I wrote this essay after seeing the film Luna, about a brother and sister who were both medicated for ADHD and now struggle with self image, motivation, and the negative effects of stimulant drugs.
When I graduated from college in 1974, I felt well-prepared to work as a speech and language pathologist in the public schools. I knew how to use an articulation test to screen for speech delays and pronunciation problems. Using a variety of standardized and informal assessments, as well as teacher input, I could determine areas where a child was struggling with language comprehension and expression. I easily performed routine hearing screenings to determine whether a child needed a full audiological workup. But what I wasn’t prepared for was making recommendations to parents for children who were labeled as “hyperactive.”
During my second year of working in the schools, one of my duties was working on a screening committee. The screening committee in my school consisted of the assistant principal, the school psychologist, the reading specialist, the classroom teacher making the referral, and the speech pathologist (me). Children were referred to the committee for a variety of concerns—struggles with reading or math; speech, language, or hearing problems; and “hyperactivity,” which was later renamed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Three aspects of the screening committee’s discussions regarding the children, almost always boys, that either teachers or parents considered to be hyperactive stand out for me. When we surveyed the child’s records, we almost always discovered he had what we euphemistically called a “late birthday” because he was born near the end of the year. That meant that he was usually one of the youngest children in the class. Additionally, when we checked into the child’s home life, we often discovered that his parents had recently divorced or there’d been a death in the family. And lastly, there was always someone on the committee, often the assistant principal or the school psychologist, who recommended that the parent seek a medication consultation for the child.
I met Patricia in the early 2000s when we were both teaching at Howard Community College. We’ve since shared many lovely days together and often share our poems with each other. Hope you enjoy this interview with my dear friend. Contact Patricia through her blog if you’d like to purchase one of her books. https://wrenhousepress.online/books/
Ann Bracken (AB): Congratulations on your lovely new poetry collection, Refuge Heart: A Verse Memoir. I love the way you’ve woven stories together around the themes of loss and family. Tell me how the book came together for you.
Patricia VanAmburg (PVA): Thank you Ann. The book actually came together in a number of ways. One of those was a mention by two of my friends of the Trebus Project—a study of elderly dementia patients in Great Britain. One surprise outcome of this study was that so many patients with short term memory loss retained vivid memories of earlier life on poor farms. This information certainly caught my attention because my mother so often mentioned the American poor house circa 1830-1930.
AB: Those of us who had parents of a certain age will remember them referring to the poor house, but many readers may not be familiar with the history and purpose of poor houses. Tell me about where the idea for your poem, “My Mother Goes to The Poor House”, came from and give a bit of background on the poor house you researched.
PVA: In the last decade of her life, my mother refused to discuss her dwindling finances. She would reply to any of my attempts at such a conversation with an angry “Just send me to the poor house.” Usually, I remained silent in order to avoid further confrontation, but one day I said to her “You know there isn’t any poor house.” She responded “Oh really” in a voice I knew she saved for lunatics and liars. More frustrated than usual, I soon typed “poor house” into a Google search—adding “Berrien County Michigan” because that is where my mother grew up. To my great surprise, I uncovered a treasure trove of information including a roster of poor house residents; several poor house census reports listing nationality/race and occupation; notes from the poor house infirmary; and several local newspaper articles written about the poor house residents who were called “inmates.” How could I ignore such a treasure? I began to write poems—beginning with my mother’s poor house obsession.
AB: “Peaches in Poor Weather” is as much a lament for crop loss as it is a bit of significant history. What was your process in writing that poem?
PVA: Along with all the specific poor house information, I uncovered an early history of Berrien County chronicling European colonization, native American conflict, and agricultural development. I wanted to know more about why the poor house was built because, to this day, Berrien County remains a Michigan fruit basket. I remember well the delicious peaches of my own childhood. I let peaches become emblematic for the agricultural economy of southwestern Michigan and found a helpful article from 1993 by William John Armstrong titled “Berrien County’s Great Peach Boom.” Armstrong’s work helped me understand how Michigan’s fluctuating temperatures combined with peach production in warmer climates, and the rail age, to cause problems for the Michigan peach industry which had previously enjoyed a kind of privileged position in midwestern fruit production. I also understood how a competitive fruit market combined with an influx of European farm labor—caused loss of farm ownership and the necessity for county poor houses throughout Michigan and the rural United States.
AB: “James Hewitt’s Nose” tells the story of cancer that used to be commonplace, but due to modern treatments, rarely happens in our country now. How did you come upon this story?
PVA: “James Hewitt’s Nose” came from two sources— one was my possession of the poor house infirmary notes which gave me a broad perspective on all of the resident health problems and diseases. The second was the trove of period newspaper articles I mentioned earlier. One of them told the story of resident James Hewitt age 63 who had a form of cancer that had eaten away his nose. The story went on to mention that a worker at the poor farm had met a Miss Hewitt who remembered that her father had a spot on his nose years earlier when he disappeared. At the end of the article father and daughter are reunited—my poem takes a bit of poetic license with that reunion.
AB: The second part of your book deals with your family members who came to the United States from Croatia. How were you able to reconstruct their stories in such detail?
PVA: Yes, the second half of my book goes in a new direction at the suggestion of Maryland Poet Laureate Grace Cavalieri who thought I might want to write about “something a little different than but related to” the poor house and its refugees. About that time through DNA testing, I became aware of and met several new cousins from my father’s side of the family. Eventually, two of my cousins invited me to go to Croatia with them. Their grandmother was a sister to my grandfather, and we were all searching for our grandparents’ journey to the United States during the Croatian diaspora which straddled two World Wars. So, the second half of the book retells my grandparent’s life as refugees and my search to uncover it.
AB: I love the playfulness in the poem “Departure 1950.” You capture so much of the innocence and charm of the two cousins getting into mischief. Say more about the poem and your cousin.
PVA: As refugees, my paternal grandparents had a pretty hard life including my grandpa’s first job as a copper miner in upper Michigan and my grandma’s loss of several children before they reached adulthood. Eventually they had to leave their grape farm in southern Michigan when neither of their adult sons wanted to stay and work. Still, I enjoyed visiting the house they moved to in a small town—especially when my two cousins were there. Departure 1950 recalls one of my earliest memories of my six-year-old cousin and I “driving” my grandpa’s antiquated Chrysler through the wall of my grandma’s chicken coop. We actually popped it into gear and drifted through the wall. Though the memory might have some tragic elements, I remember it as being quite wondrous with light streaming through the gapped wall alive with chicken feathers and dust motes. Even at age three and a half, I knew as soon as we crawled unharmed out of the car through broken glass and timber that we probably weren’t going to get in trouble for our little trip.
AB: Patricia, I really enjoyed reading “Refugee Heart.” Do you have a favorite poem in the collection? What do you hope readers take away from this book?
I think I have a favorite poem from each of the halves.
From the poor house poems, I would have to choose the very simple little poem, “Samuel Ray Steps Out”, which tells the story of an 80-year-old resident who wanders away for a few precious hours. I took most of the poem’s visuals from my own childhood memories of the small southern Michigan town of my mother’s youth, but the voice is purely Samuel Ray. In this poem and the others that I wrote from the articles, I often thought I could hear the featured subjects telling stories in their own words.
From part two, I would have to choose my cousins’ unanimous favorite, “Two Mladens Walk in Lokve”, which describes all that my grandparents left behind: lichen covered rocks in the virgin forests; fish with mottled skin swimming in a river that flows through the bottom of a deep cave; smokey mist rising against dark green mountains; and the beautiful hilltop cemetery full of vigil candles and pine cones.
And thank you for your mention of the title poem, “Refugee Heart”, Ann. Even before I finished it, I knew it had less to do with either poor house refugees or my grandparents than it does with worldwide refugees today. May they find new lives and peace. May we all help. That is the message.
Bio: Patricia Vanamburg retired emerta from Howard Community College where she taught literature and creative writing. She was also affiliated with the Little Patuxent Review literary journal.
“Assigned reading” was as much a dreaded phrase when I was young as it was to my high school students’ ears when I taught several years ago. Everyone pretty much agrees that there’s a much better chance you’ll enjoy reading if you choose the books yourself, rather than read from a prescribed list. But in 2021, I assigned myself several books that belong to the great cannon of literature, books that I’d somehow never read.
Determined to make up for missed opportunities, I began the year ambitiously with a pretty formidable list: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Shakespeare’s King Lear, Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I read many other books as well–fiction and nonfiction, but I’m proud to say I read the books–for the most part–and I have a new set of reading ideas for 2022.
Should I hang my head and confess that I didn’t enjoy Pride and Prejudice? I’ve seen the film versions and the play and loved both of them. The characters were interesting and sometimes even funny, and I did admire Miss Bennet, but Austin’s prose left me flat. I suppose it was her style that I didn’t like–so full of descriptions and long sentences. I read up to page 200 and then put it aside, feeling like I’d had my fill of Austen for a time.
I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as an adolescent because my mother recommended it, but I re-read it in 2021 just so I could appreciate it as an adult. I loved the story of Francie and her family. Smith writes realistically about tenement life in New York city at the turn of the 20th century, capturing the grit and desperation that people like the Nolans must have felt as they worked just to survive. Many situations ring true today–women staying with charming men despite serious drinking problems, families scrambling to feed children, and a young girl nurturing a dream of something much grander for her own adult life. I was actually surprised by how much I enjoyed the book and found myself wishing I could remember what I thought about the story when I was a girl more like Francie Nolan.
I read several acts of King Lear before finally giving up and watching a movie of the play. I appreciate more than ever, the kids who hate reading Shakespeare, but love the stories when they come alive on a stage or on the screen. I remember seeing the play at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival a number of years ago, and the scene that stands out for me is the king with his fool in the rain. But I must have been so caught up in the spectacle of the play in Oregon that I forgot that nearly everyone dies.
Edith Wharton’s prose in The House of Mirth was exceptional, and I was pulled into the story from the start. I loved Lily Bart and rooted for her to find someone shegenuinelyloved who could help her financially as well. And The Odyssey--I think I would have enjoyed it much more if I’d been able to take a course with a Greek scholar, like Emily Wilson. I enjoyed the parts that I was very familiar with–the adventures with Polyphemus, Circe, and Calypso and the homecoming. But I found the repetition and long rambles about banquets and strategy to be boring. Still, I’m glad I stuck with it and read the entire epic poem, and Emily Wilso has my undying admiration for her translation and depth of knowledge.
