What Will Your Verse Be?

Commencement speech for January 2017 SHUWPF graduation.

What Will Your Verse Be?

In 1855, a writer named Walt Whitman published a poetry collection titled Leaves of Grass. He would go on to spend the majority of his professional life writing, re-writing, and re-writing again, pieces of the collection.
He revised it until his death, until the original collection of twelve poems ended up as a compilation of over 400 pieces.

Now, Whitman was clearly on the more literary side of things where working on a collection or a novel even until one’s death is not all that unusual. In the field of popular fiction, however, we’re expected to produce more than one great literary masterpiece, but there’s a lot we can learn from someone like Whitman, someone who was dedicated, perhaps overly dedicated, to his work.

But the concept of writing and re-writing, even when we probably could send the work off and at least see what happens, is a scenario a lot of us can relate to. We strive for perfection because it is hard, sometimes, to maintain that kind of distance and detachment from our work, to reach the “good enough” phase. Writers tend to obsess over one sentence, one word, and so on. Perfection, however, is rarely an option for us, which is why we chose this field.

We are contributors to a craft where there are always new challenges. And hopefully even when we get stuck in those phases of oh, just have to rewrite the third chapter for the tenth time and then I’ll send it off to markets, well maybe I should add more to the ending or this death scene, this love scene, this scene with the aliens or robots or wolves. We most likely won’t end up like Whitman, revising the same work over and over until we die, but in the same way perhaps it wouldn’t surprise a lot of us if we were to end up being that writer.

There is a well-known movie starring the late and immensely talented Robin Williams called Dead Poets Society where the character John Keating quotes Whitman’s poem “O Me! O Life!” which goes:

“O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer. That you are here — that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.”

Now, Whitman’s verse, and I’m using the term “verse” loosely here to mean more than a literal verse of words, but perhaps a line, a collection, a book, and something beyond writing too, because Whitman’s verse that he contributed to the very life and identity he mentions is a verse of what was considered scandal at the time. Leaves of Grass delighted in being human, in being a part of nature. It was candid and sensual, thus making it nearly unheard of at the time.

People didn’t know what to do with Whitman. His verse was to seize the rolling drumbeat within his veins and bones until he was able to build and create life onto his pages. His verse contributed to the very humanity of writing. He dared write what many others would not because sometimes as writers we must listen to the inner need to pull from our hearts and souls, and then bleed onto the page. That is what Whitman did, that was and is his verse, and that’s why his influence sticks with us.

Whitman tells us that we too may contribute a verse. So what will your verse be? What words will you contribute to our craft, to humanity, to life? We all are here, earning this degree, because we have a love affair with words, because we have a need to write, a will that cannot be extinguished even when we hit that low point where it seems the words have left us. We will rise above those dark moments though because the need to write will never completely leave us. Even when the darkness grows deep, we will rise above. Even if we hear the maddening cackles of one Mike Arnzen or one Scott Johnson in that darkness, we will push through.

We are also writers because we have been given the gifts of empathy and sympathy. If you want to be a great writer, be great at emotion. Otherwise you will never properly be able to inhale the oxygen of the world around you, and then breathe the air back into your words to grant your book life. So yes, let your verse be one of words, but do not forget your gift of empathy. Be present in the physical world as you craft your verse; be active in the causes you believe in more than in something like heated Facebook debates.

We are beyond lucky to have a tribe of supportive writers here, so take advantage of that. Listen to the concerns, fears, doubts, successes and challenges of your friends and of those who are your complete opposites; otherwise, you will become as stagnant as static characters who refuse to change.

So how will you contribute to this changing world? In Whitman’s “Laws for Creations” he asks, “What do you suppose will satisfy the soul except to walk free and own no superior?”

I invite you all to satisfy your souls with your writing and words, to be free in your works because one of the reasons we write is to have that freedom in the stories we create. We have no limits or bounds within our works except for the ones we set for ourselves. Let us learn to walk free and own no superior.

Let us continue studying popular fiction and all other fiction no matter the genre or if it’s in the literary canon or on a bestseller list; let us offer escapism in our work but not be afraid to be raw.

