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Charlotte Pence reviews "Let Us Imagine Her Name" by Sue Brannan Walker.

Let Us Imagine Her Name by Sue Brannan Walker

Reviewed by Charlotte Pence, Director of the Stokes Center for Creative Writing at University of South Alabama

“On a dirt road in Tuscaloosa, red and rutted, a girl turned woman, turned crone, wants a name—not the surname of the father who could not, would not marry the mother, for he already had a wife, this carpenter-papa named William, who said it was best to dispense with the child and hand her off like a sack of new potatoes.”

So begins an early chapter from Let Us Imagine Her Name, a new book by former Alabama poet laureate Sue Brannan Walker. This work is a lyrical, evocative exploration of identity by a writer who wonders about her birth parents.

Walker cultivates a history through invention, imagination, and investigation by entering into imagined conversations with other female figures such as Abigail Adams, Greta Garbo, Esther from Toomer’s Cane, Xue Xinran, Margaret Mead, and, of course, Olive Oyl.  To help situate readers, Walker writes of the book’s unique approach early in the collection: “Often she asked herself who she might be if she could be anyone, if she might give herself a name, and so this account is her own invention, a memoir in the form of an abecedarian—an alphabetical listing—whereby the writer makes determinations about who she might be.”

Unlike those of the Victorian era, few poets today fully use the weight of the direct address in poetry, that pronominal “you,” perhaps because of a nagging sense that we aren’t really talking to anyone. But Let Us Imagine Her Name gains so much of its energy through this direct address, allowing readers to eavesdrop among the great women.

As an adopted child, Sue Walker wondered about her history—which is another way to say she wonders about her present. Part memoir, part poetry, and part something else that I refuse to name as anything other than inspired, this book seeks to articulate how a person comes to build the self.  The authorial “I” in this collection tries on different personas in an attempt at wholeness.

Not only does the book explore personal identity, but also lyrical forms—which one could say is identity in the genre of poetry. One of the many things I love about this book is its gutsiness to play, be it through 43-word titles, a mish-mash of Fanny Farmer recipes and cooking advice, conversations with quotes from Jean Toomer’s Cane, and much more.

Ultimately, the book’s playfulness leads to authority and power, such as the power of naming. “The first step to wisdom… is getting things by their right names,” E.O. Wilson wrote. And yet the act of naming is a process that is never completed, for as we all know, life continuously changes—as have those objects we attempt to define by their names.  While investigating identity, Walker is aware of the elusiveness of such a search with her epigraph from Derrida that states “Give me a name? But why? I don’t know exactly; maybe to lose my own.”

This collection doesn’t attempt to find ‘the whole truth,’ which Walker describes as “green as unmowed grass.” The truth in this book comes as it often does: in fragments that don’t always join but sometimes do, like a jigsaw puzzle made from ten puzzles all thrown into one box. Sue Brannan Walker’s book embraces the fact that we are more than what anyone can see or articulate. The search for self is often as close as one will come to finding any answers.


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Charlotte Pence's first book of poems, Many Small Fires (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), received an INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award from Foreword Reviews. She is also the author of two award-winning poetry chapbooks and the editor of The Poetics of American Song Lyrics. In August of 2017, she moved to Mobile to become the director of the Stokes Center for Creative Writing at University of South Alabama.

 

Alina Stefanescu
Author Amos Jasper Wright IV's magic, tragic fiction.

In this week's AWC member feature, Alina Stefanescu talks to author Amos Jasper Wright IV about Birmingham, fiction, maps, music, irony, and southern culture on the skids. All italics are Alina's and the rest is straight from Amos himself. Enjoy.

Anyone from Alabama inherits the omnipresent culture of the Bible Belt, so Christianity was syncretized in my mind with this early exposure to Native American culture.
— Amos Jasper Wright IV

Hi Amos. I understand you hail from Birmingham. Tell me about your time in the Magic City. Do you have any favorite places, whether pubs, cafes, or swimming holes? From a distance, what is most salient in your memories and affections?

We often endearingly referred to the Magic City as the Tragic City, and though the city's image is evolving out of the shadow of its previous stigma it will probably always be more tragic than magic for me, though I acknowledge this may have more to do with my perceptions and experiences of the city than anything else. Nevertheless, there's enough magic there to motivate me to write about the city, even today. I'm often disoriented visiting the city now - the skyline is taller and there are investments where there used to be either vacant lots or abandoned properties. There were few condos then, and UAB's campus primarily served commuters as it struggled through the inchoate phases of developing an identity. The transit terminal still had its copper dome. Friends got robbed at gunpoint. Nobody cared about the Birmingham Barons before Regions Field was built by Railroad Park, though we went to the throwback games at Rickwood Field. The glory days of Legion Field were long past when the Crimson Tide played in town, though we went to soccer matches and some downright sad UAB Blazers games there on free tickets. People moving to the city now may find it incredible that Avondale was recently a ghost town, though layered beneath my memory there are those who remember Avondale and 41st Street before its cycle of decline. When I walked by the abandoned Pizitz Building, since repurposed as a food hall and apartments, I thought about my grandmother's memories of shopping there when it was still a department store. I am still processing my time in Birmingham, but the most salient and affective in my memory is the series of lifelong friendships I formed while living in Birmingham. We lived in cheap ratty apartments in Southside and Highland Park and threw house parties several nights a week. I've never found that type of friendship anywhere else. In the narrative we shared, Birmingham and Alabama were places to leave, if you had the means to do so - not everyone does. We congratulated ourselves as pioneers of the first wave of re-urbanization centered around the Phoenix Building where we briefly lived before moving to cities like Seattle, Austin, New York City and Boston. I had pretensions to the visual arts then, and we rented studio space at the corner of 18th Street and 2nd Avenue South, which is now the Railroad Square development. The transformation of this district and elsewhere has been startling and surreal, mostly observed from the sidelines, as Railroad Park was still in the planning stages when I lived there, though I am sure the residents of neighborhoods like Avondale are more startled than I could ever be. We rented the entire second floor of the Railroad Square building when Railroad Park was just an empty lot by the railroad tracks, made Gordon Matta Clark-esque sculptures and paintings, hosted art openings and threw parties on the rooftop. I sometimes feel that I've missed out on the redevelopment of Birmingham, but the world is much bigger than your hometown and maybe the city needed the energy of people from outside of Alabama or natives who did not share this tragic vision of the city. There was also something paradoxically exhilarating and morbid about making art and throwing parties amidst all this urban decay.

