Clips from JaxbyJax 2018!

 

Yesterday I read poetry at JaxbyJax 2018, and it was an absolute blast! Chris Gabbard and I read in the Whiteway Realty conference room, a cozy space that offered many lighting options for me. I read best under dim lights, and every time I plan to read in public, I worry about whether the venue will work out. I was so happy with our environment this time; I really felt in my element!

For my three reading times, I chose different poems. The only repeats came when my 5:30 audience called for an encore (I promised if they called for an encore, I’d read them some of my favorites). All three of my readings were blessed by a kind, attentive, and encouraging audience! And who is a writer without her audience?

We went Facebook live during each reading, and I’ve shared the videos below! Enjoy!

A clip from the 3:30 reading:

The second half of my 3:30 reading, featuring a set of poems for my great-grandmother, Citti:

A clip from the 4:30 reading:

A clip from the 5:30 reading (with encore and excellent audience questions) 

I’d like to offer my sincere and heartfelt thanks to Brad and Darlyn Kuhn for organizing and promoting this year’s festival! Congratulations to the many other local writers who performed yesterday! Jacksonville is a lively, literary place, and each iteration of JaxbyJax enlarges and enriches our writerly community!

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Appearing at JaxbyJax 2018!

I am excited to announce that I will be reading at this year’s JaxbyJax Literary Arts Festival, where local writers read their work all across Riverside! This will be my third appearance at JaxbyJax, and my previous venue partners, Andres Rojas and Sohrab Fracis, will also be reading this year!

JaxbyJax will take place on Saturday, October 13, 2018. Festivities begin at 1:30pm with a student showcase and the readings last from 3-6pm. Writers share a venue with a partner and trade off reading every 30 minutes. I’ll be reading with Chris Gabbard at the Whiteway Conference Room (upstairs), 2720 Park Street. Chris kicks off our session with his reading at 3pm, and my readings will be at 3:30pm, 4:30pm, and 5:30pm.

What am I reading? Poetry, poetry, poetry! Lots of new poetry!

More details are posted on the JaxbyJax website. And here’s a link to the Facebook event.

And look, a flyer! Be there!

FINAL POSTER JBJ18_Poster_11x17 copy

My musical essay in Disability Studies Quarterly!

The Blindness Arts issue of Disability Studies Quarterly is finally here! This special issue, edited by Hannah Thompson and Vanessa Warne, represents several years of work, research, performance, and art among disabled contributors. My piece is called “Sacred Positions: A Personal History of Blindness and Singing.” This is how it begins…

On a crisp December evening, I stand outside the church, its heavy doors propped ajar. The wind buffets my thin chorus dress. Despite my eighteen years, I am a child tonight — the youngest member of the choir with the highest voice. I will lead our procession into the darkened church, my white cane in one hand and a lit candle in the other. I will take echoing steps down the center aisle beneath the vaulted ceiling.

Moving forward, I begin the first verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” and my voice rings alone in the huge space. I glide across the tile, enveloped in the aromas of incense and evergreens.

The song I lead is the first in a series of nine carols and Scripture readings. The choir follows me down the center aisle and around the pews as we walk to the pit. Tucked against the left side of the sanctuary, the pit sits lower than the rest of the church. Three tiers of seats lead down to the bottom level, which harbors the glossy bulk of the grand piano. Our director sits at the bench, her hands poised over the white keys.

The pit steps are not easy for me to navigate. Because the steps are made of the same pale tile that covers the church floor, I cannot see the changes in depth. I rely on my cane as I move forward, slowly measuring my descent. If my cane misses a step, I will, too — and the moment’s charm will be shattered.

Happily, I’ve spent many years in this choir pit under the guidance of several directors. The small alcove is as familiar as the larger space of the church. I know how to fill this edifice with my voice. I know which notes will throw crisp echoes into the high ceiling. I have served as the cantor for countless Masses, Ash Wednesday services, Christmas celebrations, funerals. I have arrived an hour early, scheduled to sing, my lyrics printed in bold 24-point font. But I have also been drafted from the pew unexpectedly when other singers fail to show up — no enlarged lyrics, no preparation. In these hectic moments, the director and I leaf through the huge hymn books, finding the songs I’ve learned by heart. We know that the small faded font of the general hymn book will be illegible to me.

Intellectually I recognize singing as an intricate choreography of mind and body, but I feel purely voice in the choir pit. My folded cane occupies the seat beside me. My hands rest at my side. My ribcage is lifted, my knees slightly bent. As I sing, leg and belly muscles remember the old habits. I take inventory of my body while I sing. Yet what matters to the congregation is my voice. When they hear the initial notes of an entrance hymn, I doubt whether they need to see who stands behind the piano. My voice is familiar, one of the few young voices to lead liturgical services: a high, clear soprano

Continue reading my essay here.

Read the full issue here.

Book Review: Have Dog, Will Travel

In March, blind poet and writing professor Stephen Kuusisto released Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey — a memoir about his life with his first guide dog, Corky. This is an exceptional book that will resonate with a wide audience beyond the obvious blind people and guide dog handlers. Kuusisto was featured on the PBS News Hour; you’ll enjoy this preview of the book!

I reviewed the book for Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature, and the essay went live today. Here’s how it begins:

Corky, a singular yellow Labrador, transforms the gossamer existence of a blind poet. The extraordinary dog bounces in with generosity and poise, what Stephen Kuusisto calls her ‘keen affection.’ This is the shining through-line of Kuusisto’s latest book, Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey, released by Simon & Schuster in March, 2018.

