Friday, October 20, 2017

FRANCINE WITTE

Francine Witte is the author of the poetry chapbooks Only, Not Only (Finishing Line Press, 2012) and First Rain (Pecan Grove Press, 2009), winner of the Pecan Grove Press competition, and the flash fiction chapbooks Cold June (Ropewalk Press), selected by Robert Olen Butler as the winner of the 2010 Thomas A. Wilhelmus Award, and The Wind Twirls Everything (MuscleHead Press). Her latest poetry chapbook, Not All Fires Burn the Same, won the 2016 Slipstream chapbook contest. Her full-length poetry collection, Café Crazy, is forthcoming from Kelsay Books. She lives in New York City.

Were you driven or drawn to poetry? In other words, is your relationship to it passionate or practical? Please explain.

I have always loved writing poetry. When I was in second grade, I was writing song lyrics and later, much later, learned about craft, that is, imagery, metaphor, etc. There are several things that I love about poetry. I love how specifically language can be shaped and crafted. This goes back to your question – the craft part is the practical part. I love the passion of getting the emotion, but I equally enjoy “working” the poem. So it’s both. I also enjoy the aspect of poetry that can’t be explained. You can put everyday words on a page, but the specific combination you as the poet choose, creates a magic of what isn’t spoken. It’s very intoxicating.

The poems of yours I have read carry a strong emotional punch. "Dream Lover" and "Party, 1991," to name two. What are your main themes and concerns in your poetry?

The main theme in most of my poems is relationships. This comes in many forms--the relationships with lovers, family, and to the natural world. I am most interested in creating a true-sounding experience, even if it’s not fact. I write poetry and fiction, not memoir. So I like to take the essence of truths I have experienced and re-shape them. I also like to stretch the limit of language in that I want to say something in a way I have never heard it said before.

How has the winning of awards in your career influenced you, if at all, creatively speaking?

I have been very fortunate in the award-winning realm. I think it’s been a reinforcement, certainly, in that it does say that my poem or story stood out. It doesn’t make me write any differently. But I will say that sometimes I do write a poem or a flash fiction and it just works in a way that my other things don’t. Usually it’s a concept that is pretty original, and if that concept is executed successfully, then I believe it has a good chance at getting noticed in a contest.

Where do you see yourself now as a writer? What has changed most in your evolution as a poet and writer?

Right now, I’m pretty excited about my writing. I have my first full-length collection of poetry, Café Crazy, (Kelsay Books) due out soon, and I am writing a lot of flash fiction.  I go to many poetry readings and that keeps my writing fairly fresh as I like to have new material to read. Facebook has also been great in terms of networking and exposure. I have had many opportunities to publish that I would not have had without FB.

I feel like I’m where I belong now, in terms of my writing.  I am comfortable with the idea of having published a collection of poems, and would now like to have a full-length collection of my flash fiction stories published. Other than that, I will just keep growing as a writer in terms of perfecting craft, etc.


                                                             FRANCINE WITTE 



Friday, October 13, 2017

EILEEN MURPHY


A former Chicagolander, Eileen (Mish) Murphy lives with her husband and three dogs 30 miles from Tampa, Florida. She received her Masters degree from Columbia College, Chicago. She teaches literature/English at Polk State College in Lakeland and has recently published poetry in Tinderbox (nominated for Pushcart Prize), Rogue AgentThirteen Myna Birds, The Open Mouse, Writing In A Woman’s Voice, and a number of other journals. She is a staff writer for Los Angeles-based Cultural Weekly magazine. She also does book reviews and photography. Her website is mishmurphy.com.

Since I don’t know too much about you and part of the mission of WritersnreadersII is to introduce artists and writers to other artists and writers, can you tell us a little about the different creative hats you wear. Do you use or prefer the label of artist? How do you define yourself as an artist?

I am a poet, a full-time tenured professor of English composition and literature at Polk State College, Lakeland, Florida, a non-fiction writer of book reviews, staff writer for the L.A.-based Cultural Weekly, and a visual artist.

