My fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Sou'wester, Carve magazine, Flock literary journal and elsewhere and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. My (nonfiction) articles appear in university magazines and other nonprofit publications. An Ohio native, I received my MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. I currently live in Maryland, where I am at work on a novel and a collection of short stories about vision and visions in the Rust Belt.
In my last post, I talked about how we mythologize the loved ones we’ve lost–in my case, Mom.
I also asked the pressing question: Who the hell is Walt? The references to this mystery guy were plenty in Mom’s high school yearbook, which recently came into my possession.
Well, it’s been a long year but so far it ain’t been too bad. It’s been great knowing you this year. Be good and keep ahol’ of ol’ Walter.
After last week’s post, I received emails from my mom’s sister, sister-in-law, cousin, niece, and best friend–a veritable social media reunion!–filling me in on bits I’d forgotten or never knew about my mom’s younger years. Spoiler: Mom did not keep ahol’ of Walter.
If you haven’t guessed, that’s him–the elusive Walt–up there with Mom, king and queen of the 1963 senior prom. I’m wondering if my mom’s Grandma Rose, a seamstress, made Mom’s dress. I’m also thinking not all the ladies in the court look pleased. I now remember my mom mentioning this “crowning,” saying it was only because she was the girlfriend of the king–that this was an automatic appointment to royalty. Until I saw this photo, though, I’d forgotten all that.
Really, some of the pleasure of remembering those we’ve lost must come from the selective forgetting, or curating–to use a popular word–of their personal narrative.
Because, as much as it is painful to forget, it is also painful to remember too much. To hold all the memories of my mom’s life, sickness, and death with me everyday would swamp me. So I am selective. As selective as I would be if I were writing her story (which I’m not–or not in major way, anyway).
I am aware that I gravitate to Mom memories from BC (before cancer), because cancer pisses me off and doesn’t deserve a starring role in my favorite Mom stories.
Which brings me back to photographs and those images we save and frame and hang on our walls for all to see. And the images that remain tucked away, like in a yearbook that hadn’t seen the light of day for decades.
I know many bloggers use photography as inspiration for blog posts. Do you? Have you ever used an old portrait as inspiration for a poem, essay, or story? Let us know, below!
Looking for more Rust Belt writing. See my categories above for Rust Belt author interviews and book reviews. And check out my writing and publishing advice, and more.
Are we socially connected? I’m doing the Rust Belt-love thing over here on FB and I’m at Twitter and IG @MoonRuark. And after a long hiatus from Goodreads, I’m over there again, trying to keep up with all I read. Hope to see you around!
In another month, I’ll celebrate my mom’s birthday–for the 12th time since her death. A dozen years, a milestone of remembering. With the day comes a sort of dread, that I will forget–that I’ve already forgotten how the back of her hand felt under my fingertips, how much she liked her hair brushed, how she looked while telling her favorite jokes (I can’t repeat in polite company).
Am I remembering all that right?
Since my last post on the myths–and reality–we make around boys, I’ve been thinking a lot about the myths we create to remember. And I realize I’ve done that with my mom, picked key memories to cobble together her story–one to tell myself, over and over–because we don’t forget a good story. And forgetting is the most frightening thing.
And so it was with relief that I got ahold of my mom’s high school yearbook, senior year, 1963–all skinny ties and strands of pearls–knowing the photographs and notes from my mom’s teenage friends would bolster the Mom-myth I’d written (providing supporting backstory, if no surprises).
My controlling Mom-narrative: Mom as earth mother-type, who, after marrying my dad, Bill, in 1969 moved out to the country where they would care for the house and garden, a goat named Esmeralda, ducks and chickens, and, finally, us kids. Let’s just say, before the term “granola” became popular shorthand, my mom made her own. Of course, she had a life before the 70s, as a college co-ed, the only girl in her family to go. Before that, she had a childhood she smiled through, if sometime just barely. Did she want to forget?
Only truth would be found within these yearbook pages, says the so-serious foreword, complete with classical (mythical) epigraph:
I flipped through the book, its barely-yellowed pages telling me my mom hadn’t done this, hadn’t looked back on her teenage years.
Would she approve of my snooping?
Me, if I ordered my own senior yearbook, I don’t know where it would be now, and I can’t imagine I would have shown up on any pages. I didn’t “do” senior photos or homecomings or proms, busy with ballet. Really, here’s the whole truth: when my husband and I were engaged, I took him to my 10-year reunion. “Why aren’t you talking to anyone?” Mr. Popular asked me. I realized then we’d had polar-opposite high school experiences. “I was too shy to talk to them then. Why would I talk to them now?” And that was the end of my reunion-ing.
Maybe I could live vicariously though these yearbook pages of my mom’s. I mean, look at all the notes from friends, sharing in their Annette Funicello-esque experiences of senior year. French class was a big thumbs up; gym class was a big thumbs down. No surprises there. Mostly, my Mom-myth was supported through cursive messages extolling her sweetness–even if she didn’t smile enough (sorry, Dick).
In the teenage years, when a girl could be expected to live only for herself–her future husband and children not even blips on the horizon of consciousness–my mom seemed already to be living for others. Maybe even us, her future family. I mean, if she can’t be here for us now, could she have made up for this lack by being there for us back then–even before there was an us?
