Author Spotlight: Marco Bisaccia

Our last entry from an author of the 2011 Spring Edition of Amoskeag is Marco Bisaccia. Marco discusses his thoughts and ideas on writing and specifically his short fiction piece, “Walking.”

Marco Bisaccia is a Massachusetts native and has spent most of his life there. He has worked in several fields, including politics and education – as a high school English teacher. He did some time in the UMass Amherst MFA program before moving to teaching. In the past he has written newspaper feature pieces and articles on education. While fiction writing is not a full-time occupation at the moment, he continues to work toward a collection of short stories. Insofar as New Hampshire connections go, he is working to finalize a story rooted in a 1988 presidential primary campaign he worked on in the Granite State.

Amoskeag: Your work, “Walking,” was featured in the 2011 Spring edition of Amoskeag. Tell us a little about the story behind this piece. How did it come about?

Marco Bisaccia: Well, the short answer is that I don’t know for sure, but I know a few things from the story’s history. I needed to complete a piece for a UMass fiction workshop class and was blocked – and a bit desperate. So I sat with my pen until something happened – the something that still escapes me. The events of the piece are not mine or those of anyone I know, so I think this story is particularly open to whatever interpretation the reader will make of it. Certain scenes and items certainly come from my adolescent and young adult days. Playing poker with friends, for example. I’m not sure why the style came out so spare (aside from influences like Raymond Carver) but perhaps it had to do with the process of eking something out of a dry well.

Amoskeag: How and why did it take this final form?  What were the changes and drafts it went through?

Marco Bisaccia: The odd thing is that “Walking” changed very, very little from the original draft – a level of revision I’ll likely never see again. I wrote the draft in two sittings, and it never varied much at all from 1500 words.  I workshopped the piece at UMass and returned to it several times, making a few – very few – word changes and edits.  One was to change the title, which was originally “Franklin.” Strange as it might seem, “Walking” never went through any major changes. It just never seemed that additional content or revision would improve the story.  By the time I submitted it to Amoskeag I had long stopped rereading it and considered it absolutely finished… which made it embarrassing when I discovered a few grammatical errors in my manuscript. 

Amoskeag: Why do you write?  What made you want to pursue writing professionally?

Marco Bisaccia: I write because I have so many stories – in every sense of the word – bouncing around my skull, and have an almost visceral drive to express them. I was a voracious reader as a kid and grew into an excellent writer, but somehow never became an English major. After college, as I worked at a few things for a living and little more, I started transforming my internal narratives into short stories. I’ve stayed with that genre because it works for me; while I yearn to write a novel I haven’t found one in me yet. I want to write for a living because, for one, it beats the hell out of anything else I can think of, and it’s work that is entirely in my control (except for that publishing thing). No one submits raw material and directions to an artist. It’s all up to me.

Amoskeag: What tips and suggestions would you give to aspiring writers?

Marco Bisaccia: Every writer has his or her own way of doing it, but I’ll share some of my approach and perspective. I’m one of those writers who has to force himself to sit down and do it; I have to fight my inclination to put other things first and imagine great, irresistible ideas will pop into my head – and drive me to my desk. Sit down and write; starting is the hardest part, but just start with something; then one sentence leads to another – and the fiction brain starts working. Some say writing fiction is 90 percent perspiration and ten percent inspiration. That may be extreme but I agree with the point. Revising several times is critical; it is a major part of writing. Revising many times improves a story until it’s ready for others’ eyes, at which point I ask a few trusted readers to beat up the story. Good readers start with the effect you are trying to achieve, then critique from that perspective. It may be hard to take tough comments, but we need people to speak honestly; loving compliments help little. Many writers let a piece rest a while once it reaches a certain point. I generally know when I’m too close to a story, when it’s no longer fresh and I’ve lost critical perspective. I’ve put aside stories for weeks, months, even years.  A story dropped in frustration can turn out to be good material a month or year later. It may need final work, or be the basis for an entirely new take. Don’t throw anything away. And find what works for you.

As for idiosyncrasies, I write by hand first. Then at some point I start typing, so I’m already doing a first edit. There’s something about pushing a pen across paper for the first draft; it’s largely about avoiding what many writers like: the ability to easily move, change and cut words, sentences and paragraphs. That’s too much self editing for me. It cripples the flow of ideas; I want to lay down the essence of a story as it first appears in my mind, then start shaping it in stage two. I also amend manually on each hard copy. Keeping hard copies of drafts/versions guards against computer loss (or deletion!). Never continuously overwrite the same file.

