Q&A is a bold new page-turner by M. ALLEN CUNNINGHAM about reality television, big pharma, high-tech distraction, the triumph of incoherence, and deception via screens. Coming January 2021 from Regal House Publishing.
By Martha Anne Toll
People frequently tell me that they want to write a novel, they just don’t know how to start. Unfortunately, I have no advice, only a few thoughts on how I came to write Three Muses, which has found a wonderful home with Regal House Publishing.
An author is the worst person to describe her novel, but this was my 100-word pitch for Three Muses:
John Curtin, né Janko Stein, finds his way in America—damaged and traumatized—having survived a concentration camp singing for his family’s killer. World famous ballerina, Katya Symanova, née Katherine Sillman, fights her way from a lonely home and an abusive and intense creative partnership with her choreographer. Ultimately, she must face the impossible choice between art and love. How John and Katya find one another and unlock their futures forms the heart of this novel, which is framed against the power of three muses: Song, Discipline, and Memory.
I know what year I started writing my novel, and I know some of its sources. Most of its origin story remains shrouded, however.
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In 2010, I was casting around for a frame on which to hang a new story. I stumbled upon a tradition from the Greek island of Boeotia that honored three muses. Song, Discipline, and Memory were said to be the original muses, and, in at least one version, Memory was said to give birth to the nine muses who came down to us through history.
I don’t know ancient Greek, but I was intrigued by the translation of their names: Aoede (song or tune), Melete (discipline and the preparation for prayer), and Mneme (memory). Beyond these translations, I found virtually nothing from the few Greek scholars I consulted, nor from inquiring at the National Archeological Museum in Athens, nor from the internet.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t let go of these three women. What difference did it make that I knew nothing about them? The novelist’s job is to weave fictions.
As I started writing, I came to know my protagonist, John Curtin, who was pulled out of line to sing for the Kommandant at a Nazi concentration camp. Would the Muse of Song abandon John once he reached safety? I began to worry that music would be a lifelong torture for him.
I spent hours at my computer, trying to inhabit the ballet studio with Katya, a woman who lives to dance. Was she working too hard? Too enmeshed with Boris Yanakov, her choreographer?
They haunted me, these characters—John for the agony of his experience and Katya for the consequences of her iron will (Discipline). I watched the Muse of Memory hover over both of them. Memory tends to do that with all of us.
I took in more than a few skeptical comments about the muses. After multiple re-writes, I reached an accommodation with their role in the story. Readers will need to have the final say. It’s up to them to decide what impact the muses have on Katya and John.
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On the other hand, I wonder if my lifelong passion for ballet was the source of my novel. I adored ballet from my earliest memories of it. At age five, I started taking lessons with Miss Corinne, who wore a bright red leotard.
And yet. I’m not sure that memory is accurate. It could have been my two older sisters who took from Miss Corinne. Maybe I came with my mother to pick them up when lessons were over.
I do remember my later enchantment, waiting for class to begin at the School of the Pennsylvania Ballet in Philadelphia, peering into the window, watching professional dancers rehearse. I would have happily spent all my time in front of that little window. It was an opening to a magical world of hard work and beauty.
Or maybe it was my long years playing viola and studying music. My compulsion to try to get music on the page. My need to explore what became a fraught and painful relationship with my instrument.
Music is backbone to Three Muses—it is the vehicle for Katya to express herself, and for John, the means of survival.
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Alternatively, it’s true that the inspiration for Three Muses was my feverish interest in the Holocaust. The older I get, the closer the Holocaust feels to my birth. I read and read about it. I listen to people’s harrowing family stories.
The Holocaust is more than a living memory, it was part of my upbringing. I come from a generation who knew Holocaust survivors. They were my relatives with German accents, my friends’ parents, my extended family. They were familiar; they visited our high school classrooms. I played music with them; they were my dentist and later my bosses.
Too, they were blanketed in silence. Like so many in her generation, my Nana avoided talking about them; she declined to discuss “that Nazi business.” My parents acted similarly.
