Pop Poetry

Hi, Emily. I wrote you a poem. About your show. Nothing weird about that. Nothing at all.

Sometimes we don’t want to hide our guilty pleasures. Leigh Stein, new kid on the poetry scene , has come to terms with her secret passion for The Bachelorette by turning the reality show into her personal poetry bank. She repurposed lines of dialogue and constructed poems from several episodes creating an  off-center sequence that certainly has more gravitas than its source material.

In an age where fan fiction leads to blockbusters like Fifty Shades of Grey, and an entire Internet industry is devoted to simply recapping popular shows, it isn’t too surprising that literary stars are entering the pop culture mix. Is Stein’s work satirical commentary or fan-girl homage? Does it have to be one or the other? Read more »

One from Star Trek, One from the New Mexico Statutes

The other day, I sat having coffee with a friend who has just entered his second year of law school. We talked about the tomes he carries to class, the massive amounts of reading and writing, and the creativity needed to frame information as arguments.

He surprised me with an off-the-cuff comment, saying, “You know the thing that most prepared me for law school? Legal writing feels like composing Star Trek fan fiction.”

Fan fiction is—in case you’ve missed the Fifty Shades of Grey racket—derivative work that appropriates the setting, characters, and sometimes, longer arcs to create a new story. I was floored: I immediately understood his metaphor. I worked it out a little more and asked him some questions, so in case you are wondering whether you can put your fan fic cred next to your LSAT score on that up-coming application, here’s a reconstruction of our conversation:

Both have an Official Narrative. The story bible of American law comes from court opinions, commentaries, and of course, bills passed on Capitol Hill. When researching, that’s a lot of conceptual material to draw upon. The Star Trek canon, while disputed, is also fairly developed: over six hundred television episodes and eleven feature films have contributed to the Starfleet’s universe.

“Sorting through all of that source material gave me the patience and stamina needed for legal research,” he said. “I developed a sense of how the whole fits together, so that even if I don’t know where a passage is, I know where to find it—whether it’s biographical information on Captain James T. Kirk or something on acequias and water rights.”

But his metaphor extended beyond research as an act—Star Trek fan fiction taught him about constructing an argument that works within the confines of an accepted reality. While the Official Narrative is fragmented, storylines and premises offered by the source must be followed. If you are presenting an argument to the court, it has to fit in what has been established in our legal universe. Read more »

Monet’s Summer Poetry Challenge — The End


Today I leave Spokane. Tomorrow, I leave the Pacific Northwest. I will still be lawless.


The Summer Poetry Challenge proved to be the accurate moniker for these six poems. Every week I dreaded my own assignments, and yet every week (except for Historical Figures) I was able to produce a poem. Lots of writers have talent, that intangible, unmeasurable quality. Yes, it’s a gift. And most writers have flashes of inspiration, another gift. But what good are these presents if they’re not put to constant use? If they are not stretched and tugged into new directions? Attempting a poem prompt, especially one that doesn’t immediately appeal to your aesthetic is a poem prompt worth attempting. For those of you who were as frustrated as me, who scrapped draft after draft until you gave in, but who tried, I thank you. Read more »

Essays: The Touchstones of Friendship

I sped through Powell’s Books on my way home from Cannon Beach on Tuesday.  I spent $98.00 and bought fourteen books, a great accomplishment as it usually takes me an hour just to orient myself.  I succeeded in this feat because I was prepared; I had a list and stuck to it, with the exception of one impulse buy–the 2009 Best American Essays with the goldenrod cover and Mary Oliver introduction.

I bought this anthology because it sits on my dear friend Perry’s bookshelf.  Perry, who studies under the spiritual formation of the Jesuits and is earning his master’s in applied philosophy, is one of my favorite readers of my writing.  He is willing to see the best in what I have created while intuiting how much better my work could become.   Mary Oliver’s introductory essay has been the center of many of our conversations about writing, so much so that we refer to our favorite lines as “what Mary said.”  We quote Mary when we discuss the purpose of nonfiction–consider why it matters and what it’s for–read bits of essays out loud to each other over the phone, and wonder why, when we do, the world seems to hold together a little tighter.

