Virginia Butts Sturm Writer-in-Residence Valerie Boyd speaks on Hurston, Walker, and her love for research
On Monday, October 10th, Valerie Boyd, the 2016 Virginia Butts Sturm Writer-in-Residence, spoke about her writing and research process to a room of eager listeners in WVU’s Robinson Reading Room.
Boyd is the author of Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston and the forthcoming Spirits in the Dark: The Untold Story of Black Women in Hollywood. She spent the majority of the talk sharing her experience working on Wrapped in Rainbows in Sarasota, Florida, where Hurston wrote most of her books. Boyd read the opening pages of the book, telling the story of Hurston as a young child who wanted a horse so badly, she imagined one. Boyd made her own dreams a reality too when she embarked upon the journey of writing Wrapped in Rainbows after a previous biographer, Robert E. Hemenway, said at a festival that Hurston’s story needed to be written by a black woman.
While working on this book, Boyd had the opportunity to meet Alice Walker who agreed to blurb the Hurston biography. She then asked Boyd to work with her on her own project, compiling and editing Walker’s journals into a book which will be published next year entitled Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker. Boyd spoke with unabashed joy of the experience of wading through Walker’s journals. She read everything from Walker’s grocery lists to the handwritten opening to The Color Purple. When she asked Walker about depicting the darker moments of her life, Walker said, “A flawed humanity is the only kind of humanity I believe in.”
Boyd concluded the talk with a Q&A covering topics ranging from her note-taking process to her view on womanism and Black Lives Matter. She closed by returning again to the archives, telling us that it was there she learned what she wants to write about – simply, life, through other people’s eyes.
The Virginia Butts Sturm Writer-in-Residence leads a week-long workshop with selected graduate English students. The students selected for 2016 were:
Sarah Jordan Stout
Poet Heather Hartley returned to her alma mater Wednesday, October 5th, to read from her new collection, Adult Swim, and her 2010 collection, Knock Knock. She was introduced by first-year MFA student Jacob Block, who spoke of the humor and heart in her work.
Hartley grew up in Charleston, WV, and currently resides in Paris where she is Paris Editor for Tin House magazine. Her poetry took those of us in the room on a world tour from the Netherlands to Naples and, of course, to Paris. The poems read covered topics such as tennis shoes, drinking by a pool, loneliness in a foreign place, and even, in her final poem, “Syrenka,” pretending to be a mermaid during a job interview.
After the reading, Hartley participated in a lively Q&A session during which she advised the audience to keep a notebook with them at all times and discussed writing about the mundane. When asked, she listed her influences as Sylvia Plath, Dr. Seuss, and Baudelaire. An audience member noted that what she read aloud was not always precisely what was published in her book. She replied that editing is an ongoing process and described what she referred to as a “zut alors!” moment, when she realizes the poem is not done when she thought it was.
A line from Hartley’s poem, “Everything Tastes Better with Bacon” urges the reader to “take this beauty, take it.” We gladly took in the beauty Heather Hartley brought to WVU Wednesday night.
Photo: Kelsey Englert
On Thursday, September 22, Alysia Burton Steele visited WVU’s Media Innovation Center to give a guest lecture about the writing process for her latest book, Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom. Burton Steele, an award-winning photojournalist and author and a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi, was introduced by Professor Glenn Taylor who said, “I want to know sometimes where are the great listeners?...Tonight, one of them is in West Virginia.”
Burton Steele began her talk with the importance of listening when preserving oral storytelling. She said that years after her grandmother died, she desired to hear her voice and her story. She cited this as her inspiration to interview and photograph African American women of her grandmother’s generation who lived in Mississippi during the Jim Crow era.
The key to her research, Burton Steele said, was being able to really listen and hear the stories the women were trying to tell. She didn’t prepare interview questions. Rather, she tried to play off what she referred to as the “vibe” each woman gave her. She cited the ability to listen well and earn the women’s trust as necessities to successfully playing the role of oral historian.
At the end of her research, she’d driven 6,000 miles to interview 54 women. While it began as a personal project to better understand what her grandmother’s life may have been like, Burton Steele plans to develop her research into several books. She told the crowd that, as a writer, it’s important to trust your instincts about what a project can become.
