News & Updates
During a week of visiting family in New Mexico, I also spent a lovely day visiting the Santa Fe Community College campus where, sponsored by the writer Kate Mccahill (author of the forthcoming travel memoir, Patagonian Road), I visited the fiction class of Russell Whiting. Russ and his students and I engaged in a lively conversation on just about everything literary under the sun.
Later, over a pot luck lunch, I met further with the student editors of Santa Fe Literary Review and Kate, the magazine’s editor. Their latest issue is a stunner, and worth seeking out.
It’s finally available: the Ninth Letter special web issue devoted to the Sun Yat-sen University International Writers’ Residency. In the fall of 2015 I was one of fourteen writers invited to participate in a month-long writing residency, by Fan Dai, the director of SYSU’s Center for English-language Creative Writing (the only center of its kind in China). I was so impressed by the residency that I decided to curate and edit a special web issue devoted to the fiction, nonfiction and poetry of my fellow participating writers.
The result is “Opening the River Up to the Sky,” a web magazine featuring writers from Egypt, Mexico, Belgium, Australia, New Zealand, England, the Philippines, Canada, India, China and the United States. One of these writers, Madeleine Thien, has a new novel that is short-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize. I could go on and on about the excellence of the work here, by all the writers, but why not just click this link and see for yourself?
And not to forget: the Art & Design staff of Ninth Letter, who created an extraordinary platform for this web magazine. Many thanks!
The above illustration (from the web issue) is by Ricardo de Ungria, Filipino poet and artist, and fellow residency participant.
As I mentioned earlier on this News & Updates page, I’ve recently retired from the University of Illinois, after 31 years of teaching and service in the Creative Writing program (and now I have a snappy new title: Professor Emeritus). Now that my wife Alma has retired as well, we have moved to the beautiful and history-soaked state of Rhode Island. Though our parallel careers at Illinois were more than rewarding, the call of water was too much to resist. Now we live a mere three minute walk from this park facing Narragansett Bay (click for more exquisite detail!):
We’re still in the process of unpacking and settling in, but Alma and I have detailed plans for the years ahead. She’ll continue her anthropological research with Cape Verdeans in the New England region (and elsewhere) and continue work on two book projects about that research. Me, I’ll be finishing off four fiction and nonfiction book projects (that are each begging for their final nudges) and beginning a fifth, new book as well. I’ll also be continuing as an editor of Ninth Letter–as an Editor-at-Large, publishing interesting innovative work on the magazine’s website (I already have a batch of writers lined up for summer and fall). So, not so much retirement, but, as Alma and I like to say, rewirement.
I’ve recently made two short appearances on the web with my fiction. The first is a very kind and appreciative podcast about my short story “Light Bulbs,” by the writer Amy Hassinger. You can listen here.
And I give a short reading from my novel in progress, Invisible Country (one of those five books mentioned above), on the Smile Politely website’s literary podcast. Here I read from the first few pages of a chapter titled “Rewind.” I come in at the 22:29 mark.
This May, Ninth Letter has rolled out another issue of fantastic writing and art. This time, we go for a stripped back look on the front and back covers (click for a best view), with the magazine’s name superimposed over the UPC scanning bar (or maybe it’s the other way around?). There’s no predicting what our inventive art & design staff will do next . . .
The magazine may be minimal on the outside, but it’s maximal on the inside, at least from my perspective as the fiction editor (and have I ever lied to you before?). This issue’s fiction, by a stellar cast of writers, leads off with “You and Your Healthy Libido,” by Chelsey Johnson, which traces, with sadness and grace, the widening cracks of a doomed love affair. Plus, penguins. Next is a marvelous short story by Michele Morano, “My Mother Was a Beauty Queen,” in which a young girl is taken by her mother on a seaside “vacation” that is not what it at first appears to be. We then follow up with two twisty, surprising stories by Roy Kesey, from his ongoing series of fictions based on small town newspaper police reports. Finally, David James Poissant gives us, with “The Story,” a strange and humorous tale of a romantic relationship between a story and a poem. My many thanks to all these writers for giving Ninth Letter the chance to feature their work, and to Nolan Grieve, who served ably as this issue’s assistant fiction editor.