My family was assimilated in the same ways that our German relatives were. We were not religious or observant. We were Americans first, just as our relatives were Germans first.
It was the poison of anti-Semitism that separated Jews from their compatriots, that made entire societies collaborate in their roundups and murder. Now we call it “othering,” the toxic process by which a group of people is made so onerous and reviled that they become non-human, opening the way for oppression and mass slaughter.
Never forget, we Jews say, meaning never repeat, no matter which group of people are the objects of derision. Here in the United States, the president and his henchmen have been relentless in their efforts to other. Their practice is not only cruel and vicious; it is also extremely dangerous. America is in peril. We need stories to help awaken us to hatred’s risks.
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In the end, I can’t describe the origins of Three Muses. I only know that we humans are angry and loving; we are selfish and injurious and kind.
How to express the trove of unique stories each of us carries around? We can sing and dance; we can remember out loud. Or we can we suppress our traumas and live in freighted silence, hermits sitting atop memories that are too shattering to voice.
I prefer to break the silence.
Martha Anne Toll is the 2020 recipient of the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction. Her novel, Three Muses,is forthcoming from Regal House Publishing in Fall 2022. She is a regular contributor to NPR Books and other outlets; and was the founding executive director of the Butler Family Fund, a social justice philanthropy.
By Rebecca Baum
I first encountered the terms pantser and plotter on a writing retreat in New Hampshire on Squam Lake. As dusk gathered and the loons wailed, a writer asked which approach I’d used for the middle grade novel I was working on. She went on to define the plotter as the writer who outlines a beginning, middle and end before the first keystroke of the novel itself; and the pantser as the thrill-seeking, fly-by-the-seat type. All they need is a snippet of a scene, glimpse of a character, or flash of setting — and they’re off!
I confessed to being a pantser. My middle grade book emerged in caffeine-fueled bursts, my outflow hindered only by my too-slow fingers. It was my first novel and the process of discovering the story as it was being written was unbridled fun. The downside (as early readers reported) were moments where the story felt rushed or where plot and character motivation didn’t always jibe. Unsurprisingly, that novel was never published. But it was a valuable exercise in showing up every day to slay the dragon of the empty page until eventually I’d hammered out over 60,000 words.
My novel, Lifelike Creatures, started as a pantser affair but morphed into a plotter-pantser hybrid. I started with a visceral sense of the landscape, lifted from my childhood in Cottonport, La. — fresh, turned earth and muddy fields stretching to the horizon, the stultifying heat of high summer, a gray sky both endless and oppressive. Within this rural setting a girl appeared, 13 years old, most comfortable with her toes in the mud. A boy, perhaps a brother, briefly bobbed into view then disappeared, replaced by the girl’s mother. Soon their relationship took shape, a claustrophobic constellation propelled by addiction, resilience, pain, and fierce love. The girl became “Tara” and the mother became “Joan.”
I brought these green shoots into a writing workshop. Each week, as I worked and reworked a chapter, or even a few pages, the contours of Tara and Joan’s relationship solidified. The details of their home came to life as did the intimacies and tensions of their days. The workshop facilitator challenged me to widen the lens and discover a larger community or cultural conflict against which Tara and her mother could struggle and transform — or falter and fail.
He also encouraged me to write a chapter outline, nudging me into the realm of the plotter. An early outline, which is very different from the final novel, has Tara losing her way in a salt dome mine during a visit to Avery Island (home of Tabasco Pepper Sauce ). Salt domes are massive underground deposits, some as large as Mount Everest, which feature prominently in Louisiana’s geology. I’ve always found them fascinating and mysterious, an interest I share with Tara:
Before fifth grade, when her class had studied salt domes, she’d pictured the New Orleans Superdome made out of salt, buried a few feet below her front yard. But the teacher had explained that the domes were more like underground mountains, formed when an ancient seabed buckled up over millions of years through the surrounding crush of earth. The salt behaved almost like lava, flowing upwards until it capped near the surface. For a time afterwards, whenever Tara salted her food, she imagined tiny flecks of bizarre prehistoric sea creatures mixed in with it.