I’m still forming my list for 2022, and may explore more Wharton. I’ve decided to listen to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein because I often find I enjoy listening to some older forms of prose more than I enjoy reading them.
There are always so many more books that I want to read than I actually complete–I often wish I could just swim in a pool of stories!
Ann Bracken (AB): Ginny, congratulations on your wonderful poetry collection questions for water. Your poems greet the reader like open arms, inviting them in to the world you’ve created. Tell me about the title poem and say a little about your stylistic choice to use lower case letters throughout the book.
Ginny Crawford (GC): The title poem came about through an invitation to participate in an ekphrastic show at the Hamilton Gallery in Baltimore. I fell in love with a painting (mostly blue/turquoise and white). It also had pieces of torn paper glued to the surface which suggested mountains and a few other things. I saw a single person in a small boat approaching a literal piece of rusted barbed wire hung across the bottom of the painting. I immediately thought about immigration and the horrifying images we were seeing from our southern border. And my own grandfather who came from Italy – I’ve always wanted to write something about him but hadn’t yet. And the daily emotional, physical, financial struggle far too many Americans face not because they don’t work, but because of the poverty wages they are paid. As well as a tragic story a Russian woman told me about her coming to America. And my grandmother who came from Crisfield, MD where opportunities were very limited. And I could go on. The painting gave me the opportunity to write all of that in a single poem.
I’ve always been captivated by water and its abilities, the way it is essential and deadly at the same time. I tried to replicate the repetitive rocking motion of being at sea in the repetition throughout the poem. The repetitions act as a kind of mental break for readers as well as a bridge to the next part of the poem. It also reflects the day-in and day-out struggles many Americans have and continue to live with.
The choice not to use standard capitalization and punctuation was to reflect the way punctuation provides artificial boundaries-just as thoughts of nationality or heritage are artificial. Sure people from different cultures celebrate different holidays and have different languages etc, but in the end we’re all humans. We all want food and shelter and love. We all want to see our children succeed. While we may speak different languages, these differences are superficial.
Not using punctuation was a way to say no, we’re not different; we’re not separate from each other. We cannot place a period here and turn our backs on what might come next. Often we try to and do, but it’s artificial. We are not separate but deeply connected. American individualism, “ownership society” says we are successful or not based on our value to society, our job. If you’re not financially successful you must be doing something wrong. Too bad for you. This kind of thinking is deeply flawed and harmful. Not using punctuation is a way of saying no, people cannot be neatly categorized, divided and labeled. That is an illusion.
AB: I immediately recognized the speaker’s response to the young homeless man in the poem “baltimore.” Tell me what inspired that poem.
GC: I’ve done a variety of unusual jobs in my life, and many of them showed me how vulnerable we are as humans. And I saw people begging on the street everywhere. They are humans who are suffering and need help. This particular interaction was difficult in part because he appeared young, maybe in his 20’s. And when he took the orange, he was so exhausted, worn out, he told me what he really wanted. His hands also alarmed me. They were swollen, cracked, dirty. Quite obviously painful and delicate. They were so cracked I thought they would bleed at any moment. The combination of his relative youth, the state of his skin, his directness and the thing he wanted, hot food, …I’ll always remember him. I started keeping snacks in my car to give away. It’s painful to see so many people begging for help on medians and at stop lights. This is supposedly the wealthiest country on the planet.
AB: In “thoughts on making soup and war,” you lead us through the dailyness of making soup and then muse about a homeless veteran and a neighbor whose son enlisted. Talk a little about how you chose your images to convey the tone and feeling in the poem. (onions, overflowing trash can, lined up empty boots)
GC: Great question, but it’s hard to answer. Somewhere my mind connected the common-ness of potatoes with the way soldiers are used by governments. We don’t usually think of potatoes individually – there are just so many of them, and they’re inexpensive. That seems to reflect our government’s opinion of sending soldiers into unnecessary conflict and wars. There are always more. And if there aren’t, we’ll demand your sons. Yes, we need to defend ourselves, but soldiers should be used only when absolutely necessary. Absolutely necessary. Not because someone wants to be re-elected or to maintain the surprisingly low cost of our oil and gas compared to other countries.
When I was in college one of my friends was terrified he’d be drafted for Desert Storm. It was scary and bizarre to think that he could be plucked from his life and commanded to fight for an unjust war. Decades later I saw a good friend at the installation of the boots on the Hopkins University campus. It was an art exhibit that travelled around the country. Her middle son really signed up and served several tours. He came back, but she says he’s never been himself since. It’s simply terrifying to know someone you love is going into that kind of danger and the terrifying things they may be asked to do. The contrast of my over-flowing trash can and the hungry veterans on the streets. It’s just horrific that we have a population called “hungry and homeless vets.” It’s shameful that they are not taken care of. They beg on the street while I have more than I can eat. To be honest, I’m not always consciously choosing images. I don’t necessarily think, I need an image that represents X. I can’t say how it happens. It just comes to me.
AB: I was deeply moved by the scenes you create in the poem “how to live. for alice herz sommers” The music in the poem seems to play a pivotal role. How did that piece all come together and who inspired it?
GC: Alice Herz Sommers. A real human and survivor of the Holocaust. It may have been a YouTube clip posted to Facebook. She spoke about her own experiences and how she survived. I watched it over and over, mesmerized by her and her courage. I also found a book her son wrote, but I’ve been too afraid to read it. The Garden of Eden in Hell. I’m delighted that you find the poem musical, but I don’t have an answer beyond this. I was moved by her and how she lived and wanted to honor her in some way.
AB: I appreciate your courage in writing “feared loss.” In tackling the often-ignored issue of grieving after miscarriage, you manage to make the reader feel what the speaker feels in these lines “then years of crying/imagined childless birthday parties/ useless concerns about school day care/ what your father would think” Have you gotten many responses to that poem?
GC: Yes and no. It was published in The Baltimore Review more than 20 years ago, and on a visit to Bill Jones’ high school class, he asked me to read it aloud three times in a row. That was very difficult emotionally. It touches people, but it’s also deeply personal. For each person. No, it’s usually not something people want to discuss. But it’s my experience, and I write about it.
AB: What was the most difficult poem for you to write? How did you overcome the challenges?
GC: Probably the title poem, and american mom, and travelling south. All of them are wide-ranging in terms of topics. All of them include fears I have about what my children might experience. All of them include historical and ongoing tragedies that I worry will not be corrected in their lifetimes. american mom is a 9/11 poem even though what inspired it takes place 20 years after 9/11. 9/11 and the threat of retaliation after the killing of Iranian General Soleimani are bookends of the poem. My daughter was 6 months old when 9/11 happened. This recent threat came at what is a very vulnerable place for me as a parent. My daughter, a young adult, visits friends in different cities on her own including New York. While I believe there will always be more people who want to help you rather than hurt you, there are those few looking for vulnerable young people. And there’s always the possibility of stupid bad luck.
So, there I was wondering if something like 9/11 might happen knowing my daughter was in New York near the 20th anniversary and unable to protect her. travelling south also presents troubling real-life situations, and even though my son was still with me, I had no idea how to talk about these horrific things. I could not make it better or fix any of these problems. They were happening, my son was aware, and I couldn’t make it better. When your child is young, you can often do things – they drop a lollipop, you give them a new one or at least wash it off. The poem shows that moment when your child becomes aware of injustices happening all around and realizes that Mommy can’t do anything about it. questions for water is my longest poem and includes many situations Mommy can’t fix. Sometimes she can’t even figure out how to start a conversation. The poem includes current and historical injustices. It was very hard to write, but I just made myself keep going. I wanted to get it to the point of sharing it with others. It was hard and it was work, but it was work I love doing so it wasn’t work at all.
One of my most important sources of support for my writing is my tiny writing group. It’s my husband (who’s also a poet), myself, and one mutual friend who is both an excellent writer and an excellent editor. She can look at something and see very quickly where a poem needs help or is working well. I’m a little in awe of that. She was also a tremendous help in arranging the order of the whole book. I had redone it multiple times thinking I was getting closer but still not feeling right (and not having any idea why), and she can see the whole thing and suggest – you do it like this. And I go – oh! That’s how it goes! It’s a skill she has. So my tiny writers’ group is extremely important to me. I trust both of the others and will ask for suggestions on this, that and everything. I don’t always take their advice, and sometimes they advise different things, but I know they will help me make the poems the best they can be.
AB: Thank you, Ginny, for taking the time to talk with me about your work. In addition to your teaching, what projects do you have underway currently?
GC: I’m feeling pretty unsettled to be honest. I’ve been tutoring children individually; it can be very rewarding and horrifying from one minute to the next. For example, I’m working with a 4th grader who can’t read or do math. A 4th grader! His parents love him, but the school system has completely failed him. He’s fallen into “the cracks” and no one is doing anything or even noticing. It’s heartbreaking. He’s lovely; his parents work long hours including night shifts, and they’ve hired me. But it’s impossible to supply 5 years worth of learning in a few months. So I’ve been juggling individual students and several other part-time jobs, and now it looks like I will soon have a full time teaching position, but then there’s the worry of omicron. I have more teaching jobs than I can do, and I’m trying to figure out which are the best (and safest) choices to keep. Fall has been quite a whirlwind of running from job to job, so I’m hoping to figure out how to focus on just a few of them. And still have some time and energy for poetry.
I recently became the host of the Maryland Writers’ Alliance First Friday series. That’s been great. In Jan we have Naomi Shihab Nye, in Feb Bruce Jacobs, and in March we get to hear from your new book. I’m looking forward to that and hearing about your experiences that inspired it.
Bio: Virginia Crawford is a long-time teaching artist with the Maryland State Arts Council. In April 2021, Apprentice House Press published her full-length collection of poetry, questions for water. One reviewer said, “her work mines the seam between the personal and the political. Crawford brings her lyrical voice and intimate perspective to the challenges faced by twenty-first century families, America, and the world.” Previously her chapbook Touch was published by Finishing Line Press. She has co-edited two anthologies: Poetry Baltimore, poems about a city, and Voices Fly, An Anthology of Exercises and Poems from the Maryland State Arts Council Artist-in-Residence Program. She has appeared at the CityLit Fest, the Baltimore Book Festival, The Gaithersburg Book Festival and others. She earned degrees in Creative Writing from Emerson College, Boston, and The University of St. Andrews, Scotland. She lives and writes in Baltimore, Maryland. You can find out more at www.virginiacrawford.com.