Readers of Kuusisto’s earlier essays will recognize some of the themes he invokes here: the mother in denial, the hostile or incongruous strangers, the need to accept and remake himself. But Have Dog, Will Travel offers a perspective that is more optimistic than Planet of the Blind or Eavesdropping. It is a book that relentlessly pushes old ideas aside. The reader can feel Corky and Kuusisto’s forward motion, a consistent meter that rewrites Kuusisto’s whole life.

Read the full review here! And don’t forget to check out the rest of the wonderful content in the summer issue.

Jill Khoury Discusses Her Teaching with Poetry Barn and the Value of Online Poetry Workshops

To celebrate National Poetry Month, I’d like to share this online interview I conducted with Jill Khoury. I was inspired to interview Jill after taking her online poetry workshop, Writing Poems From the Body, at The Poetry Barn.

Jill’s course was my first Poetry Barn class, but I have since taken two more, and I’ve found them to be incredibly exciting! Each month-long course is organized around a theme (poetry and spirituality, poetry and the body, poetry and gender, just to name a few), where the instructor offers you readings, prompts, critiques, and discussions. Classmates also critique each other’s work, and the courses are wonderfully encouraging.

Writing Poems from the Body wasn’t my first experience with Jill or her compelling work. Several years ago, Jill and I joined other disabled writers in a dialogue on blindness and writing through Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature. And last year, I reviewed her book, Suites for the Modern Dancer, for The Deaf Poets Society. When I saw her workshop on the schedule at The Poetry Barn, I knew her course would be an exciting opportunity!

About Poet-Teacher Jill Khoury

Jill Khoury is interested in the intersection of poetry, visual art, representations of gender, and disability. She is a Western Pennsylvania Writing Project fellow and teaches workshops focusing on writing the body. She holds an MFA from The Ohio State University and edits Rogue Agent, a journal of embodied poetry and art. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals, including Copper Nickel, Bone Bouquet, Lunch Ticket, and diode. She has written two chapbooks—Borrowed Bodies (Pudding House, 2009) and Chance Operations (Paper Nautilus, 2016). Her debut full-length collection, Suites for the Modern Dancer, was released in 2016 from Sundress Publications. 

How did you discover Poetry Barn? How did you get started as a teaching artist for Poetry Barn?

Poetry Barn started out under a different name: Rooster Moans Poetry Collective. As best I understand it, the Collective began as a few poets workshopping together and then expanded into a venue for teachers and students to become involved in online workshopping. Poets Susan Yount and Lissa Kiernan were members of the original collective. I had recently been in contact with Susan Yount because she’d published a poem of mine in Arsenic Lobster, a journal she edited. I don’t remember the details but I’d asked about teaching online and she introduced me to her friend Lissa who runs Rooster Moans aka Poetry Barn. This is just one illustration of why my online poetry community means so much to me. Being able to transcend geography and the limitations of my disabilities is a godsend.

How much freedom are you allowed with the design of your Poetry Barn workshops?

Lissa gives us a lot of creative freedom! I was able to design this course entirely. It is and continues to be the only course that I’ve had the maximum amount of freedom in choosing material and how to present that material.

How often do you teach with Poetry Barn? Have you taught different workshops or do you teach the same classes every year?

I’ve taught the Writing Poems from the Body class twice with them, and I’m teaching it again in the fall of 2018.

What are three principles you strive to build into your Poetry Barn workshops?

Risk-taking, close reading / helpful critique, and safety. The first pertains to a value that I hold dear in my own and others’ writing—being able to take risks with content, writing process. language, or poetic form. Risk is going to seem different to everyone, however. Of course, what is extremely risky for one poet might not be risky for another. I aim to push each student just slightly out of their comfort zone, but it’s also okay if they don’t want to go there. I think close reading and helpful critique is also a core motivator of the workshop. I also allow my students to indicate what depth of critique would be most helpful for them. Some students are writing with the goal of eventual publication in mind already. Some students are just there to generate work and want to worry about deep revision later. Some students are writing for catharsis or self-inquiry. Suggestions for revision are not useful to them because they are not interested in revising. The great thing about teaching in a venue like Poetry Barn is that as a teacher, I can meet every student where they are. It’s not for credit. It’s for enrichment—whatever enrichment looks like to the individual. Lastly but importantly, safety is important. When teaching a workshop like Writing Poems from the Body, situations can get really vulnerable really quickly. It is of paramount importance that everyone’s journey into the subject of the body is heard and respected.

How is the online format similar to in-person workshops? How is it different?

The thing that it’s hard to replace from an in-person workshop is the face to face meeting. It will always be a lovely thing to feel that unquantifiable but delicious feeling of being poets sitting around a seminar table writing, reading, and engaging one another. However, there are many limitations on an in-person workshop. Geography and scheduling, for example. In my first time teaching Writing Poems from the Body I had students from all over the US plus Australia and Norway. Some were university students. Some were professionals. Some were retired. Since the class is asynchronous, people with all these different geographies and schedules were able to come together and form a cohesive unit.

What is some advice you would give to a new workshop participant about writing critiques?

My recommendation would be similar to any new workshop participant, whether online or in-person. Be respectful. Be specific. Take your time. Give praise and advice in the spirit you would wish to receive it.

Which features of class or community design help the Poetry Barn workshops to be constructive and civil spaces?