–Lifelike Creatures, pg. 36
So the impulse to somehow include salt domes in the story emerged early on, even before I’d plotted the larger conflict that would come crashing into Tara and Joan’s world. With salt domes on my radar, it was inevitable that I should happen upon the other geologic phenomenon of Lifelike Creatures, the one that became the larger conflict — a sinkhole. Turns out the two often go hand-in-hand.
Salt domes and sinkholes have made headlines in Louisiana several times over the years, most dramatically at Lake Peignur in 1980, when the drill from an oil rig barge punctured a salt dome beneath the lake. The miscalculation created a sinkhole, triggering an enormous whirlpool that drained the lake and even reversed the flow of a nearby canal, temporarily creating Louisiana’s tallest recorded waterfall.
More recently, the Bayou Corne sinkhole was precipitated by a collapse in the Napoleonville Salt Dome. Or more accurately, the wall of a hollowed out cavern within the dome, near the dome’s outer wall. The cavern was manmade, as are dozens of others nested deep within the dome’s interior. Adding to the mystique of these underground marvels is the fact that they are uniquely well-suited for storing hydrocarbons, natural gas, and even crude oil. If the earth shifts, the salt walls flex and flow. Integrity is maintained as long as the surrounding salt is of adequate thickness. It was not in the case of the Bayou Corne sinkhole. As a result, an entire community was displaced with many residents leaving behind what they’d assumed would be the golden years of retirement.
The sinkhole in Lifelike Creatures is modeled on this real-life industrial disaster. My fictionalized version not only connects the “small” story of Tara and Joan with larger, catalytic forces. It also mirrors the downward spiral of drug and alcohol addiction and the corrosive effects on the parent-child relationship. I’m fortunate to have a close friend who is a geologist. He generously shared his expertise, allowing me to plausibly plot sinkhole and remediation events that force Tara and Joan into “adapt or die” situations.
So pantser or plotter? Based on my experience with Lifelike Creatures, I’ve embraced a middle way. The tools of the plotter kept me grounded even as the chapter outline changed and evolved. The pantser’s spontaneity offered unforeseen gifts, including a pivotal moment that totally took me by surprise. Early readers have had no qualms about pacing or character motivation. And Tara and Joan were given what every character deserves — a plot integrated with their core desires and beliefs.
Rebecca Baum is a New York City transplant from rural Louisiana. She’s authored several short stories and two novels. The most recent, Lifelike Creatures, was published by Regal House Publishing on September 17, 2020. She is represented by Jeff Ourvan at Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency. She’s a cofounder of a creative studio where she is a ghostwriter, copywriter, and blogger. She lives in Greenwich Village with her husband and their cat.
Racism lives in our minds and bodies—to end it, we must first find and feel it.
By Amy Banks MD
Like so many in our country, I am sick—not from the coronavirus, but by the ways systemic racism continues to shackle and kill people of color in our country and by the ways in which too many white Americans continue to deny it, look the other way, and/or fail to see how their lives benefit from it.
In the U.S., systemic racism is one of the primary default programs all citizens use to filter day to day experiences. The random fact of being born white comes with unearned power and an unseen advantage over people of color. I have learned from antiracist friends and colleagues that racism is so deeply embedded in our societal structures and subconscious minds that if you live your life without examining your biases and the biases of people who were instrumental in shaping your beliefs, you will inevitably replay the learned racism consciously or unconsciously.
For many white people, it is too easy to believe that you care deeply about social justice but are too busy with work, taking care of kids, or paying the bills to join an all-out war on racism. It’s been too easy to only think about Black lives mattering immediately following the killing of another Black person by the police. The mass of diverse protesters across our country are screaming in one voice that inaction is no longer tolerable. It is time for white people to take responsibility for changing the culture of racism by changing themselves and the unequal social structures they have created. Silence is not an option.
In more intimate groups of well-meaning white people, I have heard many share how they feel stuck, frozen by guilt or fearful of doing or saying the wrong thing. They want to jump in but don’t know how or where to start. Taking responsibility must begin with an increased awareness of one’s own biases—how they were created and how they benefit all white people. Only then can any of us honestly own the role we are playing in perpetuating the status quo.
