SR Pod/Vod Series: Writer John Messick

John Messick_headshot1.jpgToday we’re proud to feature John Messick as our ninth Authors Talk series contributor, talking about the balance of creative writing.

Creative writing – whatever the genre or style – “should offer insight to our readers on the higher-order concerns of the world.” So begins John’s podcast, and it continues its heartfelt seriousness through explorations of the idea of “story.”

Striking his own impressive balance between the personal and the profound, John examines the modern-day role of writing and offers a wealth of ideas to think about and apply to one’s writing. As he says in one of my favorite lines, “we can make the world just a little bit better for having taken the time to observe it well.”

You can listen to the podcast on our iTunes Channel.

You can read John Messick’s nonfiction piece “Burn Operation” in Superstition Review, Issue 15.


More About the Author:

John Messick’s work has appeared in Tampa Review, Rock & Sling, Cirque Journal, Alaska Dispatch News, and other publications. His essay “Discovering Terra Incognita” was awarded the AWP Intro Journals Prize in 2013. He has worked as a wildland firefighter, teacher, fish researcher, and sled dog handler. He earned his MFA from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, and currently works as a freelance journalist covering Alaska’s Bristol Bay region. He lives on the Kenai Peninsula in southcentral Alaska.

About the Authors Talk series:

For several years, we have featured audio or video of Superstition Review contributors reading their work. We’re now establishing a new series of podcasts called Authors Talk. The podcasts in this series take a broader scope and feature SR contributors discussing their own thoughts on writing, the creative process, and anything else they may want to share with listeners.

Guest Post, Sam Gridley: Guns and Cheesesteaks: The Case for ISEP

unnamedEveryone lately has been talking about American political and cultural fragmentation—red states vs. blue states, natives vs. immigrants, cops vs. African Americans, and on and on. Even BBC News, to judge by its website, finds our cultural battles more interesting than MI5’s phone spying.

Not only do we disagree about everything, but we’ve combined our disputes with a new form of segregation. Most of us manage to live in a way that keeps us safe from The Others, namely, those whose opinions we can’t abide. In his 2008 book The Big Sort, Bill Bishop documented how Americans sort themselves into like-minded communities that have little contact with each other. We live in different cities and neighborhoods, we watch different TV programs and browse different websites, we listen to different music, we hear different types of news.

When by accident we stumble across The Others, our typical reaction is to brand them as ludicrous. Here’s an illustration: A friend of mine from Philadelphia, an American citizen born in Chile, recently flew to Santiago for a family visit, along with his American-born wife. When they returned to the U.S., they came through customs at the Houston airport. As is normal, my friend filled out a single customs declaration form for himself and his wife. The customs officer studied the form and the passports and then looked up suspiciously. “How come your wife has a different last name?” the guy wanted to know. Well, the wife is an academic who has published books and papers under her maiden name, so she’s not about to change it. She started to get upset, but my friend gently explained the matter to the agent: “You know,” he said, “some women who teach in universities like to use their original names, it’s pretty common these days.” The agent thought about this awhile. “Where you from?” he then demanded. “Philadelphia,” my friend answered, and the agent grimaced, “I don’t like Philadelphia. They hate guns up there.” My friend tried to finesse this point, saying there are plenty of people in our area who own guns (although he is not one of them). At last, the customs agent gave in and let the couple pass, but he issued a stern recommendation: “You gotta get yourself some guns!”

Naturally, as my friend told me the story, we both guffawed about it. How stupid that customs guy was! He didn’t even know that lots of American women have been keeping their maiden names for, like, the past 50 years??? A Neanderthal! There was no doubt that my friend and I shared the same opinion—and disdain.

When Pope Francis came to Philadelphia this past September, I thought about the issue again—because the Pope was the exception that proved the rule. On my Facebook feed, I encountered various reactions to the papal visit:

  • Appreciative: It’s so great that we can host a major religious figure in our city.
  • Mildly critical: It was a nice occasion, but the security measures went over the top.
  • Angry: It was a goddamn military occupation—National Guard, Secret Service, and Homeland Security everywhere!
  • Outraged: What the *@#%!! happened to the separation of church and state?!!!

What was remarkable was that my Facebook friends showed a significant range of views on the subject. This made me realize that, on most days, I encounter little diversity of opinion either in real life or on social media. Admittedly, there’s my one friend who believes Wall Street bankers should be shot, which I think kind of extreme; but everyone else I know thinks Wall Street should be converted into a maximum-security prison, so that’s not a huge spread of values. I dare say the same is true for most other Americans. Maybe you have Facebook friends who think everyone should have automatic weapons in the house, but if so, your other friends probably think at least a couple of .38s are necessary—again, not much of a spread.

There’s no doubt that our insularity, the way we isolate ourselves from other viewpoints, aggravates our differences. So what can we do about it? When my two kids reached college age, I tried encouraging them to attend schools in the Midwest, just for exposure to different sceneries and cultures. Our college tours took in Minnesota, Iowa, and Ohio as well as Maine, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. Where did they end up going to school? The Philadelphia suburbs and New York City.