Ann Bracken (AB): I first met you several years ago when you were the featured reader at the Wilde Readings series. Please tell me a little about your journey as an author and why you’ve chosen the Indie/self-publishing route for your work.
Debbi Mack (DM): At the time I did it, I’d had my first novel in the Sam McRae mystery series, Identity Crisis, published by a small press. However, the press went under nine months after I signed the contract. So the book went out-of-print less than a year after it came out in 2005.
I self-published it in 2009, with the sole intention of getting the work out there. It was literally impossible to sell the series to anyone but a small publisher at that point. And even small presses were turning me down. No agent would consider it, and each and every one of them (who bothered to share any advice with me) told me to write a standalone and try to find an agent with that.
So, I wrote two standalone novels, one of which I’ve self-published. But that was after I came out with the Sam McRae series myself.
I just thought if readers had a chance to read the book, they might like it. In addition, my local chapter of Sisters in Crime, an organization that supports women mystery authors, were self-publishing an anthology I was in through Lulu.com. So, I figured I’d do the same, because why not? It cost nothing, and you got royalties from them, like any other publisher.
At the same time, I was getting the print book ready for release, I discovered ebook self-publishing through Amazon’s KDP (Kindle Direct Platform). Since it was a non-exclusive deal they offered, again I thought, why not? I figured it would be good for a bit of spare change. Seriously, that’s ALL I expected.
AB: What were some of the most important things you learned once you chose this path?
DM: Too many things to list! 🙂
First, publishing was changing faster than I could keep up with it. By 2011, my first novel had hit the New York Times bestseller list. However, the way it got there turned out to be unsustainable.
At the time, I had five blogs and a website. I priced my books low (at $0.99) when everyone was pricing theirs at $2.99. Why? Because my volume sales were much higher at that price point.
Everything seemed to be fine. Except I started to hear that authors would need to publish more and more books a year, if they intended to survive as authors.
Then Amazon pretty much offered indie authors a kind of … I’ll call it an “ethical bribe” … and I’m being really kind in saying that. Amazon offers various “benefits” if you agree to be exclusive with them for at least three months.
At the same time, Amazon was rapidly expanding into other markets, creating its own publishing imprints, expanding further into retail, making motion pictures, opening bookstores. All this while the Department of Justice was pursuing an antitrust case against the Big Six (or Five, I can no longer keep count). That seemed terrifically ironic, given the all-out takeover Amazon was engaged in.
And how much of a disservice was it to readers with Nooks or other devices for authors to simply say, “Sorry. I can’t sell you an ebook, because … Amazon’s paying me to be exclusive to them.” Not that any author came right out and stated it. What was worse, no one saw that this was a problem at the time. So many authors I spoke with were like, “Oh, it’s only three months.” The problem is indie authors lost their independence when that happened.
Some will tell you that the only way for an author who only writes fiction to make a living now is to come out with some ungodly random number of books a year. They will tell it requires constantly creating new books and publishing them, on top of the marketing part. Talk about unsustainable.
Now, knowing that Amazon makes most of its profit from providing web services, a few folks are finally realizing there’s a great big problem here. Amazon (in essence) runs a substantial portion of the Internet itself. I wondered how it wasn’t a conflict for Amazon to essentially own the distribution network other publishers depend on, while also competing with them. And why more people weren’t asking this question.
As of this writing, more people are asking just that question, but it is still a discussion confined mainly among people in publishing, including self-published authors, small presses, and the like.
But here’s where things get (even more) complicated for me.
Because I made the quarterfinals in screenwriting contest in 2012 or thereabouts, I became more interested in writing screenplays. This was something I’d always wanted to do, but had no idea how to get started.
So, I made a decision to write screenplays. I attended the Austin Film Festival, as well as a local class on indie film production. That’s when I learned about things like crowdfunding. And I set up a crowdfunding campaign without any real planning. Naturally, it succeeded only because a family member swept in and donated the money. That’s not the way crowdfunding is supposed to work.
Right now, as I write, I should (maybe) have some kind of big launch plan in place in anticipation of the release of the second novel in my new series. But, frankly, it’s all I can do write these answers.
I have a rare movement disorder that makes typing beyond difficult. It was caused by a stroke, and as a result, my left hand is constantly moving in all different directions. It is sheer hell on concentration, but for good or ill, I tend to be very focused and possibly a bit too driven to succeed at things.
So, I had to learn not to care about my Amazon rank. I also had to learn that there are many ways to build a fan base. And one of them is to write high-quality content and find a way to connect with readers in a personal way.
I learned the hard way about not paying for promotions. I was spending way too much on that. I got to the point where I incurred big enough losses for me to want to simply quit.
At some point, I just had to stop all my promotions. Just stop and think about what I really wanted. I’ve also had to think about what my idea of success is. And, at this point, just having a new book out is a success for me. As for being in Amazon’s Top 100 or any of that, I really don’t care at this point.
Having genuine connections with readers, along with networking in the filmmaker realm has kept me busy. Especially with the pandemic. So many people have virtual events now. And you can end up in an endless loop of those.
On the whole, I’d say my experiences have taught me that it takes more than writing a good book and putting it up online. And marketing experts abound out there. Ready to take your money, I might add, for the advice they offer, which ends up involving Amazon ads, Facebook ads, etc. etc. That particular depends on gaining a competitive edge through algorithms. The algorithms were with me ten years ago. Not so much now. Besides, another person’s success story may not translate into one of your own.
The bottom line is that self-publishing is easy, but marketing and visibility are not. So many people self-publish now that, unless you want to agonize over Amazon’s algorithms, you probably won’t make the money I was able to ten years ago.
AB: For people who may eschew self-publishing and hold out for a deal from a “real” publisher, what would you like them to know?
DM: If you think having a “real publisher” will assure you great success, think again!
If you write genre fiction like I do, any traditional publisher will give you a relatively small advance. And, if you fail to sell enough books, they’ll drop you from their stable. Most authors don’t usually earn out even these small advances, mainly because they aren’t marketing well. And the publishers aren’t doing the heavy lifting. They’re relying on the sales of books by authors much higher up on the “food chain”, so to speak. The big names with the big advances get the most marketing help from publishers.
There are actually advantages to going with a smaller press, for that reason. You’re one of a select niche (or genre-specific) group, and they have more at stake in making sure you’re successful. You’ll definitely get more personal attention from a small press. You’ll still need to market, but a reputable press has contacts and connections that you may not.
Naturally, you can earn more when you publish directly online, because the royalty percentage is higher. However, if no one can find your book, you won’t make sales. Visibility is the tough part.
AB: What are some of the pitfalls you’ve encountered that you’d like others to know about?
DM: Um … see above. 🙂
Here’s a short list:
#1 Spending way too much on promotional services;
#2 Failing to connect with fans through a newsletter or other means;
#3 Trying to be everywhere on social media, doing everything, without sufficient thought as to whom you’re reaching or trying to figure out how to reach your ideal reader;
#4 Simply doing giveaway after giveaway without checking the effect on your bottom line;
#5 Taking time off from online activities, now and then;
#6 Writing salesy newsletter content. I see this way, way too much;
#7 Lack of genuine connection with one’s readers;
#8 Valuing short-term gain over long-term strategy;
#9 Not treating self-publishing as a business. Keeping track of income streams and exploiting every income stream possible from your content.
And that’s just a short list.
AB: What personal qualities do you think have helped you to be successful as a writer?
DM: I would say just plain stubborness has kept me at this. I’m also diligent about my writing routine. I try to do a little writing every day.
Also, just flat-out passion for the work. Without that, there’s really no point in doing any of it.
AB: Tell us about your latest project:
DM: Actually, right now, I’m publishing my second novel in the Erica Jensen mystery series. It came out on Nov. 11 as an ebook and the print version will be out soon. And working out the plot for the next one.
I’m also working on a Sam McRae story that I plan to serialize on Substack. That’s a whole ‘nuther discussion right there.
If you’re familiar with Amazon’s Vella serials, Substack is essentially the same thing for indie authors. There are currently indie authors serializing their fiction there. With Vella, again Amazon requires exclusivity. I won’t do that.
Substack is both a newsletter and a blog combined. Every time you publish a new chapter, it goes out by email to subscribers. You can start of with free samples, and charge for whole books. That’s just one way of going about it.
To be honest, I have no idea how successful fiction authors have been with Substack. But I’m giving it a try, because … again, why not?
And for what it’s worth, you can essentially do the same thing on Medium. Medium lets you set up a paywall pretty much in the same manner as Substack. I’m experimenting with both these days.
I divide my writing time roughly 60% fiction writing, 40% screenwriting, more or less. Planning when and what to write ahead of time keeps me focused on finishing projects.
AB: What is Patreon and how does it benefit authors?
DM: Now, that’s a great question. Basically, Patreon is an online platform that supports creative work of all kinds by providing a way for creators to offer incentives for fans of your work to become your patrons. Like the patronage system of old, except on the Internet and with the ability to reach a worldwide audience.
An author can benefit from this by offering early access to drafts of their work or making personal appearances at book clubs or one-on-one consultations. It lets you offer different benefits at different levels of support. The type of benefit depends on what you write and what you offer readers, in general. It could be early drafts of works-in-progress, classes, consultations, live Q&A, Discord access (Discord is a kind of direct messaging system that I haven’t quite figured out, to be honest). In exchange for these benefits, supporters get to know your work and, assuming you get the word out about your Patreon page, the idea is similar to crowdfunding. Provide a special benefit of some sort and people will pay for that.
The idea is that true believers in your work will support you, if you ask nicely.
There’s a book by Amanda Palmer, who’s a musician, which doesn’t matter really. It’s not what you make, but how you entice people’s interest in your work. Amanda Palmer wrote a book about all this called The Art of Asking. I highly recommend it for anyone who’s interested in Patreon.
Other books about Patreon are out there. But Amanda’s is most interesting.
And you really don’t have to be a rock star to have fans who’ll support you. I think it’s largely a matter of taking the time to figure who you’re trying to write for and how to best reach them.
AB: Other thoughts?
DM: Just keep writing. Be willing to take advice from others, but choose your advisors with care. Take any advice you get with more than one grain of salt. And don’t give up, but do give yourself a break now and then.
