Alabama Writers Conclave


What’s happening in the Alabama writing world…

AWC Conference Faculty: Meet Steven McCullough.

Steven McCullough was born in a small, rural town in northwest Tennessee.  A childhood ripe with a vivid imagination foretold that he would one day find himself working within the broad field of creative arts. 

Steven's greatest influences revolved around video games, anime, and the friends who shared in similar imagination. As iron sharpens iron, so Steven's mind was sharpened by his brothers in imaginary arms. As age pursued him, his interests evolved and he was found by Jesus Christ. The world opened to him that day, and ever since he has marked the moments where God has provided opportunities to expand on his creative talents.

 After publishing his first two novels, he joined forces with Karson Whatley and formed what is today QuickFire Talent Agency. Growing up and continuing to live in the Deep South, Steven saw firsthand the plight of the "Average Joes" and their creative minds gone to waste. With little opportunity and no encouragement to pursue the arts, many of these Joes were bound for forcefully unimaginative lifestyles.  That set a fire ablaze in him to create a medium by which opportunity could be presented to even the least of the Joes. 

Steven graduated from Mid-Continent University with a degree in Entrepreneurial Business. He currently manages multiple businesses in his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama alongside his lovely wife, Ashley.

Alina Stefanescu
A conversation with Alabama State Poet Laureate, Jennifer Horne.
Jennifer Horne and Don Noble at Livingston' Press’ “Meet Your Authors” day in Birmingham.

Jennifer Horne and Don Noble at Livingston' Press’ “Meet Your Authors” day in Birmingham.

Reading Jennifer Horne’s new poetry book, I found myself burrowing into the lyrical devoutness that is a quality of her voice, a quality that thicken and deepens with time. As Dan Beachy-Quick observed: "The poem founds a world it also finds….It is the logic of the poem that puts everything in the poem at stake." What follows is a conversation between myself and this human who brings so much to our state’s literary landscape.

ALINA: It was so exciting to discover that you have a new poetry book on the horizon! I know you have been so busy with other writing projects, so I wanted to start by asking you to tell us a little bit about your concurrent projects and then maybe share how this chapbook emerged, blossomed, sprouted... and what soil nourished its growth?

JENNIFER: I've recently been working on prose projects--writing essays, co-editing a volume of fiction by Alabama women with my husband, Don Noble, and, over the last decade, writing a biography of the writer Sara Mayfield (which is nearly done!). But I think of poetry as my native language, and I'm always working on a poem here and there.

I got to know Bonnie Roberts, whose micro-press, Mule on a Ferris Wheel, is publishing Borrowed Light, back when the Limestone Dust Poetry Festival in Huntsville was happening, and when I included a poem of hers in my anthology Working the Dirt in 2003.For the past couple of years she have been talking about doing a chapbook of mine, and in the last six months we got serious and got it to press.

Some of the poems in the collection go back years, while some are fairly recent. I'd had an idea for a collection that I thought of as having a spiritual center, and as I took poems out, shuffled them around, laid them out all together to see how they fit together, the idea of light--both literal and metaphorical--began to seem like the connective tissue of the book. The back jacket description of the book reads:

"What are the sources of light we live by? How do we sustain ourselves when times are dark? In Borrowed Light, Jennifer Horne uses an architectural term that refers to bringing sunlight to rooms without windows as a metaphor for finding illumination through nature, art, dreams, and other people. Many different kinds of light appear in this book: morning light and twilight, porch light and candle light, the glow of fireflies and the hard clarity of winter light. Seeking “light, perspective, something new” Horne imagines a world in which both choice and serendipity play their parts, and writing is the key to the discovery of new ways forward."

In addition to lyric poems, the book includes what I think of as memory pieces, not quite micro-memoir, not quite prose poem, that are scattered throughout and provide reflective pauses, looks backward to childhood and my mother, meditations on time, femininity, and creation. This collection is more intuitively and loosely structured than my previous books--Bottle Tree is composed of poems about the southern U.S., and Little Wanderer is made up of travel poems--but finally the composition felt right to me. Working with Bonnie, a fine poet and an insightful editor, helped make the book so much better than what I began with; it was a rich collaboration.


ALINA: "Memory-pieces"... I love that. Tell me more. Can you share one with us?

JENNIFER: These prose pieces are brief, fragmentary, but, I hope, whole in the moment they present. They have visual elements, in the way of a photograph, but feel to me like interior weather reports, memories that carry emotional weight and have new resonance when looked at afresh.

Here's one of them:


Mom in bed first thing in the morning, writing in her journal. She favors notebooks in bright colors, green especially, with looseleaf sheets, and writes with fine-point markers—green or brown. Earth colors. Earth woman. Lying down in the leaves in the camel-hair thrift-store coat and feeling like a bear. Cleaving to earth. The sun on her face. Writing down a dream, a thought, the beginning of a poem.

“Morning, Mom!”

“Morning . . . I’ll be in there in a minute . . . just as soon as I finish writing this down.”

JENNIFER: In less than a year, I'll be the age my mother was when she died. My sister and I are almost finished with a collection of her poems that we plan to publish for friends, family, and anyone else who's interested, and as I've gone through the poems, I've come to many realizations about her as an adult that I couldn't have had earlier. I've now been all the ages she was when she wrote her poems, and so exploring her life as a writer has also been, unexpectedly, a way of claiming her as a peer. In paying homage to her work and the profound influence she had on me as a poet, I've gotten to know her in ways I might not were she still alive.