Then there are the bold declarations from the guys, with their heavy-rimmed glasses and flat-tops: “P.S. I love you,” says Rog; “I would flirt with you, if only…” says Timothy, otherwise known as Dudd, Cisco, and Bones. Axel, aka Axl, tells my mom in his note that he’ll drop her a card from Paris.
There are surprises though. Did Mom–Barb–really go by the nickname Booge? And why? What’s the story there? “Best Looking” superlative? She never told us that! All her poopooing her looks when we were kids. A show of modesty–or solidarity when we girls endured bad teenage skin and heartache?
Then, there came the real surprise, just one mild-mannered, four-letter word, but one I swear I’d never heard from Mom before. A serious high school boyfriend? “Take care of him,” one note says…”I’d flirt with you if not for…” and “good luck with…”
Who the hell is Walt?
Best of luck always to a real sweet girl. It’s been fun getting to know you this year in dear old Carlo’s class and also our great (?!) gym class. Good luck with Walt, he’s a great guy and you make a wonderful couple. Have fun this summer…
Reader, stay tuned…
But first, tell me how you remember? How do you create the stories you tell yourself about those you’ve lost? And…did you save your high school yearbook? Were you at all surprised by your teenage self?
When I was on bed-rest, hugely pregnant with my twin boys, I did what I do in any anxiety-producing situation, especially one that would have me lying on my side for three months: I read. In addition to the care-and-feeding-of-babies books, I read about the raising of boys into men, the emotional aspects and the pitfalls to avoid.
In my reading, I found prevalent boy-myths to steer clear of (in life, not in writing–myths are fun there, but more on that in a bit). Two common ones: boy as animal (he simply can’t be good); and boy as prince (he can do no wrong, no matter how he tries).
Once I delivered my boys into the world, I became uber-focused not on their boyhood but on their infant hood–a precarious time made more precarious by sleep deprivation (mine, not theirs). “Your job is to keep them alive,” the pediatrician said. (If that sounds dire or needlessly heartless, I’ve since learned this is something pediatricians regularly say to moms of twins.) For me, nursing day and night, there was no time or energy for thinking ahead to boyhood–or mythologizing or otherwise romanticizing it in any way.
Amid the mental and physical haze of exhaustion, I did fall prey to infant-mom advertising: you know, the stuff of soft lighting illuminating mother placidly cradling baby in her arms–that’s one baby, not two. And so much gazing–lovingly–into each other’s bright eyes. Kenny G might have been playing his muzak as soundtrack to the ad–trying its best to sell me bottles, bjorns, fancy diapers, or other stuff I wasn’t buying.
What I was buying, however, (and internalizing like the marketing writer I am by day) was that romantic image presented. I was buying that hook, line, and sinker. Yet, I remember a turn of phrase that left me feeling heartless and creeped out all at once: fall in love with your baby boy.
Of course, myths abound in culture and literature through the ages that feature a mother falling in love with her son: not Pampers-love, but romantic–even erotic–love.
Today, my boys are almost 10. You see, I managed to keep them alive and come to love them–even if we never fell in love (eww). My boys are neither animals nor princes, but they are their own individual, forever-blooming selves, as they approach the cusp of adolescence recently coined tween-hood. They don’t require me every second of the day and night anymore; but we still share a lot of time, and it will come as no surprise that much of our shared time is spent in books.
We’ve found we all have a thing for myths–not surprising since the apple doesn’t fall far… and since the boys have been steeped in Catholic traditions (redolent with myth) since before they could talk. We have fun tracking myths–a Greek whale and a biblical whale. Same for the big flood. And same for the taboos that pop up in the myths we read about. God bless children’s authors, especially Rick Riordan, who, as the narrator Percy Jackson, manages to provide a wonderful introduction for middle-grade readers to the Greek myths without creeping me–or my kids–out. Yes, even those filed under “taboo.” [Great academic article on “The Sacred and the Profane in Rick Riordan’s Mythical Middle Grade Novels,” here.]
Yep, even the doozy: the Oedipus myth. You remember, boy grows up, kills dad, and beds mom. Maybe it’s because–and not in spite–of my Catholic upbringing that I am drawn to such taboos, as put down in literature. (For instance, I like Nabakov’s Lolita, because it presents the writerly challenge of a morally despicable main male character, and I like a challenge.)
Which brings me to the last book I read, Ed King (2011) by David Guterson, which presents the reader with a retelling of the Oedipus myth. Here, the author presents: “…the story of a baby boy given up for adoption, who goes on to become one of the world’s richest and most powerful men. While, of course, killing his father and sleeping with his mother along the way.” [Read the rest of the fairly positive Guardian review by Viv Groskop here.]
As always, Guterson’s writing is clever, but what interested me most about the novel was the challenge of knowing exactly where the story is going from the start–because the plot follows that taboo Oedipal path we all know so well. The question the reader asks is not: what happens next? But just how will it all go down?
Go down it does. “Most of all, though,” says Groskop, “it’s a tale of human error and hilarious idiocy.” Yes, idiocy. What’s that saying?… Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome is insanity? I’d stretch that to lunacy–or idiocy. And isn’t that what we do when we retell myths? Go down the same well-trod narrative path? (Good on ya, brave Guterson.) Call me crazy, but I had fun following Ed King meander from myth to taboo to eww. Less the making of a man but the unmaking of one. Even a cautionary tale (dressed up in really fun literary fiction)–and isn’t that just what taboos are meant to do? Beware all ye who enter here.
