Alabama Writers Conclave


What’s happening in the Alabama writing world…

Alabama Writers: A snapshot of what AWC members have been doing in 2019.

It is simply impossible to list all the amazing things that AWC writers have accomplished this year—it would take a paid staff member in order to do the value, breadth, and diversity of these marvels justice. What follows is just a tiny snapshot that we hope you share and celebrate and encourage as part of Alabama’s growing writing community that seeks to both include and represent the diversity of this state.

AWC doesn’t believe that prizes or reviews determine the value of a writer’s work. We believe, instead, that the writing itself seeks to find an audience for whom it is both meaningful and significant. We support Alabama writers at all ages and stages of their development. As a result, we make an attempt to provide space for the writers who aren’t getting covered by local newspapers, the writers who lack publicists, the writers who are truly outside an academic community or a network of gatekeepers. There is no one-size-fits-all here—and most writers would be horrified to live in a world where one size diminished beauty by narrowing it.

Poet Jacqueline Trimble speaking to Don Noble on Alabama Public Television.

Poet Jacqueline Trimble speaking to Don Noble on Alabama Public Television.

A snapshot of happenings

After growing beneath the wing of AWC, the MAGIC CITY POETRY FESTIVAL stretched into its own and became a 501c3 nonprofit this year. We are thrilled that this celebration of Birmingham poets has become a permanent fixture of Alabama’s literary landscape thanks to the vision and persistence of its Executive Director, Ashley M. Jones.

SUE BRANNAN WALKER’S fascinating poetry collection, Let Us Imagine Her Name, earns a thoughtful review from Frederick W. Bassett.

Two of MYSTI MILWEE’s English poems "Waiting for a Lovely Soul" and "The Path of Life" were translated into Hindi and published in the newspaper News Folder in New Delhi, India.

The first recipient of AWC’s Jane Rascoe Honorary Membership Fellow (sponsored by her spouse Wayne Rascoe) was awarded to Birmingham poet, JESSICA SMITH. Soon after this award, Jessica Smith went on to win the 2019 Betty Jane Abrahams Memorial Prize from the Academy of American Poets for her poem, “Daybooks May 3 2013”. We are so proud of this poet.

BOB MCCOUGH’S “Books, Beards, Booze” podcast is available for free streaming online. A great source for Alabama’s steampunk literature community.

Poet JACQUELINE TRIMBLE is writing for the first South African online soap opera in Afrikaans. Theshow, Die Testament, airs on September 2, and American Happiness, Jackie’s collection of poetry, is as poignant as it is lyrical.

ADAM DAVIS continues to combine faith and hope in his devotionals, this time partnering with the one and only Lt. Colonel David Grossman to make Bulletproof Marriage, a devotional for the times.

In the works

Next week, the newly-formed AWC Committee for Education will be meeting at Claire Datnow’s home in Hoover to begin planning a series of free writing workshops that enable local writers to share their skills with the community.

As for what’s coming….. is it too much to say everything? Not to mention the availability of the Awarded Writers Collection in print and ready for online purchase.

Take a peek at the Calendar or visit the AWC Facebook Page to catch up on what’s coming soon.

Alina Stefanescu
AWC and AWF: Partners in Alabama's Literary Community

AWC Helps Alabama Writers’ Forum Celebrate Its 25 Years of Programming by Partnering to Sponsor Youth Writing Workshop


The AWC board is pleased to announce its support of the Alabama Writers’ Forum’s 25thAnniversary celebration, which will take place at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in downtown Birmingham on Sunday, September 22.

The AWC will be a sponsoring patron of the event, with its financial support ($500) underwriting a youth writing workshop led by the day’s featured guest, bestselling novelist and 2019 Harper Lee Award-winner Daniel Wallace.

Following the workshop, which will benefit students from the Alabama School of Fine Arts and several other schools in Jefferson County and the city of Birmingham, Wallace will give a public reading of his work in the Dorothy Jemison Day Theater on the ASFA campus starting at 2 p.m.

Tickets for the 2 p.m. reading are available to AWC members at the Forum’s member rate of $30; two lucky AWC members will receive VIP tickets by drawing. VIP tickets include premium seating and a signed limited edition print of a Daniel Wallace original drawing.

All proceeds go to supporting the Forum’s much-needed literary arts programming, including its Writing Our Stories program, which brings high-quality, year-long creative writing instruction to Alabama schools and juvenile justice facilities where such creative opportunities would otherwise be unavailable.

To purchase tickets, visit Eventbrite at

No purchase is necessary to enter the AWC drawing for VIP tickets; simply email AWC board member TJ Beitelman at to enter.   

Alina Stefanescu
2019 AWC Conference Faculty: Meet Alabama playwright, C. Stefan Morrisette.
Chase Morrisette.jpeg

Chase Stefan Morrisette (playwright) was raised in Elberta, AL, where he spent most of his childhood using his imagination to form stories and create characters. From there, he developed an interest for live theatre – the act of becoming characters / storytellers. 

