This interview was taken by Bailey Tulloch and appears in the 2016 Edition of R2.
Sara Shepard is the author of the hit young-adult-series-turned-television phenomena Pretty Little Liars and The Lying Game. Shepard graduated from Brooklyn College with an MFA in Creative Writing. She is also the author of the young adult series The Heiresses and The Perfectionists, and the adult novels The Visibles and Everything We Ever Wanted. Shepard currently lives in Pennsylvania with her family.
What has it been like watching your work move from page to screen, and, in a way, handing your characters over to other writers? Has there been anything in particular about the Pretty Little Liars television series that surprised you?
I had written seven books of the Pretty Little Liars series before ABC Family developed the pilot. At the time, I thought I had one more book to go. I had rounded out the characters and the world, and I knew them pretty well. When Marlene King and her writers wrote the series, they had a lot of material to draw from—and it shows. The TV characters closely resemble the book characters. The premise is the same, and so is the world. Sure, they’ve taken some creative liberties, but you have to for TV. I wasn’t very sensitive about handing over my characters to TV’s writers—I was thrilled! You can’t look a gift horse in the mouth—how could I have ever predicted I’d get a series on TV period? The show has brought so many new readers to my books and, for an author, that’s an opportunity of a lifetime. As for the second part of the question, I’m sure I’ve been surprised about certain elements of the show—like who A is!—but I’ve enjoyed the twists and turns the series has taken. And nowadays, I watch the show like a regular old viewer, excited for what’s coming next.
A lot of Rice students often tend to let their creative writing fall to the wayside amidst the craziness of college life. Were you able to find time to write creatively while in college, and how did you balance it among academics/ social life/etc.?
Even before college, I kept journals—I had this fear of losing important memories and felt the need to write everything down. (And remember, this was before camera phones, Instagram, etc., when I could have just taken a picture to document so much.) Often, I wrote what happened to me or what I was worried about like little pieces of short fiction, and this continued into college. I took some creative writing classes as well, but for the most part it was just in journals—though, unfortunately, I’ve lost quite a few of them, either to computer crashes or leaving them in bars. Websites and blogs were becoming popular when I was in college, too, and my sister and I made this fictitious online newspaper based on a strange, square-headed world we invented as kids, so I guess that was creative, too, although most of the stories talked about uprising pelicans, counterfeit doctors, and doppelgängers. My sister and I were odd kids for sure.
Many Rice students are really passionate about writing and would love to pursue a career in that field but tend to feel pressure to stick with paths that are more “financially predictable.” What advice do you have for these students, and what influenced your decision to get an MFA in Creative Writing?
To be honest, I got an MFA in Creative Writing post-9/11—I had a sort of “life is short” epiphany, and I’d always wanted to get an MFA, so I decided to go for it. I had no preconceived notions of ever building a career with my MFA, unless you counted teaching. During that time, though, I started ghostwriting for Alloy Entertainment, which got my foot in the publishing door. After that, I guess I was just dogged. I badgered my contacts for work. I worked quickly. I worked around the clock. I think that’s what people forget about being a writer—you do work a lot. Sure, there are times when I have weeks off, between deadlines, but for the most part, I’m always thinking about what I’m working on, even when I’m not at the computer. And the thing about making writing your career these days is that, at least in my opinion, there are a lot more options now than there were before. Yes, there’s traditional publishing, or working for a newspaper or a magazine, but there’s also self-publishing, which is making a lot of strides in the market, and there are so many new online venues to tap into—and so many of them are respectable. I also know a lot of people who support themselves by blogging—something unheard of not so long ago! It seems that if you’re creative, and if you have an interesting idea, and if you persevere, you can at least get your work out there. If you want to go the traditional route and get, say, a novel published, agents are so much more accessible these days, either through online contacts or through writing conventions, like SCBWI, which are popping up everywhere. At writing conventions, you can meet with an agent of your choice, pitch your idea, and get honest, constructive feedback—and sometimes the agent will ask to read more. I had no clue of such means of getting my work reviewed back when I was starting out.