Racism lives in our bodies and therefore we cannot simply think our way of it. We cannot escape into our heads and create a new community ideal without first feeling the impact of racism. We must feel the pain that people of color have endured and to use that pain to fuel action for change.
Examining my own whiteness and unearned privilege takes me back to my roots in Maine, which remains the whitest state in the nation (2020). Here I can begin to understand how seamlessly my own racist education started and how deeply it lives in my cells. This is not an exercise in self-flagellation, but rather an attempt to see where it stills lives in me. I understand that it is impossible not to be racist when you grow up in an environment with toxic levels of bias, judgement and misinformation about people of color. I cannot become an anti-racist without owning and identifying where racism lives within me and in my communities.
To say that race relations were not on my radar growing up would be an understatement. In fact, in high school I was just coming out to myself as a lesbian and I was preoccupied with the injustices in the LGBTQ community in the later ’70s. In Maine, there was plenty of homophobia to worry about. However, for my family, that changed in the spring of 1979 when my father traveled on business to New Orleans. On his first day in NOLA, after eating dinner in the French Quarter, he and a colleague walked back to the Hyatt Regency. At the entry to the hotel, they were held up by two young men, and my father was shot and killed.
Within hours, my family was told that “two Black men” had tried to rob my father and his colleague. This was my first substantive exposure to someone from the Black community. My family had been shattered by the murder and naïvely believed that the legal system in New Orleans would help us seek justice for the death of my father. We had no idea that what we were told was filtered through the New Orleans legal system well known for its racist attitudes. When the photos of the suspects, Isaac Knapper and Leroy Williams, popped up in our local newspaper, I remember looking at them closely and wondering what in their lives would have caused them to rob and kill. It never occurred to me that the prosecution would withhold exculpatory evidence at the trial and that one of the young men, Isaac Knapper, would be wrongly convicted for murder and sent to prison for the rest of his life. My family did not question the arrest and verdict for many reasons, but the biggest was that my family was solidly part of the white, dominant culture. One does not have to be an avowed white supremist to be racist—you simply have to be brainwashed 24/7 by a culture that defines health and acceptability as the birth right of all white people and associates people of color with violence.
When I found out in 2005 that the alleged killer of my father, Isaac Knapper, had been exonerated in the early 1990s, I was shocked and sickened. By then I had become a psychiatrist with a deep interest in issues of social justice and was well aware of the gross inequities that existed in America between people of color and white people—in health care, life expectancy, educational opportunity, housing, wealth … the list goes on and on. However, until I learned of Isaac’s exoneration, I had no way of knowing how entwined my own story was in America’s racism. The traumatic memory of my father’s murder was now exponentially more painful as it now involved the wrongful conviction of a sixteen-year-old boy. The anguish was now compounded by images of Isaac as a young man in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola where he was sent to live out the rest of his life with no chance of parole.
By 2015, I was both curious and furious. Eric Garner, Freddie Grey, Michael Brown—the killings of Black men by police just kept happening. I decided to take personal action to more fully understand the horrendous racist event that my family had unwittingly been involved in. With much fear, I reached out to Isaac Knapper (who had been released after thirteen years and was living in NOLA) and asked to meet. In December of that year my sister, Nancy, and I met with Isaac and his wife in New Orleans. The meeting and our friendship have transformed my life. What surprised me the most was how easy it was to be together—how we didn’t stop talking and sharing the entire weekend we spent together. What disturbed me to my core was hearing Isaac’s personal experience of police brutality. How much worse his experience had been then I could even imagine. He shared his violent arrest at 5:45 a.m. when he was awoken with guns pointing at his head, the brutal interrogation where police beat him to within an inch of his life in an attempt to force a confession (it failed), and the utter disregard for his humanity at every turn of the legal proceedings. Yet, despite all he had been through (and continues to go through as a Black man in this society), he also listened to our story and our pain with deep compassion and caring.
