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Spring/Summer 2021

Back Porch

What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

I wouldn't call it a literary pilgrimage when two friends and I drove all night from Chicago to Montreal, got drunk, found a phone booth with a directory (circa 1990), and called all the Jacque Kerouac's in the phonebook. They were not amused. We were.

--Richard Stimac 

I'm not sure if this counts as a traditional literary pilgrimage, but my MFA thesis in graduate school was a collection of research-based poems on the victims of Ted Bundy. As part of that project, I went to Florida with my mother and re-traced his steps there. I visited the sorority house and the former school he lured Kimberly Leachhis last victim from. We talked to a friend of her mother's, and someone else who knew her well. The trip was strange and haunting, not just in the context of Bundy's actions but in the people we met, and the weather we experienced - for thirty minutes we were driving in the worst rain I've ever experienced, and could barely see the tail-lights in front of me. Every car driving as slow as possible.

--Caitlin Thomson 

I once booked a flat for cheap on Lafayette Square in Savannah. There, I got trapped in the bathroom. The door wouldn’t budge. I yelled for my kids. No response, likely busy photographing orbs. I considered going out the window, but the sharp fence two stories below made me think twice. Next door, I could see a stone statue of a saint centered in a small garden. A voice interrupted my thoughts. Try the door. It opened. Later, we noticed a historical marker in front of the saint house. Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home. My accidental FOC pilgrimage.

--Sheree Shatsky

I don't know that I'd call them pilgrimages since I am usually already in town for some other reason, but whenever I have the opportunity to visit a writer's-house-turned-museum, or any sites related to famous writers, I do. So far, I've visited Eudora Welty's home in Jackson; James Whitcomb Riley's home and the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, both in Indianapolis; Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis, which boasts a statue of Longfellow and another of Minnehaha and Hiawatha from his famous poem, as well as, weirdly, a 2/3 scale replica of his Massachusetts home; the Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald Museum in a home they lived in only for a short time in Montgomery; Flannery O'Connor's childhood home in Savannah (though I have yet to visit her farm, Andalusia); Charles Dickens's home and the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London; the Emily Carr House in Victoria, British Columbia; and the Edgar Allan Poe House in Baltimore, along with his grave a few blocks away in Westminster Presbyterian's graveyard, a very cool place to visit in its own right. I love seeing the places where great writers worked, and the insights gained from tidbits about their lives. Welty's garden is still beautifully maintained, and her manuscripts are arranged on the dining room table as if she's just stepped away from revising a story. You can see that she physically cut and pasted her manuscripts as part of her process. It's easy to imagine Poe in his sparse, low-ceilinged room on the third floor, bent over the writing desk and dreaming up terrors in the dark night. With each visit, I hope that some flash of inspiration or new appreciation for a certain turn of phrase will come, but just as often, I am drawn in by the architecture of the home, the landscaping, or the cobblestone street outside.

--Jessica Temple


What advice do you have for new and emerging writers?

The one thing I've learned is that writing is all about two things: 1. trial and error, and 2. being true to yourself. It doesn't matter what others say--what works for them, what they think is wrong in your work, etc. It matters that you want to make your writing as good as it can be, and that you want to share it with the world.

--Sara Gilbert


What's the most embarrassing moment in your writing career?

I once wrote a short story that took place in a town's public square. That detail is not particularly important for the story; it just happened to be the setting I chose where the drama would unfold. However, while I had intended to write "public square" throughout the story, I had actually written "pubic square." On almost every page of the story, there were characters singing, dancing, eating, and drinking on the pubic square. I sent the story to a magazine, and the editor responded with a single sentence: "I've never seen such a simple typo turn a story so lewd." Needless to say, the story was rejected. 

--Zackary Vernon

My most embarrassing moment is more a collective of years of mistakes in front of the public eye. I began publishing young, at 16, with anthologies and now-defunct magazines. As a result, I've "grown-up" in the literary world, quite literally. All of my experimental phases, underdeveloped plot lines, and moments of coltish prose happened before an audience instead of the confines of a workshop. However, I don't feel "embarrassing" is the correct word. I don't regret anything I've published.  Pieces that may be cringe or more juvenile to me now held the importance of some sort at the time. I think of it more as an ongoing growth experiment. I'm now 27--by all accounts, still young, much too young to know anything, according to some. But I've had a lot of life experience, trauma, grief, and loss in my days, more than some people experience their whole lives. Youth is a "flaw" I've embraced in my work and career, and I only hope to gain more experience and never stop learning. I wear my embarrassment as a medal of honor; the fact I look back at things in ignominy shows change, and that speaks to progress.

