Nine Mile Magazine Seeks Work by Disabled & Neurodivergent Poets

Below is a call for submissions from Nine Mile Magazine.

Call for Poetry

Nine Mile Art & Literary Magazine 

Special Issue: Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip Poetics 

Publication Date: Fall 2019  

Guest Editor: Diane R. Wiener

Background

Nine Mile‘s Fall 2018 issue (Vol. 6, Issue 1) included a section called “Other Engines,” devoted to the work of neurodivergent writers.  Our Fall 2019 issue (Vol. 7, Issue 1) will be devoted entirely to the work of self-identified Disabled, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poets, with particular attention paid to Neurodivergent—including Autistic—poets.  Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics are at the heart of poetics, well beyond the too-often hurtful and ignorant ways in which disability is used as a metaphor or to forward a storyline.  Neurodivergent, Disabled, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poets (whether or not we write about disability) must in our view be represented at the center of poetry publishing.  (More information is below about the Special Issue and Nine Mile.) 

Submission

For consideration, please submit 10 to 15 poems in Word or Text by July 1, 2019 to Diane@ninemile.org, with the subject line “Fall 2019 Submission.”

Previously published work is welcome.  If accepted, it will be the author’s responsibility to acquire republication permission from the appropriate source(s).  

We are not equipped to accept video content or visual images, at this time.  Please only submit written poetry.  

Please also include:

  1. your name, email address, and home address
  2. a paragraph about yourself (background, achievements, etc.)
  3. a statement about your aesthetic intentions (why and how you write “the ways you do”)
  4. a photograph of yourself

If your work is accepted, you will receive $5 per published poem.  

About Nine Mile Magazine

Nine Mile Art & Literary Magazine publishes twice yearly, showcasing the best work we receive from authors whose work, energy, and vision are deeply entangled with life.  

At Nine Mile, we are committed to featuring diverse writing by diverse writers, including: disabled writers/writers with disabilities; Writers of Color; writers with marginalized genders, sexual and asexual orientations, religious/nonreligious identities and belief/non-belief systems; young and senior writers; experienced and never-before-published writers; and writers from outside the proverbial mainstream.  We are likewise committed to producing inclusive and accessible content, in multiple formats.  Poetry is everyone’s art. 

For more information about Nine Mile, visit our website.   

More About This Special Issue

Since 2007, the online journal, Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature (Editor-in-Chief, Michael Northen), has done stellar work in featuring disability poetics, and literary work by and about disability.  However, Neurodivergent (including Autistic), Disabled, Deaf, Mad (including Emotionally Variant and Mentally Ill), and Crip poets have generally not been well represented in other mainstream or outlier literary journals, magazines, and anthologies.  Moreover, we often do not feel welcomed to or within literary conferences and creative writing spaces, both public and academic, due to exclusion whether intended or accidental.  

The groundbreaking collection, Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Michael Northen, and Sheila Black; Cinco Puntos Press, 2011), disrupted this pattern, in its foregrounding of poets with physical disabilities.  In particular, Bartlett’s recent essays in Poets & Writers and The New York Times (including new work by disabled poets, published in August, 2018), and Jillian Weise’s contributions—as herself, and as Tipsy Tullivan (via social media, and in myriad other venues)—have taken issue with the exclusionary trend.  Increasingly, commentaries about these issues are appearing by other disabled and nondisabled poets and writers.  

This Special Issue is part of Nine Mile‘s ongoing commitments, in these and many other important areas.  

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When the Photographer Accommodates: My Session with Chelsea Whiteman

For publications and speaking opportunities, I’m often asked for a professional photo. Because I can’t take my own selfies, I’ve had to rely on the same couple of photos – either the product of a professional event or a kind friend with the patience to photograph me. Often these pictures are years out of date.

As a blind woman, I am rarely comfortable having my picture taken. I am extremely light-sensitive, which means a necessary flash leaves me squinting in pain. I can’t visually locate the photographer just before the click — whether it’s a professional with a tripod or a friend with a selfie stick. And the need for instant immortalizing of moments never gives me enough time to learn where I should look or get in position. Even in formal settings, most photographers don’t know how to guide me quickly. Despite these visual challenges, I can see well enough to be unhappy with the photos of myself that result. So the inevitable picture-taking at weddings, holidays, and life events fils me with anxiety: I feel I always need more time, and I don’t know how to communicate what I need quickly. The rest of the group is ready and I’m still asking, “Where do I look?” People can’t answer and hold their smiles at the same time.

I know I can photograph well, but I require more time and attention than the average sighted person. I need the photographer to count down to the flash — a trick I discovered during an exceptional portrait session I had in high school. Knowing that I was unhappy with the rushed photos we were required to take for the yearbook, my mom insisted on taking me for glamor shots, and over the course of three hours, the inventive and courteous photo team helped me figure out my process. If the person with the camera counts to three right before the flash, I can keep my eyes closed up to the moment when the photo is taken: I open my eyes as the camera flashes and I don’t have time to squint. This trick is a pain-free option that helps me get photos I enjoy.