Most of the protagonists in your books are young females. How do these age and gender preferences interact for you? Why are they interesting to you?
I feel like adolescence and young adulthood are such fertile, tumultuous times—everything is new, your emotions are swirling, you don’t quite know how to handle yourself. Plus, people don’t treat you as an adult yet, no matter how hard you try, so you’re in this curious limbo of worlds where you want to be taken seriously and you don’t even realize that’s probably not going to happen for a few more years. At least that’s the way it was with me. I enjoy writing about women because it’s interesting to share the female experience, and I try to create strong, interesting, non-stereotypical female characters. However, in the new series I’m writing, The Amateurs, there are a couple of male protagonists in the mix, and it was fun trying to tap into the male perspective. What have you found is the biggest difference between writing for an adult audience and writing for a young adult audience? I used to feel that with adult you could be a little more experimental, though I think YA fiction has come a tremendously long way since I started out. With adult, your plot can move a little slower, and you can develop your characters a bit more, and obviously your subject matter is different. But again, these were lessons more when I was staring out ten years ago—nowadays, I feel like the lines between YA and adult have blurred. And a good story is a good story—you always have to keep that in mind. I do as much intense plotting for my adult novels as I do for my YA ones. And these days, I make no assumptions about my audience—all my readers are smart, and all of them want a good, engaging book, no matter their age.
Yesterday was R2's annual Open Mic Night event, held in Rice's own Willy's Pub. We had an awesome turnout of both performers and spectators, so thank you to everyone who dropped in! Below you'll find some of the pictures from the night.
Open Mic Nights are one of many much-needed venues for the sharing of ideas and expressions. Whether it's through a favorite poem, a meaningful song, a few minutes of comedy, or a crazy beat, we can learn from each other and give each other a little bit more freedom and support at the same time. Personally, I got a lot out of watching each person give their performance. It can be vulnerable, when you stand on stage reading a piece you spent weeks perfecting. It can be terrifying to step on stage and spend a few minutes trying to entertain a crowd you aren't entirely sure wants to listen to you. But when you finally do, something magical happens: everyone in the audience cares, at least for a moment, at least about a bit of what it is you're doing. And maybe when you get up there and start speaking, it can inspire someone in the audience, who wasn't feeling brave at first, to jump up and give it a go.
So thanks to Open Mic Nights, for provoking the courage and creativity in us, and for bringing us together for a few hours in delicious cheese dip, laughter, and self-expression.
Photographs and blog post by Erika S. ('19)
When moving across the country this summer from Seattle, WA, to Houston, TX, I had to pack up my entire life into a few boxes. Clothes were easy; I was able to leave the parkas and wooly hats at home. Books on the other hand, I saved until last, unable to execute the inevitable downsizing that my library required. I had decided to choose from my floor to ceiling bookshelf just ten books to make the cross-country trip with me to my dorm room. The last thing I did before I left was carefully select this group, like a well-balanced Spotify Playlist. I tried to mix books I had read thousands of times with ones I hadn’t even cracked the spine on. I placed fun five-minute reads next to heavier, more serious books to match my future moods. In the end, these are the ten books that made it into my U Haul box:
1) As You Like It, William Shakespeare
Why: A Shakespearean classic, and also one of the few I haven’t read, As You Like It was the first book tossed into the box. It sits on my shelf in order to inspire me to one day read an unassigned Shakespeare play.
2) Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
Why: This book serves as a little bit of a reminder of home for me, as this was the first book I read in freshman English with my all time favorite high school teacher. I also love dystopian novels, and this one is a classic.
3) The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
Why: Sylvia Plath’s haunting handle on emotional turmoil can sometimes be cathartic to read, and though the subject matter can make for upsetting and not exactly pleasant reading, her prose always draws me in.