My daughter did spend a semester in London, on one of those standard college exchange programs. She learned to ride double-decker busses, appreciate different types of curry, and spend pounds as if they were dollars. And I fondly remember my own time as a graduate student in London, when I learned to love beans on toast with milky tea. (That was before the whole city went upscale.) So, along those lines, I’ve been thinking: What about a student exchange program within the USA? Our contrasts with each other are much bigger than our differences from the average Londoner. I mean, my British landlords laughed at me when I asked where to put the “garbage,” but that was mere vocabulary, hardly like the gap between Sarah Palin and Elizabeth Warren.

Imagine how a domestic student exchange would work. That Houston customs agent would send his kids to Philly or New York for a semester. We’d have to quarantine their weapons, but they’d learn a hell of a lot about people different from them. And the same if we sent Muslim kids from, say, Flatbush to Kentucky.

I’m proposing to call this initiative ISEP: The Interstate Student Exchange Program. It will have to be set up by individual states, of course, because Congress can’t create anything except acrimony. I myself will be happy to host a young Houstonian, whom I can introduce to NPR, vegan cheesesteaks, poetry readings, and my friend who wants to shoot bankers (the young person’s guns might be useful for that). And I’m willing to send my grandchildren to Houston to learn about Tex-Mex cuisine, oil drilling, Kenny Rogers, and the proper way to hold an assault rifle.

The upshot of ISEP may be that we come to value our differences. Or perhaps we’ll just be better informed, so that instead of finding The Others totally weird and absurd, we’ll hate them for good reason.

By now, I confess, I don’t know how serious I am. Do we really need to treat other states like foreign countries? Must we set up an acronymic government program to help us talk to one another? Maybe I’m being earnest-ironic-whimsical—and if so, isn’t that appropriate for our times? Let’s ask Ms. Palin and Ms. Warren.

In case you do want to call your state legislator to promote ISEP, I’ll offer one final note: The program can be entirely tax-neutral. It can be funded by cutting regular school budgets, which many states already love to do.

Berkeley Fiction Review

The Berkeley Fiction Review is a UC Berkeley undergraduate, student-run publication. We look for innovative short fiction that plays with form and content, as well as traditionally constructed stories with fresh voices and original ideas. Ultimately, we seek to contribute to literature’s on-going evolution.

We invite submissions of previously unpublished short stories year round and publish annually. Submissions are free. Contributors whose stories are published receive one free copy of the issue their story appears in. We also host fiction contests and nominate to O. Henry, Best American Short Stories, and Pushcart prizes. Click the link to learn more about the submission guidelines:

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Interview with Artist Ashley Czajkowski: Birds, Births and Life after Grad School

Photo by Ashley Cajowski

Photo by Ashley Czajkowski

Our Art Editor, Regan Henley, conducted an interview with Artist Ashley Czajkowski, whose work appears in Issue 15. They discuss Ashley’s post-grad work, her artistic process, and her involvement with the Creative Push project.

Regan Henley: Last time we saw you you were finishing up your MFA within the School of Art, and completing your thesis show. Now that you’ve graduated, what are you up to?

Ashley Czajkowski: I’m adjunct teaching, I teach Photo II Darkroom at ASU which I absolutely love. The amount of energy I can put into teaching now as opposed to when I was in grad school is so much more that I’m giving a lot more to the students, and because of that I’m getting much more back. I’m also adjunct teaching at Scottsdale Community College which is a totally different and amazing experience teaching one large 5-hour studio class with Photo I, Photo II, Photo III, Photo IV, advanced projects and alternative process in one five hour block. I’m working on the Creative Push project with Forrest Sollis interviewing and editing women’s labor and delivery stories. It’s amazing. I feel like I’ve honed a lot of skills with that, but I’m also meeting people and talking to other other women and artists. It’s almost like a curatorial thing as well. I’m also an event coordinator for eye lounge now.

RH: Your thesis show “Unbecoming” was about animalistic instincts, and the human connection with “wildness.” You made a whole installation of found birds and exposed them on light-sensitive paper. Are you continuing the series?

AC: I am, but I started changing them. So, I’m exposing them on fabric with liquid light and putting them into these [embroidery hoops]. I’m not sure how I feel about them yet, but I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of domesticity, and domestic acts. I think it’s interesting, the idea of taking something wild and making it tame. It’s that idea of domesticity as it relates to femininity, but also in the act or making them, and collecting the birds. Using the fabric, they become more abstract, which I like. They start to look like celestial bodies, or moons.

RH: Was it natural to just continue this work? Was there a struggle to decide to move on or forward with it?

AC: It was actually the easiest thing to continue doing what I was before, I think there’s a lot of pressure as artists to reinvent the wheel every time we make something. I was thinking about having a new show, and I definitely want it to be different than the way it was before, but there will be some overlap because I’m still thinking about a lot of the same things. Just because I’ve finished a thesis show doesn’t mean that work has been fully explored. There is a common thing though that happens after grad school, and I’ve talked to a lot of other people about this, but there is this weird lull that happens. But it didn’t take me long to pick it back up. I just have to be making, but I’m trying to push it further.

