brutality.  The rescue was a poignant moment, a bittersweet moment, a moment that lingered like a taste in the mouth that neither repels nor satisfies.

Her grandfather then proceeds to tell her a story, a story as equally unbelievable as an elephant walking down the empty street of a ruined town in the middle of the night; the story of the deathless man.  This story coupled with another of a tiger and his struggle for survival lays the foundation for the magic that will unfold during her search for answers about her grandfather’s death and the mysteries surrounding his life.

With background information delicately put into place, the reader can empathize with the cruelty the characters display and come to appreciate their intricate involvement with the evolution of human emotions, both individually and universally. Crisscrossing between past and present and myth and reality, the richness of this novel and its timeless revelations brings the plot, and all its subplots, to a subtle finish without an end.

Obreht’s imagination prevails as an inspiration to readers who choose to believe in the magic of narrative even while squaring off with actuality itself.  Life and death are cyclical and wholly expected, but legends rob death of its finality and with this, immortality can share a place among the ordinary.   As for me, I choose to believe in the magic of The Tiger’s Wife.

Téa Obreht was born in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia in 1985 and has lived in the United States since the age of twelve. Her New York Times bestselling debut novel The Tiger’s Wife won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction and was a 2011 National Book Award Finalist. Her writing has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Vogue, Esquire and The Guardian, and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. She has been named by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty and included in the National Book Foundation’s list of 5 Under 35. Téa Obreht lives in New York.

Katherine Gallagher holds an MA International Marine Policy and is currently a Marine Science Educator. She has over 20 years experience as an international musician, composer, lyricist, and recording artist.  Additionally, she began a publishing company and opened a music store where she was co-owner and co-builder of stringed musical instruments.  Katherine will be joining her daughter, Delaney Walker—a current student in fiction in Sierra Nevada College’s MFA program—this August.  Katherine is looking forward to working with the fabulous variety of authors and students in the program.

Nathalie Handal Presents Spanish Translation of Poet in Andalucia

On Tuesday, May 7, 2013 at the Huerta de San Vicente, Parque y Museo Federico García Lorca in Granada, Spain, Nathalie Handal presented the Spanish translation of her best-selling poetry book, Poet in Andalucia to a packed house.

Poet in Andalucia is the unique recreation, in reverse, of Federico García Lorca’s Poet in New York.

The book has been received in Spain with great success.

from Spanish Press:

Nathalie Handal es ya “una de las más importantes poetas de su generación”. La poesía de Nathalie Handal está llena de voces con diferentes acentos, de almas con distintas lenguas. Su condición de exiliada Palestina, de poeta errante, le ha hecho asimilar lo mejor de las grandes tradiciones literarias de Oriente y Occidente. En este libro, la autora evoca el viaje de Federico García Lorca a Nueva York en un recorrido por la Andalucía luminosa de Alberti y de Picasso, pero también por las sombras de Víznar o el estrecho de Gibraltar.

—Fernando Valverde

Si la escritura nos acerca al Otro, una voz tan sensible y a la vez lúcida como la de Nathalie Handal se hace necesaria, tanto en cuanto una perspectiva privilegiada como la suya permite interpretar los ecos que nos llegan del pasado y del mañana, del oriente y occidente, de la pérdida y la pertenencia, del yo y del vosotros, de lo que muda y permanece. Pero sobre todo de cómo todo ello se une, y nos une.

—Yolanda Castaño, television host

Alexi Zentner and Téa Obreht in Conversation




Alexi & Tea 2

I’m very excited about teaching a fiction workshop with Téa Obreht during the Sierra Nevada College MFA residency this summer. We’ve known each other since 2006, when we started graduate school together, and I remember reading Téa’s first submission for workshop. I finished the story and turned to my wife and said, “you’ve got to read this.” That story, in a different form, ended up in The New Yorker when Téa was named to the “20 Under 40” list. We took a few minutes recently to talk about the workshop for this summer.

Alexi: “We’ve both taught a lot, but we’ve never taught a class together. Do you think you can make it through a week without killing me?”

Téa: “A whole week is going to be tough.”

Alexi: “But you’ll try? So what are you most excited about?”