Debbi Mack is author of the Sam McRae mystery series, including her debut novel, Identity Crisis, which made the New York Times bestseller list in 2011 and is under option to be adapted for the screen. Her standalone books include a middle grade novel, Invisible Me, and a thriller, The Planck Factor.
Her most recent release is Fatal Connections, the sequel to the Shamus-nominated Damaged Goods, the first novel of a new series featuring Erica Jensen, a female Marine veteran sleuth, who battles PTSD and drug addiction while solving crimes.
In honor of National Poetry Month, I’m posting a couple of columns that can help you see often-neglected uses for poetry. Besides its great beauty and ability to capture emotions, poetry can be a useful tool in many aspects of life–like dealing with depression.
How can poetry help depression? Aren’t medication and therapy the best ways to treat the illness? My story may surprise you.
When I suffered from depression in the early 1990s, Prozac was the new “miracle drug.” Along with this so-called “miracle drug came a physical explanation of causation: that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. This thesis is still widely promulgated, though much research is coming to light that disputes and even negates this biomedical explanation for the darkness that is so prevalent in our modern world. More information on the research side can be found at the website Mad in America, curated by science reporter Robert Whitaker. As part of Whitaker’s work to educate the public, he invites doctors, psychologists, counselors, and patients from all over the world to share research, essays, and personal experiences on the issues of depression and its treatment.
Even in the 1990s when I struggled to climb out of depression and tried numerous medications for several years with no results, the idea that the chemicals in my brain were out of whack did not provide a solid answer. Instead, I pursued a more metaphysical explanation for the questions that haunted me: “Why am I depressed?” and “What longings are unfulfilled?”
And that’s what led me to poetry.
One of the most valuable resources I found to aid in making sense of the gifts of depression is poet David Whyte’s 1992 CD entitled The Poetry of Self Compassion. Whyte’s recitation of Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” confirmed my feelings of being on a perilous but necessary journey through darkness and confusion. And I was deeply confused by the all-encompassing darkness that I was experiencing. But once I heard Whyte recite “The Journey,” I knew that someone understood a piece of what I was experiencing. And that the way I was feeling had nothing to do with messed up brain chemistry. My depression had everything to do with self-discovery and taking charge of my life.
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice–though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingersat the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.It was already lateenough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
~Mary OliverI remember listening to the poem over and over–as if rolling around a mysterious new food in my mouth, trying to figure out what it tasted like that was familiar. What was it I was determined to do? What else besides raise my children, serve my community, and be a good wife? I just knew there was more. And Mary Oliver’s words gave me the courage to make the journey that would save my life.
The answer was slow in coming, but I gradually began to realize that my struggles with depression and a migraine headache exacerbated my ex-husband’s verbal abuse to the point where I could finally see it. Depression and chronic pain became my crucible for change and my pathway to a new life. Poetry became my way to unlock the profound secrets that illness led me to discover. Poetry helped me to have compassion for my journey and for all the mistakes I had made along the way.
Whyte ends on a note of great compassion in the poem “The Faces at Braga” as he compares surrendering to the fire of depression and embracing your flaws in this way: “If only we could give ourselves to the blows of the carver’s hands, the lines in our faces would be the trace lines of rivers feeding the sea” and we would “gather all our flaws in celebration, to merge with them perfectly…” What a compelling call–to celebrate one’s flaws. What a gift of healing.
This essay originally appeared in the Currere Exchange, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2020.
While I’m no longer able to volunteer inside of a prison, I’m continuing my advocacy work by mentoring a writer who is incarcerated in a Maryland prison. If you’re interested, check out the Justice Arts Coalition’s pARTner Project for more details.
In 2015, my editor at Little Patuxent Review gave me an assignment I wanted to refuse; she asked me to interview a professor who ran a writing group—in a prison—and then to visit the prison and interview the men. The woman who ran the group—Professor M., a sociology professor at a major research institution who’d volunteered in the prison for seven years—spoke very positively about the men who participated in her group. Near the end of our interview, she shared a program with me for a literary day of the arts where the men had performed their original poems, stories, and songs. Their faces looked young and happy, which was a complete surprise to me. Professor M. assured me that I’d like the men, and her parting words were especially compelling: “There’s no one else that I’d rather spend a few hours with in a discussion.” I was intrigued, but frightened to go into a prison. My mind buzzed with all of the common middle-class stereotypes about “those people” behind bars and how they might act. “Those people”: school drop outs, drug dealers, hustlers, maybe even murderers. At that time, I had driven by the prison only once and never had the slightest desire to volunteer there. Several of my writer colleagues worked in prisons, and while I admired them, I had kept my distance, partly out of fear and partly because my protective shell had begun to crack as I learned about the prison industrial complex and the school-to-prison pipeline.
Many of my former high school students had brushes with the juvenile justice system, but none of them were especially “bad” kids. Instead, they were kids who had tough home lives or who had made really poor, impulsive decisions or who’d been unfairly targeted by a biased system that landed them in the lap of the law. Deep down, my spirit realized that, if I were to go into a prison and meet the men, I’d probably form a bond with them. Up to that moment, I’d walled myself off from that possibility, but my interview with Professor M. had piqued my curiosity.
Once my security clearance came through, I accompanied Professor M. to meet her writing group. Along with a lone pad of paper and a single pen, I’d brought a copy of my first poetry book, The Altar of Innocence, for the men to read and share. I thought they could relate to my story about drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and divorce. Ninety minutes were allotted to interview five men, so I’d prepared questions about something that I wanted to know and understand better: Who were you when you came here? and Who are you now? I wasn’t allowed to have a recording device and couldn’t take any pictures, so I wrote notes on everything I experienced in order to capture the look and feel of the prison. My hastily scribbled sentences contained every detail that I could observe—the yellow X on the elevator floor designating the spot where no one could stand for fear of stalling the elevator, the insulation peeling off of the pipes in the hallway, the black metal peeking through chipped paint on the bars, the smell of bleach in the hallway outside the school, the song-like Baltimore and foreign dialects of the guards—and most of all, the men in the writing group.
Each one of them greeted me with a smile and shook my hand to welcome me to the group. Professor M. had told them why I was coming and then gave them a bit of my background—college lecturer, writer, and former high school teacher.
After about 15 minutes of introductions and chatting, we got started with the business of the interviews. The men sat around a large, rectangular table, each with a black and white composition book that held his writing. I didn’t think we’d have time for sharing, but it was good to see that they’d come prepared. I made notes about the physical condition of the room and copied down the quote written in neat cursive on wide yellow bulletin board paper that served as the backdrop on the stage. “Education is a passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it.”
I was impressed by the men’s good manners and calm demeanors. They laughed and joked with one another and shared stories with Professor M. and me. I felt much more relaxed than I’d imagined, and I was totally enthralled with all that the men had to share about their lives.
Here is a sample of what they told me. All of the men’s names throughout the manuscript have been changed to preserve their anonymity.
“I was misguided. I had no sense of self-worth. I grew up without any guidance. I’d say I was a lost individual. I was only reading at about the 7th grade level. I did some dumb things. I’ve been here since I was 15, and now I’m 28. Who I am now is a happy individual. I’m striving to be a better person—educated, moral, all that. I’m working on my character. I meditate, pray, work on my attitude. I want to contribute in a positive way. Part of what helps me is reading. When I read words, and I didn’t know what they meant, I went and got a dictionary. The idea that I could learn on my own was a spark.”~ Ryan, from East Baltimore
Author’s note: This essay forms the foundation for my memoir-in-search-of-a-publisher, Putting the Pieces Together: A Story of Overmedication and Recovery.
In 1959, my mother suffered what people commonly referred to as a nervous breakdown after my youngest sister’s birth. Mom spent six months in a local, Catholic psychiatric hospital while Dad and Grandma assumed command of the household. I was seven years old, the second-oldest of five children. Eventually, Mom visited us a few times on Sundays, and then returned home in November, presumably ready to assume her duties as a wife and mother. Sadly, Mom remained gripped by depression for the rest of her life.
Because my memories of that time are wrapped in thick layers of gauze, I’ve had to rely on others to fill in the gaps. My father, grandmother, and Mom’s close friends believed that Mom experienced postpartum depression, starting after my birth, and worsening with each successive child. My older brother shared this memory about a year ago when I asked what he remembered about Mom’s 1959 illness: “I came home from college and found her in the basement, banging her head against the wall, moaning, ‘I can’t take it anymore.’”
My heart ached when I heard that story, but I still puzzled over why Mom never recovered. Until I found Dad’s collection of records in a dusty box stashed in my sister’s attic. Old insurance and medication records, newspaper and magazine articles, and letters to doctors were neatly organized in an unassuming manila folder. As I leafed through the contents, intuition whispered that I’d finally have the missing puzzle pieces I’d searched for all my life.
Some of the most valuable clues were in a letter, typed on onion skin paper, that sat on top of the file. It was dated 1-17-83 and addressed to Dr. L., one of Mom’s many doctors. Dad wrote the following notes:
5th child born Feb.59. Normal birth and she carried baby in good spirits. About mid-April started having problems and had first visit with psychiatrist of May 8, 1959. Between then and June 22nd, ’59, he treated her with Amytal, Ritalin, Nardil, Trilafen, NaBu-4, Dexamyl tabs and spansules, and Tofranil. By the end of May ‘59 she was so bad, that even to my nonprofessional eye, I didn’t see how she could avoid hospitalization… She remained there to late Nov. 59. During this time, she received medicine and numerous EST [electroshock therapy] treatments.
The only drug I recognized in that long list was Ritalin, an amphetamine that had been widely prescribed for depression in the 1950s and ’60s. I quickly set to work looking up the rest, all the while screaming inside, How could anyone give a nursing mother with three small children and a newborn so many drugs in such a short period of time? A quick search on the website drugs.com helped me to understand the other drugs my mother took when she first got depressed. Amytal is a long-acting barbiturate; Nardil is an MAO-inhibitor (a type of antidepressant); Trilafon is an antipsychotic; Nembutal is a barbiturate used as a sedative; Tofranil is a tricyclic antidepressant; and Dexamyl is a combination of an amphetamine and a barbiturate.