The Poetry Barn classroom has discussion questions available as a course design choice. I like to generate discussion even before the first poems are turned in. In Writing Poems from the Body, the first discussion question I offer is to share your journey toward embodied writing. People come to it from different places, in different ways. My intention is that the more that students participate in discussion, the more they will see themselves as a community. The more they see themselves as a community, the more they will respect one another. Also Lissa has built respectfulness into the courses literally. On the pages dedicated to poem critique, she has a list of good advice for workshopping that shows up every time someone starts a critique.

And lastly, who are the poets you return to again and again? What are the poems you can’t stop reading?

Rather than always-returning, the way I read poetry is ever-expanding. There is so much new work coming out all the time that examines the subject of the body in some way. I want to read it all! Here’s a list of ten books in my queue right now:

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I’m so grateful to Jill for her thoughtful answers — and to the folks at Poetry Barn for continuing to provide quality instruction in a civil and accessible environment!

Celebrating National Poetry Month 2018!

Dear readers, it’s that time again! Time to spend 30 days of April showers celebrating poetry — reading it, writing it, thinking about writing it! I’m excited to report some fantastic festivities at both campuses where I teach! Follow the hyperlinks to find the Facebook events for each item.

Downtown Campus Spoken Word Open Mic, Tues Apr 10, 10AM-12PM

Join FSCJ poets Donna Cobis, Kelsi Hasden, and me for a spoken word event celebrating National Poetry Month. Students, faculty, and staff are encouraged to come ready to share their favorite poems or original verse, but no shade will be thrown if you attend simply to cheer on your classmates or colleagues. This event will take place in C-101 at Downtown Campus and is my collaborative creation with FSCJ’s Library and Learning Commons and Downtown Campus Student Engagement.

Poetry Month Workshop Series

I’ll be teaching a series of three workshops at the UNF Writing Center this month! These are open to UNF students, staff, and faculty, and they are not sequential: you can come to one, two, or all three!

Write Your Poem,  Wed, Apr 4, 2-3PM

Have you ever wondered where a great poem begins? Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced poet, we’ll discover the roots of captivating poems! This workshop is the first in the Writing Center’s 2018 National Poetry Month Series. Grab your favorite pen and your vivid imagination, and we’ll start writing together. Students, faculty, and staff are welcome. 

Critique Your Poem, Wed, Apr 11, 2-3PM

More than rhyme schemes or syllable counts, a poet needs to know what makes a poem tick. What takes a handful of smudgy lines to a full-fledged draft? What takes a poem from good to great? We’ll explore techniques for critiquing poetry in the second installment of the Writing Center Poetry Month Series. Students, faculty, and staff welcome. 

Perform Your Poem, Wed, Apr 18, 2-3PM

Let’s lift poetry off the page! Bring your works in progress or your favorite poems! We’ll explore the techniques that performance poets use to electrify their audience in this third installment of the Writing Center Poetry Month Series. Students, faculty, and staff welcome.  

Student Poet Showcase, April 9, 12-1PM

Students, it’s your turn in the spotlight! Join the UNF Writing Center, English Graduate Organization (EGO), and UNF faculty poets for an informal poetry reading to celebrate National Poetry Month! We are all about showing our appreciation for poets, past and present! Bring your own work or your favorite poem to share — or just come to listen and get a free dose of poetry. Students, staff, and faculty are welcome! 

Poetry Feedback Fridays, April 6 & 13 at 2-3PM

Join our visiting poet for an informal small-group conversation about poetry, careers in the arts, and the writing life. Bring your poems for individual critique, or bring your curiosity. Beginners and experienced writers are welcome — no prep needed! Students, faculty, and staff are welcome!
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Do you have an exciting project or event for National Poetry Month? I’d love to hear about it! I’ve got more poetic features to share, so stay tuned to the blog! 

37 Books in 2017

My reading goal for 2017 was 35 books. Below you’ll find several of my favorite themes – ecology, music, spirituality, and grammar. But there are also several books about Jane Austen as July marked the 200th anniversary of her death.

I’m feeling rather hip as many of these books actually came out in 2017, so I read them hot off the presses! Here’s what I read this year. As always, I’ve left mini commentaries beneath the selections I particularly enjoyed.