Burton Steele said the research and writing of Delta Jewels has inspired her next book. She plans to interview those who picked cotton in the South because while interviewing the 54 women, so many of them and their family members wanted to share their cotton stories.
To Burton Steele, the success of the project goes beyond her book’s publication. On a personal level, assuming the role of oral historian allowed her to add 54 women and their families to her life while helping to preserve their stories.
The event was co-sponsored by the Department of English, the Department of History, and WVU’s Reed College of Media.
Poet and winner of the 2016 Slope Editions Book Prize Keegan Lester writes about his special connection to WVU, his new book, this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was & it’s all i had so i drew it, and the moment he almost gave up on writing.
Photo Credit: www.KeeganLester.com
This summer, about a week after I got off the the Travelin’ Appalachians Revue Tour, I was sitting on a Mega Bus headed to NYC, and at some point on that nine hour trip I made up my mind that I was done. I was done with touring and trying to write professionally. I was done trying to get a book published. I was 29 and felt it. I had only slept in a real bed once in about three months. I decided to move home to California from NYC. I decided I’d failed and figured I’d never be able to get my book published.
It was a strange time.
I had been mulling it over the weeks surrounding that trip, and it was this heavy weight on my shoulders that no one knew about, except for two people in my family and my girlfriend. Each night on that tour I went out on stage as if it was the last time.
The day after I got back to NYC, my girlfriend and I went out and had the most somber happy hour margaritas ever. We went home, and sang songs because singing songs always helps. After singing, I checked my email as I do thousands of times a day, and I saw an email from Slope Editions. I read Mary Ruefle had selected my manuscript this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was & it’s all i had, so i drew it, for the 2016 Slope Editions Book Prize. And believe me, no one was more shocked than me.
I almost passed out. I danced pretty hard. I yelled a bunch. And I only write this now, because in the age of social media I think people often don’t realize how hard it is out there, even when you are getting published in top tier journals and are touring the country. Choosing to dedicate your life to the writing vocation will ensure you a life of self doubt, but sometimes it works out fine.
So persevere. You have time.
Photo Credit: www.KeeganLester.com
My connection to WVU goes way back. Everyone on my dad’s side of the family went to WVU and even my great grandma on my mom’s side went there too. Morgantown is where the majority of my father’s family still live today. Even though I grew up in Huntington Beach, California, Morgantown was my home away from home where I’d often spend summers and winter vacations and usually attend two or three football games a year. It’s a place where I’ve always felt most free and most creative.
I was wrangled into the undergraduate creative writing program at the end of my sophomore year, per the suggestion of Renee Nicholson and Gail Adams, and I never looked back.
There was so much support and such a terrific cast of writers and mentors, and I was always surrounded by wonderful people during my time in Morgantown. Renee and Natalie Sypolt were both important and influential mentors for me, and I must credit Mary Ann Samyn for teaching me the building blocks for every poem I’ve ever written. Without Mary Ann, none of this would have been possible. I was the editor-in-chief of Calliope my senior year, which was an incredible honor and later led to me co-founding Souvenir Lit, the online lit journal I co-curate today.
Photo Credit: www.KeeganLester.com
The majority of the poems in the collection focus on figuring out where I come from, with regards to physical, spiritual and mental landscapes. I always thought I was more like my dad, but over the last couple years I’ve realized that I’m much more like my mother and through the exploration of our physical and mental issues including depression and autoimmune disorders, I’ve learned we share a bond and a closeness I never realized before. The more I investigated my mother, the more I came to understand myself, and the investigation of our physical and mental spheres became a kind of road map that helped me see the world, and understand myself more clearly. It is also comforting to know that there is the other person going through the same things as you, and you have that person to talk to and share and scheme with.
At this moment I’m selling my book at a pre-order discount, and Slope Editions is graciously letting me keep the profits for tour expenses. So, if you buy a book now, from me, you are helping support the continuation of my touring this winter, which means all of my gratitude will undoubtedly cascade upon you. If you buy my book pre-order now and want to pick it up at AWP 2017 in DC or in Morgantown, WV at my book launch party which will take place Feb 18th at 123 Pleasant St., I will take an extra $2 of the price of the book.