It was easy enough for me to find the commonly listed effects of all of those drugs, and I wondered how Mom’s doctor could have prescribed all of them in such a short time. Dad’s records don’t indicate if she took all of them together, but even if she took a few, discontinued them, and started a few others, the chemical load must have overwhelmed her system. What struck me in looking at the effects of all the medications was that many of them could cause anxiety, sleeplessness, and agitation—three things I clearly remember my mother struggling with.
Now my brother’s story made more sense—I think Mom was banging her head on the wall because she couldn’t tolerate what the drugs did to her. Her doctor told a different story in the diagnosis that my father noted: “This psychiatrist [Dr. S.] diagnosed it [Mom’s illness] as severe depression with agitation and not due to childbirth.” The doctor’s assessment rang true in one sense—it seemed pretty clear to me that Mom’s severe depression with agitation was due to the massive amounts of drugs she was taking and was, indeed, not related to childbirth. But somehow, I don’t think that’s what the doctor meant. While I have no doubt that my mother struggled against overwhelming feelings of sadness and fatigue, which led to the initial appointment with Dr. S., I believe Mom’s breakdown was probably chemically-induced due to overprescription of drugs.
Dad had also kept some of the original prescription bills related to Mom’s 1959 hospitalization, and between August and October, she took Thorazine, Nembutal, and Tofranil on a regular basis, in addition to receiving an undisclosed number of electroshock therapy treatments. When she came home, the doctor had her on a regimen of Phenobarbital, Miltown (an antianxiety drug), and the tricyclic Tofranil. Dad supplemented that regimen with carefully measured decanters of white wine that I once caught him cutting with water. When he saw me watching, he cautioned, “Don’t ever tell your mother what you saw.” Nowhere in the thirty years of records is there any indication of Mom’s drinking, which all of us tacitly accepted as a significant part of her daily routine.
I also found homemade spreadsheets where Dad listed the dates and medication amounts for Mom’s drugs, often annotated with notes about her responses. The information in those charts prompted me to investigate possible medication effects that may have influenced Mom’s internal state which led her to attempt suicide in 1967. At the time, she was taking a combination of Aventyl (a tricyclic which can cause restlessness, agitation, and anxiety), Dexamyl (amphetamine and barbiturate combination), and Phenobarbital (a barbiturate which is linked to nightmares, nervousness, depression, and anxiety). The effects of all of these medications, combined with Mom’s continued daily drinking, probably led to the intense feelings of despair that drove her to slit her wrists in December. Dad found her in the bathroom that night. I accompanied my parents to the hospital, while my two siblings, ages twelve and thirteen, stayed home and cleaned up the bathroom. None of us ever spoke of that night again.
What about therapy, I wondered, and how did Mom’s psychiatrist treat her after that tragic night? One would think the doctor should have increased Mom’s routine visits to keep a closer watch on her. But according to Dad’s records, that’s not what happened. In fact, Mom’s doctor saw her twice a month, beginning in January of 1960, only about two months after she was released from the hospital, and continuing through June of 1968. However, in the weeks immediately following her suicide attempt in 1967, he did not see her more frequently, a fact which seems to indicate a lack of support and concern. By August of 1968, Dad’s notes indicate that Dr. S. wanted to hospitalize my mother. Dad’s notes and the conversations I can remember ring with the angry charge that “Dr. S. just threw up his hands and gave up on her.”
Because Dad was adamant about keeping Mom out of the hospital, he sought out Dr. M., a well-known psychiatrist who performed electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatments in his office. Between August of 1968 and June of 1970, Dr. M. administered thirty-nine ECT treatments to my mother, sometimes giving her as many as five treatments in a month. The one time I remember accompanying my father to help him bring Mom home, I was shocked by her dazed look and unsteady walk. I remember her sleeping through the next day and experiencing memory loss from that time forward. Dad told me that Dr. M. did the procedure without anesthesia, but from some of the reading I’ve done on earlier ECT administration, it seems likely that Dr. M. probably used a short-acting barbiturate to sedate Mom. Otherwise, how could she submit to so many treatments? And how could Dad willingly put her through that pain? I think both of them must have been more desperate for relief than any of us kids could have guessed.
I wish I could say that Mom got better after all of that ECT, but she never attained such a reward for all of her efforts and suffering. In 1973, after suffering from mysterious dental pain for several months and finding no relief, a neurologist helped Mom and Dad to see that she was suffering from depression. Mom was hospitalized for at least a month and endured detox for both barbiturates and alcohol, but she was unable to maintain her sobriety once she came home. I was sickened to learn that Mom’s doctors routinely prescribed Thorazine for her from 1969 to 1983, a practice which would explain why she suffered from tardive dyskinesia and later from severe full-body trembling, possibly akathisia. Mom was hospitalized again for several weeks in 1993, and for the first time, her psychiatrist confronted the family about her alcohol dependence and informed all of us that her MRIs showed evidence of small strokes and blood in the brain. He asked all of us to pledge to refrain from serving alcohol at family gatherings, but we were split on the issue of whether Mom had a problem or not, so she continued to drink along with all of her medications until her death in 2002.
I remember my mother suffering from horrible, visceral anxiety where she would take deep, fast breaths and then wring her hands as if she were Lady Macbeth. Now that I understand more about her medications, I realize how impossible it is to determine if my mother was actuallyvery depressed and anxious or if she was one of the early victims of polypharmacy, trapped in physical and emotional pain due to overmedication and a lack of supportive therapy. It seems clear from the records that Mom’s doctors saw her condition as biochemical and treated her accordingly, tweaking the pills as they went along, and in a sense, resigning themselves to maintaining her “treatment resistant” condition with the only tools they believed in.
Despite all of her sedating and numbing medications, Mom lived a rich and meaningful life. She cared for us, made sure we had regular, nutritious meals and provided a supportive presence when we needed help. Mom hosted her bridge group, participated in a book club, and made weekly trips to talks at the local art museum with one of my aunts. She was also a gifted artist with a degree in costume design from Maryland Institute College of Art, but her talent never matured once all of us were born. Sadly, she never picked up a paint brush in all the years I knew her.
As a child, I made two vows: to help my mother get well and to never be like her.
Want to read the rest of the story? Please hop on over to the Mad in America blog where this essay was originally publishedin May of 2019.
It’s customary at the start of a new year to make resolutions–and then for them to fall by the wayside within a few weeks. I know–I’ve done it in the past. But I have a new strategy inspired by the book One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer, Ph.D.
I read the book several years ago and frequently return to Maurer’s advice when I encounter a goal I’m flummoxed by. The main takeaway in the book, at least for me, is two-fold: We often become overwhelmed by changes that we perceive as being too big to handle, and if you think you’re taking a small step towards your goal, go even smaller.
He gives the example of helping a client address her idea that she didn’t have time to exercise by securing her commitment to walking for one minute as she watched her favorite TV show. She gradually progressed to walking during one commercial break, then two, and pretty soon, she was walking for 30 minutes while she watched TV, meeting a suggested fitness goal.
Maurer explains that the brain fears change, and when we decide to make a change from no exercise to 30 minutes a day, the amygdala goes into freak-out mode, paralyzing us. But if our movements toward a goal are incremental to the point of insignificance, we’ll make changes more smoothly and eventually reach our goals.
One change I want to make is to read some of the great literature that I’ve missed over the years. For the most part, I’ve missed it because of my chosen major in college–speech pathology–and the need to do some much required reading for all the courses I’ve taught over the years.
But now that I’m retired, I’m looking forward to reading books that call to me to explore them in full. To start with, I’ve purchased Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, which critics say is brilliant. I’ll also finally “get my Austen on” and read Pride and Prejudice, then King Lear,some essays by James Baldwin, and Adrienne Rich’s Diving Into the Wreck. Those few titles may take me through 2021, and I plan to work out time for short segments of reading where I can savor the language and enjoy the experience.
I’ve often approached things that I’ve missed–like significant books–by reading enough to have a passing knowledge of the plot and characters. I’ve seen myself as an ice skater, skimming the surface of the ice, just ahead of the fall. But now I’m shifting my perspective to that of a wader–slowly entering the stream and savoring the beauty of the tide pools.
I took a poetry class with Chad Frame, the Emeritus poet laureate of Montgomery County, PA back in June. Chad provided many challenges for us–such as writing found poetry, shape poetry, and centos, to name a few. By far, I thought that the golden shovel form was the most opaque, and I dreaded trying my hand.
Terrance Hayes originated the Golden Shovel form when he wrote two poems as homages to Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool.” He wrote one poem in 1981 and one in 1991 and both of them use the words in Brooks’ poem as the last word of each line in the Hayes poem.
From “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks
We real cool. We/left school. We
And here are the first correlating lines of the 1981 Hayes’ poem
When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real
men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we
drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school
I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
So what you get if you read down the final word of each line in the Hayes’ poem are the lines in Brooks’ poem.
I wrote my poem with a one line from a David Whyte poem called “Sweet Darkness” because I’ve used the line as a piece of guiding wisdom for many years: “Anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”
A few words about process. I wrote the words down the right side of an 8×11″ sheet of paper and just went for it. I actually pleased with the results.
Inner Compass It could rain anything during the night—leaves or maybe you dream of anyone
speaking a riddle that you can answer. In what language does a cardinal call? I yearn for time not designed by Tech gods who bring endless yet useless updates to you. None of them will keep you alive until your imagination is free to understand that too many things feel small because a cramped vision is useless for the world that calls to you.
I’d love to hear from you if you decide to jump in! Drop me a line.
I can no longer remember how long I’ve been inside. With the exception of occasional trips to the store and my daily walks around the neighborhood, my world consists of the rooms in my house. I’m sure many of you can relate to the joke that made its rounds shortly before the recent holiday weekend–“I haven’t decided where to spend Easter/Passover yet–the living room or the dining room.” And like many other writers I know, I’ve been feeling stuck.
Sometimes I hear a voice inside saying, All of your best work is behind you. And maybe that’s true–but I am pushing back against my feelings of inertia. I refuse to remain stuck in a non-writing state. Because I have an equally persistent voice inside telling me to just do one thing, write one poem a day. So, I’ve committed to that daily discipline for April, in honor of National Poetry Month. Seems like as good an excuse as any other.
And because I’ve had so many instances of stuckness in my life, I’d like to share an idea that a poetry therapy mentor presented to our class one day many years ago. She asked us to visualize a train on the tracks, speeding along to someplace we wanted to visit. As we settled into the “ride,” she threw us a curve and said, “Now imagine that that train is stuck and you don’t know how long you’ll be sitting still.” I could easily picture how I felt–annoyed, a little anxious, disappointed. Lastly, my teacher challenged us to envision the benefits of being stuck…and to write about them.
