News: June-July

Summer is in full swing and I wanted to share with you a few things that I’ve been up to in the past few months, as well as what I’m looking forward to for the month of August. Let’s dive in, shall we?

Readings/Performances

In June, I was asked to perform my poetry at the Transatlantic Literary Women Symposium at Glasgow Women’s Library, sponsored by the British Association for American Studies and the U.S Embassy. This was a fantastic, all-day event of workshops, talks, and readings looking at transatlantic literary women. It included topics like the legacy of Sylvia Plath, UK/US Black feminisms, and much more. As a Transatlantic Literary Woman myself (from America originally, living in the U.K) I was delighted to take part and I was the final reader of the day. I shared a mixture of my ‘performance’ poems and ‘page’ poems. This fascinating project also published an essay of mine on homesickness earlier this year (the first draft of which I published on this blog!).

I also read my work at the West End Festival New Writing Showcase, held in the grand Hunterian Art Gallery on Glasgow Uni campus. I read a piece of flash fiction about Victorian chimney sweeps called ‘Climbing Boys.’ Definitely channeling Dickens.

The Quotidian Magazine Issue #3 launch also took place in June. Having performed at their Issue #2 launch, I was happy to be asked back. This is a beautifully made magazine for students at Scottish universities with the theme ‘the everyday’. Once again, it was a receptive and energetic crowd, with live music and (importantly) delicious cake.

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At Quotidian Issue 3 Launch – Photo Credit Quotidian Magazine

Teaching

I had the opportunity to teach two Performance Poetry workshops in June with Glasgow Women’s Library: one in Glasgow and one in Edinburgh. These workshops were for women only and they were geared towards those who had little experience performing their work aloud. We talked about tips and tricks for sharing work with an audience, how to build confidence onstage, and how to write with performance in mind. Both groups were lovely, enthusiastic and full of great writers. I then hosted Glasgow Women’s Library’s All Women Poetry Slam at Out of the Blue Gallery in Edinburgh and one woman who had taken part in my class actually won the slam! Congrats, Jo Gilbert!

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Me and Jo, Winner of the All Women Poetry Slam 2017

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Judges of the All Women Poetry Slam (left to right): Katherine Macfarlane, JL Williams, Kokumo Rocks

This June, I also taught a historical fiction writing workshop with The Young Walter Scott Prize. The Walter Scott Prize is a prestigious prize for historical fiction (won in previous years by the likes of Hilary Mantel) and these workshops are for kids and held at historic sites throughout Scotland. They are aimed at getting young writers writing/thinking about history and also to encourage them to enter the Young Walter Scot Prize, which is a historical fiction prize for young people. This workshop was held in a beautiful, stately home in the Borders: Bowhill. Very Downton Abbey-esque! The pupils explored the gardens, the kitchens, the ornate sitting rooms, and imagined who used to walk those halls…

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Bowhill House, Scottish Borders

Publications

I had a short story published in the awesome literary magazine Jersey Devil Press. It’s called The Silverware Club. It features martinis, a gecko called Franz Kafka, and people dressed up as spoons.

Upcoming

For those who will be around at the Edinburgh Fringe, come out and see me perform with Loud Poets at their Fringe Show! This will be my third year to join these guys for the Fringe and they always put on a great show. Live band, and accessible, funny, emotional poetry. I’ll be their Guest Act on August 26th. Get tickets here.

I’ll also be returning as Features Writer for Broadway Baby magazine at this year’s Fringe. I’ll also be covering The Edinburgh Festival and The Edinburgh International Book Festival. I won’t be writing any reviews, only doing feature interviews with artists. I love having conversations with talented poets, directors, authors (like this one I did with playwright Rona Munro) and I’m so excited for this year’s Festivals.

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So, what have you been up to? Who do you think that I should see at the Edinburgh Festival, Book Festival or the Fringe? Recommendations welcome!

Creative Friends: Laura Becherer and Cameo Marlatt

This is Creative Friends, the series where I spotlight friends whose work inspires me. I’m very excited to feature two mega talented women: Cameo Marlatt and Laura Becherer, authors of the recently released A Drink of One’s Own: Cocktails for Literary Ladies. This is a cocktail recipe book featuring recipes inspired by female writers from all around the world. So if you (like me) enjoy booze, books or all of the above, stick around!

For this post, I sat down with Cameo and Laura to chat about the inspiration behind their new book. Of course, we couldn’t do so without a cocktail in hand. Cameo whipped up The Sylvia Plath, which features gin, grenadine, cream, egg white and raspberry coulis. Delicious!  We sat back and sipped our cocktails as Laura and Cameo filled me in on how A Drink of One’s Own was born.

Carly: You’ve created a cocktail book, with recipes inspired by female writers from around the world. How did you first come up with the idea for the book?

Laura: Cameo and I were sitting at a table at The Curler’s Rest pub and were discussing Kate Zambreno’s book Heroines, which we were studying in a class at that time. We were talking about how ill-used Zelda Fitzgerald has been, and how writing culture still reflects the glorified masculinity of Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Bukowski, etc. A lot of them are exclusionary and misogynistic, and the idea of the alcoholic writer is romantic only when it’s men. When it’s a drunk woman, she’s out-of-control and a “hot mess.” Add into that all of the comments by said writers that still reflect the exclusionary publishing and reviewing world today, i.e. TS Eliot’s “there are few men, and no women, worth printing.” (Or whatever).

We pitched the book as a project for our Editing and Publication class. We pitched to Adrian from Freight Books and the project went from there.

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A Drink of One’s Own: Cocktails for Literary Ladies alongside some cocktail supplies

So once you knew you were doing the book, how did you select which writers to include?

Laura: Originally, the list was 100 authors and we had to cut it down to around 50. Some of our favorite authors had to be scarified for the final edit. We focused on cutting white women when possible to avoid cutting down on the women of colour (including a number Black women specifically, and also Asian-American, Latina, and Native American). We were devoted to not cutting women of color and the publisher wanted a very international mix, so the final selection was a mixture of personal values (showcasing a diverse group of writers) and marketing aims.