During the college school year, a lot of my energy is focused on my students at Polk State College in Lakeland, where I’m also adviser to the Creative Writing Club, which I founded five years ago. My vision has been to improve writing and literary awareness on campus. But I wouldn’t be the teacher I am if I wasn’t at heart a writer and visual artist, my passion for which spills out in everything I do in the classroom.

I pursue my writing and visual arts in my “leisure time” ( I do get time off in the summer). My poetry has been widely published, and I’ve completed a first collection of poetry, The Knife Tree, for which I’m currently pursuing publication. I’ve been a poet for as long as I can remember—in my heart, I’m a poet.

In recent years, I became interested in doing reviews of poetry books as a way of improving my understanding of poetry. The non-fiction articles I write for Cultural Weekly improve my overall writing and keep me on my toes.

I have always used my photo/visual art as a kind of no-pressure relaxation activity. In the last year or so, I developed a different, unique style. My photos are now on show in a gallery in Tampa. The prints are for sale at the gallery and through my website.

What sorts of materials do you use and are you drawn to using and why? What are your subjects?

In my poetry, I like writing about Florida; I also write about girlhood, and the deaths of a brother and grandmother, both of whom were important to me. Sometimes I feel compelled to write about war or global warming or some issue that’s on my mind. I occasionally write sonnets, haiku, or prose poems, although I usually write free verse. I compose poetry on a computer.

Each poetry book I review is a new adventure. I use a pen and notebook to write out notes about every page, every poem. To date, the articles I’ve written as a staff writer for Cultural Weekly have all had a tie to Florida, but I know that won’t always be the case. I interview people with my pen and notebook, but also record at times, using my cellphone’s recorder, which I recommend. (Samsung).

My subjects as a visual artist might be considered unusual. I did a project where I photographed the geckos that live around our front porch—their technical name is anoles. They’re lizards that look like dinosaurs close up, but are gentle, shy, eat insects and don’t bite. I use Photoshop and other computer programs to get a final psychedelic image of these geckos I n tropical colors and to transform them in various ways. They represent my current photo art obsession, which I am naming, “Gecko Art.”

When did you first discover you were an artist? What form did that discovery take?—did someone label you an artist? Did you receive praise that hit home? Win a contest? Feel a sense of accomplishment at executing a particular work?

I knew I wanted to be a writer after I graduated from college, but my parents wanted me to go to law school. I graduated from law school convinced that it had been a wrong move, but determined to give it a chance. However, things didn’t work out—I hated being a lawyer. It was then I decided to go back to grad school and get my masters in creative writing. I did it at night and paid for it myself. I was fortunate to be able to attend Columbia College in downtown Chicago, not far from where I worked. Making the decision to go to grad school in creative writing, and then the faculty and program at Columbia College, first made me feel like a real writer.

I never considered myself a professional visual artist until I was validated by strangers. On a plane trip I took this spring to Denver, I met a couple of artists from Tampa who said they owned some art galleries. I showed them my “Gecko Art,” on my cell phone, and they said they were impressed and would be in touch. What were the chances this was legit? But it was, and now my “Gecko Art” is hanging at a respectable gallery in Tampa. The reception was last Saturday and everything worked out. Although this wasn’t my first gallery show, it was professionally done and the first where I believe someone might buy something. Now I feel like an artist.

What kinds of obstacles have you encountered in your creative/artistic life and how have you met them?

My family did not support my becoming a writer or artist, so I can’t tell you how much self-doubt I’ve had to overcome on that account. To give them credit, my parents were concerned that I be able to earn a living and thought “writer” or “artist” was another name for “poor person.” At the time I graduated from college, I remember there was a nationwide low in hiring of English teachers, which put that career on the “no go” list. I kept writing things like poetry and short stories, while doing as my parents wanted. Eventually, however, my non-interest in a legal career got the better of me and I changed to the teaching of writing and went to grad school in creative writing, which improved my life.