Téa: “One of the things we bonded about at Cornell was how much we enjoyed teaching. Since Cornell, you’ve gotten to teach formal classes a lot more than I have, and I miss being around that energy, the energy of the classroom, especially with you, since your enthusiasm is contagious.”

Alexi: “You haven’t been in a formal classroom that much the last couple of years, but you’ve been out on the road and doing a ton of events with The Tiger’s Wife. What do you think will be the biggest difference?”

Téa: “Obviously, there is a teaching element to the events. I talk about the process of writing a lot, and there’s a certain amount of reflection that comes with having to dissect how you’ve arrived at a particular project. But one of the things that I’m most looking forward to is getting to nerd out on craft for an extended period of time and having a chance to talk with younger writers.”

Alexi: “So what are we going to do if we disagree on the direction of a student’s story in workshop?”

Téa: “Grammar slam? Best three out of five.”

Alexi: “On a serious note, do you have a text that you most like teaching?”

Téa: “Hemingway’s short story, “A Natural History of the Dead.” It’s very different from the rest of his short stories. Also the voice and the perspective change partway, and it’s a good story to workshop from a craft perspective.”

Alexi: “Last but absolutely not least, have you been practicing for the big whiffleball game?”

Téa: “That’s when you sit on a horse and swing a stick, right?”

Alexi: “Something like that.”


[Editor’s note: While Téa has not actually been practicing, she does know what whiffleball is.]

Alexi & Tea 1

Téa Obreht was born in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia in 1985 and has lived in the United States since the age of twelve. Her New York Times bestselling debut novel The Tiger’s Wife won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction and was a 2011 National Book Award Finalist. Her writing has been published in The New YorkerThe AtlanticHarper’sVogue, Esquire and The Guardian, and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. She has been named by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty and included in the National Book Foundation’s list of 5 Under 35. Téa Obreht lives in New York.

Alexi Zentner is the author of the novels The Lobster Kings (forthcoming, 2013) and Touch. He is published in the United States by W. W. Norton & Company, and in Canada by Knopf Canada. Touch has been published or is forthcoming in a dozen countries and ten languages. The CBC has named Alexi as one of 12 Writers to Watch – “the future of this country’s literature” – and one of six “fresh voices” for 2011. Touch was named one of the “best books” of 2011 from The National Post, Kobo, and, and singled out for year-end praise by The Globe & Mail. Touch was shortlisted for The 2011 Governor General’s Literary Award, The Center for Fiction’s 2011 Flahery-Dunnan First Novel Prize, the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, and the 2011 First Novel Award, and longlisted for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Alexi’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlantic Monthly, Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Glimmer Train, The Walrus, The Southern Review, and many other publications. He is the winner of both the O. Henry Prize (jury favorite) and the Narrative Prize, and has been shortlisted for the Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Prize. Alexi is a faculty member in the Sierra Nevada College low residency MFA program. Alexi has taught creative writing at Cornell University, where he received his MFA, and has taught at the Brooklyn College MFA program, the Rutgers-Camden Writers’ Conference, and the Lighthouse Writing Workshop, and has been a teaching fellow at the Bread Loaf and Wesleyan University writing conferences. Alexi Zentner was born and raised in Kitchener, Ontario, and currently lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and two daughters. He holds both Canadian and American citizenship.


MFA Faculty June Sylvester Saraceno Honored for Excellence and Innovation in Humanities Teaching by Nevada Humanities

june-246x300by Tanya Canino

Sierra Nevada College’s English Chair June Saraceno continually strives to bring exceptional literary speakers and programs to Incline Village for the campus and the community.

Now, Nevada Humanities has deemed Saraceno as exceptional herself.

Nevada’s nonprofit affiliate for the National Endowment of the Humanities honored Saraceno, along with former UNR President Joe Crowley and former UNLV President Carol Hunter, for their achievements in the humanities.

In a ceremony on March 28 at the Governor’s Mansion, the Nevada Humanities Board of Trustees awarded Saraceno for Outstanding Teaching of the Humanities for excellence and innovation in humanities teaching.

“Judged by the standards of increasing literacy and, perhaps more importantly, love of language, her service to northern Nevada is incomparable. A leader in her field, a friend and mentor to students, and herself a prolific poet and author – June’s dedication to the humanities is multifarious, and her impact will be felt for years to come,” said Kai Bekkeli, an SNC faculty member who supported her nomination for the award.