In many ways, Birmingham was preserved like taxidermy by neglect because it did not experience the influx of redevelopment capital that wrought Sherman's Second March to the Sea upon Atlanta. Birmingham then was an apocalyptic, windblown aftermath in my imagination. Downtown has since developed the closest thing to an urban renaissance the state has ever seen, but many of the city's neighborhoods are still living this vision. Birmingham is now facing acute equity issues - when has it not? - related to the spatial distribution of the benefits of reinvestment. Anyway, I'm preaching now.

 The map of Magic City that Amos made especially for this interview.

The map of Magic City that Amos made especially for this interview.

Many nights we crawled into the Leer Tower (you didn't have to break in - the building was already occupied by transients) right across the street from the headquarters of the Birmingham Police Department, took photos of the devastation, and climbed the stairs to the roof for the panoramic view of Jones Valley. Those types of experiences were probably the provenance of the vision of Birmingham as this tragic city desolated by suburbanization and white supremacy. We took the MAX transit buses all over the city, into neighborhoods like Woodlawn, Norwood, Ensley, Smithfield. Before the craft beer economy really boomed we often drove over to Atlanta, stocked up on beer and then smuggled forties and high gravity beers across the Alabama-Georgia state line. I blame the state legislature that till the age of about twenty-something the best beer I'd ever had was swill. Only in Birmingham would beer revitalize a dying town. Before Railroad Park the only greenspace in the city was Kelly Ingram Park and Linn Park. I went there on my lunch break and talked to bums or wandered around the Birmingham Museum of Art. Then the good ole boys down in Montgomery, in their infinite wisdom, updated the beer laws and released this untapped boozy potential - it was like the end of Prohibition. Economic development advocates will call this progress; others may call it the "whitening" of the city, but I'll refrain from jeremiads. Most of the bars we frequented, with the exceptions of The Garage, The Nick, and The J. Clyde are now gone. Most nights ended in debauchery and blackouts at the Upside Down Plaza, an underground bar like the last circle in Dante's Inferno. Secondhand smoke and bloody broken mirrors on the bathroom floor. Our less rowdy evenings centered around Bailey's Irish Pub, which was behind Dave's in Five Points and was gutted after I left. Bottletree closed sometime after I moved away. A blur of house parties throughout Southside, Highland Park and the few people then living in lofts downtown. After the Upside Down Plaza kicked us out we got drunk food at Al's Deli and Grill on 10th Avenue South. We unwittingly contributed to the ruination of Gip's Place. To swim, we dipped in cold water quarries in Tarrant or used Google Earth to find pools in the backyards and secret courtyards of apartment buildings whose fences we could jump. Niki's West out on Finley is still a place I try to meat-and-three whenever I'm in town. I would be remiss if I failed to mention Jim Reed Books, which was then on the second floor of a building on 20th Street, since razed for a mixed-use building. I can't thank Jim Reed enough for the oasis this bookstore represented - many of the books which influenced me were purchased from that bookstore. From the Phoenix Building we were around the corner from the 4th Avenue North Historic District. Bare Hands Art Gallery on 21st Street used to host a festival for Dia de los Muertos that everyone anticipated all year and where I first learned of the work of Civil Rights photographer Spider Martin. "Making it" in the Birmingham art scene meant having a show there.

I worked at the downtown branch of the Birmingham Public Library, which introduced me to another aspect of the city, and after work took epic walks, usually with libations, and rambled about the quiet, empty city for hours, debating and arguing, talking with the strangers we encountered on the streets and planning our escape. Birmingham was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: after 5 pm, when all the commuters went home, the personality of the city totally changed - it got weird. Growing up, Birmingham was not a place most white people spoke fondly of - it was a place to work and then escape as quickly as possible to the homogenized safety of the Over-the-Mountain bedroom communities. More tragic than magic. Sloss Furnaces and the legacy of the city's industrial history loom large in my memory. Trips to the Civil Rights Institute left me daunted with the terrifying impression that something historically was very wrong with the city, sick even, but the vague malaise of the city stultified attempts to articulate the nightmare that was police dogs and fire hoses. Leaving gave me some perspective on that nightmare. I go home now and Birmingham, a city to which I owe much, no longer feels like my city, and maybe it never was.

 

I love hearing your stories about Birmingham--it brings the terrain to life. Some of the spaces and names are so familiar, including Jim Reed, who did his time in service of AWC and the literary community. To narrow everything down now, what is your favorite place in Alabama and why?

In a state with so many places of personal importance and interest, it is difficult to choose one, but I would vote for the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma because it symbolizes so many of the themes that resonate with me  and was a literal battleground between the forces of reaction and those who dreamed of a more perfect republic, and though the bridge doesn’t figure prominently in the current short story collection, it is a place I have returned to many times in unpublished fiction.  

