Jerry Williams, poet and memoirist, etc., in the upcoming 2015 Ocean State Review

Definitive photo

Biographically Speaking

Jerry Williams’ entire family, on both sides, originated from Harlan, Kentucky, a coal town in the southeastern part of the Bluegrass State, a place of great importance to labor historians and country singers. His ancestry consists mostly of alcoholics and pill addicts, xenophobes, agoraphobes, preachers, toothless Felliniesque pinheads, veterans of foreign wars with unidentifiable diseases, attempted murderers, moonshiners and bootleggers, racists, golfers, magicians, disability royalty, suicides, freemasons, one cop killer, and a legion of mourners. Before he arrived on the scene, his mother and father and his two sisters moved north to Dayton, Ohio, birthplace of African-American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Guided by Voices, and sibling aviators Orville and Wilbur Wright. Over the years, he has been an infant; a child; an adolescent; an adult; a gym rat; an undergraduate at Vermont College, where he received a B.A. in English; singer in a band named after a Sam Shepard play; landscaper; typist; bartender; delivery driver (auto parts); cashier; telephone solicitor; dishwasher; librarian’s assistant; Los Angeleno; San Franciscan; Princetonian; Tucsonan (he did an M.F.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Arizona); as well as a reluctant Stillwaterian, where he earned a Ph.D. in Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University. After spending two years in Bristol, Rhode Island, as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Roger Williams University, he settled in New York City. Currently, he lives in Manhattan and works as an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Marymount Manhattan College. His poetry and creative nonfiction have appeared in American Poetry Review, Crazyhorse, Witness, Pleiades, Hayden’s Ferry Review, New Ohio Review, Tin House, and many others. His first collection of poems, Casino of the Sun, published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in 2003, was a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Carnegie Mellon published his second collection, Admission, in 2010, which received the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award from Southern Illinois University. In addition, he edited an anthology of breakup and divorce poems entitled It’s Not You: It’s Me, which Overlook Press published in 2010. He has received a grant from the New Jersey Arts Council, several Academy of American Poets awards, a fellowship from the Corporation of Yaddo, and a number of Pushcart Prize nominations that never panned out. He has no passport and no plans to obtain one. He virtually loathes the Beatles, Bob Seger, and the Grateful Dead. He is not a true believer in the holy writ. He eats almost nothing but Soylent, though he loves peanut butter. His third collection of poetry, So Thirsty All My Life, is well under way and the poems are rawboned as ever, aurally inevitable as ever, possessed of a narrative/lyric hybridity that grounds the work in story and song, and, as the title suggests, the work explores the seemingly conspiratorial and systemic thwarting of desire. His memoir-in-progress, The Wrong House, a book about fleeing the Midwest, will be finished when it’s finished, goddamit, so stop asking.

Music Box no. 1

The following are two poems by Nan Sul Hun (1563-1589)
translated by Jerry Williams and Seung-Ah Oh.

Letter from My Paramour

A wanderer arrives from a faraway place
And brings with him a pair of carp
Looking for something inside
I slice open the belly of one fish
And a letter written on fine silk flows out
The first words appear Always thinking of you and
Tell me how you are doing these days
I read this letter and I understand
I understand until tears wet my sleeves

© 2015 The Ocean State Review
Audio of Letter from My Paramour


Last year I lost my beloved daughter
This year I lost my only son
Upon the sad sad earth of Kwang Neung
Two rising tombs stand face to face
Poplar trees shiver in the lonesome wind
The pine forest trembles in ghostly light
When I spread paper money before your procession
And poured a glass of wine over your graves
I was calling out to your souls
You my children brother and sister
I envision your poor spirits
Playing in the woods every night
The child now growing in my belly is unfair to you
So I sing a useless song with no sound
And swallow the bloody tears of my sorrow

© 2015 The Ocean State Review
Audio of Elegy

During a 2013 summer residency at Yaddo, Jerry Williams met Korean composer Seung-Ah Oh. The two artists became friends and, later, collaborators. At the time, Oh was working on Words & Beyond II: Nan Sul Hun, a music theater production about an underappreciated 16th century Korean poetess. Fascinated by Nan Sul Hun’s courageous story, Williams asked Oh to co-translate a few of her haunting poems. Ultimately, Oh included five of their translations in her music theater piece, and Williams also wrote a monologue/soliloquy for the title character. Commissioned by Slagwerk Den Haag, Words & Beyond II: Nan Sul Hun opened, to rave reviews, on October 29th 2014, in Muziekgebouw aan’t IJ, Amsterdam. Below, you can view mementos from the production as well as a significant portion of the performance itself.

Words & Beyond




Music Box no. 2

While at Yaddo, Seung-Ah Oh also began work on a double concerto for voice, cello, and chamber orchestra. In this piece, she sought to explore the deep-rooted impediments to interpersonal communication, to expand her sound world to include more noise-based gestures and motifs, and to give expressionlessness a chance to speak for herself rather than foist upon her a preordained idiom. In the aptly titled Aphonic Dialogue, two soloists, voice and cello, progress from indifference to détente, from cacophony to harmony. Again, Jerry Williams provides words for the singer: a lone sentence with an eyeful of Nan Sul Hun palinopsia and a ton of options. Commissioned for the Cello Biënnale in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, Amsterdam, Aphonic Dialogue opened, to rave reviews, on October 23rd, 2014. Below, you can view a memento from the production, listen to a recording of the performance itself, and read/hear the sentence as word blob.

Aphonic Dialogue

Musical Recording of Aphonic Dialogue

Aphonic Dialogue
When she woke in the woods
in the dark and the cold of the night
she reached out and touched
a spear of blue moonlight.

She out-touched the blue of a cold spear
when the dark of the woods and the night woke moonlight
and she reached in, in.

Out in the blue of the night
when she reached a spear-touched woods
she woke moonlight and the dark and the cold.