For the other Nevada Humanities awards, Crowley and Hunter were given the Judith Winzeler Award for Excellence in the Humanities, while Richard Hooker, of Las Vegas, Project REAL of Las Vegas and the National Automobile Museum in Reno were also honored for humanities contributions.

Every other year Nevada Humanities presents awards recognizing “remarkable” individuals and organizations that foster cultural enrichment and deepen the understanding of the human experience by facilitating opportunities for Nevadans to engage with the humanities, according to a Nevada Humanities press release.

Since she launched the English program at SNC in 2002, Saraceno has continually added to the college’s cultural and literary offerings.

“Professor Saraceno is relentless and fearless in the way she builds opportunities for advancement of the humanities within the college, then creates a space for the local community to participate in the college’s activities,” said Laura Wetherington, who assists with the college’s MFA in Creative Writing program.

Aside from recently partnering with acclaimed poet Brian Turner to create the low residency MFA in Creative Writing program, Saraceno, through the years, has also established the BFA in Creative Writing, the Sierra Nevada Review annual literary publication, the Distinguished Visiting Writer position at the college, the journalism program, and the Writers in the Woods reading series. She has been teaching a variety of classes from British Literature to Poetry since 1987.

“I’m really thrilled about this award,” Saraceno said. “It’s great to be recognized for teaching because I’m passionate about teaching.”

However, community leadership and outreach is also one of the requirements for the Outstanding Teaching in the Humanities award, and Saraceno’s vision for the college as a “literary mecca” has bridged a gap between community members and the college students.

The Writers in the Woods series invites nationally recognized writers to campus for a public reading and a writing workshop, such as Turner, author of “Here, Bullet,” and Robert Hass, former poet laureate. Last fall, Tim O’Brien, author of the critically acclaimed, Vietnam story, “The Things They Carried,” visited Incline Village for the Common Read, an event which brought over 400 people to campus to hear O’Brien speak.

“My whole goal is to make SNC a literary center. This actually makes it an intellectual center because people are talking about the ideas and issues writers explore,” Saraceno said. “It opens conversations about war, peace, race, honesty. It makes people think.”

Saraceno, the author of two books of poetry, received another honor earlier this year, when she was accepted into a month-long artists’ residency program at the Camac Art Center in Marnay-sur-Seine, France this coming August.

MFA Student Spotlight: Brooke King

Brooke King headshot2

Photo courtesy of Suzanne Roberts

Ray Degraw (MFA Literary Nonfiction ’15) interviews Brooke King (MFA Fiction ’14).


Ray Degraw: Where do you find the inspiration to write?

Brooke King: One of the ways I find out how to write is by reading. I know it sounds weird, but most times, by reading, I find inspiration in a subject or area. Other times, it just comes to me. I don’t really have a rhyme or reason behind it, but mostly, my writing comes from my war experience and so, most of my inspiration comes from my own experience or the experience of those that I served with.


Ray: Is there a particular genre you find appealing that you use quite often in your own writing?

Brooke: Well, I am a war writer, so war literature, whether it’s poetry, nonfiction, or fiction is interesting to me, but I also find (I can’t believe I’m admitting to this) cheesy mystery novels interesting and often wonder if it’s something I can actually use in my writing, like the buildup of suspense and the rising and falling of action within a story.


Ray: Can you give me a writer that may inspire or influence your writing?

Brooke: Well, I’ve always been really fond of Hemingway and how he uses terse language and brevity in his fiction, but I am also quite fond of, and it’s cliché for me to say this, but Tim O’Brien is a huge influence in my writing. Just recently, I’ve gotten into Gunter Grass and find that his to the point writing is right up my alley.


Ray: What do you find particularly hard about writing, in an MFA or at home leisurely?  Or rather, how do you find the time to write and balance your daily life?

Brooke: The hardest part about writing is finding a space and a place to write. With children, it’s hard to balance the time, but I guess if you love something enough, you’ll make time to do it. I also find it sometimes hard to get writing and so I’ll free write for about 10 minutes to get the juices flowing. I highly recommend What If?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. It usually helps me get into the mood to write and sometimes getting started is all you need to kickstart your writers block.


Ray: What writing project are you working on now?

