I’m in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, this week for a
conference on Community Writing, a relatively modest-sized gathering of about
350 professors and local community members who see speaking out and speaking up
on social issues as part of their personal and professional callings.
I find my colleagues’ commitments and passion inspiring, yet
I don’t usually think of myself as an activist. I identify first as a writing
teacher and a writer. I have spoken out on inequalities for women in sports by
using my academic research skills and persisting in my quest to piece together
a little-known history. I discovered how and why courageous individuals decided
to speak out in the 1970s movement for gender equality in athletics. This
movement took off in the 1970s when Congress, through Title IX, made sex
discrimination illegal in federally funded schools.
Like some of the women I wrote about at Michigan State
University, Temple, Brown, Texas my personality type is best described as
introverted. Like Rollin Haffer at Temple, Marianne Mankowski at MSU, or Peggy
Layne at Vanderbilt, I don’t typically seek public attention, and I prize
harmonious relationships with friends, colleagues, and family. I value studying
a problem from many angles, often waiting for others to speak and take the lead
before offering my perspective.
But writing Invisible Seasons Title IX and the Fight for Equity in College Sportsreminded me that social change movements require a symphony of voices, perspectives, and divergent rhetorical styles. Speaking up and speaking out is a responsibility. It’s a necessity. It has consequences and demands courage. When each of us, with our different styles and strategies, steps up to play our part, changes for the good of us all can begin.
We are thrilled to announce the winner of the 2019 Veterans Writing Award is Dewaine Farria for his novel Revolutions of All Colors. Farria’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, CRAFT, Drunken Boat, Outpost Magazine, and on the Afropunk website. He is a frequent contributor to The Mantle. He holds an MA in International and Area Studies from the University of Oklahoma and an MFA in Creative Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. As a U.S. Marine, Dewaine served in Jordan and Ukraine. Besides his stint in the military, Dewaine has spent most of his professional life working for the United Nations, with assignments in the Russian North Caucasus, Kenya, Somalia, and Occupied Palestine. He presently lives in the Philippines with his wife, daughter, two sons, two cats, and a dog.
Farria answered a few questions for us about his writing and what inspires him.
SUP: Has your military service influenced your writing? In what ways?
DF: The Marine Corps taught me how much of life revolves around consistency and habits. The discipline I developed in the Marine Corps helped shape my, “every morning, butt in the chair” approach to writing. Certainly, my time in the military also heavily influenced my thoughts on patriotism, masculinity, and violence—themes that frequently pop up in my work.
SUP: You’ve published both non-fiction and fiction in various print and online platforms. Do you see each as engaging with the reader in different ways?
DF: Good writing—whether it be poetry, fiction, or non-fiction—conveys truth. I consider myself a pretty forgiving reader. For a good story I’ll tolerate self-indulgent language, grammatical liberties, and slips in point of view. What I can’t abide is dishonesty; nothing disengages me from a piece of writing more quickly than the creeping desire to call “bullshit.” Convincing the reader to trust your narrator is the challenge and this is true regardless of genre or point of view—including for pieces with heavily journalistic elements (like this essay that I wrote for the New York Times last year).
SUP: What was the inspiration for this novel?
DF: My father inspired the novel. I built the book out of a short story called “Walking Point,” which contains a character loosely based on my dad. An early version of the story won second place in Line of Advance’s Colonel Darren L. Warren Writing Contest and can be found here.
SUP: Are you currently working on any writing projects?
DF: I’m about halfway done with a collection of short stories. Earlier this year, CRAFT published, “The Knife Intifada,” the first story from the collection. After I finish up these eight short stories, I plan to begin work on a collection of linked essays.
Short stories are the perfect way to discover an author’s work, great for when you don’t have the time or mojo to commit to a 400 page novel, and a brainy impulse purchase on your phone or e-reader. This month we encourage you to pick up a new story collection or share one with a friend, and we have a few suggestions to get you started.
“The stories here show a great breadth, empathy for and insight into his subjects. His ability to move elegantly through different styles is not just a welcome addition to the Irish short story tradition but also a vital one.” —Books Ireland
Richard Power (1928-1970), an accomplished novelist, short story writer, and playwright, explores the life of of an Irish mother and adolescent girl in The Rebels. This collection of short stories captures the daily lives of urban and rural dwellers in Ireland at the turn of the twentieth century. He tackles themes of coming of age, the tensions between modern and traditional life, and romantic love in his beautiful and vivid tales. This memorable collection, arranged by James MacKillop, gives new life to Richard Power’s voice and the fans of the Irish short story tradition.