After relying on an outdated photo for several events this year, I decided it was time to try another professional session. I contacted Chelsea Whiteman, a friend and former colleague who runs her own photography business. I explained that I needed professional portraits for my writing gigs, and I explained my apprehensions and challenges. Chelsea was eager to work with me — but she reminded me that her style is different from traditional studio portraits. The pictures would not look like updated yearbook photos or department store holiday prints. I had no idea how her perspective would translate for photos of me, but I wanted to find out.

Chelsea helped me choose a location and time. I explained my sensitivity to light, and she suggested that we take our pictures in an outdoor setting at dusk. She also recommended that I wear a solid color as patterned fabrics did not photograph well. I appreciated the advice. I chose a solid dress and a patterned scarf that could be added for variety.

I also explained my insecurities about not being prepped for each shot. I asked Chelsea to be very specific in how I should stand and angle my body as well as where I should look. I asked for some head shots, some full-length portraits, and some cute photos with York. Chelsea took all this information on board and prepared for our session.

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On the evening of our photos, we were accompanied by Chelsea’s partner Dylan and my friend Michele.  Dylan assisted Chelsea, and Michele held York while I was taking solo photos. Michele was later called upon to make very convincing cat noises so York would look at the camera.

Chelsea had chosen the session time well. I was able to take all of our photos without my sunglasses. We moved throughout several green areas, and most of them worked well for our photos. Sometimes I had to say, “I think the light is too bright here,” but often, Chelsea picked up on my discomfort before I said anything. She would say, “I think you’re not going to be comfortable here, so let’s just move on.”

For each photo, Chelsea observed how I was standing naturally before making any adjustments. She invited me to sit down, look up, look over my shoulder, put my hand on my hip, tie or untie my scarf – all to help me feel comfortable and convey a sense of liveliness in the photo. Sometimes she climbed up on the bench beside me and took the photo from above. At every stage of the session, she provided a running commentary on how the shots looked from her side and what I was doing well.

As the session progressed, I felt increasingly confident and photogenic. I felt that I really had something to offer the camera and that these photos would be a complement to my professional presence. Chelsea was clearly enjoying the session, and she easily worked around my visual challenges. Her professional calm and skill reassured me that my visual circumstances would not get in the way of a good photo.

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When I am happy with a photo of myself, it is not just because I like the way I look. Chelsea’s photos remind me that, in the hands of a skilled and conscientious photographer, the time and effort I require will pay off.

35 in 2018

Once again, it’s time to report on what I read this year. I set myself the Goodreads challenge of 35 books, and I read them all! As usual, the most memorable books get mini-reviews. And I’ve included links to the two full-length reviews I wrote this year. Sprinkled throughout this list you’ll find my favorite books of the year, so keep your eyes open for the On the Blink Noteworthy Books of 2018!

