In the 2016 Ocean State Review: Fred Marchant, Rachel M. Harper, and Beth Ayer

photo by Stefi Rubin
photo by Stefi Rubin


Fred Marchant’s fifth book of poetry, Said Not Said, is forthcoming in May 2017 from Graywolf Press. The poems in this book hover at the horizon of language, that place where what is said can only point beyond to that which is crucial yet one barely has any words for. “The Unacceptable,” one of the first poems Said Not Said is also in this issue of The Ocean State Review. It’s a poem that, like Fred himself, has its roots in Rhode Island. He grew up in Providence, went to school there, and in later years, returned often to see his aging parents and others in his family, including his older sister, whose schizophrenia and hospitalization is the subject of “The Unacceptable.” This poem is a meditation not only on her pain and bewilderment, but also on her strength, wit, determination, and heart. Fred has lived in the Boston area for many years now, has recently become an Emeritus Professor of English at Suffolk University, where he founded the creative writing program and poetry center. HIs first book, Tipping Point, won the 1993 Washington Prize from The Word Works, and was recently re-issued in a 20th anniversary second edition, with an introduction by Nick Flynn. His other books include Full Moon Boat and The Looking House, both from Graywolf Press. He has also had a new and selected edition published in Dublin by Dedalus Press. Along with his co-translator Nguyen Ba Chung, Fred Marchant has also translated the work of contemporary Vietnamese poets such as Tran Dang Khoa and Vo Que. A longtime teaching affiliate of the William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences at UMass Boston, Fred has taught poetry workshops in various venues across the country.



last day on the planet she thrashed and spit while the nurses tied
her wrists to the bedrail, strips of cloth that worsened what was

Her face grew radiant, her whole being flush from the long
struggle with those she knew she should never have trusted.

They tried to keep track of her vitals, chart her erratic heart, and
peer into her cranium with a flashlight through the eyes.

They taped death-lines to a port in her arm, and said she should
believe in the plastic tube at her nose, that it would fill her lungs
with good clean air.

She shook her head as hard as she could, got her whole body to
say no, thou shalt not, nope, no way, thou shalt not touch me,
nothing doing.

Not with the elbow-bendable straw adjusted to her lips, not with
the insidious needle pointed upward and dribbling over.

And absolutely not with the noisy metal thing the attendant
in scrubs wheeled in, not that wheezing apparatus of the


Rachel M. Harper


Rachel M. Harper is a novelist and screenwriter based in Los Angeles. Her first novel, Brass Ankle Blues, was a Borders Original Voices Award finalist and selected as a Target Breakout Book. Her new novel, This Side of Providence, was published in 2016, and has been heralded by luminaries such as Alice Walker, Sena Jeter Naslund, and Jacqueline Woodson. She has received fellowships from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and the R.I. State Council on the Arts. A graduate of Brown University and the University of Southern California, Harper is on the faculty at Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing Program. Her website is

“Miss Valentín” is an excerpt from my novel, This Side of Providence, and it follows one of the satellite characters in the book, Miss Valentín, a dedicated and much-loved teacher who reveals herself to be more vulnerable and complicated than she first appears. In many ways, she is the moral conscience of the book, but I wanted her to exist as more than simply the authority figure behind the desk, to embody more than just her label of “model minority,” the one who pulls herself up by her bootstraps; I wanted her to be a full, flesh-and-blood character, so that’s why this story is so important. She reveals not just secrets from her past in this section, but insights into her character’s struggle with shame and longing, things that show her to be quite similar to the rest of the characters—to be flawed and heartbreakingly human—even while illuminating her distinct and singular path, the one she will forge relentlessly throughout the book, ultimately leading to redemption and hope for them all.

from “Miss Valentín”

I stood out for a lot of reasons growing up. I played
chess instead of playing with dolls. I never learned how to sew
or cook, but I knew the rules of baseball by the time I could
read. Other girls sang in church and jumped rope in teams
of two or three, while I played the violin and walked to the
corner store all by myself. Food was my constant companion
(my first friend, my oldest friend) and the only thing that has
never let me down. By the 5th grade I could read equally well
in English and Spanish, something even my parents struggled
with, and I was on the honor roll for all of junior high. When
I was thirteen my homeroom teacher encouraged me to apply
to the same college prep high school she’d gone to, so I rode
the subway from Brooklyn into Manhattan (by myself) and
took the entrance exam without even telling my parents. At
first they didn’t want me to go, but when I told them that two
presidents had gone there they rushed out and bought me the
school uniform. New, not used.

