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an interview with leigh camacho rourks

Leigh Camacho Rourks lives in South Louisiana and on her best days can be found lazing in the sun. She is the managing editor for Rougarou, a journal of literature and arts out of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where she is pursuing her PhD. Her essay “How Fragile the Land” was a finalist for december’s 2015 Curt Johnson Prose Awards and appeared in Volume 27.1. Her short story “Moon Trees” was awarded the Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award, and her story “Pinched Magnolias” received the Robert Watson Literary Review Prize in Fiction. Her work has appeared  in a number of journals including Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Pank, and Greensboro Review.

Leigh says she feels a strong connection to nature and the environment around her. She is particularly concerned about the environmental situation in her home state of Louisiana and hopes to educate others about it through her writing and advocacy. “How Fragile the Land,” addresses these very concepts — you can read it here. John Bel Edwards, the governor of Louisiana, recently declared a state of emergency over state’s disappearing coastline. Leigh hopes to bring awarenesses of these issues to her own community and beyond. To learn more about Louisiana’s disappearing coastline click here.

DECEMBER

What are you getting your PhD in?

ROURKS

Creative writing. The PhD program at the University of Lafayette is a generalist program. You have to not only work within your field, so not just in creative writing, but also in other fields. Literature and critique and the like. My dissertation will be a creative piece with a critical intro, and my interests are things that deal with craft theory and the way we put together stories. I also have an MFA so this is an extension beyond that.

DECEMBER

What do you like to read for pleasure?

ROURKS

I have very wide tastes. I read sci-fi and fantasy. I read science books, nonfiction books about science history. I read a lot of Southern and gulf coast lit and grit lit. I tend to read three books at a time and right now I’m re-reading Douglas Adams’ Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, I’m reading the Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould, and I just started, I’m on the first few pages of rereading Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. I like to turn on different parts of my brain.

DECEMBER

Do you have a writing routine and, if so, what is it?

ROURKS

I tend to write in the middle of the day when possible, which is a luxury of the jobs that I’ve had. I was in a workshop and the person running it asked everyone when are you most creative? Most people said early in the morning or late at night, and I said, about 2:00 in the afternoon. Everybody looked at me like I was an alien. Apparently, I was the first person to ever say that. I like to write in the middle of the afternoon, if not then I stay up late at night doing it. I usually sit on my couch in front of the TV with a movie that I’ve seen 6,000 times, or playing music, or I like to write in coffee shops and daytime bars. There is this really interesting thing about bars that are open during the day. They usually have this older, regular group of just three or four people and they are fairly quiet except for those people talking and enjoying themselves and there is nice lighting, usually not too dark and not too light and I just feel comfortable and I get to eavesdrop on great and bizarre conversations.

DECEMBER

Which writer or writers have had the most impact on your own development as a writer?

ROURKS

Tom Franklin is one of the most influential writers for me. I am madly, madly in love with his work and the way he uses place to inform us about the pressures on his characters and help us identify and like these characters that we really shouldn’t identify with and like. So he’s had a huge influence on me as an adult. And then there are the people I read as child who had a huge influence on me. Madeleine L’Engle — her humor and seriousness and interest in science and place. Tim Gautreaux, who was actually one of my teachers, and then years later I was reading his novel “The Missing” and he uses smell in it and the way he uses it is really amazing and it made me think, why am I ignoring this sense? Now, when I’m writing, I think, “What would Tim Gautreaux do?”

DECEMBER

How do your personal experiences show up in your work, particularly in your fiction? I was reading some of your other work in Kenyon Review and Tri-quarterly Review and I noticed there were characters some readers might think are pretty edgy and I was curious where those characters come from and how your personal experience informs that.