Cameo: This was probably the hardest part of the process for us, because there are so many amazing women writers out there that we wanted on the list. We joke that we still both wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of night, thinking of women we should have included. For me, Ali Smith and Elizabeth Bishop were the hardest cuts, and I know that Laura would have loved to see Patricia Highsmith in the book. Our publisher chose to organize the drinks based on the authors’ countries of origin, so there is a diverse range of nationalities represented as well, though I regret that we don’t have more authors from African countries. But for us, the book’s feminist framework meant that diversity was our priority, and that really helped us make the final cut. One of the best things about writing this book was discovering and learning about underrepresented authors, and we wanted our readers to have the same experience.

My favorite cocktail from A Drink of One’s Own (so far), is The Virginia Woolf which features gin and sparkling lemonade. How did you come up with recipes to reflect the different authors?

Laura: We tried to make the cocktails new or a twist on an existing cocktail. All of our recipes are original, or as original as they can be in a world with literally thousands of cocktail recipes; you won’t find any mere copies of classic cocktails in our book. Sometimes we matched the cocktail to the personality of the writer, sometimes to where they are from (i.e. bourbon for a southern writer), sometimes to their work. Sometimes the link is very clear (a butterbeer martini for JK Rowling), sometimes its more subtle (oranges for Amy Tan, because she writes about Chinese culture and talks about oranges as good-luck food; or blackberries for Louise Erdrich because she’s from the Midwest and my own personal memories of Midwestern summers include blackberry picking). I researched a lot online and was more experimental with my creations than Cameo. I’m also a practicing witch and was interested in creating my own liquor and simple syrup infusions with herbs and fruit, etc.

Cameo: We both had so much fun with this aspect of the book. For me, it was more satisfying creatively than any of the writing, and I loved engaging with these authors’ works and personalities in such a unique way. Sometimes I would be inspired by specific details from the author’s texts. For example, there is a scene in one of Julia Alvarez’s novels in which a character goes guava picking, so I wanted to use guava juice in her cocktail. But for many of the recipes, it was more instinctual. The ‘Dorothy Parker,’ a classic manhattan with the addition of black pepper syrup, was inspired by the author’s personality and time period.

You are both writers, as well. If you had a cocktail in this book, what would it be?

Laura: My first inclination is to say something with hazelnut, because I love hazelnut (and hazelnut ice cream above all), but I’ve recently discovered, after writing the book, that the Bramble is my favorite cocktail. I like it with lime instead of lemon, so that would probably be my twist on a classic. Blackberries are, as I said, a big part of my childhood, so the Bramble tastes like a grown-up version of a kind of fairy-tale vision of my childhood. Since I work with fairy-tales so much, especially rewriting them for adults. So it seems appropriate.

I would definitely choose something whisky-based for Cameo, and something wicked strong! It’s not a cocktail, but I recently made her a whisky sugar scrub for Christmas, using my own personal bottle of Oban single malt. Whisky is just so Cameo—and she’s the one who introduced me to single malt, specifically my favorite (Laphroiag). And I’m not even a whisky person!

Since she loves the Manhattan, I would say that for Cameo I would make a Manhattan with Canadian whisky, since she’s from Canada, and would also maybe use orange bitters.

Cameo: This is such a good question! I’ve always had a soft spot for whisky cocktails, but if I were to choose a cocktail based on my writing, I think it would be more botanical in nature, because plants inspire much of my poetry. Maybe a very dry martini made with kelp-infused gin, with just a dash of orange blossom water.

And because I can’t stop myself from making cocktails for all the amazing women writers around me, I’ve made a “Carly Brown” as well. It is a take on the classic sidecar, for a very classy lady. I have lessened the lemon juice, and added pineapple juice for sweetness to create a cocktail that is bright and zesty, just like its namesake and her wonderful poetry!

The “Carly Brown”

1.5 oz. brandy

3/4 oz. Cointreau

¼ oz. lemon juice

1.5 oz. pineapple juice

lemon peel twist for garnish

In a cocktail shaker, combine ingredients, add ice, and shake until cold. Strain into a chilled old-fashioned glass. Run a lemon peel twist around the rim, and toss into the drink for garnish.

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Laura Becherer (left), Cameo Marlatt (right) and Laura’s cat Spock (center). Photo Curtesy of Laura Becherer.

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Thanks to Laura and Cameo for joining me for this interview and for making me a delicious cocktail from their collection! AND for creating a cocktail for me. 🙂 I can’t wait to try it!

You can order your copy of A Drink of One’s Own from the publisher, Freight Books, here.

The duo have also recently launched a literary magazine, Ground Floor Drinkers, aimed at publishing subversive writing that reflects on identity. They are currently open for submissions and you can find out more about it here.

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For previous posts in my Creative Friends series, check out my features on Bahraini-Iraqi poet Laala Kashef Alghata and American writer and artist Lydia Cruz.

Thanks for reading! x

This Morning (A Poem)

I wrote this poem today in response to the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. 

This morning

(November 9th, 2016)

 

This morning

the light was gray

and I tried to go back to sleep

for a while.

 

This morning

I made breakfast of fried eggs with chili sauce,

but it tasted gummy and white.

 

This morning

someone wrote to me

asking if I was okay.

 

This morning

I got texts that just read

‘What’.

 

This morning

I saw messages typed

by people I love

saying ‘this is not the country

I know. This is not

what I believe.’

 

This morning

I cried in bed

and wished it was yesterday.

 

This morning

I watched TV hosts who make me laugh

look as if they were about to cry too.

 

This morning

I questioned reality.

 

This morning

I was afraid for myself

and people close to me.

 

This morning

I wished I could hug my mom.

 

This morning

I hoped that I misunderstood

all the headlines.

That there would be

a twist at the last minute

like in fiction, when everything goes dark

 

but you know it’s just

that moment before

the hero dusts herself off

and everything is fine again.

 

This morning

I tried to remember

how kind people can be.

 

How, in this world,

there are still kittens wearing sweaters

somewhere

and Tom Hanks in a Pumpkin suit.

 

There is still good gelato

a few blocks away.

 

And there are millions of people

who didn’t want this to happen.

 

This morning

I told someone I loved them.

