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Former wildland firefighter Ruth Nolan was born in San Bernardino, California and has lived in the neighboring Mojave Desert and Coachella Valley for most of her life since. She is Professor of English and Creative Writing at College of the Desert and is a prolific poet and writer whose work has appeared, and is forthcoming, in the Rattling Wall, Riverside Press Enterprise-Inlandia Literary Journeys, Tin Cannon, and New California Writing (Heyday Books, 2011). She is editor of the critically-acclaimed anthology, No Place for a Puritan: The Literature of California's Deserts (Heyday Books, 2009) and the winner of the Mojave River Review Magazine nonfiction chapbook contest for California Drive. An avid California desert advocate, lecturer, conservationist, and literary scholar, she has taught writing workshops for the Desert Institute at Joshua Tree National Park, the California State University Desert Studies Center, the University of California, Riverside Extension, and the (In) Visible Memoir Project. Nolan earned her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts in the University of California, Riverside Low Residency Program and her MA in English/Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University. She lives in Palm Desert, where she teaches, and writes, and often sneaks away into the desert to hike. She is the proud mother of daughter, Tarah, and overjoyed by new baby grandson, Simon.

Ruth Nolan

What are your reading do’s?
My reading do’s are: Read from the heart and try to remain humble. For me, a reading is a form of ceremony, one that involves audience participation and allows for a sense of group and individual transformation. When I read, I’m sharing stories of places, people, and deep emotions that run as powerfully inside of me as the underground Mojave River in the desert. It’s my responsibility to the audience to evoke that as best I can. If not, I would honestly rather be out hiking in the desert than reading stuff I don’t believe in or wasting my audience’s precious time. I find it imperative to honor my audience, and fellow readers, and to do all that I can during my reading to hold and express the greatest respect for those who have taken the time to come hear me read.

…and your reading don’ts?
My No. 1 rule is don’t be an asshole. Never, ever, ever go more than the time limit you are asked to observe. If anything, less is more. Don’t abuse the audience. Don’t waste their time, or yours.

What’s the strangest comment you’ve received from an audience member?
Being told many times my writing is highly sexy and sexual. After one reading, a man approached me and smarmily told me that he was turned on by me, because when I’d read a certain poem, I’d moved my hips suggestively in perfect, sexy synchronicity with the contents of the sexy poem I was reading.  Ever since then, I’ve always tried to stand behind a podium when I read, and when I can’t, I am self-conscious about my hips, as silly as that sounds. I’ve had other people, men and women, tell me that my writing is very sexy. It’s always a shock to me to hear this because I don’t feel sexy or sexual at all when I’m reading. I feel like the nerdy, glasses-wearing thirteen-year-old I once was in junior high school. In retrospect, I do see that my writing is full of many sexual escapades, in one way or another. It’s just that I don’t personally relate to these experiences. I just write about them, and read about them, and get surprised and embarrassed when someone points it out to me after a reading. To this day, I’m not sure why that is, except that I’m functioning from some kind of writer disconnect. Maybe this disconnect is the reason I write: to connect that indiscernible and slippery gap between consciousness, identity, and experience.

What’s the craziest (or funniest, or most moving, or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve been part of?
Every event is memorable to me, and life-nurturing. However, there have been several funny, memorable, bizarre, and cosmic things that have happened at some of these readings and events over the years that particularly stand out. One moving and memorable experience was the time a homeless man walked into the Inlandia Writing Workshop at the downtown Riverside Library (which I cofounded and taught for five years from 2008-2012) saying he’d just gotten off the city bus and saw a sign for my workshop on the library window. He joined us for that workshop and wrote several amazing poems about his life.

Another memorable time was at the Poetry at the Peaks reading I helped coordinate and host, as part of the International United Nations/NYC Poets for Peace readings series. It was a late winter afternoon and attendance was high. We were in a window-filled room overlooking the San Jacinto Forest, and right as the reading started, snow started to fall outside, filtering beautifully through the mountain cloud-lit canopy, gracing our reading with hope and beauty.

