Monday, February 24, 2014

PLEASE JOIN THE FIGHT FOR JUSTICE FOR LAVENA JOHNSON


I received a text earlier today from my dear friend Nikky Finney urging me to help her get the word out
about the change.org petition below. A link on her FB page was accompanied by this post:

Dear fearless lovers of truth and poetry,
As many of you know the story of LaVena Johnson is close to my heart. When I wrote the poem "Florissant: for LaVena Johnson, 19" I intentionally wanted to join other voices calling for an official inquiry into her rape and murder. Here is a new campaign we simply must not miss being part of. Please please please sign this document. Do it now. Please step into this arena with me and link arms with others who refuse to let this story die along with LaVena. She could have been any one of our daughters, sisters, mothers, selves.

- Nikky


Other Resources:

USC professor highlights problem of sexual assault in the military (a rcent article about Nikky's fight for LaVena's justice)

The Silent Truth  (a film feature LaVena Johnson's parents)

 Change.org Petition (Please sign)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Creative Burst in an Otherwise Mucky Week


It's been a long while since I posted. Honestly, I have been living in a whirlwind. Spread too thin? An understatement. A friend recently sent me a FB message that began "I see from your FB post that you have a lot going on..." I wish I had a long list of fabulous things that I could post here or something profound but I don't have that right now. In fact, I feel as though today there is barely any of me left.

This week I have a husband with a damaged cornea (more than a month back and forth now..it was cute when he made his first appearance as a pirate on Halloween but it's not cute any more..for some reason it will not heal); my mother is recovering from having a fistula placed in her arm for dialysis (her healing is exacerbated by diabetes and kidney disease and stubbornness (of course); and a plethora of other things that I won't go into at this time.

So the sunshine in the day is that in the midst of all the chaos Ron and I decided to collaborate for a moment....well it took a little bit longer than that but it was nice to feel creative for awhile and even nicer to do something together.
Holler

Several people have asked me about my short story "Holler" which first appeared in Slice  in 2010 and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by the journal's editors. Later anthologized in Degrees of Elevation: Short Stories of Contemporary Appalachia and TalkingAppalachian: Voice, Identity and Community, 
Holler gives a glimpse into the lives of African-American characters who live in the hills of Kentucky. I am grateful for the number of friends and strangers who have used it in their classrooms.

The story is narrated by a woman who has just lost her father-in-law and tries to cope with the brokenness of her husband, her brother-in-law and the rest of the family she's married into. The story is also about the family's choice to stay loyal to their rural way of life even after the patriarch is found dead and lynching is suspected. And it's about the disconnection between city and country people irregardless of race. It's also about a lot of other things but you can read it for yourself.

This story is a spoke on the wheel of a short story cycle that I am working on. 

I asked Ron to design cover art for the story, which I love. 

While you are in e-book land check out two other short stories that you might enjoy.
Rules for Virgins

When It Dawns On Them


 



Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Celebrating 12 Years in Print:



For Marita Golden, Marie Brown, Judy Sapp, Matthew Miller and Christine Wilkinson, who all believed even when I didn't.

It has been a long time habit of mine to wake up at 4 a.m. to write.

This morning I woke up to play "catch up" with my classes at the university.

In the shower, I bemoaned the fact that since the beginning of the semester I had spent little to no time dedicated to the final edit passes on  a book that I have been working on for several years. These spells of nonwriting always spiral me into the  Am-I-A-Real-Writer? place. It's a dark place that makes me fatter and dreary and mean.

The water was spraying, I was trying desperately to at least write a poem in my head so that my writerly lust had been satisfied for the day.

Nothing.

Then I thought about my first book Blackberries, Blackberries.

Twelve years? Really?

Yes! I have been in print for 12 years so that is something to celebrate.

What made me think of it in the first place?

Today is the final day that you can get this first work of mine for $1.99 through Amazon's Top 100 Kindle Books for $3.99 or less chosen by the editors of AmazonEncore for January. I meant to do a bit of self promotion earlier in the month but life got in the way. So there! Twelve years (whoo-hoo). Buy the Kindle version for $1.99 (whoo-hoo). I feel slightly better like a teeny tiny baby step toward feeling better. But I will embrace it before that witch on my other shoulder throws back her head, laughs and says "So what heifer it's been ten years...." Blah. Blah. Blah.She's queen of the dark Am-I-A-Real-Writer place (cave).