After graduating high school, Morrisette moved to New York attending The American Musical and Dramatic Academy, receiving his training in musical theatre. He continued his theatrical career focusing on costume design and set design, taking internships in costume houses and later designing for Off-Broadway before his focus went back to his writing. 

In late 2009 / early 2010 he began working on the first draft of what would later become Magnolia or The House at the Head of the River after being inspired by a trip down the Magnolia River in Magnolia Springs, AL, and classic southern dramas such as Fried Green Tomatoes and The Devine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. The play, Magnolia, made its world premiere in March 2019 and enjoyed an encore production in July. 

Morrisette later collaborated on libretto for the indie musical The Journey: The Story of Your Life. The Journey had its initial reading in Gulf Shores, AL, before being performed in Boca Raton and Miami, FL, and participating in the New Orleans’ Fringe Festival before being workshopped in New York. His other works include Places!, a new backstage comedy, and The Misadventure of Tanko Mankie. Places! had its first staged reading in May 2018 at South Baldwin Community Theatre and will have its premiere January 2020.

You can learn from Chase Stefan Morissette’s experience and talent at the AWC Annual Conference in November 2019, where he will offer a workshop on playwriting at 8:00 am on Saturday morning.

Alina Stefanescu
Blood and Breath: Tina Mozelle Braziel's "Known By Salt".
Image source: Green Bucket Press

Image source: Green Bucket Press

by Lana K. Austin

WARNING: I’m a subjective reviewer. Not because I know and like Tina Mozelle Braziel, though, yes, I do know and like her. But she is a relatively new friend, so that’s not the basis of my bias. I’m inherently subjective because the poems in Known by Salt thrum inside me with a pulsing sense of truth that make them seem as if I have lived every single one of the stories conveyed. And this truth is, despite the sometimes difficult nature of it, intensely beautiful. Compellingly beautiful. This is the kind of truth that, like the salt that becomes one of the motifs in the book, not only flavors things, but is as necessary an element in our lives as blood, as breath. With such necessary truth coursing through it, Known by Salt will make every reader feel subjective, feel as if the book speaks directly to them, and no greater compliment can be given to a book.

But how does Braziel accomplish this? One way is through imagistic prowess, not just that she wields words so deftly, but that she sees so clearly. There are things that everyone else might walk right past and view as ordinary (a trailer, a house under construction, objects in the natural world), but Braziel relishes them, picks them up in her hand (or in her mind, or in her heart, or usually in all three concurrently), and turns them over and over and as she peers deeply into their every crevice to see each hidden facet. She then describes what she sees magnificently.  She bears witness with words.

Many of the things Braziel sees “talk to each other.” Themes emerge. Repeated motifs snake their way through the entire book like the bodies of water that populate the poems, motifs we hear sung again and again, familiar tunes we long to sing repeatedly like all great songs: salt, water, nature, the body.

From the first poem we can immediately ascertain that as we sojourn with Braziel we’re going to see things anew. The trailers, like those described in later poems, mentioned in “Homemaking Along Lay Lake” proffer loveliness beyond the banal Jerry Springer cliché, and, dare I say, they provide epiphany, with their “dahlia bulbs” that “need to be dug and spread”, and “cucumber and squash/that bridge well beyond their beds,” “throng of willow flies”  and “drift of blossoms.”

And the water. Oh, the water that ebbs and flows and rises and recedes and rises again in Known by Salt. In “On Lay Lake,” Braziel summons us back to the beginning of everything, beckons us to sing a primal song, to crawl back into the womb with, “Like a daughter who has not forgotten/ the world of her mother’s body, I know this lake, the springs/ veining her with cold, each splash/ an attempt to get outside herself.”

Then there is the body. A body. The speaker’s body. My body. Every body. Our corporeal selves are rendered astutely in Known by Salt.  We go literally to the pores in “To Season,” with the utterly marvelous lines, “Now praise us, salt (you mineral),/ sing of grit, hum as you rise from our pores.” And the body continues to come alive in “Allure”:

  1. Suede

Nude before the mirror, she scrutinizes
her sapling legs and the ant-bite swell of breasts.

She fingers the gold sequined thong,
then steps into it the way she’d cross a low wall.

Sliding into heels, she grasps her hips.
Sashay, she thinks, sashay

like the harried Bugs Bunny sways
until Elmer Fudd goes walleyed.

The suede bra tsk-tsks shut
between her breasts.

That’s just an excerpt from that poem, but you can hear that suede bra tsk-tsk, can’t you?  You can feel your body want to sashay, too, can’t you?

There is most certainly a kind of culmination of themes towards the end of the book where we see all that’s come before coalesce. The salt, the body, the water, all of it either directly referenced or implied, all the motifs of Known by Salt, are humming in every poem in the final section, but especially in those that feature building a house, building a home, building a heart, for surely it’s all three magically blending. The “Rivering” described is very much alive and necessary like all of Braziel’s poems… necessary like blood, like breath:


When you say you will build me a river,
you sink a shovel and level planks.