Which brings me to my own writing, as I return to my work-in-progress and pull in myth–not as a plot device but to provide powerful images for my female characters. Sorry, boys. While the Greek and Roman myths, with which we’re all so well acquainted, often figure males in the leading roles, I’m discovering more female-centered myths in Finnish folklore, particularly in the tales set down in the Kalevala. I’ll keep you–and my avidly-reading boys–posted on my mythical meanderings.
Now, it’s your turn. What’s your favorite myth? What’s your favorite myth retelling? What are you reading right now?
Looking for interviews, writing advice, or other news you can use–see my handy categories above. And thanks for stopping by!
It’s festival season around here. Whether that means discovering just the right pumpkin, a new lager, or a better, more flexible version of your writing self, don’t forget to stretch (more on that in a bit).
Earlier this month, I headed to Youngstown, Ohio, for the third annual Lit Youngstown Fall Literary Festival held on the YSU campus. Here’s a rundown, plus tips, and–of course–a list of the autographed books I lugged home! (First, shout-out to my cousin, Theresa and her husband, Steven, who kindly fed me homemade pizza and put me up for the night along my way through PA.)
DAY 1: I was in the hot-seat on the first morning of the conference, when I read from my novel-in-progress, choosing three scenes that feature my three female MCs in or at the water. I called it “Women at the Water’s Edge” and introduced myself and my writing as always returning to water. I guess I flow downstream or maybe the Cuyahoga River-burning jokes on my home city of Cleveland really got to me as a kid. Either way, water wends its way into much of my writing, and in the case of a reading, provided a good overarching theme.
Not-pro tip: when reading longer works aloud, try to capture a mood and tone with language–over concentrating on plot and character development. Think like a poet, and focus in on strong images.
I was more than happy to play the opening act for poet and author David Swerdlow, who read after me–passionately and powerfully–from his new novel about a school shooting, called Television Man.
Last year, I must have appeared composed enough to be asked to moderate a session, this year. So, I had the pleasure of introducing culture critic, radical educator, and writer, Erica Cardwell, who traveled from New York to present at this conference. Her creative nonfiction workshop was a real high point of my weekend.
Grounding her session with the James Baldwin quote–“Home is an irrevocable condition.”–we participants mined our personal pasts and notions of home for material. And this fiction writer (moi) got nonfiction on the page, which is really something!
Other highlights of my day included conversations with published authors about the writing process and the after-the-writing process of publishing. And, instead of coming out of these conversations focusing on what feels impossible (agent querying, anyone?), I came out refocused on the writing, itself–the reason I do this whole maddening thing. Not-pro tip: return to the writing.
As for that church pic up there…how’s that for a reading venue? Both poet Philip Metres (pictured) and Erica Cardwell, along with a young writer and scholarship winner, read their work in the sanctuary of St. John’s Episcopal Church, an active partner of Lit Youngstown. And after…the world’s most glorious lemon cake. Not-pro tip: enjoy amazing cake after readings.
Just as I did when attending last year’s literary festival, I like to sprinkle in some research side-trips when in Ohio. This year, I didn’t have to travel far to get a taste of the 1980s music scene–just a few minutes to visit with my new friend Sonny Boy Hopchek, local musician, and owner of Underdog Records (the place to be if you want vintage vinyl!) since 1975. (Shout-out to John for the introduction.)
As for after-hours…how does the saying go? “Into each writing festival a little hotel HGTV must fall?” Or, maybe that’s just me. Really, though, a full day of festival-ing can be a lot for an introvert. Not-pro tip: take time to recoup.
DAY 2: Recoup I did, and the next day began with a fiction craft talk conducted by Michael Croley, author of short story collection Any Other Place, which I’m loving. Talk takeaways: to get at emotion put your plot in motion; meaning, construct a plot to reveal your characters. The author and professor also talked about acute and chronic tension in our stories–the tension in the front and back story. But are they really front and back? Croley quoted Grace Paley: “Every story is two stories communicating with one another.” After learning that it takes Croley about 10 drafts to discover the plot of a story, I left that workshop feeling ready to revise (and revise).
The panel I sat on (along with the editors of Youngstown’s own journal, Volney Road Review) and the signature editors panel, titled “Cultural Identity in Writing & Publishing,” covered some of the same terrain: How can writers find publishing venues to realize their work (and, by extension, selves) in the world? On the other side of the desk, how do we editors (of journals, magazines, and even blogs) seek out and publish a diversity of voices? Tactics ran the gamut: from reading submissions blind (no names attached) to soliciting work solely from people of color. Is any tactic going to ensure that our compilations of creative voices–lit journals, mags, and blogs–represent the diversity of experiences of our writing communities and wider world? It’s a big question but one worth discussing and aiming for. Not-pro tip: be open to new strategies to find new voices.
The second evening of the conference, we took to the streets–or the sidewalk, anyway–for the Words Made Visible sidewalk project, a year-long collaboration between visual and literary arts. Four poets read from their work featured on four permanent sidewalk slabs: two on the lawn of St. John’s and two in the sidewalk of downtown Youngstown. Talk about making your mark, right?!
At this point of the festival, I was limping. And I don’t mean figuratively. All the writerly stretching I’ve done since last year’s festival: publishing and querying…starting a new novel…featuring poets on my blog… interviewing authors here and for Parhelion Literary Magazine, where I became features editor…working with other writers so their voices shine in articles, book reviews, essays, and stories…and I’d neglected my vessel.