 

I drank coffee and thought about the day,

how the best way forward

is to write

a poem

 

Which is like saying

I’m here. Where are you?

Which is like saying

Here’s my hand. I’m scared too.

Which is like saying

We will get through this together.

I hear you, I hear you.

 

This morning

I remembered there will be

an afternoon and an evening.

 

Then,

another day.

 

 

Notes from Monticello (III): Thoughts from the Long-Haul Flight

For the month of August, I’ll be living in Virginia on a fellowship with the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies. During this fellowship, I’ll be conducting research for my novel-in-progress, which is set in 18th century America during the Revolutionary War. These blog posts will record my musings on research, travel, and life in general during my fellowship.

I’ve had the opportunity and the privilege to travel overseas since I was a kid. The first time I went to Europe was when I was about thirteen-years-old. My dad saved up money and he told me to pick anywhere in the world that I wanted to go. The world. He was an electrician turned high school teacher in an electrical trades program and we couldn’t afford to take Big Trips often. This would be The-Trip-of-All-Trips. He suggested a myriad of locations: Thailand, Brazil, Egypt. But I knew exactly where I wanted to go: London. I wanted to go to the land of my hero, Queen Elizabeth I (Yes, my hero at the age of 13 was a Renaissance monarch, which should clue you in to my popularity at my middle school). The land of Dickens and Shakespeare. My dad, who had probably envisioned a holiday to some crystal blue-watered paradise or ancient ruins somewhere, was like: Um, okay. But he rapidly got on board with the plan. Soon we were on a plane, bound for England.

That first transatlantic flight was smooth. I didn’t sleep a wink (I was too excited), but I watched Pirates of the Caribbean and touched the cool of the window as London appeared below us through the heavy gray clouds. It was dawn and my dad insisted that we couldn’t sleep until the evening because we didn’t want to lose a day. We didn’t want to waste any time. Later, of course, he relented and let me nap at our hotel near Victoria Station.

Our trip was wonderful. We went over Christmas and bought a small tree to keep in our hotel room. I drank hot tea with milk and watched the red-double decker buses drive through the streets. My favorite afternoon was when I drank wassail at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre as soft rain fell around us and imagined that I was travelling back in time.

But the thing that I remember most about that trip was how every time I would look down to read my book (I was burning through The Princess Diaries series at the time), my dad would tap my shoulder and tell me to look out the window. ‘Look at everything,’ he said. ‘Take this in because we’re lucky to be here. You might never see any of this again.’

Funnily enough, I’ve been back to London countless times. Although my father had no way of knowing it then, I would eventually go to university in Scotland and have numerous friends who were from, or currently lived in, London. Yet I’ve always held tight to what he said about looking out the window and appreciating what I see when I travel. Take this in. We’re lucky to be here.

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It was this adage that I turned to when I was on the most unpleasant long-haul flight I’ve ever experienced.

I was recently coming back from my fellowship in Virginia and thrilled that I’d found a direct flight from nearby Philadelphia to my home: Glasgow. Only 6 hours!

I was also excited because, on my flight over to America this summer, I’d been unexpectedly bumped up to Business Class. And let me tell you what happens in Business Class on British Airways folks: you sit down…and then they hand you sparkling wine. It was amazing. I had lots of legroom in this bright, modern plane. I watched the Downton Abbey box set while reclining back and drinking all the free sparkling wine. I took a lot of happy selfies and I’m certain that the flight attendants were rolling their eyes the entire time.

Foolishly, I half expected that I would somehow be upgraded again for my flight back to the UK. This was not the case.

My trip back to the UK was nothing like that ride in Business Class. On this trip, I was seated in the literal back of the plane, right up against the bathrooms. It was a small plane and there were no screens on the back of the seat in front of you (no screens!). The light above me was broken so I couldn’t read. Which meant the only entertainment options for six hours was the endless stream of superhero movies they were showing on the tiny screens in the center of the plane. I like some superhero movies a lot, but every time I looked up at the screen there were just more cars being smashed to pieces, so I decided to pass.

But the most annoying (and slightly upsetting) aspect of this long-haul flight was the amount of turbulence that we experienced. For the full six hours. Typically, on a transatlantic flight, there are patches of turbulence. That’s normal. But this plane was rattling so much that I could barely drink anything because it was sloshing around in my cup too much. I couldn’t sleep because I was constantly jolted awake by the plane. I felt like we were in a toy plane in the hands of some giant, angry baby.

And while I don’t have any particular fear of flying, I don’t like turbulence. And I struggle with anxiety. Surviving this flight was an intense mental health exercise at keeping my calm and not flipping out. As the first few hours of this bumpy ride ticked by, I made feeble attempts at conversation with the man next to me, a lovely grandpa from Paisley, but my palms were sweating the entire time. My heart was racing. I was freaked out. With nothing else to distract me, I listened to the endless podcasts that I’d thankfully downloaded prior to the flight. Specifically, the first few episodes of the Myths and Legends series. As I listened to tales of Sir Yvain, dragons, lions and the raging misogyny of the middle ages, I counted down the hours until I would be back in Scotland.

I closely monitored the night sky outside, the way preteens monitor the clock on their last day of school before summer. I knew that we were arriving in the morning so I watched the sky for any sign of pink, yellow or orange light.

For a long time, there was just darkness. I think I saw the Big Dipper, but I was so freaked out and tired I couldn’t really see anything properly. I noticed the light on the tip of the wing and imagined it was one of those weird little creatures that you find at the bottom of the sea. The kind with sharp teeth and dozens of eyes. At one point, I saw the distant lights below of some country (Canada? Greenland?). I wondered silently that if I had some kind of panic attack, would they take me to Canada? I’ve never been to Canada.

About an hour or two before landing, I started to smell coffee. Which meant they were making our breakfasts. Which meant we were close.

Slowly, the light began to grow and I could see the clouds again. It was still as bumpy as ever, but I loved being able to see the plump clouds in the dawn light and I tried – I tried very hard – to be grateful for what I was seeing. Yes, I was anxious. I was anxious, nauseous and I was counting down the minutes until we were on the ground. But I reminded myself how lucky I was that I could travel. Period. And how beautiful the earth looks from up here and how I knew so embarrassingly little about the basic physics of air travel (If someone wants to enlighten me, please do. How do planes even fly? What is this wizardry?!).