I know you, your apron of nails,
the drill bits you leave scattered

around the house and yard.
Their ends are shaped like tiny daisies.

A river, you say, will make me happy
forever. And I think of our first day.

You spread my quilt in the sun.
I told you then it is all water:

the hill is wave; the field, a low pond
You said I see that now.

And now I know rivers.
How they gully, smooth rock

to stone, slick mud.
How they bed by lying down.

Source: WBRC 6

Source: WBRC 6

Explore more of Tina’s poetry (as well as that of her salt sister Ashley M. Jones) in this excellent interview by WBRC.

Alina Stefanescu
Apply for the Desert Island Supply Co. Fellowship!
desert island suuply co.png

The Desert Island Supply Co. is accepting applications for Fellows who will contribute to DISCO’s mission and operations during the 2019-20 academic year.  

The Desert Island Supply Co. is a nonprofit creative writing and arts center for students aged 6 to 18 in Birmingham. Our mission is to work alongside students as they develop  the creative tools they need to explore and document their worlds.

We lead weekly workshops in schools, and we offer after-school programs that are free for all kids in the Birmingham area. Our explorer-themed headquarters in Woodlawn also serves as a hub for creative community projects and events.

Fellowship Overview

We are looking for undergrad/graduate/recently graduated students who are passionate about creative arts, education, and design. Fellows assist in our in-school and after-school workshops, support the day-to-day administrative functions of the organization, and help to host readings and events at our space in Woodlawn during the semester. Fellows gain valuable experience in a dynamic teaching environment and see the inner workings of a growing nonprofit.

General requirements

  • Commitment to a set schedule of at least 6 hours a week

  • Enthusiasm for literature and creative arts

  • Excellent written and verbal communication skills

  • Attention to detail and high level of organization

  • Experience working with children is desirable

  • Completion of Fellowship Project that brings students and/or community members together in creative ways

Fellowship Benefits

  • End-of-semester stipend

  • Learn how nonprofit organizations work

  • Develop public speaking and presentational skills

  • Foster meaningful relationships with students and coworkers

  • Work with creative people at one of Birmingham’s best nonprofit organizations

  • Get experience in program planning, product design, and retail

  • Fellowship hours may be eligible for class credit

Interested applicants should send a cover letter, resume and the contact info for two references by Friday, May 18.

Brian Connell

Executive Director

Desert Island Supply Co.

Alina Stefanescu
The Little Nature Trail That Keeps On Giving: Thoughts from Claire Datnow

We are proud to feature a member column from AWC writer and media maven, Claire Datnow who shares her thoughts about the work being done to restore the nature trail and outdoor classroom she created with students back in the 1990s.

Claire is thrilled that the trail is being restored. She notes that this first ecology class became the inspiration for her eco-mystery series The Adventures of the Sizzling Six. Star Bright Books has acquired the series and will be republishing it, beginning with Monarch Mysteries this fall.

Also, don’t miss this “At This Alabama School, the Birds Belong to Everyone” by Katherine Webb-Henn, which offers more visuals as well as the video shared below.

“The Little Nature Trail That Keeps on Giving” by Claire Datnow

On this chilly winter morning, I get the odd sensation that I’ve entered a time warp. No, I am not in The Rocky Horror Show. I’m on the grounds of W. E. Putnam Middle School with a trash bag and clippers in hand. You see, way back in the 1990s my dedicated middle school students and I began building a nature trail and outdoor classroom. We never imagined that two decades later it would be blossoming anew.

Under the auspices Principal Terrell Brown, Ansel Payne, executive director of the Birmingham Audubon Society, and the Jones Valley Teaching Farm the trail is being cleared of invasive Chinese private to create a nature sanctuary for Brown nut hatches, and a place for teachers to integrate nature into the curriculum for all students.

Janina Metro, my student in the Gifted and Talented program at Putnam between 1998-2000, penned this letter to me:

I remember when we started working on the Panther Paw Nature Trail. At first, I was excited to get out of the school building for any reason, but soon fell in love with being in the woods and learning about the plants and animals that we saw. I remember the invasive species Mrs. Datnow pointed out . . .. This was my first introduction to the importance of native plant species on the continuing existence of native wildlife …Even now, as I hike and backpack with my own four children, I think fondly of the time as I point out the mayapple, trillium, the liverwort, and other plants . . . I often walked over to the trail with my best friend, who was part of the project, after school and on weekends . . . It was a wonderful place . . . to be free of our troubles and worries. The peace we found there has inspired me to teach my children about our world and how to preserve what we have been given, and to become wise stewards of nature.

The restoration project, slated to continue next fall, comes at a time when Birmingham activists are spearheading a new era of environmental justice to address decades of racial disparities and offer a better vision for the city’s youth.

I am thrilled to see this trail and the school grounds taking shape, and to be a small part of this exciting outreach.