4) The Gene, Siddhartha Mukherjee
Why: What kind of Biochemistry-English double major would I be if I didn’t have a biography of a gene in my bookshelf? This book expertly combines compelling stories with real information, and avoids the dense downfall of most scientific writing, so you look smart and learn something while still enjoying the writing.
5) Not That Kind of Girl, Lena Dunham
Why: Sometimes I just want to read something for fun, and Lena Dunham’s comedic memoir is a perfect pick me up. At the same time, this book’s feminist messages are empowering.
6) Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
Why: While this book will never thrill me in the way it did when I first read it, by pulling an all-nighter to get to the big reveal, it’s still a page turner. Everyone needs a bit of excitement in his or her library, and I can always count on this book to provide that for me.
7) We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo
Why: This book was my “something new”. I bought it the day before I flew out to Houston. The idea of having an entirely untouched book in my collection was exciting, and a friend who knows me very well recommended this book, so I look forward to reading it.
8) Internal Medicine, Terrence Holt
Why: This is the book that made me want to be a doctor. It doesn’t glamorize medical professions a la Grey’s Anatomy, but instead shows you the nitty-gritty side, as real as it can get without violation patient confidentiality. While the subject matter is what drew me to this book, it’s also one of the best-written doctor’s memoirs I’ve found in a while.
9) Looking for Alaska, John Green
Why: As a busy college student, sometimes I need a book I can fly through in an hour, and Looking for Alaska is that for me. I’ve read it so many times that I can skim the whole thing and still understand it, but still get the escapism of living in a different world that books provide for me.
10) And of course, a copy of R2
While these books might not appeal to you for the same reasons that they do to me, they’re all great, and I recommend them to anyone. Or, if none of these appeal to you, start building your own well-balanced college bookshelf.
Written by Emma E. ('20)
Now that autumn is upon us, what better time to curl up with a cup of hot chocolate and some great speculative fiction? If you ever find yourself searching for a great new read, keep an eye out for the following titles:
A Tale of Love, Pain, and Sacrifice
What if you had the power to take away people’s pain and absorb it as your own? What if someone else could remove all your physical and emotional pain? Would you let them? What if you could live free of pain for the rest of your life?
It’s not often in which I come across a book that actually impacts me, a book that I’m unable to put down and even afterwards, I find myself overcome with emotion for days on end. Such a book that I had the privilege of reading is called Bruiser, a beautiful tale spun by the masterful storyteller Neal Shushterman. I came across it by complete chance after exploring the bookcases of my high school library in search of a new read and noticing its acqua-colored spine protruding from the shelves. This dark and twisting yet emotionally gripping story is chronicled from four characters’ perspectives: Tennyson, the athletic high school jock who is blinded by his arrogance; his twin sister, Brontë, who lets her sensitivity and romantic character influence her decisions; Bruiser, the loner at school whose large size and intimidating demeanor have led to his reputation as the school bully, a circle of rumors to constantly surround him, and a “Most Likely to Get the Death Penalty” vote by his peers; and finally his younger brother, Cody, who lives freely in a world of innocence. When Brontë decides to spend time with Bruiser and eventually date him, much to the school’s shock and Tennyson’s fury, she and Tennyson begin to learn more and more about Bruiser, ultimately shattering their preconceived judgments of him in ways that will haunt them. After discovering Bruiser’s horrifying secret and why he is known as “Bruiser” rather than his real name, Tennyson and Brontë, along with Bruiser himself and Cody, undergo a profound journey that none of them anticipated, one that will change the course of their lives forever.