I took a few photos, partly to give myself something to do but partly because it did look amazing. It was incredible to see the sunrise in the sky.

The words of my dad kept floating back to me: Look at everything, Take this in because we’re lucky to be here. You might never see any of this again.

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 As we landed in Glasgow, there was scattered applause throughout the plane but I was too deliriously happy to even register how happy I was. I didn’t clap, I just whispered over and over again, dramatically, ‘We’ve made it. We’ve made it.’ It was only when I collected my bags and walked out into the Scottish autumn air that I realized I was shaking with delight. Literally shaking. I was so happy to have arrived safely, and to be back in Scotland, that my body was like a soda can about to fizz over with joy.

Later, lying on my own bed in my own flat, I flipped through the photos I’d taken from the plane. There was one in particular that stood out to me. In it, you see the wing of the plane against the bright blue and pale gold of the sky. The clouds below are full, fluffy and pink. It looks like what I pictured heaven to look like when I was a kid, minus a few angels with togas and harpsichords. But it was pretty close.

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My dad is not with us anymore. He died when I was fifteen years old, a few years after getting back from our trip to London. And while I do think I’ve gotten a lot of things from him (stubbornness, a love of history, a weird and fervent hatred of beets), one of the things I appreciate most is how he insisted that I look around and appreciate the world. Especially when traveling.

It’s sometimes difficult, particularly when we’re used to air travel, to remember how fortunate we are that these technologies exist. How fortunate we are if we can afford to use them. I’m not going to lie – my plane ride wasn’t enjoyable. It ranged from frustrating to downright anxiety inducing, but I made it through by reminding myself to look outside. To appreciate what I was seeing. How lucky I was to be there. How things can absolutely change in an instant and we should make sure to pay attention to stuff. We might not get the chance to see any of this again. And it’s really beautiful.

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View from my airplane window

For my recent blog posts about my fellowship in Virginia, please see Notes from Monticello (I): Some thoughts on Homesickness and Notes from Monticello (II): Trying on Stays. You can follow my writing, adventures and random musings on Twitter and Facebook

Notes from Monticello (II): Trying On Stays

 

For the month of August, I’ll be living in Virginia on a fellowship with the Robert H. Smith  International Center for Jefferson Studies. During this fellowship, I’ll be conducting research for my novel-in-progress, which is set in 18th century America during the Revolutionary War. These blog posts will record my musings on research, travel, and life in general during my fellowship.

Today, myself and another fellow here at Monticello, Chet’la Sebree, travelled down the labyrinthine passageways of the University of Virgina’s theatre department into their costume shop. We passed crates of shoes designed for every era, racks with colorful dresses waiting to see the spotlights again. We were there for one purpose: to try on corsets. Both of our projects deal with the lives of women in the 18th century (Chet’la’s looking specifically at the life of Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who had a longterm romantic relationship with Thomas Jefferson). One of the historians here at the International Center for Jefferson Studies, Gaye Wilson, had suggested it might be interesting for us to try on corsets, to learn a little more about this item of clothing that so many women wore on a daily basis. My goal for this experiential research was to consider how a corset might have affected a woman’s movements, her composure and perhaps even her thoughts about her own body.

We were greeted by a friendly and incredibly helpful costumer called Dorothy who helped us pick out our chemises or shifts, the long loose dresses that we were going to be wearing under our corsets. Loose cotton or linen dresses like this would have been the undergarment that many women in America wore in the 18th century (no bras in the 18th century, ladies!). We picked out our shifts and started the process of putting on our corsets.

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I was very tempted to just wear my shift as one of those trendy off-the-shoulder dresses, but I resisted!

After we’d put on our shifts, we pulled our corsets over our heads. Then the process of lacing began.

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Gaye explained how corsets were laced by starting with the middle laces and then working your way up and down.

Corsets are designed to cinch in the waist, all the while pushing the breasts up. Elite women would often have a servant lacing theirs up behind them, while working class women might have stays they could lace up on their own. Gaye explained how the narrowness of a woman’s waist could be read as a status symbol, because a very narrow waist would indicate that she’d had someone assist her with her corset.

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After we’d finished lacing, we examined ourselves in the mirror, enjoying the transformation.

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The material was a lot firmer than I thought it would be. When I crossed my arms in front of me, it felt like I was resting my arms on a table!

Chet’la and I discussed how the corsets affected our composure overall. For one thing: it’s constricting (obviously). To do anything like running, or even walking very quickly, would be difficult. Especially when you consider that elite women back then would also have been wearing lots of skirts and a heavy gown (like the ones pictured below).

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Another thing we both noticed was that it keeps your posture upright, particularly if trying to sit down. As I sat in a chair, my instinct was to slouch a little bit, but that wasn’t possible. Gaye joked that she should get a corset to keep her from hunching at her desk in the office. But an improved posture was perhaps one of the only benefits I perceived in wearing something like this all the time.

As a 21st century woman, I found the overall feeling very restricting. It was easy to reach for symbolism: clothing restraining women, keeping them contained. These outfits made women take up less space. Made it more difficult for them to run away, to move, to breath. I was surprised by the stiffness of it, my difficulty breathing out. Difficulty relaxing. Women these days talk about the great relief they feel when they take off their bras to relax at home at the end of the day, I can’t imagine the INCREDIBLE relief someone would feel removing this after a long day. That must have been a good feeling.

Yet, in addition to feeling constrained, the corset also made me feel more poised, more dignified. Perhaps that’s because it’s a period costume, but it’s also something to do with that design that makes you feel more upright, more important. Perhaps for women of the gentry it helped them to play a certain part, to present a certain character to society and, in the end, isn’t that what clothes still do?

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Thanks to Gaye for suggesting this wonderful experience and to Dorothy at UVA. Also thanks to my mom for all the lovely snaps!

