“Grass Fire” (Kettle Blue Review)

My poem “Grass Fire” was published today in Kettle Blue Review with amazing poems by Maggie Smith, Francine Witte, and other poets I admire! To say I’m pleased to feature in an issue alongside them is an understatement.

Ovid should have written into his heavens,
how fire gathers wind
fiber, thread, and strand
and snaps it rhythmically in taut cords over chastened fields,
an industrial grade cat-o-nine
hissing through the atmosphere…

[Continue reading]

This poem is based on an actual grass fire on my mom’s farm. The photo on this blog post is also from that fire, which was terrifying. Never underestimate how quickly a fire can move! Thankfully my mom didn’t lose her house, in spite of the damage done to the rest of the land around it.

“The First Jews of San Antonio” Among Winners of San Antonio’s 30 Poems for the Tricentennial Contest

I am beyond delighted to share that my poem, “The First Jews of San Antonio,” is among those selected for San Antonio’s 30 Poems for the Tricentennial poetry contest. The selected poems will be interpreted into 2D works of art by local artists and designers to be installed in the City of San Antonio’s Culture Commons Gallery for a special exhibit. The winners also receive a $250 prize and publication.

Thank you to judges Rodney Gomez, Patricia Spears Jones, Urayoán Noel, and Sasha West for choosing my poem!! I’ll let everybody know where they can read the poem along with event details as soon as I have them.

True Love as Curse: The Uncrossing

What if true love was a curse in a bad contract that forced you to live with the most dangerous mafia family in New York? That is the premise behind off-the-wall Rapunzel retelling The Uncrossing by Lambda Literary Fellow Melissa Eastlake — and I loved it.

I spend a lot of time championing adult literary fiction, but young adult fiction (YA) is a rich and exciting genre in its own right. As a side effect of drafting two young adult novels over the past year and half, I’ve found myself reading a lot more YA, especially fairy-tale retellings. There are phenomenal books in this genre, especially for readers looking for more diversity, and The Uncrossing joins books like We Are the Ants by Shaun Hutchinson that handle both mental illness and the real struggles of gay teens with sensitivity, insight, and a light magical touch.

The Uncrossing by Melissa EastlakeJeremy Kovrov is the Rapunzel in this alt-New York shaped by the turf wars of magic-wielding mafia. His adoptive brothers Sergei and Alexei love him and have done their best to raise him under the circumstances, but nothing can help the fact that Jeremy is trapped with the Kovrovs until true love’s first kiss releases him.

The problem? True love is “fairy-tale logic” — an impossible clause that closes off every other possible means of escape. And it’s getting in the way of Jeremy’s real romance with Luke Melnyk, a local Ukrainian-Creole twin who has the unique power to “uncross” curses. Can Luke untangle this particularly nasty curse? And does Jeremy really want him to play the role of rescuing prince?

In my last blog post, “Disgust and Tenderness in Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You,” I talked about how the narrator’s father cruelly associates foulness and disgust with his own son through pointed body language. The Uncrossing could be read as a healing antidote to this sort of treatment. Jeremy and Luke’s families are not perfect — racism and homophobia rear their ugly heads at certain moments in the plot — but they fiercely love their boys and are rooting for them to find a way around this curse. In fact, without both families’ involvement, they wouldn’t have a chance.

As an adoptive parent, I really appreciated that this novel treats Jeremy’s adoptive brothers as his real, loving family without in the end feeling the need to rediscover his lost birth family. At the same time, the novel respects the importance of Jeremy’s birth family in shaping who he is (hint: it has a lot to do with his magical abilities!). This is different from most Rapunzel retellings, and I was more grateful than I can say.

TheUncrossingTour

Thank you to Entangled Teen and the Chapter by Chapter blog tour for providing me with a review copy of this book in exchange for honest feedback.

Disgust and Tenderness in Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You (Ploughshares)

My essay “Disgust and Tenderness in Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You,” was published today on the Ploughshares blog! You can read it here.