Amoskeag: What are you currently working on?

Marco Bisaccia: Several short stories. I jump back and forth as I get new ideas for these tales bouncing around my head. I am trying to write fiction with more humor; I want a lighter feel, a more relaxed tone. But it’s not coming easily; I keep rereading drafts and finding that they have less levity than “Walking,” which is hardly a knee-slapper. Right now I’m working on my well-aged and revamped New Hampshire saga; a story set on a fictionalized island in Maine and in a fictional town in New England; and one about a repressed, forlorn woman – told by her. The jury is out on whether I can really write in a woman’s voice, and as for getting humor into that one…  Two of my current pieces are already at least twice as long as “Walking.” And I am writing this very second, though I like to think of this as nonfiction.

Author Spotlight: James Black

Amoskeag’s third author spotlight interview is with yet another contributor to the 2011 Spring Edition. In the following interview, James Black discusses the story behind his wonderful piece of short fiction entitled “[sic].”

James Black is recently possessed of a master’s in contemporary writing, and considering pursuit of a PhD. His fiction has been published in The Wisconsin Review, Redivider, Spindrift, The Palo Alto Review, Willard & Maple, and Natural Bridge.

Amoskeag: Your work, “[sic],” was featured in the 2011 Spring edition of Amoskeag. Tell us a little about the story behind this piece. How did it come about?

James Black: I was discussing with a friend the importance of names. His stepfather’s birth certificate provided only “Baby Boy” as his first name, and we were laughing over some official mail that had arrived for him from the state Health & Records department, addressed to “Baby Boy.” I suggested that it would be unfortunate, annoying, or potentially hilarious to discover that one’s own birth certificate were somehow irregular. I asked my friend if he’d seen his; he asked if I’d seen mine. Oddly, neither of us had. While I couldn’t find mine, my friend did find his and, to his chagrin, he had discovered an irregularity: for the entirety of his life, he’d been misspelling his middle name “Allan” as “Allen.” While this wasn’t such a big deal, I was left pondering the possibility of one’s whole life being thrown into upheaval by some similar, but more grievous, discovery. “[sic]” grew from that seed.

Amoskeag: How and why did it take this final form?  What were the changes and drafts it went through?

James Black: The actual story itself is the result of my many, many problems with America’s seriously flawed health care system—a system which contributed in a number of significant ways to the simultaneously too-speedy and too-slow death of my mother from metastatic colon cancer. Many countries have heroin clinics for terminally ill cancer patients; after a while, morphine doesn’t cut it when it comes to the pain, and heroin makes things much easier. The US has, for years, aggressively refused to establish such institutions. This is, of course, a tragedy and, as a result, I got to watch someone I loved die in abject agony.

A few years later, my home city of Rochester embarked on a series of ill-advised ventures to build a ferry to Toronto, and watching each iteration of the project fail was morbidly fascinating. I needed a reason for my protagonist to suddenly require a birth certificate he hadn’t previously seen and a trip across the border to acquire heroin for a cancer patient accomplished that without—to me—feeling contrived.

Amoskeag: Why do you write?  What made you want to pursue writing professionally?

James Black: The second part of this question is easier to answer than the first. I write professionally because it’s the one thing I’ve found that makes me feel even remotely contented, happy, etcetera. Who could ask more from a job? Most of my life has been spent doing work that I find degrading and disappointing. Someone once said something like “writing is something that is for a writer more difficult than it is for anyone else.” I find that to be true. But writing is also, for me, the one thing worth the effort.

Why it’s worth the effort has to do with interiority. Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs defined interiority as, more or less, the feeling of “getting” someone or being “gotten.” Feeling like someone is inside your head—in a good way. Vonnegut said loneliness is the worst disease by which humanity has been stricken. I’m not sure it’s a disease with a cure. But reading something well-written makes a person forget that fact for the length of the piece. A good book is easier to find than a “soulmate,” and less risky than a fistful of Xanax.

Amoskeag: What tips and suggestions would you give to aspiring writers?

