She Knows Chooses HIBERNATE for its March Book List

Uncategorized, March 14th, 2014

She Knows has chosen Hibernate for its March book list, along with titles by Grant Jarrett, Steena Holmes, and the always wonderful Beth Hoffman.

Book Launch!

Uncategorized, March 2nd, 2014

Come celebrate with us!  There will be new words, old friends, and plenty of cupcakes.

The official launch party for Hibernate will be on April 5th at Cuppa Pulp Booksellers, with a reception at 6pm (cupcakes, I tell you!) and a signing at 7pm.

It means the world to me to have my former student and Manhattanville MFA candidate Donna Miele hosting the launch. Donna is a wonderful writer, and it was a pleasure to read the early stages of her novel-in-progress.

Trust me, if you don’t already know Donna’s name and her work, you will in the very near future.

Here we are talking about stories, frogs, cadavers, and pointy-headed dogs.

Letter to a High School Guidance Counselor, Upon Her Retirement

Uncategorized, February 14th, 2014

Dear Ms. Woodyard,

Hearing your name makes me fifteen years old again, at the very best moment of fifteen. Not the fifteen when one is lost – which is so much of life at fourteen and fifteen and eighteen and twenty-one and twenty-five, longer than any of us would like to admit – but the fifteen of SDS, the fifteen when one is called into the office of Jo Woodyard.

So you’re in there and the winter light is coming through the windows and you’re a little scared because you know she’s going to talk to you about the future, which feels ungraspable, which likely will entail college in some strange place, a school occupied by those older SDS alums who come back to give talks about where they are now, leaning on desks or sitting on desks and seeming cocky and wise with the secrets of academia. They have girlfriends and boyfriends and they drink and do internships and they no longer live with their parents, which frankly blows your mind.  But anyway, forget that. Focus.

Jo Woodyard is standing across from you, ready to talk about The Future. What schools? What plans? Do you want to be a big fish in a little pond, or a little fish in a big pond? She asks you this, and you realize you have never really thought of yourself as a fish before, but now that you think of it, there are a lot of options. Probably you wouldn’t want to be a goldfish in one of those koi ponds, all burnished in glittery scales with no place to go. Maybe you’re one of those bottom dwellers, those nurse sharks with the crazy, wiry mustaches, cruising the sea floor, or a rare pink dolphin in the Amazon, making do in cloudy waters with very little, only showing your beauty to discerning eyes. Come on, cut it out. Focus. Jo Woodyard has advice.

Jo Woodyard seems serious and grave and invested in you when, truth is, you’re not really invested in you. Your whole life only seems to consist of now, with your friends, when you laugh so hard it really does feel like you’ve ruptured something deep inside, one of those superfluous organs like the spleen or a spare kidney. Your whole life is listening to Enya and crying under your bedspread. Sneaking out of Mike Johnson’s philosophy class to watch movies at Converse Cinemas. Pretending you know what’s what because you’ve had your first coffee, your first cigarette, because you’ve read poetry in a room with people who didn’t laugh you out of the joint. If there is a future out there, it’s too far away for you to see, and probably, you have always thought, you just have to age yourself into it, like how wisdom teeth grow without any of your own doing, because of some wide-mouthed, prognathous cave man ancestor – no offense to him. The future, you have always thought, happens by accident.

And anyway, Flip and Heather and Meagan are waiting for you in the art room where you, de facto members of the Loser Arty Group, go to eat lunch. If you do imagine a future, you pray it’s one in which you are Cool Arty Types living together in a ramshackle house writing poetry, all of you with Winona Ryder’s hairdo, all of you dating Ethan Hawke. After this is over with Jo Woodyard, after you figure out whether you’re a nurse shark or a pink dolphin, you’ll go back in that room and sit on the plastic milk crates that make a bingo game of your ass cheeks, and Meagan will ask, how did it go? “Did she suggest that you have a future in the custodial arts?” Flip, who has memorized the entire class’s GPA from a list he clandestinely read upside down on Jo Woodyard’s desk, wonders if you want to know your rank. He is eating a chili dog. You have Lunchables, which you’ll read about in ten years as being only slightly above pork rinds as the worst possible thing for human consumption.