When in the cold,
the dark woods reached,
she and moonlight woke the night of a spear in and out—
she of the touched blue.

When the dark in the spear of a night woke
and the blue out reached in and touched the woods,
she cold, she moonlight.

Reached in the moonlight and a spear of blue,
when the cold out dark woke the night,
she in and of the woods, she touched.

She woke blue and she reached moonlight
in the woods and in the cold of when the dark out
touched the night of a spear.

Spear moonlight
in the when of the woods
and she reached of a blue cold she touched.
and dark she woke

In the woods she woke out of and in the night,
she reached a cold and blue moonlight
when the dark of the spear touched.

The cold of moonlight
and the blue in the dark night
woke a woods she touched
when she reached in and out of the spear.

© 2015 The Ocean State Review
Audio of Aphonic Dialogue

Don’t leave the past in the past: a look at Jerry Williams’ previous work


I let a dog in the park lick my face for you.
I pretended not to know the murder rate in Denmark for you.
I’ve tried to stay ugly for you.
I turned myself into an oil field, switched on the klieg lights
            for you, and let Texaco start drilling.
I never thought about the future for you or else I thought about it
            in terms that only you could understand,
            though we had never actually met.
I worked in a cardboard box factory for you.
I gave up skin for you.
Whenever love metastasized, I ran over it with my lawnmower
            for you.
I wrote “Stairway to Heaven” for you.
I did the whole Reverend Dimmesdale thing for you.
For you, I tramped around town smelling old books and thinking
            of better days.
If it weren’t for you, I might have thrown open the door to any
            number of empty apartments and gone straight
            for the knife drawer.
I quit the team for you, I quit the band for you.
I survived—for you—a major stork attack at the free clinic.
I romanticized the Russian Revolution for you.
All that weight and all those miles for you.
For ages, I drove really shitty cars for you, cars with bald tires, cars
            that burned a quart of Quaker State a day,
            cars with no reverse.
I passed the Clean Hair Act of 1992 for you.
I took the pill for you.
I took my pulse pass/fail for you.
I took all the wheelchairs out of this poem for you.
I scrutinized the maps of various principalities and prowled around
            the depths of their free print media,
            scavenging underground for you.
I’ve stood at the podium and knelt at the peephole for you.
One night I camped out on the sidewalk to protest against
            something for you—I can’t remember what it was—
            but I’m sure nothing was ever done.
I had my juvenile criminal record expunged for you.
I secretly hoarded food for you.
For you, I’ve spent fifteen of the last twenty-two Christmases alone
            on the couch with The Catcher in the Rye.
For you, I’ve suffered bouts of Pernicious Cubical Zombification
            that no amount of Prison Movie Therapy could cure.
I fell this far without you for you.
Anyone goodhearted or wounded enough to fill in for you got
            bombarded with encrypted code left over
            from the War of Adolescence which, by the way—
            totally based on false intelligence.
For you to believe a word I’m saying, you have to admit that when
            my hand floated palely away, I forgot
            every single breast I’ve ever touched.
This is me trying to settle down for you.
This is me putting my bullhorn and my guillotine
            in the attic for you.
I’m turning gray for you.
So, please, tell me
when will you be born?

© 2010 Carnegie Mellon University Press
Audio of Unadorned

Because she is so supercelestial and permits the occasional supercresecent supercharging, Jaclyn Cohen, charter member of the band Foxygen, delivers herewith her own recitation of the poem Unadorned


Whenever anyone asked the father
what was playing at the movies
or what was on television
or who was making all that noise in the attic,
his answer would always be the same:
Deaf and dumb woman showing a blind man her ass.
Then he’d lean back in his chair,
ransack his two-day growth of beard,
and snort contentedly.
If you wanted your answer,
you had to investigate on your own.
But first you had to gain control
of the necessary mode of inquiry—
Dayton Daily News, T.V. Guide, Black & Decker flashlight.
This was no easy task.
The father was cagey and quick.
Snatching the item from his grasp took ten or fifteen tries.
Deaf and dumb woman showing a blind man her ass.
He spoke with an exaggerated southern drawl,
pronouncing deaf as if it were spelled D-E-E-F,
clearly blaming the cracker within himself.
And, of course, they all laughed, the whole family,
this being the longest running joke of the decade.

Years later, the son would wonder how much
that portrait of unattainability
had influenced his outlook on the world.
He wondered if being party to the father’s constant
sarcasm had turned him
into a half-empty rather than a half-full type of individual.
Or if he’d simply been infused
with a heightened sense of irony.
The answer lies in the image itself.
A voluptuous woman with long black hair
presents her perfect round ass to a man who has no eyes
to see it with and seems to have no hands to touch it with,
no idea he’s in the presence of such beauty.
There’s only a small distance between them,
but she’s deaf. She could not hear the man
if he cried out, “I am blind! What is happening to me?”
and she couldn’t reply even if she did hear him,
for she has no voice.
The son can envision their disconcerted faces,
their straining gestures.
They are lewd yet toilsome,
weary as medicated glaciers.
They are the saddest people on earth.

