Sugar Run by Mesha Maren

Disclosure: Mesha is a visiting faculty member at my MFA program and a friend.


Sugar Run has been getting a lot of press, and it’s well deserved. This is an astonishing novel.

Jodi was seventeen years old when she was sentenced to life in prison. Eighteen years later, she is surprised to find herself paroled. She never thought this would happen, even as the lawyers and appeals pressed forward around her. Now she steps out the gates and is surprised to see that she’s been surrounded by mountains all these years in Georgia – mountains she couldn’t see, but that make her feel just that much closer to the mountains of her West Virginia home.

Jodi heads south before going home, though, to track down a boy she should have helped all those years before. She is surprised to find him transformed into a man she does not recognize; if time stood still for Jodi in prison, it hasn’t for the rest of the world. In short order, Jodi collects as well as a partial family in crisis; as she drives a new friend’s Chevette into rural West Virginia and up the mountain she calls home, the life and hopes she’s building may already be falling apart.

In flashback sections, we learn as well about the past, chiefly the buildup to the crime that got Jodi life in prison as a minor. The cast of characters is not small: Jodi’s mother, father, beloved grandmother, and younger twin brothers; Paula, a woman important to Jodi in her youth, along with her parents and brother; Jodi’s new friend Miranda, estranged from her pop singer husband, with three young sons and a coterie of associates; and the inhabitants of the West Virginia hilltop Jodi returns to, from fracking workers to activists and the locals she’s known all her life – or at least for its first seventeen years.

It’s a remarkable story. For one thing, the lives of Appalachian lesbian women are not much seen in literature, and women in prisons are somewhat underrepresented as well. (Mesha teaches writing in a women’s prison, so she has the research to back up that element.) But equally importantly, as a plot, it rips. From Jodi to Miranda, from past to present, the reader is kept totally absorbed (I would like to thank Mesha for getting me through six hours in the waiting room of an auto shop). It’s a fully realized world to fall into.

I also appreciated the strong sense of place. Jodi is deeply committed to her late grandmother’s cabin and property on a hilltop threatened by extractive industry: a classic West Virginia story, in a way, but one thoroughly fleshed out and real here. The place itself is described as carefully as the characters are. I realize that I’m portraying this book as both character- and plot-driven; it is also about the sentences, which weave and wend and take their time painting pictures as much as moving either plot or characterization along. Pacing-wise, it might be mid-range. The plot has momentum and keeps me turning pages; but the sentences take time for beauty.

This is a fine and multi-faceted novel, and I love it. Congrats, Mesha.


Rating: 8 hands.

Leaping Poetry by Robert Bly

Note: I’m out of pocket during my final residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond.


I read this little collection of poems and essays for Diane Gilliam’s seminar, “As If the Top of My Head Were Taken Off: Getting More Energy Into Our Poems.” Robert Bly offers his own essays on what he believes poetry should be: that poems should leap, not plod, that they should make wild associations, that they should answer to our animal instincts. He argues that in the Christian world and particularly in “America” (by which I surmise he really means the United States), we have gotten too safe, gotten away from the leap. Alongside his own essays, Bly collects poems he admires (including one of his own), to illustrate his points.

I enjoyed many of the poems, and I found Bly’s commentary interesting, but often problematic. (Here’s where I acknowledge that this book was originally published in 1972, so we can choose to make certain allowances, if we’re so inclined.) For one thing, his assessment of contemporary poetry (more than a generation ago now) is very much defined by national borders. French poets are good; Spanish poets are “much greater”; American poets have “faltered” (in the 1940s and 50s), and are now turning to the South Americans (parse that). I can allow that there is such a thing as a national “school” of poetry or of thought, although I suspect that’s less and less true in the age of swift international communication – which is quite a bit different from 1972, of course, and is still limited by language – one of Bly’s great concerns is that not enough fine Spanish-language poetry has been translated into English (when he says “Spanish,” does he mean coming from Spain? or merely Spanish-language? how concerning). But I think to say that Spanish poets are better than French poets are better than American poets is disturbingly close to racism, or nationalism. It caused me to stumble several times. Was this okay in 1972?

Also, I find myself exasperated that Bly has collected 32 poems (and 2 epigraphs) here, and 31 of those poems (and both epigraphs) were written by men. (Thank you, Marguerite Young, for representing half the world.) I assume that I’m to conclude from this that women just about cannot write good poetry at all… I know, 1970s, but still I’m disgruntled.