I was comfortable being an outsider, both in my
neighborhood and in my own home, but suddenly I wasn’t so
different from the other Puerto Rican girls I’d grown up with.
Sixteen, pregnant, and unmarried; I finally fit in.



Beth Ayer


Beth Ayer is a writer and editor living in Easthampton, MA. Her poetry has been published in journals including jubilat, Otis Nebula, Apartment, Epigraph, and Divine Magnet.

Nothing Party

let’s have a game and stare
at our hands. until we lose
the hand we do not hold,
we’ll evanesce. leave everything
we take under the porch
and turn off the lights. turn off
the streetlight: an umbrella
raining under an umbrella, an inverted obelisk
observing the feathered edges of the dark.
universes we didn’t
leave in the rack in the bathroom
at all, for you. we put nothing for you
in the mirror. we put nothing in the bath.
we erased the bath and laid a towel
under your breath.
remember what you did
yesterday? and this morning?
we don’t.
no need to stand
on your back legs—there is not even
a throw rug with concentric circles.
you want to stay?
unmake us a thing that exists: a tree,
an elephant, a golden spiral.
see The Collector shaking seed
across the road in a kimono.
bring her to us.

Paul Petrie (1928-2012) poet and University of Rhode Island professor, featured in the 2016 Ocean State Review

Paul Petrie
Paul Petrie


Paul Petrie (1928-2012) was born in Detroit, Michigan in an area which, at that time, was on the outskirts of the city. After receiving a BA (1950) and MA (1951) from Wayne University, he spent two years in the Army during the Korean War, the latter part in Alaska supposedly working in intelligence. Back home, he went with Philip Levine to study with Robert Lowell, and then successively, John Berryman and Paul Engle at the Iowa Writers Workshop. There he met the artist, Sylvia Spencer, whom he married for her many wonderful qualities, but also for her prints and paintings, thus establishing a symbiotic relationship which has since yielded many poems inspired by prints and many prints inspired by poems. They have three children and five grandchildren (inspired by the usual incentives). He has published eleven collections of poetry, won numerous awards, and was professor emeritus of English and creative writing at the University of Rhode Island, where he taught for over thirty years. His Collected Poems was released by Antrim House in 2014 to critical acclaim. Paul Petrie’s work was featured at this year’s Ocean State Summer Writing Conference’s 10th Anniversary Legacy Tribute: Inspired Pedagogy, Literary Influence, and the Writing Life, which celebrated the life and work of four distinguished emeritus teacher-writers from the University of Rhode Island.


Evolution or Creationism

Blame it on the apes,
or Creation’s trembling

but here we are–
unfinished people
with faulty brains–
which can think only
in opposites.

Either the canyon’s walls
blind-dazzle with sun,
or loom up, nightmare shapes
against the stars–

all in between–

Inconceivably, complexly
the flickerings of truth.

Shadings, you ever-shifting shadows
of grey,
how can I praise you

Give us a thousand years,
or a wiser God–

or better still
give us something in-between,
neither this, nor that.


Sylvia Petrie, Untitled Monotype 18 x 24"
Sylvia Petrie, Untitled
Monotype 18 x 24″



I am walking backwards–
fitting the shoes of my feet
in my own footprints.

What can I gain
by going where I’ve already been?
Though ahead, just a little ways,
the road ends.

And yet with each backward step
I find new vistas, enchanted
I failed to see,
obsessed by motion’s dream.

There they are–
green sunlit fields,
white rivers
of leaping fish,
round hills
that fold themselves like lovers
around other hills–

I stand on each spot, transfixed,
and gaze.

I could walk backwards
but the road
is following me,
and the road

But I do not seem to care
as I once cared
where the road goes.

