What are you reading for Short Story Month?

Mother’s Day. Memorial Day. Let’s not forget the significance of the month of May for the lowly short story!

Yes, May is Short Story Month. You didn’t know? You didn’t send a card? Well, me neither. But I didn’t want this busiest of months to pass without sharing a bit of good news with my loyal Rust Belt Girl followers–that’s you.

My short story, “The Pearl Diver” has been published in the latest issue of CutBank, the literary journal of the University of Montana. You can read the opening excerpt here–or purchase an issue if you’d like to read the whole thing (and more fiction and poetry goodness therein).

My pearl-diving main character has never been to Montana (nor have I), but I sure am glad she and her story struck a chord with the journal editors there. It probably won’t surprise you to know that this story is set in Ohio–at a fictionalized SeaWorld Ohio, in fact. The fact that this SeaWorld no longer exists makes it historical fiction, I guess, though the story takes place in the 90s, which feels like just yesterday to me.

Here are some great pics of SeaWorld Ohio in its heyday.

Where I grew up in Northeast Ohio, we were just a half hour or so from SeaWorld, and the summers we visited for killer whale (remember we used to call orcas “killer whales?”) and dolphin shows; visit the penguins; and admire the human water-skier pyramids were the best summers. Of course, that was a different time, and we look at animals in captivity differently now.

I don’t remember if my parents ever bought me a pearl from the SeaWorld pearl diving exhibit, where divers, ya know, dove for pearls in a pool. But it was fun to think about working as a diver (I can’t dive well, myself) in a pool, kept captive for a summer–much like the animals swimming around in their tanks. What trouble might an almost-sixteen-year-old girl diver get into over such a summer? (Lots, as it turns out.)

I wrote the first drafts of this coming-of-age story in grad school (ages ago) and it landed me on a couple finalist lists for contests. But “The Pearl Diver” never found a home until now. And it’s a beautiful home–check out those illustrations and cover art!

I hope you enjoy the excerpt, and many more stories, as we close out Short Story Month.

Happy reading! ~Rebecca

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Let’s chat! Comment below or on my FB page or find me at Twitter @MoonRuark. Want more Rust Belt writing, author interviews, book reviews, writing advice, and more? Follow me here. Thanks!

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My interview with Robert Miltner, author of Ohio Apertures: A Lyric Memoir

Ohio Apertures (2021) is Robert Miltner’s latest work, a collection of short creative nonfiction pieces that comprise a memoir. The author of two books of prose poetry, poetry chapbooks, and a short story collection, his memoir represents a cohesive journey. From stories of youth to young and older adulthood; from reflections of Ohio to the American West and trips abroad; from journeys by foot and by car—the car such a potent symbol of the post-industrial Midwest—the reader journeys with the author, and it is a satisfying and solace-making trip that doesn’t look away from the remains of Midwestern heydays past. Miltner provides the objects of his looking and perceiving and also the vehicle of that looking, and I think that matters in studies of observation, in studies of life, which is what we readers want in memoir—the particular and personal expanded to the universal, expanded to include our lives, too.

The objects Miltner ruminates upon in these short essays are often small—he’s so good at detail. There’s the watch pocket in a pair of Levi’s; the pneumatic tube at the bank drive thru; the crescent roll of youth and croissant of maturity; the sound an old car makes, like “sarcastic laughter”; the song that was playing at the bar after he was robbed as a young man. There’s a lot of music in these pages—a few of these pieces feel like they have their own soundtracks—but most of the music comes from the lyrical quality of these essays. And the quiet, the white space, the musical rests, the silence that is, Miltner says, “both the context for prayer and prayer itself.”

Always, the author returns to Ohio, the name alone like a song, and to the state’s flowing rivers and Great Lake Erie and its shale coastline that makes for violent, crescendo-like waves at its cliffs. My favorite piece in the collection is the last, “Black River Bridge,” an ode to a bridge that the author has traveled many times to cross his home-town river. He speaks to it, lovingly, in this essay: “Poor Black River, you lonely stepsister in this sad fairy tale of Ohio rivers…No one, lost river of industry, dark river of my youth, kisses your mouth each night along your shale and sand shoreline.” Though somber in tone, the piece ends optimistically, or in a tone I like to think of as Northeast Ohio optimism—which is as tempered as our steel.

