In the following Q&A, Jackie Anne Morrill—writer, performer, and teacher—discusses poetry readings in the Worcester area, performance poetry, and publishing, as well as her own works. You can read Jackie Anne Morrill’s two poems, “Cantaloupe as a cure-all, or how I know my mother” and “Letter from a Barn Burner,” in The Worcester Review Volume XXXV.
Can you discuss The Round Room Women’s Writing Series and what makes it unique? What advice do you have for students and faculty wanting to follow in your footsteps on their own campuses?
The Round Room Women's Writing Series was an idea that my wife had actually come up with. It was, I think, fifty percent an excuse to have people over for food and drink and poetry, and the other half was to create a space inspired by, hosted by, created by, and performed in by women. There are so many incredible women writers in the Worcester area and, yet, it is most definitely a male-dominated scene. This was a chance for all of us girls to come together. The requirements for a reader started out very simple: you must be a woman or identify as a woman somehow. This requirement quickly changed after there was quite a bit of interest from men to read at the open mike. So, we tweaked the reading just a little and, as long as the male reader first read a piece by a woman, he could perform whatever else after that. The first year was a blast. My wife is a fantastic organizer and host—she has a lot of spunk, a ton of personality, and I think that is what kept it going even in the very slow winter months. This year has been tough. We've had a few really great performers, two of whom were musicians, but it has been so busy, and it is tricky trying to keep an audience going if you're not one hundred percent in it from the beginning. As the host and booker this year, I've put the reading on hiatus for the rest of the summer just to try and catch up on other things.
My best advice for those students and faculty wanting to put something like this together in their own homes would be to just have fun with it. When it becomes too serious, when you reach a point at which you don't want to hold the reading anymore, take a break. Having a reading in your home is different from holding it at a bar or coffee shop in that you have so much more to prepare for: cleaning the whole space, chair set-up, food, drink, trying to scrounge up enough cash to please the feature, booking the feature. The list goes on. Be prepared to work for it.
Can you discuss the relationship between sound and sense as it pertains to “Cantaloupe as a cure-all, or how I know my mother?”
Kevin Pilkington is a writer and teacher at Sarah Lawrence College. Here, he gives advice to aspiring writers, and discusses his work as a writing instructor as well as writing itself. His poem, “Flu Shot,” appears in volume XXXV of The Worcester Review.
You studied literature at St. John’s University where you earned a BA and at Georgetown University where you earned an MA. Can you talk about what you have learned from these programs? What advice do you have to aspiring writers applying to a BA or MA/MFA program?
I received a BA in Literature from St. John’s University and went on to receive an MA in English Literature from Georgetown University. In fact, although I have been teaching writing classes for most of my adult life, I never took a writing class on the undergraduate or graduate levels or had a writing mentor. My writing teachers were on the bookshelves–I learned to write through reading. To this day, I tell students that the best teachers are the writers you read. I have always felt that writing teachers save students time by telling them whom to read and usually not what to put into their writing but what to take out. The poet Robert Lowell said, “Learning to write is learning what to leave out.” Hemingway said it another way: “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” On a very basic level, writing workshops are time-savers by showing students what not to do in their writing so they have more time to work on what will enhance whatever genre they are working in. If I knew my life was going to turn this way, I certainly would have enrolled in an MFA program. I am sure I would have matured faster as a writer and achieved more goals that much sooner. However, studying literature, mostly classical, at both universities was invaluable to me as both a human being and a writer. I can’t imagine how my writing would have progressed without reading Philip Sidney who tells us in The Defense of Poetry, written in 1595, “The aim of poetry is to teach and delight.” This is a phrase I still keep on my writing desk. At Georgetown I first came into contact with Horace’s Ars Poetica, probably the first and best creative writing handbook although in reality it is a letter-poem. Later I was introduced to the visionary lyricism of William Butler Yeats, a poet whose poems I have read almost every week since then. Studying great literature seeps into your own writing, as I hope it did mine, through osmosis. However, I don’t write poetry in traditional or given forms; I chose to write in open or organic forms since like many contemporary poets, I want my poems to sound closer to everyday speech and flourish in their own time and place.
