The New Leaves Writers’ Conference: An Outsider’s Perspective

by Hailey Scherer

There are few things more enchanting than watching an author read his or her work aloud. They give voice to their narrator—something which Stillhouse Editor-in-Chief, Marcos L. Martínez defines as style, syntax, cadence, and tone, "but more like pheromones; something you know only when you feel it." The author fleshes out their work, their narrator's voice, with their own, making it sink into your bones. To hear the phrases fit the voices, to see the facial expressions, the unconscious body movements, is to experience their work on another level.

Mark Polanzak, reading from his debut hybrid memoir,   POP!   (Stillhouse Press, 2016).

Mark Polanzak, reading from his debut hybrid memoir, POP! (Stillhouse Press, 2016).

As a visiting intern at Stillhouse Press and a high school senior with little experience in the professional writing world, I felt excited but largely unsure of what to expect from a "writers' conference." Would the discussions be stiff and formal? Would I feel excluded or in the way? Would I get to meet an actual author, those superhuman beings behind all my favorite books? As the conference began, however, I was immediately swept up in the words of the very real, very human writers and their readings.

I watched authors affiliated with Northern Virginia's small publishing community read from their recently published and award-winning works. I sat in rooms filled to the walls with George Mason students, Stillhouse Press and Gazing Grain editors, and others like me—lovers of the literary world who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. The energy was palpable. It shifting in flavor from reading to reading, but was always charged with a positive, fascinating intensity.  

By reading from their work or answering questions, each writer had the opportunity to instill in the audience some message, about themselves, their work, the world, or all three. Gazing Grain's Nora Brooks infused emotion and personality into the practical affair of cooking, using it to explore things that make us uncomfortable, while Heidi Czerwiec discussed the socioeconomic, political, and environmental issues of western North Dakota in her work Sweet/Crude. Czerwiec's poems read like a report, but with lovelier words, poetic phrasing, literary organization, and curious anecdote, which serves to simultaneously further her points and to make her work all the more interesting and beautiful.

Gazing Grain authors Heidi Czerwiec and Nora Brooks (left to right).

Gazing Grain authors Heidi Czerwiec and Nora Brooks (left to right).

Mark Polanzak’s enthusiasm was particularly apparent, and rightly so, as part of the conference was dedicated to celebrating his first book POP!, a hilarious work about a decidedly un-hilarious subject, the death of his father. Polanzak described his book, quite fittingly, as “factually unreliable but emotionally true,” a work that really speaks to “the absurdity and integrity of memory," and his reading brought the audience to life. Listeners let out genuine, full-voiced laughs, sighing at the more poignant lines. Hearing him read from his book while the sun set on George Mason’s blooming cherry trees and the wind-rippled pond remains one of my favorite memories from the conference.

The collaborative, enthusiastic, supportive atmosphere of the New Leaves Writers’ Conference reminded me that writing is not as individual a career as one might think. Or if writing is an independent affair, the sharing of that writing—the part that makes it all worth it—is decidedly not. Authors may give a solo performance, may use their writing to untangle unprocessed trauma, like witnessing a devastating global event or experiencing the death of a parent, but it’s the collaboration between writer and editor, the interaction between author and reader, that gives writing its texture. This is where it all comes together, where you get to feel and see and hear a writer's work. It's in the exchange that the words take on meaning.


Hailey Scherer is an intern at Stillhouse Press and a senior at Flint Hill High School. As an aspiring author/poet, she aims to learn as much as possible about writing and publishing during her internship this spring. She will be attending Dartmouth College in the fall.

The Road Less Traveled: a Visit With Porochista Khakpour

by Leslie Goetsch

Khakpour currently lives in New York, where she is Writer in Residence at Bard College.

Khakpour currently lives in New York, where she is Writer in Residence at Bard College.

Born in Tehran and raised in California, the enigmatic and seemingly enchanted Porochista Khakpour has crossed the country and beyond in pursuit of the writing life. As she says in her essay, “My Life in the New Age” (Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2016), “I always liked the road less traveled.” One of Khakpour’s latest stops was Fall for the Book’s New Leaves Writer’s Conference March 21, where she spent the day and night as a visiting writer.   

The Last Illusion , Bloomsbury, 2014

The Last Illusion, Bloomsbury, 2014

Khakpour kicked off the first day of the conference with a reading from her latest novel, The Last Illusion (Bloomsbury, 2014). She began her reading with a discussion about the medieval Persian epic, the Shahnameh, which serves as the inspiration for The Last Illusion. Khakpour’s retelling of the legend centers on the character Zal, a child of the “wrong color,” whose mother raises him in a cage, along with her other “darlings,” birds. These two passages from Khakpour’s novel demonstrate her range as a writer. The first offers a daring, poignant scene in which Zal is cursed by his suicidal mother; the second a humorous view of Zal as he approaches adulthood in early 2000’s New York, where he takes a job at a pet store and falls in love with a canary.  (Zal’s story is also the inspiration behind the three striking feathers tattooed on Khakpour’s right hand and wrist, and although she makes it clear her mother would prefer the tattoo removed, it’s hard to imagine her without this physical reminder of how writing has directed her life.)