Claire at Putnam Work Day Reminiscing over the Scrapbook Documenting the Opening of the Panther Paw Nature Trail

Claire at Putnam Work Day Reminiscing over the Scrapbook Documenting the Opening of the Panther Paw Nature Trail

Claire with Gayle Flowers (former Putnam teacher) and Mayor Randall Woodfin (former Putnam student)

Claire with Gayle Flowers (former Putnam teacher) and Mayor Randall Woodfin (former Putnam student)

Claire’s Eco-fiction for middle schoolers provides a counter-narrative in which girl heroines are driven by eco-fascination and the desire to preserve something they love.
— Alina Stefanescu, Claire's avid fan

Claire Datnow is the author of a series of eco-mysteries for 4-8 graders, The Adventures of The Sizzling Six, which reflects her passion and awe for the natural world. She wanted me to mention the wonderful way in which AWC impacted her life by connecting us.

After attending Claire’s workshop on “Eco-Fiction” at AWC, I was inspired to share her writing with my students and family in Tuscaloosa. Claire came and spoke to my middle school class at the Tuscaloosa Magnet School, and I was thrilled to offer each student their own copy of Claire’s eco-mysteries. At the time, I was blogging about the state, and Claire was thrilled when I shared her amazing educational resources with others.

Alina Stefanescu
A conversation with David Hornbuckle about Alabama meteors and his new novel.

A synopsis of The Fireball Brothers by David Hornbuckle, published by AWC’s beloved Livingston Press:

In 1959, two teenage brothers in rural Alabama are swimming in a pond when a fireball falls from the sky and lands in the water near them. When they come out, they are fused together, but nobody can figure out the cause. A doctor in New Orleans claims he can help them. To raise money for the surgery, they travel throughout the Southeast playing music. A wily reporter from Tupelo named Munford Coldwater follows their story as they meet snake oil salesmen and carnival barkers who try to take advantage of them. Filled with atmospheric music and setting, this novel mixes love, family, race, and political intrigue.

AS: Welcome David. Let’s talk about the synergy between local history and fiction. You mention that part of the story is rooted in the experience of Billy Field, a beloved Tuscaloosa film-maker. How did you work that into the story? 

DH: I learned about the Sylacauga meteorite after I'd already written a good chunk of the book. Here I was writing a story about a fireball that falls out of the sky and changes the lives of this family, and I find out that a woman in Sylacauga named Ann Hodges was actually struck by a meteorite just a few years before the time when my story takes place. She is actually the only person to be physically hit by an object falling from space, and it happened in Alabama. It seemed like I couldn't really tell the story without at least acknowledging it.

I talked to Billy when I found out he'd made a documentary about the incident in Sylacauga However, that's HIS story, so I didn't work it into my book as much as I could have. He actually has a copywrite (or whatever the proper legal term for ownership of this sort of thing is) on the story of the family that happened to. In the final draft, I actually removed a couple of references to the Hodges meteorite incident because I didn't want to overstep my bounds there. 

AS: Would you consider this to be a science fiction book?

DH: That wasn't my intention, but if people like sci-fi, they might like it. Some of the earliest books I read were by authors like Ray Bradbury, but as a teenager I became interested in writers who use elements of sci-fi in the service of something... else. Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind, or even some of Thomas Pynchon's work. I like what writers like Kelly Link are doing in bringing elements of fantasy and fairy tale in to stories that don't fit easily into a genre. And I guess that's what I was trying to do in this book--using elements of sci-fi and fantasy in a book that is really just about people, which to my mind is more of what gets called "literary fiction."

To the extent that this story is sci-fi, I think it comes more from my sense of surrealism than any real intention to do the kinds of things that science fiction often tries to do (i.e. warn/predict about dystopian futures, etc -- not that it's limited to that). Space ships and werewolves are my melting clocks.

AS. This is your first book in ten years. How does it relate to what you've done in the past, if at all?

DH: My previous full-length novel--Zen, Mississippi--also deals with issues of Southern identity. Fireball plays around with the idea of "space" and all the various ways that we use that word, and Zen, MS does something similar with the idea of time. So, in a way, this is my Time/Space series.

Munford Coldwater is a character in both novels, but Zen, MS is contemporary, so the character is older. Fireball takes place in 1959 when Munford is much younger.

My novella, The Salvation of Billy Wayne Carter, is about a second Civil War that is fought more on cultural grounds than political. The war is over things like what music you should listen to. In a way, it's a meditation on the concept of post-modernism and where we go from there. I wrote it when I was super young, and it shows, but there are some good parts I think.

AS. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me, David. In the spirit of sharing great writing on the southern scene, what three fiction stories by southern writers would you share?

DH. Tough to narrow down three short stories, but here are three recentish stories by writers I like: “Shiner” by James Braziel, “Mushroom Politique” by Adam Latham, and “When the Boys Went” by Heidi Espenscheid Nibbelink.


You can catch David Hornbuckle at his book release party in Birmingham, Alabama on April 20th, 2019. There will be free fiddle music, cocktails, fiction, and the best of Alabama.