You can preorder the collection on my website by clicking here.
Some early praise:
Mary Ruefle: “Falling in love while losing a loved one and watching the war news on TV? Life is difficult, and the poems in this marvelous collection ask a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human? Each poem supplies part of the answer—to go looking, to make mistakes, to be confused, to be wounded, to keep moving toward a new life. “The expression of our faces when we almost get to where we are going”—that is the expression we have while reading this book, which has the pace of an intense, anticipated journey, one that acknowledges that language is a problem, that art, science, and history are problems, but nonetheless many disparate lives, both past and present, somehow meld into one small life lived, and when that life speaks—”mouth deliver us to the present”—we sit up and listen, for the experience of reading has handed us a strange joy.”
Scott McClanahan: “Keegan Lester is one of the best young poets around. Tender and wild, this shouldn’t be beautiful/but it was/and it was all i had/so i drew it pops and bleeds with poems full of mothers and ghosts,time machines and asshole poets. This a book that knows it’s a hell of a lot better to write about Jenny Lewis or Abelard or a cousin who drops acid than something that doesn’t belong to you. It’s a book full of magic tricks and walking forward. Open it up and see. Don’t worry. It’s good to be free.”
Congratulations, Keegan! Keegan’s collection will launch right here in Morgantown on February 18th at 123 Pleasant.
The 12th Annual Hungry Poets Night took place at the Blue Moose Cafe this Saturday, September 24th. Created in honor of Gabe Friedberg, the event showcases emerging local talent by asking poets under 30 to submit their best work. Eleven finalists were chosen and they performed their pieces to a packed cafe. Along with the finalists, “less-hungry” poets read their work, including English Department Chair Jim Harms, West Virginia Poet Laureate Marc Harshman, and local poets Michael Blumenthal and Andi Stout. The poetry was interspersed with musical performances and several tributes to Gabe.
The WVU Creative Writing program was proud to have many graduate and undergraduate representatives read at the event. Congratulations to the winners and finalists!
1st place: Heather Myers, “Kairos” (1st year, MFA Poetry)
2nd place: Natalie Homer, “Liquor Outlet” (2nd year, MFA Poetry)
3rd place: Evan Kertman, “The Hunting” (1st year, MFA Poetry)
Heather Myers reading her winning poem, “Kairos.” Photo Credit: Lauren Milici
The WVU English Department is pleased to welcome the following writers to campus this fall. All readings are free and open to the public.
Thursday, September 22 @ 7:30: Writer Alysia Burton Steele, in the Media Innovation Center at Evansdale Crossing
Alysia Burton Steele is a professor at the University of Mississippi. Her book, Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom, was published in 2015.
Wednesday, Oct 5th @ 7:30pm: Poet Heather Hartley in 130 Colson
Heather Hartley is Paris Editor for Tin House and is the author of Knock Knock. Her poems, essays and interviews have appeared in or on PBS Newshour, The Guardian, The Rumpus, Post Road and other venues and anthologies.
Monday, October 10th @ 7:30pm: Nonfiction writer (and Sturm Writer-in-Residence) Valerie Boyd in Robinson Reading Room (Downtown Library)
Valerie Boyd is the author of Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston and the forthcoming Spirits in the Dark: The Untold Story of Black Women in Hollywood. She is an associate professor and the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the Grade College of Journalism at the University of Georgia.
Monday, October 24th @ 7:30pm: Nonfiction writer Beth Macy on in Robinson Reading Room (Downtown Library)
Beth Macy is a journalist whose work has appeared in national magazines, The New York Times and The Roanoke Times. Her first book, national best-seller Factory Man, won a J. Anthony Lukas Prize, and her second book, Truevine, is forthcoming.