My main obstacle in becoming a visual artist was myself. I had my mind made up that I couldn’t master the crazy intricacies of professional cameras- f-stops, film speeds and so forth. Two summers ago, at Polk State College, I managed to complete my first professional photography class with a grade of A. Before that, I’d been enrolled in a number of photography classes both in Florida and in Illinois that I dropped out of, sorry to say. However, it was in the 90s that Calyx Journal published one of my photos, giving me encouragement to continue. I didn’t really need it—I was doing it for the joy of doing it. I eventually learned the technical stuff. I wish I hadn’t been so negative about that!

What are your feelings and thoughts regarding success as a professional—opportunities to show at galleries and museums, sales, etcetera. How would you gauge your own success? What advice, if any, would you impart to a young, aspiring artist?

I’m in this writing thing for the long haul. Are you also ready? There’s a few things I’ve learned.

I believe in NatPoMo group projects and other writing with a group or with a partner. Collaboration is a joy. I believe in Peer Review. I believe in cross-training: fiction writers writing poetry, poets writing fiction, poets and fiction writers writing articles, poets writing memoir. We should all try to write haiku, for example, anything and everything to keep the writing juices flowing. I believe in experimentation.

I believe in helping other writers and in having writer friends. Having writer friends makes the writing lie so much easier. Gather your writer friends like security blankets, like family, like a last drop of water.

Every writer should have another creative outlet that’s low-stress. Im fine that some of my photo art is now deemed practically commercial. But I’ve done photography all of my life and I refuse to stress over it. In fact, I use it to relive stress. That’s not going to change.

They say success is 10-percent inspiration and 90-percent perspiration, and I believe that’s true. I believe in old-fashioned work and stick-to-it-ive-ness to meet my goals. But you should write what makes you happy and do art that gives you oy. That way, if you’re not a popular success, you’ll be a success within yourself. Do it for yourself first, and then for other people.

I believe that if you’re just breaking into the writing field, be on the lookout for opportunities. I met some artists on a plane and my artwork took a new direction. It might still have happened sooner or later; it happened sooner. But if you’re young or new to the writing biz, it’s important that you recognize a lucky break for what it is and pounce on it when it occurs.

Get prepared. Attend conferences, network with other writers, take classes, peer review your work, join writers’ groups. Of course, submit your work. If you keep your eyes and ears open, you won’t believe the opportunities! Get read to soar.



EILEEN MURPHY

Friday, October 6, 2017

RENE DENFELD

Rene is the author of the acclaimed novels The Child Finder and The Enchanted. Her essays have appeared in publications such as the New York Times. Her new literary thriller, The Child Finder, explores themes of survival, resiliency and redemption. It has received much acclaim, including a starred Library Journal review, major press, and an Indie Next pick. Landing as the #1 fiction bestseller at Powell's within its first week, The Child Finder became a top 10 bestseller in Canada and a bestseller in the U.S. 

Rene's lyrical, beautiful writing is inspired by her work with sex trafficking victims and innocents in prison. She was the Chief Investigator at a public defender’s office and has worked hundreds of cases. In addition to her advocacy work, she has been a foster adoptive parent for 20 years. Rene will be awarded the Break The Silence Award at the 24th Annual Knock Out Abuse Gala in Washington, DC, on November 2, 2017, in recognition for her advocacy and social justice work.  The child of a difficult history herself, she is an accomplished speaker who loves connecting with others. Rene lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is the happy mom of three kids adopted from foster care.  

I read your beautiful piece in “Modern Love,” about finding your foster children and am very moved by your commitment to love and success as a mother. Having read all else that you are involved with additionally, I’m also in awe of your boundless energy. Did you know you were a writer before you became a mother? How have you managed to integrate all that you do as a mother, investigator working with lost children, and worker in prisons with your writing career?