As a much smaller point, I wondered at the assertion that “the desert contains almost no mammal images.” This is in the course of a very interesting essay about the “three brains” (reptile, mammal, and ‘new’), and meditation, and accessing different parts of ourselves. This essay was the part of the whole book that I most engaged with. He sets up a desired move from reptile brain to new brain, through the mammal brain, necessitating a journey to “the forest” (he uses quotation marks) and finally to the desert, where an absence of “mammal images” lets us then move to the new brain. Well, I’m intrigued, if not sold. With those quotation marks, “the forest” becomes more archetypal than literal, perhaps, and I can permit that a similarly archetypal desert has fewer mammals than an archetypal forest. But as a lover of a very real desert in particular (that has mammals in it), I stumbled, again.

Leaping Poetry is, at least, an interesting book to engage (and possibly argue) with. I haven’t even touched on his theories of poetry, since I always feel underqualified. As I say every semester about the challenging readings I’m assigned for seminars, I’m looking forward to what Diane Gilliam does with this in her class. I’m sure it will be wonderful.


Rating: 5 stains on a handkerchief.

traveling

Happy holidays, y’all, and a reminder that I am off and traveling for school – for the last time, my fifth and final residency. I’ll be back in Texas the second week of January, to pick up my dog and my van and carry on down the road. And let you back in on my readings. Again, I’m super fortunate to keep my job reviewing for Shelf Awareness, so you’ll continue seeing those posts. And who knows what else the future holds!

As usual, I’ve got posts scheduled for you in my absence, but comment response time may be a bit slower than normal while I’m away. In fact, there may be a slower new-normal, as I live in a van from here on! Also as usual, thanks for your patience. I hope you have a lovely holiday season & a hopeful new year.

Writing the Personal Essay

Hey folks, another quick digression here (and bonus Saturday post!). I didn’t want anyone to miss a great opportunity. Creative Nonfiction‘s online classes are about to get a great boost, when Matt Randal O’Wain teaches an upcoming section of “Writing the Personal Essay.” Matt is a visiting faculty member with my MFA program this semester, which means I got to study with him at this recent residency, and I was really pleased to get to know him. He’s a great guy, personable and thoughtful and considerate and we share some interests; more importantly for these purposes, he’s also a well-read, thoughtful, insightful teacher. Register here! This Monday is your last day to get discounted registration for this course, and I have a coupon code to share with you to get an additional $50 off! I’m not sure I should post that here, but drop me a line at julia@pagesofjulia.com and I will get you the code asap.

If you have any questions about CNF’s courses, or about Matt, also drop me a line or comment here and I’d be glad to share what I can.

Thanks for reading. Back to your weekend.

in loving memory

Please indulge me with today’s digression from our regularly scheduled broadcast.

Just a few days after returning from this summer’s residency at West Virginia Wesleyan, my classmates and our faculty members and I heard some terrible news. One of our own had died suddenly in the middle of the night of a heart attack. Okey was well-loved. We entered the program together, both of us nonfiction students, although he was set to graduate a semester later, because he took on a semester of cross-genre study in fiction. He was well on his way to completing an autobiographical novel. This semester was his critical essay semester, and he was excited to compose a play at the same time.

Okey

I wrote these words for a post at the MFA program’s blog:

My friend Okey was a caretaker. The first, last, and middle memories I have of him involve him inquiring into my various small troubles: he wanted to be sure I was safe, healthy, and had what I needed to be happy. He wanted to give advice and assistance where he could. He was concerned for me. He wanted pictures of any man I would consider dating; he wanted to know how my mother was doing. He had many fine qualities: he was funny, sassy, wise, and selfless. But what I remember most was his deep concern for me, and in this respect I know I was not special. He cared for the many people he loved in this way. He wanted to take care of us.

Others in this program have written about him finding a home here, support and community that he needed. I’m glad we had that to offer him, and I don’t doubt the truth of these statements. But I never much considered what we had to give to Okey; I always saw much more what he gave to us. Thank you, friend.

Okey James Napier, Jr.


I haven’t come up with anything better than this, although he deserves better. It’s been another month or so and I’m still having trouble articulating what we all lost. I still miss Okey. He was a fan and cheerleader of this blog. He was anxious to help me through any minor, personal troubles I encountered. He used to “stalk” my social media account (his word!) so he could ask after the people and issues in my life. We didn’t live near each other, so I didn’t realize, til he was gone, how big a role he played in my day-to-day life. I miss him terribly.