James Black: Learn to cope with perpetual failure. There are months where I receive a letter a day telling me someone clever enough to edit a literary journal thinks I’m not good enough. If that bothers you, you’re going to have a serious problem. I’ve been rejected hundreds of times in eight years of submissions. But I’ve also been accepted many places, and there’s nothing like the feeling of knowing that soon people you will never meet will be reading your work and, hopefully, feeling that interiority—my favorite stories seem to “get” me, to understand how existence feels to me, and when people read my own work, I hope that at least a few in the audience will feel “gotten.”

Other than that, the two pithiest pieces of advice I’ve got are simple. 1) Write stories you would want to read. 2) Writer’s block is a myth invented to excuse laziness—you can always write; your product may suck, but you can write. With enough editorial attention, you can turn terrible sentences into stalwart and worthwhile ones. Sometimes you’ll just build slowly. Writer’s block is as silly and romantic a notion as the idea that artists must be penniless and depressed.

Amoskeag: What are you currently working on?

James Black: At the moment, I’m three stories shy of releasing a second collection (my first is self-published and can be found on my website, http://sesquipedalism.com). And the piece I’m currently working on is one which, as I mentioned above, seems to require slow building. In this piece, there’s a labyrinth that won’t quit growing, a computer-illiterate professor learning how to navigate Facebook so he can check in on a student’s welfare, cats chatting about the color of their new collars, and an airplane full of people who are all absolutely sure that they’re the center of the world. So, we’ll see how that comes together in the end.


What is an Amoskeag?

In my brief time working as a student intern for the journal I have already been asked numerous times by authors and readers alike “so what the heck is an Amoskeag, anyway?” Despite having lived near the Manchester area for more than a few years now, and being somewhat familiar with the word, I still found myself stumbling rather incoherently to explain the meaning behind the term and how exactly it connects to the journal. Now that the blog is up and running, I thought it would be the perfect forum to get the word out on what exactly an “Amoskeag” is and why it was chosen as the title for Southern New Hampshire University’s literary journal.

The word Amoskeag itself actually comes from the Penacook Indian dialect meaning “abundance of fish.” Nearly two hundred years before the Industrial Revolution hit the area, the natives of northern New England looked to the Amoskeag Falls on the mighty Merrimack River for pure clean water and exceptional fishing. It wasn’t until around 1837 that the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company and the city of Manchester, New Hampshire began to take shape after careful planning and development.

The town was intentionally named after Manchester, England – the world’s largest textile city at the time. Almost as a self-fulfilling prophecy, the Amoskeag Mills and the town around it indeed surpassed its English namesake and eventually became the largest textile factory by the turn of the 20th century.

By this time, the city of Manchester (thoroughly influenced by the mills) had also grown into one of the largest cities in all of New England with a booming population of fifty-five thousand. The majority of this growth came from French Canadian immigrants heading down from Quebec to find work at the mills. By 1920, a large number of Greeks and Poles had also immigrated into the workforce to create a unique ethnic diversity focused around the Amoskeag Mills.

Tamara K. Hareven, author of Amoskeag: Life and Work in an American Factory City, writes of what culminates from this diversity:

“In response to the new ethnic diversity of the work force, in 1910 the Amoskeag launched a corporate welfare and efficiency program… [which] was distinct from those of other companies in its continuity with the Amoskeag’s nineteenth-century paternalistic traditions and in the emergence of an Amoskeag ‘spirit,’ which served both for workers and management as an important source of identity (Hareven).”

Life was undoubtedly hard for workers at the mill, and many have looked back in sadness toward the use of child labor and other unfortunate mill-yard consequences, but a vibrant and unique community also grew from this “Amoskeag spirit” and “identity.” The workers and mill managers living in the blooming city of Manchester organized a wide array of social and recreational activities including dinners, picnics, baseball teams, musicals, plays, Christmas parties, and even a published monthly magazine – the Amoskeag Bulletin.

Though the last of the mills were eventually shut down by the 1970s, the city built around them continues to grow today and the word Amoskeag remains prevalent. Having looked at the definition of the name and its ties to New Hampshire history, I don’t think the editorial board could have picked a more befitting title for its journal. Amoskeag may have originally meant “abundance of fish” but to those of us familiar with the journal, the definition is quickly shifting to the “abundance of unique creative identities.”

Sources: Hareven, Tamara K., and Randolph Langenbach. AMOSKEAG: Life And Work In An American Factory-City. Random House, Inc., 1978. Print.

Author Spotlight: Richard Dokey

For our second Author Spotlight, we would like to introduce an interview from another contributing author to the 2011 edition of Amoskeag.