I also recall the Poetry for Peace reading the following year in 2002 at Moorten’s Desert Botanical Gardens in Palm Springs, just as the United States controversially was about to begin bombing Iraq, and vitriolic, patriotic emotions were running high nationwide. I was interviewed by the Palm Springs news media, who goaded me with inflammatory questions about the purpose of our event, obviously trying to depict our event as a disrespectful, unpatriotic event. Our readers blew that out of the water with a powerful, transformational reading that celebrated the magic of healing words and verse.

And, of course, I’ve been lucky to have been part of some amazing readings and workshops that I’ve helped coordinate across the California deserts. In the balm of palm trees at Anza Borrego State Park one January, far out in the Mojave Desert at Death Valley, and bringing a small group of women writers together at Furnace Creek to write and hike on a warm October weekend. Then, there’s the unforgettable memory of Sal y Muerte, the fantastic writing workshop Poets & Writers sponsored on Dia de los Muertos in 2013 at the Salton Sea North Shore State Park. I’ll always be inspired by the fireside poetry reading and performance we held on the shore of the Salton Sea, which included some of my local College of the Desert students, and poets and writers from throughout Southern California and beyond.

How does giving a reading inform your writing and vice versa?
I can feel if I’m hitting the mark in my writing or if I’m full of shit and maybe would be better off hanging up that particular poem or part of a piece and going out for a hike in the Mojave, and then returning to make revisions. If I see or feel the audience shifting in their seats, I know it’s time to roll up my sleeves again. If I see or feel the audience leaning on the edges of their seats, if the room is completely silent, if I feel completely in the zone (as I did when I played my best games during my competitive tennis playing years), then I know I must be doing something right. Giving readings, both for myself at home and in public, is, for me, crucial to hearing my voice. I feel the energy of what I’ve written, feel the connection or disconnection in what I’m trying to do, and feel more connected to my own writing, and to the effect that it is having on any given audience. I feel it’s important to spare the audience. If they’re bored, I don’t feel it’s fair for me to waste their time listening just to be polite. I have an obligation to put on a show, to make their investment in hearing my writing matter to them. It’s vital to respect my audience and communicate with them in this sense.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
The value of literary programs for my community, the California deserts, which encompass twenty-five percent of the state of California geographically, is immeasurable. These programs connect the people in my ‘hood with an essential and much valued community building toolkit, across hundreds of mostly desolate but story rich miles of open spaces and crossroads of present and historical times. Here, literary programs bring people together to share their stories and offer the chance to articulate their experiences and insights with the literary community at large. They help us fill in our arid desert landscapes with the blessing of rain showers of words, bringing us together from far and wide to rejoice and celebrate.

Photo: Ruth Nolan   Credit: Pablo Aguila Photography

Major support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

There are certain words and phrases that are always used when discussing head colds, migraines, sprained ankles, and other ailments. This week, write a poem about an illness or injury without using the medical language commonly associated with it. For example, if you’re writing about a sinus infection, try avoiding the diagnostic terms “pressure” and “congestion,” and instead describe the symptoms using more metaphorical language. Have fun with it, like Ogden Nash did. 

How important is stability to you? Sometimes comfort and routine can stifle creativity, but too much risk and uncertainty may create anxiety. Write a personal essay examining how stable your life seems and whether you think the level of stability could be adjusted. Now might be the time to finally settle down and get to work, or to set off into uncharted territory. Tap into your instincts and listen to them.

This week, take a straightforward scene you’ve been working on and insert an awkward mistake made either by a major or minor character. You know the kind, in which you suddenly find yourself apologizing for walking in on a private conversation, and when backing out of the room, you knock over an expensive vase. Or perhaps an innocent typographical error causes an incredible uproar that, even once corrected, isn’t quickly forgotten. Use this mistake to forward the main plot, introduce a subplot, or inject some lighthearted slapstick into your narrative.

The finalists have been announced for the 2014 Story Prize. The annual award is given for a book of short fiction published in the previous year, and carries with it a $20,000 purse.

The three finalists are The Other Language (Pantheon) by Francesca Marciano, Thunderstruck (The Dial Press) by Elizabeth McCracken, and Bark (Knopf) by Lorrie Moore. The finalists were chosen from among 129 books published by 85 different publishers or imprints in 2014, marking a record number of submissions for the prize, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year.