I’m pleased to report that Jodi Paloni, one of my former advisees from the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program, has published her first book, a first-rate interrelated short story collection titled They Could Live with Themselves (published by the stalwart Press 53). At Fiction Writers Review I interview Jodi on the occasion of her book’s launch, and what a joy to hear her wax eloquent on the levels of meaning behind the title of her collection:
“I think about how in real life we all sort of fumble along, attempt to make sense of the tough stuff. We make mistakes, but we try to do the best we can. The title suggests a positive stance. Yes, we can learn to live with ourselves–our quirks and faults, the messes we’re dealt. We have to. Read in that way, there’s a redemptive quality. I’m a fan of at least the possibility for redemption in fiction.”
You can read the entire interview here.
Once again, I have served as the nonfiction judge for the Disquiet International Literary Conference’s literary awards. My choice this year was LaTanya McQueen, for her essay, “Before You Throw Her Body Down.” As I said in my comments in bestowing the award, “McQueen’s winning essay combines brutal history with a certain bruised tenderness in the present . . . This is an ambitious essay whose delicacy of technique packs a large emotional wallop.”
McQueen’s essay will be appearing on the Ninth Letter website this June.
The competition for this year’s award was particularly strong, and my congratulations go as well to the five finalists, Eugene DeSimone, Tessa Fontaine, Naima Karczmar, Lara Lillibridge, and Jim Rutland, for their excellent entries.
I’ve just returned from the 2016 Associated Writing Programs annual convention, held in Los Angeles. While there I served on a panel organized by my colleague, Christine Sneed: “Full-Residency, Low-Residency, Online: The MFA Student and Faculty Experience.” Though I drew on my experiences teaching at the University of Illinois for 30 years, as well as a decade of teaching in the Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA, it seems I had more to learn, as I listened to my excellent fellow panelists Patricia Grace King, Scott Blackwood, Brian Fierro, and of course Christine.
At the conference I also caught up with old friends like Leanne Howe and Patrick Madden, and, at a dinner with Michele Morano and a number of other writers, in an amazing coincidence I was reintroduced to Hope Edelman. In the middle of our conversation we realized that she had been a student in one of my classes way back in 1981! At the time, I was the Writer-In-Residence at the Finkelstein Memorial Library in Spring Valley, New York and just beginning my teaching career, and she was fourteen years old and taking her first ever creative writing course. In the years since, Edelman has gone on to write six highly regarded nonfiction books, including the bestseller Motherless Daughters. How unlikely, yet somehow fitting, that our paths should meet again after all these years . . .
Last fall I was invited by Sun Yat-sen University to participate in their month-long International Writers’ Residency, a gathering of 15 writers from around the world. We were given precious time to write, while also engaging with Chinese artists, writers and translators, and students. A magnificent time. Now SYSU has published online a long report on the residency, titled “A Celebration of the Sun Yat-sen University International Writers’ Residency.” In the photo below, Egyptian writer Khaled Al Khamissi and I point with amazement at the long landscape scroll presented to us by the 85 year-old painter Pan Yilu (second from the left).
Meanwhile, I’ve just finished curating a special web issue of Ninth Letter that will feature the work of my fellow writers in the residency, who hail from Egypt, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, China, the Philippines, Canada, Great Britain and the U.S. At the moment, the Ninth Letter art & design geniuses are at work on putting it together. More on this later . . .
As the seconds passed from December 31, 2015 to January 1, 2016, my retirement from the University of Illinois became official. After nearly 31 years of service, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the moment was bittersweet. So many colleagues and students I’ve valued over the years, so much support from a university that helped me sustain my writing career. Still, the setting for this fraught moment wasn’t so bad: a public square beside the Danube River in Budapest, with fireworks blazing overhead.
After we’d visited with our daughter Hannah in Oxford (where she’s studying art history for her junior year abroad), and took a jaunt to London to give a reading from our book Braided Worlds at University College London, Alma and I then travelled to Budapest (along with Hannah) as a little side trip. It seemed just right for us to visit a city we’d never been to before, to celebrate a moment of transition in our lives (Alma will follow me in retirement this May), especially a city that is a combination of two cities, Buda and Pest, divided by the Danube River and joined by the many bridges that span the river. Here Alma and I pause on the Chain Bridge, coming from somewhere we’ve been and on our way to somewhere else . . .
Many hours later, January 1st became an even more important day for our family when a second grandchild, Mona Ruth Graham, was born that evening, in Albuquerque! This adorable little bundle, plus parents Emily and Nathaniel, and her brother Dean, are all doing fine.
So, in one day, the beginning of life for our newest family member, and the beginning of a new stage in my life. The universe reveals itself in mysterious ways.