Check out my previous blog post, Notes from Monticello (I): Some thoughts on Homesickness. Follow my adventures in Virginia on Twitter or Facebook

Notes from Monticello (1): Thoughts on Homesickness

For the month of August, I’ll be living in Virginia on a fellowship with the International Center for Jefferson Studies. During this fellowship, I’ll be conducting research for my novel-in-progress, which is set in 18th century America during the Revolutionary War. These blog posts will record my musings on research, travel, and life in general during my fellowship.

 

Recently, I was chatting with one of the other fellows here at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. She was relaying a story about her time spent studying abroad in Italy. She told me about how, on day five of her Italian trip, exhausted and frustrated by the language barrier, she broke down crying in front of her host mother. She was homesick. Incredibly homesick.

Her host mother just nodded patiently and, weeks later, informed her that this always happened. All the American students who had previously come to stay with her had experienced a similar bout of homesickness between days five and ten. It was totally normal.

As I listened to the other fellow relaying this story, we were driving through the lush Virginia countryside, dotted with red barns, vineyards and adorable picket fences. This is postcard perfect America. It’s green and the people are friendly. There are fried green tomatoes on the menu and red brick buildings, horses and historic farmhouses. It was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite place on earth. And yet I felt, in the pit of my stomach, a small sadness. I was homesick in a foreign country. Between days five and ten. Like clockwork.

Only the problem is, I’m American. Born and raised in Austin, Texas. I wanted to feel right at home, back in America. Yet I was homesick for rain against the bay windows in my flat in Glasgow. I was homesick for Scotland.

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I arrived in Virginia for my fellowship with the International Center for Jefferson Studies about a week ago. It’s an incredible opportunity. I am here for a month to do research for a novel and I have access not only to the incredibly beautiful Jefferson Library, but also to private tours of Jefferson’s home Monticello, to archives and a community of expert scholars, all of whom are eager to hear about my project and to help me with my research into 18th century life.

Naturally, I’ve been meeting a lot of new people in the last week. Often one of the first questions they ask is, ‘Where are you from?’

I tell them Austin, Texas, but then add that I live in Scotland. That I’ve been in Scotland for six years, my entire adult life. ‘That makes sense. You have a tiny bit of a Scottish accent,’ they often say.

Now that I’m back in America, I can taste the edges of a Scottish accent in my mouth. The way my voice goes up at the end of questions. Or when I use words like ‘quite’, ‘lovely’ and ‘brilliant’.

People are, naturally, very curious about my life in Scotland. The weather, the whisky. One afternoon at lunch, I almost started crying when someone mentioned a beautiful trip they had taken to the Scottish highlands. Jet-lagged and slightly disoriented, I instinctively put my hand on my heart and felt my eyes welling with tears. Just in case that wasn’t melodramatic enough, I said in a voice steeped in adoration, ‘Scotland is where my heart is.’

That night in my little apartment, I listened to the summer sounds of insects outside and the low hum of the air conditioner. I skyped with my mom in Texas and I kept saying to her, ‘I’m homesick.’

‘For Scotland?’ she asked.

I nodded. It was a big realization. ‘Home’, for me, wasn’t Texas anymore.

I wondered when that changed. I wondered if it had changed.

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A few weeks ago, before my fellowship in Virginia, I was on holiday (or ‘vacation’, if you prefer) with my partner in Italy. One afternoon, I decided I was fed up with tiny coffees. I didn’t want an espresso in a tiny white cup. I wanted a big mug of watery coffee. The kind of coffee that you find at a Starbucks or a Dunkin’ Doughnuts or in the glass pot on the counter in any office in America.

We were at a little pastry shop in Milan at the time, which looked straight out of a Wes Anderson film: waiters in smart black and white outfits, colorful little pastries in neat rows. I ordered an Americano even though it was five pm and I knew that the only acceptable thing to drink at that point was espresso.

The waiter raised an eyebrow at my request and brought me (this is real) a shot of espresso with a cup of hot water. A Do-It-Yourself coffee. Americano for the Americana.

My partner told me the story about how americanos are named after the American soldiers who came to Italy during WWII and craved, just like me, the watery, filter coffees of their homeland. So the Italians added hot water to strong black coffee.

I poured the hot water over the espresso. When I sipped it, it tasted perfect. It tasted like air conditioned afternoons in malls with my friends or driving my old Volvo listening to crappy pop music on the radio after school. I was sick with love for the tastes of my childhood. For Texas. I wanted breakfast tacos with avocado and sunlight in my eyes. I was filled with nothing but excitement that, in just a few weeks, I would be in America for my fellowship.

I was going back to America. Home.

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Pasticceria Cucchi, Milano, Italy. July 2016.

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But from the moment I’ve arrived back in the US, things have felt strange. Unfamiliar.

I got brunch in Charlottesville with one of the other fellows and her friend. We had breakfast tacos and I got a big mug of coffee with cream. The weather was bright and muggy. We swatted away flies.

I bit into the taco with black beans, avocado, pico di gallo, eggs and cheese in a corn tortilla. It should have been perfect. The perfect taco and that simple cup of coffee that I had been fantasizing about back in Italy. It tasted good – great – but I wished that it wasn’t so hot outside. I wasn’t used to heat anymore. Heat had become hostile to me. I wished the sun was softer.

And I thought about how nice and unusual it was that everywhere here takes credit cards.

How pleasant that people here dress more casually.

How interesting to see how huge the stores are and how much sugar everything has in it.

How everybody drives. Everywhere.

I was looking at things like an outsider.

‘Is the taco everything you hoped for?’ the other fellow asked and I nodded.

But that was a lie.

What I wanted from that meal was the feeling that I belonged, that I was returning to somewhere I easily fit.

But the cream from the coffee sat heavy in my stomach. America wasn’t somewhere I felt totally at home. The realization was physically painful. Like trying on a favorite sweater (or ‘jumper’, if you prefer) only to notice that it has shrunk in the wash. Or that you’ve grown out of it.

Either way, it isn’t the same.

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I googled ‘Homesickness’ and found an article which called it the ‘distress or impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from home. Its cognitive hallmark is preoccupying thoughts of home and attachment objects.’

Is coffee an attachment object? When I was in Italy, I couldn’t stop craving American coffee and breakfast tacos. Sunlight and avocado. And, if so, does that mean America is still my home? Or, at least, one of my homes?