  1. To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings by John O’Donohue
  2. Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery
    I have such fondness for Anne Shirley, and I loved this latest installment of her adventures.
  3. The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel
    This might just be my favorite book of the year! That is all.
  4. Arda Inhabited: Environmental Relationships in The Lord of the Rings by Susan Jeffers
    Outstanding book! Scholarly work but accessible and fascinating examination of Tolkien.
  5. The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You by Elaine N. Aron
    I came across this book because Susan Cain referenced Dr. Aron’s research in her incredible book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Aron’s work on sensitivity is groundbreaking and validating!
  6. The Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark
    Though this isn’t my favorite Clark volume, all his books are fabulous. He is a down-to-earth writer and offers lucid strategies for improving reading and writing.
  7. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel
  8. Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon and Mars by Nathalia Holt
  9. Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More — Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by Karen Swallow Prior
    A compelling and beautifully written biography with rich historical context.
  10. The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places by Bernie Krause
    Fascinating and lovely!
  11. Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill
  12. Scales to Scalpels: Doctors Who Practice the Healing Arts of Music and Medicine by Lisa Wong
  13. Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy by Joanna Macy
    How could I not read everything by Macy, who is a brilliant eco-philosopher and translator of Rilke? Her On Being interview was absolutely beautiful.
  14. Snobs by Julian Fellowes
    The creator of Downton Abbey is a great novelist! This one was wonderful as an audiobook.
  15. Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything by Margaret Wertheim
    While I enjoyed this book, I preferred Wertheim’s On Being interview.
  16. A Little Book of Language by David Crystal
  17. Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West
  18. Ain’t She Sweet? by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
    You MUST listen to this as an audiobook. Normally I can’t stand romance novels, but this one is hilarious and so well done! It’s right up there with Laurie Colwin’s Happy All The Time, which I reread often.
  19. The Colony by Jillian Weise
    Snarky, creepy, and curious. This is a short and weird novel that asks good questions.
  20. An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage
  21. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
    Beautiful prose, thoughtful writing, wonderful stories.
  22. Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
    Ever since I saw Haupt’s TEDx Talk, I wanted to read all of her books. I’m currently reading Crow Planet because Mozart’s Starling was so wonderful!
  23. Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly
    The best Austen book I’ve read all year! I’ve got more to read, but this one is absolutely fantastic! Kelly examines the subtle political and cultural critiques in Austen’s novels. Austen wasn’t as detached as everyone claims.
  24. Suites for the Modern Dancer by Jill Khoury
    Read my full-length review here.
  25. Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence by Rick Hanson
  26. Longbourn by Jo Baker
    This is the “below stairs” story that unfolds alongside Pride and Prejudice. It’s compelling and respectable.
  27. Grace (Eventually: Thoughts on Faith) by Anne Lamott
  28. Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder
  29. The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn
    Listen to the audiobook of this one. It’s a gripping, meticulously researched novel about Austen’s life. Very well done!
  30. Jane Austen at Home: A Biography by Lucy Worsley
    This is an excellent book on Austen! If you are on the fence, watch this hour-long preview.
  31. Victoria, the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird
    Long but worth it! Lots of great stories about Victoria.
  32. Juliet’s Answer: One Man’s Search for Love and the Elusive Cure for Heartbreak by Glenn Dixon
    Save your time and just enjoy the  Shakespeare Unlimited episode about this one. The book was pleasant but not as thrilling as I’d hoped.
  33. Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds by Carmine Gallo
    This book is actually more useful than the official TED book on public speaking by Chris Anderson.
  34. Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling
    Fun but not as good as her first book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?
  35. Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar by David Crystal
    As always, David Crystal is a delight! I loved his attention to grammar pedagogy and child development in this book.
  36. Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life by Susan David
  37. The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family by Josh Hanagarne
    I had not heard of this book until it came up as the FSCJ Author Series book for 2017-2018. I enjoyed Hanagarne’s wit and bookishness, and I’m looking forward to author events coming up.

What have you been reading this year? What’s your goal for next year? Comment below and share your literary explorations!

In the Works

 

It’s time for an overdue update! Happy December to all!

I’ve had a busy semester of writing, teaching, reading, and workshopping. Here are some of the highlights!

Presentations

In October, I spoke at an event for Blindness Awareness Day hosted by UNF Leaders and Activists for the Disabled (LAD). Though the talk ended up being an hour, we recorded the first 20 minutes, and you can watch them here:

In November, I spoke about breaking disability stereotypes at another UNF event. This time it was the 3rd annual Community Learning Opportunity, hosted by UNF THRIVE, an organization that serves students with autism.

Later in November, I gave my second presentation as part of  UNF Sigma Tau Delta’s Brown Bag Series. My talk was called Poetry, Passion, and Grammar. We explored some of my favorite poems and charted their unconventional use of intuitive grammar features.

Publications

My poems “Mint” and “Natural Compliance” appeared in the latest issue of Clemson University’s South Carolina Review, available only in print. These poems are especially important to me because they each honor a loved one who is no longer living. “Mint” was written for my great-grandmother, and “Natural Compliance” was written for my friend, Christina.

The December issue of Wordgathering features two of my pieces – a mini essay and a book review. The mini essay is called “Life of a Disabled Person as Rendered in Video Game Language“; it’s a satirical look at the social obstacles disabled people face.

The second piece is a full-length review of Border Songs: A Conversation in Poems by Ona Gritz and Dan Simpson. Border Songs is a brief beautiful chapbook that explores themes of myth, identity, love, faith, and acceptance.

Workshops

I have recently discovered the phenomenal Poetry Barn – an organization that offers physical and online poetry workshops! In November, I took Jill Khoury’s workshop Writing Poems from the Body, a month-long course on exploring how our bodies shape our work. It was an intensely creative and productive time for me, so I immediately signed up for their December workshop, Foremothers: Imitating Women Poets, taught by Joshua Davis. Class just started this week, so I can’t wait to see what’s in store!

In the Works

I am, as always, writing writing writing. I am revising a piece on sacred singing and blindness for an academic disability journal. I’m planning an essay-length review of Rachel Carson’s extraordinary Under the Sea-Wind. And I’m prepping my Intro to Creative Writing course for spring!

Book Review: Suites for the Modern Dancer

I am excited to share my latest publication, a review of Jill Khoury’s Suites for the Modern Dancer. Khoury’s book is a full-length poetry collection, published by Sundress Press in 2016. My review was published in Issue #5 of The Deaf Poets Society. Here’s how the review begins:

I indulge in the fantasy of maneuvering effortlessly to a shady oak, slim volume of poetry in hand, and losing myself for an afternoon. With birds and breezes for companions and sunlight unproblematic on white pages, my escapism thrives on the act of reading, rather than the text itself. In reality my reading of standard-print texts is mediated by real and artificial voices. I can’t follow the text visually unless I enlarge it myself, so I download books to my phone and use VoiceOver’s text-to-speech features. Such readings are mechanical but precise. If I follow along with a large-print version of the text, I almost forget that I am reading collaboratively.