I have been where I have been,
seen what I have seen,
and footprints mark the way–

and will, for a time,


Nancy Potter, acclaimed short story writer, winner of a PEN/NEA Fiction Award, and University of Rhode Island professor and administrator from 1947-1989, talks about Paul Petrie’s impact:

“Paul Petrie was responsible for gently gathering about a dozen
of his colleagues who had been suspected of writing prose and
poetry on their own time, and he was, indeed, responsible for
cultivating a loose and civil structure that promised a decade or
so of fine group behavior. That was no small achievement.
We trusted him, and I think that he accepted that trust
without fuss. After all, he was, by then, a seasoned apprentice
of a poetry group at Wayne State and a recent graduate of the
celebrated Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His admirable example
as mentor and supportive colleague simply produced a lasting
atmosphere of balance and acceptance. We had few absolute
rules. Paul expected us to provide sufficiently in advance
copies of our manuscripts. He also expected that we would
appear with reasonable questions and practical suggestions for
improvement of style. We grew in confidence and gained some
skill in judgement. Over the years Paul remained as a lovely
standard of affectionate civility, balanced with wit and insight.
By some miracle those pleasant Friday evenings in various
Kingston living rooms quite simply turned us into better
writers. It was a comfortable and gracious process, allowing
us to believe that we had years of such association in reserve.
There’s the trick of mortality waiting for everyone. Decades
later, I realize how lucky we were. We were still young enough
and busy with our lives not to have complimented Paul’s
remarkable collection of skills. Of course, we had to recognize
his poetry’s music, his firm control of structure and images.
Most of all, we were proud to share his values and hopes as
writers. We admired his quiet wit, and we carried his remarkable
images of life and behavior into our own memory banks. And,
finally, we knew somehow that other generations would share
such experiences of making essays and poems and stories.”

More poems and information can be found at    His Collected Poems are available at Amazon.


In the 2015 Ocean State Review: Rusty Morrison, Dan Chelotti, Lisa Fay Coutley, and Casey Thayer

Rusty Morrison
Rusty Morrison


Rusty Morrison’s Beyond the Chainlink (Ahsahta) was a finalist for the NCIBA and also for the NCBA Awards in Poetry. After Urgency (Tupelo) won The Dorset Prize. the true keeps calm biding its story (Ahsahta) won the Sawtooth Prize, the Academy of American Poet’s James Laughlin Award, the Northern California Book Award, & the DiCastagnola Award from Poetry Society of America. Whethering (The Center for Literary Publishing), won the Colorado Prize for Poetry. Book of the Given was published by Noemi Press. She has received the Bogin, Hemley, Winner, and DiCastagnola Awards from PSA. Her poems &/or essays recently have appeared in Boston Review, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Lana Turner, Pen Poetry Series, Prelude, VOLT, and elsewhere. Her poems have been anthologized in the Norton Postmodern American Poetry 2nd Edition, The Arcadia Project: Postmodern Pastoral, Beauty is a Verb, The Sonnets: Translating and Rewriting Shakespeare and elsewhere. She has been co-publisher of Omnidawn ( since 2001.


unfiltered cigarette pale     thin girl’s green lips long-legged
stare across museum steps  when you were still young you’d wear
death like a strategy for        winning someone else’s game

play it like a staring role      now you’re just here in line for
performance art retro a         video of white every-
body-the-same decade their        eyes nothing like your own you

tell yourself the telling is       just more zeros after a
decimal a celluloid       scab on your hand where you touched
background symmetry that shifts       shimmery to scissor sharp

while the audience watches      one by one they die into
their roles cut surface from their            fabric each performance a
long breath thin girls exhale for      the film that goes on to loop

endless as the long glare of
museum-light surrounding


Dan Chelotti
Dan Chelotti


Dan Chelotti is the author of x (McSweeney’s) and two chapbooks, The Eights (Poetry Society of America) and Compost (Greying Ghost). His poems can be found in A Public Space, Boston Review, Divine Magnet, Poetry, and many other journals. His writing has appeared in The Huffington Post and Los Angeles Review of Books. He is an associate professor at Elms College, and lives in Massachusetts. His latest chapbook is available here:

The Moth and the Steamroller

I am chain smoking on the porch
staring at a steamroller thinking
of the early Tarkovsky film.
I am procrastinating a tower
of papers. I am convincing
myself that every cigarette
is a metaphysical cigarette.
I have x’s on the backs
of my hands and the wind
is cold on my bald spot.
The deadlines are beating
on my bald spot.
An October moth is beating
against the screen
and this morning in bed
I read an article demonstrating
how dogs are humans, too.
They trained the dogs
to sit in MRI machines.
My daughter had to be
sedated and slid into
an MRI machine.
As her tiny body slid
into the clacking, you
turned to me and said
with atavistic distance,
as if narration could frame
and save us: This is a short story.
In The Steamroller and the Violin,
the little boy’s violin playing
is wonderful, but the metronome
makes him a peon to form.
The moth has disappeared
into a story of its own.
In this story, the moth wriggles
through a hole in the screen.
Free to do as moths do, it lands
on the steamroller in the sun and says,
This day, this beautiful day,
is just a bigger cage.


Lisa Fay Coutley
Lisa Fay Coutley


Lisa Fay Coutley is the author of Errata (Southern Illinois University Press, 2015), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition Award, and In the Carnival of Breathing (Black Lawrence Press, 2011), winner of the Black River Chapbook Competition. Her writing has been awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, scholarships to the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, and an Academy of American Poets Levis Prize. Recent poetry and prose has appeared in Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Best New Poets, and Poets & Writers. At present she is on leave from Snow College, where she is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing – Poetry and faculty advisor to the student-run literary journal, and she is teaching in the University of Oregon’s MFA/CRWR program as their Visiting Assistant Professor in Poetry Writing.

excerpt from As the Water Recedes

The weeds have grown taller than any man I’ve kissed here, where the water has held its breath and pulled its shoulders from the shoreline. Broken bottles and rusted cans, empty shotgun shells, and plastic handles from children’s shovels now jut up with the dead carp and bullheads from sand that’s turned to muck. This is not the place where I grew up, barefoot from rock-to-rock in play paced by tides, along the shore of the bay of Green Bay, where my family’s house is set. It isn’t the shore that my father knew before the flood of ’73 filled basements with green water and fish eggs, before he became a man who smokes but never runs or swims or loves a woman, when he still wedged his small boat in the backyard where grass and sand met at the silver light post, which worked then. He mows it all down now—all those green weeds whistling where once there was water.

I know how a cold wind elbows through a room. Anger becomes visible in the breath let out. Laughter’s still warm in the air. My parents are early in their thirties and early in their nights. Pull-tabs are pulled back. Aluminum cans are fisted down to Formica like empty baritones. Some curtain falls and sparring begins. I have seen the way rage wedges between the keys of a ribcage and plays a man in the same octave as happy. Both love and hate come from the core of human muscle, and such desire spun in the gut demands the attention of arms, good or bad. It is a matter of degrees, not kind. A girl can never be too early in her life not to sense this shift in pressure. I have yet to outgrow it—to hold my breath and pull back, to mow it all down.

As a girl, I built rock forts and dry-smoked bamboo sticks while the push and pull of water pressed its rhythms in me. Everything the waves forced against the rocks was swallowed back, gone. Fury and mercy in chorus canceled each other out, kept me still. When I was eleven, I waited through every night to watch the sun throw morning over the bay. Facing north on the dike that the city built after the flood, to disconnect home from water, I took in nothing but the red sputter of a single lighthouse. As the sun broke, the east shore—swelling with oversized homes and the University’s seven-story library—fell to green. Westward, the sky-blue slide at the amusement park, seagull-ridden Kidney Island, and the Pulliam Plant’s smokestacks woke. And when the tide came in again, and the sun fell closer to the slide and smoke, water covered the lower, smaller rocks and cleaned my feet.

Anger-noun constricted, tightness, to squeeze, a strangling, fear. 1)a feeling of displeasure resulting from injury, mistreatment, position, etc. and usually showing itself in a desire to fight back at the supposed cause of this feeling … SYN.—anger is broadly applicable to feelings of resentful or revengeful displeasure; indignation implies righteous anger aroused by what seems unjust, mean, or insulting; rage suggests a violent outburst of anger in which self-control is lost; fury implies a frenzied rage that borders on madness.