One lesson I have learned from Isaac and his family is that the process of healing racism will hurt and at times, the risks you will need to take will be terrifying. But the pain is not penance for bad behavior (though there is room for that as well). When you hurt so badly you feel you will die—pay close attention. Feeling unspeakable pain may mean you have finally begun to feel clear empathy and resonance with the relentless agonies and indignities faced by people of color. You must walk directly into that pain to fully understand the price Black and brown people have paid for your/our white privilege. If you can’t stand it, don’t stop feeling, find someone who can help you hold it. Do you dare to risk everything to be part of the movement to repair the racial divide that has plagued our country since white people enslaved Black people over 400 years ago literally using their Black bodies to build America?
Isaac and I have established a deep friendship—one that feels more like family. It is a chosen family that I cherish. Within it I have had the opportunity to heal and to grow and to witness my own biases in a way that humbles me. We have chosen to write our story in an upcoming book, Fighting Time. In sharing our story, we hope to inspire people to move into the fear and the pain of systemic racism and to have the conversations that are desperately needed to see and feel one another and to help our society grow beyond our tragically racist roots.
Amy Banks is the author of The Complete Guide to Mental Health for Women, published by Beacon Press in 2003, and of Four Ways to Click: Rewire Your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships, published in 2015 by Penguin. Her second book captures the work she has done over the past fifteen years studying the neuroscience of relationships and how essential supportive connections are to overall health and well-being.
Walker, Maureen. When Getting Along is Not Enough: Reconstructing Lives in Our Lives and Relationships. 2019, Teacher’s College Press, New York, NY
Kendi, Ibram X., Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. 2016, Nation’s Books, New York, NY
This article was first published at Psychology Today
A literary powerhouse in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley
What better place to locate a bookstore—one with a sprawling poetry section—than just up the street from Emily Dickinson’s house and around the corner from Robert Frost’s home? Amherst Books proprietors Shannon Ramsey and Nat Herold knew what they were doing when they chose Amherst, MA for their indie bookstore in 2003. And they’ve been delighting customers ever since with their diverse collection (including small press offerings), outstanding literary events, and welcoming atmosphere.
Amherst Books and I arrived in town just months apart in the early 2000s. Even after all these years, I still get a special joy when I walk inside, like I’m coming home. The literature wall with the rolling ladder, the spacious children’s corner, the comfortable armchairs, and the warm lighting all combine to create a timeless, made-for-bibliophiles quality. As one Yelp reviewer wrote, “Pitch me a tent, and I’ll just live here.”
Discussing the magic of bookstores with me, Nat quotes French philosopher Roland Barthes, who said, “Every book chooses its reader.” Nat adds, “I like to say we’re midwives in that process.”
And what well-stocked shelves these midwives keep! The store carries new and used books from local, national and international authors, including no fewer than 45 books by or about Emily Dickinson alone. With particular strengths in philosophy and poetry, the collection also includes general and science fiction, children’s literature, and books about cooking, history, gender studies, women’s studies, black studies, the sciences, essays and more.
In addition, Amherst Books hosts around 170 literary events yearly (when the country isn’t in quarantine). Luminaries like Min Jin Lee, Jericho Brown, James Tate, and Norton Juster have given talks or done readings here. So have regular-Joe local authors like yours truly. As a writer, I believe that a book’s story isn’t complete until it’s read and, ideally, discussed. Platforms that bring authors and readers together in one room elevate this co-creation to new levels. I’m grateful to Amherst Books for hosting the launch of all my books to date.
Booksellers’ origin stories
Nat grew up in a house of books and readers. “We were so bad about returning all the library books we borrowed,” he remembers, “that the Washington, D.C. public library would send a truck around once a year or so to take back their books. They never cut off our borrowing, however.”
Books were also a way for Nat to communicate with his father, who was an alcoholic. “Often the only way to spend time with him was to talk about books,” Nat recalls. “Recommending new books to each other was how we bonded.”
Shannon too took refuge in reading as a youngster. “Books carried me through a lot of lonely times,” she remembers. “So, when I was looking at colleges and saw UMass’s 26-floor DuBois Library, I knew I was going to go to school in Amherst! Once there, I got a job at the library, which then opened doors for me at Amherst Books.”
