Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Lizette Wanzer: Making Every Word Count

“Of prime importance to me is work that discomfits, contemplates, balances scene and summary, and delivers a flavorful punch in the process. My goal is to hobble and stagger the expectations of lenses through which I, as an African American woman writer, am frequently viewed,” writes Lizette Wanzer in her artist’s statement.

Based in San Francisco, Lizette just completed a six-week inaugural residency at VCCA. She is currently working on two projects: Gelatin Prints, a collection of flash fiction, and Jaywalking, a collection of short essays. Lizette moves deftly between fiction and non-fiction, deciding in advance which direction she intends to pursue and then runs with it.

Flash fiction is a style of narrative that is extremely short. There is no set word limit, but it generally hovers around 1,000 words or less. Flash fiction is known by many terms including my favorite: “smoke long” because the story takes as long to read as it does to smoke a cigarette. Though the form goes back to prehistory, one of the earliest uses of the term “Flash Fiction” was the 1992 anthology Flash Fiction: Seventy-Two Very Short Stories edited by Tom Hazuka, Denise Thomas and James Thomas.

Lizette’s particular interest is language. She coaxes as much as she possibly can from every single word. “If you’re writing flash, the words have to carry more weight and each word has to advance the story. You don’t have time for a lot of exposition, or meandering. That’s what makes it a good discipline.”

It’s a similar approach to poetry, and the lines between flash fiction and poetry are somewhat blurred. A good example of this is Carolyn Forché’s stunning The Colonel. Initially published in 1981 as a poem, it has subsequently been included in at least one flash fiction anthology.

More so than poetry, flash fiction requires a narrative of sorts, to draw the reader in. Lizette relishes the challenge of writing flash fiction. Its increasing widespread appeal nowadays is no surprise given how compromised our attention spans have become thanks to the Internet.

Lizette’s essays are autobiographical. “Sometimes people think they’re poetry, sometimes they think they are prose poems. But they’re hybrid, composite and nonlinear essays. Not your typical essays.”
In addition to her short works, Lizette also writes regular fiction and is currently working on one long extended essay. According to Lizette the essay is about “the politics of black natural hairstyles, and is called Twisted. An excerpt appeared in the August 2014 issue of the Guernica literary journal.”

Interestingly, Lizette regards Salvador Dali, Rob Gonsalves, and M.C. Escher—visual artists who played so fast and loose with concepts like space and gravity as mentors, saying: “My stories give substance to space, validating my own attempts to gain triumph over tumult.”

Friday, May 22, 2015

In Residence: Heiner Riepl

Walking into Heiner Riepl’s studio is an instant mood elevator. The walls are covered with, maybe 15, paintings limned in vibrant shades of red, orange and yellow. In his exuberant, sensual paintings, Heiner juxtaposes blocks of color to explore hue, brushstroke and surface texture.

Working initially as a figurative painter, Heiner has distilled his work down to pure formalism. “If I think about landscape, while working in an abstract manner, I lose my train of thought. You, or more precisely, I, cannot do both. It’s a decision you make to work with forms. You bring special things with you; you don’t have a precise idea of what you want to do, but you know how you want to start. I wanted to start with the colors: red, orange, yellow. This was a feeling.”

Heiner works primarily in oil and because of its drying time, he works on several paintings concurrently. Sometimes he uses rollers and palette knives, in addition to brushes, to apply paint in order to achieve different effects.

Heiner is midway through a month-long residency at VCCA and the paintings in VA9 are in various stages of completion. But according to Heiner: “It takes months and sometimes years until a picture is ready.”

Two works look very different from the rest. In these, amidst the impasto slabs of color are passages featuring decorative flourishes that appear to be printed. They’re actually pieces of wallpaper from a wallpaper sample book that Heiner found in the Studio Barn trash.

Though he won’t say that these two paintings are finished, Heiner says they’re “Okay for me…now.” The wallpaper is attached by tape. He can’t affix it until after the canvas is stretched, which will occur on his return to Germany, but taping it also allows him to tinker with the paintings further, perhaps over painting the wallpaper, or jettisoning it altogether. “Sometimes my paintings change totally from beginning to end,” he allows.

Heiner was the director of Oberpfalzer Künstlerhaus in Schwandorf-Fronberg, Germany from its establishment in 1988 until 2013. The Künstlerhaus, a wonderful example of Bavarian Victorian architecture, was built in the 1880s by the owner of a local ironworks and foundry. He died before occupying the villa and it was sold.