Brooke: Well, I’m working on my thesis for the MFA, but my thesis include a good chunk of my first novel. I am also working on my memoir, which also centers around my first deployment and the aftermath of coming home.


Ray: Can you tell me your writing mantra or maybe your favorite writing quote?

Brooke: It sounds corny, but I have two phrases that have always kind of stuck with me no matter what and one is by Hemingway. “The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” The other one is by William Faulkner “If a story is in you, it has to come out.”
Ray: Is there some sort of goal you work towards when you sit down to write or do you just write and see where it takes you?

Brooke: As a writer, you tie down your creativity if you sit down with a plan of how you are going to write a story. For me, I just sit down and write and see where the story takes the characters. You cannot limit your imagination to the confines of a set goal, and it is often times when I don’t know where a story is headed that makes the journey to the end that much more exciting as a writer. For me, finding where the story unfolds is more interesting than how it starts, but as a craftsman of words, you have to be invested in every part of the work, beginning, middle, and end.
Ray: As MFA students, we’ve been told time again to write to an audience. Who do you feel is your audience and what do you hope they get from your writing?

Brooke: I don’t think per say that I have an audience, but I have a reader to whom I write, and that person is my Nana. Whenever I write a story, I write as though I am writing it for her to read and that usually helps me figure out where the story is going and ends up. It also helps to have a reader in mind because it will give you an idea of diction and structure, and how the words flow on the page. Most times, I find it helpful to write have a picture of her near, so that I remind myself who I am writing the story for and why.


Ray: In closing, is there anything else you would like to share about you, as an author, or your writing that hasn’t been explored yet?

Brooke: I know my work is heart wrenching and at times quite graphic, but I think it brings light to women in combat and the reality of what they truly went through, as well as myself. Too often the women’s perspective is lost in the war genre and I hope to give voice to the women in a field that is predominantly ruled by male writers. Hopefully, my writing will help in bringing together the gap that has been created in my genre, but if my writing helps or touches even one person, I’ll be content. Either way, I think I’ll be writing in this genre for awhile and that’s okay by me.


Brooke King served in the United States Army, deploying to Iraq in 2006 as a wheel vehicle mechanic, machine gunner, and recovery specialist. Her combat experience has led her to focus on the involvement of female soldiers, giving perspective and insight about how women have fought in combat and war.  Her work has been published in the Sandhill Review and Press 53’s fiction war anthology Home of the Brave: Somewhere in the Sand with a forthcoming nonfiction publication with University Nebraska Press. Currently, Brooke is attending Sierra Nevada College’s Master of Fine Arts program and is working on her first novel.

MFA Student Spotlight: Optimism One

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Meghan Robins (MFA Fiction ’14) talks with Optimism One (MFA Literary Nonfiction ’14).


Meghan Robins: When did you first start writing?

Optimism One: It’s been off and on since grade school, really. I always liked to get creative with school assignments. Then I moved on to writing songs from the time I was a freshman in high school. After that, I went through a poetry stage in college. And finally I moved on to nonfiction. With all that said, I have never made such an effort to ‘be a writer’ as I have now.


Meghan: What made you choose to attend SNC for your MFA degree?

Op: The faculty at SNC is very impressive, and two of the nonfiction writers had published books on topics that I want to address, in particular, Suzanne Roberts’ travel writing and Kelle Groom’s writing about her excessive drinking in I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl. The latter book is certainly not an addiction memoir, but I knew she would understand what I was trying to do. The same goes for Suzanne since she has traveled the world as much as, if not more than, I.


Meghan: Would you ever consider writing fiction? or another genre?

Op: I would love to write fiction. In fact, my ideal would certainly be a balance of nonfiction and fiction. As for poetry, I was quite engaged with that genre during my undergraduate studies and immediately following that, but that was almost twenty years ago and my interest in it (outside of reading and/or listening to it) has waned.


Meghan: Do you think you have more than one memoir in you?

Op: Yeah, I do. Right now, I envision a memoir that covers the ten year period between receiving my B.A. and my M.A. There is a LOT of material there. In another memoir, I can cover my early years if I like or the following years. If not, I’m open to the idea of writing collections of essays.


Meghan: How difficult or easy is it to write about your personal and truthful past?

