Public Safety Writers Association members can submit their work to an annual contest. The winners are revealed at the annual conference. This year’s winners were announced on July 17, 2022. I was delighted to learn that the poem I had submitted, “Sand Creek,” was awarded second place.
The First People trusted you
to protect, and
to feed our people.
You betrayed The People.
You stole the food the Great White Father sent
to nourish The People,
our children, our future.
You betrayed The People.
Instead, you raped our women
beheaded our children.
You failed the Great White Father.
You betrayed The People.
Your soldiers murdered The People.
You murdered The People.
You failed the Great White Father.
You betrayed The People.
We died for your sins,
When you murdered the people.
You failed the Great White Father.
You betrayed The People.
To learn more about the Public Safety Writers Association, visit https://policewriter.com
Recently two events reminded me of Lucia Berlin and her remarkable collection of stories, A Manual For Cleaning Women. There is a television series out, The Cleaning Lady. But what got me was Author Chip Livingston mentioning her on FaceBook. I went into my notes and found a piece I wrote about this wonderful book.
To not give away too much, I removed most of what I originally wrote. It is a wonderful read.
Berlin’s stories are interwoven, almost as memoir. In A Manual For Cleaning Women, the reader can imagine the stories are interconnected memoirs. The old writers saw, write what you know is visible throughout the work. She brings her knowledge and experiences to life so that we, the readers, understand the emotion that she and her characters experience. “It has been seven years since you died.” The emotional pull hits the reader like a hammer.
Berlin has no fear of reflecting on her life experiences as she addresses addiction, alcoholism, sexual abuse, suicide, and depression. She weaves a web about an abusive, alcoholic, and suicidal mother throughout the stories. She tells the reader about her grandfather, who sexually abused her and her younger sister.
There is a similarity in the down-to-earth and straightforward style with Alice Munro; both speak in the voice of their characters. There is no pretentiousness, no judgment. Unlike Munro, her work seems always to be dark depression. In one scene, we see this darkness when the protagonist contemplates her sister Sally’s death. “Every day, you’ve said good-bye a little. Oh, just get it over with, for God’s sake.” Anyone who has experienced the slow death of a loved one understands this completely. However, she can turn an otherwise sad scene into one of joy. One example is while waiting for Sally to die, she moves her under the bedroom window. Sally sees the sky and feels the warmth of the sun. The reader shares the feeling of beauty and warmth.
Having lived in Alameda County, California, for fifty years, I’m able to recognize many of the settings and the accuracy of Berlin’s work. Her description, “the affluent foggy Montclair hills…. Beneath Zion Lutheran church is a big black-and-white sign that says WATCH OUT FOR FALLING ROCKS.” I once lived in Zion church as the caretaker. I can verify that the sign has been there for at least fifty years.
Berlin weaves her protagonist’s story in and around the other characters in the collection.
In one story, Berlin changes format and tells the entire story in a series of letters to Conchi. The letters flow and give the reader a timeline of the character’s life. Beginning with college and meeting a man with whom she falls in love. There is joy in her affair cannot that will not be long lived. Her parents’ object, take her out of school, and force her to go to Europe. When she tells her lover, he knows they are finished. He tells her that it’s over, “you’ll… marry some asshole.” In typical Berlin style, she destroys any hope of happiness.
Berlin’s work is full of contradiction, despair, and lack of hope. But through it all, her work is believable and full of imagery. No more so than in this paragraph from “Electric Car, El Paso.”
Mrs. Snowden … passed me fig newtons wrapped in talcum Kleenex. The cookie expanded in my mouth like Japanese flowers, like a burst pillow. I gagged and wept. Mamie smiled and passed me a sachet-dusted handkerchief, . . ..”
Not only does she bring scenes to life through imagery, but she does the same with objects such as her mother’s ratty old coat. “It had a fur collar. Oh, the poor matted fur, once silver, yellowed now like the peed-on backsides of polar bears in zoos” (245).
Everything she writes is realistic. Her characters are believable, imbued with human traits, blemishes, and goodness. All are flawed, allowing the reader to understand their actions and motives.