“I like a little mystery and for people to walk away from a story thinking of various possibilities. In terms of this collection as a whole, I would love readers to feel like they’ve been somewhere else for a few hours; somewhere that has been a little though-provoking; a place of meditation.” —Sophia Hillan, Author
The Cocktail Hour includes moving tales on the themes of sibling love and how it develops over time. These short stories retell the journey’s of various individuals in different periods of their lives. It includes one young boy’s contemplation of the wars in Ireland and Germany and it’s effect on his imaginative mind. One woman’s playful New York adventure and how it becomes a confrontation with external reality. And lastly, a dramatic monologue from one of Jane Austen’s bitter relatives that is directed at Austen herself.
“Jewish Vilna is forever gone, but this translation of Vilna My Vilna does much to keep its pale memory alive. Helen Mintz renders Karpinowitz’s slangy, colloquial Yiddish into a lively and idiomatic English and graces both Karpinowitz’s stories, and even Jewish Vilna itself, with a second life.“ –Colorado Review
In this collection, Karpinowitz portrays, with compassion and intimacy, the dreams and struggles of the poor and disenfranchised Jews of his native city before the Holocaust. His stories provide an affectionate and vivid portrait of poor working women and men, like fishwives, cobblers, and barbers, and people who made their living outside the law, like thieves and prostitutes. This collection also includes two stories that function as intimate memoirs of Karpinowitz’s childhood growing up in his father’s Vilna Yiddish theater.
“I am interested in the vulnerable moments people can encounter. My characters often find themselves facing ordinary or extraordinary obstacles. Some will be graceful in these challenges and others will blunder, hurt others and themselves in the process. Fiction must feel emotionally authentic even as the situations and characters are pulled from my imagination. I believe we expand our understanding of human behavior through stories.” —Lisa C. Taylor, Author
In Lisa Taylor’s second collection of short stories, a woman locks a man in an airplane bathroom, two brothers rewrite their past, and strangers in an airport are thrown together through tragedy. Taylor explores the ideas of confinement and expansion with both humor and angst, as characters of all ages and backgrounds are continually forced to redefine who they are, and how they think.
“All the stories are about people whose past struggles to fit their present-a rich and universal subject. Because the setting is Israel, these struggles can escalate into matters of life and death. Sometimes, as the title hauntingly indicates, Ehrlich’s characters triumph by simply dying last.” —Iowa Review
Both Hilarious and sad at the same time, Ehrlich’s collection of short stories, takes his characters on a tantalizing journey through their souls. His understated writing style transforms even the most heartbreaking plots into an uplifting and funny tale. Israel’s special unique history, landscapes, and conflicts add to the drama and passion of the collection. The themes discussed relate to gay life in Israel, loneliness, and the importance of community in time of sorrow and tragedy. Rather than a single translator, this collection was translated by various translators, bring out the diversity of voices in the stories.
“Zafzaf offers visions of Moroccan culture and its traditions in an easygoing style that is well-nigh incomparable.”—World Literature Today
Monarch of the Square is Mohammed Zafzaf’s first collection of work that has been translated into English. This anthology is a tribute to his influence on an entire generation of Moroccan storytellers. Zafzaf’s stories portray all aspects of Moroccan life and shows the struggle to survive in such a challenging place that is constantly changing. His writing explores the various myths, beliefs, and traditions that operate within his culture, while questioning it all in an easy-going, conversational manner.
These six books and the rest of our short story collection is available for purchase online at our website.
April is the month when the world celebrates the importance of poetry in our lives. To join the celebration we’re highlighting five books of poetry from our press and our distribution partner, Sheep Meadow Press. We hope these selections will spark your interest, and encourage you to read a poem, share a poem, or write your own poem.
In the Alley of the Friend is a translation of the Persian book Dar Kuy-e Dust which is about the fourteenth century poet Hafez, who is often recognized as the most original Persian poet of all time. Scholars have studied his work for centuries, exploring his life and his deeply moving poetry of love, spirituality, and protest. Ghanoonparvar’s translation of scholar Shahrokh Meskoob’s analysis of Hafez’s work provides profound insight into the poets thoughts and spirit.