Now off to campus and maybe I can squeeze in some time to get these edits done and keep the woman who lives in the cave who rears her head to mock me in the shadows

 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Brick. Mortar. Ink. Paper: Why We Bought a Book Store

The Wild Fig Books--1439 Leestown Road--Lexington, KY
Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read.  One does not love breathing.  ~Harper Lee


I have owned a house in the Meadowthorpe Neighborhood in Lexington, KY for more than 17 years. My son turned 13 when we moved into our house. The twins were five. One of the mainstays of the neighborhood was Morgan Adams Books, an eclectic used bookstore less than five minutes from my house. I bought books there for my children, for myself. I thought I had died and gone to heaven to trade a pile of books in for another pile. I was a single parent and sold books there when bills were tight. When I was writing my early books, I went to the bookstore to find inspiration, often leaving a pot on the stove or the kids playing in the yard since it was right around the corner to rush down for that book that would lead me to gently into the next phase of writing my own.

Years later, when Ron and I became a couple, he decided to work part time at Morgan Adams so that  he could supplement his artist's income. How perfect! It was right in the neighborhood. Truth be told, we bought more books than his salary provided over two years and he knew the perfect way to charm me more (If that is possible. He's a very charming man :) ) was to bring me a book he knew I'd adore.

So when he came home and said "Well I won't have a job at the end of the month," we began to at first play with the idea and then to be more serious about it until we simply bit the bullet, bought the inventory and got the ball rolling.

Photo from the Lexington Herald-Leader June 9, 2011
Since we opened The Wild Fig Books on June 20, so many people have thanked us for opening, for keeping a bookstore at this location. "You're so brave to open...in this day and time, " they say.

Of course we've all heard to the stories about the large book chains closing and I have mourned the closing of every single independent across the country, many of which I visited last time I was on a book tour. But brave? I've never thought of myself in those exact terms. Unrestrained, maybe? Careless? No. Mostly it's simply that I don't believe the hype. A day and a time when ink and paper books don't exist. Pshaw!

We thought it would work because: 

1) The previous owners (Mary Morgan and David Adams) spent more than 20 years building the foundation of a book store at this location, so obviously it had worked on some level. This neighborhood needs a bookstore. Lexington needs a quality bookstore on this side of town.

2) We have great business neighbors in Goodwill, Steepleton's, Pop's Resale, The Dollar Store and The Meadowthorpe Cafe.

3) We thought we could make it affordable. Of course this part is a little scary but in addition to gushing over the books we are trying to be business savvy.  But frankly we probably gush more (Especially me).

4) Most importantly, everyone I know, whether they have a Kindle or not, still buys ink and paper books. Ron and I still buy ink and paper books. I still write ink and paper books. Ron was recently commissioned to design a real ink and paper book cover for a poet-friend. We want our children and grandchildren to continue to read  ink and paper books. As book lovers and writers and being an artistic couple of course we jumped at the chance to be brick and mortar bookstore owners.

We hope that you will pass the word along to those you know. We plan on a variety of readings and musical guests in the future and have an art performance/installment in the works.

Join us for our official grand opening on Sunday, September 18 beginning at 1 p.m. and meanwhile come in, buy some books, taste our coffee, enjoy our comfy chairs. We are open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. We have lots of books to choose from.

Call 859-381-8133 for more information. Or catch us on Facebook or Twitter.

We are located in the Meadowthorpe Shopping Center between Goodwill and Steepleton's near Pops Resale.
From Downtown Lexington, KY
  1. 1Depart US-27 / US-60 / US-68 / S Broadway toward US-25 North / US-60 North / US-421 West / W Main St158 ft
  2. 2Turn left onto US-25 North / US-421 North / W Main St0.5 mi
  3. 3Keep straight onto US-421 / W Main St1.0 mi
  4. 4Turn right onto N Forbes Rd, and then immediately turn left onto Leestown Rd0.1 miMarathon on the corner
  5. 5Arrive at The Wild Fig BookstoreThe last intersection is W Main StIf you reach Burke Rd, you've gone too far

Saturday, May 14, 2011

For the 6,500,656, 493th time: I Write Because...