Garth Greenwell’s debut novel What Belongs to You is a beautiful and heartbreaking meditation on how we learn to fill the emotional space between ourselves and others. The unnamed narrator is an American teacher in Bulgaria whose coming-out experiences as a teenage boy in the South indelibly shape his relationships with others later in life.

Yet, it would be falsely reductive to label this book as somehow limited in its interests to gay experience; the loneliness and the struggle to reach out, to touch other human beings, belongs to all of us. Indeed, one of Greenwell’s successes in this book is the ability to subvert common tropes of shame and disgust around homosexuality, and expose an original tenderness, a vulnerability underneath, that we all share.

In the opening chapter, after the narrator experiences his first small betrayal by a younger Bulgarian man named Mitko, he reflects, “There’s something theatrical in all our embraces, I think, as we weigh our responses against those we perceive or project; always we desire too much or not enough, and compensate accordingly.” But romantic attraction is only an entry-point into this question for Greenwell, who guides his narrative gracefully through the narrator’s strained memories of his father, meandering walks through the Bulgarian landscape, and encounters with strangers in a hospital and on a train. Continue reading

There is so much I love about this book, and I was only able to write about a sliver of it. I hope you’ll pick up a copy and read it next time you wander through the bookstore!

Notes on a Modern Cinderella (concīs)

My curious little prose poem, “Notes on a Modern Cinderella,” has been published in concīs today! You can read the full poem — and hear me read it aloud! — by clicking here.

This version will not be as ugly as poor Berlioz who slipped on sunflower oil at the turnstile, the one who fell under the train steered by a Komsomol girl. Let’s say worse than the Grimms’ toes but not so horrendous as heads. … continue reading

This was a poem composed in workshop with the lovely Kerri Webster, who challenged us to write a meta-poem about another writing project of ours. Thank you as always for supporting my work and one of my favorite poetry sites!

Intercultural Sensitivity for Writers

One of my greatest frustrations with attempts to support diversity in writing and publishing is the assumption that if diverse people are hired or diverse writers’ books are accepted, automatically publishing itself will become more diverse.

I have a big, big problem with this as an adoptive parent in a nontraditional, multicultural family. I have a big problem with this as a novelist and poet. Writing across difference is not simply an instinct, a talent, or an innate skill. It has to be learned and practiced. Writers need support with this!

Intercultural Sensitivity in Writing (ISW) Goals

  1. Diversity in writing will be seen as a skill that can be LEARNED and IMPROVED by ALL WRITERS.
  2. Writers who identify as #ownvoices will not bear the full burden of responsibility for “diversifying” the rest of publishing.
  3. We will develop and embrace an ethic of diversity in our writing akin to the medical Hippocratic Oath that we can share no matter our own background and identities.

PLEASE help me talk about this problem using the hashtag #DivLitHowTo! The spirit of this hashtag is that we share actual skills that can be implemented in our writing, no matter who we are or how we identify.

Why I Hope You’ll Let Me Help

I want to break down the experience of difference specifically for writers and show how it can help us understand our characters, plots, and overall stories better than we do without this awareness.

I am not a novice at this. I have six years of editorial experience and I also spent 10+ years getting on-the-ground mentorship and training with Milton Bennett’s fantastic Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS). I have honed my knowledge of this intercultural sensitivity model in every possible way: international schools, foster care & adoption programs, study abroad, work abroad, daily life, interpersonal relationships, and more. I also have training and hands-on experience with models for ethics, including biomedical ethics. I have practiced non-violent communication and peace-building skills such as those advocated by Thich Nhat Hahn and Marshall Rosenberg.

What I’m trying to say is that I have seen from firsthand observation and experience that you can’t just pounce on a person who is “different” and expect them to solve a community’s problems. It must be the worst feeling in the world to discover you have been brought into a workplace or a publishing house to be the token figure of diversity, like an exotic doll. When you try to change something or raise a real issue, there will always be a “good reason” to leave things as they are, often in the name of “efficiency” and “tradition” and “common sense.”