Richard Dokey received his degree from U.C. Berkeley. He is an avid fly fisherman who ties his own flies. He has traveled from Chile to New Zealand in search of rainbow and brown trout. His stories have won prizes. They have been cited in Best American Short Stories, Best of the West and have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. They are also included in national anthologies and texts, as well as in major regional collections. “Pale Morning Dun,” his last book of short stories, published by University of Missouri Press, was nominated for the American Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. His work has been quite favorably reviewed in newspapers and periodicals from coast to coast. He is also the author of several novels, the most recent of which is “The Hollywood Cafe.”

Amoskeag: Your work, “Stuff,” was featured in the 2011 Spring edition of Amoskeag. Tell us a little about the story behind this piece. How did it come about?

Richard Dokey: My mother’s death some years ago brought home to me the story which all who are left behind must face: what to do with the “stuff.” I saw that the real story, though, was not about things, but the disparate life which each character brings to the story. This is the true “stuff” that can not be given away. Each one’s experience is an artifact which is solely his own. The tragedy of this awareness for the narrator at the end is that the two brothers are irreparably apart, have lived in such separate consciousness and experience that not even a mother’s death can bring them together. They are condemned. They have not even lost the same thing.

Amoskeag: How and why did it take this final form?  What were the changes and drafts it went through?

Richard Dokey: Nothing was different from what transpired. The story “wrote itself” out of the death of my mother. “Stuff” went through no drafts, if one means by that the writing out of the story and then another writing and rewrite of the story to “get it right.” I don’t work that way. I rewrite heavily as I write, covering each handwritten page with erasures and corrections and taking notes as I go along. I hack through the jungle of language, and the way must have the sense of inevitability. I often know the end of a story as I begin, and then it is a question of climbing the mountain through the jungle to discover the way to the top. I know that I’ve done it right when I understand that there is only one ending, and I have found it.

Amoskeag: Why do you write?  What made you want to pursue writing professionally?

Richard Dokey: I write because I must. I felt the compulsion when quite young. It has never left me. I translate my experience of life through writing because writing is how I understand what I have lived. The word “professionally” is confusing. Writers, I suppose, are sparrows or hawks. Sparrows get comfort from flying together. They fly the same way and in formation. What they write is the same. How they write is the same. Hawks fly alone. It makes no difference that all do not understand. Hawks write for the one, true reader, who is also a hawk, at rest somewhere, leaning against his own solitude.

Amoskeag: What tips and suggestions would you give to aspiring writers?

Richard Dokey: That’s easy. Read. Read the best writers. If you’re a novelist, the best novels. If you’re a short story writer, the best short stories. Stay away from sparrows. Read everything. Philosophy. History. Psychology. Economics. Poetry. Everything. Travel. Look and listen. It’s not about you. It’s about what is and what you can see. How you see becomes the uniqueness of what you can say. The easiest thing to do is to write bad poetry. Bad poetry is about how I feel and what I think. But it’s not about me. A great poet writes one book, and it takes him a lifetime to write it. Forget yourself. Kill your vanity. Ignore rejection. And never quit.

Amoskeag: What are you currently working on?

Richard Dokey: I’ve put together a new collection of short stories, which is seeking a publisher. I have a new novel. My passion, though, is short fiction. I’m usually working on a story or working at working on a story. The only pain, apart from your regular, every day pain, is to be working on nothing. It’s hell waiting for the beginning to begin. The only ending, after all, is the one, true end. Then others will deal with my stuff. I hope they never finish.

Author Spotlight: Philip Dacey

To kick-start Amoskeag‘s author spotlight series we asked Philip Dacey about his poem, Against Rushing, featured in the 2011 Spring edition of Amoskeag. We then followed up with some questions about writing and Dacey’s current projects.

Philip Dacey, a native of St. Louis, is the author of eleven books of poetry, including entire collections about Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Eakins, and New York City; his latest are Mosquito Operas: New and Selected Short Poems (Rain Mountain Press, 2010) and Vertebrae Rosaries: 50 Sonnets (Red Dragonfly Press). A college teacher of writing in Minnesota for thirty-five years, he moved to New York City in 2004 for a post-retirement adventure.

Amoskeag: Your poem, “Against Rushing,” was featured in the 2011 Spring edition of Amoskeag. Tell us a little about the story behind this piece. How did it come about?