 Ron made this for me years ago. I like the POKEWEED PRINCESS part of it most!
Sometimes it's an interview, usually with an undergraduate or high school student writing a paper. Sometimes it is just a conversation that I have fallen into with someone who knows I write.

Why do you write?


This is when I take a deep sigh. Not just because this is the worse question that you can ask a writer but because I really don't know the answer. Oh I'll come up with an answer but the secret is that I don't know. I'll look toward the sky or ceiling put my serious writer face on and say something borrowed, something cliche, something corny like:

because I can't do anything else...

If I could I wouldn't write but I have to. (this is when I ball my fist up and look my most fierce emphasis on the HAVE. Writers are so dramatic).

because I can't sing... (classic corny that I am sure I heard someone else say. this one gets a laugh especially if the other person involved is at least as corny as I am)

because writing is like a meditation for me, a prayer... (beautiful and sometimes true but...)

because there are so many stories inside my head and I need to get them out (This usually gets me the side eye or at least a wrinkled forehead while the person asking tries to decide whether they should just nod their head in agreement or get me some help.)

because when I was in my Mama's womb (watch out I'm going to take you through my entire childhood--an only child living on my grandparents farm wandering the woods...true but super sappy...Google if you want to be tortured by more of this. I've said it many times.)

I come from a family of artists...(this one too will lead you down a winding path of childhood, the first book I wrote at 12..yada, yada)

Writing is like breathing...(this is true..it's in my blood, my muscle, my bone but saying it aloud makes it sound disingenuous)

to right the wrongs of the world (no not me. My stories are just my stories. I process those things that haunt me, things that haunt my characters and hope in turn that they touch something familiar in a reader. There's no agenda for the world in my writing. I'm not wired that way.)

so that my people are remembered (this is true but there's more that I just can't get at here)

for my grandparents and all of my ancestors (yes but...)

Sometimes I will depend on the novelist Edward P. Jones or some other writer who I admire to say what I can not:

Edward P. Jones says:

There are those who write because they believe they have something so marvelous that it will make them famous and wealthy, a lauded commodity who will be invited to a lifetime of cocktail parties. But there are those, like that radio woman's father, who write because of some bizarre and ancient compulsion. I think that I am one of those.

I love his quote sometimes I carry it around for just this purpose and pull it out like a weapon when I need it. (This one is always good for the contemplative head nodding and I do love the quote so much

There is another list of things I pull out to try and explain myself from the angle of a sort of negative space:

I don't write just to be published.(There are many things that I've written poems, stories, novel starts, complete novels that may never see the light of day but I was compelled to write them).

I don't write to try and become famous.

I don't write for money. (Though I'd like to have a bunch of it.)

Writing is solitary if not lonely at times. It's thankless (at least mostly). It's hard (harder than the other things that may come to me more easily)

So why do I do it?


Of course this is when there is this expectation of something...something that will make your head nod in agreement or your jaw drop...some secret kept by writers for a million years that's never been revealed. Maybe I should say something beautiful or something smart or something poignant or...or...or.


For all the reasons listed above? For none of them? For some other reason that I can't quite get at?  I've answered the question many times in many ways.

Why do you write?

I don't know why I write. I just do. And I just will. And I always will.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

My Mother's Thick Love: A Daughter's Confession

Of course I love my mother but there are days when I mourn the mother she could have been.

My mother left me when I was six weeks old while she went off to quietly have her nervous breakdown. My first memories are filled with whispers passed through the cupped hands of the women in my family. When they spoke of her, of her illness, it always sounded as if she was on vacation, off somewhere doing something restorative.
 