As part of her visit, Khakpour also spent time conferencing with MFA students about their work, offering suggestions and a personalized reading list, as well as advice on how to navigate the writing world. Despite battling a recurrence of Lyme Disease (precipitated by a car accident late last year), Khakpour’s energy never flagged. She was funny, smart, nurturing, and constructive as she discussed her writing, assuring students that there is, in fact, a life after the MFA and opened herself up to questions.

Porochista Khakpour appears 3 in from the left; Leslie Goetsch appears 3 in from the right.

Porochista Khakpour appears 3 in from the left; Leslie Goetsch appears 3 in from the right.

Khakpour’s struggle with illness is the subject of her next book, Sick (forthcoming in 2017). Sick is a real-time recount of Khakpour’s ongoing struggle with Lyme Disease, including her difficulty finding a diagnosis, exploring treatment options, and her determination not to let the physical symptoms of the disease interfere with her writing career.  While she has published many nonfiction essays and reviews, this will be her first full-length nonfiction work. During a question and answer session with the author, Khakpour explained that she first became interested in the project because she felt her experience could help others suffering from the disease. Interestingly enough, Khakpour says she originally wanted to publish a pamphlet that could be distributed to hospitals and doctors’ offices, though her publisher inspired her to turn her reflections into a memoir.

The subject and style of Sick are a significant departure from the magical, moving fiction of The Last Illusion, but as her reading at George Mason revealed, Khakpour is a storyteller whose spirit and insight marks all of her writing. There is little doubt that when the memoir debuts next year, it will make for a powerful and affecting read, and greatly add to the ongoing conversation about Lyme-related illness.


Leslie Goetsch is an MFA student at George Mason University. She is the author of Back Creek (Bancroft Press, 2008), a coming of age novel set in rural Virginia.


 

Tis The Season... For Writing Conferences!

It’s March, and the warmer weather marks not only the start of spring, but also the beginning of conference season for literary organizations all over the country. The Association of Writing and Writing Professionals, the largest literary conference in North America, is in Los Angeles this year. But fret not; you don’t have to travel across the country to broaden your writing horizons.

The D.C. area has some fantastic conferences to offer that will appeal to all writers, regardless of your experience, genre, or medium. Each conference has something unique to offer, with plenty of readings, panels, workshops, and networking and social opportunities to choose from. Take a look at our round-up of local conferences to see how you can get involved  in the D.C. area literary scene this spring.


NEW LEAVES WRITER'S CONFERENCE

Hosted by: Fall For The Book
Where: George Mason University, Fairfax Campus
Mon. March 21st- Thurs. March 24th
Registration: Free

 New Leaves’ events are all in the evenings, which makes it perfect for busy D.C. students and professionals. The events include readings by established authors Porochista Khakpour, Leslie Jamison, Jennifer Atkinson, Heather Green, and Tim Denevi, as well as the annual Loud Fire reading by George Mason MFA candidates.

Tuesday, March 22, Stillhouse Press will celebrate the release of its second book, the hybrid memoir POP! , from debut author Mark Polanzak. Fellow press, Gazing Grain will host a reading by Heidi Czerweic and Nora Brooks, the winner and runner-up of their recent chapbook contest.


CONVERSATIONS & CONNECTIONS: WRITERS CONNECT CONFERENCE

Hosted by: Barrelhouse Magazine
Where: George Mason University, Arlington Campus
Sat. April 23rd
Registration: $70 ($65 for students)

 

Conversations and Connections is a great place to meet local writers and improve your craft. The one-day conference features panels and workshops on flash fiction, writing ethnicity, and “late bloomer” authors, among others. Writers Connect is known for its relaxed atmosphere and emphasis on networking; with an “editor speed date” for lunch and a boxed wine happy hour, you’ll be hard-pressed to leave without a few new friends and contacts in the D.C. literary world.  Your registration fee also nets you a free book by by one of the authors speaking at the conference and a year’s subscription to a participating literary magazine. All proceeds from the conference go toward supporting participating small presses and literary journals.


BOOKS ALIVE! WASHINGTON WRITERS CONFERENCE

Hosted by: The Washington Independent Review of Books
Where: Bethesda Marriott at Pook’s Hill Road
Fri. April 29th- Sat. April 30th
Registration: $240 until April 1; $130 for full-time students

 

Whether you’re a new writer or a seasoned veteran, Books Alive! is a great way to learn more about the publishing industry and what’s going on in writing right now. 

The conference begins Friday evening with a relaxed social, followed by a panel on how to pitch an agent. Writers can then use the suggestions from the panel in the Agent Pitch sessions, which will take place throughout the day Saturday. This year’s keynote speaker is Bob Woodward, award-winning investigative journalist for The Washington Post and best-selling nonfiction author, followed by panels on everything from voice in memoir to adapting books to film.

Be sure to catch the Small Press Panel at the end of the day, which will feature Director of the Santa Fe Writers Project and Friend of Stillhouse, Andrew Gifford and our very own Editor-in-Chief Marcos L. Martínez!


Michelle Webber is the Social Media Editor for Stillhouse Press.  She is currently working on a science fiction novel and is a fiction candidate in George Mason University's BFA Program.