And who is really guilty? Each of us. Each citizen who has not consciously attempted to bring about peaceful compliance with the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States . . . ev- ery person in this community who has in any way contributed during the past several years to the popularity of hatred, is at least as guilty, or more so, than the demented fool who threw that bomb . . . What’s it like living in Birmingham? No one ever really has known and no one will until this city becomes part of the United States. Birmingham is not a dying city; it is dead.
— Charles Morgan, addressing the Birmingham Young Men’s Business Club, on the day subsequent to the Birmingham Church bombing that killed four girls.

I couldn't resist adding the epigraph from your forthcoming fiction collection above--the words of Charles Morgan in the context of the historical present-- a brave and poignant introduction to your stories, an earnest engagement with the past that many authors prefer to ignore. Writing from inside the southern space where history plays such a powerful role in politics, we are beholden to the past. 

Some writers have noted that the 2016 election affected their fictional voices. For example, one conversation I keep wandering into laments the loss of irony as a technique or tone. The rise of the alt-right and reality television strain the use of irony in the context of a postmodern presidency. Have you noted any changes in your voice or fictional style since the election? Why or why not?

After the election, I immediately began drafting a “Trump novel,” which I am sure we will see many of in the coming years - I certainly am not the only one who did this. It was conceived as a dystopian political novel in which certain seemingly inconsequential details were altered, but details with momentous consequences when extrapolated out. Anyway, working on this novel at the same time that we were being daily Steve-Bannoned  with randomized ambushes of spectacle events and political theater contrived for maximum whiplash was simply too overwhelming, and I realized the project could benefit from a few years of retrospection to process it all. I managed 30,000 words or so on this “Trump novel” before shelving it. I may never finish it, but at least it was cathartic. At the same time, this project accentuated the need for more direct political action, as writing a novel, even one of dissent, feels a little like  “fiddling while Rome burns,” so to speak. But writers have produced enduring works through times even more tumultuous and disheartening than ours, so the political novel is likely here to stay.

As for irony and tone, I haven’t noticed any dramatic changes in my fictional style, as I’ve always been engaged with social and political issues, even before seriously committing to  writing, though the two novels I have drafted since the election possess an urgency about issues such as environmental catastrophe and race that might be new to me. I think irony and sarcasm are too deeply embedded in my style and voice to be totally suppressed by the shenanigans of the Electoral College - irony and humor have long been defense or coping mechanisms. However, the tone of one of the aforesaid two novels is more earnest, elegiac, lyrical and reflective than anything I’ve attempted before, though whether this is attributable to the current political climate or my maturation as a writer is probably unknowable or moot.


For an off-hand experiment, can you list three of your favorite short stories and pair them with a favorite song and musician? You can explain or not explain. You can quote lyrics or stick to the links.

Although I’ve recently been reading the stories of John Cheever and Clarice Lispector, I offer the couplings below without annotation:

  1. Samuel Beckett’s “The Lost Ones”/”Texts For Nothing” paired with XXXtentacion’s “Everybody Dies In Their Nightmares

  2. David Foster Wallace’s “Good Ole Neon” from the story collection Oblivion paired with Chuuwee’s “Lootkemia

  3. Barry Hannah’s “Allons, Mes Enfants” from Bats Out of Hell paired with Pardison Fontaine’s ‘Hooporeerap


I adore Clarice Lispector--she opened so many doors of permission for me as a fiction writer. Are there any superstitions or folkways in Alabama that spark (or have sparked) your literary attention? How does Southern life enter your writing?

I still contemplate  “non-southern” writing, as I hope to one day write about themes or subjects which are not quintessentially “Southern” (the “Trump novel” was an attempt at that), though who knows if that will ever come to fruition, but in a way Southern life is my writing, as much as I may sometimes balk at that. Being a “southern writer” is both a blessing and a curse, as you inherit a rich legacy and tradition of  archetypes, consciousness, images, metaphors, landscapes, weather, and tropes in which to work, but the curse is that you are compelled to work in the long shadow of this storied tradition which can feel stultifying, and then you get branded as a “southern” regional writer for the sake of book marketing. Who wants to write in the shadow of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor? In that sense, the rich tradition becomes baggage. I lived outside the South long enough to put the South in some perspective, insofar as that is possible.

My grandfather was an archaeologist, so I grew up being exposed to native myths, iconography and symbolism, as well as the myriad artefacts he collected and archived. Because of the materiality of these cultural artefacts, the Creeks for example seemed as tangible and real  as the Methodists or Southern Baptists down the street. Anyone from Alabama inherits the omnipresent culture of the Bible Belt, so Christianity was syncretized in my mind with this early exposure to Native American culture. Even if you grow up in a nominally secular family it would still be a task to escape the influence of the Bible Belt; even the southern atheists I’ve known who resist it become as evangelical and zealous about atheism as the religious fanatics they were spurning. Reliance on this storehouse of hybridized imagery  isn’t even conscious. We had our own miracles: men walked on water, harrowed hell and returned from the dead. Then there were the family stories and folkways, of Methodist circuit rider preachers and the wartime exploits of my grandfather who was a career pilot in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam - aircraft appear frequently in some of my unpublished work. An uncle who set fire to a field just to see the fire trucks come. My grandmother heard George Washington Carver speak in Camp Hill, Alabama. A house divided by the madness of Alabama and Auburn football loyalties.

The greater context for these familial folkways is the historical memory of the state at large, which did not always affect me directly, but which my family was very aware of as history: the failed Bonapartist experiment of the Vine and Olive Colony down in Marengo County; the Wetumpka impact crater, where a meteorite blasted the earth; the slave ship Clotilde’s illegal voyage from the slave coast of Africa to Mobile; the photo-journalistic forays  of Walker Evans and James Agee in Hale County; the stories about the early industrial tycoons who founded Birmingham; the Tuskegee Airmen; the Free State of Winston; the quilts of Gee’s Bend; the Birmingham Civil Rights Campaign; the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and so on. As a society, we are probably more deracinated than ever, so these folkways have a way of grounding one in the specificity of a place.  