Sarah Plimpton’s The Noise of the Rain illustrates her collected poems with simplistic black on white and white on black drawings. Both an artist and poet, some have referred to her creations as being as quiet as the moments just before sleep, almost like preludes to dreams. Word choice and the way she arranges her poetry exudes a certain simple intensity. You can find her books in the The Museum of Fine Arts, The New York Public Library, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Winters Come, Summers Gone is a collection of selected poems by the notable Howard Moss. This book combines work from his first three published volumes with fourteen new poems. Moss was an American poet, critic, and the poetry editor of The New Yorker for nearly forty years. He wrote eleven books of poetry and even won the National Book award in 1972. Much of his poetry centers around the theme of love in its various forms.
Perhaps Bag is a collection of poems by acclaimed British poet Carol Rumens. Starting with her first set of poems in 1968 to her most recent and unpublished pieces from 2017, Rumens “retains her feminine voice but extends her sympathies beyond feminism” (Anne Stevenson). She has written fourteen books of poetry and currently serves as a Professor of Creative Writing at Bangor University, in Wales.
Perhaps one of the most distinguishable poets of all time, Paul Celan, described Schneepart as his “strongest and boldest” book. It’s a response to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and is a collection of poetry haunted by images of violence and resistance in a dark European century. Snow Part is the first published English translation of Schneepart. Its seventy poems were published in 1971, a year after Celan’s death. Translator Ian Fairley includes twenty posthumous poems that are closely related to the themes found in Schneepart.
Learn about Suzanne Hinman’s latest book in our interview where we discuss art, architecture, and scandal in 1890’s New York City.
The Grandest Madison Square Garden tells the story behind the 1890 construction of Madison Square Garden and the eighteen–foot nude sculpture of Diana, the Roman Virgin Goddess of the Hunt, that crowned it. Author Suzanne Hinman delves into the fascinating private lives of the era’s most prominent architect and sculptor, revealing the nature of their intimate relationship. She shows how both men created a new era of art which meshed European styles with American vitality. The Grandest Madison Square Garden tells the tale of architecture, art, and spectacle amid the elegant yet scandal-ridden culture of Gotham’s decadent era.
Suzanne Hinman holds a PhD in American art history and has been a curator, gallerist, museum director, and professor. She served as the director of galleries at the Savannah College of Art and Design and was the associate director of the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth. We interviewed Hinman about her experience writing The Grandest Madison Square Garden to better understand the ins and outs of this time in history.
What inspired you to write about the lives and achievements of architect Stanford White and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens?
It is so difficult to recall exactly, as I began more than 12 years ago, largely inspired, I would have to say, by the beauty of their creations, separately, and then even more so together. I had always loved the Italian-inspired architecture of McKim, Mead, and White, whether in New York, Boston, Washington, D.C. or anywhere else I could find it. I was also intrigued by the life of Stanford White, the most exuberant, amazing, creative of the three partners. When I first moved to New Hampshire, I visited the town of Cornish and discovered the incredibly beautiful work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, set at Aspet, his home that sparked the beginning of the Cornish Art Colony and is now a National Historic Site. And when I discovered that these two men not just knew each other but were dearest friends who often collaborated together, it was even better.
I probably first discovered the Diana sculpture that topped the tower of Madison Square Garden while visiting the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where in a half-size version she welcomes visitors to the grand courtyard of the American Wing. It took a few years before I was able to see the actual surviving 1893 version Diana, reigning over the Great Stair Balcony at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and that was an amazing moment.
Which part of researching for the Grandest Madison Square Garden was the most personally interesting to you?
I truly loved it all. Of course, visiting archives that held the letters and notes actually written by my two key players, architect Stanford White and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, was definitely an incredible experience–touching (in gloves) the pieces of paper, holding them in my hands, studying the signatures, the extra bits written in the margins, and all the wonderful information they revealed. Among the most important collections were the Avery Architectural and Fine Art Library at Columbia and the New York Historical Society for the papers of Stanford White and the McKim, Mead & White firm. For Augustus Saint-Gaudens, it was the Saint-Gaudens Papers at Rauner Special Collections, Baker Library, at Dartmouth College.
The second major source of research information was the newspapers of the day, and that was quite exciting also, finding contemporary accounts written the very day, filled with so much information, much of which had not been seen or noted for more than a hundred years. I loved the detective work, stumbling on amazing new bits as I searched newspapers archives now so accessible online. The discoveries I made, including a long-forgotten scandal regarding Saint-Gaudens and his nude models and a new theory regarding the crime-of-the-century murder of White at the Garden were quite exciting!