ALINA: "Claiming her as a peer"--what a beautiful way to describe the ongoingness of relating to one's mother (and one's lineage) after her death. Have you been inspired by your readings to work in fragments? If so, share a few. I'm also deeply interested in your experience as a state poet laureate. What does this generally entail for you? How do you feel you've been able to serve the Alabama poetry community? Also, what felt needs have you been unable to meet due to lack of resources and why? I think many people would be surprised to learn the state poet laureate doesn't receive any financial assistance for her role.

JENNIFER: I'm still waiting to see how typing all her poems and organizing them into a book will affect my future writing projects. One thing I'm having a glimmer of is some kind of creative nonfiction project that includes some of her prose writings and some of mine, along with some invented scenes having to do with other women of my family. I've recently finished a biography of writer Sara Mayfield that at first included more autobiographical elements--those mostly came out in trimming the book to a reasonable length, but I'm still engaged with that material.

It was such an honor to be named state poet laureate, and I went into it with the general goals of connecting poets to each other and to their communities, amplifying what was going on in the literary community, and encouraging people in Alabama to learn more about and enjoy poetry while creating literary resources and events in their own towns.

When I look at my calendar over the past two years, I can see what a rich journey it's been already (with two still to go). Predictably, I've spoken at writing conferences, done workshops and readings, and been part of a number of literary events such as the One Million Poets event. I've also spoken to a Rotary Club, judged the statewide Poetry Out Loud contest for high school students and several out-of-state contests, helped plan the state book festival, Skyped with a junior high creative writing club in Los Angeles, spoken to an OLLI group about Alabama Writers Hall of Fame inductees, appeared on a panel of poet laureates with the Mississippi (Beth Ann Fennelly) and Louisiana (Jack Bedell) laureates at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, spoken at several schools and churches, and participated in a tribute to Toni Morrison. I regularly correspond with writers seeking advice on publication and writing. I also try to use social media frequently to share information about all the literary activity going on in Alabama.

It's a varied menu of activities, and I enjoy it. One of the best things about being poet laureate is having an excuse to bring poetry into the conversation with anyone I meet. As soon as I'm asked what I do and say I'm the poet laureate, people want to know more about this unusual position, and that usually leads to talking about what poems or poets they like.

Halfway through, I'm assessing what I'd like to do more of. Since there's only so much of me to go around (and I mean to model being a poet and writing regularly as part of being poet laureate), I'd like to help create more of a formal network of poets who could speak at schools and to groups (something analogous to the Alabama Humanities Road Scholars Speakers Bureau). I'd also like to standardize a hashtag for anyone in the state to use on social media when they've been to a reading or found a book of poems they loved--maybe something like #poetryalabama. I'm open to suggestions!

As you mentioned, all of this would be easier if there were some funding for the poet laureate position. I'd love to see a travel budget, for starters, to cover mileage and a hotel when I speak to different groups, especially for visits that require overnight stays. Some places can cover that, but some are not able to. I applied but was not chosen for an inaugural Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship; I'll give that another try in 2020! And even when travel is for one reason or another prohibitive, I'm available to speak to groups and classes via Skype. I hope anyone who'd like me to speak will be in touch.

ALINA: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat, Jennifer. I’m still mulling your description of the first poem in Bottle Tree: “an exotic thing combined with a familiar thing.” It’s a wonderful brick to start a poem. I love the details you mentioned of the writing process, how you circled around the territoriality of pecan trees and folk traditions with that careful yet caressing gaze you bring to the page.

Maybe I’m reaching towards a meta-statement, here. Since I’ve known you—and every time I’m in your presence, as both poet and human—I’m reminded of what it means to value other voices, or what it means to be constantly thinking of others and drawing attention to their work. As poet laureate, you exert a very specific sort of energy that includes and encourages, a light that “makes the bed” without believing one can ever truly deserve the generosity of publication—of being read. I respect and appreciate you so deeply for that. It is easy to stand behind the mic and insinuate a story about how we deserve it—how we have earned the right to be heard, believing our pain or dreams are unique—yet so much more difficult to anchor one’s self in the belief that the writers of this state matter at all levels of their careers, whether established or emerging. I hope that fellow Alabamians take full advantage of your emotional and intellectual generosity at the 2019 AWC Conference, where you will leading a workshop.

Jennifer Horne is a writer and editor of prose, poetry, and fiction who has taught creative writing in a variety of settings. In 2017 she was commissioned Poet Laureate of Alabama, a four-year position. She is the author of three collections of poems, Bottle Tree, Little Wanderer, and Borrowed Light, as well as a collection of short stories, Tell the World You’re a Wildflower. She also has edited or co-edited four volumes of poetry, essays, and stories. Her latest work is a biography of the writer Sara Mayfield. She has been the recipient of fellowships from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the Seaside Institute in Florida, and in 2015 was awarded the Druid City Literary Arts Award, given by the Tuscaloosa Arts Council.

Alina Stefanescu
Meet Jim Reed and Liz Reed, 2019 Conference Faculty.
Jim Reed.

Jim Reed.