Thank you so much to Amos for taking the time to share his thoughts with us. You can purchase a copy of his forthcoming fiction collection, Nobody Knows How It Got This Good, from Alabama's very own Livingston Press. And you should


Amos Jasper Wright IV is native to the dirt of Birmingham, Alabama, but has called Alabama, Massachusetts and Louisiana home. He holds a master's degree in English and creative writing from the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and a master's degree in urban planning from Tufts University, but he does not condone educational signaling.His fiction and poems have appeared in Arcadia, Birmingham Arts Journal, Clarion, Fieldstone Review, Folio, Grain Magazine, Gravel, The Hollins Critic, Interim, New Ohio Review, New Orleans Review, Off the Coast, Pale Horse Review, Roanoke Review, Salamander, Tacenda Literary Magazine, Union Station Magazine, Yes, Poetry and Zouch. He is currently working on several novels titled Petrochemical Nocturne, King Cockfight, The Dead Mule Rides Again, In the Basement of the Anthropocene, and When A Good Thing Lasts Too Long. Today he lives and works in New Orleans. His author website can be found at www.amosjasperwright.com

To sample Amos' writing, read "Aubade," a poem published in Gravel magazine. Or wander through his website to find more.

If you want to know what the American South has become today and how much the people who live here have given up of their souls and money to fix a past that can’t be fixed, then read Amos Jasper Wright’s debut book, Nobody Knows How It Got This Good. Wright’s characters are truth tellers, and every day they create maps to get them through the city of Birmingham, Alabama with its dangerous steam plant and high rise banks, luxury car dealerships and dilapidated buildings. Eventually the maps lead out of town to the last suppers of violent men, an oil spill in the Gulf, and the coal trade in Columbia so the lights in Alabama can be kept on. But no matter how far they get, they come back looking for signs of change. In the title story, a block party in a parking lot marks the opening of a new superstore in an abandoned mall, and a friend says, ‘Nobody knows how it got this good.’ These stories, told with great care, haunt and bite with revelation.
— James Braziel, author of 'Birmingham, 35 Miles' and 'Snakeskin Road'
Alina Stefanescu
AWC Open Mic on June 15th.
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This event is free and open to the public as part of the grand kick-off opening up our 2018 AWC Conference. We are so excited that Anne Markham Bailey of Green Bucket Press will be recording a Present Tense podcast during this conference this year. 

It's not too late to register

It's never too late to join.

We will discuss long-term planning and big changes at the annual member meeting on Sunday. Although we believe planning and reports are fun, we realize our members might disagree. That's why the meeting will take place on a boat with brunch. We hope to see everyone there. 

Alina Stefanescu
AWC Member Feature: A conversation with Caleb Johnson, author of "Treeborne"

Alina Stefanescu chatted with new member, Caleb Johnson, about his roots, his cravings, and his debut novel.

 All photos taken by Irina Zhorov

All photos taken by Irina Zhorov

Touch the manuscript every day, even if you only do so in a seemingly trivial way. 
— Caleb Johnson on writing a novel

ALINA: I'll start with a confession. You're the only writer I've met who grew up in Arley, Alabama. Tell me about Arley, what you loved most about it, what you miss, what it taught you.

CALEB: Well, my aunt Jessica Sampley is a published poet and my great-grandmomma Gladys Chambless wrote a column for a local newspaper for many years. My momma, of course, likes to claim writing runs in the family, though I'm not sure that's how it works.

Arley is a rural community on Smith Lake, about 1.5 hrs north of Birmingham. It still doesn't have a stoplight or any fast-food restaurants. I loved many of the traditions and rituals of growing up in a small place. Like high-school football games and community dinners and, for a time, going to church. When I was a kid we had this preacher who wore turquoise suit jackets and sweated a lot and used boxing metaphors in his sermons. I liked him. To my mind, he seemed like the kind of guy who might actually speak with God. 

I grew up in the woods on my grandmomma's land, which served as inspiration for the land in my debut novel, Treeborne. Those woods are where I became a storyteller. I'd make up stories for things I saw -- animals bones, trash, odd rock formations -- then go back to the house and tell my family while we ate Sunday dinner.  

I miss Smith Lake itself most of all. It's a beautiful deepwater lake with orange and pink sandstone shores. There's no better place to swim.  

 

ALINA: In your Alabama history lies the Druid City. Any special experiences, organizations, individuals, places that left their mark? If so, describe. If not, pretend I didn't ask.

CALEB: Tuscaloosa will always be special to me. There I met some of the best friends I have in this world. We spent many late nights at Egan's. During summer, after the bars closed, we'd often wander to a pool outside some apartment complex or down to the Black Warrior River and swim until the sky lightened with dawn. 

A lot of folks I know have moved away from Tuscaloosa. I feel a particular sadness, a loss, when I go back. I reckon that's just getting older, maybe. I try to go back every year for a football weekend. Saturdays in the fall I refuse to write. Those are my days off. I cook and watch however much college football I can stand. My buddy Bo Hicks still holds it down in Tuscaloosa. Go check out his place, Druid City Brewing, when you're in town. 

 

ALINA: I do love the one and only Bo Hicks. Your debut novel, Treeborne, is forthcoming from Picador this June. What inspired it? How long did it take to write? In the process, did you make any big structural changes or was this something that came fully formed? Explain.