This heartwarming yet thought-provoking book explores love, courage, pain, and trust. It is a journey of change, self-awareness, and above all self-sacrifice, in which the characters ponder questions about sacrifice and friendship. Shushterman forces his readers to think deeply about life, relationships, and how far one would be willing to go for love. What I found fascinating was how the characters’ distinct narrations effectively work together to create a believable, powerfully deep tale that make the characters come alive: Tennyson’s humorous and cocky attitude that changes as he transforms from cruel to caring, Brontë’s insistence that Bruiser is misunderstood and her naive desire to love and protect him that is tested by the harsh realities of life, and Cody’s exuberant words that offer a nostalgic reminder to the readers of their long-lost childhood innocence. But the ultimate power lies in Bruiser’s perspective, narrated in the form of free verse. The use of poetry adds a unique voice to the story, an artistic retelling of the world’s cruelties through a broken teenager’s lens. The poetry causes his sufferings and his attempts to comprehend why people treat each other the way they do to be incredibly relatable. It somehow makes the impossible seem believable.
Bruiser seems like a simple story of high school drama in the beginning, yet it almost immediately darkens and develops into so much more. It is a tale of what it means to have hope in a world that requires us to be constantly selfless. It is a story about the will to love, to break our boundaries and let love in, to learn what it means to love selflessly and to do what is right despite the consequences. The book also explores other issues - alcohol, divorce, and so many family and social issues that affect people, especially children, on a daily basis. Bruiser is painful to read at times yet upon finishing it, you will be left overcome with emotion and a rethinking of your entire life. While it will undeniably leave a bruise on your heart, it will be a marking of self-awareness, rediscovery, and a desire to reevaluate the world in a way that you’ll want to preserve forever.
Written by Sarah S.
Need a way to unwind? Looking for a new way to procrastinate? Have no fear--The List App is here! Created by B.J. Novak and Dev Flaherty in 2015, “The List App” is a quirky new social media platform that I have been spending way too much time on lately.
Made up of a ridiculously vibrant and positive community, the List App is a place to share your experiences, opinions and expertise about anything and everything. The best part? It has to be in bullet form.
Leading voices in TV, film, music, sports, comedy and fashion have already hopped on the bandwagon, sharing lists about a whole plethora of topics like “Memorable Bad Dates,” “Von Trapp Children, Ranked by Sass” and “Pictures of Barack Obama Eating Hot Dogs.”
The app’s FAQ page states, “Human beings are innately inclined towards structuring information; it’s one of our primary means of understanding. Lists are simple, powerful; the gold standard of sorting and sharing information for thousands of years.”
The structure of the app resembles other social media apps we already know and love—a news feed tab, a search function, a notifications tab and your own profile. Lists can be about anything, but the app offers a few suggestions to get you started, including “Go-to karaoke songs,” “Things that will improve the world, according to me,” “Misconceptions I had as a child,” and “Three happy moments from today.” Lists can be liked, re-listed, and commented on. You can even suggest additions to other lists, which the creator can approve and give you credit for (low key fangirled when BJ Novak added my idea to his list!).
Included below are some of my favorite lists!
If Parks and Rec Characters Wrote Autobiographies
Days of the Week, Ranked, According to “Friday I’m in Love”
Grey; break my heart; heart attack; stay in bed (Note: Wednesday is identical to Tuesday but worse because it is the second straight day)
Grey; break my heart; heart attack; stay in bed
I don’t care about you; doesn’t even start; never looking back; watch the walls instead
Blue; you can fall apart; black; you can hold your head
Always comes too late
I’m in love
By @elliemix (yours truly)
7 Tips I Use to Spark my Creativity
2. Follow my interests.
Instead of focusing on what I “ought” to be doing, I allow myself to wander—by buying an odd book, poking around the internet, or exploring an unusual place.
3. Buy supplies.
I encourage myself to make an occasional creativity-supporting purchase.
4. Draw an idea-map.
This is a process of writing down ideas in a way that helps you see new relationships and possibilities.
5. Enjoy the fun of failure.
Telling myself I can enjoy the “the fun of failure” has made me (somewhat) more light-hearted about taking risks.
6. Read random magazines.
7. Indulge in my magpie impulses.
When I have the urge to collect materials, articles or information, I now indulge it. Although I generally fight against any stuff that could become clutter, I find find that these collected materials help spur my creativity.
Have a great week! Happy listing!