Do you think your background in art history has influenced your writing style? If so, how?
I think it was an interwoven process, that my writing style derives from wanting to tell a good story and that led me to the field of art history. I fell in love with art and art history while still a teenager, when I wanted to know the stories behind the artists and their work. My background as an art historian has allowed me to know the sources and dive deeply into the research, but still, my goal remains telling a good story, not simply for an academic audience but for a general audience with an interest in art, architecture, history, life in the Gilded Age, and so forth. I should add that the book also examines significant elements of LGBTQ history, as well as the history of sports in America, so much of which occurred at Madison Square Garden.
What was the most difficult aspect of your twelve-year research and writing process?
There was no difficult aspect to the research and writing process. I absolutely loved it: from the excitement of discovery to putting the bits and pieces together into a good story that I could see unfolding inside my head. There was nothing I would rather do than sit at my computer in my messy little home office, spinning my straw into gold.
The difficult part came towards the end, finding just the right publisher who would realize the market for the book, that it was not written just for academics but for the general public and that there was a real audience for the subject. Luckily Syracuse University Press was that publisher, and the book fit neatly within their existing series on the history of New York state.
Why read The Grandest Madison Square Garden? (in 50 words or less)
To start with a couple of kind reviews, “it’s a splendid story,” as “vivid and enthralling as a novel,” revealing the fascinating private lives of the era’s most prominent architect and sculptor while telling the remarkable and sometimes scandal–ridden story behind the design and construction of the fabulous 1890 Madison Square Garden and the nude sculpture that crowned it.
Read more about The Grandest Madison Square Garden and purchase the text on the Syracuse University Press websitetoday!
Celebrate International Women’s Day by checking out some of the Syracuse University Press’s many female-focused titles. We hope this selection of books written by women, about women, and about women studies will illuminate the impact females have had on society and the world.
Sylvia Porter: America’s Original Personal Finance Columnist discusses the life of one of the most admired women of the twentieth century. A pioneer for both male and female journalists, Porter established a new genre of newspaper writing while also carving a space for women in the male-dominated fields of finance and journalism. Tracy Lucht traces Porter’s professional legacy, identifying the strategies she used to pave the way for not only herself, but female writers everywhere.
Athena’s Daughters: Televisions New Women Warriors examines the complex relationship between feminism and violence in popular television shows that feature women warriors. This book is made up of individual essays based in feminist theoretical debate about alternative feminist storytelling in the media. Editors Frances Early and Kathleen Kennedy provide a cutting-edge forum to recognize women’s increasing role in popular culture as action heroes.
Running for All the Right Reasons: A Saudi-born Woman’s Pursuit of Democracy is the story of Ferial Masry, the first Saudi American to run for political office in U.S. history. As a recent immigrant and naturalized citizen, Masry surpassed all the odds by winning the write-in vote for the California State Assembly seat. This book recounts Masry’s childhood in Mecca and her decision to emigrate to the United States, as well as her career as an educator and her bold entry into the political sphere. Her journey is truly remarkable.
Arab Women’s Lives Retold: Exploring Identity Through Writing is a collection of essays that challenges the stereotypes of Middle Eastern women by analyzing the autobiographical writing of various Arab novelists, poets, and artists. This book explores the ways female Arab writers have spoken about their roles and identities in different social settings. As a whole these writings provide a clearer picture on the impact of identity and global politics on Arab women’s rights.
I’m extremely proud to have worked with Tara McCarthy on Respectability and Reform: Irish American Women’s Activism (1880–1920). McCarthy makes use of meticulous archival research to recount the ways Irish American women contributed to the women’s suffrage movement and Irish nationalist movement in America. With lively prose, compelling images, and exciting newspaper accounts, McCarthy gives us a provocative, informative, and important book about the vital role women play in social and political reform. It’s a model that is especially important to honor, learn from, and be encouraged by today. — Deborah Mannion, Acquisitions Editor
Mihrî Hatun was an early Ottoman poet, far ahead of her time in the subversiveness and boldness of her work. She challenged traditional notions of gender in the Ottoman court when knowledge production was thought to belong solely to educated, elite men. I loved working on Didem Havlioglu’s elegant study of Mihrî—here, we get to read the poetry, understand this remarkable woman’s life, and recognize the foundational role she continues to play in the intellectual history of the Middle East. — Suzanne Guiod, Acquisitions Editor
Check out our top five reads for Valentines Day! Whether you are reading on your own, gifting one to your partner, or discussing it with your girlfriends on Galentine’s Day, these books will not leave you disappointed.