ROURKS

That’s one of those questions that you know someone is going to ask you eventually and you think, “how do I answer this for the wide world?” Part of it has to do with where I grew up and the way I grew up. I grew up in South Florida in the 80s and 90s and it was a wilder, edgier place. I was a quiet kid (even though I talked a lot), but I didn’t always hang out with quiet kids and I sometimes maybe ran with the crowd that people would say were the wrong crowd. Then we moved to Louisiana and I was really angry and rebellious and sad a lot. I quit college, I was waitressing. I lived in apartments with not just two other people, but ten other people and friends of friends of friends. I met a wide scope of human beings and one of the things that has always struck me is the way that people who live below the middle-class are seen. I was in a workshop once and someone was talking about another person’s story and said, “I don’t believe this character, I don’t believe this character would know these words.” The character was a poor girl in Oklahoma or something and I was really offended. The idea you are 100% one way or another has always bothered me, like if you are edgy you can’t be smart as well. I feel like the more people you know, the more you want to show this wide range of life. Another way my experience shows up is I like to trounce around the swamp a lot. I live on this amazing land and the outdoors — snakes and things like that — always show up in my writing, because I can go in my backyard and see them. There’s a big influence of the dangerous and natural elements that end up in my stuff.

DECEMBER

Have you experienced any times when you could not write or were not writing before?

ROURKS

Oh yes, absolutely, for many different reasons. I’m not one of those people that is maniacally driven to write. I’m actually very jealous of those people. I have to force myself to do it. I wanted to be a writer as a kid, but that seemed ridiculous. I mean, who’s a writer? I didn’t know any writers. That wasn’t a real thing to me. I knew a lot of books, but I was going to be other things. I didn’t write at all then, and then I went back to school and I wrote again and then I worked and I wrote advertising copy for a real estate firm. Then I went back to school and I did write and I graduated and I taught. I was teaching mostly comp classes at a university and I didn’t write at all. I completely quit. It wasn’t in me. For a long time, I alternated between either writing or working. Then I went back to school for my MFA. I did a low-residency program through Pacific University and it taught me to write while working. It was the best thing I could have done. It taught me how to be a writer in a world where I had to work, but I still had to get my packets in. And now it’s easier to write all the time because I’ve learned the discipline.

DECEMBER

What do you do for fun or relaxation?

ROURKS

I really like television. I watch a lot of TV and not necessarily good television. I like bad sitcoms. I like old sci-fi shows. I’m rewatching “Buffy (the Vampire Slayer)” for the thirtieth time. That’s not very intellectual or terribly interesting, but that’s one of the things I do because I can just turn off my brain and enjoy the storytelling. Of course, I read. I go for walks. I walk a lot and when possible I like to get out in nature and bring my camera. I go look at alligator. That’s a weird hobby, but that’s one of my hobbies. We go out to this place called Lake Martin and look for alligators. I also cook. I like to cook a lot.

DECEMBER

Is there anything that you haven’t written yet that you want to? Anything you want to try and write, but you haven’t done it yet?

ROURKS

I’d like to try more creative nonfiction. There are a lot more true stories I would like to tell. I’d really like to do some journalistic nonfiction where I go out and learn other people’s stories and tell them. I’d love to do some magical realism to throw myself into something wild and weird and wonderful and I haven’t really done that, though people say I get close to it, but I haven’t thrown myself into it.

DECEMBER

Are there any subjects in particular that you want to tackle? Big issues etc.?

ROURKS

I finished my first novel recently and I just started my second novel and I think partially in the background it will deal with the Bayou Corne Sinkhole. There is this gigantic sinkhole in Louisiana that is an environmental disaster and people have been displaced and it’s very scary. I would definitely like to write more about the environment, I know that is a topic I have technically talked about, but I would like to dig deeper in certain subjects. It’s usually whatever I’m curious about at the time. I like to start my projects from a place of curiosity.

DECEMBER

What advice do you have for writers who are just starting out?

ROURKS

Read! I know everybody says that. There is just so much pushback from it and there is this mythology out there that if you take in too many other voices that you’ll lose your own and I think that is really dangerous and damaging. So read, that’s my first advice. My second bit is that it’s ok if you don’t do things the way other people do. I hear a lot of advice that is like, “you’ll never be a writer IF,” for example, “you’ll never be a writer if you don’t keep a journal.” I’ve never kept a journal. I knew that didn’t work for me (and I tried). Try things you hear, but don’t beat yourself up about it and quit if that’s not the thing for you. Another thing that didn’t work for me was get up early and write every morning. That’s not who I am and I know that and I’m not going to beat myself up over it. Try things, fail at them, fail spectacularly because that’s what learning is and it’s ok if you have to do things your own way and find your patterns. Fail, fail spectacularly, write bad things, and just keep on writing. Writing is hard work, it is something you can learn and work hard and get better at, and part of hard work is failure. I think that would be my big one. I have a learning disability called a disorder of written expression, and if I had listened to people who said you’re born a writer, I don’t think I would have bothered. Just do it! I hate to “NIKE” this all up, but do it and study and listen to other people when they tell you things you don’t want to hear, that might be when you need to listen to them the most.