© 2007 Barrow Street
Audio of Imprinting

Casino of the Sun                             for the Markovich brothers

It’s Christmas day in Arizona:
one hundred and sixty degrees above zero and rising.
When you get off the plane,
which you secretly hoped would crash,
and pass through that gray chute,
your old roommate, the Chin, greets you,
lathered in the ocher of a different time zone.
Nakedly joyful, a boy of ten or eleven
jumps into his father’s arms.
A camera flashes and the Chin snorts,
Another chat room dream come true.
Close your eyes, imagine giving birth
to a thousand mallard ducks inside a shark cage
while some non-union uniform runs a metal detector
up and down your leg, up and down your other leg.
Welcome to hell. Try not to spill your margarita.
Try not to let the molten parking lot solidify
in your lungs when you hear about your ex-girlfriends
riding the cranks of hard-minded day traders
in Mustique or Minorca
or wherever people go who have parents.
There’s a bed waiting for you in the desert,
though the sheets were not prepared for your arrival.
The cordless phone is dead,
but the cable television works fine.
Shaquille O’Neal just missed another free throw,
and we all know why. He brings the ball
too close to his face; he smells his fingers.
He’s distracted by his own good fortune.
Those guys have it made: ballplayers.
The Chin says they live like dolphins.
Shaq, Sprewell, Allen Iverson. Sweet.
What am I doing here anyway? This is not my affair.
I’ve drunk blood from a leopard print purse,
said I love you under my breath,
shared an apartment with a terrified and weeping,
uprooted fleshpot
who caught me looking at pictures of lepers.
I have checked the pulses of dead husbands
and disagreed with the diagnosis,
listened through walls for signs of forgiveness,
been counted on and let down and squeezed out.
I bet I would sell my organs in China,
I would build electric chairs for a dollar an hour
if I could only put together enough scratch
to go back in time and burn the right bridges.
By next Christmas, I vow to pledge my life and mind,
my entire troubled essence,
to a beautiful cyborg with reliable taxonomy
and skin the color of grape soda.
But for now, the Chin toasts the end of an era
in a bar on the edge of effectiveness.
A lonely jingle leaks out of the sound system,
and the patrons sing along like there’s no tomorrow.
Every Sunday morning they wake up
with inexplicable cuts and scrapes on their hands.
These are your people.
They would offer you the world
if they had any right to it.

© 2003 Carnegie Mellon University Press
Audio of Casino of the Sun

Harlan County Copula

My mother walked me by the wrist,
limping, back to the farmhouse,
her thickly freckled hand cold
as though she’d leaned against a headstone
in the cemetery where the dead
of this hollow lie buried.

We were either on the moon or in Kentucky,
visiting second cousins.
The drive south seemed all downhill
until we reached Pine Mountain.
That was the summer the coal miners
at Brookside and Highsplint struck.
The UMWA marched through the streets
of Harlan with pickaxes reflected in their eyes.

I’d spent the day with Robby at the creek,
catching crawdads in butter bowls
and blasting them with rocks at close range.
The water being warm, we went shoeless,
and I sliced the milky arch of my foot
on a broken Pepsi bottle.
Until I came out of the water
and saw my footprint
on the bank filled with blood,
there was no pain.

Across town a miner lay on a blanket of blood
and stared into the sun with his eyes stuck,
no longer complaining,
no longer on the clock,
quite unaware of the movie camera
that snored in the sickbed of history,
unaware of my mother putting her hands
around my waist and lifting me up
to the kitchen table
which I must have mistaken for sky.

© 2003 Carnegie Mellon University Press
Audio of Harlan County Copula

Jerry Williams’ Cross-Genre Accomplice


Seung-Ah Oh

Seung-Ah Oh is a Korean composer whose work has premiered all over Asia, Europe, and North America. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, Tanglewood Music Center, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among others. She has received many awards, including first prize at the 3rd Seoul International Competition for Composers, the Lutoslawski Award in Poland, and the coveted Toonzetters Prize in the Netherlands. She studied music composition at the Royal Conservatory of the Hague and later earned her Ph.D. at Brandeis University. Dr. Oh has elegantly merged her training in the contemporary Western tradition with the rich musical influences of her own heritage. She has taught at Brandeis University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Florida, and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. In the fall of 2011, she joined the faculty of DePaul University as an Assistant Professor in Composition. She divides her time between Chicago and Amsterdam.

Seung-Ah Oh’s website:


An audio conversation between literary nonfictionist Mary Cappello and poet Peter Covino

Literary nonfictionist Mary Cappello and poet Peter Covino interview each other on the matter of “beauty” in their work and the work they love to read; on anti-beauty, un-beauty, disruptive beauty, and uncontained beauty in poetry and the essay. On trauma and poetic practice; on writing violence and literary nonfiction; on letting the wild in; on queer Italian/Americana; on the contrapuntal and distillate forms; on lyrical space, confluent energies, writing light. And plaid. The conversation was recorded at the University of Rhode Island December 2012, by Justin H. Brierley for The Beauty Salon, a radio program that explores everyday aesthetics in and around Rhode Island.




Bobby Elliott, “Dissenting,” from the 2014 Ocean State Review


I want you on my desk again.
I want you on the roof
in Salvador. So I want you
on the stairs and in the shower, too.
In my bed, in the small of yours.
Against a bright wall and close
to a hallway. A puddle can’t keep
from being shallow,
but a young man can,
is that right? A young man can sit out
on the curb becoming
a river of decency in the rain.


When I was writing the two poems in OSR (this was the spring of 2013), I was recording first drafts on a voice recorder. Only after working out a full first draft would I commit them to paper – by that time, I pretty much knew them by heart. It was an act toward “a more natural language.” I would edit them slightly and let them be. That summer I worked on editing them in earnest, a process I love, and then sent them out.

“Dissenting” is a poem that attempts to deal with and validate longing – longing, in this case, for a person no longer there.  The second half of the poem opens with challenge to that goal, but the poem concludes with the speaker almost mocking the challenge, dissenting.   We are not always decent and sometimes what we consider indecency – desire, for instance – may not be so indecent after all.  Is Kanye out of line when he raps, “I want to fuck you hard on the sink / After that get you something to drink”?  I don’t know.

In The Answers Are Inside the Mountains, William Stafford writes, “Say the things we have always wanted to say.” I’m passionate about that advice, wherever it leads. And then, as I was editing the poems and sending them out, I started reading Brian Russell’s The Year of What Now, which instantly became a cornerstone of my reading life and bookshelf. It’s a tremendous book. I’m eager for the next.