Op: Wicked hard but ultimately fulfilling. One issue is memory, trying to accurately recall distant events, especially when I might very well have been intoxicated to one degree or another. Another issue is simply being honest with myself, including my harmful behavior as much as the good stuff. Finally, I have a tendency to want to wrap up my experiences in tidy little bows at the end, showing my evolution and ultimately my liberation from painful experiences, but the reality is that life is more complicated than that, which can be difficult to convey in writing.


Meghan: So how do you feel about James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces?

Op: Oh, well, I understand the desire to make things sound more spectacular than they really were, but I don’t want to do that with my writing. With that said, I recently wrote about what I recall being a recurring scene in my house when I was a young boy. Then I mentioned it to my mom and she looked at me like I was crazy, saying “That didn’t happen.” However, when pressed, she said, “Well, maybe once.” So who knows? Whose memory do I trust? Hers or mine? More importantly, whose story do I tell? Hers or mine?


Meghan: Do you worry about hurting the people in your life with your writing? Do you take into consideration those people when you write?

Op: Yes and no. I assume that nobody except for those who are in my writing group or who are currently teaching me will see my early drafts, so I try to let it fly no matter what when I start writing a piece. Now, publishing that work is another story. I haven’t yet had to cross that hurdle where someone might be hurt by my written words.


Meghan: Is your writing meditative or a means of coping? Basically, why do you write what you write?

Op: In some ways, yes, I write to understand myself, I write to get it out, an act of catharsis, and I write to connect to others in a way that I have felt connected to other writers.


Meghan: What are you favorite books? Who are your most influential writers?

Op: There are so many, of course. Some of my early faves are fiction, stuff like Toni Morrison’s Beloved. My all-time favorite essayist and poet is June Jordan. As for more current stuff, which has to include all of the faculty teaching in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College, I love Chuck Palahniuk, Amy Hempel, Nick Flynn…should I keep going? Also, I have to say that my favorite memoir of all time might just be Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water.


Meghan: What activities do you enjoy besides writing?

Op: I tend to travel a lot, usually to developing countries whenever I get the chance. I also like to train for and participate in triathlons.


Meghan: What is your writing practice (what time of day, how long, etc.)?

Op: It varies, really. I so much want to be a morning writer who sits down after some yoga and meditation and then writes for a few hours, but that rarely happens. Also, I tend to write in short bursts while drafting, maybe fifteen minutes at a time, until it’s time to start revising and trying to shape something more coherent, and that requires more sustained attention.


Meghan: What does your writing space look like? Do you compose on a computer, notepad, recording device?

Op: My writing spaces have moved around over the last eight months with so much travel, but right now I have a beautiful writing space in front of two upstairs windows where I’m also surrounded by books, a printer, my computer, and every office supply I could possibly need, but curiously, right now I am typing at the kitchen table. I also like to write while propped up in bed. As for what I write on, I do carry a small notepad with me wherever I go to jot down ideas, but I always write on a computer unless it’s my morning pages, which I do in a notebook.


Meghan: How do you feel about swearing in your writing? Is it easy/ comes naturally? Or do you take pause before writing it?

Op: I can hardly speak without swearing, so I don’t mind it in my writing, but now that you mention it, I surely do much less of it, especially in final drafts.


Meghan: Do you think you’re writing would have the same effect with more or less swearing? 

Op: Even though my everyday speech may not reflect it, swearing tends to lose its effect with overuse, so less is more, I suppose. Of course, dialogue is a whole different story. If the people in my life happened to cuss a lot and I am trying to capture those scenes, then there are going to be lots of F-bombs.


Meghan: What emotions come with revealing yourself so openly to an unknown audience? Is it scary, liberating, indifferent?

Op: There is fear, for sure, but what seems clear to me is that I am not all that unique, particularly when it comes to emotions or whatever human foibles I might be sharing; therefore, what readers might do more than shake their heads is nod in agreement or identification. With that said, when it comes to writing about sexual experiences in nonfiction, I seize up.


Meghan: What would it take for you to write about a sexual experience in nonfiction? 

Op: Well, Kelle Groom, among others, says that wherever we want to look away from, that’s where we should start, so she pushed me to write about a very uncomfortable sexual experience, which I did in between pacing around the room, cussing out loud to myself, and eating a lot of crappy food. So far, only she and Paul Lisicky and a few of my peers in workshop have seen it. We’ll see if I ever try to publish it.