Cover art by Morgan Dyer, “Climbing Uphill”; design by Shelby Ballweg and Colton Bahr

Recently, I asked the author a few questions about this collection, about his writing process and projects, and about writing in community:

Robert, Ohio Apertures is a lyric memoir in short pieces. You’ve written a lot of poetry and fiction, but this represents your debut memoir. What do you like about creative nonfiction? Were there things you could say about your life that you couldn’t say—or hadn’t said yet—through other mediums that you said in these pages?

I view myself as a writer, which I use in the comprehensive sense, rather than identifying by a single genre, because it feels restrictive. In terms of genre, I’ve felt compelled to “contain multitudes.” Writing in a new genre is like acquiring a new language; it’s like becoming bilingual or, for me with Ohio Apertures, trilingual. I used to think adding genres would be about learning the guidelines for new puzzles. Any new genre is like a puzzle, and what is produced is a piece of writing that is one solution to the puzzle. In that way, my collection of short stories was, for me, a collection of individual solutions to a general question regarding the art and craft of short fiction. What I discovered was an art akin to drama, to theater. I create characters then put them in situations; or, I imagine situations then insert characters. Variations on puzzles. What I learned was a way of speaking through masks, wherein the first person singular “I” is not me being lyrical, but some other person engaged in narrative action—it’s not me speaking.

When the first person singular “I” speaks in a poem or a creative nonfiction, that’s me. It’s like revelatory song lyrics or confessional poetry. And it’s risky to speak for yourself, and safer to speak through a character. In looking back at And Your Bird Can Sing, my collection of short fictions, there are several pieces that are very autobiographical, and so much so, that I can now see them as memoir that I didn’t recognize as such. So here is what my response to your question has been arching toward:

What I like about creative nonfiction, or lyric memoir, or lyric-narrative memoir, is the element of risk. Of being open and honest and as true as is possible to the material. It’s the risk of being vulnerable.

Ironically, while I was shaping individual pieces of creative nonfiction—memoir, lyric essays, narrative nonfiction, travelogue pieces—into a book where I was experiencing the most lyric freedom, I was concurrently shaping a new manuscript of poetry in which I was developing these sparse, minimalist prose poems that I can only define as not exactly a-lyrical, but more like lyric zero; they’re textual equivalents to Edward Hopper paintings: empty rooms where we sense the presence of people who are absent. Crazy, huh?

It’s like I transferred all my lyrical attention from my prose poems into my creative nonfiction memoir. The risk was exhilarating and the results of both manuscripts generated exciting new material through which I have discovered this: choice of genre is really about where I stand in relationship to the subject matter. It’s like the Wallace Stevens poem in which he writes, “I was of three minds,/Like a tree/In which there are three blackbirds.” If I read the three minds as the three genres I write—poetry, fiction, and now nonfiction—the blackbirds can be seen as the creative impulse. But what’s most interesting to me is that Stevens isn’t really addressing the puzzle of the three minds—instead he’s telling us that the blackbirds are in a tree. For them, it’s about where they perch. And for me, now, writing is about where I stand, finding the site that allows the best relationship to the subject matter.

I asked your friend and mine, memoirist David Giffels once if memoirists have great memories—I thought, how else to capture a moment from one’s distant past? He told me that, for him, there’s a lot of research involved, even for personal memoir—research in the way of interviews of family and friends who might have a different perspective on a past event. Can you tell us a little about your research process for one of the pieces in this book?

David is a brilliant nonfiction writer; he came into the creative nonfiction room through the journalism door. His The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt really made me keenly aware of the necessity of detail, exactness, and precision in crafting creative nonfiction. His work showed me possibilities that lead me into the creative nonfiction room. I was also influenced by the Appalachian Ohio writer Richard Hague, whom I met when we were in college together; he came to creative nonfiction through the poetry door. In his Milltown Natural, about growing up in Steubenville, Ohio—a city that is categorized as both Rust Belt and Appalachia—Richard fleshed out his collection of creative nonfiction pieces with memorable details that made his Steubenville three-dimensional. But he did something else: as a poet writing prose, the level of attention to language, syntax, the sound of words and the rhythm of sentences showed me the possibility of lyrical prose. He wonderfully disrupted my sense of how poetry and nonfiction are like lost cousins.