M. David Hornbuckle lives in Birmingham, Alabama where he teaches English at the local university. Over the years, his career has included journalism, technical writing, and bee farming. He is also a musician, most known for his former bands PopCanon and the M. David Hornbuckle Dixieland Space Orchestra. In addition, Hornbuckle is the founding editor of Steel Toe Review: A Journal of Southern Arts and Literature. This is his third book.

Alina Stefanescu
The 2nd Annual Magic City Poetry Festival starts this week.

What do you do if you have a dream of a hosting a poetry festival in your hometown? If you’re Birmingham poet Ashley M. Jones, you make it happen.

AWC is proud to partner with Magic City Poetry Festival in support of the second annual poetry festival that celebrates poetry, art, and community in Birmingham, Alabama.

Birmingham’s magic is not the province of a few but the creation of many artists, writers, educators, nonprofits, and activists. Over the coming month, Alina Stefanescu will spotlight Birmingham poets and community partners in a series of “Love Letters”. You can read about MCPF’s love for DISCO, Church Street Coffee, and Real Life Poets and Freedom House.

Mark your calendars for the following events (and get details from the website):



Take a minute to explore the sponsors on the website and share with your friends. Or read the press release. And be part of this fabulous event that was incubated in by AWC Board Members.

Alina Stefanescu
Birmingham poet Jessica Smith talks about her new collection, "How to Know the Flowers."

ALINA: As the first AWC Awarded Member, I'd love to know a little about the soil that nourishes your poetry. I understand you have a new collection--and we'll get to that--but first tell us a little bit about your background, poetics, and previous collections. 

JESSICA: Well, I grew up here in Birmingham and both my grandmother (dad's mom) and grandfather (mom's dad) would buy me books of collected poems and read them to me; I'm not sure why. I remember my Paw-Paw bought me a book called First Poems of Minou Drouet at the Emmet O'Neal Library book sale (he loved library book sales) and told me she was my age when she wrote the poems. Although the truth of her authorship has been debated, reading her poems was probably one of the first things that affected my "ear" for the line in poetry. I was also fed some of the usual fare: Dickinson, Frost, the Romantics. I remember, with lightning clarity, the moment I read a poem by Alice Notley in a Scholastic Reader flier in 8th grade, "After Tsang Chih" (which is in her book Grave of Light). It was about being an adolescent girl, out of place in her environment, and seeing trucks go by in her desert-landscape home. This really appealed to my teenage feeling of being stuck in Alabama and wanting something more to happen in my life.

I was already devoted to poetry as a genre by that age, but I got obsessively devoted as high school ended, and I corresponded with Robert Creeley, who led me to study at the Poetics Program at SUNY Buffalo. This program isn't a creative writing program but a deep exploration of poetry and poetics, or the aesthetic theory of poetry; there, I studied under Creeley, Charles Bernstein, and Susan Howe, who shaped what I read and how I thought about it. I think my first book, Organic Furniture Cellar (Outside Voices 2006), really reflects these influences, as does the first half of my second book, Life-List (Chax Press 2015). All of those poems were written in the early 2000s, either during or right after my time in Buffalo. The second half of Life-List was written here in Alabama, more than ten years after the first half. By that time, 2013, I had come to terms with my need to write with "feeling."

The so-called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, a loose description of a group of poets that includes Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe, are often defined by the way they use language as a material rather than as a way of expressing feelings, although this definition is easily gutted upon any close inspection of works by poets like Ron Silliman or Lyn Hejinian. But I temporarily, for a few formative years of my writing life, felt that I couldn't write poems about my feelings. Once I broke through that self-imposed mandate, I became a better poet. Or perhaps it was the process of going from an emotional poet to a clinical poet to an emotional poet that made me a better poet. The resulting books, How to Know the Flowers (Veliz Books 2019) and The Daybooks (in process), are very emotional, but are also the most sophisticated use of form and style that I have achieved so far.

ALINA:. The way you describe a softening of form to make space for new "feeling" fascinates me. I love how you describe that motion in both your style and poetrics. When I read your poems or your pedagogies, I come away with the sense that you, among so many incredible Alabama poets, are perhaps one of the MOST deliberate and intentional in probing and adapting the relationship between form and poetics. Is this intentional? How does one part speak to the other? Why or why not?

JESSICA: I started writing the way that I currently do after I went to China when I was in high school. I wanted to write poems that could be read in any direction. My current poems cannot be read in *any* direction, but they do offer multiple directions. At about the same time in my life, I discovered the experimental music of John Cage, who also played with different forms in poetry, performance, art, and music, and I started corresponding with poet Robert Creeley, with whom I later studied at SUNY Buffalo's Poetics Program. Creeley famously said that form should be an extension of content, which is related to the earlier ideas among architects and artists that "form follows function."

In the Poetics Program, I was constantly challenged to understand and explain *why* I wrote the way that I did and to read many, many books of poetics and aesthetics. The way I write hasn't changed that much, but I have a wide background in poetics, aesthetics, and philosophy to explain "how things work"-- some of this can be read in my essay "The Plasticity of Poetry.”