But I prefer real human voices. My friend and I settle down at the kitchen table with two copies of Jill Khoury’s Suites for the Modern Dancer. His is the 2016 paperback edition, and mine is a manuscript copy in 18-point font. Since I can’t skim the collection by sight, I use adhesive red flags to mark each page I write on.

Read the full essay here.

Stylish Negotiations: How a Blind Writer Finds the Right Journals

My essay “Stylish Negotiations” was shared on BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog today! This piece analyzes the stories in an unlikely place — a journal’s submission guidelines — and suggests that many journals aggressively mold and filter the stories of disability they claim to promote. It offers a solution to such frustrating re-shaping: honest dialogue between writers and editors about the subjects that matter to us.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Emily K. Micheal TEDx promo photo 9.2016By Emily K. Michael

Submission guidelines rarely make me angry. Because I seek publications that share my interests – ecology, feminism, disability, music – all the specifications can start to look the same. Most journals want a well-rounded submission, free from religious agendas, offensive stereotypes, and one-dimensional fables of inspiration.

When I find a publication that seems promising, I scroll through the journal’s “About” page and submission guidelines. Here’s where I can make some serious assessments. Journals lose my interest if they proclaim, “send us your best work” or “we only publish good poetry.” I won’t let my students use “good” and “bad” as standalone terms, so I hesitate to send my work to a journal that won’t express its own agenda in more vibrant language.

Among publications that promote the work of disabled writers, the guidelines evince a similar aesthetic. Here are excerpts from three journals committed to sharing the…

View original post 1,537 more words

#InternationalGuideDogDay

April 26 is International Guide Dog Day, a chance to celebrate the countless beautiful handler-guide dog teams around the world. It is a day to honor not only the hard work we do with our companions but the circle of loving support that makes this work possible. From the families that encourage us to go in for training to the trainers, volunteers, and administrators who get our pups ready to work with us, we are surrounded by a web of kindness and commitment.

No handler can reach for her guide dog’s harness without realizing the power of collaboration. None of us could do this alone.

So, to celebrate guide dogs, I’m sharing a few of my favorite posts about York. Some of these have only lived on the blog while others have gone far afield into literary journals. Each piece immortalizes the intense gratitude and love I have for my brown-eyed boy, and for everyone who helped bring him into my life.

  • Working For Love (Guide Dog Training Part 1)” was the first essay I ever wrote about York, in June of 2014. Little did I know how often York would inspire me to literary action.
  • Quartet Beyond Measure” details how my barbershop quartet came together and adapted to our furry fifth member.
  • Of Dogs and Dragons” examines the beautiful and rewarding inter-species partnership in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series — and makes the case that her fantasy world of talking dragons and epic battles reflects our powerful real-world collaboration with service animals.
  • Working Resonance: Concerto for Guide Dog, Handler, and World“: I wrote this piece last April and it was published in The Hopper, an eco-literary journal from Green Writers Press in Vermont. To this day, “Working Resonance” is one of my favorite essays, a piece I am incredibly proud of. I reread it often because I believe it has a larger message than I even understood at the time. It expresses so much of what I want to achieve in the world.
  • How My Life Changed With a Guide Dog” started out as an open letter to the generous donors of Southeastern Guide Dogs, and it was picked up by a Jacksonville newspaper — further evidence that sincere gratitude cannot be contained.

I hope you enjoy these pieces and take a moment to thank your furry companions, even if they are not working dogs. If you want more wordsmithing about my adventures with York, just click the “guide dog” entry in the tag cloud on the right.

Happy International Guide Dog Day to all!

Sacred Space Interview: Meditating on the Great Universe

After a long hiatus, I’m excited to rekindle my Sacred Space series with the thoughtful words of my friend and literary colleague, Sohrab Homi Fracis. Sohrab is a fiction writer currently living in Jacksonville, FL. He is the author of Ticket to Minto: Stories of India and America and the timely new novel Go Home. He has visited my classes several times to read for my students and lead fantastic discussions on the power of culture and literature. In this interview, he discusses his inherited faith and his current spiritual beliefs.

Do you believe in a God, gods, or other spiritual forces? If so, what name(s) does your spiritual force have? Where does the name come from?

I was born into a Zoroastrian family in India and taught prayers in the ancient-Persian language Avestan to Ahura Mazda, the spirit of light / creator / God. But as an adult, while I respect my ancestry, I’m not religious, in a traditional sense. I don’t practice “blind faith.” I can only “believe in” what is established fact. In the words of the narrator of my story “All right, now, Cupid,” forthcoming in an anthology from Burrow Press: “I’m agnostic myself, happy to believe in the incredible yet credible universe.” That requires no “faith”: the universe (from the Latin universus: combined into one, whole) that spawned all of life quite evidently exists, in all its vast magnificence. There is much we factually know about it and much we don’t, with the former slowly but steadily making gains on the latter. Why invent something beyond that?

Sum up your faith in three words. Why did you choose these words?

The Zoroastrian prayers in Avestan do a good job of this: “Manashni, Gavashni, Kunashni.” That means “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.” That pretty much covers it, right? It’s also pretty much impossible to pull off all the time. Other than that, I’m good with it, pun intended.

My three words, on the other hand, would be “Nobody really knows.” And the more people who realize and/or acknowledge this around the world, instead of insisting on their particular religion’s fiction (I’m a fiction writer, so I recognize it when I see it), the less divided and more peaceful that world will be.