I would be nearly an adult before I realized that my mother's journey through mental illness was a harrowing one. Those early years while I toddled behind my grandmother captivated by the magic of earthworms and butterflies and leaves, my mother was in a mental institution enduring  a battery of treatments for her paranoid schizophrenia. In the the 60s this included shock therapy which left  huge gouges in her long-term memory. She still can't remember important milestones in her early years. Now, more than fifty years of psychotropic drugs have left her body ravaged with kidney failure, hypertension and dexterity issues all exacerbated by the drugs that has kept her sane.

Though I always felt abandoned by her as a child, I still think of my mother as a regal vision in her black high heels, form fitting dresses, her hair pulled elegantly back from her face and her lips dark red when she would return to the farm to visit me for holidays. She would kiss me on the lips and hug me so tightly that sometimes I feared her. She always looked like she was about to cry when she saw me. I always knew she loved me and I knew it was a mighty love. My grandmother would watch her as though she was afraid that something awful might happen.


One of the few earlier photos of us together. Surprised that she is not dressed up. 
Sometimes I felt as though I had lost my real mother, that she had been replaced with this woman who was whispered about, a woman who I barely knew.  But even as she was (the woman who sometimes saw things, sometimes said things that made others uncomfortable) my mother was a beauty, a magnificent artistic talent who played piano by ear, produced beautiful art with pencil and paint.

In my other life, the one I imagined for us back then,  she held my hand everywhere we went, she took me for swim lessons (I never learned to swim.), taught me to play the piano like her, and  told me of the days after she was released from the hospital and  moved to Louisville to become a beautician. I imagined myself at her feet, my head in her lap, the awe of her washing over me.

The reality was that even though I knew she had given birth to me I spent most of my youth thinking of my mother as a sister of sorts. My grandmother was the one I counted on. She was sturdy as a rock and could solve any problem, answer any question. My mother was beautiful and strange and fragile. There was always a look in her eye that I couldn't quite identify. She told me she loved me all the time.  I came to think that she loved me too much. At some point I decided that it was her love for me that had driven her crazy.

When I was in my late teens, my mother lived in Lexington and I had moved from my grandparents farm to nearby Richmond where I attended college. I drove thirty minutes to her little apartment that always reeked of cigarettes and the smell of fried meat to visit. Her apartment was on the second floor and had an bright orange door that stood out from the lime green doors of the other apartments. She wore an Afro sometimes back then and worked in a hotel.  She always invited me to look through her jewelry box for a trinket to take back to school with me. I always felt as though she was still trying to coax some greater love from me than I had to give. I would take something small from the yellow velvet jewelry box to make her happy. A pin, a cheap piece of costume jewelry, earrings that I kept but never wore.

These visits were awkward and often we would sit in her living room or at her kitchen table just staring at each other then at the wall or floor. Sometimes she would fix me something to eat but didn't know any of my eating habits the way a mother would. Once she had made salmon croquettes. She was embarrassed when I said "Oh, I'm allergic to fish." By this time, her illness was controlled with the medication but still I felt as though we were both learning the ways of  strangers. But during  those college years my mother and I grew close. My mother was the first person I called when I became pregnant instead of my grandmother. My mother saw my son shortly after he was born and came to stay with me in Richmond a few days after he was born. I drove to Lexington often to see her and when I graduated from college I moved to Lexington. In the years that followed she and I and my children would travel back to the farm to see my grandparents as a fully-realized family.

My mother and I have been close for more than thirty years now. Sometimes when she talks of my childhood she tries to reassure me "Your grandmother wouldn't let me have you," she says "because..." And  I feel it again that smothering mother love that she has for me rising up in her, a powerful kind of love that she never got to act out. And it is in these moments that I try not to overreact, try not cry, try not recreate myself a girlhood with her as some other mother. I allow her to love me with as thick a love as she can stand and I just love her back.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Gathering Magic: How to Read Like a Writer


A few days ago, I was frantically looking for this little post so that I could pass it along to a student after we had a very involved conversation about what it means to read like a writer. I also suggested that she read Francine Prose's book Reading Like a Writer.

 I wrote this post back in the old MYSPACE days and I posted it rather hurriedly when I cam back from teaching a "How to Read Like a Writer" workshop at the Indiana University Writers' Conference.