The “common sense” routine has to be the worst, I’m telling you.

Today, I want to introduce two approaches to diversity, both valuable but for different reasons. Then I’ll continue this ISW series with a post each the six experiences of difference, following Bennett’s model. I will apply these experiences specifically to writers and writing.

  1. Denial of difference
  2. Defense against difference
  3. Minimization of difference
  4. Acceptance of difference
  5. Adaptation to difference
  6. Integration of difference

Each one of these experiences of difference comes with moral dilemmas that individual people have to address on their own terms. I’ll share examples of those dilemmas and offer tips/techniques for resolving them.

Real-World Experience of Diversity

Diverse writers have “street smarts” in dealing with diversity issues: they have developed coping & survival mechanisms to handle conflict. They know from day-in, day-out experience what it’s like to be different from the majority culture around them. That’s massively important. This on-the-ground experience gives diverse writers the power to:

  • Help people discover themselves in and relate with characters, perhaps even for the first time
  • Offer fresh insight into an experience that has been otherwise stereotyped or become a “tired trope” or possibly is invisible
  • Encourage empathy in the majority of readers who wouldn’t normally identify with someone different from them
  • Validate their experiences and the experiences of others as real

At the same time, these on-the-ground experiences can also lead to some negative or harmful impacts/dilemmas in the writing process:

  • All the onus of sensitivity in the writing and publishing process can end up being placed on the writer rather than on the team of editorial, production, and marketing. They are treated like the “expert” when in reality they represent only one possible experience of difference.
  • The writer may be reliving a trauma in an unhealthy way, possibly traumatizing others in the attempts to work out questions and fears on the page.
    • This can also become a barrier to publication, in the sense that the writing may not be able to pull itself into a storyline that publishers and readers can embrace, if the trauma is too fresh or unwilling to resolve itself.
  • The person who has the on-the-ground experience may not be in a position to tell their own story. For example, they may need to protect themselves from threats. They may have too much to lose to risk exposure.
  • The story may be foreign to too many readers’ immediate experience, making it difficult to form the empathetic bridge between reader and character. This issue is complicated, so I promise I will unpack it in later blog posts.

Professional Training in Intercultural Sensitivity

By comparison, someone with professional training in intercultural sensitivity can help people understand each other and communicate with each other across their differences no matter how they personally identify. Professional training in intercultural sensitivity gives the power to:

  • Notice your own biases and the biases of others.
  • Resolve conflicts and misunderstandings in a non-threatening, non-judgmental way.
  • Help other people move from unhealthy attitudes toward difference toward healthy ones.
  • Find the words to address problems that result from difference even if you personally are not affected by it.
  • Write diverse characters with more awareness of how your own current experience of difference can shape the way you conceive of them and what kinds of conflicts you introduce in their lives on the page.
  • Notice more quickly and intervene more effectively when editorial or production or marketing recommendations will have an impact on how diversity in your writing is experienced by readers.

I believe that the on-the-ground experience of diverse and #ownvoices writers needs to be actively supplemented and supported by professional intercultural training and skills for ALL writers of ALL identifications. More anon, and thanks for any suggestions, ideas, and questions you may have about this new project!

Screaming Bear (Auk Contraire)

My ekphrastic poem “Screaming Bear” was published this month in Auk Contraire‘s NO/WHERE issue, which you can read online here. You really should take a moment, too, to view the full image of Adonna Khare’s stunning & incredibly moving piece, Screaming Bear, an homage to her father during his illness and suffering from a brain tumor, along with the rest of her artwork here. I had the opportunity to view her work at the Boise Art Museum.