For details on this year's finalists and their books, visit the Story Prize website. George Saunders won last year's prize for his collection Tenth of December. This is the first year since the award's inception, in 2004, that all three finalists have been women.

Founder Julie Lindsey and director Larry Dark selected the finalists. This year’s final judges—Boulder, Colorado–based bookseller Arsen Kashkashian, Center for Fiction director Noreen Tomassi, and author Laura van den Berg—will select the winner. The two runners-up will each receive $5,000.

The 2014 winner will be announced at an annual ceremony at the New School in New York City on March 4. The event is open to the public; tickets can be purchased at the New School box office or by phone at 212-229-5488.

Meanwhile, Kyle Minor’s second collection, Praying Drunk (Sarabande Books), was named the winner of the third annual Story Prize Spotlight Award, a $1,000 prize given for a short story collection worthy of additional attention. Dark and Lindsey annually select the Spotlight Award winner from among the regular pool of Story Prize entries. Listen to Minor read from Praying Drunk as part of Poets & Writers Magazine’s Page One podcast series.

Photos above, left to right: Francesca Marciano (credit Laura Sciacovelli), Elizabeth McCracken (credit Edward Carey), and Lorrie Moore (credit Zane Williams).

January can be a harsh month for most parts of the world. The wind howls over the frozen ground, through bare branches and near-deserted streets, fogged windows blurred as though forming a barrier to keep the icy world at bay. On days like these, how do you kindle the fire inside of you? What keeps you going, warms your spirits, and insulates you from the creeping chill? Write a poem to serve as kindling—verses with the power to comfort and warm your heart.

Bryn Chancellor was selected as the 2014 Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award for fiction. Her story collection When Are You Coming Home? won the 2014 Prairie Schooner Book Prize and will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2015. Her short fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast, Blackbird, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, Phoebe, and elsewhere, and her current projects include two novels. She has received a Literary Arts Fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts, a fellowship and a project grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and scholarships from the Bread Loaf Conference and Sewanee Writers’ Conference. A graduate of Vanderbilt University’s MFA program in fiction, she lives in Montevallo, Alabama, where she is an assistant professor at the University of Montevallo. A native of California who was raised in Arizona, Chancellor is married to artist Timothy Winkler.

The official WEX award letter from Poets & Writers arrived two weeks before I could tell anyone. For two weeks, I carried the letter, folded in quarters, in an inner zipped pocket of my purse, safe from rogue paper shredders or spontaneous toaster fires. I would take it out from the pocket in the mornings, as the Alabama sun snuck through the blinds, and I’d run my fingers over the words to make myself believe that it wasn’t some feverish insomniac dream. Then I folded the paper and tucked it away, as the world around me grew brighter.

Like most writers, I’m more familiar with another kind of letter, those with words such as: however, unfortunately, we’re sorry to inform you, please try us again. This letter, with its astonishing words—congratulations!, all-expenses-paid trip to New York City, a public reading, an honorarium, and a one-month residency at Jentel Artist Residency—well, no wonder I had to keep it close. Who could believe it? Not me. Certainly not my inner critic, who has all the charm of a paper cut: Oh, they must have made a mistake. It couldn’t be you; weird, frizzy-haired, middle-aged woman tapping out those stories. Puh-leese.

Believe it or not, I indeed went to New York City. I went with my carefully packed bag full of sales-rack clothes and one nice pair of shoes, my stomach tied in knots over a mostly finished novel that I wasn’t sure how to talk about, and terrified that everyone would take one look at me and voice my deepest writer fears: You? Ha! Hahahahahahaha!

Instead, I found kindness and generosity as luminous as the starry Grand Central ceiling. I found honest-to-God readers (many of whom are also writers or editors), toiling long hours and fighting the good fight, taking the time to talk with me about my work and the publishing world and the writing life. I crisscrossed the city by subway, by cab, and by foot, trying not to be gauche and gawp at the skyscrapers, at the everything. I shared great meals and coffee with great people, and I filled two tote bags with great books. I gave a reading at McNally Jackson, and I didn’t pass out at all. I found friendship and kinship with the wonderful poet Harry Moore, my fellow winner. I shared the stories with my husband at the end of day, up in my lovely hotel room, because once I said it aloud I could maybe make myself believe it. Then I folded those stories up and tucked them away into all of the weird, frizzy-haired, middle-aged pockets of mine.