Meghan: Do you have a library? And how do you feel about books versus devices like kindle/ nook?

Op: I do have a rather large collection of books at home and in my office at work. I prefer paper, without a doubt. With that said, I have embraced e-books because of their convenience with traveling. After all, schlepping 10-20 books around in a backpack while getting on and off buses and whatnot is not all that fun.


Meghan: What is the best piece of writing advice you have heard that sustains you?

Op: Just to do it. Everyone says that, but it’s true. Just sit your butt in the chair or whatever every day and let it fly. Also, be an employee to art. I stole that from Suzanne Roberts, but I’m not sure if she took it from someone else. We’re all thieves in one way or another, aren’t we?


Optimism One is an MFA student in Creative Nonfiction at Sierra Nevada College who also teaches writing full-time at Modesto Junior College. His work has been published in Matador, I-Magazine, In the Grove: California Poets and Writers, and June Jordan’s Poetry for the People in a Season of Love.


MFA Student Spotlight: Meghan Robins

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Optimism One (MFA Literary Nonfiction ’14) talks with Meghan Robins (MFA Fiction ’14).


Optimism One: What made you decide to pursue your MFA in fiction?

Meghan Robins: After undergrad and a few years of traveling, I was determined that I could write stories without any guidance – it was harder than I thought. I took one creative writing class with Karen Terrey, who owns Tangled Roots Writing in Truckee, CA and she told me about the new MFA program at Sierra Nevada College. My improvements with Karen were so immediate sitting in her living room drinking tea that I wondered how much more could I learn in graduate school? Even with a natural affinity for writing, it takes practice, studying and an incredible amount of self-discipline to write every day and I wouldn’t have truly understood this without an MFA program. As for pursuing fiction, I enjoy the freedom of making up characters and stories where no one can tell me I’m wrong.


Op: Do you write in other genres as well?

Meghan: I occasionally write literary nonfiction but stay pretty clear of poetry. I have a plethora of backpacking stories from childhood that I would like to compile, but am certain that even the truth might read like fiction when I’m writing it.


Op: What made you choose Sierra Nevada College to get your degree?

Meghan: I chose SNC because of the rolling admissions and the low-residency format. I was eager to begin my graduate studies right away and the low-residency schedule allows me to keep my job while earning my degree. The faculty is nothing short of amazing and having a small community of incredibly talented writers is something that is really important to me. I didn’t want to be lost in the crowd at a bigger school and SNC guarantees a 5-1 student-teacher ratio.


Op: Who are your primary writing influences or inspirations?

Meghan: When I was in the seventh grade I was kicked out of class for reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel A Princess of Mars. They don’t wear clothes on Mars and the cover depicted that. But the story was so good I couldn’t put it down. I loved the action, the stranger who becomes the hero and how Burroughs created an entire world out of his imagination. His books made me want to write, to use my imagination to create places and characters and then see how they survive. Other books that I truly love and I consider inspirations are: Bryce Courtaney’s The Power of One and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.


Op: Outside of writers, what else influences or inspires your writing?

Meghan: Nature, absolutely. I was born and raised in Tahoe City, California and my parents gave my sisters and me a pretty long leash growing up. We ran through the mountains and built forts out of anything for fun. We’d named all the close meadows and rocks so our parents would know where we were. We learned to take care of each other, respect the power of the rivers and cliffs, and I believe we understood the imperativeness of being careful. If one of us got hurt too far away from home, not only would our mom be super angry, but the others would have to carry the third all the way home.


Op: Can you describe your writing practice: what time of day, how long, where, etc.?

Meghan: I write best in the morning, before anyone has talked to me. I’ll make a cup of tea, sit at my computer and eventually, when I get hungry I’ll eat breakfast. On a good day I can write from 8am to 1pm and then my legs get antsy. On a bad day, I check my email way too much.


Op: What are your immediate and long-term goals as a writer?

Meghan: My immediate goal is to complete my first novel, Undercut. My long-term goals are to be able to support myself through writing and to continue to challenge myself throughout my career. There are lots of tricks in writing and often I think of an idea or read a book and imagine all the different styles I could apply to create a different effect in my own story.


