Check out these new publications by current and former WITS writers! Congrats to all of you!
Copper Canyon Press recently published Jericho Brown’s book of poems, The New Testament. Jericho currently teaches at Emory University and lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
Anaphora Literary Press just published Merrilee Cunningham’s book Something Will Come to Us, a poetry collection about love, cats, dogs, the city and the country.
Boot in the Door Publications published the novel Phantom’s Dance by WITS writer Lesa Howard. It is a re-telling of the Phantom of the Opera story and follows a girl’s journey to succeed at a prestigious dance academy.
I just got back from working with Creative Writing Workshops in Northern Serbia, even on the Hungarian border. I was in Novis Sad and Subotica and then South, towards Macedonia at Nis. It was fantastic. We had between 23 and 33 kids in each group at each American Corners. In Subotica, I got to see Hungarian Successionist architecture and, as I was already a fan of Viennese Soccesionism, you can imagine my delight with this mixture of art nouveau and art deco. Riding to and from the American Corners I would have had my head out the window like my daughter’s dog Freddie, if only we could have opened the window. But when you are in an armoured car, you just have to bend over and look in air-conditioned comfort at what is outside that window. In Nis we saw the amazing Roman mosaic instead of having lunch, and it was a good thing that we did, because we returned to a brilliant group of creative writing students ready to work from a Word Board in teams and then individually to create “Found Poetry” and then on to some pretty heady intellectual discussions on creative writing to influence.
My favorite moment of the traveling Creative Writing Camp was certainly the afternoon group at Subotica with 33 students-so many students that we had to get out an extra card table and put the students on the steps two to a step. I called those students “My Step Children” and they did very well. I actually had always wanted step children (having three children of my own) so, as these were likely to be my only step children in this life, I enjoyed directing them and their work. The librarians at the American Corners were fabulous. They worked to make the Awards, Best So Far for each assignment and then Best of the Best, accurate, even installing of the Creative Writing Meritocracy. Today I have three talks, including a noon speech at the National Library of Serbia on Creative Writing. May your good thoughts be with me, along with “the Force” of course.
by Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools
The American Center in Belgrade
This was the second day of the Belgrade Creative Writing Camp and it was amazing. Last night, this guy brought a group of ten teenagers into the American Corners who belong to a club that has a stipulation of membership that you have no parents taking care of you. There are other stipulations of age as well, but that first one can be a real shocker. They came in together and the leader explained that there would be more tonight, but there was a rugby game final that they were in so some of the guys would miss the first day.
We started working on Haiku from our books on Haiku and then they began to write their own as they build the hut of a great Haiku master from Japan. They were great and soon laughing and talking with each other. Then the pizza came. As a former debate squad coach and presently a coach of UHD’s Model UN Team, I can promise you that pizza (or the cheese on the pizza) is the glue needed for all student organizations. And it seems that the long-time leader understands what we do, the universal binding nature of this wonderful food invented just one peninsula away from the peninsular that is The Balkans.
This morning the children made hearts and told us what was in their hearts. And the answers are wonderful:
There is a bunny in my heart
My lost dog is in my heart
My brother is in my heart.
from the wonderful blog thirteen red shoes
Then we put sleeping masks on the students and drew the configuration that is their profile so they could write what is in their head. I thought of this concept from looking at Eighteenth Century children’s cut-out portraits done in black paper. PPS announces that “Adventure requires a trusted friend” and this is, in part, a test of trust. Does the child trust the counselor enough to allow the counselor to take away an important protective aid (sight) in order to protect those eyes? It was wonderful. The children were so excited about what was going on. They loved that their counselors were giving them an outline of their actual head. They loved the attention, and they wrote wonderful works about what lives in their heads and hearts.
What would it take to put a bunny in your heart, metaphorically speaking?
by Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools
So tomorrow is my last day in Tetovo. Yesterday my fellow teacher Besa took me on a walk around the old town of Tetovo. We went to several places that I had visited in the past, most importantly for me, the Colored Mosque. There are so many beautiful old buildings in Tetovo, including the Turkish tekke or Muslim monastery that I have also written about, associated with the Bektashi sect, one of the ancient mystical sects of Islam. The first mosque on this site was probably guild in 1495, but this is the Balkans and land has slipped back and forth during wars. In 1833 the mosque was rebuilt by Abdurrahman Pasha, the son of Rexhep Pasha. Now maybe you are asking what is a Pasha and the answer is a Pasha is a title for landlords and generals in the Ottoman Empire. This Mosque was build next to the Shkuma river, where there were other buildings of Islamic origin including a bath that is now open as an art gallery.