Written by Ellie Mix (Class of '20)
Over the past year, my taste in music has evolved from the Rock & Roll my parents teethed me on. There's still a lot of love in my heart for AC/DC and Zeppelin, but man, give me some fingerplucked guitars and soft poetry, and I'm in heaven.
The love affair started with a month of nothing but Hozier in the snowy northeastern winter, something to help roll the wheels of my beat-up '89 Honda Civic to school, something to fall in and out of relationships to. Hozier tells stories through his songs, mournful and multilayered tales that transcend a linear concept of love. It's something living, something pure and bittersweet and catching.
A few months later, I overheard a song in a tea shop that set me off on a new tangent. If you’re interested in indie folk, you’ve probably heard of Gregory Alan Isakov -- and if you haven’t, here’s your cue to plug your headphones in and pull up YouTube. “The Stable Song” is the first song I've ever heard that took my breath away. It's poetry through and through, and it never quite says what it wants you to understand. It's an artful form of melancholy that both soothes and fans my homesickness for a place I’ve never been, and it’s unwoven my stress many a late night. Beyond anything, though, “The Stable Song” renewed my faith in the lyricism that I’d lost in my music, and these two lines in particular:
now i’ve been crazy couldn’t you tell
i threw stones at the stars, but the whole sky fell.
Something had stepped out of my reach the day I realized music was an industry, and that industries are made to make money above anything else. It was always this question, with every song that came on the radio - is this a feeling or a sales pitch? Discovering the indies reminded me that music is an art form, even if it comes in the two-lines-repeated-for-three-minutes-straight variety. It’s what you need in the moment, what your friends have in their hands, what your family has in the car. We find the poetry that follows the same rhythm as our heartbeats, and we fall in love with the words that we can memorize and stylize on the way to class. Some days, it’s Barns Courtney; some, it’s Big Sean; others, you can find me bouncing back and forth between Lord of the Rings scores and the Eagles. There’s a whole universe of sound out there that you can wield throughout your day to day to compose the kind of soundtrack you wouldn’t mind being remembered with. Draw from the classics, the popular, the path less traveled. Throw your own beats into the ring, tell your own story. It’s all music, in the end; and that’s what matters.
and i ran back to that hollow again
the moon was just a sliver back then
and i ached for my heart like some tin man
when it came oh it beat and it boiled and it rang...it’s ringing
ring like crazy, ring like hell
turn me back into that wild haired gale
ring like silver, ring like gold
turn these diamonds straight back into coal
turn these diamonds straight back into coal.
Written by Kristen Hickey ('20)
I recently finished reading Tuesdays with Morrie, a bittersweet story about “an old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson.” (A brief introduction of the characters: Morrie, Mitch’s favorite college professor, is the “old man,” Mitch is the “young man,” and “life’s greatest lesson” is, ironically, what it’s like to die. The lesson develops with each successive chapter.)
Mitch pays homage to Morrie by structuring the novel as a class that “met on Tuesdays. It began after breakfast. The subject was The Meaning of Life. It was taught from experience.”
We soon jump to a flashback of Mitch’s graduation day, when he promises Morrie that he’ll stay in touch. He doesn’t. After graduation, Mitch struggles to fulfill his dream of becoming a famous musician, and he soon grows discouraged. He turns, instead, to sports writing, and his life becomes much more fast-paced; there is no time for Mitch to wonder if he’s living the life he wants, but deep down, Mitch knows that he is unsatisfied—he just doesn’t want to confront this fact. Mitch and Morrie continue to live their separate lives (during this time, Morrie is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a chronic nervous system disease), until a chance encounter causes them to reconnect.