--Anastasia Jill


What's the best part of writing about the South?

The South gets a bad reputation, especially where I now live in the DC area. People picture the south as a place where Bible-wielding racists try to enforce backward ways of thinking on one another. That wasn’t my experience at all. When I lived in Nashville, my neighbors took care of each other. One of my neighbors organized a monthly trash pickup event, and we’d always get pizza together afterward. People genuinely tried to get to know you while you were waiting in line for coffee. In DC, if someone asks you about your life goals while you wait for coffee, it’s because they’re about to invite you to their pyramid scheme. I write about the South to vindicate it. It’s a lot like everywhere else, except the people are nicer and you can spend most of the winter comfortably eating lunch outdoors.

--Mazzer D’Orazio


What's the hardest part of writing about the South?
I'm not quite sure what 'the South' is. Miami, where I live, and really all I know about Florida, is a strange city. It's culturally vibrant and eclectic and infuriating for various reasons, but still, it has its own distinct, separate ambiance. I'm not sure how else to put it other than in purely negative terms: Miami is *not* the South. Which, of course, doesn't mean it's the North or anything else but, rather, a point of exception. To be a little philosophical, it's a city of difference and becoming, a limbo where identity, despite the city's seeming tribalism, is actually quite fragile.

--Julian Santiago Munoz


If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?

Shouldn't this be, "Since you do write, what do you do for work?" I have delusions about being a full-time poet who makes $100k/year. As I type this, I think that I should start writing fantasy fiction.

--Richard Stimac 

Answering this question is not as easy as it may seem. I've been a trial lawyer for 17 years. Full stop. It's not a career you cannot half-do. It is all-consuming a lot of the time. So, you could say that at some point I made the decision to work instead of write. For many years that is exactly what I did. Though I'd been writing poetry since I was an undergrad, I'd never submitted any of my poetry for publication. I toyed with the idea of getting my MFA in Creative Writing in my last year of undergrad, but I applied to law school and that was that. I left the writing part of me behind even as I continued to read voraciously, mostly fiction, and then, around 2010 I began writing again and writing regularly, but this time, I was writing fiction. When I finally got my first short story published in 2014, I couldn't believe it. It's still hard for me to believe because, on most days, I still see myself as a lawyer and a lawyer only. Only now, after more success with writing and publishing, when I see myself as a lawyer, I think of my job not simply as "work" but as a unique lens through which I've been able to see the world and interact with all sorts of people. My "work" is now a tool I use for my writing instead of letting it prevent me from writing and making that shift in perspective has finally made my writing life manageable and extremely rewarding.

--Jami Kimbrell


When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I cannot remember a time when I didn’t dream of being a writer. Growing up in Scotland, I read everything I could get my hands on. The authors who affected me most included Joan Aiken, Lynne Reid Banks, Roald Dahl, Anne Frank, and George Orwell. At the University of Glasgow, I read French, German, Russian and Scottish literature, falling in love along the way with Anna Akhmatova, Mikhail Bulgakov, Alasdair Gray, Sylvia Plath, Jacques Prévert, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Iain Crichton Smith.  The first time I thought I might have any kind of ability as a writer was when I was about 13, and I wrote a short story my English teacher thought I must have copied from somewhere. I remember thinking with profound happiness and astonishment that I might have made something good, maybe something beautiful, something that held the promise of leaving a positive mark on the people who read it. Writing still fills me with that same magical feeling. 

--Elaine Monaghan 


What is your best remedy for writer's block?

When I’m not feeling inspired to write, I turn to the calls for submissions and specific features of online lit journals. Sometimes finding a specific prompt gives me the right mix of freedom and parameters. I recently wrote a "my first" essay for Hobart, for example, about discovering that I had crabs from my first boyfriend while on a trip to Iceland. They didn't take the essay, but that's okay because I enjoyed working on it and feel good about what I crafted. I'm also working on another essay inspired by Smokelong Quarterly's Flash in the Classroom essay series, about teaching Kara Vernor's Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song in my freshman comp classes.

--Jess D. Taylor 


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