Many of the characters in this collection reappear in various stories throughout the collection. We have plenty of time to get to know them. But even in stories about one character, Berlin develops them in depth, with simple phrases and words.
As with all her stories, the dialogue is magnificent.
An unmentioned strength in Berlin’s writing comes from another trait she shares with Alice Munro. She is non-judgmental. She presents the world as it is, blemishes and all.
Ramona Ausubel Marie-Helene Bertino
Either Romona Ausubel (No One is Here Except All of Us) or Marie-Helene Bertino (2 AM at the Cat” s Pajamas) suggested I read this work. I can’t recall which, (maybe both)so I’ll say thank you to the two finest mentors and authors I ever had the opportunity to work with. THANK YOU!
Berlin, Lucia. A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories. Picador, 2015.
I will tell you about books I’ve read and enjoyed from time to time. When I do, you can expect reviews to appear elsewhere. gdc
I met Jon when I inquired about the low-rez MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). Five days later, he had me admitted. During the program he wasn’t just the director, he was a mentor and friend to every student. When I had a serious medical issue that prevented my attendance one semester, he created a remote program that allowed me to complete my requirements and graduate with my cohort.
Jon, I can never thank you enough for your compassion and friendship. Yôotva – Thank You, George
My name is Jon Davis. I was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and grew up in the nearby town of Orange. After graduating high school, I worked for eight years, primarily as a mason and a warehouse manager, before attending the University of Bridgeport. I went on to earn my MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana. I taught for 30 years, 28 of them at the Institute of American Indian Arts. In 2013, I founded the IAIA low residency MFA in Creative Writing, which I directed until my retirement in 2018. From 2012-2014, I served as the City of Santa Fe’s fourth Poet Laureate. I have published seven books of poetry, one book of poetry in translation, and six chapbooks of poetry.
My new book of poetry, Above the Bejeweled City, will be available from Grid Books on September 15. Here’s the official book description:
In his seventh poetry collection, Jon Davis exhibits the range and mastery that is the result of fifty years of study, teaching, and practice. Above the Bejeweled City opens and closes with homages to Federico Garcia Lorca’s dream-struck ballad “Romance Sonámbulo.” In between, he inhabits what the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty calls the “inexplicable existence” that marks our passage here on Earth.
Part absurdist, part satirist, part tender correspondent, Davis writes in the slipstream of writers like Joyce, Beckett, Parra, and Plath. In an age that calls out for hopeful verse, Above the Bejeweled City offers, instead, a treatise on defeat and despair—and on how letting go is a way of holding on.
I think of it is as the third book in a tryptich with my previous two books, Improbable Creatures and An Amiable Reception for the Acrobat. All three books were written more or less simultaneously.
Do you write in more than one genre? I write in many genres—poetry and short fiction primarily, but I’ve also written screenplays, plays, creative nonfiction, literary criticism, satire, and songs. My first published writings were record reviews, and for a while, I was the music critic for a weekly newspaper in New Haven, Connecticut. I also write poetry and perform as Chuck Calabreze, an alter-ego of sorts that I developed in the 90s.
What brought you to writing? I was always an avid reader, and, for some reason, when I was in third grade, I suddenly wrote a 23 page story, the hero of which was a young Navajo man who had stumbled across a bag of money—I think some thieves had stashed it. The story followed him as he was pursued by both the authorities and the original thieves. I didn’t know any Navajo names (I was an eight year old living in Orange, Connecticut), so I borrowed an exotic-sounding name I’d seen in the newspapers for my hero: Tse (borrowed from Mao Tse Tung!). Four years later, I began writing imitations of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. (I read both when I was 11 years old.) I’d wander the woods with a journal (I mean, the notebook actually said “Journal” on the cover!), and I’d scribble down my romanticized observations of nature. I still have one of those journals. Trust me, nobody is going to see it.
But I didn’t think of writing as something one devotes oneself to until my 7th grade English teacher talked about James Joyce and his notion of the literary “epiphany. ” I think she defined it as the writer “seeing into the heart of things.” I remember thinking, “I want to do that!” The same teacher also made me stay inside during recess when I didn’t complete my assignments on time (which was most of the time). As “punishment,” she’d make me memorize poems. I remember being given John Donne’s “No Man is an Island.” I thought it was the best punishment ever.