Whitman’s poem Song of Myself, was one of the pieces he revised several times. One of my favorite sections from the poem goes:

“Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.

It is not far, it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not know,
Perhaps it is every where on water and on land.”

Your dreams and goals are within reach. Successful writing is not easy. We all know the frustration that comes with our passion because many of us have had to answer questions like: Why are you doing this? What purpose does creative writing really serve? What are you actually going to do with your life?

Luckily for us, we have the most incredibly encouraging group of writers in this program. So concentrate on that support when you are writing your words and when you are contributing your verse, whatever it may be, and wherever it may be. Whitman tells us we must travel this road ourselves, and he’s right. We have solid support along our winding, rocky paths, but in the end the willpower and dedication is solely up to the drive within our own hearts to create the best stories, to contribute the best verses that we possibly can.

Thank you.

Make America Love Again…Maybe?

I feel like something has died and I am mourning it. What is this elusive “it” I speak of? Freedom? Equality? Democracy? I’m not sure yet, but I believe time will tell. For the next four years I am to live in a country under the reign of a man who has been compared to Hitler in deeply disturbing ways (and yes, their differences still make Trump just as dangerous), a man who has not bothered to hide racist, sexist, and xenophobic viewpoints from the public. I am meant to respect a leader who has upcoming trials for fraud, mistreatment of employees, and sexual assault. The President-Elect of the United States is a man accused of the most degrading, lewd behavior, and I will never understand exactly how this country devolved to this point.

Was this result truly because Americans oppose Hillary that much? I have trouble believing that, but then what is the alternative?

From where I stand, in the midst of a small town that lacks diversity, I believe the alternative is a darker, deeper truth — hatred. Fear and hatred, perhaps even loathing toward a changing America. What is this mysterious “greatness” that Trump speaks of that we apparently need to go back to? All I can think of is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and how I hope with every fiber of my being that such a totalitarian dystopia does not become reality, but I fear that world because I don’t think Trump is a man who would mind such a place.

I would love to be proven wrong. I would love to see Trump become a man that apologizes for his hateful comments, a man who calmly and rationally makes decisions that may avoid World War III (OR YOU KNOW NUCLEAR WAR) because if you don’t think that’s a possibility with Trump, a man who loves war, as president, then you haven’t been paying attention.

All I can hope is that Trump chooses to be a president to ALL Americans, that he proudly will represent ALL Americans no matter their race, culture, background, sexual orientation, etc… as Van Jones emotionally discussed last night.

To accept the presidency is to accept treating everyone fairly, justly, and lovingly. These are not adjectives I associate with Trump, but again, go ahead and prove me wrong, Donald. I dare you. He does not get to choose the elite of whom he wishes to govern over. That is not American. His loyalty must be to all Americans, even the minorities he speaks so hatefully toward. Otherwise, there is no greatness here, only shame. Along with that, Mike Pence is a truly terrifying man, as in medieval-level terrifying.

But I want Trump supporters to show me they are not the stereotypical racist, screaming, lunatics that I have seen in media clips, that I have heard spouting inhumane garbage in public… Trump supporters, show me your compassion, your empathy, your ability to love those who are different than you. America needs to know you are with all of us, not just the white, privileged, like-minded, Trump Train supporters. Do you want to bridge gaps and heal the nation? You must, must, must let us know. This is your civic duty. I need you to honestly tell me if you support racist, sexist, prejudice viewpoints or if you will work with us to heal divides and aim for acceptance? Otherwise, congratulations on being a terrible human being.

In the mean time, to everyone who feels as heartbroken as I do about the election results, I am with you. Let me offer you one of my favorite quotes that is used in The Handmaid’s Tale as we move forward together.

“Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

And we won’t. We mustn’t. If Donald Trump truly aims to work for the people as he promised in his election speech last night, then he must listen to us. So blog, write letters, tweet, protest peacefully, get involved, write to your state senators, and never let silence rule you. Speak out against racism, prejudice, and inequality. Keep the conversation open, honest, and civil. Love one another. Be kind.