Jim Reed has been performing and writing since the age of four. A native of Tuscaloosa, his career includes extended stints as a television and radio personality, a public relations mad man, a small-time film actor/narrator, stage performer and--for nearly forty years--owner and operator of Reed Books/The Museum of Fond Memories in Birmingham, Alabama. He has authored thirteen books and 2,000 stories about his life in the Deep South. His weekly podcast can be found on youtube, "Jim Reed's Red Clay Diary."

For more information, visit or

Liz Reed.

Liz Reed.

After 35 years in the business world, Liz Reed sold her share of MARKETRY, a marketing research firm based in Birmingham, and retired in December 1999. For a complete change of pace and to fulfill a long-held dream, she enrolled as a degree-seeking student at the University of Alabama in Birmingham Department of Art and Art History, graduating with honors in 2005. During her years at UAB, Reed approached each new art medium with the same vigor. Drawing, photography, computer graphics, three-dimensional design, painting and sculpture, filmmaking -- each presented a new challenge and a different opportunity for expression. She was awarded 1st Place – Sculpture in the UAB Student Juried Exhibition her senior year. Reed’s first passion is her family and a close second is the subject of racial inequality; another major concern is living a well-balanced life full of color, pattern, form, shape and texture. Her major challenge has been transferring left-brain business skills to the right-brain arts environment.

To keep one foot in the business world, she created Blue Rooster Press to guide writers through the self-publishing process. Blue Rooster provides book & page design, editing, proofreading and documents ready for print-on-demand press. In addition she serves as art and layout editor of Birmingham Arts Journal, a quarterly literary and arts magazine now in its 16th year of publication. Birmingham Arts Journal presents a publication award to one member of the Alabama Pastel Society annually. Reed is married to author and humorist, Jim Reed, owner of Reed Books in Birmingham; they have five children, seven grandchildren, and soon-to-be two great grandchildren. She and her husband have lived in Birmingham’s Southside neighborhood, in a 1906 Craftsman style house, for thirty-eight years.

Alina Stefanescu
Meet Don Noble, 2019 Conference Faculty.

Don Noble is professor emeritus of English at the University of Alabama, host of Alabama Public Television’s author interview program Bookmark, and book reviewer for Alabama Public Radio. He is the editor of volumes on Harper Lee, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald and three collections of Alabama fiction, Climbing Mt. Cheaha, A State of Laughter, and Belles’ Letters (with Jennifer Horne). He won a regional Emmy for Achievement in Screenwriting with Brent Davis for a documentary on Alabama writer William Bradford Huie and was the recipient of the 2000 Eugene Current-Garcia Award and the 2013 Wayne Greenhaw Service Award from the Alabama Humanities Foundation.

It’s not too late to register for the AWC Conference next weekend!

Alina Stefanescu
Meet Charlotte Pence, AWC 2019 Conference Faculty.
unnamed-3 copy.jpg

“My father was a used car salesman and my mother was an elementary school teacher, a combination that seems fitting for a writer. I learned early on that details persuade—and that money is exchanged (or not) based on those details. My mother concerned herself with different types of details, ones that involved diagramming sentences and memorizing prepositions. In fact, she taped a list of all the prepositions onto my bathroom mirror so I could see it whenever I brushed my teeth. I guess one could say I was groomed at an early age to creating and editing.

I did not, however, want to be a writer. In fact, I fought against it and majored in International Relations as an undergrad, hoping for a sexy cubicle job in the State Department so I could occasionally travel to talk about bank loans in Bolivia. One of my mentors, the poet Arthur Smith, pulled me out of an undergraduate poetry class one day to ask my plan in life. When I told him, he simply shook his head and said, “No. You’re going to be a poet. And teach.” I thought he had pulled me out of class to tell me I had no skills, so I was shocked by his assertion. Sure enough, I moved to Boston two years later to begin work on my M.F.A. in creative writing at Emerson College. A few years later, I returned to Tennessee to join the Ph.D. program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

The travel bug, however, has never left me. My husband, the fiction writer Adam Prince, and I have backpacked the last few summers in Colombia, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. The arrival of our first daughter has slowed down the international travel, but now that our daughter is seven, she can carry her own backpack. In the fall of 2016, I taught a semester abroad at Harlaxton College in England. Seeing as how much of my work considers evolution, it was exciting and necessary to visit the country of Charles Darwin. While in England, I continued my investigations into science and literature, visiting not only historic sites such as Darwin’s Down House, but also analyzing the English tradition of writers incorporating science into their own work. And this upcoming summer, I have been invited to teach at the Convivio Conference in Italy where I plan to explore as much as a can about Italian wines and sonnets.

In a bio, I feel like I should say “where I’m from.” The truth is that because of my father’s mental illness, we moved around a lot. So, I grew up somewhat nomadically, though Appalachia claims me the most. All of my family is from West Virginia, and I have lived in Tennessee longer than anywhere else. Now that my family and I have moved to Mobile so that I can direct the creative writing program and Stokes Center for Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama, I am relieved to have found what I’ve always been hunting for: home."

Charlotte will be leading the following workshop at the 2019 AWC Conference:

What do Robert Browning, Patricia Smith, T.S. Eliot, Beyoncé, and the Beatles all have in common? They all have used persona at some point in their careers to expand their subjects, experiment with technique, and widen their range. At its basic definition, a persona is a character, distinguished from the poet, who is the speaker of a poem. That definition, though, hides the radical, imaginative power of personae. If done correctly, a persona can become its own being who breathes new life into your poetry. In this discussion, Creative Writing Director at University of South Alabama Charlotte Pence, will offer strategies for creating personae that differ from yourself in order to reinvigorate your poetry.