All of this is to say that there’s a plea in today’s post, y’all, and again thank you for listening. The MFA program has set up a scholarship in Okey’s honor, and as we are hoping to get it endowed, we have a fundraising goal. This is a scholarship in support of diversity and inclusion, causes Okey cared about greatly.

Okey’s drag persona, Ilene Over


I have never and would never ask you for money for myself, but this is a good cause for a program, and in honor of a person, I care for deeply. If you’re able to give anything at all, won’t you please consider giving here? And if you’d rather save the fees assessed by this web service, there is a way to give offline. Please drop me a line at julia@pagesofjulia.com for those details.

Again, that’s the Okey Napier, Jr. Diversity & Inclusion MFA Scholarship at West Virginia Wesleyan College, and I appreciate you considering, and reading this post.

Hug your loved ones. Tell them you love them.

The Rope Swing: Stories by Jonathan Corcoran

Disclosure: this author, Jonathan Corcoran, is a repeating visiting faculty member at my MFA program, and one of my favorite people. I always aspire to tell you exactly what I think of a book, but I can’t claim objectivity here because I think Jon is wonderful.


That said, The Rope Swing is also a wonderful book. This is a collection of linked stories, sharing not characters, so much (although there are some glancing exceptions), but setting and theme. Most of the stories take place in a small town in West Virginia; the last two take place in New York City, where a native of the small town has resettled. Some of the stories are told in first person, some in third, and the first story, “Appalachian Swan Song,” is told in first-personal plural, using the ‘we’ pronoun. I appreciate this choice. This first story is really about setting the scene and the tone for the rest of the book: we are in a small town that is seeing a twilight of sorts, on the day the last passenger train leaves town. It is a mood of elegy, and with some conflicted feelings about the place. The use of a collective pronoun is perfect, because this story focuses on no person in particular, but on the town and its inhabitants collectively. In this story we see a few characters very briefly who will star in their own stories later; but this collection doesn’t follow anyone in particular. The title story, “The Rope Swing,” is referred to in a later story, but it’s a quick glance.

The theme-thread that unites these stories is the experience of LGBTQ characters in this particular setting. There are a few characters that the town acknowledges as a little different, like the florist, who was “funny, we knew, in a light green shirt and a darker green ties the color of a rose stem, but he was also harmless.” Others have a harder time, like the young man who leaves for New York City.

The strengths of the collection are as broad as these characters. Having heard Jon read a few times, I was not the least bit surprised to find lovely writing at the sentence level; he has clearly paid close attention to sound and rhythm and word choice. The small actions and attentions of his characters portray lots of personality economically. About a woman who has inherited the house of a close friend, who had in turn inherited it from his parents:

She had thrown everything out of the refrigerator. She didn’t care if the jam was good for another year; that jam didn’t belong to her. In this way, she had claimed dominion over an appliance.

The place as character is one of my favorite features of the book; I love a strong sense of place, as you know, but also it’s just so beautifully done here. The book opens, “We had forgotten how much we loved our mountains in the summertime.” Such a simple sentence, but it has a definite beat and lilt to it. And what follows is description; but description with momentum and pull, easy to read and easy to see and feel. Perhaps the key is that all the details–“young leaves of the maples and sycamores,” “rivers of meltwater sprint[ing] down the cliff faces”–are experienced by the ‘we,’ seen and heard and felt and thought and remembered, rather than just delivered to us as exposition.

This author knows how to use metaphor, as in this lovely image, when a grieving woman looks up at a tree:

But then, there was the thing she hadn’t noticed before: the end of that same branch had begun growing up again, at a right angle, the wood bending toward the sky.

But it’s not heavy-handed. My quick impression is that this is not a book that relies much on metaphor, but rather, it tells the world as seen and experienced, and leaves it to the reader to make meaning. That may be a deceptive impression. If I were to go back over these stories looking for literary devices or tricks like metaphor, I might find many. But their subtlety only speaks of their power.

I appreciate, too, how these stories are organized. As I work, this semester, to write a thesis in the form of an essay collection, I’m thinking a lot about organization. I have the impression that these stories come chronologically, although that feeling is somewhat loose, since we don’t follow a single character. The timeline feels organic, though. And most impressively (as I struggle through my own work!), there is a definite feeling of accretion: each story references oh-so-subtly what’s come before, builds on the details of the town or a single image from three stories ago, to increase its impact.

Clearly, a fine example of many skills: sentence-level writing, characterization, setting, subtlety in theme, organization and structure. I’m deeply impressed, and that’s not something I would say just because I like Jon. As a bonus, this is a region, and particularly a set of experiences within a region, that’s not been written about enough. Do check out The Rope Swing. It’s well worth your time.