Philip Dacey: The idea contained in the second stanza was something I had heard years earlier, and it stayed with me; it seemed both witty and probably true in some ways. I perhaps envied that kind of insouciance – I who always tend to get to an appointment early. The idea kept returning to me and seemed to ask for a context. So the poem was my answer. Possibly, too, my living in Manhattan, on the Upper West Side, a couple of blocks from Broadway, created the need for a response in some way to the fast pace all around me every day. The fourth stanza certainly owes something to Roethke’s “Worm, be with me, this is my hard time.”

Amoskeag: How and why did it take this final form? What were the changes and drafts it went through?

Philip Dacey: Over the years I’ve done a lot of poems that are like musical variations on a theme, comprised of a series of short, independent sections that are united only by the theme or motif they all share. Because the poem is in sections, I’d say silence has a place in the poem, surrounding each section and letting it resonate. And silence would be to speech what stillness would be to rushing. So the form in some way was dictated by the content.  Given the form, the drafting had mostly to do with searching for possible variations, condensing material into haiku-like nuggets, then selecting the best and arranging them. Nothing very technical or instructive in this case.

Amoskeag: Why do you write?  What made you want to pursue writing professionally?

Philip Dacey: To my surprise, I began writing poetry at a difficult time in my late twenties when I was a bit lost as to direction and goals; in retrospect, I’d say poetry came to my rescue, even though I had always seen myself as a fiction writer, despite – I realized later – not being very good at it. So although it’s corny to say so, I have to say poetry chose me, rather than the other way around. From browsing in the Stanford library – I was in graduate school when I began writing poetry – I knew of the Beloit Poetry Journal, so I sent one of my first poems there, and their acceptance of it plugged me into my professional life. So I owe much to poetry and continue trying to serve it, though my joke – not a joke? – is that if I truly wanted it to serve I would stop writing and just read the great dead.

Amoskeag: What tips and suggestions would you give to aspiring writers?

Philip Dacey: First, I’d say don’t believe in writer’s block. To believe in it means it’ll be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, it takes only a pencil and a piece of paper to write. Put down whatever comes to mind. There’s of course no guarantee it will improve on the blank page, but then there’s never a guarantee of that, not even when one is supposedly inspired. As Isak Dinesen said: “Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.” Bill Stafford had the right idea: “How do I write so much? I lower my standards.” Of course, he had very high standards and was being wry; but I think he meant that he gave himself permission to fumble along – “scribble” is the word I like – until he hit a vein that had promise. I would also add: don’t be afraid of using traditional forms. Why not use all the tools in the toolbox?

Amoskeag: What are you currently working on?

Philip Dacey: I’m currently putting the final touches on a book manuscript that collects the poems I’ve written and published over the years about Walt Whitman. I also keep a lot of poems-in-progress going, so I’m always turning to one of those, besides beginning new poems. I have other collections out looking for homes at publishers: including a miscellany and a book of love poems. I believe in being prolific – encouraged students to be “fecund.” The more we write, the greater the chances are we might get lucky – luck often being triggered by hard work – and write something that merits an audience.  I’m just finishing a poem about Chiquita – the banana people – and their collaboration with Columbian death squads.

Welcome!

Aspiring writers, established authors, literary enthusiasts, and readers of all ages – welcome to Amoskeag’s official blog!

As Robert Begiebing, Amoskeag’s founding editor, once said in the 1986 edition of the journal: there is “no creative growth without change.” More than ever before, the journal is living by this mantra as we are diving into the modern age of social networking and online connectivity. It is our hope that this natural progression and change will bring the wondrously unique and powerful artistic expressions of our authors and contributors to a wider community of like-minded individuals everywhere.

Firstly, if you are unfamiliar with Amoskeag, we would urge you to explore some of the incredible excerpts of poetry and short fiction that we have up on the website. As always, if you like what you read, don’t hesitate to subscribe and help us grow and share the power of creative literature.

Secondly, if you are familiar with Amoskeag, why not like us on Facebook so that you can keep up to date with any and all happenings like – contests dates and information, submission periods and guidelines, release periods and subscription information, and other exciting events and dates?

Finally, and most importantly, the entire staff of Amoskeag would like to thank you for supporting us. We are very much looking forward to the release of our Identity-themed 2012 edition of the journal this spring, and hope that you will all help us grow even further in our identity as a creatively expressive literary journal.