Bookselling was a natural fit for Nat because it allowed him to continue surrounding himself with books and connecting with people through book recommendations. “In other sorts of retail, you don’t learn anything meaningful about the person who’s buying, say, tissues,” he notes. “But a person reveals a lot about themselves by the books they choose.”
Shannon is on the same page (pun intended). “What I love most about bookselling,” she says, “is the idea that reading, which helped me when I was lonely, could also be the thing that connects me to others.”
Thriving as an indie bookstore is never a given in these times of fierce competition and consumer focus on the digital. Nat attributes Amherst Books’ success to strong customer service, a uniquely curated book selection, and a robust reading and book launch roster.
Shannon ascribes their progress to two components. “First and foremost, we have stayed true to our core, book-loving selves,” she says. “We constantly remember what brought us to reading and then do our best to translate that to our community.” Secondly, she and Nat know their community well. “This allows us to reflect the community back to itself by way of a carefully chosen collection.”
To supplement their revenue, Amherst Books now carries certain non-book items, including literary tote bags, postcards, and book-themed T-shirts. “We’re giving people an alternative to online shopping,” says Shannon. “An alternative that allows direct interaction with products and the chance to socialize with staff and other visitors.”
Shannon and Nat are personally committed to a vision of sustainability that promotes growing roots and being part of the local community. How lucky for readers and authors alike that this shared value produced Amherst Books.
Shirley Reva Vernick is the author of The Blood Lie, Remembering Dippy, and The Black Butterfly. Her work has garnered innumerable awards and recognition, some of which include: the American Library Association Best Fiction Books for Young Readers List, Simon Wiesenthal Once Upon A World Book Award, Dolly Gray Literature Award from the Council for Exceptional Children, Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction. Fitzroy Books is proud to publish Ripped Away in 2022.
If my path to racial healing is any indication, we have a long way to go as a country. In March, Pact Press published my debut essay collection Your Black Friend Has Something to Say. In June—within two days of one another—as I mourned the loss of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation, I received an email from a friend from high school and a text from a friend from college who had both read my book and found themselves in it. One was a bystander to a microaggression I wrote about in my book, the other the perpetrator of a microaggression I wrote about in my book. I didn’t know I needed to hear from friends I went to high school and college with in the aftermath of my book coming out, but turns out I did. They wanted to take responsibility for the role they had played in the microaggressions I had suffered. Their words were thoughtful, considerate, and kind. I started crying and couldn’t stop. It wasn’t the apology that did it, I don’t think; it was the recognition that what had happened to me was wrong. That visibility, that validation, was enough. I thought the path to racial healing was one I’d have to walk alone. I was wrong. It’s imperative that my white friends walk it with me.
This is a tender time for Black people. We are mourning and marching at the same time. Our emotional labor is at an all-time high. Our personal trauma, our generational trauma is being triggered. Over the years I’ve come to know my own racial trauma rather well. It’s like I broke my leg but it didn’t heal correctly. Now the bones need to be reset so they can mend properly, and it hurts like hell—it’s a very painful process—but it’s what’s needed, it’s what’s necessary, in order for me to walk again. In fact, I don’t know which is worse: the initial breaking of the bones when the trauma first took place or the re-breaking of the bones when the trauma is treated. I realize, in writing my book, I gave my friends a tool to treat my trauma and they’re using it. Our country needs to do the same. Black people know what needs to be done. We have the tools. It’s up to white people to use them. But in order to heal we have to be heard—which is why healing hasn’t happened yet. Not everyone wants to hear what we have to say. Too many white people dismiss or deny our trauma—the acts of horror committed against us every day. They don’t want to take responsibility for their role in it. Then there are those who are too complacent to care. I’m grateful I have friends who do care, because when it comes to racial healing, the truth is, my trauma is their trauma too; my healing is their healing too. If more people knew that, understood that, then maybe we as a country could do the work we need to do, and we could all be set free.