I’ve studied poetry at Sarah Lawrence, where I received a BA in 2011, and at Oxford University, where I was a Gilman Scholar. I don’t have an MFA and have spent the years since graduating working as a journalist and writer – at first in New York City, where I was raised, and now in Portland, where I moved in the summer of 2013 (while I was editing those voice recorder poems). My writing on the arts has appeared in the Huffington Post, Tribes, Picture Sentence and elsewhere and I edited, arranged and wrote the introduction to a retrospective on the very gifted Colombian artist, Alfredo Garzon. My poems have appeared in The Sarah Lawrence Review and OSR.  I now work full-time as a journalist here in Portland, writing about recycling around the world.

I’m focusing on writing and some of that work has begun streaming into a series on Donny Hathaway, a series of portraits (where the subject of the poem actually sits before me and instead of painting/drawing, I write the portrait – or a draft of one) and then I’m writing poems about my sister’s pregnancy – I’m about to become an uncle for the first time. So, in other words, my work is pretty widespread, but all of it continues to be concerned with crafting a more natural, immediate language and I suppose I’m writing about manhood a fair amount, as “Dissenting” shows.

Thank you, Rachel May

Hello, my name is Charles Kell and I am the new senior editor of The Ocean State Review. Everyone here at OSR would like to thank Rachel for her outstanding dedication and effort in bringing the journal to its current state of success. For three years Rachel has been involved in gathering an array of disparate, important voices into The Ocean State Review. I hope to build upon what she has already accomplished. I thank Rachel for her help and wish her luck in the future and congratulations with her successful book, Quilting with a Modern Slant: People, Patterns, and Techniques Inspiring the Modern Quilt Community.

In Celebration of OSR 2014, A Conversation: Robin Becker & Amy Hoffman

In celebration of the release of our fourth annual issue, we’re delighted to publish online this conversation between two OSR contributors, Amy Hoffman and Robin Becker. Hoffman’s work was published in last year’s issue, when her memoir, Lies About My Family, was released, and Becker’s poems appear in this year’s publication; her collection Tiger Heron was published in early 2014 to great reviews.

We’re honored to include this conversation here, and offer thanks to Robin Becker and Amy Hoffman for generously sharing this with all of us.

We hope that you’ll also read this year’s Ocean State Review, which includes work by Melanie Rae Thon, Michael Martone, Charles Bernstein, Susan Bee, Annie Lanzillotto, and Tucker Hollingsworth, among many others, available for purchase here: OSR 2014.

Conversation: Robin Becker & Amy Hoffman

In 2013, Amy Hoffman, editor in chief of Women’s Review of Books, published her third memoir, Lies About My Family. As a longtime friend and colleague of Amy’s, I wanted to talk with her about family lore, Judaism, truth. We decided to conduct a conversation we could document and share. Hoffman’s two previous books—Hospital Time and An Army of Ex-Lovers: My Life at the “Gay Community News—concern the political and social movements that shaped the feminists of the second wave.The new book fascinated me with its focus on immigration, assimilation, and buried family stories. A creative nonfiction faculty member in the Solstice MFA Program at Pine Manor College, Hoffman teaches students how to shape personal narratives, how to interview and do research. The following conversation focuses on Hoffman’s craft, and her own strategies for getting at the meaning of the stories we tell.

—Robin Becker

The title Lies About My Family points toward the memoir as a complex, contested site for “truth.” Can you speak to that?

The title concerns the elusiveness of truth, the slipperiness of memory, and the difference between truth and facts—or what we think are facts. The past, in memory, is not fixed, like a picture or a videotape (and even those rip or fade; the colors alter; they can be photoshopped). According to neurobiologists, in the act of accessing a memory, we change it.  Having written the book, I can no longer remember the stories and experiences in it; I can remember only what I wrote.

My original notion was that the book would include three types of chapters: the family stories that are told over and over; the truths underneath these stories; and what I thought of as the facts: the immigration officer’s story. That’s not the way I ended up telling the book: it wasn’t really possible to keep those strands separate. And, the “immigration officer’s story” turned out to be less factual than I had thought.

I suppose another reason I titled the book as I did was to be somewhat shocking and challenging. But it would have been worse, wouldn’t it, if I’d called it “The Truth About My Family”?

Can you give an example of how the “immigration officer’s story” upended your expectations?

There’s this: the ship manifest I found on the Ellis Island website says my mother’s mother came to the US from what’s now Ukraine when she was sixteen. My mother, though, says my grandmother lied about her age, and that she was really fourteen. And sometimes my mother says my grandmother was thirteen. What we do know is that she was young and alone.

And this: My father’s mother tells a story of how her father, a town elder, was arrested. She claims she doesn’t know why—but it turns out he was arrested for using forms he had access to as a government official to forge passports for his relatives. Of course, on the ship manifest, where he’s asked whether he’s ever been arrested, he checks “no.” He also lists his profession as “farmer.”

The unknown and “impossible to know” accompany your efforts to certify and document. When your father shows you a photograph to make a point, you say, “But who can really tell one dressed-up blur of villagers, in their braids and kerchiefs, beards and hats, from another?” To what extent have you allowed uncertainty and family lore to be part of the story?

Uncertainty is what the book is about. If history is written by the victors, then family lore is, similarly, created by the teller. We tell the stories we do for our own purposes: to mitigate pain; to explain ourselves; to find meaning. When I started to do research, I thought it would tell me the truths underneath the stories. But of course it provided only a new set of stories—which themselves could be excavated.

American Judaism—religion and cultural history—takes many contradictory forms in this book. For example, you say your father is an “unbeliever,” yet he served as president of the temple. Your paternal grandparents are buried in the Temple Beth-El cemetery, but no one has ever visited their graves. How do you make sense of Judaism in the forms and traditions your family practices, and how do you (who knows and loves liturgical Hebrew) see yourself as a contemporary Jewish feminist?