One of the epigrams in Ohio Apertures is from W. G. Sebald, whose creative nonfiction is mesmerizing because almost every third sentence is like a labyrinth: “You adulterate the truth as you write. There isn’t any pretense that you try to arrive at the literal truth. And the only consolation when you confess to this flaw is that you are seeking to arrive at poetic truth.” Sebald argues for the craft of writing, the attention to make art—that the idea of poetic truth is akin to an aesthetic truth. Sebald laid down the dictum to balance the literal with the poetic, and, of course, poetic license is as valid here, due the lyrical nature of both poetry and memoir. But I learned in writing my book that while the poetic/lyric/aesthetic truth is the goal, it can only be accomplished when the literal truth—much of it sharpened into precision—is researched.

The piece I recall researching the most—or perhaps the most satisfyingly—is “Desperados,” which in early drafts was very much a linear narrative only. Denver’s Capitol Hill in the 1970s; a sort of “bank” robbery; the Broker Bar on 17th Street; the culture class of the bankers, lawyers, and part-time college student working for a shady landscape company. The need for such geographical precision necessary for linear narrative is like filming a documentary. But the challenge in this piece was to get the poetic/lyric/aesthetic to be equal, co-present, operating almost like it was a character in the narrative. I began to imagine this piece as a film I could see, with me as the director and lead actor. The numerous references to film, to movie acting, the final scene where I imagine film credits, I had to research that. And when I decided a good film needs a soundtrack, I turned to Glenn Frey of the Eagles. I had to know the songs that were released before the day of the robbery, and that had me running down song lyrics.

Along the bar, bottles of liquor gathered together like an ensemble of actors in a film version of a Charles Bukowski novel. … The glint and dazzle reminded me of theater marquees on opening night. The jukebox played We may lose and we may win, we will never be here again. It could have been the final soundtrack of a movie.

As I drank that second shot of Tennessee whiskey, I swear I saw the closing credits of a film scroll down the mirror’s silver screen.

From “Desperados” by Robert Miltner

Those literal details, augmented by mirrors and movie screen allusions—as well as resonant images, emotion, language play, leaps and jump cuts—bring together the literal and the aesthetic for a poetic closure to the piece.

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In a recent post here at Rust Belt Girl, I talked about the idea of writing companions, authors we avid readers and writers follow faithfully and who shape our work. In your essay, “Into the Bargain,” you describe finding a volume of Raymond Carver’s poetry, Where Water Comes Together with Other Water at a bargain book store, and you’re “entranced and transported.” The book becomes a “talisman” for you, for what it helps you discover about yourself upon reading and re-reading. Can you tell us more about what this writing companion did for you as a poet—and a writer and as founding editor of The Raymond Carver Review?

Toward the end of that piece, I contrast J. D. Salinger’s The Cather in the Rye,a book that I felt I identified with in my adolescence, with Raymond Carver’s Where Water Comes Together with Other Water, a book that I identified with during my mid-life transition. There are books and libraries and reading throughout Ohio Apertures. I was a shy, bookish middle child who stuttered, and I became a high school teacher and then a university professor, and an author. Actually, I went on to write my doctoral dissertation on Carver’s poetry, more from a sociological lens than an aesthetic one. Raymond Carver was a sort of mirror in which I could catch a glimpse of myself: an awkward child, a kid who liked to fish, a man who was drawn to rivers and lakes, a multiple-genre writer who began as a poet, eventually a university professor, and ultimately a man who came to understand and accept his human flaws enough to seek forgiveness and atonement.