This collection of thirteen short stories centers around protagonist Nadia, who was born and raised in Egypt, educated in England, and immigrated to the United States. Her background mirrors the life experience of author Samia Serageldin, whose stories shed light on one woman’s exploration of identity through a backdrop of Egyptian history and everyday interaction with friends and family. Serageldin shifts the narrative from Nadia’s grand-mother’s garden house in Cairo to the suburbs of North Carolina, revealing powerful portraits of cultural dislocation, faith, and multi-generational conflicts.
This is the first illustrated anthology of Turkish folk poetry and legends published in the United States. Author Talat Hamlan brings together three of the most beloved Anatolian tales and legends with selected poems from four great folk poets—Yunus Emre, Pir Sultan Abdal, Köroğlu, and Karacaoğlan. Divided into seven sections, each features four visual experiences which portray extraordinary images of nature, human figures, and emotions. They capture not only the splendor of nature in Anatolia but also the quintessential spirit of the legends and love lyrics that originated there.
With this statement. author al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, a Muslim preacher and scholar, introduces The Art of Party-Crashing. This collection of irreverent and playful anecdotes celebrates eating, drinking, and the importance of having fun. Included are ribald jokes, flirtations, and wry observations of misbehaving Muslims to better familiarize readers with the ins and outs of everyday life in medieval Iraq. Translated from Arabic to English, The Art of Party-Crashing introduces the delights of medieval Arabic humor to a new audience.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, during the time of Ottoman rule, travel to the Middle East was almost impossible for Westerners. That did not stop five daring women from abandoning their conventional lives and venturing into the heart of this inhospitable region. Improbable Women follows the pilgrimages of five middle to upper-class British women as they travel to Palmyra to pay tribute to the warrior queen, Zenobia. Divided into six sections, one devoted to Zenobia and one on each of the five women, Improbable Women provides a fascinating glimpse into the experiences of these intelligent, open-minded, and free-spirited explorers.
This collection of twenty-three interviews and 120 accompanying photographs provides a glimpse into the lives of the women who are drawn to the magical power of water and life in Lake Placid, New York. These ladies include eighty-two-year-old Helen Murray, who converted her camp to a popular club after World War II; the eccentric yet practical artist Margo Fish, who hand-built the enchanting Tapawingo compound out of twig and stone; and scratch-golfer and financial-expert Sue Riggins, who lost her one true love but held onto her camp on the water. This book is for anyone who visits or appreciates the Adirondack area, spends time on the water, and enjoys learning about the serendipitous lives of women everywhere.
While renowned British novelist Margaret Drabble is recognized for her fiction, her connection to the theater is what inspired her to experiment with dramatic form. Drabble’s two plays, Laura (1964), a television play, and Bird of Paradise (1969), a stage play, delve into the domestic life and social class of women in the twentieth century. In editor José Francisco Fernández’s new critical edition, The Plays of Margaret Drabble, both plays are included and accompanied by critical essays which provide valuable insight into the historical and social context of each.
Fernández is a professor at the University of Almería in Spain. He is the editor of Drabble’s short story collection A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman: Complete Short Stories,and is also a fan of Drabble’s writing. We interviewed Fernández about his latest project which explores the understudied body of Drabble’s work.
What inspired you to undertake this project? I am very interested in the historical context that appears as a background to her novels and short stories. I knew that she had written two plays for the stage (one for TV and one for the theater) and when I read them I realized, first, that they were very good, and, second, that they reflected the ideological environment of a decade of changes in British history, the 1960’s, with great accuracy. I simply felt that these plays had to reach a modern audience.
What is the most surprising thing you learned while editing this collection? I learned that the best way to be universal is by focusing on the local. The protagonist of Laura, for instance, is clearly a product of Drabble’s generation, a time when women were beginning to question the place they occupied in a patriarchal society. But, at the same time, the characters’ complaints can resonate in a myriad of situations today with any young mother feeling trapped in her assigned role. Margaret Drabble is able to capture the longings and the contradictions of female characters perhaps like no other contemporary writer.