My family, I suspect from my grandparents through my own generation, were both steeped in Judaism and unbelievers. To me, this is very Jewish! In Genesis, the patriarch Jacob struggles with an angel all night and in the morning is given a new identity and a new name: Yisrael, meaning “He who wrestles with God.” The story was always told to me as an parable of questioning, of not taking any assumptions for granted, of using all your strength to seek meaning and truth. So, we question everything—which also means living with the answers. Jacob/Israel is wounded in the course of the struggle.

Your reference to Jacob struggling with the angel nicely situates you and your family as Jews who search and contend, question and argue. I admire the way your book actualizes and embodies that struggle by showing how love coexists with difference—of opinion, religious and sexual persuasion, politics.

Despite my parents’ skepticism about religion, they identified with Jewish culture, which they experienced as an essential, non-negotiable part of their identities. To them (and to me) it meant valuing the human spirit, learning, and justice.

Do you observe any religious practices today, and if so, which ones? Have you any “official” ties to a Jewish community?

My Jewish practice is pretty diffuse. Some of it’s about family: we get together for a Passover seder and a family Hanukah party each year. My father always leads our seder in exactly the same way—for example, he reads a passage that says Pharaoh made the Jews work “with rigah”—in a nasal, pseudo-Boston accent that’s supposed to sound like John F. Kennedy, so you can see how long he’s been making that joke; and on Hanukah my mother tells the holiday story using hand puppets she made of canvas gardening gloves when I was about five (I’m now 61).

My “official” tie to the Jewish community, in that it involves paying dues, is the High Holiday observances at the Workmen’s Circle, a secular progressive Jewish organization that dates back to the turn of the century. The services there are unrecognizable, really, as services, with folk songs and Yiddish niggunim (tunes). Afterward I go home and bake a challah and make the traditional pot roast served with overcooked vegetables.

You say of one wonderful old great-uncle, “Sol may have been a communist, but he had certain capitalist talents and impulses.” In what ways do the tensions between socialism/communism and capitalism pervade our parents’ generation?

Sol and my other immigrant relatives did whatever they could think of to survive in their new country. I’m always amazed at their resourcefulness. Many were classic proletarians, working in factories, while others became business owners, managers, professionals. I love the paradox that those old lefties, as in the line you quote, were also such visionary, energetic entrepreneurs.

How did their politics inform their views about Israel?

Sol, the communist, argued with my grandparents, his in-laws, who were socialist-zionists, about the establishment state of Israel. He believed that a Jewish state would become just as oppressive as any other state. For my grandparents—and parents—Israel, especially the Israel of the kibbutzim (collective farming communities that have now almost completely disappeared), was the realization of a utopian dream. As a politically progressive person, this heritage is important to me—both Sol’s skepticism about the state and my grandparents’ idealism.

Secrecy often shrouds mental illness in families. The tragedy of your twin cousins Bobby and Betty’s sibling estrangement, ending in Bobby’s suicide, speaks potently to me as the sister of a suicide. In another section of the book you tell of the accidental death of your great-uncle, after which his wife took her own life and the lives of their two little daughters. What role do these narratives play in the larger narrative of your book?

The thread of mental illness in my mother’s family is not something that was much acknowledged—and I did not know the story of the wife’s suicide-infanticide until I started researching the book and asked my mother about some photos in an old album. All of it makes me very sad: there was so much suffering and so many distorted relationships because of the self-destructiveness of that wife, the psychosis of my mother’s aunt, the anxiety and paranoia of her father, the depression of her nephew (my cousin Bobby), the venality of her uncle Irving-the-gonif (thief). Maybe the lesson is compassion: everyone has their struggles and pain, even those like my family, whose story, we told ourselves, was one of love, happiness, progress, and success.

I love what you say about the story “we [tell] ourselves,” which often excludes illness or trouble or irregularity of any sort. In the 1925 novel Bread Givers, the author Anzia Yezierska addresses women’s increasing unhappiness with their roles in immigrant Jewish families. And Mary Felstiner, in her biography of the artist Charlotte Salomon (To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era, 1994), reveals an “epidemic” of suicides in interwar Germany among educated Jewish women who had no outlet for their talents. Did gendered expectations shape the suffering you evoke?  

I’m sure they did, although I know this only from reading between the lines. The great-uncle’s wife, for example: she must have believed that she and her children could not survive without the man of the house, that she had reached a hopeless impasse. And would my mother’s mother have lived longer if her illness had been taken more seriously? If she had not been thoroughly exhausted by her difficult and perhaps lonely life?

But actually, the great story of gender expectations—and the breaking of them—is my mother’s: her father, she often told me, did not believe in educating girls, even though he had three daughters. Despite this, she excelled in high school and received a full scholarship to Cornell University. Going away to school was her heroic rebellion.

I admire your weaving of personal, familial, and pop cultural references into an exploration of given subject or theme. Rachel Maddow, for example, makes an appearance in your discussion of names related to your paternal grandmother’s family name, Madorsky. In another section, you tell of your grandmother, deep in Alzheimer’s disease, who still recalls songs from her childhood and of your friend Walta Borawski, who, in the late stages of AIDS dementia “could have been a contestant on Opera Quiz.” How did you come to this practice which, I think, enriches the book?

It occurs to me that I love discovering unlikely interconnections and overlapping circles among people in the real world, and I’m also delighted by this in the imaginative world—how words and images and ideas echo each other, reverberate, interconnect.

In the biography of E.M. Forster by P. N. Furbank (1994), he says that Forster was blocked and troubled in his writing until he learned to “trust the imagination.” This notion of trusting the imagination was so liberating to me. It’s a tremendous leap to take, and I can’t always do it. But my best writing, I think, is very associative and intuitive.