CALEB: I started writing Treeborne in 2011. I'd just moved to Laramie, Wyoming to attend graduate school. I knew I wanted to write a novel during my two years there. I'd tried to write one already and it stalled somewhere about halfway through. This was my first time living outside the state of Alabama. I thought I'd come right back home after I graduated, but life has a way of surprising you. I met someone and I fell in love, we got a dog, and now here we are living in Philadelphia for the time being. 

In Laramie I tried to write a straight historical novel and that just wasn't working. I don't like to do the kind of research required for such a project. I just kept writing though. I was homesick, which certainly influenced what I was doing on the page. Eventually, characters and settings emerged. I didn't have a plan, really. I knew when I had Janie and Maybelle Treeborne that I was on to something though. All I had to do was watch and listen-- not so different from what I'd do in those woods as a kid. 

 

ALINA: If you had only had five music albums to play until the end of your time on this planet, what would they be?

CALEB: Rather than albums, let me name five artists in no particular order--

  1. Elvis Presley

  2. Hank Williams

  3. Lee Bains III

  4. Alabama 

  5. Loretta Lynn

 

ALINA: I absolutely agree with you on Lee Bains III--he's the only musician I know that 1) gave the Bryce Asylum its due as a liminal space in Tuscaloosa 2) mentions Walker Percy in a lyric 3) strings the pulse of southern rock. Speaking of pulse, I first heard your name earlier this year when I read your beautiful essay, "Gabriel García Márquez’s Road Trip Through Alabama" in The Paris Review. How did that piece happen? Any interesting tidbits or facts that you left on the cutting room floor? Any other writers that (surprisingly) evoke Alabama for you? Why or why not?

CALEB: I was reading some magazine pieces published around the time of Márquez’s death and in one I saw mention of this Greyhound ride he and his family took through the South. There were maybe two sentences on the subject before the writer moved on. I'd never heard this before, nor had I considered Márquez would've set foot in the region. I'm a sucker for literary pilgrimages and biography, so I had to know more. One thing led to another and there I was on the phone with Gabo's best friend, the writer and diplomat Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, hearing stories just once removed from Márquez himself. I knew I'd have to write about this experience and that time in Márquez's life. I'm glad The Paris Review published the piece on its website. They do great work. 

 

ALINA. In his essay, “100 Things About Writing a Novel”, Alexander Chee said: The novel is the most precise analogy the writer can make to what was seen in the rooms and trains and skies and summer nights and parties where the novel was written, as the writer walked in moments with the enormous imaginary friend, before returning to the others, which is to say, the writer’s life.

If you could made a list of "5 Things About Writing a Novel," what might you include? 

CALEB: 

1. Touch the manuscript every day, even if you only do so in a seemingly trivial way. 

2. Don't be afraid to write badly and throw out pages later.

3. Have a routine-- whatever works for you. Ignore writing advice, unless you're reading it to make yourself feel better about your own work habits.

4. It's okay to step away from the computer for a minute. Keep a big plastic cup -- if possible, the kind you overpay for at sporting events -- filled with water beside you desk (not on; you will spill). Drink, get up to pee, refill, repeat. 

5. Adopt a dog. No other living thing will love you unconditionally. 

 

ALINA. What writers are you currently reading and loving? Why?

CALEB: I just finished Things We Lost in the Fire, a short story collection by the Argentine writer Mariana Enriquez. The stories in this book are flat-out disturbing and beautiful. Enriquez puts realism and the supernatural side-by-side to great effect her stories about murdered children and stoned teenagers and police brutality and abused women. The details she includes will have you just slack-jawed on every page. 

 

ALINA. Take us back to 7-year-old Caleb. A neighbor asks him what he wants to be when he grows up. What does he say? Is this different from 12-year-old Caleb's answer? When did you realize you wanted to be a writer? What does that even mean?

CALEB: I probably said I wanted to play basketball at The University of North Carolina-- Chapel Hill, then for the Chicago Bulls. I loved Michael Jordan and the colors of those teams' uniforms. This dream ended as my growing did and I was forced to reckon with my athletic limitations. 

At some point in my childhood I remember reading a Michael Crichton novel my momma'd bought me at Walmart. I told my folks I wanted to be an author when I grew up and they said something like, "That ain't a job. You can't make a living at it." They weren't wrong, but they're supportive of my pursuits-- no matter how fool-headed some have been. They told me I could be anything I wanted to be, which, since I took it to heart, has led to disappointment and to joy. I'm grateful they've never pressured me to pursue a certain career. I know that must not be easy for parents, because they're afraid of what'll happen if things don't work out. 

 

ALINA: You currently live and teach in Pennsylvania. What do you miss most about living in the South? What do you not miss at all? 

CALEB: I miss the food, of course. I miss the landscape. I miss my family and friends. I miss the voices and the way folks interact with each other. I'll never get over what I perceive as a kind of rudeness that the a big city like Philadelphia seems to encourage in folks. I think it has to do with the competition for space and for resources and inequality when it comes to accessing both. I'm not a Southerner who left because he did not love his home. I left to accomplish some things. I'm not done yet, but I fully intend to return to the South and give back to the place that has given me so much. 

 

ALINA: Finally, because I'm hungry and dreaming of lunch, describe the food and drink of your favorite meal. Do you have a favorite vegetable? If so, which one and why?

CALEB: Cold fried chicken, mustardy potato salad, bread and butter pickles, a fresh-sliced tomato just covered in salt and pepper.

 


Caleb Johnson is the author of the novel Treeborne. He grew up in Arley, Alabama, studied journalism at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and earned an MFA from the University of Wyoming. He has worked as a small-town newspaper reporter, an early-morning janitor, and a whole-animal butcher, among other jobs, and has been awarded a Jentel Writing Residency and a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship in fiction to the Sewanee Writers' Conference. Currently, Johnson lives with his partner, Irina, and their dog, Hugo, in Philadelphia, where he teaches while working on his next novel. 