Although Mitch has reservations that his current lifestyle will disappoint his former professor, he still arranges to meet up every Tuesday with Morrie, who is delighted to see him (Morrie hardly cares about what job Mitch has. He only cares whether Mitch is doing a job he genuinely loves). Through these Tuesday meetings and with Morrie’s encouragement, Mitch finally takes the time to reevaluate the life he’s living, and he admits to himself that his life has merely been a search for the “bigger paycheck.” Mitch is also aware that he likes himself better when he’s around Morrie, having undergone “a cleansing rinse of human kindness” with each visit. In stark contrast to Mitch’s job-driven life, Morrie has made a conscious effort to live “with dignity, with courage, with humor, with composure,” even in the face of death. Morrie continues to inspire Mitch to live the life he truly wants—to “make peace with yourself and everyone around you”—even as Mitch struggles to accept Morrie’s impending death.
Driven by flashbacks and simple, heartwarming dialogue, Tuesdays with Morrie reminds us that societal values (like the possibility of more money or higher salary) are transient and unsubstantial, although they may seem so important in the moment. Fear of death may cause us to desperately squeeze in as much “happiness” as we can, whether through accomplishments or material things. But instead, we should take ownership of our lives, and fill them up with activities we enjoy doing and people we enjoy seeing. And in moments of frustration or distress, we can all heed Morrie’s advice: “I give myself a good cry if I need it. But then I concentrate on all the good things still in my life. On the people who are coming to see me. On the stories I’m going to hear.”
For anyone looking for a story that discusses loss and life in an uplifting manner, Tuesdays with Morrie is the perfect choice.
Written by Evelyn Syau (’20)
The following interview appears in the 2014-2015 Edition of R2 and was conducted by Patrick Huang.
Jericho Brown is a poet whose work has been featured in The New Yorker, The Nation, The New Republic, The Best American Poetry, and Nikki Giovanni’s 100 Best African American Poems. A native of Shreeport, Louisiana, Brown worked as a speechwriter for New Orleans Mayor Marc Murial before receiving his Ph. D. in creative writing and literature from the University of Houston. His first poetry collection, Please, won the 2009 American Book Award. His second and most recently published collection, The New Testament, was named a “Best Book of 2014” by Library Journal. Brown currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia, where he teaches creative writing at Emory University.
Before earning your Ph. D. in literature and creative writing, you worked as a speechwriter for the mayor of New Orleans. How has your work in speechwriting influenced your poetry?
If anything, poetry was always an escape from speechwriting in those days. Writing a speech, I sat down knowing the point. My job was to stay on message. The joy for me of writing a poem is discovery. When I’m working well, I’m learning things and asking questions that speeches could never accommodate. The joy of writing poetry is not knowing the point but following the music of language until I arrive at something that engenders in me not just knowledge but also a feeling of wonder.
What does poetry, as a platform for personal expression, offer to you that other literary forms do not?
The poem mirrors the life of the believer, mirrors the process of prayer. For instance, line breaks have everything to do with doubt. Poetry is so different from prose because it’s infused with doubt. At the moment of a line break, even for a millisecond, you’re thrust into doubt. Only faith that the next line will land us on solid ground keeps us breathing. This recognition of our breathing is sheer acknowledgement of the limitless value of our lives. Yes, poems do carry meaning, but what attracts us to them is how well they remind us of our own breath.
In your most recent collection, The New Testament, you wrote in one of your poems, “Hustle”: “I eat with humans who think any book full of black characters is about race.” Overall, your work seems to revolve around issues of sexuality, love, violence, masculinity, family, spirituality, mortality, and race (among other things, of course). When someone attempts to categorize you exclusively as a “homosexual” or a “gym rat” or a “Southern black man” or a “religious’ poet,” etc. (while misrepresenting or failing to acknowledge the other parts of your identity), how do you resist such curtailment or oversimplification of your identity?
Well, I don’t exactly “resist” any identifiers because I don’t automatically think of it as “curtailment” or “oversimplification.” So yes, the parenthetical phrase in your question is of utmost importance.
I know others think that Southern is only Southern and that black is only black and that gay is only gay, but I know those terms to be expansive and expanding.