The conference will be held June 5-10 (in case you are interested) and this year you can study with Patrick Rosal, Dan Choan, Lynda Barry, Tony Ardizzone and others. The (still unedited) post appears below:


Lynda Barry self portrait
 Gathering Magic: How to Read Like a Writer
by Crystal Wilkinson

If you are a would-be writer and are looking for the magic, something to propel you forward like nothing else, the answer is simple. Pssst--come closer. Here it goes: “Write and read. Then read and write.”



I make my living as a professor and creative writing workshops and creative writing courses produce great embryonic writers but I content that those writers who develop their own sense of the worlds they invent and pull the reader so deftly in are able to do so because they have spent time studying writing. Not in a classroom but in the comfort of their own spaces—carrying copies of Their Eyes Were Watching God (or whatever the source of their muse is) around like the bible; cuddling and coveting words and the worlds they admire in every way possible.



I must admit that my lust lies in the world of books. I return to the books that I love the most time and time again—sometimes searching for a passage for hours and hours.



Every time I teach, I learn.

Every time I read, I become a better writer.



I have just returned from teaching a class entitled “How to Read Like a Writer” at Indiana University’s Writers Conference. During these four days, I walked the participants through some of my favorite stories which included:



Snow Angel by Stephanie Vaughn

Bones of the Inner Ear by Kiana Davenport

Big Me by Dan Choan

Kudzu by William Henry Lewis

Pet Fly by Walter Mosley

Between the Pool and the Gardenias by Edwidge Danticat

The 5:22 by George Harrar

Shiloh by Bobbie Ann Mason

Weight by John Edgar Wideman

Live Life King-Sized by Hester Kaplan



The pulse for the class, a heart for the love and power of words, began each afternoon with the question “How did reading this story make me a better writer?” While, I told the participants what I most admired regarding craft, scaffolding (structure), and or language, diction/syntax and why I thought these decisions made by the writer made the story not only just good but left a haunting in your soul—they responded equally about what they most revered (most often honing in on the element that they had the most problems with as writers—too much description/dialogue that doesn’t move/scenes where nothing happens, etc.).



Each story we read was a banquet to be devoured and once the participants looked for the “lesson” in each story, they found a myriad of them. Each writer, honing in on their own strengths, weaknesses, shortcomings or haunts and through the eyes of these published writers becoming better writers. A.J. Verdelle (author of The Good Negress) describes learning to write as an autodidactic process and she’s right. You may be nurtured along by a good workshop or a good creative writing class but when it boils down to it. Learning to write well is as insular a process as writing itself. And speaking of A.J. Verdelle, not only is she a genius when it comes to being a writer but she’s also a hellified teacher of writing. When a craft book written by her pops up or if you have a chance to work with her in a workshop DO IT, don’t walk run



For our class, I compiled a list of 10 ways to Read Like a Writer. But the ways to read a book and learn from it are many. So think about it and come up with your own.



10 Ways to Read Like a Writer



1. Ask yourself “How did reading this novel/story/chapter contribute to my education as a writer”?

2. Look for the construction of tension (Where’s the rub?)

3. Identify the MAP of the story/novel.

4. Type up passages or entire stories of those you admire.

5. Examine the seams—read a writer’s first works. Or read them in the order in which they were written.

6. Circle the verbs. (follow the movement of the story).

7. Dissect the writer’s attention to SCENE.

8. Does the ending loft the READER up to the next level of understanding? How does the beginning get at the pulsing heart of the work?

9. Don’t just enjoy the ride! Climb into the head of the writer.

10. What do you see if you actually copy the passage and dissect it with scissors? (We did this paying attention to how scene and transitions work in George Harrar’s The 5:22. but you can do it with anything that you wish.



And below are writers that I’ve learned a lot from. Who would you put on your list?

Toni Morrison

Gayl Jones

James Baldwin

Michael Ondaatje

Ha Jin

John Edgar Wideman




Of course my list is much longer but these are the writers I return to again and again.

Happy reading!

Happy writing.

Write me and let me know what your 10 ways to read like a writer are.