Over the course of our friendship, I have lived in Philadelphia, Spokane, and a small village in Chile, and my Jesuit has lived in Chicago, Guatemala, and Columbia.  Our visits are infrequent.  We also lack time in our days to write each other really good letters, the kind that you can read over and over, the kind that a dear friend deserves.  Fortunately, we have what Mary said to hold us together:  “We speak a good deal these days of the loss of community,” she said, “and many of us feel we have lost something very precious.  Essays can move us back into this not-quite-lost realm.  Tackling a hundred subjects, in a hundred different styles, they are like letters from a stranger that you cannot bear to throw away.”

Although community is scarce and the people who we love usually live too far away, there are still vehicles for true connection.  The essay is one such vehicle.  It aspires to create an intimacy between writer and reader, a tenuous yet lasting bridge between strangers, just as it provides a touchstone for conversations between friends. It is a space through which an established relationship can strengthen.  Mary’s words help sustain our dialogue. Her essay reminds me that we are part of a greater conversation, and that true and lasting connection is possible.  Like staring at the moon, we bury our faces in the earnest truth of the same pages.  We read the familiar lines and feel held in a world that would otherwise pull apart.  I’m glad to finally have this essay on my shelf, that it’s now close enough to touch whenever I need it.

The Math of Simultaneous Submission

My story is the 247th from the left. No, not that one. The other one. No. Nevermind.

In honor of the beginning of submission season this month, in which we cast all our hopes and dreams at the feet of first-year grad students (no criticism express or implied; we were all there once), a conversation about math:

I had never considered the mathematical implications of simultaneous submission. Or, to be a bit more honest, I had only considered the math from the perspective of a writer. I had thought: As a prose writer, I’m doing well to have three pieces ready for submission at any given time, and if I only submit each piece to one journal, that means–what?–three rounds of submission for each piece in a school-year submission cycle. Given the ten billion-to-one odds that some diligent reader pulls my story out of the slush on a day when she is awake, not hung-over, not distracted by the myriad other responsibilities piled on grad students, and that she then proceeds to read the whole story with a mind open to the possibility of literary success, not crippled by a narrow aesthetic, not in the workshop-engrained fault-finding mode in which everything except that one Alice Munro/Flannery O’Connor/Ray Carver story fails, given those seemingly insurmountable odds, the idea of three reads per year per story feels as arbitrary and futile as a lottery ticket. Read more »

How to Say “Home”

I’m heading back to Pennsylvania in a week to visit my family, see some friends, and take a mini-vacation from Spokane before I start my second and final year in the MFA program. When I tell people I’ll be out of town, I say, “I’m going home.” But I wonder if that statement is quite right anymore. I’ve lived in Spokane almost a year now and also refer to my apartment here as “home,” but I didn’t at first. I was careful to say “I’m going back to my apartment” because it wasn’t a home to me yet. I felt strange living on my own in a city I didn’t like or understand. Spokane has really grown on me in the last year, but I still don’t know if it’s a place I belong to. In general I feel comfortable and know my way around. I have friends here, I have a coffee place that I frequent, I have a cat. But I don’t plan to stay here after I graduate. I can’t see myself settling here, putting down roots.

I tell people I’m from Philadelphia, but in reality, I grew up 40 minutes north of the city. So while I think of Philly as my city, and I can show you where to get the best cheesesteaks and what road to take to get the best view of Boathouse Row and the Art Museum at night and where the Magic Gardens are, I don’t know its nooks and crannies like someone who grew up in the city would. I still refer to my house in PA as “home” because it’s the place I’ve lived the longest, and even though I went back for the summers while I was in college, I haven’t truly lived there in two years. And while it’s a place I feel rooted to and have history in, I don’t think I’ll end up back there after my time in Spokane is finished. Read more »

The Semi-Painful Reevaluation

I have this whiteboard calendar at home that rules my life. Yesterday I made my September calendar, and calculated that  I have about two more weeks of freedom before the real scholastic panic sets in. This summer, I was lucky, and financially was able to stick to part-time work. It’s a bonus that I work at a radio station with half hour stretches to read and lollygag and pretend like I’m friends with Garrison Keillor. This summer has been glorious in more ways than one.