I have always wanted-- since that trip to China-- to open up the form for multiple readings, because not everyone physically reads the same way. I have been interested in the way the words on the page seem to open a three-dimensional space in one's mind, which has been called variously "plastic" (like sculpture), "open field," and dance-like. One of my favorite responses to my poetry was a choreographed setting of some of the poems from my second book, Life-List. Brett Mastellar composed a soundtrack, the poems were projected on the wall, and Chelsea Warren and a group of dancers danced the poems. This seemed like an entirely appropriate "reading" of the poems.

ALINA: The poems in this book are so textured and palpable. If you had to pick ten words that voyaged with you while writing this book, what would they be?

JESSICA: Thanks! I tried to use as specific words as possible, partly to continue to teach my Wilderness Literature students about the world around them. My class with them was interrupted when I was fired; before that, we were out in the woods looking at, drawing, and writing about specific plants. So the words that drove the book were botanical names: indigo, coreopsis tincturia, catalpa, tulip poplar, azalea, marigold, mulberry, blackberry, retting, mordant. In my grief and in the feverish artistic mode that followed, I was mired in the botanical stuff of Birmingham. In that micro biome where one is physically in the dirt, among the leaves, getting one's hands dirty: in that meditative space close to the earth that gardeners know. The precise vocabulary of the nature near me and of the processes of dyeing helped bring the poems closer to that mental space where one is really pulled down into the subject.

ALINA: Speaking of subjects, there’s an elephant in the pixel-room. How does Alabama enter your poetry at all? And who are your favorite nonliving poets of place? Why?

JESSICA: My poetry, in How to Know the Flowers especially, is deeply tied to Alabama and the specific land of central Alabama in spring. I write about specific species that one encounters in the Alabama outdoors. I think if you are someone who is tied to the land-- a hiker, a gardner, a farmer, an artist-- these poems will deeply resonate with what you already know.

My second book, Life-List, ranges further geographically but also takes up specific species-- in its case, birds-- in each place. I want my poetry to not only be a record of what happened and who it happened to, but of where it happened and what non-human entities were there. So it's a biological, ecological record as well as a human record.

My very favorite "poet of place" is Lorine Niedecker, who is probably also my favorite poet in general. She was from Wisconsin and lived there most of her life. Her poems mention specific species that she saw around Fort Atkinson, WI. She writes in short lines and her rhythm is often like haiku, which is a form of Japanese poetry that is often also about nature. Of her poems, "Paean to Place" might be my favorite-- it's easily found online.

ALINA: I'd love to ask you to share a link to something you've published that's available online that you would enjoy sharing. At this moment in time. And, to round it out, a song that readers could listen to while reading your published piece, providing, in a sense, two readings, or two experiences of that piece--both guided somehow by you.

JESSICA: Since I've just mentioned Life-List, I'll share a link to these poems in Tarpaulin Sky which were later published in that book. As I said, Life-List is more about birds and How to Know the Flowers is more about botany, but they're both also about interpersonal relationships and memory.

As for music-- I listen to so much music it's hard to choose. People say that poetry is "like" music, and I'm not sure what they mean. I do know that poetry doesn't always have clear melodies, as contemporary experimental classical music and improvisational jazz do not. One of the first major influences on me-- on my poetry-- was John Cage, so his "Sonatas and Interludes" might be appropriate, or a colorful long piece by Morton Feldman, or an "organic"-feeling piece by Iannis Xenakis, or a piece that borrows from birdsong by Olivier Messiaen. I'll never get over Bach, or Brahms, or P.J. Harvey or Björk. I'll go with John Cage's "In a Landscape".

ALINA: Thank you so much for being present and writing through that presence, Jessica. I encourage fellow AWC members to click on the books below, and begin the adventure of reading you. After John Cage, of course.

Jessica Smith is the author of numerous chapbooks including Trauma Mouth (Dusie 2015) and The Lover is Absent (above/ground press, 2017) and three full-length books of poetry, Organic Furniture Cellar (Outside Voices 2006), Life-List (Chax Press 2015), and How to Know the Flowers (Veliz Books 2019). She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and teaches at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Alina Stefanescu
Writing as a form of international activism: An interview with Janet Johnson Anderson.

An Eye-opening Adventure into Nepal: An Interview with Janet Johnson Anderson about Avhi’s Flight.

“Having escaped a forced marriage, a girl’s difficult journey from the countryside of Nepal to Kathmandu sheds light on a suppressive culture, and discovery of purpose beyond self.”  That’s a unique storyline. How did you come up with a story that is in and about Nepal?