Thursday, November 17 @ 7:30pm: Poet Alan Michael Parker (reading) in 130 Colson, and Friday, November 18 @ 11:00am (Q&A) in 223 Colson
Alan Michael Parker is the Douglas C. Houchens Professor of English at Davidson College. He has published three novels, Cry Uncle, Whale Man, and The Committee on Town Happiness, along with eight poetry collections, including the forthcoming The Ladder, and his work has been published in magazines such as The New Yorker, Paris Review, and The Best American Poetry annual.
We hope to see you at these events!
On Tuesday, August 2nd, the new MFA cohort enjoyed lunch at Hatfield’s in WVU’s Mountainlair with Program Director Mary Ann Samyn and third-year fiction student Megan Fahey. Three fiction writers, three non-fiction writers, and four poets were able to take a brief break from their GTA training to get to know each other and ask questions about what’s to come for them in the next three years.
Welcome to our new MFA cohort!
In creative nonfiction….
Summer 2016 in Morgantown is one that only comes around every 17 years. As droves of loud, loquacious, loveable students packed up their bags and departed, a different sort of loud, loquacious, perhaps less-loveable crowd moved into town. Cicadas crowded sidewalks like undergrads at Fall Fest, left shells along the rail trail that crunched like autumn leaves, and sounded mating calls that could drown out the fireworks at a WVU football game. In other words, they filled the void that is normally left in a college town such as Morgantown while students are away.
The cicadas also kept those MFA students who elected to spend their summer in town company. Many of our students teach summer composition courses, a fast-paced 6-week version of the regular classes they teach during the school year. MFAs also took literature classes over the summer, such as Program Director Mary Ann Samyn’s free verse poetry course, while others continued to work other jobs around town. Students also found time to take trips into Pittsburgh to visit Kennywood, the local amusement park, do day hikes at Cooper’s Rock, and attend events around town, such as a steel drum band show at the Brew Pub. Some MFA students left town to pursue adventures elsewhere, including internships at magazines, summer camp positions, and old stand-by money-making gigs like retail and food service.
Reading and writing is of course another priority for us during these months. Megan Fahey, a third-year fiction student, found a new favorite in Your House is on Fire Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye. Third-year fiction student Kelsey Englert enjoyed Ellen Foster, a novel by Kaye Gibbons. Other students kept up with their writing by setting a daily summer schedule and word count goals. Many third-year students are taking advantage of the time to get a jump start on their looming thesis.
As for now, the cicadas have dissipated, leaving an almost eerie quiet that will soon be filled as students arrive in August for another school year. But for now, we can bask in the peaceful end-of-summer glow that Morgantown offers, letting drops slide down our beer glasses as we sit on patios watching the sun tuck itself away behind the mountains, and eventually move inside to get a few words in (read or written) before another day of summer slips away.
We are thrilled to share 2014 MFA alumna, Christina Seymour’s chapbook, “Flowers Around Your Soft Throat” has been published by Structo!
The chapbook is built around Seymour’s 2015 winning entry for Structo’s psalms contest, “A Song of Loves.” From Structo’s blog post on the release:
“Clothes sleep in the closet. We outlive our dogs. We become our parents. Seymour explores all these themes through meditations on nature, psalm translation, and ekphrastic poems on Rothko, Rossetti, and Song Dynasty silks. Her subtle music recreates the quiet of the everyday while speaking of what lies beneath.”
You can read a sample poem on Structo’s blog, and you may purchase a copy of the chapbook here.#
On Sunday, May 15th, four of our graduating MFA students participated in Eberly College of Arts and Sciences Doctoral and Master’s Commencement at WVU’s Coliseum.
Left to right: Feagin Jones, Barrett Lipkin, Maryann Hudak, and Melissa Ferone
Please join us in congratulating all of our wonderful graduates on their hard work the last three years! We look forward to reading all their writing to come.
Maggie Behringer, Fiction
Emily Denton, Fiction
Melissa Ferrone, Creative Non-Fiction
Hailey Foglio, Fiction
Claire Fowler, Creative Non-Fiction
Maryann Hudak, Creative Non-Fiction
Feagin Jones, Creative Non-Fiction
Barrett Lipkin, Poetry
Travis Mersing, Poetry
Shaun Turner, Fiction
Enjoying their last moments as WVU classmates.
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