How do you practice your faith? What kinds of prayer, texts, service, or other rituals do you use?

Well, once I came to the somewhat obvious conclusion that there was no traditional God, I stopped praying for many years. And they were tough years in which I felt the absence all the more, because prayer and faith can be a comfort, of course. But I saw it as false comfort, and didn’t want that. So I toughed it out. When I finally realized that the entirely credible universe was “God” enough for me, I felt I could reconnect with it, in a sense pray to it again. This was my logic in a literary-studies manuscript called The Game Against Death that I’ve worked on, off and on, over the years: “One does not need blind faith to believe in the great universe—no wonder more and more people invoke it directly in their prayers. It is an evident, verifiable, omnipresent, magnificent, awe-inspiring ‘God,’ a constant and powerful presence in and influence on all our lives. It is even, in at least one sense (and possibly also at its primal core), conscious: its living creatures, to which it gave birth, are a conscious part of it. One should not instead insist on a hypothetical consciously creative and interventionist being to blindly believe in.” And/or pray to, I might add.

Describe a moment when you felt that your god was real, that your faith was making a difference in your life.

Once I began to feel reconnected with the universe at large, there was a huge feeling of relief that came with that, and a lasting one of being more at peace with life/existence.

Have you had any spiritual mentors or teachers? If so, describe their role in your life. How did they help you find your faith?

I found cumulative epiphanies over the years, often when reading insightful books such as The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins, and Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse. And those epiphanies consolidated themselves in my mind during more years spent reading and researching for The Game Against Death.

Where and when do you feel most in tune with your faith or spirituality?

Probably when finding some slight success meditating, which is when I can get beyond/behind my chattering mind and separated-out human consciousness/persona to catch serene glimmers of reassimilation into the larger universe.

What is one misconception that others have expressed about your faith? How would you correct it?

Well, if we’re talking about Zoroastrianism, then it’s the Western world’s label of it being a “dualistic” faith instead of (along with Judaism) one of the earliest monotheistic faiths in history, introducing to civilization the concepts of a supreme creator/God (Ahura Mazda, the spirit of light) who prevails over an evil antagonist/devil (Ahriman, the spirit of darkness), of a judgment day, and of Paradise, thus strongly influencing other monotheistic faiths and scriptures that came later, including Christianity.

If, however, we’re talking about my personal agnostic philosophy, it’s sometimes misconstrued to mean that I believe in at least the possibility of the traditional religious God. But, as you can see from my earlier answers, I have no belief in such a figure other than as an invention of humans. By “agnostic” I only mean that, as I said earlier, nobody fully knows what forces or powers or phenomena underlie/underpin our known universe. I certainly trust science more than I do religion, but even the best of science crosses over from verified fact to theoretical conjecture at some point along both the macro and micro scales of existence.

Assign some “spiritual homework” for our readers. What is one practice, prayer, or lesson you’d like to share?

Extended mass meditations conducted by the Transcendental Meditation folk in troubled areas have resulted in lowered violence/crime rates recorded officially over the period. That supports their belief that the more people there are around the world who practice meditation the more in tune and at peace the global population will be. So my assignment is twofold. Find 10-20 minutes a day, for a start, to seat yourself comfortably, close your eyes, still your mind to whatever extent you can, and find some inner quiet. Enjoy the release from stress and the peaceful feeling. Secondly, encourage others to try it for themselves.

Temple Grandin Live at FSCJ!

Last night, I attended the final event of FSCJ’s 2016-2017 Author Series:  a live presentation by Dr. Temple Grandin! If you’re not familiar with Dr Grandin, she is an autistic animal scientist, famous for her humane redesign of U.S. slaughter plants. She has written several books on animal behavior, such as Animals Make Us Human and Animals in Translation. She has also written several books on living with autism—her latest being The Autistic Brain. My FSCJ students have been reading her book Thinking in Pictures, and it has inspired the best discussions of the semester!

Dr. Grandin’s presentation was an utter delight. She lectured on autism and learning differences and answered audience questions with patience and forthrightness. Her honesty had the audience laughing, nodding, and applauding the whole time.

Grandin began her presentation by profiling famous innovators such as Thomas Edison and Jane Goodall—and her refrain was, “What would happen to this person in our current educational system today?” Whether it was a designer of rockets, an inventor of light bulbs, or a famous film director, Grandin emphasized the commonalities among these extraordinary minds: early exposure to career interests, questionable performance in formal academic environments, and an indirect, “through the back door” entry into their field. The most compelling fact for me was that Dr. Goodall was originally hired to be another researcher’s secretary. A secretary! It’s thrilling to think of how she overturned this archetype of female exclusion!

Another of Dr. Grandin’s emphatic repetitions was the phrase “work skills”: she passionately insisted that autistic people need to be doing meaningful work where they can learn to collaborate, be on time, and complete routine tasks. To almost every parent who approached her with a question, she asked, “What does your child do? What do you do?” To help individuals on the spectrum, Grandin holds everyone accountable.

Despite her work as an autism advocate, Grandin declared her desire to “break out of the autism box.” She told us that her  priority, the identity she considers first, is her work with animals. This is a powerful statement for all disability activists who are often encouraged to work only with their population. People see a successful blind person and they say, “You should teach at the blind school.” They see a woman like Dr. Grandin, and they seem surprised that she doesn’t devote 100% of her time to autism lectures. But in putting her career first, Dr. Grandin is emphasizing the very privilege that some nondisabled people take for granted: the freedom to build your life around the passions and causes that you value most. Dr. Grandin’s outspoken career ambitions remind us what we’re all advocating for: increased self-determination for all members of society, regardless of their medical labels.