Booking-- To book Caleb for an event, use this form on his website, or email--

Publicist: Sara Delozier, sara.delozier@picadorusa.com

Literary Agent: Amelia Atlas, aatlas@icmpartners.com

All photos taken by Irina Zhorov.

Upcoming Treeborne events in Alabama:

June 13: The Alabama Booksmith - Birmingham, AL - 5pm

June 14: Arley Public Library - Arley, AL - homecoming event feat. homemade peach desserts and coffee, 5pm

June 20: Page & Palette - Fairhope, AL - 6pm

June 23: Druid City Brewing - Tuscaloosa, AL - in conversation w/ Blaine Duncan, feat. music by Doc Dailey, and smoked meats by Bo Hicks and Turkey and the Wolf's Nate Barfield, 6pm

Alina Stefanescu
Pitch Sessions and Book Critiques with Fiery Seas Publishing
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Do you need hands-on attention to a particular manuscript? Are you tired of trying to guess what publishers want from a pitch? If you're attending the AWC Conference in Orange Beach this June, you have the opportunity to book a 10-minute pitch session with Misty Williams, publisher of Fiery Seas Publishing. Misty will also be doing 10-page critiques, where you will be given feedback on the first 10 pages of your manuscript.

Founded in 2014, Fiery Seas Publishing thrives in putting out high-quality books for men, women, and young adults to enjoy long after they close the cover.

Learn more about Fiery Seas Publishing from their blog.

Use the "Register Now" button below to book a Pitch Session or Critique with Misty Williams for the 2018 Alabama Writers Conclave Conference between Jun 15, 6:00 PM – Jun 17, 7:00 PM.

Limited spots available so register soon. 

Alina Stefanescu
Gorham's Bluff Poetry Festival, October 6th 2018.

A message from Roger Carlisle:

We are going to have another great poetry festival this year at Gorham’s Bluff on October 6th from 9:30 to 3:00 pm.

There will be a workshop conducted by Barry Marks and Adam Vines beginning at 9:30 AM. Lunch will be served at 12:30 included in your reservation fee).  During lunch the awards for, and readings of, the best original poem and two runners-up will take place. There will be an open mic following the awards.  At the open mic, readers are encouraged to read their own poem or a favorite poem.  The readings should be limited to 3 minutes or less.  The Festival will end at 3:00 pm.

Poetry Contest
There will be a $250 prize for the best original poem and certificates for the two runners-up.  Please submit one original, unpublished poem no later than September 10, 2018 (postmarked), in order to be considered. 

The poem may be sent to Roger Carlisle at wrogercarlisle@gmail.com or mailed to 4312 Overlook Road, Birmingham, AL 35222 attn: Roger Carlisle.

RSVP for this event to wrogercarlisle@gmail.com.

 

Alina Stefanescu
A conversation with Kwoya Fagin Maples about "Mend."

(Alina Stefanescu stole a few minutes from Birmingham's own incredible Kwoya Fagin Maples to discuss her poetry collection.)

Your poetry collection, Mend, is forthcoming from The University Press of Kentucky later this year. Can you tell us a little bit about the complex historical subject involved?

Mend is a collection of historical persona poetry written in the voices of women who were considered experimental subjects by Dr. James Marion Sims of Mt. Meigs, Alabama. Between 1845 and 1849, Sims performed experimental gynecological surgery on at least eleven enslaved women.

All of the women— procured from nearby plantations— suffered from fistula. Fistula is a condition that is the result of physical trauma during childbirth. Since fistula typically happens with prolonged labor, it can be safely assumed that most of the babies died. Sims only names three of the women in his notes and autobiography: Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy. He is known as the “Father of Gynecology” and is the inventor of the speculum. There are statues dedicated to him in New York (recently removed), South Carolina, and Alabama.  

 

Tell me about how you made use of poetic forms in order to convey the complicated grief and emotion of Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy.

Most of the poems are lyrical in nature— they are vivid, fragmented, and narrative. Since the women were often in pain or under the influence of opium, I used this form to convey their cognitive state and emotion. One section of the book is entirely in sonnets.  

Initially, I used the sonnet because I wanted to use a form relative to the time period. Later, it proved to be the perfect vehicle. I gave myself a constraint: all of the sonnets were to be directed towards the doctor. The speaker, Anarcha, would finally hold him accountable. This poem, in particular, is surreal at times, and travels between lucidity and hallucinatory images.     

 

Joel Brouwer wrote, "These poems carry an unbearable weight of witness: so much suffering, but also the joy of survival, the survival of joy." Tell me about "the survival of joy,” whether in poetry, in the lives of your characters, or in the present day.  

As Toi Derricotte said, “Joy is an act of resistance.” I believe this firmly. This revelation of joy was certainly something practiced by my ancestors. The circumstances experienced by the women in my book experienced were awful, but I thought it important to include moments of joy.

The human experience is complex, no matter the situation. Joy can be a part of any darkness (if you allow it) because joy is not the absence of pain. Joy is a recognition, a choice. There are several joyful memories described in Mend: of catching fireflies, of meeting someone significant for the first time, or recalling the scent of a pie.  These women were more than their suffering. They were human, and this is what I want readers to hold when they walk away from Mend.

 

 I am in awe of the way in which you expand the poetics of witness to include these women. What was the most challenging part of bearing witness for you as a poet, but also as a mother, a wife, and a black woman in America?