Early in the book, we learn that your mother, her parents and her two sisters lived in a one-bedroom apartment. As a child at your family’s summer cottage, you say “There was no escape and no privacy.” How do privacy and the need for disclosure co-exist for you? Shape you as a writer? As a member of your clan?

My “clan,” yes—great word. Maybe it’s just my character: I love being with people, but I also need quiet, private time. A lot of my favorite things to do are pretty solitary: reading, writing. Cooking—but not cooperatively. For exercise I walk, bike, do yoga—no team sports!

The self-disclosure part is harder to fathom. But for sure, writing memoir is about creating meaning, a narrative thread that ties together and shapes—or appears to—the random chaos around us. Writing memoir is also about sharing that meaning: otherwise, we’d keep it in our journals, right? “Only connect,” Forster said, and I take that to mean both “find order” and “make human contact.”

People have told me they feel that they know me, as they might a friend, after reading my books—but that’s an illusion.  A good writer, which I strive to become, is in control of what she discloses and why—it must all serve the creation of meaning. It’s embarrassing to read a book when you get the feeling you have more insight than the author does.

The writer must also figure out how, which involves the creation of a persona on the page, a voice—a character. I feel protected by the persona. It’s not identical with me as I live and act in the real world. It’s like the painting by the surrealist René Magritte, which is captioned, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” [This is not a pipe.] And it’s not a pipe—it’s a painting.

The immigration stories involved extensive research, as we see in the comprehensive family trees you provide at the book’s opening. Can you discuss how you went about this?

I must credit the family tree (at least the paternal, Madorsky side of it) to research by my Aunt Norma Salz. She put together the tree and collected many of the stories I use in the book. She gave me her files and was very generous with her time—I spent a weekend in Miami interviewing her. I also interviewed my parents and went through their photographs and papers with them—they lent me the photos that appear in the book.

I also used the great resources that are now on the internet for genealogical research, including the Ellis Island website (which enables you to look up your family not only by last name, but also by “sounds-like,” by village, by year—by any little scrap of information you may have),,, Google. And I’ve read a lot of history and fiction about turn of the century Jewish immigration, listened to the music, learned a bissele Yiddish (it was my language in graduate school, through the Jewish Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts).

You employed old-fashioned (family members) as well as technological resources. Your Aunt Norma’s impulse to recover and research stories served you well! What history and fiction and music come to mind as especially important or useful to you?

Some of what was important and useful, I should say, wasn’t research; it was simply what I grew up with. I heard my grandparents’ and my parents’ stories and songs and the rhythms of their speech. As an adolescent I read some of the classic Yiddish writers in translation: Sholom Aleichem, Y. L. Peretz, I. B Singer (My grandmother had no use for Singer—when she saw me reading a collection of his stories she said, “Feh! Superstition! Bubbe-mayses and dybbuks! [old wives’ tales and demons]); Martin Buber’s two volume Tales of the Hasidim (1948); a big fat book from my parents’ shelf called A Treasury of Jewish Folklore (1948). Later I read some of the books you refer to above, such as Bread Givers, also the stories of Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen. Philip Roth, Henry Roth. Histories such as World of Our Fathers, by Irving Howe (1976) and even more importantly, World of Our Mothers, by Sidney Stahl Weinberg (1987).

In what ways did the writing of this book deepen your relationship with your parents? What challenges did you experience in writing about (and in collaboration with ) other living family members?

My Aunt Norma and other relatives have told me how much they enjoyed the book. My relationship with my parents has grown and deepened over the past ten years—both because of the discussions about their lives that we had for this book and because of other factors.

When I wrote my first book, Hospital Time (1997) I sent my parents the manuscript before it was published—but only afterward did my father talk to me about my portrayal of him, which he thought depicted him as overly materialistic (I disagree!). He had not mentioned it earlier, he said, because he didn’t think I should change the book according to his feelings. So, his is an amazingly generous, forgiving attitude. He hasn’t talked to me much about this book, and I suspect there are things in it, too, that he doesn’t like—but I also know that he is proud that I am a writer, and he enjoyed seeing the photos of his parents and other family members in the book.

My mother is very proud and supportive of my writing. Whenever we talk, she asks me about it. She reads Women’s Review of Books cover to cover. She loves this book and has passed it around to friends.  She thinks my previous book, An Army of Ex-Lovers: My Life at the Gay Community News (2007), should become a TV series, “Like Friends,” she says.

My youngest brother feels that I have misrepresented and humiliated both him and my parents, and he is very hurt and angry at me. I was so shocked and upset and horrified by his reaction that I seriously considered withdrawing the book from publication. My spouse Roberta Stone, my writing group, and my publisher persuaded me instead to postpone publication in order to review the manuscript once more.

How did you feel about your family when you were writing the book?

It gave me a lot of pleasure to gather the memories and tell the stories in the book. And indeed, my friend Richard Burns, who read several versions of the manuscript, told me, “Aim, this is a love letter to your parents.”  My mother says, “Everyone in a family has their own experience, and this is your experience.”

With what other memoirists do you see yourself in conversation? 

Maxine Hong Kingston, because of her way of combining facts, history, folktales, and family lore. Emma Goldman, because of her energy, radical politics, eloquence, charisma. Dorothy Gallagher, who wrote a charming Jewish family memoir called How I Came into My Inheritance and Other True Stories (2001). Alison Bechdel, not only because of her family memoirs but also because of her years-long serial, collected in The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For (2008), a pitch-perfect chronicle of the ideals and foibles of my generation of out, political lesbians.

Your book is full of wit and irony, the self-mockery of Jewish comedians (Lenny Bruce, Gilda Radner, Woody Allen, Sarah Silverman) who have great timing. You say “The men in my family don’t tell war stories, they tell draft-evasion stories.” From whom did you get your gift for pacing? For the incisive, double-edged observation?

