Posts Tagged ‘Nina McConigley’

11 March, 2010

Friends in High Places

2006-08-28-020It’s been a while since I’ve been able to talk books. Many things got in the way including travel home to Sri Lanka for the Galle International Literary Festival and to London for the book launch there as well as the more personal difficulties of coping with the various blows of life which I’ve written about before on this blog. The roller coasts on some days, lifts and dumps me on others, sometimes on the hour!

But despite distraction and misfortune, there is one thing that always lifts my spirits, and that is the work, well done, of my fellow writers and friends. It’s been a terrific week for a slate of terrific Bread Loaf writers, so I’m going to dedicate this post to highlighting them. There is Danielle Trussoni, whose book Angelology (Viking, March, 2010) was reviewed in the NYT Book Review on March 3rd by Susann Cokal, (author of Mirabilis and Breath and Bones.) You can read the full review – and it is so well written you should! – but here are the closing lines:

“Sensual and intellectual, “Angelology” is a terrifically clever thriller — more Eco than Brown, without the cloudy sentimentalism of New Age encomiums or Catholic treatises. It makes no apologies for its devices, and none are necessary. How else would it be possible to bring together the angels of the Bible and Apocrypha, the myth of Orpheus, Bulgarian geography, medieval monastics, the Rockefellers, ­Nazis, nuns and musicology? And how splendid that it has happened.”

Danielle’s first book was a memoir, Falling Through the Earth, about her father who spent time as a “tunnel rat,” i.e. searching below ground level for guerrillas during the Vietnam war. That was the one from which she read when I first heard her at Bread Loaf and she was amazing then.

Eugene Cross (my fellow staffer, friend and “baby-bro,” BG), has a story, ‘430,’ out in Freight Stories as well as in Story Quarterly. Here are the opening lines:

“Route 430, a weathered run of highway, twisted through Clymer County like a dark river. Roddy Daniels knew its turns by heart. This was in western New York, where the state made its border with Pennsylvania in a sharp right angle. Roddy had lived here his whole life. Sometimes at night he would drive 430 and close his eyes for short stretches and let the road lead him.”

But that is not all for BG. He also won the 2009 Dzanc Prize which is given to a writer of literary fiction to further their work-in-progress while also being involved in their communities. BG will be setting up and running a series of creative workshops for refugees from Nepal, Sudan and Bhutan, in Erie, Pennsylvania. If you scroll all the way down on this post titled The Lush Life of Bread Loaf, you can actually listen to BG read from his story, ‘Hunters,’ which appeared in Hobart.

Tiphanie Yanique, who shared a few years of work with me at Bread Loaf all of which included blood, sweat and tears as well as writing, has her collection of short stories coming out this month. How to Escape from a Leper Colony (Greywolf Press, March, 2010), has been described by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (author of Sister of my Heart and The Palace of Illusions), thus: “In these powerful, poetic stories set in landscapes real and imagined, Tiphanie Yanique explores beautifully race, family, and the complicated movements of the heart.” You can read the title story here, but here are the opening lines – it also happened to have won the Boston Review Prize in 2006:

“The nuns said that it was pardonable because of depression and stress. But these are words used when we want to forgive a crime but know we cannot. Babalao Chuck said that young Lazaro was covered in his mother’s blood and body. Her red sari redder. The gun in the volunteer’s hands. Five shots in a young mother’s back leaves little room for sympathy. The volunteers at the leper colony were Trinidadian doctors and British journalists and criminals forfeiting time in jail for time among lepers and sometimes smooth-faced men who carried tiny Bibles in their pockets. No one ever told me which kind killed Lazaro’s mother.”

Dolen Perkin-Valdez who pledged a first $100 to an effort by two other writers (Mary Akers and Sara C. Harwell) and myself to establish a writing colony for mothers, had her first novel, Wench, (Amistad, January, 2010) come out to some pretty great reviews including a spot on NPR, a space she shares with another Bread Loaf former-waiter, Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (Penguin/Avery, 2009), and Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James Books, forthcoming 2010). Dwayne’s essay in the Washington Post begins this way:

“When I was 16, I pleaded guilty to carjacking a man in a mall parking lot. In 30 minutes, everything can change; that’s what I learned from a wild night with a pistol.

Two years later, in July 1998, I was staring onto an empty tier from a cell in solitary confinement. Already serving a nine-year prison term, I had wound up in the hole, too. This meant I was more than wrong. It also meant that I was the last person many would believe deserved what education an open book could offer. “

James Arthur sold his first collection of poetry to Copper Canyon Press. You can get a taste of James’ work with the poem ‘The Death of the Painter’ here in the New Yorker. Meanwhile, the indefatigable Ted Conover, a non-fiction writer among non-fiction writers, had his latest book, The Routes of Man, appear with a terrific review in the NYT. Here’s one reason why, as explained in the NYT review by Vollmann:

“I especially recommend the book’s horrifying fourth chapter, “A War You Can Commute To,” which deals with the Israeli occupation’s interdiction and interruption of Palestinian travel, the retaliatory menaces to which Israeli checkpoint soldiers are subjected and their retaliations in turn upon Palestinian homes. I wish I had the space to consider Conover’s observations, and his reactions to them, with the complexity they deserve. Instead, I will have to settle for quoting from the caption of his aerial photograph of the 60 Road, which carries settlers between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, shooting straight and very high above the S-curves of the local road for Palestinians passing between its pillars: “In much of the West Bank, separate roads carry Israelis and Palestinians. . . . A series of concrete panels on the highway’s left side, near the top, serves to protect Israeli vehicles from projectiles.”

