Roundup: We Are Family

In our Roundups segment, we’re looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. We explore posts from our archives as well as other top literary magazines and websites, centered on a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.

Summer is here, and it’s the perfect time for family picnics, family barbecues, family visits, family… Writers, needless to say, have a long history of being inspired by family in many glorious and terrible ways. Here are some insights to remember (and some families to compare to) when you find yourself sighing heavily at the umpteenth outing.

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Roundup: Women’s Voices

As we launch a new blog format for the new year, we’re also looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009.  Our roundups explore the archives and gather past posts around a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.  This week we have posts on women’s voices in writing.

We are no strangers to women’s voices here at Ploughshares.  Many of our contributors, guest bloggers, staff, and readers are women.  Occasionally our guest bloggers turn their attention to how female voices affect writing, Ploughshares, and the literary world.  Here are some of their posts:

Hearing Voices: Women Versing Life presents The Everyday Muse

When I was nine my grandparents gave me a copy of Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, and I fell in love so completely with poetry, I told everyone that when I grew up I was going to be a rich and famous poet.

Then in the seventh grade I took one of those career tests with a guidance counselor. I don’t remember what sort of careers were recommended for me, but I remember vividly that “Writer” was not on my list. I asked the counselor why this was so. She put on her reading glasses, took a few minutes humming over my answers, then looked up and said, “You want to make too much money.”

That’s when I learned the definition of the word oxymoron.

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Hearing Voices: Women Versing Life presents Liz Kay & Jen Lambert, founding editors of burntdistrict & Spark Wheel Press

Liz Kay

Jen Lambert

When Versedaily posted Benjamin Sutton’s, “three poems from Refutations by Memory,” originally published at burntdistrict, founding editors Jen Lambert and Liz Kay saw a marketing opportunity— one that also created conversation around Sutton’s poems— and offered a lottery for a free subscription to anyone who posted a comment about Sutton’s work.

Impressed by the contest’s creativity, and fascinated by the initiative of these poets-cum-publishers, I thought a conversation with Lambert and Kay was the perfect way to end a series about women versing life. With the ink still wet on the first issue of burntdistrict the friends, who met during graduate school at the University of Nebraska, decided to publish five books per year under their new imprint, Spark Wheel Press.

After graduating, “the journal began as our lifeline to [the literary community] we feared losing,” Lambert said. According to the website, the new editors were so enthralled by the quality of the work submitted at burntdistrict and frustrated by the limited space for publishing, they started SWP.

They were kind enough to take time away from teaching, parenting, writing, and editing to answer a few questions for me:

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Hearing Voices: Women Versing Life presents Natalie Diaz & When My Brother Was an Aztec

I happened to read Natalie Diaz’s book When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press, 2012) on July Fourth, and it was a surreal experience. I live on small lake in Massachusetts, and as the neighbors blasted the sky with exploding light I wondered about the Wampanoags who lived here before us, what happened to them, so I looked it up. It’s ugly, of course. I’m not here to patronize you with a history lecture about the brutality of manifest destiny in action, though, and neither is Diaz.

Instead, When My Brother Was an Aztec offers a portrait of life on the Mojave reservation today, and it’s bright with color, coral and turquoise, the red of apples, and every kind of hunger. She shows us cans of government food, handed-down clothes, alcoholism, drug addiction, and lost limbs— the place where history has brought us.

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Hearing Voices: Women Versing Life presents Qiu Jin

What fascinates me most about Qiu Jin is the near absence of her work in America, especially considering our love of a rebel and a martyr.  Sure, if you Google her name, several sites will offer a version of the same information: Qiu Jin lived from 1875 to 1907. Her family was wealthy, she had an arranged marriage at the age of twenty-one, and she had two children. Her feet were bound, she was a prolific writer in several genres including poetry, and she became a revolutionary. At the age of thirty-two she was beheaded for plotting an uprising against the Qing Dynasty.

After reading these tidbits, I was anxious to find out more about Qiu Jin and scoured my inter-library loan system for biographies, and while I did find brief listings in books such as Herstory: Women Who Changed the World, there were no complete biographies.

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Hearing Voices: Women Versing Life presents Lavonne J. Adams and Historical Poetry

This is a series about women writing life, but sometimes the lives we write are not our own. We may have a personal connection to the historical characters in our poems or we may feel an inexplicable kinship, an irresistible calling to tell their stories. I’ve been told that I have no claim on stories that are not part of my personal history, so I asked Lavonne J. Adams, author of Through the Glorieta Pass (Pearl Editions, 2009), — which tells the story of women who travelled the Santa Fe Trail in the mid-1800s—what she thinks.

“[That stance] seems to make the assumption that we are unable to fully empathize with another’s experiences.” Adams said. “I understand the need to avoid perpetuating stereotypes, but I think that any dedicated and competent writer would strive for a well-rounded view of any person or situation. It’s an issue of craft.”

Indeed. Sometimes the tale is more important than the storyteller.

Adams speaks so eloquently on the subject of historical poetry that I asked her to share her writing process with Ploughshares readers:

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Hearing Voices: Women Versing Life presents Tarfia Faizullah and the Unpublished Manuscript

The work of getting a manuscript published, that rejection and frustration, begins to feel at times like self abuse. Writing is a lonely adventure, but most of us feel driven to it; quitting is inconceivable. Submitting work, though, is more like managing a business, and most poets I know are not business managers, so it’s easy for us to get bogged down in the nays.

Maybe in addition to writing workshops, we should join rejection workshops to be reminded that we’re not alone. Because we’re not alone.

In lieu of a rejection workshop I offer you the camaraderie of Tarfia Faizullah.

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Hearing Voices: Women Versing Life presents Katherine Case and Meridian Press

I knew Katherine Case as a poet first. We were in a poetry workshop together at Mills College, and I was enthralled with her ability to integrate so many ideas into a poem that was usually one breathless sentence. Little did I know that when class ended, and I was bobbing around in water aerobics, Katherine was discovering a whole new world of art in the letterpress studio.

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Hearing Voices: Women Versing Life presents Janice N. Harrington

As a poetry editor at Prick of the Spindle, I find that poems about certain subjects, such as childhood, love, aging, and death, often lean too heavily on nostalgia, so that the language limps. In fact, I’ve been guilty of writing my own nostalgic poems now and again— and again. Hey, nobody said this poetic life was going to be easy, which is why the first time I heard Janice N. Harrington read from her book, The Hands of Strangers: Poems from the Nursing Home I was struck by her ability to write about her subject— the lives of the elderly and those who tend to them— with frank grace: “Scraped, scratched,/pierced by roughness, old women split/ as easily as sun-scalded plums.”

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