For me, one of the benefits of being stuck is that I’m reaching for tools to jump-start my writing–tools that I use in creative writing classes I teach, but don’t always use them in my own work. I’ve downloaded 30 days of poetry prompts and am working my way through the list. I’m choosing news articles that I ‘ve set aside and writing found-poems about them. But my favorite tool is Taylor Mali’s “Metaphor Dice,” a set of 12 different die with a concept (hope) equaling an adjective (broken) + an object (promise). And if you’re more inclined towards using an app rather than actual dice, Mali’s got you covered!
And finally, here’s a poem to inspire you to take a step towards a new beginning, to get unstuck. Think of where you are as a room with a closed door. Now imagine what lies “On the Other Side of the Door.”
On the Other Side of the Door by Jeff Moss
On the other side of the door
I can be a different me,
As smart and as brave or as funny and as strong
As a person could want to be.
There’s nothing that’s too hard for me to do,
There’s no place I can’t explore
Because everything can happen on the other side of the door.
On the other side of the door
I don’t have to go alone.
If you come, too, we can sail tall ships
And fly where the wind has flown.
And wherever we go, it is almost sure
We’ll find what we’re looking for
Because everything can happen on the other side of the door.
Pain is an important signal. We feel something hot and pull our hand away. A knee hurts and we ice it. Pain is the body’s way of telling us to pay attention to something and give it some attention. But what if pain also tells us about our emotions? Mad in America recently published my essay entitled “Learning to Speak the Subtle Language of Pain.” My hope is that someone with an experience like mine will find comfort and resonance in my story.
Here’s an excerpt: “It gradually dawned on me that my back pain was another mask that depression wore. Instead of crying and feeling overwhelmed or giving up, my body was sending distress signals to help me realize that I was in a difficult spot.”
Dorothy Wetzler Bracken designed and painted this dress as a student at Maryland Institute College of Art in the 1930s. Although she graduated in 1935 with a degree in costume design, she was never able to pursue her artistic talents. Mom kept her dreams to herself until the late 90s when I discovered a portfolio of her designs and she confessed, “I always wanted to be a fashion designer.”
Dorothy’s story could have been a happy one—she married, had many friends, and eventually had five children. “I was thrilled every time I found out I was pregnant,” she often told me. Yet, postpartum depression plagued Mom following nearly every birth. After her fifth child arrived, Mom was hospitalized, received electroconvulsive therapy treatments, took copious amounts of psychiatric drugs, but sadly, she never recovered.
Because I always managed to recover from my own depressions, I puzzled over Mom remaining trapped in chronic depression for over 40 years. Until I found Dad’s collection of old insurance and medication records, newspaper and magazine articles, and letters to doctors stashed in my sister’s attic.
Those records told the story of my father’s futile attempts to get help from Mom’s doctors, most of whom only saw her twice a year despite a suicide attempt, hospitalizations, accidents (probably due to overmedication), and many electroconvulsive therapy treatments. Most troubling of all were the lists of Mom’s prescriptions that Dad had saved: Thorazine, barbiturates, antidepressants, amphetamines, and benzodiazepines.
Mom’s doctors were practicing polypharmacy: giving a patient more than one drug to treat a condition. The same thing that happened to me with opioids in the late 90s; the same thing—with different drugs—that’s happening now. And oftentimes the chemical load becomes so great that it’s impossible to tell what’s actually going on for a patient vs. the interactions of the medications. Now I know at least one reason Mom never got well.
I’m thrilled to have my memoir, Crash, reviewed on the Mad in America Blog by the fine reporter, writer, and storyteller Amy Biancolli.
Crash: A Memoir of Overmedication and Recovery by Ann Bracken (Charing Cross Press)
“Have you ever done everything a doctor told you, only to find yourself sicker than before you began treatment?”
So asks Bracken in the first paragraph of her memoir, a devastatingly honest, ultimately hopeful account of personal and family anguish marked by crashes both literal and figurative. She zips back and forth in time, describing both her mother’s decades in the system and her own long arc of anguish and recovery—and touching on her daughter’s story as well.
The multigenerational saga begins in 1959, with her mother’s hospitalization for depression, and cycles through a decades-long ordeal that led to 37 ECT sessions (with minimal anesthesia) and psych drug upon psych drug upon psych drug. As a kid, Bracken had questions (where’s mom? why are the grownups whispering?); as an adult, she found answers in 30 years’ worth of medical documents meticulously preserved by her father.
The revelations were many. A full list of Helen Dempsey’s meds in the appendix includes barbiturates. Amphetamines. Tranquilizers. Antidepressants. The benzodiazepine Dalmane. The anticonvulsant Dilantin. Beyond all those medications and ECT, Dempsey also received some talk therapy—“but I’m not sure how helpful it was for my mother to talk with her male psychiatrists,” Bracken writes, “especially given the medical establishment and cultural attitudes toward women at the time.”
You can read the rest of Amy’s review here, and check out the other books featured this month as well.
Last week when I opened up the Sunday edition of The Baltimore Sun, I read an op-ed piece written by three psychiatrists entitled “Haunted asylums are a Halloween staple: Does the fictional gore undermine psychiatry’s good?” The authors emphasized the point that rendering psychiatric treatments as horrific and damaging and “demonizing” patients who need treatment could deter those who need it most. But I had to take issue with their point about electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), a procedure where a doctor administers a current of electricity strong enough to induce a grand mail seizure, is “brief, still, and quiet.”
Because both my mother and I experienced ineffective treatment and overmedication for depression and chronic pain, I have spent the past twenty years trying to figure out what happened to us. Putting those pieces together involved reading research about psychiatric treatments, including the use of antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and ECT. And contrary to what many psychiatrists will tell you, the treatments are largely ineffective at best and can be very harmful at worst.
In response to the three psychiatrists’ letter regarding the demonizing of psychiatry by using old asylums as places to terrorize visitors looking for a Halloween scare, I offer a more skeptical take on the current treatments one is offered by modern psychiatry. As someone who has experienced depression and anxiety in the past and watched friends and family members suffer, I am well aware of the serious nature of emotional distress issues, and I am in favor of evidence-based treatment. But for many people, the treatments run counter to the latest research, are ineffective at best, and sometimes even harmful.
One of the main problems plaguing modern psychiatry is its overreliance on the biological model of mental illness, often simply referred to as the chemical imbalance theory. Yet prominent leaders in the field have disavowed this theory, though many in the general public have not gotten the word. For example, Dr. Ronald Pies, psychiatrist, of SUNY Upstate Medical and Tufts Universities, denies the chemical imbalance theory that modern treatment is based on: “In short, the ‘chemical imbalance theory’ was never a real theory, nor was it widely propounded by responsible practitioners in the field of psychiatry.” And lest you think Dr. Pies is exaggerating, you could consult the latest research By Dr. Joanna Moncrieff et al in which shows that there is no serotonin imbalance in the brain.
Despite its leaders disavowing the theory of a chemical imbalance causing emotional distress, psychiatrists routinely prescribe “treatment” consisting of drugs that purport to correct a chemical imbalance—which we now know does not exist. And recent research states that antidepressants only work for 15% of the people who take them. Few, if any, doctors mention the horrors of sexual dysfunction, sometimes permanent, that afflict many people who take psychiatric drugs. Most people who watch TV have heard the litany of the more common side effects of psych drugswhich include insomnia, sedation, constipation, headaches, weight gain, blurred vision, tremors, and seizures.
And if you try two or three drugs and your doctor deems you to be treatment resistant .…meaning the drugs don’t work for you…then your doctor can administer an electrical current strong enough to induce a grand mal seizure. Electroconvulsive therapy [ECT] is a serious and harsh procedure by any measure, despite Drs. Phelps, Mutalik, and Appell’s assurance that ECT is “brief, still, and quiet.” Even so, recent literature reveals that for 50-70% of people who receive ECT relapse within two to four months and some as soon as four weeks. The doctors mentioned above fail to inform readers that harms from ECT can include permanent memory loss, brain trauma, and even brain damage.
We may be removed from the horrors of the “Field of Screams”, but research shows us that many of psychiatry’s current treatments, far from being precise and effective, are often deemed futile at best and potentially very harmful at worst. Given that many recent studies show that exercise is as effective as antidepressants in treating most cases of depression, shouldn’t patients be offered the least harmful method of treatment first? And after reviewing many of the harms that are possible with the use of antidepressants and ECT, let’s consider the results of National Institute of Mental Health study concluded about the course of untreated depression: “If as many as 85% of depressed individuals who go without somatic treatment [drugs, ECT, and other treatments] spontaneously recover within one year, it would be extremely difficult for any intervention to demonstrate a superior result to this.”
You may have seen my blog post announcing my new book, Crash: A Memoir of Overmedication and Healing. Now you’d like to know what the book is about before you consider reading it. Here are a few details:
Crash is about a little girl whose mother disappeared, and no one would tell her where she’d gone.
Crash is about a woman who did everything her doctors told her, and yet she never got well.
Crash is about the woman’s daughter who vowed she’d never be like her mother only to find herself trapped in a similar cycle of overmedication, numerous doctors, and intractable physical and emotional pain.
Crash is a story of one woman’s determination and optimism when it seemed like all of her traditional remedies and supports had failed her.
When all of the other remedies had failed, I looked for another explanation for my pain.
Because I have a deep belief in many forms of healing, I began to embrace a similar path to the one that mythologist and author Michale Meade advocates. Here’s what he as to say about facing your darkness (depression and pain) and healing:
“Wholeness and unity are what all healing seeks, but a genuine transformation requires a descent to the underworld of the soul. There we find that our woundedness is not a static state, but rather a dynamic condition through which we incarnate more fully. In going through the wound the greater self within us is revealed.”
Register here for the book launch on October 13th, 7pm ET on Zoom. Hope to see you there!
I’m pleased to announce that my memoir, Crash, will be published and available for purchase in October. Putting this book together was like assembling a giant jigsaw puzzle—fitting experiences together with research helped me to develop a deeper understanding of what happened to me when I sought help for a severe depression and chronic migraine. Contrary to many of the upbeat and happy images you see in the commercials for antidepressants, my journey was one of trying one drug after another, yet never finding relief. The research I did for the book revealed that I was far from alone in that experience–only about 15% of the people who take antidepressants experience improvement greater than what’s accounted for beyond the placebo effect.