Following the Second World War, the structure was operated by the United States government as a cultural center, primarily showing films. When they left in 1950, the property passed into the hands of the town of Schwandorf-Fronberg. Over the years, the beautiful building fell into disrepair, but was eventually turned once again into a cultural center for exhibitions and concerts. Heiner, well-connected in the art world, was hired to lead the newly formed Oberpfalzer Künstlerhaus.

Quite soon after he took over the helm, a museum director from nearby Regensburg brought then VCCA Executive Director Bill Smart by for a visit. The meeting was a serendipitous one; Bill was due to leave the very next day for home having come to Germany scouting for possible partners to forge an exchange program with VCCA.

Over a cup of coffee at the Künstlerhaus, Heiner and Bill hatched what would become an incredibly vibrant, longstanding exchange program between the two organizations, and which would also lead to partnerships with other international residency programs.

Selling the idea to the local authorities and the surrounding community was challenging. According to Heiner, Bill was invaluable in persuading them of its value, attending a crucial meeting to make the case. Heiner also credits the efforts of VCCA Fellow and current Board Member Pinkney Herbert.

Another key to the success was the establishment of a sponsors’ organization the Förderverein Oberpfalzer Künstlerhaus e.v. that was charged with raising funds to expand and grow the organization. (In addition to owning the original building, the town of Schwandorf-Fronberg picks up the tab for the staff.) In this effort, Heiner relied on the help of VCCA Fellow Peter Meyer (whose charming ceramic horse graces the residence living room and also the website) who was from the area and had a wide circle of contacts.

The original program was bare bones. The Künstlerhaus was turned into temporary studio space and visiting artists were housed in a hotel. Now, there are three buildings comprising studio and residential quarters, the final one completed in 2004. Six artists can be accommodated at one time, generally one composer, one writer and three to four visual artists. They are responsible for their own cooking, but are provided with a per diem to cover food. The program runs from February to December. Shorter sessions featuring master classes and concerts by noted experts also occur during the season.

In 2008, on the 20th anniversary of the partnership, exhibitions in Schwandorf-Fronberg, Regensburg and Amherst featuring the work of artists who had participated in the exchange were organized by Heiner and then VCCA Artistic Director Craig Pleasants.

Many hands have worked to make the exchange program a success. Former VCCA Executive Director Suny Monk and Director of Artists’ Services Sheila GulleyPleasants enthusiastically embraced the program, which flourishes today. Current VCCA Executive Director Gregory Allgire Smith joins in their enthusiasm, counting on the continued partnership between VCCA and the Oberpfalzer Künstlerhaus for many years to come.

In addition to leading the Künstlerhaus for 25 years, Heiner has enjoyed a distinguished career as an artist. His work has been widely exhibited in Germany, Austria, Poland and France including the Ancienne Chapelle du Carmel at Musee des Beaux-Arts de Libourne.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Eugene Platt's "Saint Andrew's Parish"

Eugene Platt has recently released a print version of his book Saint Andrew’s Parish (previously only available in electronic form) including a new chapter. 

Set in 1950s West Ashley, SC, Saint Andrew’s Parish is a coming-of-age story that follows the lives of two boys, Bubba and Andy, from their boyhood in this suburb of Charleston to their maturity as they search for their place in the wider world.

“When the folly, sadness, and misfortune of their pasts threaten to derail their futures, Bubba and Andy find themselves in the eye of a hurricane — both literally and symbolically — with life-changing consequences. Inner and outer landscapes clash in the fury of Hurricane Hugo’s rampaging destruction, tossing the friends amid a swirl of fear, hope, despair, and forgiveness. St. Andrew’s Parish is a tale of enduring friendship, of following dreams, and ultimately, of the timeless human search for redemption.”

Eugene worked sporadically on the novel for 24 years and he says about its completion: “It’s more satisfying than I, an alleged wordsmith, can articulate. Among other things, there is a sense of release, simultaneously gratifying, and daunting, to be able now to begin working in earnest on my next collection of poems, Nuda Veritas” which includes new and selected poems, some of which he worked on during a very productive VCCA residency in October 1986.


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Lisa A. Phillips's "Unrequited Love: Women and Romantic Obsession"

Hailed for its candor, intelligence and superb prose, UNREQUITED: Women and Romantic Obsession by Lisa A. Phillips is a highly personal account of how she, a stable, accomplished professional, was transformed by unrequited love into someone ruled by an obsessive fixation.

From her unique perspective, Lisa explores the many dimensions of romantic obsession with in-depth research in science, psychology, cultural history and literature. Lisa examines the perils and power of obsessive love in women’s lives, detailing how romantic obsession takes root and blossoms into something that so controls our thoughts and behaviors.