This vessel-body of mine, I’ve written before, was once my creative instrument, when I was a student of ballet. This body of mine that birthed two more small ones almost 10 years ago…is oftentimes too still now, housing as it does a mind anchored to paper and keyboard. Not-pro tip: move the mind and the body.
So, I was happy to close out my weekend, sitting, late-night with friends, and listening to live music to inspire my writing. Also, the hazy IPA (my first) didn’t hurt…
But not before final readings–from former Kentucky poet laureate George Ella Lyon (below right), and R.W. Franklin, this year’s runner-up for Lit Youngstown’s Short Short Fiction Open contest. Congrats to all for a wonderful literary conference. Can’t wait for next year’s!
And last, but not least, my autographed book haul: Christopher Barzak’s novel, The Love We Share Without Knowing; Jessica Fischoff’s poetry collection, The Desperate Measure of Undoing; Karen Schubert’s poetry collection, Dear Youngstown; and David Swerdlow’s novel Television Man. Not-pro tip: bring a big bag.
Now it’s your turn. What’s your festival of choice–literary or otherwise–held during the fall? What’s your favorite swag to take home?
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I’ve developed a love affair with poetry this year. So, I found Teri Ellen Cross Davis’ poetry collection, HAINT, at just the right time. I met the author at a recent literary conference and was delighted to discover that she too grew up in Northeast Ohio. Names and images of our home set the stage in her poems of childhood, such as “East 149th Street (Symphony for a Black Girl)” and “Akron at Night,” but many more of her poems present a powerful universal ode to girlhood, adolescence, and adulthood as a woman seeking love. Poet Ross Gay, another Northeast Ohio native, said of HAINT, “Although heartbreak is the origin of so many of these poems, it’s love that makes them go. Love to which they plead and aspire and pray.”
Teri was kind and generous enough to tell me more about what makes her poetry–and life–“go.”
Teri, HAINT is such a personal collection, taking the reader from your childhood through motherhood and family life. The first poem, “Fade to Black,” is a self-portrait, which traces your background: “Only now can pixels completely capture / the mulatto ancestors born in Virginia, / … yellowing successive generations in Cleveland.” Can you tell me how your upbringing in Ohio figured into the making of you as a poet?
It almost seems that everyone accidentally endeavored to make me a poet. My mother taught me to read using Nikki Giovanni’s poetry. She also pointed out Maya Angelou and Carlos Castaneda’s work to me when I hit ten and had a voracious appetite for reading. I was the kid who listened intently to the stories told by my older relatives. And I came across Dudley Randall’s The Black Poets and A Pocket Book of Modern Verse in our basement, leftovers from my parents’ college days. I would sneak down and read them and just felt a kind of glory in what those books held, how the words seemed so alive on those faded pages.
The end of that same poem is a foretaste of the collection, a journey of love–of others and the self. “Finally, / the close-up— a mirror, and I am discovering how slow love is…” Is this what you had in mind when ordering this collection, a chronological journey to love?
Definitely. This collection was a long time coming. I lived a lot of life between the first poems I wrote that made that collection to the person I was when I finished it. I was in my early 40s when it came out and it felt like such a defining moment to have it published. I wanted the poems in it to tell my journey and how I came to be the poet I was at the end of the book.
You write very frankly about adolescence–first period, first loves. You also grapple with the “price for beauty” you paid as a black girl. Did the craft of writing and of poetry help you to redefine beauty? Did you grow into acceptance, write into it, or both?
Both, it was a hard uphill battle to love my dark skin and kinky hair in a time before it was in advertisements and on televisions. Writing helped me to see what I needed to excise, to exorcise: the hurt, hate, anger and denial. Writing helped me push through the pain, much like giving birth, to know that there could be something worthy, a bettering, a healthy self-love on the other side of it all. At first though, writing was a therapy, a way to address the pain and see it on paper and once it was out, I could feel better and reflect with more clarity about my experiences.
You play with form in the poem “The small of my back (your hand here)”– best poem title ever!–with the shape of the verse on the page. “One Night Stand” uses the Golden Shovel form created by Terrance Hayes. “Scar Tissue” the Bop form. How do you come to these kinds of poems–material first, form first?
Each of these poems came about differently. With “the small of my back (your hand here)” I just HAD to play with form. The poem almost called for it and it was so much fun to do. “One Night Stand” began in that form and was only crafted to be in that form. And “Scar Tissue” evolved, as I knew I wanted to try out the form and wanted to pay homage to a song that was a favorite of mine (and my dad) as a child. But funny enough, it also takes the title from a favorite Red Hot Chili Peppers song, so it was a way to pay homage to the music and experiences that shaped me.
A couple of poems in your collection were written after songs–one after “Seasons” by the artist formerly known as Terence Trent D’Arby. How do music and poetry work together for you? How about visual art and poetry?
I always have music on—in my car, in my home, in my office, always. I also grew up in a household full of music, from The Temptations and Led Zeppelin to Steely Dan and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Songs create tiny movies of emotion in me and I love to dive into the rise and fall of the music and the lyrics. Words come next, to explain, to capture those emotions on the page, to help me sift through what the song has done to me. It creates a truly fulfilling loop as I cannot play an instrument and have not sung in a choir since my teen years.