Part of the reason I’m so interested in the topic is because I grew up in a home with a mother who suffered from chronic, unremitting depression for nearly 40 years. Mom did everything the doctors told her, yet she could never escape the heavy pall of darkness. I kept wondering: Why could I recover and Mom couldn’t? I found the answers buried in an old folder in my sister’s attic. Crash braids my story with my mother’s to explore her journey using Dad’s detailed records from 30 years of her care, interwoven with research and vignettes from my past.
All through my illnesses, “I’ll never be like my mother,” was my fervent mantra. I vowed to escape her fate despite year after year of unsuccessful treatments with numerous drugs and many rounds of electroconvulsive therapy. Crash is the story of what I learned about treating depression and chronic pain and the steps I took to finally recover. My memoir serves as a missive to women struggling to heal, carve their own path, and demand better care.
Hope you’ll join me for the launch on October 13th at 7pm on Zoom. Details coming soon.
Here’s what some noted people in the field of psychiatric reform had to say about Crash:
“Ann Bracken’s evocative memoir powerfully tells of how psychiatry’s diagnoses and treatments can lead to loss, illness, and despair, and how escaping from that paradigm of care can be a starting point for a full and robust recovery.”
~Robert Whitaker, Author of Anatomy of an Epidemic
“Ann Bracken artfully braids her path out of chronic pain and major depression, while questioning the system designed to help her, and reaching back into her mother’s history to find a way to help her as well. Bracken gives us permission to ask questions about our current mental health treatment; read and educate ourselves on the risks, benefits, and alternatives to psychiatry’s status quo; and above all, not to quit until we find our own path to a healed life.”
~Angela Peacock, MSW, mental health advocate and featured in award-winning documentary, Medicating Normal
“A fascinating memoir of two generations of medical and psychiatric mismanagement and suffering, and how one brave woman figured out what was happening and successfully took control of her health and well being… and prevented a third generation from following the same path.”
~Stuart Shipko, MD, author of Surviving Panic Disorder and Xanax Withdrawal
Ann Bracken (AB): I’ve enjoyed reading Made of Air, your latest poetry collection. The poems explore many facets and experiences of contemporary women, from motherhood to homelessness, abuse, and even murder. How did this collection come about?
Naomi Thiers (NT): Only half the poems in this book are centered on women’s experiences. The other half of the poems center around the weirdness of getting older, and other types of vulnerability, but mainly the adventure of aging—which, as Bette Davis said, isn’t for sissies! More about those poems later.
To say how the section focused on women came about— I’ll go back to the book I published five years ago, She Was a Cathedral. As I was choosing which poems to gather into a chapbook manuscript, trying to find a theme, I realized I’ve written a lot of poems centered around an individual woman, known or unknown to me—her experience, her life. So, I put about 25 of those together into that chapbook. Years later, I added some new woman-centered poems to the ones in Cathedral to make this section of Made of Air. As you say, they’re about a multitude of different kinds of women— from various countries, diverse situations, some average some extreme.
I think I’m just extremely interested in females and their experiences. I admire women’s resilience, their resourcefulness, their joy in life, their intelligent and sensitive take on the world—and I think I would even if I wasn’t a feminist. So, I write about them! I mean, I tend to write about people and their lives— but I probably write more poems about individual women and their experiences than about men. I love writing about women I know, my friends—to honor them.
AB: The poem “Lions” speaks powerfully about the challenges of standing up to an authoritarian government and being disappeared. What inspired you to write this poem?
NT: That poem came when I encountered a quote from a woman whose daughter had been—as thousands were—“disappeared” by the Argentine military in the 1970’s. She was one of the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who marched in the Plaza in Buenos Aires every week holding signs with pictures of their grown children, demanding for them to be released or to know their whereabouts. The quote from this anonymous woman—who probably wasn’t an activist, but who rose up when her child was taken—was on an Amnesty International brochure: “It is as if lions grow inside of me, and I am not afraid.” I started trying to imagine her thoughts, how she might speak to herself, and the poem just unfolded. It needed very little working.
AB: You employ such evocative images in your poems. I was particularly struck by the way you use bread to open and close the poem “Refugee, 15.” Additional strong images are “rockslide of grief” and “face a lace of cuts.” How do those images serve the story of that poem?
NT: I love how you’re asking about very specific images, Ann! I’ll say a bit about how I came to those images. I feel some poems just kind of flow out, they seem to want to be written, and others you have to push out little by little, because you have a line or an idea and really want to write the thing. “Refugee, 15” was one of those I had to push out. I was thinking a lot about Syrian refugees and wanted to challenge myself to write about a person in that situation. I felt led to focus on a teenage girl and write part of it in her voice—likely because it’s such a vulnerable time of life. What came to me first was that idea of having to push yourself to survive, to force yourself even to eat, when you feel in every fiber like giving up, paralyzed by grief or fear – so: “Fear is in your bread/ and you must choke it down.” Then I just kept putting words down, and it was slow going, trying to come up with images of what her experience would be like as well as describe her emotions. And of course, some feeling and questioning—Do I have a right to try to describe the inner life of someone going through something I never will? I tried to imagine what things about her home she’d be thinking of and missing, and looked up some details about Syria, so I could put in the name of the Khabur River, for instance.
Fear is in your bread
and you must choke it down.
To think of home—
the courtyard with its red filigreed rug,
the peel-paint walls, how the breeze with its tang
of the Khabur River touched your just cut hair
as you curled up, writing in your diary—
starts the rockslide of grief, the thundering
that blocks out sound, pulls
a knife across each breath until
you drag across your body like a sack,
walking with others
toward the border.
But something rises up,
wants to live:
I won’t be that man sitting
on his burned porch, face a lace of cuts,
waiting in rain for death.
Shut away now the images of home,
like your diary with its leather straps.
Preserve your young life.
Eat your bread.
To put her emotions into words, I reached for the very physical sensations that come with extreme emotion—feeling like rocks are cutting into your chest and your stomach plummeting. . .not feeling your own body, its vibrance. The image of a man sitting in front of his bombed home, face a lace of cuts just came to me. I was glad the detail of a diary came in at the beginning, because that something many teenage girls do, so it may help the reader feel some connection, that this person—in a situation so more dreadful and fearful than those of us who haven’t had our country ripped apart are likely to know—is like a girl they know, isn’t news copy. Then at the end, locking the diary—she shuts and locks away herself, her previous self, to survive. Back to sheer survival, so back to bread. But by the end, she’s exerted her will to eat no matter what; she’s choosing life.
AB I love the interplay of the young and old women you describe in the poem “Striding.” Can you talk a bit about how those two women in the poem evoked an image of your friend who died at 48 years?
NT: That poem has something special behind it. I had a great friend, Patty Bertheaud Summerhays, whom I met in my MFA program at George Mason in the late 80s. Several friends I made in that program I‘m still in touch with, even still exchanging writing with—like Ramola Dharmaraj, Jane Schapiro, Perry Epes—but Patty I was closest to. She was one of those warm, open people who helps everybody feel relaxed and welcome—and also a stellar poet. We went to grad school together, constantly gave each other feedback on poetry, partied together, gossiped about other poets, went to Mexico together and worked in a shelter. We had our babies the same year, raised our kids together and were very bonded. Then she got colon cancer and they hadn‘t caught it soon enough–she died within two years. I think about Patty every day—she meant so much to my life.
A few years after Patty died, I was waiting in my car at a light. A young woman happened to cross the street and just as she reached the other side, an older, elegant woman crossed behind her. Sitting there I felt I was watching my past younger self go by, then my future older self—I was between them. And I instantly thought of Patty, “frozen in mid stride/ you will never cross/ with dignity to the end of a long life.”
The last lines of that poem are how I think about Patty’s spirit after death:
I see you coaxing
a smile from the legless beggar in Juarez,
standing up to a coach who shamed your son.
I see you stunned, fighting, blasted by chemo.
Your shade towers in the middle of this intersection,
but for you, the wheel will not turn.
Patty, I hope
that wherever you are –
for with your fierceness
I know you are somewhere –
you are striding.
AB: Longing seems to be a theme in several of your poems, particularly “All is Calm.“
Can you talk about how the novel The Giver and the image of a padded world play into that theme?
Loss and longing are so connected—you can’t feel longing if you still have something, if you’re just rocking along with it still jingling in your pocket. So, let’s say that something is youth. It was sneaky, there wasn’t any bright line to it. But recently I realized I really really wasn’t young anymore… I don’t have that youth thing that always carried in my pocket as I went along. This made me think carefully about what experiences do you really have less of after, whatever–50, 55? You lose people (though their spirit can come back so strongly, like Patty), you lose physical capacity, but I’ve also found a big one is I no longer have the intense emotional ups and downs, the storms, the anguish, the day long fizzy highs. I’m so, so emotional, and have been roiling so much of my life that there’s a good side to that. But it is a loss, that evening out as you get your older.
In The Giver, everyone in the speculative society described—except for one or two people whose role is secret—has muted emotions and lives quite a bit in their heads; even the awareness of extreme joyful events or traumatic ones, any overwhelming emotion just isn’t present. So, they live in a padded way. The Giver him/herself, one person, feels everything the rest of the community can’t It’s a fantastic book.
There’s a good side to not being roiled by emotion. But I’ve found I need to find a new way to feel and to keep plunging into experiences, not settling. I wrote “All is Calm” when I was wishing even the awful, hard emotions were still accessible. (Incidentally, I love that I could use the word capsaicin naturally in the poem!). I’ve made peace with that aspect of aging now. I’ve read there’s a correlation between being older and happier, more content–and I believe that is mostly true.
AB: Has the pandemic affected your writing practice? How has it either helped or hindered your creative spark?
NT: Oddly, I don’t feel it has made much difference to how much I want to write, how much I do write, or what I write about, poetry-wise. Like for everyone, it’s made a big difference in my life, 9- 10 months of everything near surreal in 2020, etc.. I’m an introvert who needs to be shaken out of it, so that lockdown period was tough—but I didn’t feel more or less of a spark for poetry. I don’t write every day by ANY means. But if I feel uninspired and am going too long with nothing—I try some kind of form. That always brings back poetry for me.