The brilliance of Carver’s writing, and in particular his poetry, is his gift of stated or implied metaphor. The water of two rivers—one the past, one the present—that converge to carry him into the future resonates imagistically in Ohio Apertures. Carver was a very autobiographical writer, so much so, that at times much of his work can be read almost like creative nonfiction. Having read his letters and manuscript drafts in library archives, as well as interviews and biographical studies, many of his poems and stories are autobiographical. He wrote what his second wife, the poet Tess Gallagher, especially in his late poetry and in many of his autobiographical stories, calls “lyric narrative poems,” that is, poems in which the poet, or more so the poet’s imagination, become the hero of the narrative. That sounds to me much like a way to describe a lyric memoir, especially one that arcs toward a “poetic truth.” As a scholar-writer, I founded The Raymond Carver Review as a scholarly journal that would recognize Carver’s impact as a writer, and the quality and value of the body of his work. He was just 50 when he died, in his eleventh year of sobriety. During his last few years be began to write essays, prose poetry, and screen plays.

From my perspective as a writer and Carver scholar, I can see he was finding new sites, new places to stand in relationship to his subject material, new ways to grow as a writer.

Can you get us up to speed with what you’re working on now?

The past two years have been an amazing culmination of several concurrent projects. I published a book of prose poems, Orpheus & Echo, in the three-in-one book Triptych by Etruscan Press in March 2020; I finished Ohio Apertures, which was published by Cornerstone Press in March; and I’ve finished a new book of prose poems, Capital of Sorrows, that is under review. The pantry is empty, so to speak.

I’ve been re-reading some of my travel notebooks, and working on some new drafts of poems; I expect I’ll see what tendencies the poems take, looking for a pattern to occur that may shape a next book of poems. I’m re-reading an early draft of a novel that I’m returning to, looking to reshape and revise it into a new draft. It’s an historical novel and there have been some recent books that I’ve acquired, as research, so as to expand my original draft. I put the book aside because I couldn’t solve the puzzles the genre posed, but I’ve re-imagined the book and will write my way to a different solution than I did the first time around. I’ve located copies of some letters written by the character whose section is epistolary, and two books, both recent, are packed with new information I will cull for what can expand the character. And for another character, one who is complex yet relatively unknown, I’m drawing from the use of cinema and documentary, the site where I’m going to stand in, as I revise that section. Also, I’m sketching out notes for a book of long pieces of creative nonfiction, tentatively titled Mid-Century. While re-reading my travel notebooks I’ve come across several pages of questions I would have liked to have asked my father if he were still alive. How interesting it is that I’m ending this interview with an idea for a second book of creative nonfiction, based on questions addressed to my late father, like one would address in an interview.

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Robert Miltner is the award-winning author of two books of prose poetry, Hotel Utopia and Orpheus & Echo, and a short story collection, And Your Bird Can Sing. A professor emeritus of English at Kent State University Stark and the Northeast Ohio MFA in Creative Writing, Miltner lives in Northeast Ohio.

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Ohio Apertures: A Lyric Memoir

by Robert Miltner

$22.00 Cornerstone Press

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Like this interview? Comment below or on my FB page. And please share with your friends and social network. Want more author interviews, book reviews, writing advice, and general Rust Belt goodness? Follow me here. Thanks! ~Rebecca

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Lit Fest Lowdown: 2020 highlights

Last year’s festival dinner view.

This year has been (among other things) one giant exercise in imagining. Imagine this is a regular writing workshop. Imagine enjoying this poetry reading in an art gallery (instead of in your bathrobe). Imagine actual happy hour. But if we writers are good at anything, it’s imagining.

So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that my favorite literary festival, the literary highlight of my year, the 2020 Fall Literary Festival hosted by Lit Youngstown (Ohio), was a great remote success. I was incredibly impressed at the quality of the craft workshops, readings, and community spirit–even from a few hundred miles away.

From the festival description, “This year’s conference [was] centered around the theme In Many Tongues, a conversation bringing together writing and publishing, literary inclusion, translating and translation…and the generational, political, ecological, and experimental elements that add to the wider literary conversation.” Whew!

If only I could have attended each and every session, heard each and every voice. But, there is only one of me, so I picked and chose from the many literary offerings. Here, I’m happy to provide highlights in the hopes I whet your appetite for next year’s festival–or a literary event in one of your favorite places in the world:

Jacqueline Marino, who edited two anthologies focused on the stories of Youngstown, Ohio, titled Car Bombs to Cookie Tables, taught a craft workshop, Write Your Rust Belt Story. You know I was there. The journalism professor and writer talked about crafting place in our stories, establishing voice, and finding the moment of connection in a piece. With a little free-writing, I started on a piece about my own Ohio hometown.