Yes, I’m bothered when people use those terms to limit and when people see them as limiting. All that is to say that it’s a matter of knowing who is making use of the term and to what end they are using it. (I actually wish I were a “gym rat,” because I imagine that if I were I’d be a lot finer and a lot less self-conscious about how I look physically. Still, I don’t assume that the gym rats I meet aren’t poets because I know poets who love to workout like Kyle Dargan and John Murillo.) I don’t see anything wrong with people calling me black so long as I know they do that with the knowledge of there existing in this world George Washington Carver and Dominique Dawes and the poet and birdwatcher Sean Hill. And any attention to the history of art would show that being called gay might very well be the best compliment of all time.
Also...I knew Jorie Graham and Mark Strand were white the first time I read books by them. I knew Strand was (supposed to be whatever we call) straight. I knew Graham was born in New York and raised in Italy. I don’t know these poets’ relationship to exercise. And as far as I can tell, I never held any of this against any of them. People are under this weird impression that when we read poets I love like Plath and Lowell and Ashbery that we don’t know we’re reading white people. Well, I’m not under that impression. They are white. And as far as I can tell, they don’t want to be anything other than white and have no reason to be o ended by the fact that I know they are white. I want that same thing for black gay Southern gym rat poets. Know it and love me! Not “know it and love me anyway.” Not “know it and love me in spite of.” Not “know it and think it’s a shame when he makes use of it in his poems.” I want people to pick up my books and read and say, “Damn, he did a great thing here!” And I want them to accept the fact that me doing that great thing is informed by a tradition that is not only straight, white, fat, and New Englander.
Like every other poet on the planet, I pull from the elements of my life in order to make my poems. My black life matters.
But your question, though, was how do I resist the relentless pigeonholing that goes on. My answer is that I try to answer questions like this one as honestly as I know how with the hope that people see the answer and at least begin to think about the compulsory heteronormative whiteness that reigns over so much of our lives. Other than that, I just try to write my ass o and let a bunch of jealous bitches su er. I’m not foolish enough to think I’m everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s a damn shame if I’m offering the flavor you need and you’re looking for socially constructed excuses not to quench your own thirst all because of my author photo.
A lot of us (Rice folks) are/were intrigued by your slow, wave-like, almost incantatory-sounding reading style. Have you always read this way—or is this style one that you developed over the years? Do you think the rhythm of your delivery will continue to evolve?
I don’t think of myself as a performer, so I haven’t monitored the evolution of the way I deliver a poem. I imagine it has changed and will continue to do so without me knowing. I mostly try to put myself in the mindset that I was in when writing the poem. If I can get to that mindset, I can slow down and enjoy the music of language while reading in front of people just as I did when I was writing alone.
The only other thing I can add is that I know what I want from a poetry reading, so I probably try to give just that.
You possess a strong connection to music, as evidenced in your first collection, Please, which features tributes to late 60s and 70s soul icons such as Diana Ross, Minnie Riperton, and Janis Joplin. Can you tell us a bit about the emotional connection you feel with when listening to these particular artists and how they inspire your poems? Are there artists in later decades—perhaps even in the 2000s and onwards—that inspire you in any similar ways?
Hmm...I think it’s a good idea to enjoy as much as you can of whatever it is you enjoy. I like to hear people sing. I’m particularly attracted to singers who at first seem to have limited talent but figure ways through their performances to make that talent go a long way toward emotional impact. So I like Mary J. Blige’s The Breakthrough—which is as about as recent as I go lately—because it seems to me an album about a voice in recovery. And I like Gladys Knight because she’s simply never thought of lack of range as a limitation in spite of having people like Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle as her contemporaries.
You once wrote that you “strive to be clear—not obvious.” What advice would you give to students of poetry (or writing in general) to help them improve the clarity of their work?
Being circuitous doesn’t equal sounding wise. What you know sounds like knowledge, so be as exact about it as possible in as many ways as you can.