DECEMBER

You are the editor of Rougarou, which is what?

ROURKS

It’s the journal run by PhD students at Lafayette. We’ve just relaunched. It’s an international online journal. Submit! We don’t publish anyone in the university. It is all outside work. http://english-archive.louisiana.edu/creativewriting/rougarou2/HTML/Issue.html#

DECEMBER

Because you are an editor (and we are editors here) and you’re a writer, what do you think the literary community — writers like you, publications like us, and Rougarou — can do to expand the audience for good literature?

ROURKS

I think one of the things is we have to get rid of our assumptions that only writers read. I think that is an assumption that we walk in the door with, that we know our audience, that we have a specific audience and we are trying to expand to another audience. A good example of this is I have some friends and family members that upon meeting them people would not expect them to be “literary” readers. They are very kind and they read all the stuff I publish and then they say, I really liked that WHOLE journal, I read all the short stories in there. So I bought them subscriptions for Christmas, so I think remembering our audience can be bigger if we talk to all potential and show them what we have. Now, how to show them what we have and how to talk to them is the harder question. I wonder how many of us are inviting our friends and family to read these things that we would normally target to our writer friends. If you really think about what your friends and family like, it’s easy to hand them a poem or short story they would like and you aren’t trying to teach them anything, it’s important to not be condescending and just do the same kind of sharing you would do with your writer friends.

DECEMBER

And finally my last question, what is your favorite snack food during a writing frenzy?

ROURKS

Oh my god, so hard! I love food so much. I just ate some cherries, so all I can think of is cherries, but I only eat those a couple of times a year. I’m a candy hog so I try not to keep it in the house too much, but my favorite grading food is Reese’s and I’ll eat the whole bag so I can’t make that my favorite writing food. I have to say fruit! I’ll keep it at fruit for writing.


Managing Editor Jennifer Goldring interviewed Leigh Camacho Rourks for the this installment of december’s contributor interview.

2017 jeff marks memorial poetry prize winners

december is honored to present audio recordings from our winner and honorable mention for this year’s poetry contest. These poems are featured in Vol. 28.1; to purchase or subscribe click here.

Franny Choi — 2017 Winner Pastoral Poem

PASTORAL POEM

The farmwork isn’t seasonal
in Vermont. They milk the cows

year round. The leaves brown
and only the white people think

of rest. Orchards get pricked
by cold’s first needle, play dead

til there’s something decent to drink.
But the cows stay heavy

with silage, with hands, dark
on the hillside. The hard ground

cracks, and city people paste green
paper on the gaps. Guess what color

the glue dries. Hint: it’s good camoufage
when the weather turns. The geese make

that noise when they’re afraid
they won’t make it back south.

My friend bought a lamp to keep
smiling when not even the earth

seems to want us, or wants us
wrong, dug up by the neighbors

after the drifts melt, limp,
already feeding next year’s grass.

The city tosses crumpled leaves
to say, we can always make more of you.

I want to build us a place
like the house the calf made

when it licked our hands hot,
our breath blued by the moon.

This is how we’ve learned
to grow in midwinter. We curl

into each other’s bark,
boil sugar between our chests.


Teri Elam – 2017 Honorable Mention Counterpoint

COUNTERPOINT
“doris payne, 85-year-old jewel thief, reflects on life of crime” — associated press

my childhood                                         buried beneath this thick skin      blood-encrusted diamonds
got me here                                            
& my living bones      this body underestimated
already                                                   
my heart’s weight      could not be measured in carats
knew how to eat properly                  still polished      even when i felt invisible

liked to dress up                                    this body & my bones      living      underestimated
play a game by myself                        
a sleight of hand hiding fear      but never jewels stolen
called “miss lady”                                 & when made to feel invisible      i remained polished
people say                                              like the ballerina i dreamed of becoming

you don’t act black                               slighted      my hands hid fear      not the jewels lifted
but i was black still                              this refuge from slab fork      paris rome monte carlo
they wanted me out                             & my dreams of becoming a ballerina
i could have been more                       
now distant      like that space between diamonds & coal