Do these plays resonate with the current social/political climate? How do they reflect a very different era? The protagonists of these plays do not blindly accept the tenets of the official discourse of the day; they are critical of the message transmitted from the spheres of power that were, basically, projecting a high level of conformity with what had been achieved by the welfare state. As individuals, these women feel that they do not want to conform and that they want to grow personally and professionally without being judged or classified into feminine stereotypes. In that sense, the plays are very modern, that questioning attitude is much in need today. The economic conditions of the day were very different, but the spirit is still valid.
What draws you to Margaret Drabble’s work? I think she is an honest writer who bares her soul in every book, without subterfuges or tricks for the reader. The directness of her voice is what I find most compelling.
In what ways does her writing for the stage differ from her novels and short stories? As an accomplished novelist, it is fascinating how Margaret Drabble immediately grasped the principles of theater writing… In her two plays, we actually listen to her female characters speak and explain themselves. There are, of course, dialogues in her novels, but here the medium is exclusively the spoken voice and it comes out with power and brio.
Convince someone to read Drabble’s plays in 50 words or less. That’s easy; enjoy the pleasure of reading good literature. As an example, I’ll offer a quote from Bird of Paradise, when Sophy West, feeling the burden that is put on her shoulders, addresses the audience and says:
“It would be pleasant, of course, to think that these clichés had no relevance. It would be pleasant to dismiss them, pleasant to condemn their reiteration. I try to evade them, I evoke images to escape them – a golden bird, an emerald-green vest, a man who views me with neutrality – but it does not help me. History meets in my bones. It lifts my hand to pour the coffee at breakfast, it hardens my tones, it smiles in my smiling public face, it lifts my skirts and it bares my bosom. The bird flies away, alarmed by these mechanical snares.”
An Author’s View of a Regional Press
By Michael Doyle
Syracuse University Press has an encyclopedic grasp of the region it holds so dear. It’s the literal truth; you can look it up. Or, better yet, you can buy it. The Encyclopedia of New York State spans 1,921 pages and captures it all, from the Adirondacks to the Tappan Zee Bridge and beyond. Each entry is a doorway, one New York curiosity opening to another.
But here’s the thing. The publication of that colossus in 2005 did not initiate nor exhaust the Syracuse University Press’s commitment to the Empire State. Instead, it was but another blossom of that which was planted with the Press’s founding in 1943.
Consider this: The same university press that still offers decades-old but still-fresh fiction by Walter D. Edmonds, he of In the Hands of the Senecas fame, published in the fall of 2018 Rural Indigenousness: A History of Iroquoian and Algonquian Peoples of the Adirondacks by Melissa Otis. See what I mean? Season after season comes the regional harvest, new generations arising.
By my rough count, the Syracuse University Press’s catalog offers upwards of 100 New York state and regional titles, of every tang and texture. There are histories, biographies and memoirs. There are novels, essays and field guides. There’s New York poetry, for Pete’s sake, and a slice of Upstate cuisine.
Two of the New York-related titles are my own, so I can testify to Syracuse University Press’s regional devotion. In 2004, the Press published my first book, The Forestport Breaks: A Nineteenth-Century Conspiracy Along the Black River Canal. Of late, it occurs to me that the book illuminates how a locality grows ever-larger under a microscope, revealing new depths in a ‘see the world in a grain of sand’ kind of way. This is what a university press’s regional line can do: It starts with a tight focus and deepens, and deepens more, until all those grains resolve themselves into the big picture, the beach itself.
So it was with The Forestport Breaks, which begins with a forsaken town of 1,500 souls and then expands into what a 19th century lawman called “the most damnable conspiracy in the history of our state.” A book like this also illustrates how a region imprints itself on a university press, and vice versa. Inside Forestport’s former Hotel Doyle, now a frolicsome bar called Scooter’s, we held, hands down, the zaniest book-signing in the history of university press book-signings. Autographs may fade; such memories endure.
One thing leading to another, Syracuse University Press this year published my new book, another regionally-rooted work entitled The Ministers’ War: John W. Mears, the Oneida Community and the Crusade for Public Morality. It shows, again, how a university press committed to a particular locale can sink new wells where strangers see only worked-over rock. The 19th-century, ‘free-love’ Oneida Community in Upstate New York has been much written about; what more might be said? The editors, though, empowered my peculiar slant, a deep dive into the life and times of the zealous minister, a much-published college professor, no less, who fought Oneida. It’s a very granular look, indeed.