How did it go? You say it was fine. It went fine. You don’t tell them about the light in the windows or how you scanned Jo Woodyard’s bookshelf and her photographs because all adults, especially teachers, are Fascinating Mysterious Unicorn Creatures. How weird is it when you run into them outside class at Belk or Hardees and they’re masquerading as Regular People, people who get oil changes and file taxes and trim their toenails? It’s all too much. You don’t tell them that Jo Woodyard was serious about your future, which kind of made you serious about your future, like maybe it didn’t have to be an accident after all. Maybe writing was something that, you know, maybe, possibly, could be done. By, like, you. She didn’t even seem to be kidding. You thought maybe she’d hold the door to her office as you were leaving and say, psych. Good luck, kid. You’re gonna need it. But Jo Woodyard didn’t.

And so you leave, your head doing that thing where someone praises you, someone believes in you, and now the whole head is beating like a heart or a fingertip, that rush of blood, and you want to tell everyone and no one, keep it a secret, because when you tell too much, when you share too much, or with the wrong people, it’s like being robbed over the course of one whole day, a little bit missing every time. And now, see, there is this thing called The Future, and even if you never figure out whether you’re a nurse shark or a goldfish or a pink Amazonian dolphin, you know you can be smart about it. Be brave or fake bravery, at the very least.

Take a bite of that PB&J and look around the SDS art room one last time. You can’t know this, but about fourteen years after you graduate – my god, you’ll be ancient!– you’ll come do a reading, stand up there in a bookstore near that place where you had your first coffee and read putrid poetry that no one laughed at, that place that is now a noodle shop, and you’ll be reading from your novel, and right there in the audience?  Jo Woodyard. The Future is now. Jo Woodyard is sitting there while you answer questions, most of which are posed by your mother in the front row who doesn’t realize she is embarrassing you by publicly vocalizing her abiding desire that they Make Your Book Into A Movie. Still, all you can think is, Jo Woodyard.

What is shethinking? You can’t tell now, any better than you could then. You’re not fifteen. You are thirty-two. Even Flip probably no longer remembers his class rank. It’s winter-dark, save for the Christmas lights on Morgan Square. Someone is asking you your best advice to writers, something you’ve answered a dozen times in the last six months. And so you say, leaning on that lectern, “be stubborn.” That’s the truth. You were just stubborn about it. You decided the future wasn’t an accident, or at least, it didn’t have to be, sometimes. And when she leaves – when you leave, Jo Woodyard – you are walking out that door when you say the very best thing possible. “I’m glad you were stubborn.”

I’m glad you were stubborn about the future, Ms. Woodyard. We all are. And thanks for letting us swim in your pond, big fish.  


Liz Eslami

SDS, Class of 1996


Uncategorized, January 9th, 2014

What she says, instead of the name, is “over there.”  The name of the place she won’t say is Afghanistan, and the soldier serving is her cousin.

“Hope you get some turkey over there,” she told him at Thanksgiving via Facebook. Once she called it “far away,” but usually it’s “over there,” George Cohan’s WWI anthem, with Johnny and his gun, the indomitable Yanks, a cheerful bleating that sounds less like a war score than kicking music for the Rockettes. If you need proof of how far we’ve moved psychologically, listen to the scores of war movies. The sugar-toothed patriotism of “Over There” becomes the slo-mo sturm und drang of Barber’s Adagio for Strings in Platoon, becomes Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke quipping Wu-Tang Clan between waterboarding. We’re a country of ad men because we know when to nudge the dial.

But she knows the name, just as she knows what she wants. For her cousin to come home safe, for the photo of an explosion on his Facebook page to be a movie still, for his leave to roll around so he can spend time with the family. Instead of his fire cloud, his Christmas tree garlanded with ammo rounds, her page displays her little girl garlanded with a pink beaded necklace over her bare chest, a princess tiara sliding from her scalp.