Op: In the novel you are writing, Undercut, what is the underlying theme?

Meghan: Since I have not finished this novel yet, I’m wary to say exactly what is the underlying theme. The most obvious is logging in Tahoe in the 1860’s. Another will probably be betrayal. But we’ll see.


Op: How did the idea for your novel come about?

Meghan: My dad made an offhand comment when I was 22 years old about how the entire Tahoe basin had been clear-cut. I grew up here and had no idea. Most of the trees we enjoy are second growth and occasionally you’ll come across a gigantic tree and I almost can’t imagine these mountains shaded by giants instead of suffocating by competing trees like they are now. I did some research and thought, yes, this is the story I need to write first.


Op: Do you base your characters, like Giuseppe and Shipp, off of people you know or have met?

Meghan: I am completely making them up. It is very probable that their characteristics resemble a collaboration of people I have known – as all things must – but I am not thinking of any one or two persons in particular. As I write them, I am trying to understand them. And in doing so, I am open to the possibilities that they may be good or bad. It would be hard to write too closely to someone I know because I have a hard time deviating from the truth and I would inevitably write a story that actually happened and then call it fiction.


Op: Because your novel is historical fiction, do you find it difficult to make sure to stress the details and vernacular of the mid 1800’s? What do you do to make sure you are maintaining that same level of tone and scene in a consistent manner?

Meghan: Maintaining consistency comes easily to me because when I sit down to write, I am very much in this story and this timeframe. Balancing research and writing has been a hard habit to learn. First and foremost, I am writing a story. The backdrop happens to be set in historical reality. I sit down and write (most important) and occasionally I’ll pause to fact-check (Did they wear long-johns in 1860? Only in the Union Army and they were called union suits.) Alright, so my character only wears trousers because I don’t want him to be a Union soldier. But it’s most important to write the story and then I can tweak the details to make them accurate later. Outside of my assigned reading, I also read a lot of research literature about logging and mining so I can weave accuracy in on the first draft. Wallace Stegner wrote in Angle of Repose, “I have heard publishers, lamenting their hard life over Scotch and soda, complain that they must read a hundred bad manuscripts to find one good one. Having practiced the trade of history, I feel no stir of sympathy. A historian scans a thousand documents to find one fact that he can use” (367). Oftentimes, I feel just like that.


Op: How far along are you in completing a first draft?

Meghan: I’ve written and edited up to Chapter 3. I imagine the completed novel will fall somewhere between 10-14 chapters. And inevitably I will edit even the first three chapters over and over again. Either way, I plan to be finished by the end of our program, so the summer of 2014.


Op: Do you have specific ideas for other novels after this one?

Meghan: A lot of ideas, but none specific. I’m still trying to comprehend the idea of completing one novel!


Op: Finally, what is the best piece of writing advice you have heard that sustains you?

Meghan: Two things, though they’re not exactly writing advice, but they absolutely sustain me. Next to my desk I have a quote that says, “If you are what you should be you will set the world on fire.” – St. Catherine of Siena

And from George Hunker, who taught me how to fly fish, “Can’t catch anything if your lines not in the water.” I think that goes for everything in life. Writing is what I want to do, it is what I am supposed to do, so as my mom has always reminded me, “Butt in chair.”

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Meghan Robins was born and raised in Tahoe City, California. After earning a Bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in Philosophy at the University of Oregon, she traveled throughout Mediterranean Europe, living in Rome, working on a farm in southern Spain then teaching at an elementary school in Membrilla, a small town south of Madrid. She quickly learned their thickly accented version of Castellano and every day she ran along la ruta de Don Quixote. When the school year ended, Robins left the agrarian land of central Spain for the majestic topography of New Zealand. Although gigantic ferns and jagged peaks rival the beauties of her own tromping grounds, it was time to return home. Now she lives in Tahoe City and is earning her Masters degree in Creative Writing from Sierra Nevada College. She also works at an outdoor retail shop called Alpenglow in Tahoe City. When not working or writing, she is playing Ultimate Frisbee, backpacking, skiing, or walrus-ing around the Lake Tahoe shores. She is currently writing a historical fiction novel about logging in the Lake Tahoe Basin in the mid-1800’s and has every intention of finishing it by the end of her MFA program, which will be the summer of 2014.