Though it’s a fictional story, it is based on facts I learned years ago when I served as a board member for Global Women. Our organization was at work in Nepal, Thailand, Moldova (the poorest European country) and other countries where sexual trafficking and enslavement is high. We helped support efforts to rescue and rehabilitate young women, and teach them job skills so they could become self-sufficient. Women in these regions already lack resources to combat poverty, injustice, and lack of educational opportunities, but often those who have escaped and returned home, are rejected by family and fellow villagers. I was touched by the stories I heard, and after meeting the owner of a sewing school called 777 Pokhara, I felt compelled to write a novel that could introduce American women, in particular, to the plight of women living in difficult places in the world. In my small way, I wanted to lend a voice to the many who are voiceless, who are abused, abducted, sold into brothels, sold into slavery, with little recourse.

That’s a large issue to take on. What do you hope your book can do?

It is a big issue. My story aligns with a central moral challenge of our time. When the Women’s March on Washington took place in January of 2016, I cried. I thought about the fact that no one is protesting or marching in the streets in Nepal for Nepal’s women and girls…and I decided that day to start writing this novel, to create a piece that I hoped could not be ignored. Because in Nepal there are not plentiful shelters, or food pantries. There are not lawyers working pro bono, and there are no authorities to turn to.

I know I am just one small voice, but I believe we are at a place in time when an understanding of such hardships might lead to change. I hope my book will further lines of communication, offer a springboard for discussion, and encourage more voices to rise up for those who remain voiceless in Nepal.

Are there other books like this story?

I don’t believe so. This is sort of an eye-opening adventure that is both beautiful and bittersweet. I don’t think any other book’s storyline weaves together the complex threads of one girl’s search for wholeness, the reckoning of lives left behind, and a culture’s disregard for its women. It’s sort of a fictional version of the nonfiction bestseller Half The Sky, except that my story is about one girl, not many girls from many different countries.

I believe there are not many, if any, novels about the societal underbelly of Nepal, a country known for great hospitality and “Namaste”.  I have the endorsement of The Women’s Foundation Nepal, which is at work tackling these issues by trying to raise awareness in their own country, and by trying to empower women with their rights. They wrote me that they were pleased about my book because it addresses some of the sad realities that accompany women and their children there on a daily basis. I don’t think they’ve endorsed any similar books.

So, only five sentences into your story, and your lead character has just killed a man?

Yes. That’s an exciting way to start a novel, isn’t it? We learn right away that fourteen-year-old Avhi Tharu has been promised to Mr. Singh in marriage, but instead, she clubs him in the head and flees with his ox and cart from the village. Women are not allowed to travel alone, so she is plagued right off the bat with some major decisions. Days later when she slips through a mountain pass and into the lives of some American travelers on their way to Pokhara and Kathmandu, she has more time to reflect upon her past choices, her village life, family and friends left behind, and the path for her future. I thought that would be fun to set most of that up on the opening page. People might want to read more.

Then how does your main character and the story speak to the world, if that’s your intent?

Well, Avhi represents many who come from the lowland Terai region or very poor countryside of Nepal. Americans and other foreigners regard Nepal as a peaceful country with a warm spirit. Hikers and mountain climbers yearn for the snow-capped Himalayan peaks. But most oppression in the world stems from poverty and lack of education. Nepal is no different. There is a tyranny of poverty, suppressed education, child marriage, slavery, sexual trafficking, and a caste system that subjugates women. Women and their daughters are deemed worthless, and there seems to be no cure. Many girls are sold or rented as indentured servants to pay a family’s debt. Girls have even been traded for an ox or a pig. Think about that. Girls in these poor regions have never been permitted to hope. We are all aware of many similar countries, where poor women are struggling, but there are no news headlines, no banners in the streets, no multitudes coming forth to stand in opposition or resistance. This story is one that many in the world can relate to, and those of us who are doing well in first-world countries should know about.

Your website says that your books reflect community and global needs. That they provide a voice for the voiceless, hoping to inspire other to lend a hand and heart in the world. What about your other books?

In June of 2011, I self-published a book of poetry as a fundraiser. I have children with special needs. After the April tornadoes, I wanted to help, but couldn’t go do clean-up with my children…not with noisy chainsaws. So, I thought as a writer, I could put together a book to sell and raise money to benefit those families affected by loss. I started writing in the dark by candlelight that April and by June I had a printer in Austin, TX, and a commitment from the owner of Books-A-Million to place my book in every store throughout the state of Alabama. Neither the store nor I took a penny, that way every bit of the $20 price tag went to victims. I printed 5,000 copies and we sold 3,000 netting $60,000 which was distributed through a few charities in North Alabama and the Birmingham area.

That book was quite the ordeal. It was hell every step of the way because in order to get a barcode and ISBN number, you have to be a publisher. So, I became a publishing house, Mirror Press, and then had to get a small business license and I knew nothing about starting a business, or a publishing business. The task to write, edit, print, distribute quickly and by myself, was daunting. BUT, it was also such a blessing to know the books were selling for two reasons. First, obviously, to raise funds for families in need.  But also, to lend a voice to these families about their loss and grief, and the feelings facing recovery. The media was strictly concerned about records…biggest storm, largest tornado since…numbers of deaths, length of destruction…numbers. No one was giving credence to the emotional toll. So, I was very pleased that we could raise money, but especially pleased that my words could offer comfort and a voice on behalf of, and for, those families suffering loss.