“Over there” feels like something a child would say. Like “down there,” hands cupped over her privates when she has to pee. The shame of what is happening in places you’ve never seen. George Cohan of course would disagree. FDR awarded Cohan the Congressional Gold Medal for “Over There.” Being vague is the point. Wikipedia: “As the specific country ‘over there’ is not named, the words can serve as an exhortation for sending troops to any foreign military intervention.” We’re a country of ad men because we understand one size fits all. “Over There” was also used as an advertising jingle. “Pack your little kit, show your grit, do your bit.” WWI becomes a commercial for a Gillette Pro-Glide Razor: Johnny in the shower, running a blade over his jaw.

But here is the best part. She says, “Hope you get some turkey over there,” and he says, “I blew something up, does that count?”  A day ticks by before she responds: “If it made someone safer, yes, it counts. Now go eat turkey.”

The specificity of the turkey is what kills me. So many unknowns in this “over there” – where war is happening, who “someone” is, how to score the war that never ends.  But let’s give thanks for that big uncomplicated bird.

Life exposes the fallacy of “over there.” Boston marathon bombs in pressure cookers. American kids in mansions stock-piled with ammo. An Afghanistan or a US in which two things can exist side by side: a girl in a princess tiara and a soldier’s severed leg.

If life exposes the fallacy, so too must literature. Often war writers use second person or first person plural, injecting us into what is foreign, the battlefield – Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried – or home ground, alien ground for those left behind. “Our fathers, so many of them, climbed onto the olive green school buses and pressed their palms to the windows and gave us the bravest, most hopeful smiles you can imagine, and vanished. Just like that.” Ben Percy’s “Refresh, Refresh.” Siobhan Fallon: “You also know when the men are gone. No more boots stomping above, no more football games turned up too high…no more sneakers on metal stairs, cars starting, shouts to the windows above to throw down their gloves on cold desert mornings.” These writers don’t leave blanks.

Maybe it’s the writer’s job to complicate what’s “over there.” Maybe the job is to simplify. A soldier’s brain, plain gone. Legs gone.  A brand new face.

Now that you’re looking at them, are these the least or most complicated of images?

The best writers let us decide for ourselves. Put us inside it. Make it here, where it counts.

Hibernate has a cover!

Uncategorized, December 22nd, 2013

And here it is, this strange and wondrous thing of beauty!
Courtesy of the talented Monique Goossens.  Check out more of her work here.  

Tupelo Quarterly is Live!

Uncategorized, October 15th, 2013

I just accidentally typed, “Tupelo Quarterly is Love!” which isn’t far off the mark. Come look at this beautiful thing we created.

Jessamyn Smyth is a magician.

New Iranian American Writing at AAWW’s Page Turner Festival!

Uncategorized, September 28th, 2013

Come join us at the Asian American Writers Workshop’s Page Turner Festival in Brooklyn!

On Saturday, October 5th, I’ll be reading with fellow Iranian American writers Nahid Rachlin, Mehdi Okasi, and Maryam Mortaz on a panel celebrating New Iranian American Writing.

And be sure to stop by the Make-A-Poem booth to say hi to Manhattanville MFA’s fabulous Mark Nowak and Camille Rankine, along with our Mville students!

New Iranian American Writing Panel 1-2pm
Roulette Gallery
Roulette & YWCA, Atlantic Ave & 3rd Ave, Downtown Brooklyn

Victory Forge in The Sun

Uncategorized, August 3rd, 2013

I’ve read and loved The Sun forever — it’s a beautiful magazine full of great writing. What an honor to have my story, “Victory Forge,” in the August issue.

Here’s an excerpt.

The Story and The Question

Uncategorized, July 11th, 2013

Excerpted from a talk I gave at Writers on the River in Corvallis, OR, May, 2013:

The Story and The Question

Say you want to write a story, or if you’re truly dedicated – and maybe even a little masochistic – say you want to write a novel.  Where do you begin?