AH: I know the jokes of the old guys—Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Marx brothers—second hand, because my parents, especially my father, a great storyteller himself, love repeating them—applying them to new situations and putting their own twists on them. That kind of telling and retelling, or rather, interpreting and reinterpreting, questioning and answering—wait, no, questioning and answering the question with another question—is talmudic, almost, in its intellectual rhythms, and has contributed to the rich heritage of Jewish humor, which wrestles with the absurdities of the world and ends up bursting into laughter (instead of tears).

Liberal Arts Research Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Penn State, Robin Becker has published four books in the Pitt Poetry Series. Her next, Tiger Heron, was published in January 2014. She writes the poetry column “Field Notes” for the Women’s Review of Books where she serves as Contributing and Poetry Editor.

2014 Ocean State Summer Writing Conference: Keynote Speaker Percival Everett Shares His Latest Work


Percival Everett, author of 28 books and Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California read on Friday, June 20th as a keynote speaker for our annual Ocean State Summer Writing Conference.  Everett is a former mentor and close friend to one of URI’s Creative Writing faculty, Josie Sigler Sibara, who introduced Everett.  Sibara became friends with Everett during her doctoral program at the University of Southern California, despite never having taken a class with him.  Sibara recalls her frustration with narrative and form at the time, quoting Everett’s advice: “No one even knows what a novel is.  That’s the beauty of it.  Just follow yourself in.”

Everett read “Tesseract,” a short story just published in the Winter 2014 edition of Brooklyn-based art magazine, BOMB.  “Tesseract” is a story about painting, aging, marriage and risk.  After his reading, conference participants were able to ask questions.  One participant asked Everett about his teaching experiences with Nigerian author and former student at the University of Southern California, Chris Abani.  Everett proudly described the “self-slap” that he taught Abani as the “Pavlovian training,” or the ability to revise one’s own work that comes with writing fiction apart from one’s mentor.  Another participant asked Everett about the influential writers of his youth.  Unable to choose just one, he claimed Mark Twain, Bullwinkle and Groucho Marx as masters of dialog and comedy.  Finally, an audience member asked Everett about his response to having been called “America’s post-racial novelist.”  Everett explained: “If it becomes a post-racial America, then none of us will know that it has happened.”

The next day Everett joined me, Amy Foley, and URI graduate students Hazel Gedikli and Charles Kell for a discussion of I am Not Sidney Poitier where we exchanged views on race, film, comedy, parody, pastiche and fiction.


The Lion-Heart of Annie Lanzillotto, 2014 OSR Contributor & URI Speaker

by Nancy Caronia

I was Evel Knievel. I was a Spaldeen. Yes Mom, I am made of rubber. I got a pink rubber soul.            - Annie Lanzillotto, L is for Lion (34)


Annie Lanzillotto, from

This spring at URI’s LGTBQ Symposium, Annie Lanzillotto spoke eloquently about gender identity and how she became a performance artist, writer, singer, world traveller, cancer survivor, and Tony’s Grandma Nunzio for an Off-Broadway revival of Tony and Tina’s Wedding. The students in my WRT 270: Writing in the Expressivist Tradition course were fortunate to have her visit before her talk that evening. They were surprised by her honesty and commitment to create community in the 75-minutes we were together. I brought a Spaldeen ball—a central conceit in her memoir L is for Lion: An Italian Bronx Butch Freedom Memoir, recently nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. The Spaldeen was a reminder of the ways in which Annie had to bounce back from numerous challenges. It was the rubber ball of her youth, which taught her as much about life as it did stoopball and stickball.

She eagerly took the ball from me and threw it from student to student, asking in her thick Bronx accent: “What’s your name? What do you want me to talk to you about today?” At first, they didn’t believe her questions. I suppose they thought she would show up and espouse her ideas on what it takes to be a great writer. But Annie refuses passivity from anyone. I could see by the looks on their faces that they weren’t sure what to do with the ball and what to make of Annie, but Annie is nothing if not patient. More important, Annie knows everything about how to work a crowd. She bounced the ball as one student tentatively asked a question. She used the bounce to create suspense, to formulate a compassionate response, to listen to their breathing, and to assess the vibration of the room. The ball became the metronome of our meeting. It became our heartbeat as one by one students opened up about their hopes and fears about writing, about school, about life. They asked how to write the hard truth. She was gentle, but prodding. They asked how long it takes. She said, your whole life. They asked how she was able to be so brutally honest. She answered with another question: What choice do I have? They were moved that she gave so much to them when she had already given them so much in her memoir.


Annie_Lanzillotto_memoirIn my introduction of Annie at the symposium that evening, I said, she “contains multitudes.” I purposefully recalled Walt Whitman and his “Song of Myself” since Annie, for me, is nothing less than the spiritual sister to Whitman. Like America’s iconic queer poet, she is “not a bit tamed” and chooses to “see, dance, laugh, [and] sing” with abandon. Like Whitman, too, she sounds her “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” From the Bronx to Manhattan and Egypt, Italy, California, and, yes, even Rhode Island, she witnesses and interacts with the lives circling around her to create an American voice that recognizes the present moment of those most likely to be forgotten or stereotyped. Her “I,” like Whitman’s all seeing, all speaking “I,” honors everyone and everything, including the healing properties of garlic and lasagna. She makes space for the “old and young,” and “the foolish as much as the wise.” She does not judge someone for his or her station in life. She does not see pedigree—she honors spirit. She witnesses action; she witnesses speech; she witnesses silence most of all.

In L is for Lion, she writes with equal honesty, pain, and love about her family, especially her father Lanzi, her mother Rachel, her grandma Rose. She remembers the nuns at her Catholic schools, friends and lovers such as Johnny Denaro, with whom she marches in one of the first AIDS walks in NYC, and her long-time partner Audrey, who emerges as a peacemaker through numerous illnesses and family struggles. She honors the Egyptian cab driver Yusef, who gains her entrance to the teachings of Islam while she lives in Egypt researching the etiology of a local parasite. She engages with and is both witness and recipient of the benevolence and good works of doctors and staff like Dr. Kempin and Cecil the greeter at Sloan Kettering.