So if words are my instrument, then they are what I will bring to all the whirlwind and kaleidoscope of emotions that music stirs up inside me.
It is the same with visual art. Some of the poems in HAINT are responses to the book, The Black Female Body: A Photographic History by Deborah Willis and Carla Williams. I took the book with me to Virginia Center for Creative Arts for a residency in 2015 and it helped me write the last poems of HAINT. I have such emotional responses to all art, and poetry allows me to harness and mine those response for poems.
You’re the winner of the 2017 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry (among other awards). Do you get back to Northeast Ohio much?
Winning the Ohioana Prize meant so much to me—to be recognized by my home state felt like a real accomplishment and achievement. I go up to Cleveland at least 2-5 times a year. My mother, father, and sister still live there, plus so much of my extended family. Coming home is so much fun not only for me but for my husband and children, they love Cleveland too, which gives me a lot of pride in my hometown.
Living in the Washington, DC,-area, you’re very active in your writing community here. What does it mean to you to support your fellow poets and artists? If we’re poetry fans in this area, what shouldn’t we miss out on?
I think Washington, DC, has an incredibly welcoming and thriving literary community. It embraced me when I came to the city in 1998 and has shown me love and support ever since. Poetry has defined me for so long and I love being able to share it with people through my job as poetry coordinator and to uplift other poets. If a poet moves me, then I want to share their work with others. The Library of Congress puts on great events, as does Split This Rock with their biennial festival of poetry. Bookstores like Mahogany Books, East City Book Shop, Politics and Prose, Sankofa Bookstore, Loyalty Books will often bring and present poets.
There is the American Poetry Museum in Brookland, DC, which hosts great readings. George Washington University and American University will often bring poets. The University of Maryland has their Writers Here and Now series while Georgetown University has the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice. Plus libraries around the District, Maryland, and Virginia often host poetry readings. There is rarely a week that doesn’t have a reading in the DC-area. And of course, the series I coordinate, the O.B. Hardison Poetry Series at the Folger Shakespeare Library!
As poetry coordinator for the Folger Shakespeare Library, what’s the best perk of the job?
I get to surround myself with poetry every day. I used to sneak it in at other jobs, writing it during meetings, reading it on lunch breaks. But at the Folger, I can be out and about with it. I also have an office filled to the brim with poetry books, but one of the best perks is getting free poetry books. I just love it. It is like Christmas every other day.
I adore your website, poetsandparents.com. What does it mean to you and to your marriage that you and your husband, Hayes Davis, are both poets? What does it mean for you as parents?
Thank you! We worked hard on that website! As for our marriage, poetry is the bedrock of our relationship. We bonded over poetry from the beginning and it has played a significant role in some of our early moments in our relationship, from when we were dating and Hayes mentioned Cornelius Eady and I knew who that was, to him letting me tag along as he wrote a paper on the poet Derek Walcott, to us attending a reading by Nikki Giovanni on our second date, poetry has always and will always be something we connect on.
As parents, it means we have made children who are hungry readers and who know a lot of poets. We also know when to whisk the children away should one of us take up a pen and begin scribbling furiously. Plus we support each other in being first readers, providing edits, or offering kind words when the rejection notices come in, or some bubbly and flowers when the acceptances hit the email. To share something like this makes our marriage stronger and deeper and it means we always have something to talk about.
What are you working on right now?
I have finished (well, I keep tinkering but it really is done) a second manuscript and am sending it out (fingers crossed)! I created my own goddesses in it, as a way to elevate experiences and emotions I felt important and I am using stories from my grandmother and as a black mother in America to interrogate where this country is right now and where it needs to go.
Thank you to Teri Ellen Cross Davis!
Find out more…
Teri Ellen Cross Davis is the author of Haint, (Gival Press, 2016) winner of the 2017 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. She is a Cave Canem fellow and a member of the Black Ladies Brunch Collective. She has received fellowships to attend the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Hedgebrook, Community of Writers Poetry Workshop, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She is the recipient of a Meret grant from the Freya Project and a 2019 Sustainable Arts Grant. Her work can be read or is forthcoming in: Academy of American Poets, Auburn Love’s Executive Order, Avenue, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Figure 1, Gargoyle, Harvard Review, Kestrel, Little Patuxent Review, Natural Bridge, North American Review, MiPOesias, Mom Egg Review, Pacifica Literary Review, PANK, Poet Lore, Poetry Ireland Review, and Tin House. She is the 2019-2020 HoCoPoLitSo Writer-in-Residence for Howard County, Maryland and the Poetry Coordinator for the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. She lives in Maryland with her husband, poet Hayes Davis and their two children.
I’m so thrilled to present this interview with Johnny Joo, a fellow Northeast Ohio native, whose photography* I’ve featured at the blog before. But this time, we get the stories behind the lens…
Johnny Joo is an internationally accredited artist, most notably recognized for his photography of abandoned architecture and surrealistic digital compositions. Growing up sandwiched between the urban cityscape of Cleveland and boundless fields of rural Northeast Ohio provided Johnny with a front row ticket to a specialized cycle of abandonment, destruction, and nature’s reclamation of countless structures. Since he started, his art has expanded, including the publication of four books, music, spoken word poetry, art installations, and videography.
Johnny, how did you first get into photography–and abandonment photography in particular?