When I was young I escaped into imagination to survive severe abuse. The library was my sanctuary, and from the stories there I learned how to tell myself stories. I made up a fantasy world that I escaped into for months at a time. But I didn't think someone from a background of poverty could be a novelist. Eventually I went into journalism, but it wasn't until my 40s I started writing fiction. Once I started writing my first novel I knew that was what I was always meant to do. 

It's true I have a very full plate! I have a day job as an investigator; I have three kids I adopted from foster care—and I've fostered others; and I have written and published two novels. I'm someone who thrives on being active, and to be honest, my career inspires me. I feel so lucky to be helping others. It gives me endless juice and inspiration to keep going. I feel lucky to have adopted my kids, too. When people tell them they are lucky I interrupt to say no, I am the lucky one. Through my kids I got to experience a healthy, happy childhood. I got to take part in their journey to healing. What could be better than that? 

One of the struggles for mothers, I think, is we get messages we shouldn't prioritize our writing. We spend so much time taking care of others we forget to take care of ourselves, including our artistic and creative spirit. So I make sure to set aside time to write. I let the chores go, I don't try to keep a perfect house, and yes, the kids eat junk food. I embrace imperfection and let myself be a good-enough mom in order to write. It turned out to be the best choice for the kids. I don't have time to get all up in their business, and they have learned to be responsible and supportive. They are proud of me and I am proud of them. We're a happy clan.

Your first book, The Enchanted, is described as combining magic and evil and is set in a prison. I’m assuming it was inspired by your prison work. What specifically moved you to write it? Is it about the redemptive ways the human mind deals with terror? If so, what kinds of terrors do you feel a kinship with and why?

At the time I wrote my The Enchanted I was working a lot of death penalty cases. I have exonerated innocent people out of prison, and stopped executions. When you see the news that over 250 innocent people have been exonerated out of death rows, that's the work of investigators like me. We like to joke the attorneys take all the credit, ha. 

The inspiration for the novel came one day as I was leaving the death row prison in our state. It's an ancient stone prison built in 1846. I was leaving one day, hearing the gates slam behind me, when I heard a very soft, distinctive voice say "this is an enchanted place." I went right home and started writing that evening. 

I was moved by all the things I had witnessed and was learning working death row cases: the harms we can commit, the goodness we are capable of, the way redemption can spring from the most unlikely of soils. The Enchanted explores our strength and ability to survive even in the most horrific of circumstances. It's about the preventable causes of violence. It turned out to be a love song to the world, a song of hope. It was about finding beauty in the pain. 

Looking back, I can now see my first novel was also about me "coming out" as an abuse survivor. Until that point I had not publicly admitted my own abuse history. The Enchanted was so nakedly about my own journey I realized I had told my story to the world. It was after it came out I began being more open about my own history, including writing about the man I considered my father, a registered predatory sex offender. I began talking more about how I had taken my hardship and turned it into strength by helping others. 

Please discuss The Child Finder, your second novel. Is it a fairytale? What did you hope to accomplish with this book?

The Child Finder is being called a literary thriller. The Library Journal called it "a glittering gem of a story, part mystery, part fairy tale, and all white-knuckled, edge of your seat thriller." It's a real page turner, but also a deeply literary, thoughtful novel. It follows a young female investigator who specializes in finding missing children. The novel follows her as she looks for a missing eight-year-old girl. Her point of view is juxtaposed with that of a magical child who tells herself fairy tales to survive. 

It's an examination of trauma and how we can survive through our imaginations. It's a book about female courage, and it really pushes back against the shameful messages around sexual abuse; that we are forever damaged or destroyed, because that just doesn't have to be true. It shows how much we can do to save each other, and that the path towards healing and recovery is about embracing one another for all we have experienced—not despite our trauma, but including our trauma. One of the key phrases from the novel is "it is never too late to be found." I believe that. The longer I do my work, the more I help my kids, the more I believe we all deserve to be saved. We all have the power to save each other.

Please discuss in whatever way you wish the role of healing in the art of writing.