Rating: 9 mottled leaves of the philodendron plant.

residency readings, part II


Note: I am just returning from residency this week and slowly reentering regular life (whatever that means). I’ll be back on regular comment response, etc., very soon. Thanks as always for your patience and for reading!


I see a pattern with Richard Schmitt, who tends to teach us about the mechanics of story: process, form, scene, plot, and now dialog. His reading packet was concise, comprising two short stories, by Katherine Mansfield and Sam Shepard respectively. They were excellent reading! I do recommend both: good examples of dialog, yes, but also just fast-paced good reading. I think these are exemplars of what dialog can do for story, and I’m looking forward to this seminar.

Surprise! The poetry segment went fine! Guest poetry faculty Remica Bingham-Risher assigned a packet of ten poems and a micro-essay, and they read easily–musically, of course, but also comprehensibly, which I found a rare treat. Her seminar is on “mining the spark,” or using research to “find inspiration but balance creativity with the facts.” I like this idea: inspiration in research, as well as groundedness and appropriate detail, but retaining the creative flair, too. Perhaps because these poems were so well grounded in reality (history, research, detail), they worked well for me, which you know is somewhat rare. I’m excited.

Nathan Poole (who wrote Father Brother Keeper – talk about making connections) assigned a nice variety of stories starring marginalized characters: Chekhov’s “Gooseberries,” Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” and Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” all worth reading and studying for their beauty and pain and detail and universality… but oh, the final story, “Kidding Season,” by Lydia Peele. I am nearly dead with heartbreak. I am upset with Peele, and upset with Poole for assigning this story. A fine piece of literature, I’m sure, but not for us tenderhearted people. I can’t take it. I’m devastated.

Nathan Poole, you have some talking to do at residency to make this up to me.

Doug Van Gundy assigned two chapters from Hugo’s The Triggering Town, which I rated highly but on this reading, I must say, I don’t remember there being so many pretty girls, emphasis on the prettiness (or not) of the girls, the importance of prettiness to girls and to men. Aside from that, I believe I can see where Doug is headed and I look forward to hearing more. His packet was completed by a perfectly lovely James Wright poem about places. (Doug’s seminar is “The Line in the Landscape”: right up my alley.)

And finally my dear friend Delaney McLemore, who is graduating at this residency and therefore teaching us a seminar on her way out, assigned a book AND a packet: always the overachiever! (I’m teasing. As she points out at the start of the readings, this book is under 100 pages, with pictures.) I dutifully reread Two or Three Things I Know For Sure, and I think I did get more out of it this time. I marked more lovely lines, like “…the yellow kitchens of our childhood, where Mama hung her flowered curtains every time we moved, as if they were not cotton but spirit.” I noted for the first time that this book began as a performance piece. I made some notes about the placement of pictures, in anticipation of Delaney’s seminar: she’s teaching on “art and artifacts,” and I know she has a special interest in photographs in particular. I didn’t really find that the photographs in this book did much more for me on this read than they did the first time, though: I think I’m liable to glance and skim past them. I’m interested in what she’ll teach us.

The essay she assigned, “Proof of Life: Memoir, Truth, and Documentary Evidence” by Carolyn Kraus, I found fascinating. Kraus writes of her work on a memoir of her father’s life, which was necessarily an act of speculation, because of how little she knew about her father. This gave her discomfort, and she searched first for the concrete, official, public sort of documentation that would both inform her work and give it legitimacy in the age of James Frey; but these documents were nearly nonexistent. She ended up with a collection of far more obfuscating private documents, which informed her work some, but better, gave her confidence. (And, of course, the story of seeking documentation, and the story of what she did and didn’t find and how it all happened, becomes part of the larger story, which is a feature in memoir I always appreciate.) It’s almost as if the mere existence of such documents, even if they don’t give much new information, adds something: look, here is his handwriting. He existed.

Finally, I did read the optional essay as well – “Telling Stories in Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know for Sure” – by Tim Dow Adams, and I’m glad I did. He had some thoughts in particular about the photographs that make me feel better prepared for this session.

I got to feeling that I was behind on my reading for this residency, but I wasn’t really – just behind my own usual schedule. By the time you’re reading this, residency has already concluded; but as I’m writing this, I’m really looking forward to it. I’m sure I’ll have a report for you soon, and I’m sure I’ll be enthused again about another semester – my last in this program. Thanks for following along.

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