The eight-sided mausoleum to two sisters, Hurshide and Mensure, is in excellent condition and reminded me of the rather emptier tombs of Arthur and Gweneviere at Glastonbery. Upstairs there was a woman with spectacles on teaching children to read the Koran. The walls were clearly influenced by the French Rococo movement. That’s right. The interior of this Ottoman Mosque was painted with swirling baskets of flowers The amazing mixture of French painting style, including the domed ceiling’s miniature buildings and towns, was such a message of the fact that this town, like the Balkans in general, has been a synthesis of so many cultures, both European and Eastern. The geometrical and floral elements are meant to convey the notion of wealth and luxury, while the smallness of the mosque convey a very different message, of coziness, like a dollhouse at Versailles. The Mihrab, whre the Iman leads the prayer, was particularly beautifully carved. Work was going forward on the parterres of the courtyard, yet another combination of European cultures.
The single classical minaret allows one to see the Colored Mosque in Tetovo from all over the city. I am so glad that I visited it again as I wondered where Abdurrahman Pasha, son of Rexhep Pasha, got the ideas for his amazing interior with its yellow and red flower baskets cascading off the walls of this beautiful and welcoming sacred place.
Merrilee Cunningham, WITS Writer to the Balkans
[photo of Colored Mosque from balkantravellers.com]
We just finished doing four plays this morning with the younger kids and two plays this afternoon, including a Vampire Summer Vacation, featuring a trip to the Castle of Dracula. Rather than start on my rant about Twilight, the novel, I will tell you that the plays were wonderful, even the Vampire play as we are close enough to Romania and the sources of the Vampire that the students have many original as well as historical ideas about Vlad. Indeed the student who played Vlad was named Vlad. (What are the odds, even this close to Bulgaria?) The plays were wonderful. The children and their parents were justifiably proud of the great work that they have done, the anthologies are almost ready, and there was general agreement that Creative Writing Camp was a fabulous experience for all. Now there may be a couple of librarians who have to work this weekend who may need to put their feet up on Sunday morning and even call for breakfast in bed. I intend to sleep in tomorrow morning and then walk up the hill is Stip to the 6th century Byzantine Church that I have been looking at every morning from my hotel room and wondering when and if I would be able to rise early enough to beat the heat and take a trek up the hill to see it, water bottle and picnic lunch in hand. But tomorrow is my day as Sunday morning early I take off to Skopje and then to Tetova and my friends at the American Corners there.
So I move away from Eastern Macedonia and its Roman and Byzantine ruins to the hills of Tetova where I can see the mountains of Bosnia. Remember, Balkans is just a word for “Mountains.”
Writers in the Schools (WITS)
The Cultural Enrichment Center of the University of Houston Downtown will host a poetry reading tomorrow (Tuesday, February 9) at 5:30 PM featuring WITS writer Merrilee Cunningham and Katharine Jager. The reading will be held at the Robertson Auditorium on the 3rd floor of UHD’s Academic Building.
WITS writer Merrilee Cunningham holds a B.A. degree in creative writing from Northwestern University where she studied under the poet Stephen Spender, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from Vanderbilt University. Her poetic and scholarly works have been published in On, Versus, Visions, The Ball State Review, Renaissance and Reformation, the South Central Bulletin of the Modern Language Association and many other places. She edited On Magazine, a collection of poetry, while at Vanderbilt. After coming to University of Houston–Downtown, she edited Humanities in the South for seven years.
Katharine Jager is a poet and a medieval scholar. She received her M.F.A. in poetry from New York University and her Ph.D. in medieval studies from the Graduate Center, CUNY. Her poetry and essays have appeared in The Yale Anthology of Younger American Poets, Medieval Perspectives, The Gettysburg Review, Canteen, Friends Journal, and the Bellevue Review.