RH: What about your process now? You’re not in school, your schedule is very different and no one is making you create. What’s it like working with less structure?

AC: In some ways it helps to be home a lot more. I’ve found the video-making to be a lot more difficult, but the object-making has been a lot easier. It’s a weird sort of balance. The pressure to make in school is much different. But part of what grad school is, and I’ve had lots of professors tell me this, is that before you leave you should understand your studio practice and being able to perpetuate that without “goals.”

RH: Without that structure, how has the critique process changed for you now that you’re out of school? Now that you don’t have structured spaces to refine your work?

AC: That was the thing I realized I was going to miss right away, that community and those conversations. Luckily, my partner is also an artist so that makes it nice to bounce ideas off of. But that’s one of the reasons I’ve joined the eye lounge. We’re actually working on setting up some 17th century style salons, where people come and put up a bunch of work and have conversations. It will be early spring, it’s a cooperation between the art grads group and eye lounge. So I’m forcing that critique space to happen.

RH: Does your art making feel less intense now? Or, I should say, do you feel less pressure to create?

AC: In grad school you feel like you never have enough time, I always felt like I always have to be more prolific than I was. I think that kind of external pressure is gone, but I don’t want to say that it’s less intense because I feel like that implies it’s conceptually less intense which isn’t the case. I have more time to really investigate more. I’m making stuff, but really I’m feeding myself more, reading theory and external things but also reading into my own work more. Which I think is really beneficial.

RH: What have you been reading?

AC: It’s been a combination of lots of things. I’ve been reading some psychoanalytical theory about pregnancy and childbirth as I’m working on the Creative Push project. I’m also constantly referring to this book, “The Book of Symbols” by the archive for research in archetypal symbolism which I jokingly call my bible. It’s basically an anthology of archetypal symbols and imagery. Every time there’s something that comes up in my work, I look it up in this book. I’ve also been reading a lot of photography theory which I got in my last year of school, which goes into poststructuralist theory, which gets into some pretty heavy stuff.

RH: The Creative Push project seems to be particularly close to your heart at the moment. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

AC: Forrest Sollis started this project called the Creative Push after she had her first child, and she was going to make a body of work about the experience, and she was having a hard time finding artwork out there that was about the genuine labor and delivery experience from a woman’s first-hand perspective. So, there are some stories out there and recent critique about it, but she wanted to create a platform where women could share their stories and artists could make work in response to those stories. The platform really is the website, which is, but we will eventually has some physical exhibitions in the spring. It’s been an amazing experience. The stories are incredible. I feel like this whole pool of knowledge used to be an oral tradition that women would pass on to each other, but it became really taboo in history, so it’s kind of something that you don’t really talk about. It’s just supposed to be this magical experience – which it is in many ways – but it’s also traumatic and transformative.

RH: Are you still looking for participants?

AC: Yes! That is a great question. We are still looking for participants as storytellers and artists, there is a participate form you can fill out on the website.

RH: Fantastic. Last question here: Where else can we see you these days?

AC: You can always see my work online on my website. Now that I’m a member of eye lounge, I will be participating in a group show in December, I will have my solo show at eye lounge in Phoenix in February, another group show in March. Definitely check it out.

SR Pod/Vod Series: Writer Elizabeth Frankie Rollins

ROLLINS-Author-Photo-BW-1Today we’re proud to feature Elizabeth Frankie Rollins as our eighth Authors Talk series contributor, talking about allowing writing to take its own rightful shape in her podcast “The Work.”

A writer’s work becomes a living, demanding entity in this podcast. According to Frankie, it ignores its writer’s whining, and doesn’t care much about the desire for companionable readers either. In five well-crafted minutes, she describes first “refusing to listen to something I didn’t want to hear,” then her eventual realization that each work has its own demands, regardless of the writer’s desires.

Frankie creates a place in her podcast where the writing itself is an active, though silent, participant in its creation. Here, “the work finds its true nature without the ego of the writer mucking up the process.” Here, “the work dictates what it needs, and you must comply.”

You can listen to the podcast on our iTunes Channel.

You can read Elizabeth Frankie Rollins’ story “The Ruins” in Superstition Review, Issue 9.


More About the Author:

Elizabeth Frankie Rollins has a collection of short fiction, The Sin Eater & Other Stories (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013). Also, she has work in The Fairy Tale Review, Sonora Review, Conjunctions, Superstition Review, and The New England Review, among others. Rollins has received a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, and won a Prose Fellowship from the New Jersey Arts Council. She teaches fiction and composition writing at Pima Community College in Tucson.


About the Authors Talk series:

For several years, we have featured audio or video of Superstition Review contributors reading their work. We’re now establishing a new series of podcasts called Authors Talk. The podcasts in this series take a broader scope and feature SR contributors discussing their own thoughts on writing, the creative process, and anything else they may want to share with listeners.