As I read this book, I grew increasingly impressed not only with Conover’s bravery and hardihood, which he underplays, but, more important, with that quality one associates with Steinbeck: heart. Here is a man who cares about people everywhere, not merely that convenient abstraction, humanity, but people in particular — not to mention this American toad and that Peruvian sloth.”

C. Dale Young, physician, poet, editor, blogger, friend, had his story, ‘The Affliction,’ published in Guernica, one of my favorite places to linger online. Danzy Senna (Caucasia, Symptomatic, and the memoir Where Did You Sleep Last Night?), joined Porochista Khakpour to jaw about ‘Race and Other Flammable Topics’ in this month’s issue of Poets & Writers where, also, the incredibly talented (and multi-degreed), Jennifer de Leon wrote about the Voices of Our Nation (VONA) conference.

And, also in Poets & Writers, were two of my favorite Bread Loaf poets, Robin Ekiss (a former Stegnar Fellow and a recipient of the Rona Jaffe Award ), and Kiki Petrosino (Fort Red Border from Sarabande Books), profiled in the annual Debut Poets issue. To top it all, Greywolf Press, a gem among independent publishers, announced today that the poet D. A. Powell won the prestigious $100,000 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for his latest collection, Chronic. That’s the second consecutive year that a Greywolf author has won the award. Talking of awards, the brilliant Justin Torres won a $50,000 United States Artists Award. For a taste of Justin, check out this piece in Granta, ‘Lessons.’ I’m posting the opening lines to this story which I heard him read his waiter year at Bread Loaf.

“We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats, we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”

In April I will be reading at Sunday Salon in NYC with Dwayne Betts and three other Bread Loafers including Charles Rice Gonzalez, whose novel Chulito will be out next month – watch for a post on that – and Emily Raboteau (The Professor’s Daughter), and Nina Swamidoss McConigley whose collection of short stories will be out soon.

Also in April, in Colorado,Women in Letters & Literary Arts (WILLA), will go live at the Denver Press Club during AWP, where I will be reading with many of the women mentioned here as well as fellow Loafers, Jennine Capo Crucet (How to Leave Hialeah), Antonya Nelson (Nothing Right, Female Trouble, etc.), Cheryl Strayed (Torch), Kara Candito (Taste of Cherry), and Mary Akers (One Life to Give and Women Up on Blocks).

As I was winding this up I got an email from my agent informing me that she had just sold the rights to my book in Mainland China; an interesting development just as the book comes out in Complex Chinese next month in Taiwan, and as I prepare to head to China myself with the Iowa International Writing Program. As a way of encapsulating what the highs and lows of our lives measure, here is Robin Ekiss’ poem, ‘The Past Is Another Country,’ which first appeared in the New England Review:

The Past is Another Country

I am no longer in love with the sand
that makes the pearl, or anything

grainy that hardens its beauty
by passing through pain.

Bone revisits the porous soil
and presses itself into coal.

Whole colonies of canaries
refuse to return from that mine.

Is there anything yellower
than their dark shaft of regret?

The past is another country,
all its cities are forbidden,

their borders closed to you
on every side, while here God

has many mansions, all too small
to live in. When I inherit his palace,

I’ll take my moat everywhere,
making difficult any crossing.

Addendum: This just in. And it beats everything that has pleased me today. Josh Weil (Rachel, Libby, you guys remember the wild reading and jam after with him at Borders/Rosemont), just won the The American Academy of Arts & Letters Sue Kaufman Prize in First Fiction for the best work of first fiction (novel or short stories) published in 2009 for his collection of novellas, The New Valley. And that’s the wrap.

8 September, 2009

The Lush Life of Bread Loaf

img_0932It is a little shameful that I have not written a word here since that last brief bleep from the mountain in the wee hours of the morning of the 14th of August. But only just a little.

Last year, the summer before Bread Loaf, I suffered a head injury as I charged around a house-to-be-sold in Maine trying to vacuum in the dark. I cursed and shrieked and woke up my sleeping neighbors and ended up in the ER demanding stitches. Odd how a year changes things. I suffered two physical injuries while I was at Bread Loaf this year. First, another bang on my forehead which resulted in a similar quantity of blood trickling melodramatically down my face. Forget the ER. I stuffed ice under a hat tilted rakishly over one eye and went about my business. Next I scorched myself by leaning – with relief, no less! – on a stove. This was managed by securing a pack of ice to my arm with the shawl that I happened to have draped around my neck that day. I sat thus through my entire workshop with the inimitable and wickedly funny Ann Hood, and thus avoided an unsightly blister and, indeed, ended up with a dark slash that looked more like a particularly edgy tattoo than a burn.