David Giffels was this year’s keynote speaker. In his talk, “Thank you Cleveland Good Night: How the reluctant writer becomes a performer,” Giffels shared his own personal story–from a shy, bookish kid to a newspaper columnist to the award-winning author and essayist–and spectacular storyteller–he is today. His latest book, Barnstorming Ohio: To Understand America is an on-the-ground look at Ohio and its people and place in American politics. For the first time, Giffels narrated his own audio book, and he related ideas of (actual) voice and (literary) voice. You write “the way you wish you could talk,” he said. And, as for writing about place, he recommended looking for what’s odd about your spot. Further, explore “a question you know you can’t answer.” (Oh, so many questions.)

Writer Quincy Flowers’ craft talk, On Polyphony: Writing a Novel and Making Meaning in Dialogue with Others discussed incorporating texts, including historical and para-texts, along with documents real and imagined, into our fiction. For this historical fiction writer, Flowers gave me a lot to think about, including, when does historical invention cross the line into untruth… and why haven’t I read more Percival Everett?

Dr. Ken Schneck, an author, editor, and professor of education, led a session called Shameless Self Promotion, which focused on helping us writers market our work–and ourselves–to build our audience for our books, journals, or even (ahem) blogs. Top takeaways: writers need a thing to market (not themselves) and a measurable goal; writers need to know who’s doing the kinds of writing we’re doing (our “comp” writers); and writers need not shy away from self promotion. Most helpful: Schneck’s discussion on the importance of our “elevator pitch.” You know, the succinct, pithy answer to “What do you do?” (I’ll share mine in the comments.) This talk also inspired me to update my About page at this blog–let me know what you think.

Fiction writer, playwright, and teacher Toni Thayer led a session called Finding your Voice in the Voices of Others, in which she urged us participants to carefully consider short pieces by “a diverse range of writers to fuel playful, creative imitation, with the end result of expanding one’s own style.” I studied a poem by Ohio poet Hanif Abdurraqib, in which music dictates the sound and the meaning of the piece–and applied some song to a WIP of my own. Refining your own voice through imitation is such great exercise!

Keynote speaker David Giffels talked shop in Relatively Speaking: Writing about Family in Personal Essays and Memoirs, and I’m happy to share some of the best tips for my writer friends here. What’s tough about writing about family, said Giffels, is we know too much. And also too little. Our own memory of an event is only the beginning. What comes next? Research. Interview family members to get their take; research events on YouTube; refresh your memory through photos and artifacts and by revisiting the place. But the bottom line in how NOT to get in trouble when writing about family, Giffels said: “empathy is everything.”

And there was so much more literary goodness over the 2+ day festival–even a happy hour.

Have you attended a literary festival or conference in this age of Zoom? What was the highlight? Any tips to share? Do you write about family on your blog or elsewhere? How do you avoid the pitfalls while telling your story? Do you have an elevator pitch at the ready, when people ask, what do you write about, what do you blog about?

Interested in Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, essays, and more? Check out my categories, above. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark

Are you a Rust Belt writer or poet interested in doing a guest spot at this blog? My more than 1,500 followers love to discover new voices. Let’s connect!

Don’t forget to stretch: A lit fest rundown…with not-pro tips

Nope. Not a churchy post. Hang tight, folks.*

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.)

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My interview with award-winning poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis

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.”

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My interview with photographer and author Johnny Joo

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.

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Home again, home again…

My mom’s old shade garden. My dad’s fence still looks good.

Jiggety-jig.

Did your mom say that nursery rhyme upon returning home (with our without the fat pig?). Mine did, and now I do the same, fully expecting the eye-rolls from the kids in the back seat.

So, I promised a photo-filled post of my trip home to Ohio, and I’m finally delivering. If you came here looking for writing advice, reviews, or interviews, please see the categories above. Or, take this advice: returning to your childhood home with your children for the first time can feel daunting, but it’s good for the soul–and stories.

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Almost Summer Round-Up

Chillin’ in the big CLE.