“I’ve got an idea for a novel.” – said every person you’ve ever met.

What could possibly be the problem with that? Isn’t it wonderful, all these people walking around, brimming with ideas for novels?  The problem is that, “Idea for a novel,” for most people, is shorthand for a condensed version of plot. What people in the publishing world call a pitch. Eat, Pray, Love: A woman finds herself divorced and travels the world, healing and finding love again. That’s an example of a pitch.  A pitch is fine and dandy, but here’s the trick of having an IDEA for a novel:

You actually have to write the novel.

You have to pile up three hundred pages of words, the right words, in the right order, every day for two years, or three or four, and make something vaguely bookshaped, something that kinda sorta looks like your idea… from four years ago, which, turns out, wasn’t enough to hang your hat on, much less three hundred pages on.

So… scratch that. Let’s begin with CHARACTER.  Pretty good plan, and something you hear a lot about in writing workshops. Worry about plot later, begin with character. Someone fully imagined, someone you know down to his flat but oddly striated toenails. You’ve imagined his quirks, you’ve performed mock interviews with your character, who is a scuba diver named Barney Peltz from Jones Beach who smells of stress sweat and mildewed shower grout, whose trailer is full of wood paneling and cockatiels all named Bernice, and then… and then… What?

You realize you have a character, complete with a history and an encyclopedia of more quirks than you could possibly use, but you have no story.  Plus, that thing about the cockatiels no longer works so well in chapter 6, when Barney begins rehabilitating bobcats.

Nearly every technique we know for beginning a novel is fraught with risk. Risk that we’ll run out of steam, that we’ll begin with something, but it won’t be enough to keep us going till the last page.
Start with THEME? Help us out, John Gardner.

“By theme we mean not a message — a word no good writer likes applied to his work — but the general subject, as the theme of an evening of debates may be World Wide Inflation.”  – John Gardner.

Now there’s a sexy theme! There are a lot of novels about race, about class, about mortality. How then can theme be enough?

How about if you begin with VOICE. But whose voice? Character’s voice? Narrator’s voice? A husky voice, a quavering voice, a saw through your bones voice, a Southern “I’m fixing to get Brittany from Super WalMart” voice. Can you write a novel with only voice? A tall order.

Begin with SETTING, but know before the last cab tears across the Brooklyn Bridge which of those 8 million people you’re populating your novel with, and why their story must be told here and now and nowhere else in this wide world.

No matter where you begin, there are still so many variables. Character, plot, voice – these are all essentials for constructing a novel, much as the tire, the steering wheel, the gas pedal are key components of a working automobile. But the engine – that’s what we’re really looking for.

What if we started somewhere else? From a place of curiosity and heartbreak and mind-rattling frustration.

“All we can do in the face of that ineluctable defeat called life is to try to understand it. That – that is the raison d’etre of the art of the novel.” – Milan Kundera

“To try to understand it,” says Mr. Kundera. Writing is just that. To try to understand something, and not necessarily to succeed. It’s a messy business. We’re talking about an unanswerable question, the kind of question that sits at the core of you and only you, the kind that you’re willing to spend a lifetime worrying at, like a permanent splinter that keeps working its way down deeper into your heart.

When you write a novel, you’ll make certain decisions, and they will inevitably be the wrong decisions. You’ll have to change strategies, change characters, themes, ideas. So, if you’ve got that one thing, if you’re pinning it all on a single idea – the Uncle who fought in Vietnam, who had some interesting stories to tell – if that’s all you’ve got, believe me when I tell you it just ain’t enough.

Here’s where the sermon comes in. You must have something deeper and richer than a single character or a clever idea. You must have something inexhaustible, a fire that will burn even if you tear away all the kindling, a fire that will keep you warm for the years you will spend stacking these words.
That thing is your question, and only you know what it is.

The Question. Nabokov called it the “nerves of the novel… the subliminal coordinates with which to focus the plot.”