I was an art student in high school, and photography was another art class I could take, so I took it to fill space with as much art stuff as I could–not thinking that I would like it as much as I did. I got super interested in the whole science behind it and being able to capture a moment in time that would not happen again. For one of the first projects, I photographed some empty rooms in the high school, and also photographed an old farm house. It reminded me of Silent Hill and other horror games and movies I enjoyed.
I thought it was a great subject for photos, and I loved the way nature wore it down to create something so dark and eerie, yet calm and beautiful. That’s the film photo of the empty class room [above]. I gave the rest of my film and binder to my photography teacher, so I don’t have anything else, but I did keep my favorite photo–and it’s the first photo I developed successfully.
I just kept photographing any abandoned or creepy historic place I could find (along with EVERYTHING else) and started sifting through papers in some of the old buildings and found so much history left behind.
I thought it was interesting to piece a life and history together–being able to know so much without ever having known any of the people beforehand.
Why do you think abandoned amusement parks are so creepy?
Amusement parks give off the creepy vibe most likely because they were formerly places of families, life, laughter and love and are now decrepit, rusting away, empty and quiet. You can’t help but feel weirded out by how such a huge place once so full of life could become so far gone.
I have to ask, Johnny, how many times have you been arrested for trespassing?
First, I’d like to say that I do not promote trespassing, as it is an illegal act. But, yes, I’ve been arrested for it a few times (3 to be exact). Here’s a story of one of those times. Though I’ve done some stupid things in the past, I’d like to state that finding the property owner and simply asking them to photograph the property can sometimes go over quite well, and there are plenty of resources to use to go about doing it this way.
Your new book series, Ohio’s Forgotten History, focuses on abandoned places in our home state–from old factories to hotels, from churches to amusement parks, from a sports stadium to Mike Tyson’s old mansion. What are a couple of coolest place you’ve shot?
They’re all so different, but I do love old abandoned greenhouses because they’re relaxing and smell nice. The adventure with each place is part of the excitement. The massive TB ward I visited in New York, though, that was pretty cool. Also an asylum in Maryland, where I was able to gather 25 ticks on my body and carry them all the way back to my hotel. Pure skill. (And here’s a sneak peek of never-before-seen photos of the La Salle Theatre in Cleveland, Ohio, before its renovation. Check out Part 3 of the Forgotten Ohio series for more.)
I’ve written before about “ruin porn” on Rust Belt Girl. I feel like your work is different in that it honors the history of these lost places. How do you distinguish your work from “ruin porn?”
I guess if you look at it like porn vs. erotic art, it would be ruin porn vs. ruin art? Yeah, let’s go with that. I think that anyone who cares about preserving the history of these places is in the category of art. Don’t get me wrong, there are some incredible artists and photographers out there that create “ruin porn,” and I still love seeing the work.
For my photographer followers, what do you shoot with?
I have a few different cameras I have been shooting with lately. Mostly Sony a7r iii and a7r ii, but also Olympus e3 (my first DSLR), Minolta X-700 (first SLR), Mamiya 645, and numerous other film cameras, some with slight issues, and others not so much. Hey, I even shoot some random shots with my phone if I have nothing on me, but I usually do somewhere. Oh, I also have a NEX-7 that I am converting to infrared. Those can be found really cheap, and the little camera is a beast for the price.
In addition to photography, you present pretty extensive history lessons on these abandoned sites. What kind of work goes into researching and writing about these forgotten places? What’s one of the coolest interviews you’ve conducted?
It depends on the location. Sometimes a trip to the library is necessary, sifting through old archives of photos and newspapers. Other times it’s talking to people locally, or getting info through auditors’ sites and other online resources with historical archives (thank you technology!).
The Internet is great sometimes–even for community input via Facebook groups. I’ve had people in groups reach out and send me personal family photos or vacation photos from different places that are now abandoned. Those won’t be in archives anywhere, online or off. Other times, I have found some info inside the site, itself. Here are a couple of my favorite on-site interviews: the first in the old ghost town of Shaniko, Oregon, and the second in the abandoned village of Yellow Dog, Pennsylvania.
Can you expand on another one of the places in your book?
Yes, these are from an abandoned tuxedo shop in Youngstown, Ohio. See Book 3 for more!
Thank you to Johnny Joo for honoring forgotten places through his art–and for sharing his work with us.
*All photography by Johnny Joo; bio pulled from Johnny’s website
Find out more and order your books here:
Ohio’s Forgotten HistoryBook 1 and Book 2 can be ordered together–save $5 and receive a limited edition photo print.
It might not feel like it today, when we’re supposed to top out at 95, but fall is closing in. And even though I’m more than 15 years from being in the classroom–first as a student, then as an instructor–the change of seasons still signals a renewed sense of dedication. And I’m ready.
It’s also a good time to re-focus this blog. If you remember, I met a poet and a memoirist at the last writing conference I attended (click for conference tips)–both from Rust Belt places. I love nothing more than picking the brains of my fellow writers and presenting their thoughts to you, here. So, I’ll be keeping up the interviews–and the reading required to conduct thoughtful queries.
Funny interview story for you: a few years ago, I thought I’d parlay my interviewing skills for the blog–and managed to convince essayist, memoirist, and journalist, David Giffels, into talking to me here and again here.
