News & Updates

The recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, perpetrated by a despicable band of unapologetic neo-Nazis and white supremacists, stunned me not only as an American citizen but also as someone who lived in that lovely town for four years. While my wife Alma worked towards her Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of Virginia, I began my teaching career (in the Virginia Poets-in-the-Schools program) and started publishing my work (prose poems and my earliest forays into fiction). A formative time for us, and the founding of many long-standing friendships. The shock of seeing streets we’d often walked along and loved, as well as the quad of the university, filled with hate-besotted fools, has made us even more determined, as proud members of the Indivisible resistance movement, to fight the evil that is the Trump administration.

So, anger, yes, but also desire for community and solidarity, and we attended a vigil for the victims among the Charlottesville counter-demonstrators, at the grounds of the Rhode Island State House. A huge crowd showed up, a good sign that all is not lost in this country.

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This June I attended the NonfictioNow conference, held in Reykjavik, Iceland, a beautiful city of brightly-painted buildings, bordered by sea and mountains.

Reykjavik

While there I served on a panel, “Standing Apart, Being Involved: Writing the Foreign and Unfamiliar,” with the writers Natalie Bakopoulos, Jeremy Chamberlain, V.V. Ganeshananthan and Joanna Eleftheriou. As if often the case, I was humbled by the thoughtful artistry of my fellow panelists.

I also attended a large number of first-rate presentations over the course of the conference. As I was there with an eye towards finding work for Ninth Letter, I wasn’t disappointed. Already, one of the impressive writers I encountered, Desirae Matherly, has a feature on the magazine’s website, titled “Solo.”

My wife Alma accompanied me, and before and after the conference we took the opportunity to explore with a rental car the otherworldly landscapes of the Icelandic countryside, from the black sand beaches of Vik,

Black sand beach

to the blueish-white mineral waters south of Reykjavik,

Blueish-white Icelandic water

to the immense waterfall of Gulfoss, which pours into a valley created by receding tectonic plates.

Gulfoss

I have long been an admirer of medieval Icelandic sagas, particularly Njal’s Saga, and to visit some of the places where those characters played out their often ill-fated dramas–a thousand years ago–turned waterfalls, rocky crevices, cold rivers and grassy plains into ghost-soaked landscapes. Who knew I would ever cross the Markar river, where Skarphedinn once skated on the frozen water and split the odious Thrain’s head in two with an ax?

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Immediately following the NonfictioNow conference, I continued on to Bulgaria, for the Sozopol Creative Nonfiction Literary Seminar, supported by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation. During the five days that the conference was set in Sozopol, on the shores of the Black Sea, I gave a reading from my memoir of Africa, Braided Worlds, and I taught the nonfiction class, a workshop of five stellar students: Kate Angus, Akwaeke Emezi, Chris Fenton, Evan James, and Jaclyn Moyer.

The Black Sea, by the way, wasn’t black at all, but a brilliant turquoise, due to an unusually large algae bloom.

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The Sozopol Seminars included a pretty spectacular line-up of fellow writers, including Philip Gourevitch, Elif Batuman, Ladette Randolph, Elizabeth Kostova, and Benjamin Moser, and the Bulgarian writers Nikolai Grozni, Ivayla Alexandrova, Dimeter Kenarov and Marin Bodakov. The literary panels, especially, served as an engaged meeting place between two cultures and literary traditions.

Sozopol panel

The seminars continued back in the capitol, Sofia, whose public buildings and churches are a distinctive mix of East and West.

Sofia, Bulgaria

In Sofia I served on two additional literary panels, and happily attended the public reading of the students in my nonfiction workshop.The conference ended all too soon, but I’m pleased to be able to say that I’ll be continuing the spirit of cultural engagement with a future Ninth Letter mini-anthology of Bulgarian writers.

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I’ve recently published an essay, at the literary website The Millions, on the possible reasons why the Nobel Literature Prize committee decided to bestow the 2016 prize on Bob Dylan. Titled “Stuck Inside of Stockholm with the Nobel Blues Again,” I guess that the committee wanted to finally honor the literary genre of songwriting (a collaborative art form that bears many resemblances to playwriting, a genre that has been honored with a Nobel fourteen times already). If so, then songwriter Bob Dylan is the obvious choice, for numerous reasons.

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You can read the essay here.

And if you like that, then follow the link at the bottom of the essay to a craft post on this website, where I take a close look, accompanied by a super-cool music video, at a single song of Dylan’s: “Cold Irons Bound.”

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Once again, I’ve served as the judge for the Disquiet International Literary conference’s nonfiction prize. This year’s prize goes to Ru Freeman, for “Memory, Loss,” an essay about living one’s adolescence during a time of terror in Sri Lanka. As nerve-racking as this essay can be, it is also marked by an deft, self-deprecating humor. Ninth Letter will happily be publishing her essay on our Featured Writer/Artist webpage in June.

And congratulations to the five finalists, impressive writers all: Caroline Bremford, Willie David, Yoshiko Iwai, Damian Johansson, and Cadre Scott-Flaherty.

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This year’s Associated Writing Programs conference was held in Washington D.C., and so of course we all had to march on the White House for a good, full-throated protest. I couldn’t help but take this photo of a White House sequestered behind wire fencing–an all-too-apt sign that says it all about the worldview of this revolting administration.