What a great question! Writing—and reading—can heal us. If you think about it, the act of writing is an act of courage. It is a statement of self. It says, "I have the right to create a story. I exist. I can tell my own truth." By writing our stories, memoir or fictional, we lay claim to our place in the universe. We demand to be heard, we voice our rights to be heard. Writing is a profoundly courageous, healing act. As readers, we can then bear witness to one another. So story acts as a communication, linking us, informing each other of who we really are, in purer, more honest ways.


                                                              RENE DENFELD
                                                              photo by Gary Norman





Friday, September 29, 2017

ANDRES THOMAS CONTERIS

Andrés Thomas Conteris’s family is from North and South America. His uncle, Hiber Conteris, was a political prisoner for eight years under the military dictatorship in Uruguay beginning in 1976. Andrés organized a worldwide campaign on behalf of him and worked closely with several human rights organizations.

He graduated with honors with a B.A. in Peace and Global Studies from Earlham College in 1984, focusing on Gandhian nonviolence, human rights advocacy, and intentional faith-based communities of justice and peace. He was awarded the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to pursue the topic "Theology of Resistance." He has an M.A. in religious studies from Howard University. Since initiating Democracy Now! en Español in 2005, Andrés worked to build a network of more than 500 radio stations throughout the Americas and Spain which air the headline news in Spanish of Democracy Now!´s War and Peace Report, a daily, grassroots, global, unembedded, international, independent news program.

Since 2006, Andrés has been part of the Philosophy, Cosmology and Consciousness program of the California Institute of Integral Studies. His passion for cosmology is something an elder traditional woman from the Oneida nation recognized when he was a child and granted him the name, “Shooting Star.” He is now working on a writing project that weaves the wisdom of the cosmos with the need for revolutionary change on planet earth.

I know you primarily as an activist. How has being an activist led or prepared you for the discipline of writing? 

For me, activism is about affirming life in the death cycle. My sense is that our planet is in a time of its history where death is prevalent. This is most visible with the mass extinction of species happening at a rate of more than 20,000 per year. It also manifests in the death of tens of thousands of children, who perish every day for reasons that could be remedied if our species had different priorities. The priorities of the U.S. government revolve around war and war preparation more than anything else, and activists need to face this head on, along with the racism that is ending DACA and the sexism that allows for a president who is a sexual predator. My writing involves many of these issues and the reality of it all further compels me to do the practice of writing.

I know you've done writing retreats. Were they helpful to you? Any drawbacks? 

Yes, the writing retreats I have done have been helpful.  I remember doing an exercise of writing blurbs for my own work, and this allowed me to get distance from the story itself and appreciate it from a different perspective.  It is a gift to be able to go on retreat and focus on the discipline itself.  Drawbacks include the fact that the length is often too short and that often there is no coaching available or helpful feedback from others at a retreat.

How important is the spiritual life to your activism?  To your writing? Please define what a spiritual life means to you.  

My spiritual life is the sine-qua-non of my dedication to being actively life affirming.  Spirituality is what nurtures my commitment to make this world a more wholesome place. This involves prayer, meditation, community, a practice of gratitude, honoring nature, seeing the divine in all and much more.  By honoring my spiritual life, I nurture my writing. The two are inseparable.

What makes good writing in your mind? What are you trying to accomplish as a writer?  

One of the qualities of good writing involves authenticity.  If something genuinely speaks to me, if I find it compelling, then the expression in written word will be all the more genius. When I write about things that I truly believe in, then the writing itself shows it.  What I am trying to accomplish as a writer is to tell a story that has been writing me for eons.  

Here is an excerpt:


A few months ago I accompanied my father at his hospital bedside on the last night of his life. My sister spent much of the last five years tending to him yet as fate would have it, I was the only family member present during his last hours.

He asked me to tell him a story.