Dr. Grandin argued that medical labels can only stretch so far in helping us understand and accommodate individuals on the autism spectrum. She encouraged us to abandon the inflexible (and often confusing) medical jargon of diagnosis, to pick up the precise language of engineering in its place. She emphasized the need to “troubleshoot” each individual case, to look for “site specific” problems, and to avoid over-generalizations and abstraction. She described her own thinking as “bottom up,” and her comments and questions showcased a precise determination to sort out every issue.

Dr. Grandin’s presentation highlighted the importance of creativity and collaboration with all kinds of minds. She emphasized the importance of specifics, of treating each individual as an individual. For some in the disability community, the diagnosis is the necessary step to services and inclusion, but for others, it’s an unhelpful label that people get hung up on. If the label doesn’t serve you, she said, stop using it.

Grandin left the audience with a few guiding principles, applicable to people on and off the spectrum: less screen time, more hands-on activities, and greater exposure to different things. She reminded us that the most successful innovators have been exposed to art, theater, or hands-on work.  She reiterated how she made friends: through shared interests. For anyone who has been bullied or ostracized, she emphasized the importance of what Seth Godin would call “finding your tribe”—the people who are willing to work just as hard for the things you love.

An Open Letter to the Donors of Southeastern Guide Dogs

I am excited to begin the new year in a spirit of gratitude. Your gift to Southeastern Guide Dogs blesses all future guides and graduates—but it also touches every member of the Southeastern community.

I graduated with my first guide dog from Southeastern Guide Dogs in July 2014. I had been matched with York, an 18-month-old black Lab whose large brown eyes shone with intelligence and determination. After a month of training in Palmetto, FL, I was ready to take my pup home, but I had only a faint understanding of how he would change my life.

The training process was not easy. Before York, I had used a white cane for safe and independent travel: independent being the key word. I knew how to trust myself, but I had to learn to trust York. On our third day of training, we paused at the edge of a curb, ready to step down. With my cane, I could have judged the depth easily—using the cane to touch the step and the sidewalk below. But with York, I wouldn’t feel the change in elevation until we stepped off the curb. I knew it was only one step, but I stood there for several minutes, afraid to trust another creature with my safety. I thought I could do it better. I thought we would stumble. I thought I would step down wrong and twist an ankle.

My trainer stood quietly beside me. She repeated, “Whenever you’re ready, tell him to go forward.”

When I finally gave York the command to step down, we moved so fluidly that my moments of worry dissolved in an instant. I was already several feet along the path before I could process what had held me back. Once I decided to trust, the obstacles disappeared. Steps up and down, crowded sidewalks, random signposts—these are now just arbitrary pieces of a world that York and I travel smoothly and confidently together.

York and I are an inseparable team in the most mundane and extraordinary places. From our favorite coffeeshops to the university campus where I teach, from the symphony and art museum to the regional stage at an a cappella singing competition, York is my constant companion. This year, we made our debut on the TEDx stage, giving a talk on disability and collaboration—and as far as I can tell, he is the first guide dog to grace this famous venue.

I knew that York would bring me a greater sense of independence and adventure, but I had no idea how his presence would transform my heart. It is not just that York helps me or that he has given me a way to express deep love and affection. York, like any partner worth having, challenges me to be the best version of myself.

When I would rather choose a quiet well-known path, York demands a crowded sidewalk full of obstacles. When I would rather stay on the sidelines, York demands attention. People stop to ask about his training or tell me how beautiful he is. On one memorable occasion, a woman sprinted across a hotel restaurant to meet us: she turned out to be a former puppy raiser for Southeastern and she was thrilled to see a guide dog team in action!

Perhaps what is most exciting for me is the picture York and I present when we work together. York and I are often the first blind woman-guide dog duo to appear on the conference panel, at the competition stage, in the coffeeshop. Though it seems like service dogs are everywhere, disabled people are still woefully underrepresented in professional and social settings. York and I get to show people that inclusion isn’t “special” or “exceptional”: we get to set a new norm, raise the bar for disabled people everywhere. With the simple act of walking up to a counter and ordering coffee, we teach the world that blind people can be just as competent and worthy of respect as anyone else.

But with York, it never stops at respect. He works so hard with me because he loves me, and this is a love that completely overwhelms me. It is as powerful as a symphony, as beautiful as a night full of stars. It’s a love I can never hope to measure or comprehend. But it’s a love I will spend my whole life trying to return.

Every time I grab my purse or put on my shoes, York runs to his special rug and waits for his harness, tail wagging. Every time we step out of the car, his nose sniffs the air, exploring. He sees the harness, and he turns from a wiggly explorer into a serious, focused companion. The harness slips on, and his body language says, “I’m ready for this.”

If you’ve never wrapped your fingers around the square end of a guide dog’s harness, if you’ve never needed to place your trust in a furry four-legged genius, it can be difficult to fathom the impact a guide dog has on the life of a blind or visually impaired person. Our dogs help us find independence, confidence, and self-worth. By extending an incredible network of dedicated humans, they teach us that our lives have value.

Your gift does not just help us be more independent. It helps blind people reclaim their dignity and their self-determination. Your generosity reminds us that people believe in us and that we should believe in ourselves—that our greatest joys and successes derive from profound collaboration. None of us is meant to strive alone: we all need to hold onto someone. I am honored to be working with York—and with the community of trainers, sponsors, and puppy raisers that made this brilliant partnership possible.