Alina Stefanescu
Meet Devon Morrisette, 2019 Conference Faculty.

Devon Morrisette has enjoyed a diverse career in the local arts community since he began developing his craft over a decade ago. Devon has been writing music, lyrics, and poetry since his mid-teens, when his love of music began to blossom. After attending the University of Alabama, Devon has shared his love of music by teaching piano and voice to students of all ages. In addition to his teaching and writing, Devon is also an experienced performer, having performed at the Fairhope Arts & Crafts Festival, at area lounges, and at private functions. He has since become involved in his local theatre community immersing himself in a number of productions and serving in pivotal roles, both on and off-stage.

As faculty at the AWC Conference this year, Devon will be leading the following workshop:

STORYTELLING THROUGH MUSIC” with Devon Morrisette (Academic’s Room)
Even when all the elements of a great story are present, you may find yourself wanting more. This is why, whether in radio, film, or live theatre, composers sit down and put pen to paper a score that helps the writer carry their story to the audience. The score should not overshadow or take away from the story. It is an extension of the story and the composer should connect to the text as much as the writer. In this workshop, you will learn the steps in crafting the perfect score to go along with your original work, by connecting to the emotion of the work and translating that into music that will not leave the audience wanting.'

Alina Stefanescu
Meet AWC Conference Faculty: Nathan Poole.

Nathan Poole is the author of two books of fiction, Father Brother Keeper a collection of stories selected by Edith Pearlman for the 2013 Mary McCarthy Prize and long listed for the Frank O’Connor Award, and Pathkiller as the Holy Ghost selected by Benjamin Percy as the winner of the 2014 Quarterly West Novella Contest. He is a recipient of the Narrative Prize, a Milton Fellowship at Seattle Pacific University, a Joan Beebe Fellowship at Warren Wilson College, and A Tennessee Williams Scholarship at Sewanee School of Letters. His work has appeared in various journals, including The Kenyon Review, Ecotone, Narrative Magazine, Image, Quarterly West, and The Chattahoochee Review.

Nathan Poole in an interview with The Kenyon Review

Everything I write begins as an image or a scrap of language and nothing more than that. Somewhere in the drafting process, usually before I have a full draft, I begin to discover the thematic drive that will come to reshape the story. With this story, all I had was an image of a young couple walking together at the state fair, and the guy had a bad shiner. That image immediately had the twinkle and extension of metaphor and I liked the language and the little scene around it, so I went with it. I realized, after a few weeks, and after that scene was cut and rewritten, that this story was becoming an important vehicle for me to deal with incidents in my own life that have disturbed my sense of masculinity.

Almost every woman in my life that I’ve spent time with in public, including my wife, has had something hollered at them by a man that was humanity-curdling. It’s wild the things guys will yell from a car, the level of detail included, and the sense of possession and anger in what they yell. And it’s especially strange being a male and being present for these things. It throws you into a crisis, or it should, right? You’re not the victim, but you share in some of the hurt. And besides the anger, which is obvious, you’re also filled with something else, which is perhaps the shame or fear that you’re somehow culpable, that there is something planted deep inside you that is being represented, made acute. It’s hard to explain this feeling, which is why, I guess, I needed to write the story.

In Peter Orner’s “Five Shards,”—a sequence of five stories that I discovered after writing this one, one of which has a similar plot—he uses the phrase “vinegar light.” Other than representing his gift as a writer, those words absolutely describe the atmosphere that appears after something like this has happened. For whatever reason, I needed to linger in the strangeness of that light, the bitterness and absurdity of it, and to see what I could make of it. And so the story.

Nathan will be offering the following workshops and lectures at the conference this year:

A few years ago, Nathan Poole had the privilege of spending several days in the archives at Georgia College, sitting in a glass room, furiously reading Flannery O’Connor’s manuscripts, typing up entire early drafts. In this workshop, he will outline some of his findings as participants examine the moves O’Connor made as she worked on one of her last short stories, “Parker’s Back.” (Attendees to this workshop should try to read a copy this story before attending. Download here.)

One could argue that the modern short story was born as an outside form in the same moment it embraced outsiders as its subject. If that’s true, it might also be true that “the marginal” is an encoded, even ancestral force in the imagery of short stories. With this in mind, it might do us good to study a few fiction writers, both historical and contemporary, who make compelling use of imagery and characters on the fringe and to see what techniques are at play in the combination of these elements.

Alina Stefanescu
A conversation with Emma Bolden about poetry, editing, and the house she stumbled into.

ALINA: Dear Emma, I love talking to you. Speaking of talking—and love—what you love about poetry as a form? What do you hate about it?

EMMA: The thing I love most about poetry is its breathtaking mutability. I used to tell my students that poetry was a container, like a pitcher or a vase. Now, I see that container as something so flexible as to take the shape of what's poured into it, or, perhaps, as glass that becomes more beautiful and useful when it is broken. With poetry, there are thousands of ways to work towards tradition and thousands of ways to work against tradition. Every move you make on the page -- an em dash, a line break, a space between words -- carries a thousand intentions along with it. There's something about this plasticity, coupled with the form's concision and concentration, that allows a writer to access and express experience and emotion in a very pure way. As a person, I struggle continuously with figuring out how to express what I feel, and perhaps even more persistently with figuring out exactly what it is that I feel. When I'm writing poetry, however, I'm able to drill down to the core of meaning and feeling.