The most challenging part of bearing witness was knowing this had happened to other human beings. I am an empathetic person by nature, so I felt a lot of hurt, anger, and sadness on behalf of the women I was writing about.  As a mother, I was struck by the knowledge that these women didn’t have the opportunity to mother the way I have. There was no baby registry, no time off, no prenatal care. As enslaved women, their experience of matrescence was entirely different from my own.

Uncovering this story as a poet and new mother meant a lot of things.  It meant that during pregnancy, I was hyperaware of how medical professionals responded to me as a black woman.  On most of my prenatal visits, especially with men, I was extremely nervous. As a new mother in Birmingham, Alabama, I realized my vulnerability, particularly in medical settings. As I continued to research, I became aware of how medical professionals still treat women of color. Currently, black women are three times more likely to die as a result of childbirth than white women— regardless of ability to pay, and regardless of prenatal care. This statistic was found in 2017! Why is that? There are a few answers, but this one is chief among them: prejudice and (scientific) racism are pervasive. For a long time, black people were thought to have a higher tolerance to pain than white people, which is directly connected to why the current opioid epidemic disproportionately affects whites—because black people are prescribed pain medication at much lower rates.

 

Joy can be a part of any darkness (if you allow it) because joy is not the absence of pain. Joy is a recognition, a choice.
— Kwoya Fagin Maples

Did you feel closer to any of the personas in this collection? If so, who and why? If not, why?

I felt most connected to Anarcha. Anarcha was seventeen at the beginning of the experimentation in 1845. She endured at least thirty surgeries, according to Sims’ notes. Since she was the first person he experimented on, and the only one he claimed to “heal,” I imagined her as angry—certainly, but also wise, knowing and aware. It is her voice I searched for the most while writing. Again, the sonnet corona I referenced above is written in her voice. She directly confronts the doctor and speaks on behalf of all the women.

 

What poets or writers most influenced this collection and the way in which you approached it? Why or how?

Frank X Walker’s book Turn Me Loose was a companion book for me. This is a collection of historical persona poetry written in several voices including the voice of Medgar Evers, his wife, his murderer and even the bullet that killed Medgar Evers. Walker’s creativity, structure and genius on the page is startling. I love how the book is continually engaging.

Cornelius Eady’s book, Brutal Imaginations, was also influential in that there was an imagined persona in the book. I liked the narrative arc and how details were exposed over the course of the story. Other poets who influenced the work were Natasha Tretheway, Michael Ondaatje, among others. 

 

How do you balance teaching, mothering, loving, and living with writing and publishing in the Birmingham community?

I don’t balance. There are times when I’m hyper-focused on one thing, and I think that’s fine.  I have the most supportive husband in the world. We both want the best for each other. We have three young children, but we know our career pursuits also give us fulfillment, so we both make sacrifices for each other. I try to make it to as many Birmingham writing events as I can, but my lifestyle is such that I have to pick and choose. I want the writers in my community to feel supported, so I try to give that support in a variety of ways, whether it’s showing up, pep talks on social media, or reading manuscripts people send my way.

I look for ways to spend valuable time with writers while also acknowledging my roles as a mother, wife, writer, and instructor. It’s not easy, but I try to make good choices –overall— in how and where I spend my time.

 

I appreciate your honest on the work-life balance equation. What organizations and resources would you suggest to other writers in Alabama looking for support, encouragement, and development? What organizations have helped you and how?

Cave Canem is an incredible experience, but there are so many more options now for poets of color. I’d recommend The Watering Hole and Kundiman.

The organization that has made the most impact on my life recently, however, is See Jane Write.  See Jane Write (SJW) is a Birmingham organization for women who write and blog. Being a part of SJW has taught me the business side of writing. As a writer, I’m an entrepreneur, and that was something I had to come to understand. So often as women we are trained not to self-promote, but understanding branding and marketing as a writer is crucial. I’m an introvert, so this doesn’t come naturally, but it’s necessary. SJW has given me the tools, resources, and confidence to pursue being profitable as a writer.

 

Would you say this book is “teachable” for academic settings?

Absolutely. One of the sections from Mend I’m most proud of is the sonnet corona. It’s a modified sonnet, but the syllabic count is spot on (10 or 11 syllables per line). I made an effort to have a narrative arc, and it’s a response to Harriet Washington’s concept of “the medical plantation.” Harriet Washington wrote a book called Medical Apartheid that details several cases of medical experimentation on black bodies from slavery until now. There were many cases of medical experimentation during slavery.  What yielded from these situations was medical advancement, fame, and money for the doctors. As a result, Washington describes these spaces as “medical plantations.” The title of the sonnet corona is “What Yields.”

This book relied on historical research and references an actual case in medical history.  It can be incorporated into women studies, medical ethics, history, English and creative writing courses.  

 

What final words do you have for Alabama writers, readers, and dreamers?

In order to move forward, we have to understand our history. It’s difficult to thoughtfully consider our past, but we perpetuate ignorance when we don’t see or value the humanity of the people we are considering.  My hope is that people don’t distance themselves from the content of this book, but rather see how they are a part of this story. We should all question our role in the continuing story of equality in America.


Thank you so much Kwoya for sharing--and for writing such a magnificent book.

Mend can be pre-ordered online from the University of Kentucky Press website.

Learn more about Kwoya from her website or
twitter, where she tweets as @kwoyamaples.

To Bear Witness      (a poem from Mend)

Delia held my hand all through it
        my nates splayed open

and like the butcher’s meat,
        I belonged to that steel.

The doctor standing
        in the triangle between like

he always was.
        He is the air there

and he will separate the day from the night.
        Then the pain

until I see the cow with no head.
         I swear it was just as real as you and me;

it walked in this here room      hooves clicking,
          a black soot hole for a neck.