Yet, now that I’m in America, I can’t stop thinking about Scotland. The sound of the kettle boiling. The bubbles rising in a pint of cider. The rain on bay windows.

Is homesickness always a transitory state? What happens if you feel it more frequently? Is it possible to live in a permanent state of homesickness? To be a little bit homesick all the time?

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Since I moved away to live in Scotland, I’ve gained so much. A broadened perspective of the world. A slightly more informed, slightly more objective, look at the culture that I left behind. Friends whose backgrounds are wholly different than mine. That excitement when I hear a funny word or slang phrase I’ve never encountered. Numpty. Dreich.

But what I’ve lost is a foothold in one specific culture. I’m now an interesting novelty in Scotland and in America. In Europe, people will always point out when I say ‘y’all’. In America, people will always notice how my sense of style is more ‘European’. I’m not rooted in either place anymore, but treading the strange waters between two continents.

And I’m fortunate, I know. Fortunate to have moved oversees for university. To be able to fly back and forth, every now and then. This fact I know. I think of it often and I’m grateful.

But this week has been a difficult one.

Not only homesick for Scotland, missing the rhythms of my life, my flat, my partner, my university, my friends. But also mourning the fact that America is no longer a place of ritual comfort, no longer a place I totally and effortlessly fit.

This is made all the more difficult with the knowledge that, due to immigration laws and difficulty finding a job, I might be forced to move back to America after my PhD. It all depends.

I am treading water between two cultures. I have a book spread open on my lap about the old south. I’m trying to root myself in the history of a place that is at once is so familiar and so unfamiliar to me. At the same time, I’m receiving texts from my friends in Scotland. A place at once home and yet always brimming with words, jokes, dynamics I’ll never know.

Sometimes I miss rain and bay windows.

Sometimes sunlight, tall coffee, avocados.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Bingo: How I’m Shaking Up My Reading List

Last year, I set myself a challenge to read 50 books. I enjoyed this challenge and it was an incentive to fit more time for reading into my day, whether that meant sticking a book in my bag so I could read it as I waited for the bus or choosing to read before bed instead of watching another episode of Reign (Does anyone else I know watch this? If so, let me know and we can talk about how ludicrous and amazing it is!). This year, instead of focusing solely on quantity, I also wanted to focus on what types of books I’m reading and to encourage myself to read outside of my typical author and genre choices. To broaden my literary horizons, if you will!

At the moment, I tend to read a lot of historical fiction (I’m currently working on a historical fiction novel), magical realism, Young Adult books and contemporary poetry. A quick glance over at my bedside table confirms this: there’s a historical fiction novel (The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber), a poetry book (New Poetries VI An Anthology from Carcanet) and a book which I’m told features the Devil in Moscow and a vodka-drinking black cat (The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov). But I want to read outside my literary comfort zone and to challenge myself with some new reading goals this year.

I got the idea of a Book Bingo chart from the BookTuber Jean Bookishthoughts  in her video here. If you’ve never seen BookTube, it’s a fantastic corner of the internet where funny and personable people chat about what they’re reading and I’m totally obsessed. I liked how she set herself some goals to read in genres that she doesn’t read in as often, as well as to revisit authors she already enjoys. So I was inspired to make a chart of my own:

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My Book Bingo Chart

As you can see, my chart is pretty personalized. For a start, I’ve included a few genres which I’ve enjoyed in the past but not read a lot recently, such as Science Fiction, as well as those that I’m very unfamiliar with (Romance and Detective novels). I know these genres are incredibly broad (I’d love to find a sci-fi, detective romance! That sounds awesome) and there are many subgenres within them, so this is just a jumping off point. Other personal goals I’ve included are to ‘Read a piece of modern translated fiction’, because I’ve read a lot of translated fiction from previous centuries (Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina etc.), but little contemporary fiction translated into English.

I’ve also included a few authors who I’ve read just one (or none) of their books, but who I think I’ll enjoy. Haruki Murakami, Neil Gaiman and Edwin Morgan etc.

Finally, I’ve included goals to read some nonfiction books about topics which I’m interested in: Read a book about fairy tales, read a book about spoken word poetry, read a book with feminist issues/themes (which I don’t think will be difficult as my friends and I are starting an informal Feminist Book Club this summer).

I wanted to expand my reading for a number of reasons. Firstly, as a writer, I think it’s good to expose myself to as many different styles of writing as possible because you never know where you’re going to find inspiration. Secondly, as a reader, this might help me discover new books or authors I really love. Thirdly, if I’m ever at a loss for what to read next, I can just glance at my chart! Fourthly, I like goals. Goals are cool.

As I achieve each of these reading goals, I’ll tick them off on my chart. Once I get a whole row ticked off, I’ll celebrate. Probably by buying myself a book. 🙂

Let me know if you have any book recommendations for any of these goals. I’ve only read one Neil Gaiman book (Coraline. And it has haunted me ever since), so do you have a favorite you think I should pick up? Do you have a favorite detective/crime novel that you think will be a good start to the genre? Let me know if you end up creating your own chart as well (I’d be curious to see) and I hope that your reading is exciting, diverse and stimulating.

xx Carly

 

Blogging for StAnza 2016

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be the in-house blogger for StAnza, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival this year, as well as doing Social Media for StAnza on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Here are some reflections on my relationship with StAnza, what the festival means to me, and things I’m looking forward to at StAnza 2016.

It’s almost time for StAnza, the festival that I look forward to every spring. I’ve been volunteering with this amazing festival since my first year at the University of St Andrews (five years ago!). My volunteer role that first year was taking publicity photographs. I proudly pinned the ‘Photographer’ badge on to my cardigan and huddled at the back of auditoriums, cafes and bars with my camera. I quickly fell in love with the entire festival. There’s a wonderful buzz and atmosphere at StAnza, an excitement you feel mingling with the crowds in the bright Byre Theatre foyer or while hearing poets from all over the world speaking about and reading from their work. I was hooked.