It took a while before I came to poetry myself, though. What finally brought me to writing poetry was a dirt bike accident when I was 18. I was riding alone on a tight dirt track I’d carved out of the woods. It was the first cold morning in November, 16 degrees. I slid hard into the berm on the first turn, but instead of sliding around the turn, the tires bounced off the frozen berm. The bike stopped dead and fell on my calf muscle. I pulled the bike upright, got back on, and rode home. I figured I’d torn my calf muscle (two weeks later, I went to the doctor, and he confirmed my diagnosis), so I hopped up the stairs, sat at my desk, thought, What am I going to do now?—and started writing poems.
I taught myself by reading the generation ahead of mine, so Richard Hugo, Norman Dubie, and others were my teachers at first. In 1977, I wrote a letter and sent some poems to a poet named Dick Allen, whose book I’d found in the mall book store and who taught nearby, at the University of Bridgeport. Dick loved what I’d sent him and invited me to take any course I wanted. The one that fit into my schedule was a 300 level creative writing class. At the first full class, four of my poems appeared at the end of the mimeographed handout. After he’d led lively discussions of the other work on the handout, my poems came up for discussion. Nobody raised a hand, nobody spoke. Dick let the silence continue. He passed the time fiddling with his glasses, poking through papers in his briefcase. Meanwhile, I was thinking, I’m in the wrong class, I need to give up this crazy idea of writing poems, etc. Finally, he stood up and addressed the dumbfounded class. “These poems,” he said, “are instantly publishable in any journal in America.” He went on to tell the class what he knew about me—I was a construction worker, I’d taught myself to write these poems—and the various virtues he saw in my poems, then class ended. I talked to him briefly after class, then drove the twenty minutes home in my battered 68 Buick, sobbing all the way.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? I write wherever I am and write longhand, on a computer, or on my iPhone. Sometimes I record on my iPhone. When I’m writing as Chuck Calabreze, I shout and growl lines and either record them or scribble them down immediately after growling them. I often drive with a notebook beside me and scribble poems (mostly without looking) across the pages. I keep a notebook beside my bed for those times I wake up having dreamt part of a poem. I can write poems no matter what’s happening around me. I’ve written poems in emails and group chats, on Facebook messenger, and in text messages.
Tell us about your writing process. As you might surmise from my previous answer, I don’t have a writing process. In fact, I don’t believe in the idea of a “creative process”; experience tells me poems and stories happen in thousands of different ways. So my approach is to stay open and alert and attentive to the wild world and to my own wildly associative brain. I write notes everywhere, let every glimpse or whimsy, every hurt or big idea, every cluster of words or silly thought, every fleeting buzz or bing into my awareness. I’m apt to drop everything and start writing. Or at the very least, text myself a title, a line, a part of a poem or story or song. I have this idea that the composition / revision divide (process?) is an artificial distinction that was produced by writing workshops. For me, it’s all composition—one fluid (okay, sometimes not so fluid) movement. I suspect that relying on a process will get you processed poems, not quite real poems the way processed “cheese food” isn’t quite cheese.
What are you currently working on? Even before I’d completed Above the Bejeweled City, I was deep into the next collection—by deep, I mean deep for a poet: I have about 30 pages. Some of these poems will appear in State of the Union, a chapbook coming from Finishing Line Press in 2022.
Who’s currently your favorite author? I am currently reading The Glass Constellation by one of my favorite poets, Arthur Sze, whose innovations, developed over fifty years of poetic practice, reveal an entire worldview.
Do you have any advice for new writers? For poets: Imagine what the perfect poem looks like for you, then spend your life trying to write it. Ignore fashion. Ignore equally failure and success.
How do our readers contact you?