The autumn of my discontent:  veering from declarative (“write.“) to excited (“write!”) to panicked/confused (“write?!”) to questioning my very purpose in the universe (“write?”).

I decided early on that I would devote my bountiful free time to my thesis. It was an experiment: if I’m not exhausted by a full-time job, if I’m not teaching, if I’m not in a workshop, how much writing can I get done?  Without formal motivations, can I still feel (and more importantly, act) like the writer I am studying and hoping and crossing my fingers so dang hard to be?

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Cover Art, “Asters,” by Sarah Grew

Often I’m at the wrong place at the right time, meaning the right time for something wrong to happen. I’ve had to quit three jobs since moving to Germany. Quitting a job is like breaking up with someone. You want to pretend it’s working or that it can, but a voice keeps calling from an echoey quarry, Quit trying to fool yourself. And how is there always heartbreak? Maybe just mine.

The most recent failed attempt at working is the biggest work failure I’ve had in my work-full life. After teaching for a little over a month, I realized my boss was certifiably nuts—inconsistent, disrespectful, dishonest, and manipulative. I had another job offer and gave my notice (six weeks required, according to my boss, even though I’m not an employee of the language school but a freelancer so they don’t have to give me any benefits).

This is where it gets good. My former boss claimed I had breached my contract twice, though she didn’t tell me what I did that constituted breaches. The contract is in German and it turns out the English “translation” contains completely different information than the binding German one. Somehow she determined that the school didn’t have to pay me for the five weeks of teaching I’d done. Instead, she insisted that I owed the school 200 Euros. Read more »

Fast Talkers: Am I Hearing Voices, And If So, Where Is It Coming From?


At a friend’s suggestion, I just finished reading The Sisters Brothers, a western noir by Patrick DeWitt.  It is a novel that you open and find yourself a quarter of the way through in your first sitting, even though you feel like you haven’t been reading for even an hour.  This is usually a good sign in a novel, and it is certainly so for The Sisters Brothers.  Set during the California goldrush, The Sisters Brothers is about a pair of brothers who are hired killers.  They are sent by a rich and powerful criminal called The Commodore from Oregon City to San Francisco and to the gold hills to seek out and kill a man who has allegedly committed a theft against The Commodore.  Older brother Charlie is the psychopathic alpha dog, while Eli, our narrator, is the smarter, younger brother with a bit of a conscience.  DeWitt manages to create a story with a lot of literary merit within the double genre confines of a western noir.  While I wouldn’t call the characters flat, they are a bit stock; buddies whose power dynamic shifts over the course of the story.  Likewise the trajectory of the story is somewhat predictable, not in its details, but in its form, as we are reasonably certain that everyone the Sisters Brothers meet on their way to the gold fields, they will encounter on their return (unless, of course, they have killed them, in which case they will have to at least reckon with the consequences of those actions).

Nonetheless, it is a fantastic novel and I would recommend it to anyone.  It has received numerous rave reviews, was a New York Times’ bestseller, and will most certainly be turned into a Hollywood film at some point.  A blurb from the Los Angeles Times on the cover reads, “If Cormac McCarthy had a sense of humor, he might have concocted a story like Patrick DeWitt’s bloody, darkly funny western.”  I would argue that McCarthy most certainly does have a sense of humor (albeit quite a bit darker than most people’s), but that aside, the blurb does accurately give an overall feel for what the reader can look forward to.

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Back to School: A Mixtape

Future generations will never understand this connection.

While classes at EWU don’t officially start until September, a lot of schools on the semester plan are starting up. You know what that means? Yes. The obligatory back to school mixtape. I had a tough time compiling this mixtape since there are so many songs that unearth that familiar autumn nostalgia in me. But I did my best to narrow it down to 10 songs. Let’s just listen to the tunes and forget about all of the stuff we should have done over the summer, shall we? Enjoy.   Read more »

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