The thing I hate most about poetry as a form is exactly that: the form. In my non-writing life, I tend to put up blocks against accessing and expressing my own feelings. I do the very same thing in my writing life. I often find myself focusing obsessively on the form of the poem itself, not the experience the poem needs to contain. I trap myself inside my own tricks and turns of language, which can sometimes make writing feel like I'm running in a hamster wheel, expending energy but never really getting to the places where I need to go.

I was a revival, an August,
a shattered crescendo of wishing
for wanting, this ragged waiting
inside of. I choked. The blood
I expected. I said that I wanted.
I said that I wanted to be flayed
and carnal, I said that I wanted
to be thrust and shuddered
under any him willing to be violent
as a god. I said that I wanted to
understand the point and the hilt
of the sword, I wanted to know
life gorged and garnet as
the howl inside of every red.
I tasted fang and honey heavy
as hatred, I tasted tongue, I wanted
this ragged with waiting, with shame.
— excerpted from "Under the Thread of Eden" by Emma Bolden

ALINA: It's no secret that I gobbled up your recent poetry collection, House Is An Enigma. Can you share a few links to any of those poems that have been previously published online? Also I'm so curious about how you stumbled into the house metaphor and how this relates to female sexuality or sexualization (sometimes I can't tell the forest from the trees on this one).

EMMA: That is an excellent question! "Stumbled into" is the exact right term of phrase for this one. When I lived in Georgia, I found myself traveling the back roads from Statesboro to Savannah time and time again, and every time, I passed this house that just looked downtrodden and grumpy, sort of like if Oscar the Grouch were a building. On one trip, I started thinking about how I had essentially turned that house into a metaphor. If I were that house, I thought, I'd be angry at every passerby who glanced my way and made me into a metaphor they needed to illustrate their experience. When I got home, I wrote the poem "House Is an Enigma." A few years later, it was chosen for inclusion in Best American Poetry, which meant that I had to write a brief statement explaining the meaning of the poem. There was just one problem: I had no idea how to explain the meaning of the poem because I wasn't entirely sure what the meaning was.

When I sat down to write the statement, I thought about that house and those back roads, all of those trips to Savannah and back. I'd been driving to doctors' offices for appointments and consultations and second opinions. I was trying to decide if, after a twenty-year-long struggle with endometriosis and fibroids, it was time for me to have a total hysterectomy. I remembered that one phrase popped up in every appointment: "we don't think your body could house a fetus." There I was, facing the most difficult decision of my life, and my doctors could only talk about the hardest parts of that decision -- giving up whatever hope I ever had of having children -- by turning my body into a metaphor.

Unlocking the meaning of this metaphor also meant unlocking the passage to completing the book. I'd been working on a manuscript for about five years, and it never felt complete. When I realized what -- or, rather, who -- the house really was, I found a new way into the work and finished the series of poems that now serves as the backbone of the collection.

As for poems…..

ALINA: Okay, now to be trivial--three places you love in Alabama.... and why.

EMMA: This is a surprisingly tough one! Three years ago, I moved back to the Birmingham area after about 18 years away, and it has grown and changed in dizzyingly drastic ways. It's been difficult to find my bearings.

Desert Island Supply Company: DISCO is amazing for so many reasons that I could write about it forever. Just walking in the door makes me happy -- and you can tell that other people, especially young students, feel the same way. I deeply admire their dedication to furthering arts education in the Birmingham area. It also provides a perfect gathering place for writers and artists in the area. Plus, there's something new and beautiful and resonant and true to be discovered in literally every inch of the space.

The U.S. Space and Rocket Center: I'm a huge space nerd, and I could spend actual months wandering around the Space and Rocket Center. When Apollo 13 came out, my father and I went to an exhibit about the Apollo program that was absolutely mind-blowing.

Perdido Beach: Perhaps I'm adding this to the list because I just went on my first real vacation since I was in 8th grade? But also because Alabama's beaches are gorgeous. I highly recommend Sea-N-Suds. Try the fried shrimp and the orange amaretto daiquiri.

At this point, it feels almost as if my roles as an editor and as a writer are symbiotic. As a writer, I know how tremendously difficult it can be to put the work that carries so much of yourself with it into the world. As an editor, I try to treat every submission as if it were my own and to recognize the amount of trust it takes for a writer to submit.
— Emma Bolden

ALINA: Any special musicians or albums that have influenced your writing that you'd like to share (include links please, esp. to a song or video)?

EMMA: Music has always been an essential source of inspiration and part of my process, and I have my parents to thank for that. My father raised me on Bob Dylan, the Moody Blues, Leonard Cohen, and The Beatles, all of which led me to love the musicality of language and the act of stretching language's possibilities.

I probably learned more about language and the limits to which on can take it from Tori Amos than anyone or anything else. I still remember the flush of excitement I felt when I heard Boys for Pele for the first time. Admittedly, I often wasn't exactly sure what she meant, but the more I listened, the more I learned and loved. "Little Amsterdam" may be the best example from that album -- and in this video, she plays two pianos at once.

Ravel's "Bolero" taught me most of what I know about structure. It's the key through which I unlocked the way to build lyrics essays.