My boys and I celebrated the end of another school year with a trip to Ohio. Photo-heavy post to come, but for now, suffice it to say we had a blast. Hung out in CLE with one of my best friends and her son and then pressed on to to my dad’s, where we vacationed in Lake Erie Shores and Islands fashion.

As any parent will tell you, I could use a post-vacation vacation, but it’s time to get back to work, while my boys enjoy the freedom of summer vacation. First, I wanted to touch base with you and thank you for following my journey here at the blog. With my birthday coming up, I’m feeling a little reminiscent: thanks for helping to make this past year great!

Speaking of reminiscing, one of my fave smart-funny mom bloggers, Becca, interviewed me for her blog: With Love, Becca: Funny Mom, Career Coach, Storytelling Enthusiast. We chatted about my blog, about freelance writing, creative writing, rejection, and resiliency. Of course, we also talked kids and humor-as-saving-grace. And I submitted to a 90s rapid fire Q&A that took me all the way back. Good times. And such a fun interview to do. I hope you’ll check it out and follow Becca’s blog. She’s inspiring plenty of career-swiveling-fun parenting-sanity saving change over there. Developing Resiliency in Your Creative Pursuits: Q&A with Writer Rebecca Moon Ruark.

Happy almost summer! What are your plans? Vacay? Creative pursuits? And please let me know what books you’re looking to read by the pool this summer. I love suggestions!

The Shape of Things: Reading Sarah Smarsh’s HEARTLAND

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

One particular shape captured my attention freshman year of college. That was Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory triangle. Remember that one? A foundation of basic needs building up, I.M. Pei style, to more lofty psychic needs, like self-actualization: the needs-lite, if you will, that keep people like us writing and reading.

I don’t recall taking any social science courses in high school, so introductory Psychology and Sociology were a revelation. Our high school courses were cut and dry: dates, times, rules of usage, facts, and figures that were set, that didn’t depend on personal or group experience. An isosceles triangle was the same, whether it sat in a wheat field in Kansas or a steel mill in Ohio.

Of course, like shapes, people are also the same everywhere. Isn’t this what we like to think? Americans are Americans, wherever they’re set down? Heck, I grew up in Ohio, The Heart of It All (my home state’s tourism slogan then). The world was my oyster, or, perhaps, zebra mussel. But I digress…

I did not grow up in Sarah Smarsh’s American heartland of Kansas. Yet, Smarsh, the author of HEARTLAND: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, and I share enough similarities that I recognized much of the emotional terrain of her memoir. We’re both white females who were born into Catholic Midwestern families of German extraction with Amish down the road; we’re both college educated (at state schools). Only, our roads to college were decidedly different, due in large part to what sociologist and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich calls “America’s most taboo subject”: class.

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My interview with author, poet, and publisher Larry Smith

When I first met Larry Smith in Ohio, he was sporting a Cleveland Browns cap–not an unusual fashion choice for a sports venue or bar, but we were at a literary conference. From this first impression, I could sense two things: the cap wasn’t ironical and Larry was my kind of literary people.

As it turns out, the Ohio-based author, poet, and director of Bottom Dog Press/Bird Dog Publishing and I have much more in common than rooting for the home team. There’s an abiding sense of creative responsibility, a promise to tell our own stories, that comes with hailing from a place like ours. I’m going to go out on a limb and say Larry and I try to make good on that promise. Larry has definitely made good on his.

This National Poetry Month of April, Larry was also gracious enough to take the time to answer over email my questions–about the writing life and what it means to publish poems and stories rooted in place. “There is always some blurring of identity here,” says Larry, “between Larry Smith and Bottom Dog Press.”

Though much of my life is Bottom Dog Press, my life extends beyond that, and Bottom Dog Press is more than I am, too, it’s over 210 books and about 500 authors.

Let’s learn more…

Larry, how did growing up in the Rust Belt, specifically an Ohio mill town, affect your writing sensibilities and choices?

Well, this goes to the heart of it and of myself. You can’t take out of me the Ohio Valley and the working-class world I grew up in. I was nurtured on that life and those values of hard work and character, of family and neighborhood, of just accepting and caring for each other. I write from who I am, and though I worked as a college professor and live in a middle class neighborhood now, I am still that kid getting up to deliver morning papers and watch my father pack his lunch for work on the railroad. Read more