Farrin-Screaming Bear poem only

Louise Erdrich’s Literary Children (Ploughshares)

My essay, “Louise Erdrich’s Literary Children” is now available on the Ploughshares blog here. Here is a little of what I discussed of my favorite novelist’s approach to children in her novels, especially The Round House and LaRose:

Erdrich’s most recent triptych of novels—The Plague of Doves (2008), The Round House (2012), and LaRose (2016)—all feature children more prominently than adults. In each case, children are confronted with a many-layered moral question that their experiences over the course of the novel will help them to process. Notably, adults do not offer clear moral guidance. They do not have all the answers, and sometimes their answers are even harmful because they lack awareness of the context surrounding the child’s concern.

The Round House, narrated in first person by teenaged protagonist Joe Coutts, asks urgently, “How should a son handle the violent rape of his mother?” From the first sentence onward, this question is implicit in every interaction, even before Joe knows his mother has been raped.

…Erdrich demonstrates her maturity as a writer by choosing not to rush through this cataclysmic event in the life of a family. She appreciates fully how a single event can trigger feelings that move both spatially (from person to person and place to place) and temporally (within the same person or place over time, even over generations). Continue reading…

As a writer and editor, I am continuously in awe of Erdrich’s ability to sustain moral complexity through the experiences of children without exploiting them or using them as passive carriers of adult ideals.

Christian & Buddhist Worldviews

My Q&A response on the Progressive Christianity website this month was a really tough question: Buddhists tend to think of God as a manifestation of creation; Christians think of God as separate from creation. Do you understand that distinction?

Buddhist and Christian concepts of creation span a full spectrum of beliefs, with some Buddhists even perhaps aligning more closely with some Christians than their fellow Buddhists, and vice versa. So what’s the best way to answer this? I opted to share two examples of a Buddhist and Christian mindset from famous novelists Yukio Mishima and Victor Hugo. Here’s an excerpt of my response, which you can read for free here. (Just scroll down past the locked Matthew Fox article.)

[In Mishima’s Spring Snow,] Honda envisions “God” is the inevitable forces of all reality, churning one impermanent feature into another, obliterating free will wherever it tries to assert itself as separate. It’s really important to understand that this is not a bad conclusion in Honda’s eyes even though he fights it emotionally. Actually, it perfectly foreshadows how his friend’s beautiful life will unfold again and again in each reincarnation across the series.

By comparison all the great drama and angst of Victor Hugo’s much beloved character Jean Valjean in Les Misérables depends very much on a vision of reality and God that accommodates free will. … Unlike Honda, Valjean’s whole existence rests precisely in what choice he makes for himself—to be the best or worst of men. It creates an expectation of judgment by a neutral force, outside the ordinary forces of reality: implicitly, God as represented by the good bishop.

What is clear to me when I read Mishima and Hugo as two compelling examples of Buddhist and Christian worldviews, is that we don’t get a “free pass” on difficult questions by picking one versus the other. Both require a form of rebirth and reckoning with ourselves and the world. It is a rich dialogue, to say the least.

“Autopsy of a Stillbirth” (Progressing Spirit)

I am grateful today to be sharing a poem from my growing Nag Hammadi collection in the Progressing Spirit newsletter (subscriber access only). Here is an excerpt from the poem, which juxtaposes some of the difficult experiences and questions around miscarriage with verses from the apocryphal Gospel of Truth:

You loved her.
The book of her life cannot be read with the naked eye.
Her holy Word, a folded wing, rustles between the atria.

This broken filament you place inside
your lover’s cavernous ventricle.
Together, you are defibrillating the dark matter.

Is she the voice of God?
You already know. Still, you trace her
through microscopes and hadron colliders,
listening for a wingbeat,
the First and the Last.

This poem, along with two other poems I drafted this week during a workshop at The Cabin literary center in Boise, have now raised the total pieces in this collection (tentatively titled Apocryphal Monologues) to nearly 20. However, I’m hoping to compose at least 5 to 10 more pieces before finding a publisher to give it a home.