Decades earlier, dad worked as a pastor in Oneida, Wisconsin where Melissa, a traditional elder woman from the community looked into my five-year-old eyes and in ceremony with my family bequeathed me the name “Shooting Star.” Half a lifetime later, my father gifted me a ring (which I haven’t removed for years) with shooting stars engraved all around.  While I still await to learn how to pronounce my name in the original Oneida language, a story infused with the spirit of the gift from Melissa has been writing me for eons. Although dad had heard it before, he paid close attention to the first chapter, a letter from a would-be father to his would-be daughter.

Stars' Wish
My dearest Satyya,
       I wonder how old you would have become when first you’d come across the word “sidereal.” It’s not a very common word, and truth be told, many grownups go through their whole lives never understanding what it means. Oh, but it’s such an important word since it means having to do “with the stars.”
        And what is it, my beloved daughter, why do these diamonds in the night sky invite such gentle-fierce fascination? How is it that when we first see one appear at twilight we’re compelled to make a wish?  Could these fiery furnaces that dance in the day-blind heavens be so in tune with desire itself that they can grant one’s deepest longing?
      Well, sweet one, there's another term that helps make the connection. It's something that even fewer adults ever light upon since it comes from a strange and ancient tongue called Latin. “Why strange?” you ask. It's because hardly anyone speaks it anymore even though it's the source of many words in lots of different languages. If you had grown old enough to go to college, you might have majored in this forgotten form of communication. And even though it's something few folks will ever cross paths with, this Latin term illuminates why we sometimes have the urge to wish upon these radiant stellar beings.
       And what is this other term dearheart? It's “de sidus.”  I can almost hear your sweet voice say ... “day-see-deuce.”
       What's cool, maybe even way-cool, is that “de sidus” rhymes with “deduce.” (If you had been born, I'm sure you would have been the first to teach me what makes something “way-cool!”)
So what does “de sidus” mean? How can this term from a language that isn't alive any longer have any relevance at all?  Well,  just like the word sidereal, de sidus also means, having to do “with the stars.”
       And there's something else really important, sweet one.  These two Latin words make up the root of one English word: desire.
       I'm convinced that if you were right here with me now, you would deduce that de sidus points to how the stars themselves are born of desire! And once that's figured out, you just might wonder something else, since it begs the question (can you imagine something begging a question?) For what do the stars themselves yearn for? What is it that they most want to beckon into being?
Well, my precious Satyya, if these cousin constellations in the dark sky above are such kin with longing, there's one thing for which they burn with desire more than anything …
       Stars wish to go home.
                                                                         All my love,
                                                                         Your would-be father
                                                                         TD beQuo

Dad paused a moment and then his weakened voice whispered words I will never forget. “I want to go home.” As best I could, I tried to explain that in the morning we would talk about it with his daughter. His next words left me completely dumbfounded, “I can't wait that long.” Even after he said it, I was clueless that he knew something more than anyone else. He asked me to lend him my forearm and tried to pull himself out of bed. To no avail. He felt helpless, and so did I.

In the morning I woke with a start to the alarm of the heart monitor. The nurse raced in and asked if I wanted them to do CPR to revive him. His status was DNR (do not resuscitate) and if there had been no family present, the question would not have arisen. When I said I had to call my sister, he replied “there's no time.”

I initially told the medical team to do everything possible to save dad's life, though it soon became clear that something else was at play: the stars' wish (maybe even the wish of shooting stars!). The same desire of every single one of trillions of cosmic stellar candles invited me to take a deep breath and know it was ok to let dad pass.

Since my sister was unreachable working at a different hospital, I called and spoke with my brother who overheard his father gasp for air and asked, “was that his last breath?” My first thought was “how in the world could I possibly know?” And then I looked up at the cardio monitor … the line was flat. Dad's desire to go home after a long and blessed life had come true.

It was pure gift for me to have been present at this most propitious of moments. The zeitgeist conjured by the multiple synchronicities confirmed that I had no choice but to give it my all and return the favor to the story that has been writing me for lifetimes and thus fulfill my deepest soulful desire.
  


                                          
                                   ANDRES THOMAS CONTERIS