No wonder I’m bursting at the seams with gratitude. To those instrumental in my WEX award—especially Maureen Egen, Victor LaValle, Elliot Figman, Lynne Connor, and the wondrous Bonnie Rose Marcus—and to all of those who offered up their time, words, wit, and wisdom, along with my ever-supportive family and friends: Thank you to the tip tops of the Alabama pines.

So much of the writing life centers on belief: making readers believe the magic on the page, making the publishing world believe in the work, and, perhaps the hardest, first believing in ourselves. Alas, my magic WEX experience can’t wave a wand and—poof!—solve such struggles, yet I know that I will always carry this award close. I will fold it away in the secret pocket of my writer’s heart, where I can pull it out when I need to remember: This is real. Someone once believed in you. Now it’s your turn.

Photo: (top) Bryn Chancellor. Photo Credit: Christy Whitney.

Photo (bottom) Bryn Chancellor. Photo Credit: Timothy Winkler.

This award is generously supported by Maureen Egen, a member of the Poets & Writers Board of Directors, and retired Deputy Chairman and Publisher of Hachette Book Group, USA.

It’s been said that the difference between a master and a beginner is that, “the master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.” Whether it’s brewing coffee exactly the way you like it, or earning your black belt in a martial art, learning something new takes focus and dedication. Think about something you have mastered and write about the process you underwent to add this new skill to your repertoire. 

R. Erica Doyle is the Brooklyn-based author of proxy (belladonna*, 2013), which won the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America, and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Poetry. She is a Cave Canem Fellow who has facilitated other Poets & Writers-sponsored workshops for queer women and transgender and gender-nonconforming people of color and for youth in public housing.

Please, let today not be the day, I muttered under my breath, as I ran around my office, jury-rigging a dummy copy to make into our workshop chapbook. I copied, cut and pasted, printed and folded and cut again, sweating since my office, like most old public school buildings, has a radiator several degrees hotter than the ninth circle of hell. Please, please, not today.

I finally checked: No indictment, read the texts. No indictment, cried the statuses, the New York Times. No indictment. The hope I’d held that we would be different, somehow, that today would not be the day, not that day, broke into shards.

I sat at my desk for a few moments as tears ran down my cheeks. Then, I got up and finished the chapbook.

That night, the students of my poetry workshop Into the Chaos: Poetry Conversations, were reading their work, created over two and half months of meetings at the Cave Canem conference space. Cave Canem had created these workshops for emerging poets of color, with the support of Poets & Writers, to give diverse writers a space to explore their craft within a supportive and safe environment.

My inspiration for the workshop was grounded in a 1980 interview by Audre Lorde where she states:

We must first examine our feelings for questions, because all the rest has been programmed. We have been taught how to understand, and in terms that will insure not creativity, but the status quo. If we are looking for something which is new, and something which is vital, we must look first into the chaos within ourselves.

In “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics,” Erica Hunt explains how our attempts to resist may lead us to replicate the oppressive structures and tired tropes we are trying to write against. Claudia Rankine has recently called on us to recognize the power of the imaginary, in our writing and the world, and to emancipate our imaginations. I hoped for Into the Chaos to be a place to challenge our imaginations in a space where we shared multiple languages, histories, sexual identities, and gender expressions.

Through exercises and readings, small group and whole class readings, free writes and interpretive poetry performances utilizing sound and movement, I supported my students in thinking about their practice, their decisions, and encouraged them to push beyond their own programming. They shared the chaos that night with choral readings, humor, and depth in community with brothers, lovers, and friends.