And now, Delia squeezes my hand to the bone
           like the cow is hers,

like it is her spine on the table,
          her chattering un-intelligibles

and writhing
        all through it.  

 

Alina Stefanescu
SHOW MO on May 23rd at Hoover Public Library
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You are invited to attend SHOW MO, Wednesday May 23, 1-3p.m, Hoover Public Library (Birmingham, Al). At this special event you will find inspiration AND get feedback on your work! This will help you polish your manuscript for the SCBWI Southern Breeze Contest in June.

It works like this: You bring your pages or paintings and then read or show your work to other writers and illustrators.  Participants will then fill-out feedback sheets provided for them. Afterwards, the feedback sheets can be used to improve and revise your work.

Cost:  Free and open to the public, so yes, you can bring a non-SCBWI writing friend; however, they will not be able to enter our annual writing contest.

HOW MANY PAGES/ILLUSTRATIONS: Up to ten, double spaced pages in a 12-point font. Your pages should be your best work and near submission ready. For illustrators, bring up to four illustrations for feedback. For more of the Writing Contest submission information, see http://southern-breeze.scbwi.org/contests/writing-contest/.

 

To insure everyone is reached, where participation exceeds 8 people, we will break into groups of 4-6. This is a similar format to our conference Informal Critiques.

For more information and to reserve your place RSVP Claire Datnow: cldatnow@me.com

Alina Stefanescu
Alabama Book Festival in Montgomery
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AWC is are excited to announce a weekend of free workshops and book fairs supported by the Alabama Writer's Forum and various local and state grants. You can learn more about the 2018 Alabama Book Festival scheduled for April 20 and 21st at the Alabama Book Festival website.

In the meantime, apart from the incredible literary opportunities, here's why we think you should attend.

Free Workshops

ABF is offering a diverse set of FREE writing workshops on Saturday, April 21, 2018, on everything from poetry to podcasting and audio books to writing about the arts. Click here for a description of the workshops.

Register now because seats are filling up!

 

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Professional Development for Educators

For teachers of creative writing grades 6-12, the Alabama Writers' Forum is offering a complimentary workshop on Friday, April 20 at the Troy University Montgomery Campus in downtown Montgomery. This is a great professional development opportunity for educators! Click here to view the program.

Open Mic Opportunities

Our new and improved open-mic stage is now taking applications for 15-minute slots! Click here for information on how to read in our food court during the day!

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The Alabama Book Festival is located at Old Alabama Town in Montgomery, Alabama. You can use the map below to help you plot the trip.

 
Alina Stefanescu
ASPS Spring Workshop in Orange Beach
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WORKSHOP LEADER AND SPEAKER BIOS

Jacqueline Allen Trimble lives and writes in Montgomery, Alabama, where she is a Professor of English and the chairperson of Languages and Literatures at Alabama State University. She holds three degrees in English: the B.A. from Huntingdon College, and the M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Alabama.   She is the current board president of the Alabama Writers Forum, and a member of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Museum Board, serving as chairperson of the literary arts award committee for high school and college students.   She has won several teaching and writing awards, including the Exemplary Teacher Award (for junior faculty), The Todd Award for Outstanding Teaching (for senior faculty), The Julia Lightfoot Sellers Award (given by the Huntingdon College junior and senior class to the faculty member who has most inspired them to learning), and The University of Alabama’s Outstanding Dissertation of the Year Award, for Race, Gender Culture in Adrienne Kennedy’s  In One Act, an analysis of the playwright Adrienne Kennedy’s absurd dramas through the lens of feminist/womanist theory. 

Her research interests include 20th century black women writers, feminist theory, and representations of race and gender in popular culture.  She is also a poet.  Her work has appeared in The Offing, Blue Lake Review, The Louisville Review and The Griot. American Happiness, her first collection is published by NewSouth Books.  The ironically titled book examines America’s refusal to grapple with hard truths, preferring instead the pretense that everyone and everything is just fine.   Recently awarded a Key West Literary Seminar scholarship, she is currently a Cave Canem fellow and the recipient of a 2017 literary arts fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts. American Happiness won the 2016 Balcones Poetry Prize and was named best book of 2016 by the new Seven Sisters Book Awards. 

Adam Vines graduated with his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He then received his MFA from the University of Florida in 2006, where he also taught and earned the Excellence in Teaching Award from the University Writing Program in 2005. He is now an assistant professor at UAB, where he teaches poetry writing workshops and earned the Core Teaching Award from the UAB English Department in 2008.  

He has published work in Kenyon ReviewSouthwest ReviewPoetry, and many others.  He was named the Tennessee Williams Scholar at the 2008 Sewanee Writers’ Conference. At UAB, he is on faculty at the annual Ada Long Creative Writers’ Workshop for high school students. Also for UAB, Adam has been the editor of Birmingham Poetry Review (BPR) since 2011. In 2012, Adam was among the featured debut poets in Poets and Writers, and was granted the Individual Artist Fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts (ASCA) the following year. His collection of poetry entitled The Coal Life was nominated for The Poet’s Prize in 2014. He also published a collaborative collection of poetry with Allen Jih entitled According to Discretion. Most recently, Adam was awarded the William Alexander II & Lisa Percy Fellowship at the Rivendell Writers’ Colony in Sewanee for a residency in spring 2017. 

Adam’s current project is a collection of ekphrastic poems inspired by his love of visual art. These poems will center on the fascinating interactions between people and the art they observe at museums. Some of these have recently been published in  32 PoemsGulf Coast, and The Southwest Review, among others.

 

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You can learn more about ASPS contests, workshops, and meetings on the ASPS Facebook page

Alina Stefanescu