I believe Sarah Lawrence College where I teach was the first, or certainly one of the first, to offer workshops for undergraduates taught by professional writers. There are now many fine undergraduate writing programs across the country. I would recommend to any aspiring writer who is looking to major in writing not to apply if they have stories to tell in prose or poetry. Only apply if you truly love language. Then you will succeed and thrive. Do your research; see which writers are on the faculty and are actually teaching classes. Many high profile writers only teach sporadically even though a given school will use their names as recruiting tools. Visit the school you are interested in and visit classes to make sure it is the right fit. Majoring or having a concentration in writing enables you think critically and to communicate your thoughts clearly and effectively, which is beneficial studying across the curriculum and prepares you for a variety of careers once you graduate. For those considering an MFA, I would offer some of the same advice as above–make sure you research programs thoroughly and speak to students in the program who will offer truthful insights into its strengths or weaknesses. Remember the best programs create an atmosphere that allows you the time to explore and concentrate on your craft and is taught by professional writers in the classroom who are not just names on a catalog, writers who love and are passionate about language. I can’t think of time better spent than paying homage to language.
You are a writing coordinator at Sarah Lawrence College. Can you discuss what this entails? What is the best part of your job?
Yulia Issa is the winner of the Worcester County Poetry Association College Poetry Contest 2014 Manuscript Prize. In her poem, “La Malinche,” which appears in volume XXXV of The Worcester Review, she challenges convention and gives a voice to a woman who is traditionally condemned for having aided the conquistadores.
Before graduating from Quinsigamond Community College in May 2014, you earned two B.A.s from Lebanese University. Could you discuss any cultural differences or similarities you have encountered in your travels? How has this contributed to your writing?
The subject of cultural differences and multiculturalism is very broad and hot right now. We welcome writers who highlight unusual experiences in exotic locations and the struggles that tag along with them. Coming from a background where I spent my childhood in Ukraine and then teenage years in Lebanon before finally settling in the U.S., I believe multiculturalism lends itself to a deeper understanding of human nature and seeing beyond the superficial. As a writer, it interests me how a character develops and interacts regardless of the regiment of ethnic behavior and how individuality emerges when faced with non-routine problems. The heroine in “La Malinche” does exactly that. She is born into a wealthy Nahua family and is ironically given away into slavery while still a child. Then, she ends up as a gift to the Spaniards who had just begun tackling the American shores. Despite the obvious hardships that Malinche endures and the unique historical situation she is put in, which obviously her cultural background cannot prepare her for, she rises to the challenge and manages to earn the grandiose respect of her contemporaries on both sides of the conflict.
When researching and writing about events that occurred roughly five centuries ago and following the life of a woman about whom relatively little facts were recorded, it takes unbiased imagination and understanding to relate to her experience. I think that my background helps me with this task. With time, Malinche’s character has been misinterpreted and vilified. She has been single-handedly charged with the betrayal of her nation in popular culture. Again, being multicultural makes it relatively easy to see through such constructs and understand the driving forces that generated them.
“La Malinche” is, in part, a poem about language. In addition to speaking English, you speak Russian, Arabic, and French. How do you believe being multilingual has influenced your writing?
I truly believe that proficiency in multiple languages exponentially enhances understanding of different cultures and opens doors to a broader spectrum of writing. Apart from anecdotal language misunderstandings, consider, for example, that you want to know more about an Arab writer. You will probably find that more has been written about him in the Arabic language. However, when you resort to the translations, you might be getting a skewed view of the topic not only because there could be inaccuracies in the translation itself but also because of the translator’s choice of which documents to interpret and which to leave out. On top of that, a different language opens up a different perspective on writing not just with respect to grammar and idioms but also tone and stylistics. Since I am fluent in the languages that I know, it creates an interesting amalgam of thought, which I believe allows me to have different takes on the expression of things like dramatization and humor. To explain it more, let’s say you were to tell a joke in three different languages. You would end up with three different recounts of the same story. However, if you were to only translate the words themselves, it would probably only be funny in the original language.
Each year, editors of literary magazines are invited to nominate up to six selections published in that calendar year for inclusion in the Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses anthology. This year, the Pushcart Prize celebrates its 40th anniversary.
The Worcester Review has nominated the following pieces from Volume 35 (2014):
"Rules for Telling a Ghost Story" -- Tom Howard
"Cancer" -- Dmitry Berenson
"Verum and Factum" -- Michael Trocchia
"A Hike" -- Shoshana Razel Gordon Guedalia
"The Loneliness of the Heart is Forever" -- Helen Marie Casey
"Two Men and a Gun" -- Frank Scozzari