I recount these incidents because, besides being humorous anecdotes (and leaving the scars which I wear with some pride in retrospect), they had no impact on my frame of mind. Minor burns and head wounds are now within the realm of the controllable in my life. Indeed, during my time at Bread Loaf – to which I had fled literally from the radiation room – img_0780I had only one moment when the searing pain of those self-repairing nerve endings made me stop what I was doing and remember that I was not entirely whole or mended. And despite the fact that fatigue had dogged my footsteps every night on which I couldn’t get a sufficient amount of sleep all through treatment, while at the conference I could keep going on only two or three hours of sleep a night, night after blessed night.

There is something about Bread Loaf. I’m sure everybody who hasn’t been there is pretty tired of hearing that by now, but it is true, there is. Nothing that troubles me “on earth” – in my personal life, in my family history, in the world of wars, elections won or lost, not one of the things that move me to opine or rant – touches me while I am there. It isn’t conscious, it isn’t by design, it is just how the days unfold.

So it was a strange adjustment for me this time, knowing that the the first thing I had to do when I came back was see not one but three physicians. The first act, to take the first of the doses of Tamoxifen that I will be ingesting every day, twice a day for the next five years of my life, and have the surgeons and oncologists and pathologists look at me and declare me in one state of repair or another. 3,650 pills in all. A few days back, as I stepped up on to the scale to be weighed, a nurse exclaimed “You aren’t going to take off your shoes? And you’re wearing heels? Wow that’s brave!” And I smiled.

img_08221I realize that there are only two ways to talk about Bread Loaf. In silence, or with words that verge on the lushness that Charles Baxter nudged us to consider during one of his lectures; the kind of language that we have learned to shun because it is routinely ridiculed by critics. I am taking up Charlie’s challenge. Down the line, you will be able to access this years Bread Loaf lectures via iTunes and listen to what he says and agree that sometimes lushness is called for. Here are a few people I hold close, and what they had to say about being at the conference. Here is Alexander Chee whose post is titled, “Consider Writing an 86 Proof Sentence” (a quote from Charlie), and Eugene Cross, whose post for the Hayden’s Ferry Review Blog is titled, “What I learned from Charlie.” Hmm. Curious. Here is Christian Anton Gerard, poet and fellow staffer:

img_0155It’s occurred to me this week that perhaps one of the reasons we do what we do is because of the lack of time we feel in the world. We run to the top of a mountain to make time…We will tell our friends and family about that time in an effort to show how wonderful and perfect the world of writing can sometimes be, but like (a friend) said, “the beauty in our moments on the mountain is in the fact that we never know if we’ll be here again… Which makes every moment here a completely tangible, but slippery thing we will cling to for the rest of our lives, but never be able to fully explain to anyone else.”

It is indeed a gift for all of us to have been there, and perhaps even more so for us to have been there together, but the fact that we can always be there together because we’re all clinging to the same slippery time-rocks, which we share only among each other is a gift and something newly spectacular in and of itself, I think. If you need me. Any of you. I will be across a hayed field in the middle of a beautiful creek at the bottom of a wooded hill. I will be picking up rocks and loving them even as they slip away. I will be running after them, sitting atop them. I will be sated when you wade in with me.

img_03751So, did I care how much weight was added to the scales with my high heels? Is there a way to measure the weightlessness of finding ones soul-sisters and brothers, of knowing how to love and be loved in return by beautiful, brilliant strangers who become friends over the turn of a single phrase? What is the weight of the light that fills up my body and my heart when I am where I am always among friends, always among people who share the same dream, who are gifted not only in the art of creating worlds with words, but in committing everything they have to holding each other up? img_03882We’re all familiar with the way people look and behave when they have experienced grave danger, some disaster, or even some period of time which has been consumed by worry about their own fate or that of someone they care deeply about. They tip, tearful with relief into the arms of their beloveds. What happens at Bread Loaf is not unlike that. You get there and you realize that you have left worlds and lives bereft, most of the time, of people who know what it is like to nurse a craving for words, a sort of eternal itch that tangles the fingers and brain so that not to write and read and talk freely about reading and writing and muses and wordly habits is an acutely felt torture. You get there and you tip, delirious with relief, into the arms


and minds


and words




and silences




of your tribe.


And you hold on


until you have to let go.




It is, indeed, a precious thing to recognize exactly what it is – what person or collection of people, what peculiar combination of forces or energies, what place, exactly – brings one the keen joy that renders a human being both full of oxygen and just as breathless. The body can endure all manner of slights from the universe so long as the heart can sing, and at Bread Loaf I always find that song, the voice with which to sing it and a heavenly orchestra to provide the music.

Here, in the one recording I have of the staff reading, are some of those musicians: Nina McConigley, Gerald Maa, Greg Wrenn, Zachary Watterson, Avery Slater, Ted Thomspon, Christian Anton Gerard and, at the very end, myself.


As I think about the year to come, and all the success it will bring to the people who were beside me this year, I am moved to close this post with the fabulous Eugene Cross, in living color, reading a section from his short story, ‘Hunters.’ The full story can be read here at Hobart.

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.