Annie, like Whitman, refuses to shy away from the difficult issues of our times. Whether she writes about the violence in her family, sings and performs about Italian tradition, marches to remember those who have perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and from AIDS, creates healing rituals with garlic and Spaldeens, or researches cancer, Annie confronts prejudices with regards to issues of class, ethnicity, cancer, and, most especially, as it related to URI’s LGBTQ symposium, gender. In her life, Annie has stood before cancer, classists, xenophobes, and homophobes and refused to give in to their negative and destructive energies. She believes in the bounce of the Spaldeen—that where you set your energy and love—that will be returned to you ten-fold. At the same time, she is “ever regardful of others” as she reveals the world in all its beauteous imperfection.

Lest you think I exaggerate, here are some of Annie’s credentials. She has a B.A. in medical anthropology from Brown University where she graduated with honors while undergoing treatment for Hodgkins, which was first diagnosed when she was nineteen and about to enter Brown. She earned an MFA from Sarah Lawrence and has received numerous awards, fellowships, and grants for her writing and performance art, including from the New York Foundation for the Arts, Dixon Place, the Franklin Furnace, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Currently, she is a Writer-in-Residence at New Jersey City University and just finishing up her run as Grandma Nunzio.

nancy and annie

Nancy Caronia, left, and Annie Lanzillotto, during Annie’s visit to URI this spring.

Annie’s presence on the URI campus was a joyful and thought-provoking day. She infused my students with a sense of determination about figuring out what stories they needed to tell, and her visit strengthened the trust that we had for each other and our work. She inspired them to show a bit more of who they were and not who they thought we wanted to see. It may have been a cold, cold February, but Annie arrived just in time to warm our tired from the winter hearts. Now, each of you will have a chance to read Annie’s vision and power in the latest issue of OSR.

Nancy Caronia is a Pushcart Prize nominated writer whose work has most recently appeared in New Delta Review, Lowestoft Chronicle, and 94 Creations. She and Edvige Giunta have co-edited Personal Effects: Essays on Memoir, Teaching, and Culture in the Work of Louise DeSalvo (Fordham University Press 2014).

Register now for the Ocean State Summer Writing Conference!

Registration is now open for the 8th Annual Ocean State Summer Writing Conference!

This year, we are thrilled to welcome our keynote speakers: graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel, poet Charles Bernstein, and novelist Percival Everett. Returning from last year to teach master classes are dramatist Ayad Akhtar and novelist Amity Gaige. Poet and critic Stephen Burt will lead an advanced workshop.

In addition to Poetry, Nonfiction, and Fiction workshops, we celebrate the addition of Memoir and Young Adult Literature, and, back by popular demand, Screenwriting.

The main conference features a panel of comics artists, discussion with editors, and a special presentation by artist Susan Bee, among many more events.

Don’t miss the opportunity to have a consultation with one of two editors from Penguin.

For more information visit the Ocean State Summer Writing Conference website here!

Follow them on Twitter and Facebook!

Thank you for continuing to put Rhode Island on the map for outstanding creative writing. We look forward to seeing you!

Kristin Prevallet class visit

This spring, returning Ocean State Summer Writing Conference teacher Kristin Prevallet visited via Skype with Rachel May’s creative nonfiction workshop, to talk about her book, I, Afterlife: Essays in Mourning Time.  Students were inspired by her discussion of what it takes to write a difficult story, and how she wrote the book in small parts that she later wove together.



Prevallet’s latest book, Visualize Comfort: Pain Management and the Unconscious Mind, combines her work as a poet and therapist. She describes new ways to manage pain with hypnosis and other mind-body techniques.

At the conference, Prevallet will teach a one-day workshop in Trance Poetics. From the conference website:

“Friday, 1:45 – 2:45 pm: Embodied Narratives: Revising Your Cellular Stories

  • Instructor: Kristin PrevalletFor centuries, trance narratives have led people into wild dream and trance states where neurochemical and biological healing processes are activated. For writers and artists, following these narrative threads might awaken characters and plots, or unlock elliptical poetic processes useful for the generation of new work. If out of this workshop you write a few amazing poems or stories, that’s terrific; if you (among other things) learn how to overcome emotional blocks, deal with pain in a new way, and take action to change the catastrophic future, that’s the learning of an embodied poetics that can last a lifetime.”

See you there!


The Family Cannon by Halina Duraj now available



Debut novel, The Family Cannon, by past Ocean State Review contributor Halina Duraj is now available!

Duraj’s novel tells a family’s tale in vivid and beautiful detail, over a series of unforgettable short stories.  Augury Books describes the novel as such:

“The debut collection by author Halina Duraj brings readers an American family, strikingly individual but recognizable to us all — as strange and familiar as home. An escalating neighborhood feud takes an unanticipated turn. A college student visiting Poland learns about drinking, dancing, and some of the more perplexing mysteries of adulthood. A mother opens up about her youth and courtship. A daughter tries to understand her own relationship within the context of what she has been taught about marriage. These tender and generous linked stories illuminate the hidden corners of our family lives and, in doing so, cast beautiful light on the shadows”.

Melanie Rae Thorn, author of The Voice in the River and In this Light, had this to say: “With quiet astonishment, Halina Duraj explores the mysteries of love and madness, offering her readers the secret salvation of story. Between a father’s reinvention of himself, a mother’s perplexing fidelity, and a woman’s navigation of the complexities of betrayal, we discover the exquisite pleasures of a world restored and redeemed through Duraj’s luminous gaze, the loving attention and tender playfulness of an extravagantly passionate imagination.”

Read an excerpt here!