Unlike Tip O’Neill’s aphorism about politics, all university press publishing is not local. Syracuse University Press, for one, balances its New York state offerings with specializations in Irish Studies and Middle East Studies, among other topics. It’s the region, though, that bears the press, and it’s the region that the press so artfully represents.
Born in North Carolina by the Appalachian Mountains, Erin Fornoff now finds home in Ireland. As an author and avid poet who received an M. Phil in Creative Writing with Distinction from Trinity College Dublin, she’s performed at events across Ireland, the UK, and the US, and even co-founded Lingo, the first spoken word festival to appear in Ireland and for which she was Program Director. In the spirit of National Poetry Month, we interviewed Fornoff about her debut collection of poems, Hymn to the Reckless, and more.
1. What was the inspiration behind your collection of poems, Hymn to the Reckless?
The collection doesn’t really have one central theme, though it touches heavily on the path a life takes from a forest-filled childhood to a country across the ocean, and the reckoning of those shifts. It looks at ways we take risks and why and what happens when we do. It’s me trying to make sense.
2. You were born by the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, and now reside in Ireland. How would you say this sense of home you find in multiple countries influences your writing?
It’s a hugely strong influence. I write about home constantly, and grapple with those choices—do I stay or go? Where is home and what does it mean and can it come to mean something different? A poet once told me that new poets write about their childhood until they exhaust it and then they move on to other topics. Perhaps I haven’t exhausted it yet. Identity is an inescapable theme in poetry and I find myself becoming more Irish and differently American, and yet never fully Irish and missing America, and poetry is probably my central vehicle for figuring my own muddled head out.
3. Is there any one thing you hope readers take away with them after reading your poetry, specifically Hymn to the Reckless?
Take a risk now and then. Find home wherever it springs up. And don’t be scared of going to spoken word shows.
4. What was the most rewarding aspect of creating this collection? The most difficult?
I was really touched by the process of having a publisher and editor. I had never had someone take such interest and care in my work, and be invested in making it as good as it could be. I found it really moving to be taken care of that way. I went to a writers retreat in a stone cabin on a cliff in County Kerry and sat, in a storm, with every poem I had written printed out or scrawled, and it was so cool to see them altogether, and turning into something (hopefully) greater than their parts.
5. Tell me about the poets who have influenced your writing.
I love Mary Oliver for her use of nature and the way she manages to pull off that rare trick of saying exactly what she means (sometimes) and it not coming across as heavy-handed or twee. I try and fail at this – I’m forever getting edited with people saying ‘You don’t have to draw a neon sign blinking HERE IS MY POETIC POINT.’ Others I love are Philip Levine, Danez Smith, Colm Keegan and Kate Tempest. Kate is a rapper, spoken word poet, playwright, and novelist, and her honesty and fierceness just bowl me over, every time.
6. Do you ever do spoken word? If so, what is it like to read your work aloud?
I started with spoken word and still feel most comfortable and energized by that space. I do around 60-80 gigs a year and it’s such a privilege. I love that communion between performer and audience. As a writer I get to explore the poems in a new way (and improve them over time) and I think they are experienced in a much different way by the audience. I love spoken word – and there is a great culture for it in Ireland. It’s the only place in the world I’ve been where a random person can stand up in a bar and start reciting a poem and the entire bar falls silent.
7. You’ve also written a novel. How was this different than writing poetry? Any advice for writers who find it difficult to switch between forms?
Ooooh it is so much harder. So much harder! You can dip in and out of poems and thus they kind of suit a small attention span, but a novel is a slog. You feel a bit like a crazy person, living in an imaginary world in your own mind. I would love advice for writers who find it difficult to switch between forms, because I am finding it difficult to switch between forms!
8. Where is your favorite spot to write?
I have a little desk in an art studio with a window and a blank white wall. Other people share the room, so there’s hubbub but not too much, and the desk is clear and ready.
9. What was one of the first poems or books you read as a child that you fell in love with?
I loved Shel Silverstein and used to be able to recite ‘The Perfect High’ from memory. All little kids books are essentially poems – so I guess I could say ‘The Runaway Bunny’? My favorite longer books were The Phantom Tollbooth and The Secret Garden, which I read until they fell apart.
10. What’s on your nightstand now?
Right now I’m reading Poet X by Elizabeth Agevedo, a cool melding of spoken word poetry and novel, as well as ‘Land of Lost Borders’ by my friend Kate Harris, about biking across the Silk Road. For poetry it’s ‘Flights Over Finglas’ by Rachel Hegarty.