Maybe it matters that the man played by his own desire—my father—had his own summer of sleeplessness and need, that it was Typhoid Fever that first led him to coil his own lynch-man’s knot during three months of quarantine at seven years old. The walls close in. The room goes cold. Black grows whole in his eyes. Does the moment where a boy learns to silence his love and spin his anger toward the world deserve a name before the power of its definitions and histories have been swallowed, gone? A girl doesn’t need to know fight or flight to know those eyes fuel more than one heartbeat, to see an absence, to understand the physiology of merciless fury.


Casey Thayer
Casey Thayer


Casey Thayer is the author of Self Portrait with Spurs and Sulfur (University of New Mexico Press, 2015) and has work published or forthcoming in AGNI, American Poetry Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. Currently, he is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and splits his time between Chicago and the Bay Area.

Good Night, Saints

Vesalius first parted the petal-folds of the human body
and peered inside the watch work: the pelvis winged,

the chest cavity shaped like a leaf, all of it indexed
with lowercase letters and set in allegorical poses.

Here is the waxen bone frame, here is the skeleton
shedding its legs, the skeleton, head cocked

heavenward like a saint in ecstasy. Let me tell you
how this goes, my poor body. One day I will put you

away like a violin I’m finished pinching music from.
Science will strip you layer by layer and label

as “heart” this slab of meat worn smooth as a conch,
map the tangle of veins in my arms, the eyes gone dark

then drawn in ink, the corneas crosshatched—my body
is a book folding closed. Now as for my bones…













In the 2015 Ocean State Review: Michael Palmer, Jo-Ann Reid, Ajani Burell, and Darley Stewart

Michael Palmer
Michael Palmer


Michael Palmer has lived in San Francisco since 1969. His most recent collections are Active Boundaries (Selected Essays and Talks) (New Directions, 2008), Madman With Broom (selected poems, with Chinese translations by Yunte Huang, Oxford University Press, 2011) and Thread (New Directions 2011). His latest collaboration with the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, Times Bones, had its San Francisco premiere in April 2014. He has taught at various universities in the United States, Europe and Asia and published translations from a variety of languages, in particular French, Russian and Brazilian Portuguese. A new poetry collection, The Laughter of the Sphinx, will appear from New Directions in the winter of 2015.

Et in Arcadia

It rained frogs.
We were the frogs
and the rain.

As the planets fled their orbits
apples ripened
in the orchards to our north.

We bit into the planets
as if they were apples.
They crackled

between our teeth
and their juices
streamed off our jowls

like syllables from childhood.
Our mad brothers, mad
lovers, mad others

were already gone.
The bees and their hexagons,
their dances, were gone,

the whales and their songs.
Shoeless we walked
across the stellated,

the glowing, irradiated
meadows of glass.
Have you always

had this tremor?
she asked.


Jo-Ann Reid
Jo-Ann Reid


The youngest of three girls, Jo-Ann Reid was born in Worcester, MA in 1976 after her parents and two sisters emigrated from Haiti two years prior. She has strong memories of reading and singing along to The Magic Orange Tree: and Other Haitian Folk Tales by Diane Wolkstein and hearing the stories of her parents’ lives in Haiti growing up during the Duvalier regime. Language became particularly potent when Jo-Ann studied the works of bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, and Alice Walker or when she listened to musicians like Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Miriam Makeba, Celia Cruz, as well as all things metal, Michael Jackson and Madonna.

Kitchens are places of celebration, potential danger if not respected, and orderly mess. The work of poetry is comparable in that it is a balance between risk, structure, an open ear and a willingness to sometimes chuck it, accept defeat, and start over. Poetry about social problems, the voiceless & ignored, or exploring cross-cultural identity expectations among other things is stressful. Exploring uneasy questions related to boundaries, gender, economic class, systemic injustice, and race is both challenging and empowering. The necessity to keep at it lies in the imprint of finding one’s voice and letting it evolve. It has to be worth it. What makes it worth it is in the mind and heart of the poet. Silence, whether in truly listening, observing others, or within the pauses between lines on a page or screen is quite powerful. And there is a poetry in that too.

Tea Set

Out the screen door and past her mother’s secretly swelled belly,
she sat determined over clinking metal spoons.
Pressed an old, white, man’s undershirt full of holes
against the dusty things: doll-size chipped gray teacups,
three broken plastic saucers with one missing
chewed up by the neighborhood bully of a dog.