then it was punishment                      my refuge      paris rome monte carlo a ways from slab fork
if in my hands                                       no final destination in my mind just moving between
i couldn’t be can’t say                          
the distance between what makes coal & what makes diamonds
didn’t matter                                         though being a thief had nothing to do with values —
 
don’t regret being                                caught in between no destination in my mind      final
i regret getting caught                        
in love      my heart cannot be measured in carats
i didn’t take to put back                      my value had nothing to do with being a thief
i took to keep —                                     & buried      blood-encrusted diamonds beneath my skin

NOTE: italicized words came from her interviews in “the life and crimes of doris payne” and an AP news article, “doris payne, 85-year-old jewel thief, re ects on life of crime”.

 

december Magazine and give STL day, May 11!

Watch our video!

 

We hope you’ll join us on Thursday, May 11th and help us achieve our mission of nurturing writers and artists at every stage of their careers. At december, we bring readers and writers together and support the local community with important partnerships and projects. Take a moment to learn more about what we do — we are an independent, nonprofit literary organization and twice-a-year magazine, and we couldn’t do all that we do without subscribers and generous donors like you. Every dollar helps us reach our goal of funding another year of “HawkJam,” the spoken-word poetry club we sponsor at an all-girls charter school in St. Louis, and another year of supporting our contributors by paying our writers and artists. Please donate and spread the word. Check out our GiveSTLday.org page here.

december presents…adrian matejka

2016 pushcart nominations

unknownHere at december we are grateful for all our contributors. When Pushcart time comes it’s never easy to select our Pushcart nominations because we love everything we print. After much deliberation between our editors and staff we finally chose our nominees for 2016. Major congratulations to these writers and major thanks to everyone who is part of the december community.

 

Kendra Allen – When You Learn the Alphabet (Non fiction – Vol. 27.1)
José Angel Araguz – Cazar Means to Hunt Not to Marry (Poetry – Vol. 27.1)
Jeff Ewing – On the Death, by Trampling, of a Man in Modoc County (Poetry – Vol. 27.2)
Maura Pellettieri – Whale (Fiction – Vol. 27.2)
Adam Schwartz – Pavane for a Dead Princess (Fiction – Vol. 27.1)
Cocoa M. Williams – Leda on a Stoop in St. Bernard Projects (1974) (Poetry Vol. 27.1)

poetry and prose on the plaza

Don’t miss our event at the Prospero’s Books in Kansas City. Celebrate the release of Vol. 27.2 with excellent poetry by Albert Goldbarth and prose from Thomas Atkinson the winner of the 2016 Curt Johnson Prose Awards (fiction). We hope to see you there. This event is open to the public.

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december uncorked

Don’t miss our event at the World Chess Hall of Fame! Celebrate the release of Vol. 27.2 with great poetry and prose by Jen Logan Meyer, Allison Funk, and Travis Mossotti. A wine and cheese reception will follow the reading. We hope to see you there. This event is open to the public. Complimentary valet parking provided.

december-uncorked-draft-1020

 

four notable essays in 2016 Best American Essays

unknownWe just received our copy of the 2016 Best American Essays and were excited to see four essays we published last year made their notable essay list. A big CONGRATULATIONS goes out to the writers whose essays were included. We’re thrilled to publish exciting work that garners attention and grateful for all the contributors who trust us with their work and the readers who enjoy our pages.

 

 

The notable essays:
On Locker Rooms and Looking, Doug Paul Case (Vol. 26.1)
Proximity, Gary Fincke (Vol. 26.1)
You Have Me, Wilfredo Pascual (Vol. 26.2)
My Magpie Mind, Mike Smith (Vol. 26.2)

2017 poetry contest judge – adrian matejka

MatejkaWe are excited to announce Adrian Matejka as the judge of our 2017 Jeff Marks Memorial Poetry Prize. Mr. Matejka was born in Germany and grew up in California and Indiana. His second collection of poems, Mixology, was a winner of the 2008 National Poetry Series and was a finalist for a NAACP Image Award. The Big Smoke was awarded the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was also a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award, the 2014 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. He is the Lily Professor/Poet-in-Residence at Indiana University in Bloomington. His new book of poems, Map to the Stars, is forthcoming from Penguin Random House in April 2017.