Since that year, I’ve volunteered for the festival in many different capacities: managing venues, liaising with poets, introducing events, even serving on the Festival Planning committee. I’ve also performed my poetry at the festival and spoken there about my picture book, I Love St Andrews, released last year. StAnza has had a big impact on my life and my career. It was winning the StAnza Poetry Slam in 2013 that qualified me for Scottish Nationals in 2013 (which I went on to win). I then represented Scotland at the World Series of Slam Poetry in Paris and placed 4th in the World. The StAnza Slam basically kick started my career as a spoken word poet and every year the Slam is still an amazing place to see rising talent alongside celebrated performers from Scotland’s spoken word scene. I also met one of my best friends through volunteering at StAnza, the poet Laala Kashef Alghata (remember her from the Creative Friends feature?). Many other great friendships and connections have blossomed over a cup of coffee in the Byre Theatre bar.

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The Byre Theatre Cafe Bar, StAnza 2014

One of the festival themes this year is City Lines, looking at architecture and how poetry can help build personal and public creative spaces. StAnza has greatly shaped my creative life, helping me build personal and creative connections that have inspired and supported me for the past five years. This year, I’m so excited to be the in-house blogger for the festival, as well as doing Social Media for them. If you don’t already follow StAnza on Twitter/Instagram, what are you waiting for? 🙂 I’ll be writing blogs throughout the festival on what I’m seeing and doing. Hopefully they’ll be an enjoyable read for those who are there and they will give a nice flavor of the festival for those who can’t make it in person.

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Inside The Byre Theatre, StAnza 2014

I’m looking forward to so many things at this year’s festival (Have you seen the line-up? It’s incredible!), but I’m especially looking forward to seeing Jane Yolen, acclaimed US poet and children’s writer as well as the amazing Pascale Petit. Jemima Foxtrot’s Melody is another show I’m looking forward to catching. I interviewed her during the Fringe about it and it’s really unique and moving show combining spoken word and song. Clive Birnie, of Burning Eye Books, is going to be getting up to some exciting things as well as with HashtagPoetry# and I’m looking forward to checking out Poetry Tattoos. Rebecca Sharp’s installation pairing poems with perfumes is something I’m looking forward to seeing (and smelling) as well.

StAnza 2016 looks like it’s going to be another year of great poetry, great art and great conversation. I cannot wait.

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Outside the Byre Theatre, StAnza 2012. Photo by Carly Brown.

StAnza runs this year from March 2-6th, 2016 in St Andrews, Scotland. I’ll be blogging on the StAnza website here so be sure to keep an eye out for those!

Creative Friends: Lydia Cruz (Part II)

This is Creative Friends, a series of blog posts where I feature friends whose art inspires me.

Two weeks ago, I published Part I of my interview with the talented writer, photographer, publisher, all around legend: Lydia Cruz. Now here’s part II, in which we chat about creative nonfiction and what’s on her desk at the moment. Looking for some great creative non-fiction recommendations? Read on my friends!

Carly: Who are some of your favorite creative nonfiction writers? Any recommendations for people who are not familiar with the genre?

Lydia: Ugh. Well. Jo Ann Beard, number one. Her collection Boys of My Youth, specifically the title essay, The Fourth State of Matter, Out There, and the introduction. I also really love A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle. Also, anything by Maira Kalman, who is an interesting mix of genres—a blend of historical information, personal history (I think) and probably some fiction maybe, I don’t really know, but it’s all fantastic. She is an illustrator as well and I would recommend The Principles of Uncertainty as a starter text. Annie Dillard, of course. The Writing Life for a book, and then Eclipse and Living Like Weasels for essays. Once a Tramp Always, by MFK fisher (essay). So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star by Jacob Slichter. Days, by Deborah Eisenberg, which is actually a short story but her most autobiographical short story and is fantastic. David Foster Wallace, particularly the essays Ticket to the Fair and Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes. Black Swans by Lauren Slater (essay). Hateful Things, by Sei Shonagon (essay). The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

What’s on your desk at the moment?

My desk is a particular mess at the moment, having never recovered from an arts market I was in last Saturday haha. (Well, I wrote that about a week ago and nothing has changed, yikes, but here it is) Oh and I suppose I should say my desk is an old drafting table without the adjustable top—the top was huge and wouldn’t fit—in my enclosed front porch, lovingly and reverently referred to as The Magic Porch.

1 Royal Typewriter

1 Silver Jubilee mug purchased in Scotland and broken in transit a year later that was glued back together and is now used to hold pencils (20), paper straws (10), a couple ballpoints and a little chalkboard tag that says happy may day

2 boxes of business cards

1 pile of scraps of string, all neatly rolled up and individual

1 engagement photo of my younger brother and my now sister in law

1 spool of string on some kind of plastic neon orange dispenser thing I forgot I had until just now

1 3x2in slice of teabag with a nice tea stain on it

2 shells from Scotland

1 handsewn drawstring bag I usually use for toiletries when I travel but used to transport tools and tape to the arts market

Only 1 copy of the New Yorker at the minute but there are usually at least a few floating around

1 pint mason jar full of 17 paintbrushes

2 estate sale small wooden boxes—one full of various spools of string and one full of water color paints, a bottle of mysterious *water color medium*, and some scraps of newsprint with watercolor blots I like

1 Nixon’s the One! Button I found at the same estate sale this summer where I bought all the watercolors

1 half sheet of medium grain (?) sandpaper

1 half pint mason jar with pens (only 6 at the moment because all my pens are in my purse so I can work on illustrations when it’s slow at work), mostly micron but one white gel pen, and a bit of leather strap that I think migrated from the string box next door.