Professor Amber Dermont frequently admonishes her students to “serve the story” (or poem) rather than one’s ego when writing. While this task might seem simple and obvious, it can sometimes be a di cult problem that many writers don’t even realize they are failing to address/tackle. How do you teach, train, and/or force your ego to stay away from your serving the poem?
All of this is a matter of training oneself to become more and more vulnerable to his or her work. My trouble in life has been that I’m not willing to become vulnerable to other people, so maybe that makes it easier for me to be vulnerable to my poems. I don’t know. I do know that real writing takes real risk—the willingness to lose time and reputation. Once your body has been compromised or once you lose your parents or once you understand that, yes, you are going to die, maybe then it’s easier to see time and reputation through a lens more conducive to that of a writer. As it is, we’re all trained to see the world through the lens of gain after gain without any acceptance for the fact that, in reality, no gain is made without some series of losses.
If you had to convince a young reader who claims that she or he doesn’t appreciate poetry as a literary form, how would you go about cultivating a new perspective in her/his mind?
I think that’s as simple as reminding people that poetry is art. When we drive with the car radio playing, we hear song after song without paying any particular attention. After a few songs play, a song we love comes on, and we turn up the volume and turn our car seats into miniature dance floors. Nothing about this experience leads us to believe that we don’t like music. We pass by visual art—sculptures, paintings—all day without noticing. Every once in a while, though, we come upon a piece of art that, for whatever reason, makes us stare in wonder. That experience doesn’t leave us thinking that we want the walls of our homes to remain as bare as they are the day we move in. I think we understand and come to love more poetry the more we put ourselves in a position that poetry can do its work on us. We make ourselves available to music and visual art. We can make ourselves available to poetry and cast aside what of it doesn’t feed us while expecting to encounter what does.
Go to readings. Or just watch them on YouTube for heaven’s sake. Go to bookstores. Pick up books, and put them down if you don’t like them. I believe that what we think we love today might lead us back to some of those books we put down so quickly yesterday. But we have to be where the poetry is. If any one art enhances your life, then making yourself available to any other art is worth it.
This was a submission submitted to the September Monthly Contest that we think deserves some special mention! Please enjoy this piece about the future of Rice, entitled "The True Plan for the Second Century."
"So, how did you survive?" I asked the stranger as I poked the fire with a stick. In our desperation after the disaster, as we ran out of notes to burn, we'd turned to using our textbooks for fuel.
"Sid 80s, partied a little too hard," he responded from within the mess of rags he wore. Though faded, they bore the unmistakable markings of free RPC shirts. "Just stayed home instead of going to the... event." He shuddered at the mention and shifted the fire with his own stick. A Gen Chem textbook released a flight of sparks.
"Lucky you. Any attendees survive?"
"Physics major told me the shockwave moved at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. Killed 'em faster than their brains could process what happened."
"So that's a no."
"I wouldn't say it's impossible. Little chance, but if he made it out, maybe someone else did."
The stranger looked at me like I was a freshman asking if Rice was a dry campus.
"Leebron did." The rags shifted as he looked into the darkened sky. The stars were just becoming visible through the perpetual smoke that rose from the ruins of campus. "Even if I had the proof, though, I don't think I could stop him now."
"Stop him from doing what?"
Another incredulous stare. "Didn't you see it?"
"I was in my room cramming for midterms. Humor me."
"Herzstein Hall was secretly a giant robot. All the low-tech appearances were just to disguise the inner workings. Right after the event, Leebron ran to the secret control room, activated it, and set off in the direction of the White House."
"You can't be serious."
"All of this is just the prelude to his true plan for world domination, of course. Mecha-Herzstein is only the beginning of his dark designs."
"I just can't believe it," I mused as I poked the fire again. Combustion equations wafted into the sickly sky. "Why would Leebron do something like that? Doesn't Rice administration always have the students' interests in mind?"
"Believe me or don't," the stranger said, rising, "it's all out of our hands now. Except you might want to check the first letter of every sentence I just said."