For the first interview, I had read–and loved–every word of David’s book of essays. But, breaking one of my own rules of interviewing, I hadn’t read David widely (yet). A music journalist and Akron, Ohio, native, David also wrote the rock biography, We are Devo!, with Jade Dellinger. Akron is famous for a few things. Among them: tires, Chrissie Hynde, Lebron, and that safety cone-hatted band, Devo.
Disclaimer: I’m not from Akron. Still, I should have known but didn’t. And, so… when I had David fact-check our interview, which I’d recorded, among his local cultural spokes-heroes appeared Steve-O, the stunt performing comedian known for Jackass. Not, Devo (as it certainly reads now).
David didn’t ask that I pull the interview or even laugh at me for my mistake (at least not to me). I was mortified…but mortification can instruct (when it doesn’t kill).
Here we still are. Thanks for sticking with me.
For me, fall also means another season of literary festivals, my favorite of which–Lit Youngstown’s–will take me home to Northeast Ohio. Last year, that festival inspired my post: 3 Reasons to Connect with Your Writing Community… And I’ll be sure to cover the event again this year, when I’m not reading my own fiction, sitting on a panel of editors, and moderating a couple sessions. It’s two full days of literary conversation–and my idea of heaven.
Of course, as our fall weather turns a bit cooler and the evenings darken sooner, my twin guys start discussing Halloween costumes and plans. Last year they played a rather nondescript, skull-faced “death” and a soccer star, which sounds like a good title for a horror movie. Stay tuned.
With darker evenings comes darker reading, as my editor gig with Parhelion Literary Magazine has had me reading fiction for a themed October issue. And I’ve been so inspired! I hope you’ll stop by for your fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, or photography fix. The summer issue is live now. You’ll also see what fun I’ve been having as features editor there.
Now, it’s your turn…What’s on tap for your fall? Pumpkin or literary festivals? Local wine or craft beer tent? Hike or bike? Write or read?
For those of you who don’t go in for such self-flagellation, I’m talking about submitting to literary agents, entreating them to represent me and my book.
If you’re not an aspiring author, don’t back-arrow just yet–these lessons learned can be applied to many facets of our writing lives. (And, bloggers are writers, I say over and over and over.)
First, because everybody loves query results in hard-and-fast numbers, here you go: cycle one of querying, I submitted a total of 20 queries. Of those, I had:
1 request for a partial (first three chapters); and
1 request for the full manuscript (after the agent read the partial).
Not bad, really: some action from 10 percent. I feel confident I’ll do better next query cycle, beginning this fall, knowing what I now know…
No. 1:The query letter, itself, is the key to unlocking this whole maddening process of securing the right agent. I’ve pored over every word of my 85,0000-word novel manuscript–as have the writers in my in-person writing group and online writing group, along with trusted writer friends. I’ve lived with the characters in my novel since before I knew my kids! But even if a manuscript is polished to shining–without the right key, an agent will never get in there to look around.
No. 2: It’s OK to enlist help on your query letter. You know how some people suck at titles? Query letter-writing is like that: a completely different beast than writing a novel (or short story, essay, or poem). You can even be good at marketing–my freelance writing clients think I am–and not be great at marketing yourself.
A while back, I enlisted help from two traditionally-published novelists for help on my query letter; after my first 9 queries elicited nothing but crickets, I got help from a third novelist, who happens also to be a whiz at queries and artist’s statements that showcase the writer’s strengths–in the way only an objective outside party can. (Message me if you need her info.) When an agent, who has said she responds to only 3 percent of queriers requested pages from me, I knew my letter was finally in good shape.
No. 3: Along the same lines, be ready with your bio–not the standard education + publishing credits bio you use when you submit to journals/magazines, if you do; but a more expansive bio. What does your writing in general explore? How does your writing reflect your life–where you’re from, your challenges, your strengths, and the wider perplexities of your modern-day life? And how can you show yourself to be a good literary citizen, engaged with the writing world, with readers, and with other writers?
No. 4: One synopsis, 2 synopses, 3 synopses, 4. I wish I were exaggerating, but all I can say is have at least a one-page and a two-page synopsis ready before querying. (Don’t be like me, up at 2am working on another version–whoops!) Plus, I can’t tell you how beneficial writing a synopsis is to see how your story holds up, where the holes may be, where it feels saggy, etc. When I do it all over again (with my latest WIP), I’ll write up the synopsis as an exercise right after completing draft 1–a viable option or addition to reverse editing, I think.
No. 5: Comps are king. Or, comps mean nothing. Some agents love comparative titles–books you can compare yours to. Some don’t. Have a good list ready of titles published within the last few years. Better yet, make them debut titles (so agents know you’re not trying to compare yourself to a seasoned author) and find a few set in your book’s general setting, another few dealing with a similar subject, similar themes, and a few with similar writing styles. Even better yet, read these books–they are the books in your book’s orbit.
No. 6: Know your comps, so you know why and how your book stands out. True enough that there are no new stories, but a reader wants a little revelation. This reader does, anyway. How does your book address age-old questions while addressing something new (even novel)?
No. 7: Closed to queries means closed to queries. Save yourself time and trouble by responding to agents’ wishes–what they want, and when and how–laid out nicely at Manuscript Wish List. Then, go to their site to see who they represent and just how they want aspiring authors to submit queries–if they do. Follow directions to a T (capital T). There’s also a lot of agent action on Twitter, so you may want to log on there to gain access to discussions around books and authors and what agents hope is the next big thing. Unicorn vampires anyone?