2 stamp pads

1 set of nearly finished hand embroidered felt coasters

1 sketch of an idea for my next tattoo that I have since scrapped

1 tiny blue glass vase holding 9 needles, 7 regular and 2 coptic

1 small ceramic pot I made in high school and has housed Stuart the succulent since this summer

1 piano lamp my mother bought to put on our piano and which I commandeered very early on and which also gives off an astounding amount of heat

1 17x22in cutting mat

1 green glass wine bottle with stalks of long dead mint leaves

1 roll of toilet paper

1 small ceramic bird my mother gave me last Easter

1 blue glass insulator

1 zine called quiet earth from the talented Eloise Bennett

Marcel the Shell’s book The Most Surprised I’ve Ever Been by Dean Fleischer-Camp and Jenny Slate

1 copy of A Beaded Prayer which is a kind of guided collection of prayers my brother compiled and I bound into some small books

1 tiny brown paper envelope held together by red paper tape (given to me by my best friend on a day when I pulled out the last two letters from the scrabble bag—FU—) that says to lydia on this treacherous day love meagan and contained 1 handcarved scrabble tile, the letter N penned on one side and token of hope and fun to come on the other and which I carry around in my pocket every day as a talisman of courage

1 paperwrapped bundle of vine charcoal

1 prototype felt heart valentine from last year with embroidered—I’ve never felt this way before—

1 bone folder

2 erasers, one unopened

1 belt buckle with a navybean sized piece of turquoise that belonged to my grandfather before he died

1 leather pen case I made last year

2 candles

4 scraps of paper tape from packages I’ve received pressed onto the table

1 poem I wrote on December 27, 2012

5 boxes of pencil lead back when the lead was housed in wooden trays instead of plastic

1 eight count sheet of fruit stickers, a party favor from my birthday in November

1 tea bag plate with a painting of perhaps a cardinal

1 circle paper cutter gifted to me by my brother and his wife for my birthday that I haven’t figured out how to use

1 print of an illustration of an older couple I photographed walking down Market Street in St Andrews

1 illustration in a completely new style on a paper bag salvaged from a shipment of tea, syrups, etc we received at work

1 handbound book of quotes my mother gave me last Christmas—the page I keep the book propped open to is this

be easy. take your time. you are coming home to yourself. –nayyarah waheed

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Lydia’s desk on The Magic Porch

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Lydia Cruz is a Colorado-based writer and designer. She has worked as a designer for various festivals, musicians and businesses and has shown work in Colorado, New York, and Scotland. She is currently Artist in Residence at Bindle Coffee in Fort Collins, Colorado USA.

Creative Friends: Lydia Cruz

This is my second Creative Friends blog post, the series where I spotlight friends whose art inspires me. This week’s featured artist is (wait for it!) a writer, photographer, illustrator, editor, publisher AND small business owner. She also makes a mean cup of coffee. Have you guessed it yet? It’s none other than the mega-talented Lydia Cruz.

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Lydia and I met at the University of St Andrews when she studied abroad there during her third year from Sarah Lawrence. We quickly bonded over our shared loves of books, kale chips, caffeinated beverages and doing too many projects at once. Eventually, she went on to collaborate with me on my first poetry chapbook, Grown Up Poetry Needs to Leave Me Alone, which she published through her indie publishing house (which she founded last year!): Knockingdoor Press.

She has exhibited work in Colorado, Scotland and New York and she’s currently working on a series of creative nonfiction essays. She’s also the current Artist in Residence at Bindle Coffee in Fort Collins, Colorado where you can see some of her work including a recent series of watercolor paintings: the girl learning about joy. Here’s Part I of my chat with Lydia:

You chronicle the world around you through various mediums (writing, drawing, photography…). Are there subjects (or themes) you would prefer to draw rather than write about? Or write about rather than draw?

That’s interesting. It’s hard to say, I suppose, but maybe only because I’ve only been drawing for a few years and fell into my portrait niche of street photographed people right away. I suppose my drawings have never felt particularly personal, where my writing is very personal. These new watercolor paintings were the first time I had ever drawn something I felt exposed by.

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the girl learning about joy (3)

It was a bit unsettling, actually, especially since I did all four paintings within a week and a half—two in one day—which is something I never do. I tend to move very slowly, in both writing and drawing. I would say that both mediums fall under wanting to see and write/draw what I see. And it’s interesting how, just as a good personal essay is both very specific and universal, so many people have recognized people they know in my portraits of specific strangers. So it’s really all the same thing, I think.

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the girl getting hot chocolate with her mother

I love your pen drawings (I’m the proud owner of one!) and I know you’ve been experimenting with watercolors recently. What are your favorite materials to use?

You’re so nice 😉 I still mostly use pen, jumping into watercolor whenever I feel that particular itch. I keep all my paints, brushes, and waterjars handy so I’m always about thirty seconds away from beginning if I feel a sudden pull, but I default to pen. I love drawing on a lot of different materials and prefer brown paper or other found paper/board. I had the opportunity when I was in Scotland to take possession of a whole stack of slate roof tiles, but it was right before I was flying home and I had no way to transport them. Drawing on slate really sounds like such a dream. Chalk is fun for weird typographical endeavors. I’ve also enjoyed doing some embroidered portraits in the past and am really interested in doing more with that.

A lot of your creative non-fiction essays I’ve read deal with your experience of living abroad and searching for your role in a new physical landscape amongst new people. Do you think this exploration of being a stranger in a strange land will continue throughout the collection of essays you’re working on?

Probably haha. I’ve been a bit of a stranger in a strange land since I graduated high school—moving from Laramie, Wyoming to New York, then to Scotland, then back to a very different experience of New York, and then to Greeley, Colorado, where I was born but haven’t lived since I was five. So even though I haven’t been in the UK in a few years, I have been thinking about and experiencing a lot of the same things in new ways. Which has been interesting in terms of how I approach the essays because they are all written in such immediate present tense scenes I’ve had to think about Well, was I really thinking about all of these things in that moment or am I thinking about them now and is inserting them into the piece affecting the integrity of the experience? I felt particularly strongly when I was in school about those kinds of Insertions being ultimately untrue. And there is a line. Somewhere, I suppose. Though I remember my mentor describing the process of writing personal essays being the narrativization of an experience, not a transcript. This is the door through which we could walk into discussing accuracy versus truth in memory and writing which is a bit of a minefield, so I may stop here. But yes, I think the rest of the essays will follow a similar track. They’re all kind of generally about those things, but each one (I hope) narrows down into a more specific aspect. And actually, a friend recently pointed out to me that almost all of the essays so far have taken place near the time I was going to return to the US and so, right now, the collection also seems to be about saying goodbye, which is an interesting thing to think about.

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the printing of the people on the street

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Next week, I’ll be posting Part II of my interview with Lydia…