My current work is fueled by Agnes Obel's music. I'm particularly fascinated by her third album, Citizen of Glass. It's a meditation on mass surveillance and how social media has changed the way we see ourselves and others. I'm obsessed with the way she built this album, too; she layers hundreds of tracks of herself singing (see "Familiar") and uses the Trautonium, a kind of synthesizer that can electrocute you.

I used to be obsessed with musicals (okay, I'm probably still obsessed with musicals), which taught me the power of refrain and echo. Sondheim's A Little Night Music showed me how subtle shifts in form can create dramatically different moods. Almost every song is in waltz time, which is amazing when you consider songs as different as "Send in the Clowns" and "The Miller's Son."

ALINA: You mentioned Sondheim and I melted a little. He’s an old obsession of mine. I was as overwrought as his “Passion” in high school—and thrilled when he won a Tony for it.

In addition to writing, you are also an editor. Can you tell us a little bit about that and share a few poems that you've published at TQ recently that you really love?

EMMA: At this point, it feels almost as if my roles as an editor and as a writer are symbiotic. As a writer, I know how tremendously difficult it can be to put the work that carries so much of yourself with it into the world. As an editor, I try to treat every submission as if it were my own and to recognize the amount of trust it takes for a writer to submit. That's a very humbling thing for me. As a writer, I've gathered an extensive collection of rejection slips, but editing has taught me that rejection doesn't necessarily mean that a piece is bad, as there are numerous reasons why a piece might not be a fit for a particular journal at a particular time. I do, however, find that I tend to revisit rejected poems in my revision mindset more often. Most of all, editing serves as a great source of inspiration and encouragement for me. There's something incredible about opening up Submittable and seeing submissions from so many others who walk the same path as I do and love it.

Speaking of love -- to be honest, I love all of the pieces we've published in Tupelo Quarterly. Lately, I've found myself returning to Emily Carr's crossword poems from The Stork Rides Shotgun, which are breathtakingly innovative and powerful.

ALINA: Finally, ultimately, shamelessly, what's the worst piece of advice you've ever gotten about writing/creativity/art?

EMMA: That you'll do your best work before you turn thirty, and after thirty, it's over. This was drilled into my mind as a high school student, so much so that it almost became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I'm not sure how conscious the connection was, but I remember feeling a sense of great panic and dread in my late twenties. I remember feeling like my time as a writer was almost over, and when I entered my thirties, I found myself almost paralyzed when I turned to the page. It's as if I was examining myself with every word I wrote, dissecting each sentence to see if I really had lost "it," whatever fueled my creativity. But with my thirties came a series of life events that added up to a sea-change in my life as a whole: an invisible illness, early menopause, a hysterectomy, a change in career followed by another change in career, the loss of a job and my livelihood. In a very short span of time, I faced all of my greatest fears -- and then found myself on the other side, still standing. I was still living, and in order to keep living, I had to let go of all of the things that I thought about living. That included letting go of the idea that at some arbitrary age, my writing life would let go of me. In a lot of ways, I think my life as a writer began in my thirties because that's when I began to live as a writer. My dedication to the work became stronger, like steel forged in fire, and I was no longer afraid to touch the forms and subjects that frightened me the most. If I could go back and tell my young self one thing, it would be this: "Relax. Live for your work and your work will start living, no matter your age."


Emma Bolden is the author of three full-length collections of poetry -- House Is An Enigma (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2018), medi(t)ations (Noctuary Press, 2016) and Maleficae (GenPop Books, 2013) – and four chapbooks. She received a 2017 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a 2019 Literary Arts Fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts. A Barthelme Prize and Spoon River Poetry Review Editor’s Prize winner, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Norton Introduction to Literature, The Best American Poetry, The Best Small Fictions, and Poetry Daily as well as such journals as the Mississippi Review, The Rumpus, StoryQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, New Madrid, TriQuarterly, Conduit, the Indiana Review, Shenandoah, the Greensboro Review, Feminist Studies, The Massachusetts Review, Ninth Letter, the Seneca Review, and Crazyhorse. She currently serves as Associate Editor-in-Chief for Tupelo Quarterly.

Alina Stefanescu
"I am still rebellious and defiant": Poet Lori Lasseter Hamilton in conversation with Emma Fox.
Poet Lori Lasseter Hamilton after a reading in Birmingham, Alabama.

Poet Lori Lasseter Hamilton after a reading in Birmingham, Alabama.

In this AWC conversation, Young Adult novelist Emma Fox speaks to poet Lori Lasseter Hamilton about life, breast cancer, poetry, and chutzpah. Diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 34, four months before her wedding, Lori underwent a left breast mastectomy, six months of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiation, and a year of Herceptin treatment, from 2004 to 2005. She has been writing poetry since 1992 when she was a college student, and loves to share her poems at open mikes and poetry slams. She earned a bachelor of arts in journalism from UAB in 1998, with a minor in English.

EMMA FOX: Did you already write poetry prior to your diagnosis? If so, what developments or changes in your writing have you seen since then?

LORI LASSETER HAMILTON:I've been writing poetry since 1992 off and on, when I'm not experiencing writer's block. I started writing poetry and sharing it at open mikes when I was in college, prior to my breast cancer diagnosis in 2004. Before, I would use a lot of profanity and anger in my poems just for the sake of shock value. But when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I realized that I needed to write with controlled anger, that controlled anger would be more effective and powerful in getting my point across. To just have one or two fist punches of anger here or there in a poem would hit harder. Not that there's anything wrong with anger or profanity. It's just that I wanted people to feel what I was feeling when I performed a poem onstage. I wanted people to see that breast cancer survivors go through a whole range of emotions -- not just excitement and happiness to wear pink tutus and pink feather boas at Race for the Cure -- but sadness, anger, irritation, depression, defiance and rebellion against society's expectations.