I like that he called it the “nerves” of the novel, don’t you? Because The Question is not the heart that fails, or the eyes that fade, or the tongue, dulled. The question is a live wire, connected to everything, providing juice for the whole body of the novel.

“Coordinates” works beautifully too because you can’t get lost. Change character, change setting, but let the question bring you back to the center, every chapter, again and again.

You see, too, that it’s connected to plot. Which means, by the way, that we’re not arguing that you dispense with the building blocks of a novel; rather, that you let them grow out of the question. The question helps you see character, setting, plot, theme, voice, POV. It’s the novel as kaleidoscope. Or better: the question as binoculars through which you see the novel. The question is that knob that allows you to focus the plot.

Jim Shepard: “It is… the question to which the novel keeps obsessively returning.”

And here is my own notion of the question as a self-sustaining fire. The Question doesn’t burn out. You will return to it during those dark days when you’ll lose the novel – no one talks about that time, do they? – when you’re no longer sure where the book is headed, never mind if it’ll get there. That will happen when you write a novel or a memoir or a story collection. That’s when you need the question to sustain you. The Question is the engine. The Question is the beacon.

The Question must be…
1) general and grand.
General because it can’t be, “Will Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky knock boots?” You’re not asking about your specific characters or your particular plot. You’re not asking what happens next. Remember: character and plot, that stuff is preceded by The Question.

But, it must be grand, because it has to matter. Especially to you.

The Question…
2) cannot be answered.
By you. Not now, not in four years, probably not ever.  Kurt Vonnegut, when asked why he wrote, said, “I write again and again about my family.” That all his work, no matter what the apparent subject matter, was really about trying to understand his family. The Question is what eats at you, the thing you’re willing to spend your career trying to answer.

The Question…
3) has to be something you feel in your gut.
Something that is endlessly interesting to you intellectually, but more importantly, something that is an emotional landmine. Because the emotional part has to come through in your writing. This is why when you begin a novel with only character or theme or setting, without The Question, it often feels lifeless.  It’s a motley collection of organs without the nerves.

“Authors don’t create anything out of whole cloth. Like the patient on the analytic sofa, we fixate on particular stories and characters and themes because they speak to the fears and desires hidden within us. Our inventions inevitably take the form of veiled confessions.” – Steve Almond.

“Veiled confessions.” Well, if that’s not enough to scare the bejeesus out of any writer, I don’t know what is.  He goes on to say, “The beauty of the artistic unconscious is that it allows us to sneak up on our own intentions or to disguise them altogether.”

But what if… we tried to be more aware of our confessions, our intentions? What if it’s simply a matter of reading more, and writing more, and paying close enough attention that we can find our subliminal coordinates? I’m not keen on the idea that we’re always mindlessly spitting out confessions on the page. And why the shame? Why not know exactly what consumes us, and put it out into the damn world anyway?

“Write what you can learn about. Alternately: Write what interests you. Because it interests you for a reason, and that reason probably has to do with the rough stuff of your inner life.” – Fiona Maazel

Can you ever truly forgive?  Does a scar mean you’re weaker or stronger?  When we start to see someone for who they are, do we love them more or less?

These are all variations of The Question. Note that there’s something general about them, something inclusive. Recognize them for their grandness, too. To speak of love or mercy is to be both general and grand. It is to attempt to throw a lasso around the world, to luxuriate in the impossibility of such a feat.  For you, as writers, all that matters is that the question is already there, within you. You don’t have to go out to look for it.

“Does a human life, a “personality,” exist as a single thread that can be followed through time? Is the “me” of twenty years ago the same “me” that exists now? Will I still be “me” in twenty years?  I find myself drawn to these questions, and the more I think about them, the more they feel uncomfortable and difficult to answer…” – Dan Chaon

Uncomfortable and difficult to answer. But it doesn’t mean you stop trying.  Hemingway said, “For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment.”