My web site: jondavispoet.com
My email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Chuck Calabreze’s blog: voydofcourse.blogspot.com
Copper Canyon Press: https://www.coppercanyonpress.org/books/preliminary-report-by-jon-davis/
Kathryn Wilder is the author of the memoir Desert Chrome: Water, a Woman, and Wild Horses in the West (Torrey House Press, May 2021),
Kirkus Reviews calls it “a spirited and impassioned chronicle.” Wilder’s essays have been cited in Best American Essays and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. They have appeared in such publications as High Desert Journal, River Teeth, Midway Journal, Fourth Genre, and Sierra, and in many anthologies and Hawai`i magazines. A graduate of the low-rez MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, she was a 2016 Artist-in-Residence at Denali National Park and Preserve finalist for the 2016 and 2019 Ellen Meloy Fund Desert Writers Award and 2018 finalist for the Waterston Desert Writing Prize. She lives among mustangs in southwestern Colorado, where she ranches with her family in the Dolores River watershed.
“Testimony to the healing power of wildness . . . a candid memoir that interweaves a trajectory of loss, pain, and hard-won serenity with a paean to wild horses.” —KIRKUS REVIEWS
“‘Blame it or praise it,’ Virginia Woolf writes, ‘there is no denying the wild horse in us.’ Desert Chrome is the story of a landscape and the many ways the land sings us into being. It is the story of one of our most iconic North American species, Equus caballus, the wild horse. And, most of all, it is the story of a woman coming to know her own wildness—a wildness that is free, and sustaining, and on her own terms.”
—JOE WILKINS, author of Fall Back Down When I Die and The Mountain and the Fathers
Do you write in more than one genre? I write fiction and nonfiction yet publish mostly literary nonfiction (apparently, my fiction needs work). Occasionally a poem slips out—one in about every ten years.
Tell us about your writing process: I write first by hand, usually outside unless it’s too cold, sitting on a rock or the rowing seat of a raft, or in a camp chair on the cabin porch. Those journal entries, where I’m just recording what’s going on around me or writing a scene of fiction that’s wanting out, will be fresh and raw and unfiltered, like rainwater rushing over the edge of the cliff into the creek. I don’t have to finish those entries for them to be the first draft of something—because of whatever details I put in, I can go back, reread, and reconstruct where I was and what I was feeling enough to write more. I can feel the rain, hear it collecting, pushing, splashing; I can smell it; it becomes a thing, a subject, and a story gathers around it…as long as I have enough scribbled details
When I transcribe that material onto the computer, I make changes, add details, clean up wrong sentences, and start to see structure, which becomes the second draft. From that point, it’s a process of braiding: printing out a hard copy and again sitting outside if possible to edit and rewrite; taking those changes back to the computer; editing for a while there; and printing out and making notes on hard copy, etc. It might be ten or fifteen drafts before anyone else sees it.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? Perhaps the most challenging parts are prioritizing and dealing with distractions. I read once, back when my kids were small, about a mother setting up the playpen and climbing inside with her typewriter, typing away while her kids played around her. I thought that was brilliant! Today, when I’m at the ranch headquarters, my son and his family in their own house on the same property, interruptions are constant—my sisters and mother will tell you that I cannot get through a single phone call without an interruption of some sort. It might be grandkids wanting to show me something (I am not complaining!), or cattle are out somewhere, and I have to jump up, pull on my boots, and race around afoot or in the side-by-side chasing cows; or it’s simply, suddenly, chore time. This happens whether I’m on a phone call or deep into revision.
I have found that I recover from interruption more easily during some parts of revision than in other parts. The final proofreading of Desert Chrome was interrupted constantly, but since I was reading carefully line by line and not needing to hold a whole concept or scene in my head, I could mark my place and return to it without stress (errors do occur in the book, however, which I may have found with better concentration).
For some of the revision, I had to go into isolation—days at the cabin alone. And I love those times, the creek, black bears, dogs, and mustangs my company. I understand now why going to a writer’s retreat is so desired!
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? I would tell my freshman comp students to outline after they had a first draft. Fresh from high school, they would look at me, confused, and I would say, how do you know what you want to write if you haven’t started writing? And then I’d say, shit-can the five-paragraph essay. Stop thinking. Start writing. When you have even as few as a couple of pages, we can look at what’s coming out and see if there’s an outline to be found. This paralyzed many of them.