A professor of journalism at SUNY New Paltz. Lisa is the author of Public Radio: Behind the Voices. Her articles have appeared in such national publications as The New York Times and The Boston Globe. A former radio journalist, Lisa has contributed stories to NPR and other public radio stations. She first addressed the topic in a highly acclaimed New York Times “Modern Love” column.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Valerie Miner on Crafting Her New Novel, "The Roads Between Them"

Valerie Miner’s new novel, The Roads Between Them is a story “about family and what it means to be a woman at different periods in our lives,” according to Valerie. “Things I'm exploring in part are age, family ties and risk taking in various ways,” she says. “I’m also interested in how geography shapes us and the ties in families that both bind us, in a good way, and also constrict us in not such a good way.”

Set in Northern California (where Valerie lives) the novel centers on two sisters, Angie and Marta Fraser and their mother, Gillian Fraser. 

The story moves back and forth physically between cosmopolitan San Francisco, suburban Santa Rosa and rural Madrone Ridge. It also moves back and forth in time with numerous flashbacks to the women’s childhood.

All the women are politically and community engaged and dealing with issues that are both universal and particular to their age groups. In her late 60s, Gillian is finally coming into her own. After a number of tragedies in her life including being widowed early on followed by single motherhood, she has finally finished her college degree. She tutors at the local tutoring center helping people get their GEDs. No spring chicken, she's caught the fancy of a certain Dr. Alvarez and is navigating this unexpected romantic terrain blind having no models on how to behave. “We'll see what happens there,” says Valerie slyly.

The eldest daughter, Angie, lives in San Francisco. She's a professor of art at San Francisco State. She has two kids, Anna and Colin and a husband, Richard, an investigative reporter whom she's not quite sure about.

Marta, two years younger than Angie, is a lawyer living in a small community in the far north of California. She works mostly with migrant laborers, many of them embroiled with immigration issues. Like any country lawyer, she also does more basic legal work: wills, real estate, etc. Marta’s domestic life is “both more complicated, with a modest succession of male and female lovers and less complicated than Angie’s since she has no children.” The two sisters are close, and of course worry about the other’s way of life.

When she originally embarked on the book, Valerie wanted to write it as a series of short stories that would be interconnected to create a segmented, fragmented novel. But, as she was writing during her recent residency at VCCA, she discovered the characters didn’t want to have their own stories. “They weren’t cooperating!” she exclaims. She decided it’s because they're more entwined than she anticipated. In any case, she is following their lead.

While Valerie has certain goals whenever she's writing, a lot of the story unfolds as she's working on it. “I think if the book isn't a discovery for the author, it's not going to be a discovery for the reader and then it's not going to work.” She sees her work as social and political fiction because it raises questions and points out the contradictions that we represent as human beings. “I’m interested in deep questions about our place in the world and about our responsibilities to ourselves and one another.”

Valerie is the award-winning author of 14 books. Her novels include Traveling with Spirits, After Eden, Range of Light, A Walking Fire, Winter's Edge, Blood Sisters, All Good Women, Movement: A Novel in Stories, and Murder in the English Department. Her short fiction books include Abundant Light, The Night Singers and Trespassing. Her collection of essays is Rumors from the Cauldron: Selected Essays, Reviews and Reportage. In 2002, The Low Road: A Scottish Family Memoir was a Finalist for the PEN USA Creative Non-Fiction Award. 

Valerie’s work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Triquarterly, Salmagundi, New Letters, Ploughshares, The Village Voice, Prairie Schooner, The Gettysburg Review, The T.L.S., The Women’s Review of Books, The Nation and other journals. Her stories and essays are published in more than 60 anthologies. A number of her pieces have been dramatized on BBC Radio 4. Her work has been translated into German, Turkish, Danish, Italian, Spanish, French, Swedish and Dutch. In addition to single-authored projects, she has collaborated on books, museum exhibits as well as theatre. 

Valerie has won fellowships and awards from The Rockefeller Foundation, Fondazione Bogliasco, Fundación Valparaiso, The McKnight Foundation, The NEA, The Jerome Foundation, The Heinz Foundation, The Australia Council Literary Arts Board and numerous other sources. She has received Fulbright Fellowships to Tunisia, India and Indonesia.

Winner of a Distinguished Teaching Award, Valerie has taught for over 25 years and is now a professor and artist in residence at Stanford University. She travels internationally giving readings, lectures, and workshops.