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Oh yeah, AWP. There were lots of fantastic panels to attend, of course, tons of friends to meet and break bread with at any number of worthy restaurants in the DC area. I also greatly enjoyed being on a panel led by the writer Michele Morano, “Surviving the End Times: Finishing a First, Second, or Fifth Book,” and sharing the stage with Michele, Dinty Moore, Sarah Dohrmann, and Kathleen Rooney.

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These post-election times have been tough, what with the presidency being defiled by an Abominable Man-Baby. But also invigorating, once I discovered the Indivisible protest group. Now I spend a good bit of time calling my two senators and representative, or visiting their offices (easy to do, in tiny Rhode Island), or attending town halls, or marching, marching.

In January, my wife Alma and I attended the PEN America Writers Resist public reading on the steps of the New York Public library, and then marched on nearby Trump Tower. You can see behatted-me here, chanting some political slogan, right behind the middle of the large PEN banner. Shouting never felt so good.

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Alma and I also attended the raucous town hall in Providence, Rhode Island, where Senator Sheldon Whitehouse was given an earful from his constituents, furious about the Trump debacle and demanding resistance on every level from Democrats. The crowd was so large, Senator Whitehouse had to take the town hall outside. There, he was presented with a list of Trump cabinet nominees, and we demanded he go down the list and tell us how he intended to vote. He promised a No vote on them all, and he has kept his promise. I stood so close to the senator that I could practically read the list along with him.

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This was the first angry town hall in the country, just one week after the inauguration and the nation-wide Women’s March, and so it received lots of national attention. So many angry town halls have followed, across the country, stiffening Democratic spines and weakening Republican ones.

If you haven’t joined Indivisible yet, consider visiting their website and getting involved. It’s a much better way to spend your time than crying in your beer.

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If the above sounds like I have a lot of time on my hands, you’re right. I’m retired. Or rewired, as I like to say. Besides all this protesting, I’m also chipping away at completing four books-in-progress, and I’ve added a fifth book project to the mix: I’m helping two scholars of Cape Verdean culture, Carlos Almeida and Isabel Rodrigues, with their translation of the classic Cape Verdean novel, Chiquinho, by Balthasar Lopes.

And once a week I volunteer at a soup kitchen in Providence, at All Saints Memorial Church. Though I am the family cook, I’ve never had to prepare meals for 100-250 people. Working with accomplished chefs at All Saints, I’ve learned a lot about cooking. And I’m also learning about the plight of the homeless in my adopted state.

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As I mentioned below, I’m continuing as an Editor-at-Large for Ninth Letter, in charge of the monthly Featured Writer/Artist webpage, and so far this year we’ve presented a stellar group.

In January, we featured a collaboration between the writer Xu Xi and the photographer David Clarke, “Visitor,” which is part of their extended project of visual and literary co-inspiration, Interruptions.

In February, we published a moving sequence of six autobiographical poems by the poet and memoirist Richard Hoffman, from his new book of poems, Noon until Night.

And in March, we offer a stunning combination of memoir and computer-generated novel text, “Our Arrival,” by the writer Allison Parrish.

In future months we’ll be featuring exciting work by Chika Unigwe and Ru Freeman, among others . . .

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The new issue of Ninth Letter has arrived, and for me, it is a special, bittersweet moment, as it’s the last printed issue of Ninth Letter I’ll be involved with as an editor. I’ve retired from the University of Illinois and now live in Rhode Island (though I do continue as an Editor-at-Large for Ninth Letter‘s monthly Featured Writer/Artist webpage).

With this new issue (volume 13, #2, Fall 2016/winter 2017), we once again have a minimalist exterior

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and a maximalist interior.

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The issue comes shrink-wrapped, and includes a complementary Ninth Letter pencil.

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Why this writing utensil? Well, the issue is rather interactive (including a quiz at the end), so you’ll need that pencil. More than that I do not wish to say.

I’m quite proud of the excellent fiction line-up that I, as the Fiction Editor, my assistant editor Caitlin McGuire, and the various hard-working assistant editors have come up with. “Porcupines in Trees,” by Abby Geni, powerfully connects mental despair with the appearance of a kind of spirit animal; “Why I Write,” by the national treasure Eric Kraft, takes us through a bout of writer’s block and a harrowing/hilarious encounter with the DMV. Sommer Schafer, with her story “The Great Unraveling,” reveals a woman’s unsettling physical changes after her baby is born. In “True Love Game,” by Brenda Peynado, Gaby and Rosario play the ‘true love game’ while surrounded by a group of interested ghosts. “Museum of Menarche,” by Laura Maylene Walter, takes us through what becomes a not-so-usual party celebrating a girl’s first period, at a museum dedicated to everything menstrual.

And congrats to Megan Cummins for her Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction for her story “The Beast,’ also featured in this issue.

Finally, a thanks to everyone who has been associated with Ninth Letter these past thirteen years, especially to main editor and resident mastermind Jodee Stanley. I like to brag that I am a co-founder of this literary/arts magazine, and while that is true, Ninth Letter has been and continues to be a product of a continuing and revolving group of dedicated and wildly-talented talented editors and designers. Long may the magazine flourish!

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News & Updates 2016

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