Sincerely,

Emily K. Michael, with York

10-14-16-em-york

45 in 2016: What I read this year.

It’s been a busy year for me, but I’m proud to say I met my Goodreads goal: 45 books! Check ’em out! Some were duds, but most were wonderful. I’ve written brief reviews beneath the ones I really enjoyed.

  1. Provence, 1970:M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste by Luke Barr
  2. Must Love Dogs by Claire Cook
  3. A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage
    Fun, fascinating, and entertaining! If you love food and history, you’ll enjoy this book!
  4. Gratitude by Oliver Sacks
  5. Letters on Life by Rainer Maria Rilke (trans. Ulrich Baer)
    A meditative and delightful collection of Rilke’s prose thoughts on love, death, nature, art, and so many other wonderful topics.
  6. Yes Please by Amy Poehler
    Funny, thoughtful, and surprising—I loved listening to Amy Poehler read this audiobook. There is real substance here.
  7. Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson
    Though this book is a bit slow in places, it is fascinating and thorough! Wilson begins before pots and pans, travels through French renaissance kitchens, and explores molecular gastronomy.
  8. Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry by Stephen Dobyns
    Incredible! Thorough, down-to-earth, and detailed. I underlined something on every page and stopped mid-chapter to write my own poetry. I recommend this book for all poets! I especially loved his final chapter on linguistics.
  9. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?  (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling
  10. Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds by Bernd Heinrich
    An outstanding narrative exploration of ravens! Compelling stories, philosophical observations, and exciting discoveries—all expertly written.
  11. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram
    Completely absorbing! Abram traces the evolution of the alphabet, the debate between oral and writing cultures, and the effects of the alphabet on our relationship to the wild world. Absolutely extraordinary.
  12. e.e. cummings: A life by Susan Cheever
    A perceptive and captivating literary biography interspersed with the poet’s work.
  13. Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
  14. Heartburn by Nora Ephron
    Listen to Meryl Streep read the audiobook. Totally worth it! It’s a cute, well written story.
  15. Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife by John M. Marzluff
  16. Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet In Our Time by Eavan Boland
    Boland explores the struggles of being a female poet in the very male tradition of Irish poetry. This is a fascinating contemplation of a writer’s motivation and origin—how she can build something value from a tradition that has excluded her.
  17. Essays in Love by Alain de Button
  18. Writing Wild: Forming a Creative Partnership With Nature by Tina Welling
  19. Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O’Donohue
  20. When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
  21. A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf
  22. Planet of the Blind by Stephen Kuusisto
  23. The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner
  24. Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller by Georgina Kleege
    Kleege is a reflective, capable writer. This book is a fantastic meditation on Keller’s life and cultural legacy!
  25. Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write by Gayle Brandeis
  26. Doctors: The History of Scientific Medicine Revealed Through Biography by Sherwin Nuland
  27. On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks
    I’ve always enjoyed Sacks’s writing, and his autobiography was no exception. I appreciated hearing about his own struggles as a physician and writer, but I didn’t enjoy the overall structure of the book.
  28. The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder
  29. Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening by Stephen Kuusisto
  30. Happiness Is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life by Sylvia Boorstein
    Warm, inviting, and practical.
  31. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
  32. The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel Levitin
  33. The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman
    I have a soft spot for poets writing prose and sci-fi/fantasy writers writing nonfiction, and this collection does not disappoint! Gaiman covers everything from journalism and film festivals to his favorite influences in science fiction and fantasy.
  34. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Love, Live, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown
    Encouraging, systematic, and fortifying! I loved reading this book—it’s way too good to be called “self help.”
  35. Acquired Tastes by Peter Mayle
  36. Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?: . . . and Other Questions from the Astronomers’ In-box at the Vatican Observatory by Guy Consolmagno and Paul Mueller
  37. The Geek Feminist Revolution: Essays by Kameron Hurley
    Ardent, biting, and analytical! Hurley’s collection of essays is full of passion and personality!
  38. The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of English by Roy Peter Clark
    A lovely light read on English grammar and writing. I learned a lot and would love to assign this book to a class!
  39. The Three Marriages: Reimaginating Work, Self, and Relationship by David Whyte
    A rich and rewarding combination of personal history and literary biography.
  40. The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman
  41. Beauty: The Invisible Embrace by John O’Donohue
    This is a lovely collection of meditations on sensory experience. Though I enjoyed Anam Cara, I found Beauty much more engaging.
  42. TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking by Chris Anderson
    An engaging introduction to presentation literacy. Anderson covers many of the how-to’s of setting up and delivering a TED Talk—as well as profiling several of the best TED speakers and talks.
  43. League of Dragons (Temeraire #9) by Naomi Novik
    A not-terribly-thrilling end to the fabulous Temeraire series. Solid but unremarkable.
  44. How to Be a Tudor: A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Tudor Life by Ruth Goodman
    Utterly fantastic! Goodman covers Tudor fashion, food, living arrangements, and so much more! The book is well researched and well written! I enjoyed the meticulous details!
  45. More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin
    Another book of fun and pithy kitchen essays. I love reading Colwin’s strong opinions on everything from picnic fare to gingerbread.

So what’s on the list for 2017? Probably more of the same. Books on poetry, food, language, birds.

Have a recommendation? A favorite book or a recent read? Share in the comments below!