That book, by the way, is still available at my website:  I gave books to the hundreds of Army volunteers, to several churches whose buildings were completely destroyed, but obviously, I still have some left over. New and signed!

I have a novel coming out next summer that coincides with the 15th anniversary of Katrina and lends a voice to the despair New Orleans communities dealt with for years. It takes place four years after the storm, touches on black injustice amid two family sagas, corrupt politicians, and a murder investigation…just as Obama has made history as our first African-American president.  Ha. I do not like to simplify. Again, I hope to lend a voice to the families who were devastated for years and years after that disastrous hurricane.

When or how did you become a writer?

I became a writer the moment I lived alone as a young adult, and discovered there are not many you can call at 2 a.m. to talk with and work out life’s issues. The cat was good some of the time, but mostly, I needed to just pour myself out on paper to find some relief from my feelings and worries. I was a poet for decades. I am sixty now, so forty years ago…it was all poetry. It’s been all poetry up until about five years ago when I began writing my story The Ray of Hope about Katrina. I was regularly winning the AWC and ASPS poetry contests, contests in the Midwest and other areas of the South. I have been in forty literary journals, and won a couple hundred poetry awards. For nearly a decade, I was a regular contributing writer for The Upper Room’s Alive Now magazine, and spiritual journal Weavings. But all poetry. Avhi’s Flight is the second novel I’ve written, but the first one to be published.

Do you have anything else in the works?

I am currently trying to find a publisher for a children’s book I’ve written and illustrated about acceptance. I am also trying to find a publisher to do a fine arts book about my daughter’s paintings. The last few years I’ve been the marketing agent for my youngest daughter. She is 26 and has Down syndrome and autism. She is the South’s first artist with special needs to be given her own solo gallery art exhibit. She had a two-month exhibit in Huntsville, AL, and a three-month in Atlanta, GA, and we are on our way into several other Southern states. The cool thing, besides that she is breaking past barriers to make history, is that she has a voice. She is low-functioning…she cannot care for herself, she cannot read, write, or speak…until now. Painting has become her voice. And with recent national publicity, she is speaking to the entire country. So those events, her story and her work, and I hope soon…her book provides me a platform to address many societal issues regarding people with special needs, which again, allows me to speak up for those who don’t often get to speak up for themselves. I am trying to help the public get used to the notion that persons with special needs can do amazing things if they’re given the opportunity.  I hope her more than 200 paintings in the last two years can find a home with a publisher soon. Then, I guess I’ll go back to poetry for a while.

Besides writing, what is there to know about Janet?

Well, I am a Chicago girl. Born and raised along the North Shore about six blocks from Lake Michigan. Consequently, I love sailing, and cold weather. I have been in Huntsville thirty-four years, but I still miss the cold and snow. I played competitive racquetball for twenty-five years. Several years before children, allowed me the great opportunity to tour through most of Europe and the Mediterranean. I took up skydiving in college…the real thing, not this tandem stuff…the kind where you have to have days of training, practice arching as you fall, learn how to roll upon landing…all the scary stuff. I enjoyed a career in advertising and I love jazz. Jazz does for my ears what art does for my eyes…and it has been in the background egging me on when I write. I am a full-time caregiver for my youngest daughter, which means I am a night owl because I don’t get to start my own work until after most of the house has retired.  I became a member of AWC when I first moved south in 1984 (Yes, the year my Chicago Bears made it to the superbowl!) and have since, been a member on and off…when I can remember to renew my membership.

Janet Johnson Anderson

Janet Johnson Anderson

Janet Johnson Anderson was born and raised along Chicago’s North Shore.  She has been an advertising executive and public relations professional for more than 30 years.  She moved south in 1984, and is presently active as a free-lance writer and consultant to area businesses where she resides in Huntsville, Alabama. She is a public speaker and has taught poetry workshops within the Huntsville City School system to elementary, middle, and high school students.  She is a painter and literary writer as well, with more than 40 works in literary formats including Poetry Today, Piedmont Literary Review, Earthwise Publications, Dream Int’l Quarterly, Fine Arts Press, Winewood Women Anthology, The Poet, Crosscurrents, Backbone, American Poetry Anthology, Nimrod, Quill Books, The Beacon Review, Ordinary and Sacred as Blood: Alabama Women Speak. She was a regular contributing writer for both The Upper Room’s Alive Now magazine, and spiritual journal Weavings for more than a decade. Her 2011 book, After the Tornadoes, Reflections for Recovery, raised $60,000 for charities supporting storm victims in North Alabama and Birmingham.

Janet is both an advocate for the special needs population, and for women and girls worldwide where there is a lack of resources to combat poverty, trafficking, injustice, and lack of educational opportunities. She hopes her book, Avhi’s Flight, will encourage dialogue, and lend a voice to the many in Nepal who remain voiceless. Learn more from her website.

Alina Stefanescu