No. 8: Go Mad! Not really. I’m talking #PitMad. Yep, that’s one more reason to hop on Twitter. “PitMad” is short for Pitch Madness, when, a couple times a year, aspiring authors pitch their books to agents on Twitter. If an agent “favorites” your pitch, you query them. Not only did I get through to one agent this way, last time out, honing your pitch (280 characters or less!) helps greatly when thinking about how to actually TALK about your manuscript. Don’t have time to deliver a whole “elevator pitch,” you’re going to want to boil your book down to a couple sentences (complete with Twitter shorthand). Here’s one version of my pitch, which begins with a comp:
PHANTOMS x Puzo
WW2 Cali, when Italy becomes an enemy of the US, having a wife who still reveres Mussolini may mean an immigrant’s downfall. When he’s unduly arrested and interned, his wife and American neighbors rally to right the wrong.
Can’t get enough of this query conversation, or looking to kick-start this process before the September query rush, check out “Query 101 (or many more)” by Allison K Williams for the Brevity blog. Her (No. 7) advice on querying in stages I especially appreciated. Always so much useful info from Allison–just go ahead and follow that fantastic blog.
Stuck around this long but are more interested in submitting short stories, poems, or essays to journals and magazines, you are very patient! For you, I’ve got my post all about submitting, titled (oh so cleverly) Submit, submit, submit. Plus, check out my category on publishing above for more on getting our work “out there.”
Speaking of “out there,” I’ve had a busy summer over at my Parhelion Literary Magazine gig. If you love fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry or photography, I hope you’ll check out all our hard work. The June issue is live and we feature the occasional…um…feature, too. Lots to enjoy…
Now, it’s your turn, what have you learned from publishing–whether that begins and ends with hitting the blue “Publish” button on your blog or extends to querying editors and literary agents?
What’s your best advice to keep your confidence (and sanity) while sharing your words with the world?
Amy Jo has said this essay took her 10 years to write, and I think the essay is better for its long gestation. But, wow, this is also a good lesson for us writers to stick with, or return to, those ideas that keep us up at night!
Essays not your thing? Writer, editor, and blogger at daily (w)rite, Damyanti, featured a really interesting guest post by Felix Cheong, a poet living in Singapore. In it, he talks about the process of writing poetry, and he goes back to old drafts a lot–calling himself a scavenger. He says: “Given the right time, they [old, discarded writing material] could be salvaged, given a makeover and presented as shiny and new.”
Here’s to reviving what we thought was lost. Here’s to sticking to a good idea for a good long while. And here’s to new inspiration.
Amy Jo Burns is the author of Cinderland, and her writing has appeared in Salon, Good Housekeeping, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Tin House’s Open Bar, Ploughshares Online, and in Roxane Gay’s anthology Not That Bad. Her novel Shiner is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.
Amy Jo was gracious enough to answer a few questions from another Rust Belt girl–me–about her literary memoir, Cinderland, which I discussed in a previous post; about her Rust Belt upbringing; about juggling the responsibilities of writing and motherhood; and about her upcoming novel, Shiner, which I can’t wait to read!
Amy Jo–your memoir, Cinderland, is set in your hometown outside Pittsburgh. How did that particular post-industrial place inform your upbringing? Does your memoir’s title reflect the place in which you were raised, the abuse you suffered as a girl, both?
I chose the title Cinderland because it represents an inner fire that…
It’s been a long time since I’ve shared some good writing advice from an author. This piece comes from Ross Gay, award-winning poet and essayist, whose latest collection, The Book of Delights: Essays came out earlier this year. He’s also a professor at Indiana University and a big sports fan and former college football player–and what delights Gay are many and varied things, which is, for this reader, delightful.
Before I share his advice, I’ll share a story: I’m a little embarrassed to say that while I’m only 27K into my new WIP, I already have its epigraph–you know, the quote or quotes at the start of a book that suggest theme. In my WIP’s case, the working themes are around loss, sorrow, and joy. Loss we can all try to get our heads around together.
But sorrow is really loaded–especially for me as a Catholic. Funny thing, a friend of ours recently learned what my family’s parish is called. “Our Lady of Sorrows,” he said. “How depressing.” I’d never thought about the name, a common descriptor for Jesus’s mother, Mary, as depressing. For, like Mary’s, our sorrows are borne together; sometimes, they’re necessary, even life-changing, lifting us all up. I couldn’t articulate this to our friend at the time, but his words got me to thinking about the transformative power of sorrow.
That’s about when I started reading Ross Gay, and who knows if his words will stick as one of two quotes in the epigraph of a novel not even half finished, but these words of his, from his essay “Joy is Such a Human Madness,” have served as a good thematic guide:
What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying. / I’m saying: What if that is joy?
Ross Gay, The BOOK Of Delights: Essays
About the time I jotted this quote down was when I learned that Gay, like this aspiring author, is a Northeast Ohio native–making the possibility that I might one day hear him read in person pretty decent. (Joy!)
Until then, I’ll read his poems and essays and delight in learning about this inspirational author through interviews, like this one with Toni Fitzgerald in The Writer, in which Gay talks about his writing inspirations and process–our writing advice for the day:
…usually it’s thinking, reading, studying, trying to find something that turns you on and going for a bit.