I knew that if I was practically yelling and cursing all the time in my poems, no one in the audience would sympathize or want to listen to me. I wanted my audience to see a breast cancer survivor as a whole person with a range of feelings, and not just a strong "survivor" or a pink clown.

EMMA FOX: Are there ways that poetry is especially suited to dealing with tough situations like you've undergone?

LORI LASSETER HAMILTON: I think slam poetry is the best way, for me anyway, to express what I'm feeling about being a breast cancer survivor. Competing in a poetry slam allows me to express with raw, brutal honesty all the rage, sadness, marred self-image issues, and irritation with society's expectations for breast cancer survivors to be "pretty in pink" overcomers with a pink smile and pink clown makeup and a pink tutu.

In slam poetry, you've got to come to the mic with everything you have and give it all you've got if you want to win -- you've got to be very dramatic, and you've got to be very loud, very honest, like a confessional poet. Slam poetry is raw, gritty, and brutally honest self-expression. You've got to give it all you've got, with all your heart, when you get on that mic at the poetry slam.

Slam poetry encourages you to get really real and write/perform in a confessional style like Sylvia Plath. A lot of slam poetry contains all the emotions -- humor, sadness, anger, and fear -- all in one poem, like a roller coaster. I mean, when you think about the absurdity of wearing a breast prosthesis and a stranger "feeling you up" in a retail mastectomy shop with a variety of bra styles and colors and a variety of prostheses like you're in the lingerie department at Macy's, like you chose this, like you chose to lose a breast, it's really like the "theatre of the absurd", and slam poetry makes you scream in one line, laugh in the next line, and cry in the next. It is theatre. I want to hit people in the audience with all of it.

EMMA FOX: How has poetry helped you through the healing process?

LORI LASSETER HAMILTON: Writing and performing poetry at slams and open mikes frees me to express things I wouldn't normally be able to express. I've worked in corporate office jobs all my life as a secretary/receptionist, so I have to dress, behave, talk, and act a certain way in the office. With poetry, I can express all the raw emotions I'm feeling. I can be brutally honest about my sadness over losing a breast, my sadness over how that's affected my sex life, and I can express in my poetry how angry I am about having to be a good patient and let them just take my breast just so I can live, even though I feel the quality of my life has been diminished.

I can express my rage at society expecting breast cancer survivors to be happy pink clowns who want to walk or run in marathons all the time and love to march in survivor's parades to the song "I hope you dance" by Lee Ann Womack. These types of emotions, you just can't express in a corporate office without your coworkers thinking you're a weirdo. I grew tired of having to be strong and be a survivor and pretending to want to walk in Race for the Cure every October. With biting sarcasm and seething rage, I can express my fatigue and irritation when I perform at a poetry slam.

EMMA FOX: Who are some poets that have inspired you in your writing?

LORI LASSETER HAMILTON: I'd have to say Sylvia Plath is my number one role model, because I consider her a feminist and a confessional poet. She questions society's expectations in "The Applicant":

"First, are you our sort of a person?/Do you wear/A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,/A brace or a hook,/Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch,/Stitches to show something's missing? No, no? Then/How can we give you a thing?"

There's also Nicole Blackman, and the brutally raw way she critiques society. In her book "Blood Sugar", she talks about how even long-term boyfriends expect sex to be like a porno. Her poem "In the movie now" says:

"Dinner is you
and you are nothing like
the dead-eyed blonde women
he's been watching.

You're in the movie now."

She is unafraid to be graphic, raw, and brutally honest in her feminist critique of men's expectations.

I'm also inspired by the defiance of Arthur Rimbaud in his prose poem "A Season in Hell" :

"I called to the executioners that I might gnaw their rifle-butts while dying."

His defiance in the face of death inspires me because so many horrible things have happened to me in life, and I want to show the universe that I will not be defeated, that I am still rebellious and defiant.

And lastly, the words of Charles Baudelaire in his poem, "To the Reader", have always resonated with me:

"If rape and arson, poison and the knife
have not yet stitched their ludicrous designs
onto the banal buckram of our fates,
it is because our souls lack enterprise!"

Another defiant attitude, laughing in the face of danger.

i’m at the “Touching You” store

with chemo wigs and rubber boobs,
and silky bras outlined at the edges with lace.
she’s showing me the proper way
to put my “girls” into play.
— excerpt from Lori Lasseter Hamilton's poem, "Touching You"

EMMA FOX: Your poem, “Touching You,” was published in a recent anthology of poems by young adults with cancer. What action or response do you hope your poem will inspire?

LORI LASSETER HAMILTON: I hope that people who read "Touching You" will see that breast cancer survivors and mastectomy patients are still expected to be "sexy" by going into a retail mastectomy prosthesis and chemo wig shop, in order to be fitted with a breast prosthesis that's way too big. I want people to see how ludicrous that is.

I want people to understand that mastectomy patients don't like that kind of pressure, just like all women don't like society's pressures. We don't like the absurdity of the woman in the retail mastectomy shop showing us how to make our "girls" look their best -- even though one of our "girls" is fake. I want people to understand the ridiculousness of that.

