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.
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)
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.
In 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.
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).
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!
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.
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.”
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 theRiver 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.”
Rachel May’s Creative Writing/Nonfiction class was honored and delighted to visit with M. NourbeSe Philip via Skype, to talk about her book Zong!. Philip is the author of three previous books of poetry, two novels, and many essays and stories. She’s been awarded the Guggenheim and residencies at the prestigious MacDowell Colony and the Rockefeller Foundation in Bellagio, Italy, among other honors.
Zong! is based on a 1781 court decision, to determine whether or not owners of the slave ship, Zong, could collect insurance money after 150 people were pushed overboard, murdered, by the ship’s captain. Philip, a lawyer as well as a poet, used the language of the document to tell the story of the Africans who were killed that day. She fragmented the language, recombined words, and moved them into the shape of what looks like water drifting across the page.
You can read an excerpt of the text, and an explanation of the book and Philip’s process here: Fascicle.
One issue with which May’s students grappled is the horror of this story, the details of what happened on-board Zong, much of which is given voice in the text. Class questions centered around whether or not this was poetry, history or historiography, how we take on another person’s voice to tell a story, and what it means to erase and fragment language, either found or our own.
Philip said, in response: “One of the things I was really interested in was that the reader was going to be allowed choices in how they read this. If you wanted, you could read it diagonally down, or when I read with some colleagues, one of my friends started reading backwards. There’s no right way. But there’s a shadow side to that, and the shadow side is that as we make our choices, we become contaminated by what happened on-board that ship. So, do we read this to avoid seeing some of the things that happened there? They’re happening in these fragments: Is a baby being cut out of a mother’s womb? Is somebody being raped? Are these people gambling for a woman? You can read the book in a way that you avoid that story or you sink into it.”
The visit concluded with a powerful reading by Philip — followed by complete silence as the class processed her embodiment of the text.
The full transcript of the visit will be published in the Summer 2014 issue of The Ocean State Review; please look for it there.
Many many thanks to M. NourbeSe Philip for her work and for making time for this life-changing visit.
On Wednesday, March 26, the URI community was delighted to welcome Afaa Michael Weaver and to celebrate his recent award of the Kingsley Tufts prize. The Kingsley Tufts is “the world’s largest monetary prize for a single collection of poetry,” and “was created to both honor the poet and provide the resources that allow artists to continue working towards the pinnacle of their craft” (from the CGU site). He won for his book, The Government of Nature, from which he read at URI.
The room was overflowing with students, who sat on the floor and crowded together to hear Weaver read and then tell stories of his life in Taiwan and the trajectory of his writing career. He explained how came to write about his troubled childhood, for example, and how his life as a Professor is in conflict with his working class childhood. Weaver spoke of his life as a poet (this is his 12th collection), his past as a factory worker, the experience of living in Taiwan for a year and learning Mandarin, and how his meditation practice influences his writing. He was especially generous in responding to students and engaging the community in conversation around the work.
A Professor and the Alumnae Endowed Chair at Simmons College, Weaver has also been awarded the NEA, a Pushcart Prize, a Fulbright, and a Pew Fellowship, among other honors. He read at URI as part of the Read/Write series, coordinated by Professors Peter Covino and Mary Cappello. We’re grateful for his visit and send our congratulations for his most recent well-deserved recognition!
Last week, poet Julia Lisella visited Peter Covino’s poetry class to talk about her work. She read from her book, Terrain, and chapbook, Love Song Hiroshima, and talked with the class about the rhythms of her work, how she revises, and themes of motherhood, miscarriage, and friendship that run through the collection.
She and Covino talked about their connection as Italian-American writers, and her scholarship on modernists, in particular her recovery Genevieve Taggard’s work.
Also in the news this week is OSR contributor Sharon Dolin, who gave a reading to celebrate the Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry. Hoorah, and congratulations to Sharon and the other contributors! Also included in the anthology is Jacqueline Osherow, whose work we’re honored to get to publish in the upcoming issue of the OSR. Stay tuned!
University or Rhode Island English faculty, Josie Sigler, and fellow writer Janaya Kizzie will be reading on Saturday, February 22nd, at 6 pm at Ada Books (717 Westminster St., Providence, RI)
About the readers:
Janaya Kizzie is a historian by trade; she writes short-form horror fiction in her spare time. Influenced by writing from both worlds, from the personal papers of Maimie Pinzer and Nikola Tesla to the works John Hawkes and Clive Barker, her words come from different places and times, like a ransom note.
Josie Sigler’s collection of stories, The Galaxie and Other Rides, was selected for the Ruby Pickens Tartt First Fiction Award and published by Livingston Press in 2012. Her book of poetry, living must bury, winner of the 2010 Motherwell Prize, was published by Fence Books. Her stories and poems have appeared in Story Quarterly, Prism International, Fugue, Water-Stone, Hunger Mountain, Redivider and others. Josie holds a dual PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California. She teaches creative writing at University of Rhode Island in Kingston and is currently a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow. Josie is also one of our advising faculty for The Ocean State Review. You can read some of her work on Josie Sigler’s faculty page.
The staff of the Ocean State Review will be in Seattle, WA this year! We will be representing our fine literary journal from the University of Rhode Island, now soon to be publishing our fourth annual issue. We will be at the 2014 annual conference for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs from Wednesday, February 26th to Saturday, March 1st. Join us to talk about our last issue and our upcoming one for 2014. Also, you can purchase a 2013 issue at our booth. You might consider the Ocean State Review for teaching or personal use.