Melva Graham is a writer, actress, and part-time activist. Your Black Friend Has Something To Say, published by Pact Press (an imprint of Regal House Publishing) in the spring of 2020, is her debut essay collection.
The Nostalgia for Things Lost & A Tenderness for the World in Which We Find Ourselves
Winner of the 2020 Terry J. Cox Poetry Award
In December of 2019, I retired from the University of Georgia after over thirty years as an academic advisor. In that time, I worked at three different universities, sometimes advising students in pre-professional programs, but primarily with liberal arts majors in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences—students studying languages, literature, theatre and film, religion, anthropology, women’s studies, history, resulting in conversations that animated and enriched my life and my writing. My last months were spent in hours of discussion with students and colleagues and concluded with a farewell gathering that included former and current colleagues, administrators, and a variety of faculty across the departments for which I advised.
I retreated to my “book fort” for the winter, almost literally hibernating with a stack of novels and poetry collections, and emerged only occasionally to poke a pen around a legal pad or go online to submit individual poems and my full-length manuscript. As an introvert in recovery from years of professional talking, I gave myself full license to sleep, read, nap, read, and catch up on a few Netflix series.
I began to wake as spring and Covid-19 arrived in Georgia and by mid-March found myself in full-on isolation with my husband, a retired high school teacher. Our church shifted from in-person to Zoom to YouTube, as our bishop (wisely) tightened restrictions on gatherings, weeks earlier than Georgia’s governor. Our city closed down large gatherings, then schools, bars, restaurants, again, long before the state at large. My book group and poetry group, “dinner women” and former colleagues withdrew to our homes, and our only “in real life” contact was with our pregnant daughter and her husband, who also isolated as much as possible. Soon after our grandson’s St. Patrick’s Day birth, our son-in-law had to return to work, so we spent weeks helping our daughter with our newborn grandson. It was both a mercy and a gift to immerse ourselves in the immediacy of an infant’s needs and to know that between us we could provide Christopher everything he needed – food, clean diapers, the occasional bath, constant human contact, the sound of our voices, our adoration.
Like all of us, I felt no such calm when I looked into the larger world and tried as much as possible not to imagine what horrors might loom, what this pandemic could mean for people I love and for so much of what I value in our world. I didn’t think often about my manuscript, circling through the round of competitions, or whether it would ever be published. When I did remember, I assumed the slim chance of publication had probably shrunk to next-to-none.
What a joyful shock to receive Jaynie’s email telling me that The Woman Who Lives Without Money had won the Terry J. Cox Poetry Award. What a gift to receive that news at a point when I could easily imagine no publisher having the courage or the financial foundation to continue to print books. And it is an equal gift to realize that Regal House Publishing shares my conviction that a life in the arts is, in some sense, a life of companionship and service. Like every writer I have ever known, I struggle with the tension between creation — a focus on the work itself — and the pull toward publication – sometimes warring impulses. The reality is that only a fraction of artistic work will ever receive recognition, that few of us – whatever our medium – will be able to live on an income from our art alone, that many far more talented writers than I will give up, ground under by the necessity of earning a living, by despair, by lack of an audience, by inability to live in uncertainty. Which is, of course, where we all live now.
In this unfolding world, perhaps we will learn that what seems most ephemeral (poems, stories, music, dance, theatre) and most fragile (the shell of my grandson’s skull beneath my cupped hand, the bloodroot petals unfolding in my spring garden, our ability to shelter those we love from harm, our desire to shelter those we do not know at all) are the essence of what it means to be human. I believe that in this moment there is nothing more worth doing than creating art and midwifing it into the world. I hope that readers find in The Woman Who Lives Without Money not only a nostalgia for things lost but tenderness for the world in which we live now and for whatever is coming next.
Rebecca Bagget is the author of poems, essays, and stories, published in numerous journals and anthologies, as well as four chapbooks, two of which (God Puts on the Body of a Deer, from Main Street Rag, and Thalassa, from Finishing Line Press) remain in print. She is a retired academic advisor from the University of Georgia and she has been a Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
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