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Kill ’em with Kindness: Post-SHUWPF Residency Musings

Social media has a lot of benefits, especially if you’re a writer promoting your work or networking. However, social media also makes it easier for people to act like egocentric teenage asshats. I’m not going to pretend the social media SHUWPF uses is error free of such behavior, but for the most part we’re a pretty damned loving group. Wherever there is a group of people, some drama is bound to follow. It’s unfortunate, but at the same time it is inevitable because despite the fact that we’re all writers, we all hold different opinions, beliefs, ideals, and so forth.

For the most part, I’ve avoided drama because I simply don’t like it. I just try to be nice to people and if there’s tension I can’t resolve, I’ll move on. I’ve spent too much of my life worrying about what the wrong people think of me. SHUWPF has been my saving grace because I have finally found a tribe of writers and irreplaceable life-friends that I love to bits and pieces. So fuck drama (unless it is in our fiction). I’m not going to talk about that. I’m going to say thank you.

Thank you to the mentors who rocked their modules and critique workshops this term. I learned an amazing amount of information from each module and my notebook is bursting with ideas. You are so, so appreciated. I personally had an excellent critique workshop and am very excited to revise the short story I submitted this semester.

Thank you to my friends who hold religious beliefs that are so different than my agnostic ways of life. You are open and kind and fun. I love hearing about your beliefs and am grateful no one in the program has ever tried to shove something down my throat or convert me. If you do, I’ll probably just hiss and crawl away into the darkness, but I won’t be mean.

Thank you to the veterans in the program. I admit sometimes I lurk near you when you’re having a group conversation about army/marine/navy/etc… stories because I love hearing the tales. You’re fascinating and brave and wonderful, thank you for not minding my lurking.

Thank you all for late nights where we drink too much, sing off key, and laugh at our own beautiful madness. Thank you to those who promised to save me if my teaching module tanked (it didn’t!), and to others who told me what they learned from my slight obsession with poetry.

Thank you for watching the sunrise and just talking because people don’t do that often enough. Thank you for generally being interested in the work of others, for supporting their writing and coming together to help each other be the best we all can be.

Residency is intense. We learn a lot in a small amount of time, and it is amazing we have the energy to socialize at all, so when we do socialize let us remember to do it with kindness. We can’t possibly know everyone’s story and what they have been through, so kindness goes a long, long way folks.

Keep writing. Take a breath. Love something simple.

World Horror Con 2016 Recap

On April 27th I journeyed to Pittsburgh International Airport and went on my first airplane ride ever. Yes, ever. I am pleased to say the flight was simpler than driving through Pittsburgh’s traffic, road work, and closed lanes. Oh, and the car that caught on fire that also held up traffic. Flying itself was something I really enjoyed. The white ocean of clouds was mesmerizing.

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Flying over Utah.

The ground below barely seemed real as we ventured higher into the sky. The patches of land looked like velvet squares decorated with impossibly small dots of houses, cars, trees, people, and so on. Flying into Utah and staring out at the mountain caps was simply beautiful. Soaring among the clouds was a breathless, crazy adventure.

Thursday, however, is when the real madness began in Provo, Utah. This was my first World Horror Con and I had such a wonderful time. Attendance was small, (I think largely due to Stoker Con being separate this year and so close to WHC), but the smaller crowd allowed me to get to know people and have quality conversations. Despite my awkward self, I think I networked pretty well and even managed to have an editor of a wonderful magazine ask me to send my poems in. That was absolutely one of my favorite moments 🙂

I enjoyed so many panels and conversations during the con. There’s a lot I don’t know how to put into words so I’m going to highlight some of my other favorite parts below.

*The poetry slam hosted by Linda Addison. It was such a pleasure to talk with Linda and to hear her read her award-winning poetry. The slam allowed me to share my work and hear the amazing poems other writers shared. Poetry is forever my first love and being surrounded by others who share that appreciation toward the art always fills my heart with joy.

*The panels! I took so many notes. Dr. Al Carlisle’s panel on Ted Bundy is still giving me chills. Carlisle interviewed Bundy and shared some fascinating information about him that I have never read about before. Carlisle also played a recording from a conversation between him and Bundy and it’s truly haunting to hear the casual way he called the doctor up and spoke about what he had done…

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Title slide from Victoria Price’s presentation.