  1. Jo’s Boys by Louisa May Alcott
    This is the final installment in Alcott’s Little Women quartet in which she explores more sophisticated themes: young women who choose a career over marriage, authors who tire of their fame, and lives that don’t tie up neatly. It’s a solid presence in the saga of the March family.
  2. Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper
    (On the Blink Noteworthy Book of 2018)
    Stamper’s humorous style and meticulous research are a delight for any language lover! Read, read, read this!
  3. Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher
    A hilarious light read. Fisher narrates the audiobook, and she does a wonderful job!
  4. Before Happiness: How Creating a Positive Reality First Amplifies Your Levels of Happiness and Success by Shawn Achor
  5. Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival by Bernd Heinrich
    This author never disappoints. Heinrich’s poetic style and rich descriptions make each book completely absorbing.
  6. The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the World’s Great Drinks by Amy Stewart
  7. Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography by Susan Cheever
    As with Cheever’s biographies of E.E. Cummings and the Transcendentalists, this book does not disappoint. By turns heartbreaking and ecstatic, Cheever’s style offers a rounded portrait of Alcott—and all her bizarre life events.
  8. Anne of Windy Poplars (Anne of Green Gables #4) by L.M. Montgomery
  9. Encore Provence: New Adventures in the South of France by Peter Mayle
  10. Why Poetry Matters by Jay Parini
  11. Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World by Jane Hirshfield
    Astute, detailed, and inventive. This is a must-read for practicing poets.
  12. Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
    A masterful author, Haupt create ecological nonfiction rife with poetic and philosophical references. Her discussion of crows is smart, astonishing, and empathetic.
  13. Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey with an Exceptional Labrador by Stephen Kuusisto  (On the Blink Noteworthy Book of 2018)
    I read this book three times this year. I cried every time. It is absolutely wonderful. I wrote a full-length review for Wordgathering here.
  14. The Gift of the Gab: How Eloquence Works by David Crystal
  15. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway
  16. The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible by Aviya Kushner (On the Blink Noteworthy Book of 2018)
    Completely outstanding exploration of the differences between the Hebrew Scriptures and English translations. This book is a gem — detailed layered research interspersed with a nuanced and captivating family story. Again, the audiobook is a wise choice here. I needed a reliable narrator to pronounce all the Hebrew passages.
  17. How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey
  18. A Slip of the Keyboard: Collected Nonfiction by Terry Pratchett
  19. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
    A lively, capable retelling of the Norse myths. Let Gaiman read to you: choose the audiobook for this one.
  20. The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassion—Surprising Observations of a Hidden World by Peter Wohlleben
    This is a fascinating and enjoyable book, but nothing compares to Wohlleben’s The Hidden Lives of Trees.
  21. I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron
  22. Dodger by Terry Pratchett
    This novel is Pratchett’s hilarious and inventive companion to Oliver Twist. For Dickens fans, there are many enjoyable moments, but the book also stands alone in true Pratchett style.
  23. Words on the Move: Why English Won’t–And Can’t–Sit Still (Like, Literally) by John McWhorter
  24. Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans by John M. Marzluff
  25. Food: A Love Story by Jim Gaffigan
    Read this. You will laugh! It’s light and fun – a nice break.
  26. More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art by Georgina Kleege
    I wrote a full-length review of this ambitious scholarly work for Wordgathering. You can read it here.
  27. Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan
    Cute and fun.
  28. Dear Committee Members (Jason Fitger #1) by Julie Schumacher
    This novel consists entirely of letters and emails written by Jason FItger, a train wreck creative writing professor who gaily mixes his professional and personal lives. If you work n academia, you will love it!
  29. The Weather Detective: Rediscovering Nature’s Secret Signs by Peter Wohlleben
  30. Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters by Anne Boyd Rioux
  31. The Shakespeare Requirement (Jason Fitger #2) by Julie Schumacher
    In the second installment of Jason Fitger’s story, Schumacher expands the academic universe to include other charmingly self-involved scholars. This novel is much longer but equally hilarious.
  32. The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English by Lynne Murphy
    Exhaustive and enlightening. Not for the faint of heart, but well worth the time and energy.
  33. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
  34. The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King (On the Blink Noteworthy Book of 2018)
    Heartwarming, uplifting, and encouraging. The audio version is narrated by LeVar Burton and features the iconic Mr. Rogers music. A beautiful book.
  35. 84. Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (On the Blink Noteworthy Book of 2018)
    Another delightful epistolary story – and the audio is narrated by several cast members. This book is a lovely reminder of how much heart we put into letters, and why we should always write and save letters.

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

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.

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! 

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!

Poet’s Mind

If you want to understand what it is to be a poet, spend time with people who consider themselves unpoetic—people who feel defeated or confused by poetry. You will keep bumping up against that thing that separates you. It feels like a low cement wall.

The essential separation borders a world where every question has one answer, where every effect has one cause. And that’s decidedly different from the world you believe in, the world you want to live in, the world you know is true. In the poet’s world, everything has multiple answers— not because everything is relative, but because discovery and learning help you see what you thought you understood in a novel light. A new way. You understand that the truth you took for granted is now being filtered differently. It is still true, but it is more true. It is true in a way that envelops more of your experience.

You write because you want to dwell in possibilities, to step over a threshold of autobiography and facts and into a place of identity and soul-making. A place where souls can touch other souls outside of time. A place where an epiphany from 200 or 2000 years ago may still have something to teach you. A place where “right” is not the same as “finite.”

You realize that as a poet working and writing in the world, you have the chance to be extended, lifted up and out, expanded. You realize that when you step into that bigger “I”—not your “I” that agonizes over what to wear to work or whether to stop for coffee—when you take the hand of the big “I,” give your talents over to it, you’re taking the hand of your God. That your work might speak to thousands beyond yourself, that it might reach farther than your physical hands could actually reach. And what other name could there be for such expansion than the name of God? Of a force that brings meaning to a mass of atoms and stardust?

So you wonder how others can be closed off to this feeling, this invitation to an expansive self, this response to an initial Creator and creative spark. You ask, did I invite God or did God invite me? You wonder whether, in a search for the finite rightness of things, others are shutting out the sacred.

Because the sacred is unruly. It’s not facts and lists and statistics. It’s a network of finely spun vitality, and once you accept it, you’re in. You’re there. You can’t abandon the sacred. Recognizing the sacred invites you to reconsider all life. You accept the sacred, you accept responsibility.

A poet accepts responsibility.