Society's expectations -- of even breast cancer survivors with only one breast -- to still try and be sexy like they're wearing a Victoria's Secret bra. It's laughable, and to me as a feminist, it's infuriating. In the poem, I say that I wish I could sling my "over the shoulder boulder holder off", but that I don't have the guts. I also wore a wig when my hair fell out from chemo, because I was so afraid of what society would think. And I ended up losing my self-respect. I wish I had been one of those breast cancer survivors who got a tattoo on her bald head and refused to wear a wig. I wish I could go around without a prosthesis in my bra, but I'm so concerned about being "ugly" and what people would think.

I hope my poem makes people despise society's expectations of breast cancer survivors as much as I do. I hope it makes people see the absurdity of expecting the one-breasted woman to try and still be sexy in an oversized rubber breast and a silky bra with a floral pattern.

Lori Lassetter Hamilton has three poetry chapbooks: “live, from the emergency room” (New Dawn Unlimited, 2006); “sawdust, soap, soil, & stars” (Penhall Publishing, 2015); and “body parts” (New Dawn Unlimited, 2018). Some of her poems have appeared in Steel Toe Review, Birmingham Weekly, Staplegun Press, Alternative Harmonies, Fester, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry. She has competed at regional and national poetry slam competitions in 2003, 2005, and 2013 with the Montevallo poetry slam team. She is honored to be a member of Sister City Connection, Birmingham’s collective of women poets, storytellers, and musicians. Lori works as a medical records clerk at a local hospital, and has been married to Robert Hamilton for 15 years.

Emma Fox lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her husband, three kids, and an energetic border collie. She's the author of YA fantasy novel The Arrow and the Crown, and blogs about historical fiction and fantasy at

You can support young adult poets writing about their experience with cancer by purchasing a copy of This Thing Called Poetry from Finishing Line Press. It should be in every oncologist’s waiting room because poetry helps us live, thrive, and make sense of our short time on this earth.

Poet Linda Pastan says: “Late summer, and the roses in second bloom, know what’s coming. Beauty and death mingle in this fine poem by Anya Krugovoy Silver, as they do in so many of the poems in this moving, accomplished anthology. Pain and anger often coexist with humor here, though not with self -pity.  If language can be redemptive for reader and/or writer, it certainly is in these pages.”

Alina Stefanescu
Meet the AWC Conference Faculty: Johnnie Bernhard.
Johnnie Bernhard at her writing desk.

Johnnie Bernhard at her writing desk.

A former teacher and journalist, Johnnie Bernhard is passionate about reading and writing.  Her work(s) have appeared in the following publications: University of Michigan Graduate Studies Publications, Heart of Ann Arbor Magazine, Houston Style Magazine, World Oil Magazine, The Suburban Reporter of Houston, The Mississippi Press, the international Word Among Us, Southern Writers Magazine, The Texas Review, Southern Literary Review, and the Cowbird-NPR production on small town America. Her entry, “The Last Mayberry,” received over 7,500 views, internationally.  

A Good Girl was shortlisted in the 2015 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Writing Competition, as well as featured novel for panel discussion at the 2017 Mississippi and Louisiana Book Festivals. It was represented by Texas Review Press at the 2017 Texas Book Festival.  A Good Girl was shortlisted in the 2017 Kindle Book Award for Literary Fiction, a nominee for the 2018 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, a 2018 nominee for the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Fiction of the Year Award, and shortlisted for the 2017 Lone Star Literary Review, Bloggers’ Choice Award in best Literary Fiction. 

Johnnie’s second novel, How We Came to Be was a finalist in the 2017 Faulkner-Wisdom Competition.  Named a “Must Read” by Southern Writers Magazine, the novel was featured for panel discussion for the 2018 Louisiana Book Festival and Mississippi Book Festival. It was represented by Texas Review Press at the 2018 Texas Book Festival.  It was shortlisted by the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters for 2019 Fiction of the Year, as well as the recipient of the Summerlee Book Prize, HM by the Center for History and Culture at Lamar University. 

How We Came to Be was selected by the international Pulpwood Queens Book Club as a 2019 reading selection.  Both novels were chosen for the Advance Placement English Classes at private high schools in Mississippi.

Her third novel, Sisters of the Undertow debuts February 2020.  It was shortlisted for Novel-in-Progress by the 2018 Faulkner-Wisdom competition.  

Johnnie supports young writers as a judge for the annual Center for the Book of Texas, Letters about Literature Competition.   Learn more about her writing at Johnnie’s website.

The idea for Sisters of the Undertow comes from viewing the rescue of a little girl who was struggling to keep her head above water when she ventured out into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico in Grand Isle, Louisiana. I witnessed that dramatic rescue over twenty-five years ago and have never forgotten it.
— Johnnie Bernhard on her latest novel

At the AWC Annual Conference this year, Johnnie will conduct two workshops for writers, including:

What It Takes to Be an Author will take writers step by step through the acquisition process: finding the right literary agent, writing a query letter and synopsis for a potential publisher, and developing a professional profile as an author.

Developmental Editing and Content Editing will guide writers through the differences in developmental and content editing, using literary elements and plot tips to improve writing.

If you haven’t registered for the Conference, today is a great day to do it.

Alina Stefanescu