As tea-setter, she poured hot water all around
and rationed out the ginger teabag
to four imaginary girls and one real one
to play the husband back from work
a stick for a cigar held tight between unsteady teeth.
As husband, she puffed imaginary smoke,

wiped sweat from her forehead
and grumbled in her lowest registers
for a dinner made of slippery stones and spearmint leaves.
From the shed she’d struggled with the cracked plastic orange lawn chair,
stolen chipped reading glasses and week-old paper
past her friend’s father, his own belly heaving from the couch.


Ajani Burrell
Ajani Burrell


Ajani Burrell is an English instructor at Northern Marianas College. He lives with his wife and daughter in Saipan, the largest of the Northern Mariana Islands, where his chief leisurely pursuit is hunting coconuts for his kid. He recently completed his first novel, in which two old friends approaching middle age decide to have a baby together, only their platonic attempts to do so fail spectacularly. He is currently pursuing publication and representation for the novel, titled The Here and Now. In the meantime, he is assembling material for a collection of essays about life as a quasi-expatriate on a tropical island in the North Pacific. The subject matter includes epic battles with insects, speculation on his future interactions with his daughter as viewed through a tumultuous relationship with a female stray dog in heat, the Never Never Land like quality of the tropics, and a ‘How to’ Guide (or perhaps more aptly a ‘How Not To’ Guide) for anyone wishing to affect a tropical move of his or her own. He can be reached at

Excerpt from “H@!?Y BIRTHDAY” featured in the 2015 Ocean State Review.

Cool air poured out when I opened the door. In the driver’s seat, my wife’s face was ashen, her lips the same faded pink as the house. My nerves jangled and a mild nausea roiled my gut. You okay? I asked. She lanced me with a look that said I should know the answer to that question—a heartening sign. It’s there, she said, staring elsewhere as she pointed at a plastic bag on the floor.

She’d been at the beach near our apartment, in agony. Looking back, the decision seems simultaneously fitting and incongruous. Incongruous because the rocky little beach overlooking Lao Lao Bay is postcard perfect (palm trees leaning towards crystal clear water, darting Trigger and Angel fish, jagged reef demarcating the deep blue of the ocean), and on the day, having suffered what she thought was a miscarriage, the beach seems like the last place anyone would want to go. And yet, if you think you’ve lost a child, if, after going home to make sure your first born was okay with the sitter, and you’re desperate for solitude and just so happen to live just a couple rutted miles from a tranquil, breeze-swept beach, why would you go anywhere else?


Darley Stewart
Darley Stewart


Darley Stewart is based in New York City, originally from Los Angeles, California, and works in medical editing. The recipient of a 2015 scholarship for The Ocean State Summer Writing Conference, her fiction and critical essays have appeared in Battersea Review. She has studied philosophy and linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Edinburgh, and is at work on her first collection of short stories.

Excerpt from “The Story of Dearborn Russell,” in the 2015 Ocean State Review

What is more intriguing than my drinking habits at the age of seven is a lone undefined spot on the bathroom floor which, as I regularly sit to empty my bowels, assumes so many shapes and forms that I am brought down to my knees, how often these days I find myself (I! Dearborn Russell!) on my knees, for one reason or another — namely to service the distinctly midwestern crop of a range of blonde pubis, platinum to dirty blonde, all cemeteries of the heart initially resemble sunlit cornfields — analyzing it to interpret and report all that at first sight was cloaked from proper view. This undefined stain upon the bathroom floor is akin to the face of a sitter whose portrait is about to be painted, and what is familiar suddenly becomes unfamiliar, ravishing, nearly spiritual. I must be astonished by a great many commonplace things, once I have looked at them with a painter’s eye. The stain upon this bathroom floor is a kind of anatomy. Midcentury formalist anatomy. I could say it in a myriad of ways. I have been searching for the one way to say it that is better than the rest. Within this stain, I see abject discomfort and opulence, the Stieglitz circle, amino acids, the ends of parsnips, and our child. For she had borne our child.

Purchase the 2015 Ocean State Review here:


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.