That third of December, I cried over losing hope for a peaceful existence in my lifetime. That day, my student said she knew our reading was the safest place for her brothers, young black men, to be that night. We looked at the empty seats and knew that some of our friends who would have been here were out there, crying our outrage and pain to the world. That day, we would join them later, and day after day after that. That day, I realized there was no place I would rather be held, and held up right then, in a reticulum of voices gesturing ever towards. That here, we were part of that day, too and we, like this movement, would not be deferred.

Photo: R. Erica Doyle  Photo Credit: L. Rubin

 

Support for Readings & Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, A.K. Starr Charitable Trust and Friends of Poets & Writers.

Do you have a time period you routinely set your stories in? This week, choose a story you’re struggling with and reimagine it in a different decade or century. Perhaps setting your story further in the past will help you get your point across in a more engaging way. Maybe placing your main character in the future will enable him or her to accomplish a goal that would otherwise be unfeasible. Although it can be easy to become fixated on a certain era, think about the story holistically and consider how the setting can help direct your writing. 

The holidays are over and the year is new. Now it’s time to take stock of what you have—what you’re starting with and what you will build from. First, read the late poet Tomaž Šalamun’s “I Have a Horse," and then write a list poem of your own. Begin each line with “I have . . . .” Write about the things that are important to you, the possessions you couldn’t live without, and the curious items you’ve acquired that you can’t bear to throw out. 

The Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Competition, sponsored by the North Carolina Writers’ Network, is currently open for submissions. The annual prize is given for a work of “lasting nonfiction that is outside the realm of conventional journalism and has relevance to North Carolinians.” The winner will receive $1,000.

Eligible forms include personal essays, reviews, travel articles, profiles or interviews, place or history pieces, and cultural criticism. Writers who are legal residents of North Carolina or members of the North Carolina Writers’ Network are eligible to enter. The winning essay will be considered for publication in Southern Cultures magazine.

Writers may submit two copies of an essay of up to 2,000 words with a $12 entry fee ($10 for NCWN members) via postal mail or using the online submission system by January 17. Visit the website for complete guidelines.

Jason Frye, a travel, culinary, and culture writer from Wilmington, will serve as the final judge.

Laura Herbst of Chapel Hill won the inaugural prize in 2014 for her essay “Breast Cancer: A Love Story.” Jason Hess of Wilmington won the second-place prize for his essay “The Adopted Person” and Joanna Catherine Scott of Chapel Hill won the third-place prize for her essay “How I Went to Adult Prison as a Child.”

The award is named in honor of Rose Post, who worked for the Salisbury Post for fifty-six years as a reporter, features writer, and columnist. She won numerous state and national awards for her writing throughout her career, including three O. Henry Awards and the 1994 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ Award. The NCWN’s Rose Post Prize is made possible through a grant from the Post family.

There's only so much you can carry with you before the weight becomes unbearable. Take a moment to think about all the things you haul around with you. First, focus on your physical burden. What do you keep inside your messenger bag, purse, pocketbook, or backpack? How much does it weigh? What do these things mean to you—and why do you keep them within reach every day? Consider carrying only the absolute necessities and write about how your load has been lightened. Then try to do the same thing with your mind. Write down everything that you feel has been cluttering up your thoughts lately. Now that you've written it down, give yourself permission to stop thinking about these things. Take a deep breath and turn to a clean page.

Strong characters are key elements in any well-constructed story. You may have clearly illustrated their history, occupation, likes, and dislikes, but to make them truly compelling you must have a basic understanding of these characters' psyches. Choose a story you've written and make a list of the characters you don't really know yet. Next to each name, jot down notes about what that character's aspirations and motivations are. How do these characters see the world? Who are the people they look up to, want to impress, or model themselves after? Where do these characters want to be in the next five years—or in the next fifty? Will they reach their dreams, or are they destined to get sidetracked? Let this information serve as a reference when you are deciding how a character should react in a situation, or how the plot should progress.

"Poetry forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action," wrote the late poet Audre Lorde in her essay "Poetry Is Not a Luxury." "The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives." As the New Year begins, heed Lorde's message. Poetry is the means by which we build a future, not just for ourselves, but also for the world at large. Take a moment now to think big. Write down all the hopes you have for the year to come and weave them together into a poem. Keep this poem with you as a guide—read it when you feel you're drifting off course.

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