2017 Jeff Marks Memorial Poetry Prize submissions open October 1st. For more information and contest guidelines click here.

albert goldbarth… on topic

photo by Michael Pointer

photo by Michael Pointer

(Jump to Audio)

We were fortunate to spend a whole afternoon and evening with poet/essayist Albert Goldbarth a few months ago. It was a great day with passionate talk across a wide spectrum of subjects. We decided to share his views on a variety of topics, excerpted from the recording of a long, informal conversation. We hope you enjoy his insights as much as we enjoyed the time we spent with him. The same day, he came to our studio (aka the office) and recorded the work he has published in december from 1971 to now. You can listen to him read his poems here.

On living in Wichita: Wichita is a blue-collar town. In the old days, it was an important city on the cattle drive; it used to be a rip-roaring, shoot-’em-up, bordello kind of town. Eventually, the cattle began going around Wichita, and Kansas City picked up all the cattle-drive business, and Wichita started to die until a stroke of good luck – World War II – came along, and Beechcraft and Boeing made a new economic life for the city. They’re still major players on the Wichita economic scene. Wichita State University is the largest university in the largest city in the state, and Friends University and Newman University are located there as well, but it doesn’t have the feel of a college town. Still books can be bought (I live near the locally owned Watermark Books) and microbreweries serve up their product, and a writer’s life can be made here. At least, mine can.

On shopping: I understand the politics of commerce. I could happily browse at Walmart at 2 in the morning and immerse myself in the real America.

On reading: I read all sorts of nonfiction, from physics to celebrity bios. I do read genre fiction, a lot of science fiction, mysteries, but literary fiction, too. I’m rereading some Bellow and George Eliot right now. I pick up magazines all the time, an occasional issue of Discover, National Geographic, anything from Biblical Archeology to Hustler, if it calls out to me. Also an occasional Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories. Nothing wrong with the Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge stories. I just joined the Carl Barks Fan Club – he’s a true American popular culture genius, and he created Uncle Scrooge.

On poetry readings: Readings are not a good index of the quality of anybody’s work. Why should a writer have to be a good reader of his or her own work? Some people simply aren’t. I think I give a good reading, but the human voice is a very limited medium. Words done well on the literary page are larger than anything the human voice can give utterance to. Plenty of poems almost by definition can’t be read well out loud for any number of reasons. And, of course, inferior writing projected by a good performer can be very misleading. Literary talent and theatrical talent are two different things.

On a favorite assignment: A number of years ago, as Halloween was approaching, I told my undergraduate class to dress up as a poet or a poem for Halloween. Two people in unison dressed up as Wordsworth’s Daffodils poem (I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud), one guy was a daffodil and a woman was a cloud with a little sun breaking overhead. And one woman dressed up as Sylvia Plath, by which I mean she brought into the room an entire, full-size, three-dimensional cardboard stove she had made, with foil burners and actual dials that could turn and a door that could open. When I came into the room, there was a complete tableau. She was on the floor with her head in the oven, one shoe off, one shoe on, a vial of pills on the floor, carefully spilled out, with a prescription label on it for an anti-depressant popular in Plath’s time. It was extraordinary. Did it help her grade? Hey, I’m only human.

On collecting: I could talk in a loving manner about the kinds of things I like to collect – the vintage outer space toys, the manual typewriters, and more. I suppose you could psychoanalyze some writers by their collections – all the more reason for me to clam up now.

On book recommendations: A few weeks ago I recommended to a few friends a new book by Sven Birkerts called Changing the Subject. It’s a soulfully deep, richly written book that is not only a very eloquent questioning of where technology is taking us and of how internet reading affects our lives, but besides being just cautionary, it is a lovely paean to the life of reading traditionally – slowly, deeply, undistractedly, and understanding the pleasures of narrative.

On interviews: I’ve rarely read an interview that didn’t make me cringe. Whether I live in Kansas or Paris, whether I collect ancient Mesopotamian cylinder seals or old Pepsi bottles…none of it matters, including what I’ve said here. The poem is the poem, the essay is the essay, and, to slightly paraphrase Keats (who never gave an interview in his life), “That’s all you need to know.”

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