*Some other excellent panels I attended were Women in Horror, Simulated Slushpiles, Arnzen’s Mutterverse, Victorian Culture of Death (I got so many poetry ideas from that one), Why We Love True Crime, D.K. Godard’s amazingly fun Ballistic Gel Presentation (it was a great stress reliever to slash, slice, and take a hammer to the simulated block of ribs), Victoria Price’s (the daughter of the legendary Vincent Price) presentation on her father, and so many others! Nothing was disappointing.

*Meeting new people was really the best. I had some great lunches/dinners with Mike Arnzen, Jeff Strand, Bailey Hunter, and Bill and Jeanne Bush who’s book collecting skills I admire greatly 🙂

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Mike Arnzen, Jeff Strand, and myself. Photo credit to Jeanne Bush.

*I also had a great time chatting (and drinking) with the wonderful Brian Keene (I’ll bring the vodka next time), the fantastic Jack Ketchum (still grinning from meeting him!), the lovely Rachel Autumn Deering, and other fantastic people such as Jason V Brock, Stephen Kozeniewski, Cody Langille, Megan Reed, Connor Rice, Kelly Laymon, and others I’m sure I’ll kick myself for forgetting.

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Meeting Jack Ketchum was such an honor.

But know if I talked to you at all that I absolutely loved it! Even on my way to the airport I was still meeting new people (hey David Boop!) and adding to my list of authors I must read.

*Also, I managed to fit all the books I got into my carry-on bag which was an impressive moment.

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Lots of signed books!

Networking is so important in the writing world, and when you’re surrounded by talented, friendly people it really does make the experience smoother. The writers and artists I talked to at the con aren’t just the kind of people you network with for the sake of connections and that’s it. These are the type of people you want to keep talking to, become friends with, and absolutely 100% want to keep up with their work.

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Thanks for the good times, Provo. It was lovely.

Having a support system of fellow writers is essential to being (mostly) sane, happy, and productive. Attending WHC affirmed to me I am in the genre I was meant for. Despite the fond gaze that overtakes their eyes at the mention of death and blood, horror writers really are the nicest people.

 

Double the Madness: Mike Arnzen Interviews me about “Love Me Like a Murder Scene”

Last summer I was very pleased to have my poem “Love Me Like a Murder Scene” published with The Five-Two.

Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 9.45.25 AM.pngThe poem is making an appearance again for this year’s National Poetry Month! Gerald So, editor of The Five-Two, has been celebrating the month with a fantastic blog tour called 30 Days of The Five-Two.

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Happy horror writers.

I am thrilled to be a part of this tour. Mike Arnzen, who is currently my mentor in Seton Hill’s Writing Popular Fiction program, interviewed me about the poem and made a fun page over on Gorelets
where you can hear the interview (we cackle about love and murder a lot).

During my undergrad at Seton Hill I had an independent study with Mike where I concentrated solely on horror poetry. It’s very exciting for me to still be able to share my twisted poetry with the professor who encouraged me to keep at it…even if I’m still obsessed with the Gothic romanticism that I suspect began to drive him a bit mad 🙂

But I promise I’ve branched out a bit and have some interesting poetry projects complete…hopefully I’ll be able to post more on that in the future.

Cheers, love, and murder,
Sara

Human Casket and Flower Stitches

How’s National Poetry Month treating everyone? Here’s a couple poems I’ve done so far to kick the month off:

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human casket- made with The Fridge of the Damned magnets! This piece is also over on Michael Arnzen’s Flickr page where he posts the poems made with these deliciously dark magnets (there’s also a link to get your own set!). Check it out.

And here’s one more piece for the day.

Flower Stitches

My heart is dark and dry,
but you water it with love,
pure in its coldness

the drops trickle down
my ribs and grow flowers
inside my lungs

their stems wrap around
my bones and clutch
me together

small green stitches
with black thorns
piercing from my pores

scars that bleed
make me pretty
with the blood of our love