So, lest we venture too far afield into the abstract, let’s come back to earth.  What if you’re sitting there, right now, worrying over the fact that you don’t yet know your question? What then?  Write more. Read more.  It is only by doing this that you can know what you care about.

Be attuned to the work you write and read. Your taste in literature is a barometer for where you are in life, for what you need. Sometimes we read aspirationally, we’re drawn to works that portray what we want to be in that moment in our lives, works that speak to questions we’re wrestling with consciously or subconsciously. Even our tendency to read escapist works tells us something about ourselves, that we’re looking for something that can take us away from our own thoughts and biases.

When you read the work of another author and feel gut punched by it, guess what… you’ve got a lead.  Follow your queasy stomach. Ask yourself, what is the question this author keeps returning to obsessively? And why does it speak to me?  What took this particular book beyond the realm of pleasure-reading to true nourishment? The best work, the work constructed around The Question, that is the work that feeds you.
Once you find it, keep it close to you. Lean into it. Use it in the beginning just to get yourself in that chair, when you’d rather do anything else. Cling to it when you don’t have a clue what you’re doing.

Jim Shepard again: “We don’t know, exactly, what we’re doing when we’re starting something. We have a vague and skeletal and oafish idea that we articulate to ourselves as a justification for beginning, but that’s about it. It turns out, thank God, that what we end up with is more intricate and subtle than that. Mostly because it turns out that our intuition is a greater genius than we are.  And mostly, too, because we’re not declaiming when we write fiction; we’re exploring. We’re turning characters that we’re getting to understand with more intimacy and confidence loose in certain situations, and observing their behavior, and what we believe and feel is then being mimed back to us. We’re in the process of teaching ourselves…”

You’re teaching yourself when you write. Loosen your grip. Let the work teach you what it will ultimately be. Surprise yourself. Having a question means you already have a built-in scaffolding, a safety net. Fumble around in the dark all you want, you’re still exploring with a purpose.

Interviewer to Wells Tower: Are you able to find those emotional goals yourself, or do you need other people, between drafts, to help you re-steer the boat?

Tower: “I don’t know if someone else can tell you. When you are revising or looking at that draft, you know where the real wood is behind the fiberboard. You know when you hit something that feels real and true and that needs to be said, and then you go back and try to make everything feel like that, which is hard.

I love that idea that in our own work, we can learn to distinguish between the real wood and the fiberboard. We’ve all had the experience of writing something we feel good about, only to return to it a few weeks or months later and cringe. That’s the blessing of time and fresh eyes. But even when you make massive changes, sweeping changes, don’t you often find yourself leaving one thing unchanged, whether it’s a paragraph or a piece of physical description, even a sentence or word? Something that you have no urge to touch or tamper with. That’s the real wood behind the fiberboard.  And that, more often than not, is where you’ve come closest to bumping up against your Question.

“Then you go back and try to make everything feel like that, which is hard,” says Mr. Tower.  Hard to say the least. But isn’t it a small and beautiful comfort to know that we have a compass point?
Note that he says, “I don’t know if someone else can tell you.” That’s true.  Only you know. Your question is born from your own life, your grief and joy, from the art that makes you gasp and itch to be in the game.

Your question is your own ghost. No one else can help you identify it. Our job, as readers, is to watch you, the author, make a career of dancing with it.

Tupelo Quarterly

Uncategorized, June 12th, 2013

Time to take the leap and submit your poetry and prose. You know you’ve been thinking about it.

Tupelo Press has long published beautiful books of poetry and literary fiction, and now they have launched a stellar literary magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, which aims to be — as poet and Editor in Chief, Jessamyn Smyth, says — “a home for all things beautiful, brilliant, and generous of spirit.”

Amen. I think we could all use a little more of that.

I am delighted to serve Jessamyn as Senior Prose Editor, along with writers E.J. Levy and Eric Darton. Have a look at the ridiculously talented masthead here.

Our first issue launches in October, but in the meantime, submit your best poetry to our contest, judged by Ilya Kaminsky!  The deadline is August 15th.

Come on, poets. Be brave and submit!