Who: Merrilee Cunningham and Katherine Jager
What: A poetry reading
When: Tuesday, February 9 at 5:30 PM
Where: Robertson Auditorium, 3rd floor of Academic Building, University of Houston Downtown
You are reading the blog of a woman who has been through five small earthquakes and did not feel a thing, yet when the American Corners was full of both the early morning kids and the afternoon kids, doing the plays that they themselves wrote, it seemed chaotic. The U.S. Embassy sent its best and its brightest to award the children their certificates of completion for the program and to congratulate the winners of “Best Play,” “Best Long Poem,” “Best Lyric Poem.” “Best Short Story.” The competition was fierce, and I got up early this morning to arrive in front of the library where we had to make tough decisions about who go which awards with my co-teachers and translators. We had our differences of opinions, but the disputes were friendly, and everyone played by the rules. We had stayed up all night typing the anthology entries, as Bitola and Skopje had full-blown anthologies, complete with videos of the plays and 200 pictures of the camp. Still, there was no tee-shirt, though the embassy promises a tee-shirt if we will just come back and do this again next year. This is a bribe that will work on my 1960’s soul.
The librarians are very excited about the program and have allowed us to take our dramatic chaos throughout the library, all the while these committed guardians of learning are actively attempting to carry on their regular programs, check out books, check in books, and do all the other things that help allow for people to get the kind of information that they need in order to make wise decisions about their lives, their votes, and their families.
After the plays this morning, we continued the tradition of ending the program with a proclamation of the rights of children. The right to go to the dentist was perhaps the most interesting. One has to wonder about the story behind an eight year old child understanding the importance of dental hygiene. But the right to clean water, clean air, life with a temperature that was livable (Macedonia has been very hot this summer) were also important. When the children read their table of contents on their journal, they were very happy with themselves and saw how very much they had been able to write. Then I asked them which works still needed more revisiting, and they slowly were able to tell me which works they would be working on and revising. It was great. Click here to see a 3:30 video of a news story about the project.
Tonight my youngest daughter arrives from Cairo, and we have dinner with a friend from the embassy and then we are off to Kosovo and Bulgaria as my daughter continues on to Istanbul. So the Macedonian Express will be traveling West away from Skopje and into Kosovo and Bulgaria. I hope that you will be coming with us, because after that, I need to revisit my syllabi for World Literature I and World Mythologies, and Renaissance Drama and Roman History Independent Study at the University of Houston Downtown so that my university gets its fair share of what talents I possess.
posted by Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools (WITS)
The children in the Creative Writing workshop in Skopje were ready to select their images for the Ekphrasis assignment and one of the masks that the teachers put on the board looked, from far away, like the famous Mask of Agamemnon, so, never the one to stand back timidly, I said, “Oh, the mask of Agamemnon.” At that point both my Macedonian teachers (one married to an archeologist), fell upon me and gave me the what-for! “Oh no. Many golden masks have been found in Macedonia.” One, found in 1934, is in the museum in Belgrade with its fellow. Others have been found recently in 17 graves from the 6th. century B.C. in a village near Lake Ohrid. There is much excitement about the discovery of the bronze age graves near Ohrid. But there is also much pride about the beautiful mask that is in Belgrade. I was amazed by its beauty, the face surrounded by the ancient image for enigma and questioning.
Which brings me to the constant questions that the kids in the workshop are asking. “Do you go to NASA often?” How many computer languages do you know?” “Do you know Obama?” “Have you seen AC/DC?” “Do you have a hamster?” What do you do with questions like that asked by students who have learned their English by playing video games or whose goal in the workshop is to write an epic poem?
The answer, of course, is provide them with challenges, and that is exactly what I am best at, so tomorrow they have to perform the play that they are writing today, but only after they create their life clock on a large white paper plate, starting, at 12 o’clock with they day, month, and year that they were born. Did you want a brother? Did you want a baby sister? Did you want to learn computer languages? Did you want a hamster? Did you want to make good grades? Did you want to have a bird? Did you want to fly? Did you want to work with E.A. Blizzard or Krytech? Did you want to meet Miley Cyrus? Did you want to be a teacher? Did you want two new cousins? I know I did. Did you want someone to love you all your life?
I feel like the Art Linklater of Creative Writing Teachers. Kids say the funniest things. They also say the wisest.
posted by Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools (WITS)