I don’t think I’ve outlined anything since I was required to do so in high school, and I’m guessing I did it after that first draft, which was probably considered cheating at the time. When I’m beginning a project, if I force myself to think about something like organization, it will stifle me. I won’t be able to move, think, feel. Write.
Later, when I’ve got material all over the place and organization is imperative, I might panic first, then experiment with ordering chapters or paragraphs in different ways. Maybe a previously written outline would help me at this point. But. It’s not likely to happen.
When I wrote my thesis for the Institute of American Indian Arts, I chose the simple format of alternating longer, essay-type chapters with shorter pieces. It worked enough to get the job done but felt too regulated, constrained, linear, so as I moved material into what was becoming Desert Chrome the book, I mixed it all up and put the small pieces in where my gut told me to. That felt so much better.
Do you have any advice for new writers? In two ways, I am an old writer: I’m sixty-six, and I have been writing for a long time. That Desert Chrome came out two-plus decades after my first books (a children’s book co-written with the painter Redwing T. Nez and two anthologies), with only articles, essays, and some fiction in between, is, on the one hand, an embarrassment; on the other, it’s a nod to my perseverance (or stubbornness). I did not quit. I will not quit.
Writing is about writing first, and then it seems to me that it is about rejection and resiliency. Fortitude. Some people have great success stories. Most do not. My mother published a new book in her eighties. I want to do that. I’d also like to publish a few more before then. How do I do accomplish that? Keep writing, even in the face of rejection.
How do our readers reach out to learn more about you and your work?
Thank you so much for this opportunity, George, and your support of writers and IAIA alum!
Kathryn Wilder’s “Desert Chrome,” Tychi and Jasper, Brumley Point and
Temple Butte in the background; Spring Creek Basin Herd Management Area, Disappointment Valley, Southwest Colorado
I am a poet.
I began seriously writing when I was seven years old. I remember making my first few lines in the diary. I convinced my paternal grandmother to buy it when we went uptown one day. This was during summer break when we, my sister and I, would stay with her for our annual visit. Beans and tortillas were all we ate, running in and out of the kitchen all day long and back outside, gulping a spoonful each time we passed the stove.
Wanting to write was a conscious choice for me at a young age. The book, Frederick the Mouse by Leo Leonni, was my early inspiration. I learned the power of words to make one whole, feel well-fed, and warm through that acclaimed children’s book. Frederick being a mouse poet, helped his family get through the coldest part of winter with his poems when their stores ran out.
Today I am the City of Madison Poet Laureate and the first Latina in this role. I served one-year as of January 2021. I have published three of my own collections of poetry and have a new one coming out soon. I have edited and co-edited books, journals, and zines, including the Spring 2019 edition of the Yellow Medicine Review. I went back in 2015, in my late forties, to get my MFA in poetry from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I graduated in May 2017.
I also serve as the vice-chair on the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission and help pick the state’s poet laureate biennially. I consider myself a literary ambassador in my role as poet laureate. Balancing my volunteerism, writing, appearances, and readings with my full-time job takes some organizing. It helps to have a partner who is an artist as well. We recently made Sundays full art days in our house.
Do you write in more than one genre? I do write in other genres, earning two Pushcart nominations, one for an essay and another for a poem. I write short stories, sci-fi and am working on a memoir right now. I took a class with IAIA alum David Tromblay in Fall 2019 and got a good start on my memoir. Poems are my favorite, though.
Tell us about your writing process: Everything for me starts in longhand. I edit on my computer. When I get stuck, I move it back to the page and write it out in longhand to figure out what went wrong in the editing process. I write in my body: hand to wrist to arm to core to heart to brain and back. I write fast on the page and have long practiced automatic writing. My pen always ahead of my brain, my conscious self. I am often surprised by what comes out on the page. The pen admits what I have been avoiding. That’s when writing gets exciting when you are a conduit of sorts and along for the ride. Sometimes lines come to me at night when I am dreaming. I do edit my poems voraciously and enjoy the rigorous process. I think this is where the real writing is now, in the editing. I find inspiration easy, but then I need to work with what I have created and sculpt it on the page until I am satisfied with form, white space, and sound. Poems take you where they want to go and are not done until you have read them in public. I read my poems aloud as I edit, but they sound different in my study than they do at a venue with actual people present. I do not consider a poem done until it has been shared orally with others. When I was a younger poet, I tried out poems at open mics to test them. Now I can record them and listen back, but it is still worthwhile to share them with others for final edits, in my opinion. Poems sound different when you read them to a live audience that one word makes a difference.I also think it is important to read other poets’ work, old and new. I like the idea of poets in conversation with each other across time and space and genre. Some of my poems are in direct response to another poet’s poem I heard them perform or something I read in print or online. I learned in graduate school that I love theory and continue to study. Listening to poets and writers read their work is a real pleasure for me. How you hear the words in your head versus when it is a public performance is enlightening. I listen to poetry readings, lectures, or conversations with writers when I cook these days or travel to visit my family in Chicago or Milwaukee.
What are you currently working on? I just received my contract from Finishing Line Press for my newest collection, My People Redux. This is the 2nd half of my master’s thesis. In Light, Always Light, also published by FLP in May 2019, was the first half. I graduated in May 2017 and spent a long year re-working my poems. In Light, Always Light, accepted in August 2018, was a finalist for their New Women’s Voices Award.
Concurrently, I am working on another collection of poetry that focuses on the history of us humans. This involves research. I am enjoying the process and taking my time. Some of these poems are published, and some are still being edited. I need to continue to push them out into the world. I was also working on my memoir in fits and starts.
In my role as the poet laureate for the City of Madison, I will be judging the annual Bus Line Poetry contest soon. I have many upcoming scheduled readings for a book I just published under my small press Art Night Books in November 2019 called, Through This Door – Wisconsin in Poems. This is a collaboration with the most recent state poet laureate, Margaret Rozga. The book took us over a year to put out and is the second time we have published a collection together. I served as co-editor for this collection in addition to being the publisher, and we have had a good response. Twice we have been on the radio, NPR stations, and I have logged many hours at the post office mailing books out across the state and country. We had to go back to the printer three times now.
I consider myself a literary ambassador as a poet laureate and this has opened up many doors for me. I want to continue to do that for other writers. We need community and support. I would not be where I am today without the networks I found all along the way. Nor, without people sharing opportunities with me and freely offering up what they know, and being generous. I believe in the power of art to heal, connect and create community. It is a record of our lives and our history. I am so happy to be on this journey at this moment in time.
Here are comments about my work by two poets I admire:
The poems of In Light, Always Light afford space for the lyric to clarify and delineate the self “… through the ravine to the seam / the V peak of the hills / where dappled light spills / between rocks and discarded beer cans.” Here Angela Vasquez presents poems that struggle to contend with family history, a history of diaspora and relation, of assertion and insistence that the reader and the poet must bring to bear the imperative of “yes, yes fight back.” The poems travel, as we do, to observe the poet in the eternal dimension where one must write, and read — “Let me sit in sadness for a spell. / I need to write this out.”
–Joan Naviyuk Kane, 2018 Guggenheim Fellow
The poems in Angie Trudell Vasquez’s In Light, Always Light honor the illuminating power of poetry, but they also speak eloquently of racial injustice and the dark “inherited grief” that is its offspring. These are poems of history, endurance, and remembrance. They vividly story the strength and survival of migrant ancestors “who built railroads / with broken backs” or shared “mole recipes on parchment.” In those relatives “passed. . .to vases of bone and ash,” Vasquez recognizes the fleeting quality of human reality. Like our forebears, we are mere “half blinks of history,” “we are magic dying.” But in this volume, Vasquez offers her ancestors colorful and enduring literary lives. “Poets,” she writes, “resist the death of a people” and “beyond death, art speaks.”
Kimberly Blaeser, author of Apprenticed to Justice, Wisconsin Poet Laureate 2015-2016
If people want to connect with me, the best way is email: email@example.com
My website is www.angietrudellvasquez.com, and my small press website is http://www.artnightbooks.com