Naomi Thiers grew up in California and Pittsburgh, but her chosen home is Washington-DC/Northern Virginia. She is author of four poetry collections: Only The Raw Hands Are Heaven (WWPH), In Yolo County, and She Was a Cathedral (Finishing Line Press) and Made of Air (Kelsay Books). Her poems, book reviews, and essays have been published in Virginia Quarterly Review, Poet Lore, Colorado Review, Grist, Sojourners, and many other magazines and anthologies. Former editor of the journal Phoebe, she works as a magazine editor and lives on the banks of Four Mile Run in Arlington, Virginia. Her latest book Made of Air can be ordered from Kelsay Press at https://kelsaybooks.com/collections/all. If you’d like access to her earlier books, message her on Facebook.
I had the pleasure of working with April Rimpo and Elaine Weiner-Reed in 2019 when they put on an ekphrastic art event at Slayton House Gallery in Columbia, Maryland. This year, they sponsored a similar event with the poet and activist Patti Ross of The Baltimore County Arts Guild. I hope you enjoy getting to know them and discovering more about their work.
Ann Bracken (AB): I’d love to know a bit about your journey as an artist. How long have you been painting and sculpting and what most sparked your interest in visual art?
April Rimpo (AR): I started drawing as a child. I was aware my father and grandfather both painted, so drawing came naturally. The first external motivation came in third grade when my teacher displayed my drawings in class. My first painting experience came in either late elementary school or junior high when I received oil paints as a gift. In junior high school, I brought a painting to class and my English teacher asked to display it. The painting remained on display for the balance of the year. I really got the bug at that point, but didn’t take painting classes until my early twenties.
Elaine Weiner-Reed (EWR)
I entered the world in a crowded womb. My almost fierce, independent, and creative streak was hard-wired into me from birth, and my path as an artist soon became irreversible and undeniable as I sought an identity of my own. I soon became the “twin who could draw.” Art was my first love. I have no memory that does not have art in it… I drew constantly and seemed to know that I was an artist from the time I was about 4 years old.
Because money was in short supply and paper was scarce, I quickly mastered the Etch-a-Sketch (my first sketchbook), drawing landscapes, people, and interiors. Every chance I got, I took art and creative writing classes in high school. In college, I majored in French, but took enough art and 3D classes to equate to an unofficial minor in sculpture and never looked back. My first foray into painting had me painting representationally in oils in the 1980’s. Wanting to be more expressive or “loose,” I studied and painted in watercolor during the 1990’s. I branched into acrylics in the late 1990’s out of a desire to paint on canvas, staying with that and latex or mixed media creations to date. I returned to my sculpture roots in 2014 when I was selected by-name for the first of two International Artist Residencies in Poland, and in 2018, my path led me to plaster and metal figurative sculptures and welded metal music-inspired assemblages.
AB: How would you characterize the style of your painting and who are your influences?
AR: My style has evolved a lot over the years. Originally it was quite tight, as in rendering a copy of the photograph that I worked from. But once I found watercolor in 1997, my painting began to loosen up, becoming more interpretive. Only in the last 15 years do I think my goal in painting, although still representational, is to communicate emotions about a place or culture that helps tell the story of the scene.
I love the Impressionists’ use of texture, color, light, and the dynamic flow in their paintings. Van Gogh and Monet are among my favorites starting when I was a young artist. On the U.S. front, I admire Winslow Homer for the sense of story in his paintings and Ed Hopper for his way of simplifying a subject to capture its essence. Current influencers are contemporary water-media artists Chen-kee Chee, John Salminen, Keiko Tanabe, and Joseph Zbukvis plus Nicholas Simmons who taught me what could be achieved in fluid acrylic, but sadly is no longer with us.
EWR: I am an action painter. My painting style can best be described as abstract expressionism. I love the physicality of painting and sculpting. I enter my studio and turn on the music, losing myself in the dance that is my creative process. I usually paint on the floor, literally walking around my work as I focus on the entirety of a piece, even while zooming in on one area at a time. Sculptures require a 360-degree awareness, so I am continually bending, turning, and interacting with my work – intellectually as well as physically. As for my sculptures, I would have to ask an historian how they might categorize my plaster or welded metal assemblages in a global context.
Life is complicated, and I sometimes experience the full spectrum of emotions in one day or week or month. In order to channel the emotions and experiences into my work when they are fresh (or “live”), I begin and sometimes work on multiple pieces simultaneously.
At the university, I discovered and fell in love with the works of Picasso, Matisse, Brancusi, Henry Moore, and Barbara Hepworth, among others. When I began painting in oils, I learned more about Rembrandt, Cezanne, and Van Gogh; later, I fell in love with the works of DeKooning (wife and husband), Diebenkorn, and DeNiro
AB: I’ve been lucky enough to participate in two of your Ekphrastic events and have written poems for each of your paintings. What sparked your interest in such a collaboration and what was most surprising for you?
AR: Elaine can explain her initial spark, since she started her initiative “Every Painting is a Song (EPIAS).“ I joined Elaine in her initiative in 2019 and suggest we expand her initiative for just musical collaborations to include poetry. Since I tell stories in my art and am overjoyed when others tell me the story they see in my painting, I thought including Ekphrastic Poetry in our events would be ideal. Elaine agreed and had always wanted to expand the concept to more than music.
EWR: The spark… Thank you, April. This is the 6th year of EPIAS and I am thrilled at the direction in which it is going.
The spark began an internal one that grew out of a need and an idea…. Sometime in about 2014 I grew tired of the fact that art exhibitions typically served as a venue focused solely on the artist’s individual achievements. It is nice to be recognized or receive rare accolades, but I wanted more from my events and myself. I wanted to turn the soliloquy into a dialogue. I wanted to know what others thought or felt that was rooted in or triggered by my work. How did my paintings and sculptures make people FEEL? What did it make individuals remember? How would someone write the beginning, middle, or end of the scenes I painted? I was determined to figure out how to do it… I envisioned pairing audio and more to my artwork, so I chose a musician’s template for my website because it allowed audio tracks. I began recording my own reflections to better relate to and connect with others, using the sense of hearing. Even before I began writing poetry again, I began writing what I call “reflections” associated with my work.
You (Ann Bracken) and Patti Ross are two of our most treasured discoveries and friendships resulting from that collaboration. I am humbled and truly honored with each creation written to one of my works.
What I found most surprising and delightful are the connections that happen between not only the creatives (artist, musician, poet, etc.), but with the guests at each of the events. Attendees and participants learn and bond in new ways – people who only minutes before were strangers are now connected…a community. We become part of each other’s stories! Each Ekphrastic event impacts me and pushes my evolution and my work in new directions. Each is an awakening.
Contrary to the philosophy in which I was raised, namely that art was superfluous, I believe art is necessary to man’s survival and a critical extension of our identity, culture, and humanity.
AB: You’ve each included a painting in this blog. What would you like to share about your work?
AR: As I mentioned earlier, I love to incorporate my emotions into my art by adding life to my reference photo and trying to communicate what I felt when I saw and photographed it. The image shared here is from a new series of paintings that I call “Inner Portraits” where my goal is to tell something about the person depicted. In this case, I wanted to tell some of the story of the subject’s Vietnamese heritage. The images around the edges include two sisters from 40 AD who led the army into war against the invading Chinese and won. They are celebrated in Vietnam to this day. The power of these women also symbolizes the subject’s strength. Since the border was derived from a piece she owed created with mother-of-pearl inlays. I also segmented her face and used similar colors for her portrait.
EWR: My painting “Stop Injustice” is the largest painting I have done to date – both in content and scale. It is, in fact, an Ekphrastic creation – at least in part. To explain: While I painted it in my studio at MD Hall, I listened to the music of singer/songwriter/musician Vanessa Collier, whose lyrics inspired and influenced my improvisational dance through the painting. Lines like “cry out against injustice” wove around and through me as I painted… I ached and cried over current events (2019-2021) and atrocities committed against humanity, notably the murder of George Floyd. My painting of an interior scene peopled by many figures in varying amounts of detail is my way of crying out… speaking out the only way I know how – in and through my art. It is my call-to-action to each and every one of us to be mindful and caring, to respect each other, and to stand up for what is right and good. Change begins with each of us in every situation and exchange. You, we, I, they, he, and she can make a positive difference in our world. It begins and end with each of us. It is my hope that the calligraphy and words (respect, harmony, il faut changer le monde pour le bien de tous [We must change the world for the good of all] ) will resonate. Should the painting sell, I will donate a percentage of the proceeds to charities benefiting women’s and children’s causes.
AB: Tell me about your upcoming projects and what you’re looking forward to in 2022.
AR: In Februrary, Elaine and I will be giving an Art Innovation Talk for the International Society of Experimental Artists (ISEA) about our joint collaborations. We’re eager to share what we’ve learned so that others can consider leveraging our knowledge. Our hope is that the attendees will also experience the overwhelming joy of hearing about our paintings from the perspective of others.
Last year I started teaching a Zoom-based Mentorship with the goal of helping other artists identify and explore their own unique voice. I found out how much I enjoy teaching. Not only am I able to help others move along their own path, but their questions cause me to research other concepts, which often brings a new idea into my own work. This year I also started to teach a Watercolor Studio class at HorseSpirit Arts Gallery where students can work on their own projects in watercolor and get my assistance along with demonstrations designed to help them further their work. This is a cross between a typical art class and my mentorship concept.
EWR: I am thrilled to share this news, so thank you for asking. In June and July of 2022, I will be having a solo show at the Montpelier Cultural Art Center in Prince Georges County, Laurel, MD. I have been applying to this juried competition on and off for the last 20 years or more, and I could not believe that I won, and I’m very honored. My exhibition, “Masks and Mirrors: Beautiful Reflections,” will include Ekphrastic and audio elements (if not more). The work honors the human spirit and its resiliency. One goal of mine is to try to challenge society’s preconceptions and definitions of beauty. It is time we remove our rose- colored glasses and ditch the search for perfection in order to really see the many perfectly imperfect beautiful souls we meet every day. If we listen, their personal struggles and stories of survival would bring us to our knees. In fact, perhaps our own messy story would in turn make others rock with pain…even as they would reach out to console us. Moving forward with our personal histories in perspective empowers us to become part of the positive change so needed in our world. Please join me for the opening reception on June 4th, 2022 and stay tuned for more news.
For more about Elaine Weiner-Reed’s work, visit her website and social media posts here: