School of Arts and Sciences

Robin Troy has always wanted to write a story that shows that age is just a number and the human spirit is ageless. “We live in a society that doesn’t pay attention to the elderly,” she says. In her new novel Liberty Lanes, published just last month by the University of Nevada Press, the associate professor of English and director of the M.F.A. program in creative writing looks at the lives of a group of senior citizens who come together at a bowling alley in Montana and are determined to live life to the fullest.

So far, Troy’s book has garnered some positive reviews. Debra Magpie Earling, author of Perma Red, says, “Liberty Lanes is a transcendent story about the power of love and friendship. You’re never too old to discover the wonders of love.” Deirdre McNamer, author of “Red Rover,” says, “Liberty Lanes is a wonderfully calm and large-hearted examination of the ways that ordinary people meet the demands of age and infirmity with surpassing grace.”

Robin Troy

Troy says she began writing the novel on a CSU grant in 2006, during the summer after she first came to Southern. She was inspired by a group of senior bowlers she had come to know in Missoula, Mont., where she was a graduate student in the University of Montana’s M.F.A. program and a reporter for a local newspaper.

Around the holidays, Troy’s editor at the paper asked her to write a feature story about someone playing Jesus in a pageant. But Troy asked around and couldn’t find anyone playing Jesus; however, she told her editor she could do a story about a 70-year-old man she knew who played Santa. Each year at Christmastime, he would dress up as Santa and board a helicopter with another man dressed as an elf, and they would fly to several Montana towns, delivering chocolate Santas and outdated chapsticks donated by Avon.

“I met him when he was in his 30th year of playing Santa,” Troy says. “We really hit it off.” He invited her to meet him at the local bowling alley to finish her interview for the article.

“I walked into that bowling alley, and whammo!” Troys says. The place was full of people in their 70s, 80s and 90s, “and there was such positive energy and perspective, I just immediately wanted to be a part of it.” She started spending time with the bowlers.

During the three years that she was in Missoula, working on her degree, Troy says, “these people made a real difference” for her. They have parties on the weekends, to which she was invited, and “by the end, I was like a member of the family.”

“This group was a fantastic illustration of what it’s like to be in your 80s and really living with spirit,” Troy says. The characters in the novel are inspired by the people she knew, Troy says, but no one character is any one real person.

In the novel, Liberty Lanes is a bowling alley in a small Montana town where a senior bowling league meets three times a week. Nelson Moore, one of the bowlers, has recently become a local hero by saving a teammate from choking on a happy hour chicken bone. Now he must deal with his newfound fame while coping with the early stages of dementia.

Troy felt she might have some trouble finding a publisher for her book, given what she perceived as low interest regarding the elderly as subjects of a novel. But she met an editor at a book fair and after they talked, Troy says she “knew that this book had found a home.” She revised the manuscript based on extensive feedback from the publisher and got the final word last spring that it would be published.

“The editing was very careful and loving,” Troy says, “but I had to tone down a lot of the language. These are tough, no-nonsense people. Many do manual labor or worked for the state, and they all came to know each other through bowling.”

Troy is traveling to Missoula this month to read from her new book at the Montana Festival of the Book. While in Montana, she will see her bowling friends, do a couple of book signings and give a radio interview. “This is really a celebration of these people for me,” Troy says.

She will give a reading at Southern on Nov. 10 with CSU Professor Vivian Shipley. Troy is also the author of another novel, Floating.

The cover of Jeff Mock’s new book is a stark photograph of barbed wire in extreme closeup, the focus on the sharp point of a rough barb – not exactly an image that makes a reader think of poetry. But writer Allison Joseph says Mock’s new book, “Ruthless,” is “just that—ruthless in its precise and incisive vision of our off-kilter world, cutting through the shams of language and thought to arrive at hard-won humor that makes his readers see his—and their—foibles all the more clearly.” The image of the barbed wire speaks to the collection’s toughness and incisiveness.

English professor Mock’s first published full-length poetry collection, “Ruthless” came out on Jan. 1, and he calls its publication “a relief.” He explains that the way poetry books get published is by winning competitions. His manuscript “bounced around for several years,” he says, as he sent it to different contests and publishers. It came close to being published on several occasions, sometimes a semifinalist and sometimes a finalist. At last, poet Deborah Keenan selected it as the winner of the Three Candles Open Book Competition.

Although “Ruthless” is Mock’s first full-length book, he has numerous other publications. His first book, “Evening Travelers,” a chapbook, was published in 1994 by a very small press, with handset type on handmade paper and a handsewn binding. It is no longer in print.

His second book, “You Can Write Poetry,” was a commission, designed for a specific audience. A poetry writing guidebook for writing groups and individuals, “You Can Write Poetry,” now also out of print, was aimed at beginning writers.

Mock has also published a number of poems in such prominent journals as The Atlantic Monthly, Cincinnati Review, Connecticut Review, Crazyhorse, Denver Quarterly, The Georgia Review, The Indiana Review, The Iowa Review, New England Review, The North American Review, Poetry Northwest, Quarterly West, Shenandoah, The Sewanee Review, The Southern Review and others. He is now working on two other books: one is a book of longer poems of five to 12 pages each, and one is more thematic, a sequence of poems spoken by gods and goddesses that Mock is calling “American Pantheon.”

Although Mock remembers hating to write poems in second grade, he says he’s been a poet for most of his life. He explains, “writers have to write – it’s like an obsession. We don’t have a choice. That need to make something – we all have it, and we each find the outlet that serves us best. I think like a poet more than like a fiction writer.”

Thinking like a poet, Mock says, involves putting into words those images or moments that “strike us and stick around. Writers put words to those things and see what happens.

Seeing where it goes, finding out what happens, writing to find something out. Things can become clearer in the writing.”

He quotes a line from poet Robert Frost’s essay “The Figure A Poem Makes”: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” That little surprise in a poem, Mock says, “is what brings a story alive.”

Mock, who has been at Southern since the fall of 1998, teaches undergraduate and graduate poetry courses. He came to Southern from The Gettysburg Review, where he spent seven years as assistant editor.

A co-director of the Creative Writing Program with English Professor Tim Parrish, Mock worked with Parrish to create the English Department’s new Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program. He credits his colleagues Robin Troy, assistant professor of English, and CSU Professor Vivian Shipley for their help in developing the program as well.

Mock gave a reading from his new book at the university on April 15, along with writer Steve Almond, best-selling author of the books “Candyfreak,” “My Life in Heavy Metal” and The Evil B.B. Chow,” among others.

 

 

Southern Connecticut State University’s writing program is in the spotlight, as several graduate students took first place in the 2010 CSUS writing contests in fiction, nonfiction essay and poetry. The competitions are open to students at the four CSUS universities and are sponsored by the Connecticut Review, a literary and arts journal published semi-annually by the Connecticut State University System. Jim Reese, editor of the journal Paddlefish, judged the contests.

Left to right: Pat Mottola, Jessica Forcier , Matthew Beacom, Benjamin Guerette, Lee Keylock, and Marlene Schade

Vivian Shipley, professor of English, CSU Professor, and a member of the Connecticut Review editorial board, says, “I am particularly proud that SCSU students won first prizes in each of the contest genres: poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction. Their work is an example of the high level of talent that SCSU students have in all types of creative writing.”

Jean Copeland won in the essay category, Benjamin Guerette took first place in fiction, Matthew Beacom won the Leo Connellan Poetry Prize and Marlene Schade won the Leslie Leeds Poetry Prize. In addition, Jessica Forcier received honorable mention for fiction, and Lee Keylock and Pat Mottola obtained honorable mentions in the Leeds contest.

“The diversity of voices and styles that Beacom, Schade, Guerette and Copeland display is also a reflection of the differing teaching styles and creative voices of my three exceptional creative writing colleagues: Jeff Mock, Tim Parrish and Robin Troy,” Shipley says.

Beacom, a student in the Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program, won the Connellan Prize for his poem “The Catfish.” The Connellan Prize is named for the former poet laureate of Connecticut, who was also the CSUS poet-in-residence.

A resident of North Haven and a librarian at Yale University, Beacom is concentrating in poetry. He has been taking workshop and literature classes at Southern since the fall of 2007, even before the M.F.A. program was implemented. He wrote his winning poem in the fall of 2009 as part of his work in Shipley’s poetry workshop.

Beacom credits the creative writing program with giving him “the sustained challenges and opportunities I need to develop as a poet.” Without his professors and peers in the program, he says, “I wouldn’t have a chance.”

Schade won the Leeds Poetry Prize for her poem “Herfara Zecho.” A resident of Washington Depot, Schade is concentrating in fiction as a student in the M.F.A. program and has been taking classes at Southern since 2007. Like Beacom, she wrote her winning poem in a poetry workshop with Shipley, who encouraged Schade to enter this particular poem in the contest.

A high school English teacher in Waterbury, Schade says she loves writing poetry but gravitates toward fiction because she enjoys inventing characters, landscapes and scenes. “I was a terrible liar as a kid,” she says, “and fiction always seemed like a way to lie and get praised rather than punished.”

She appreciates the creative writing faculty, whom she calls “nurturing yet ruthless critics of my work.  Ruthless in a good way… like surgeons or exterminators.”

A resident of East Haven, Copeland describes her winning essay, “Learning Curves,” as “a humorous look at my struggle with my own gender identity as a young child, before I knew what it meant to be a lesbian.” One of the last M.S. candidates to go through the creative writing program, Copeland has been at Southern since 2003, when she transferred into the undergraduate English/education program.

She originally wrote the essay for a call for submissions for an anthology on gender identity. It was rejected, but Copeland gave it another try with the CSU contest. “There’s definitely a lesson in here about persistence!” she says.

She credits the creative writing program with helping her improve as a writer of fiction, her favorite genre, and poetry.

Guerette, winner of the prize in fiction, is a resident of Ansonia, and a full-time student in the M.A. in English program. He works as a part-time composition instructor in the English Department.

He wrote his winning story, “The Hammock,” in Parrish’s fiction writing class. Guerette says he writes fiction because that’s what he likes to read. As a writer, he says, he thinks “I’ve improved more in the six months I’ve been at Southern than in the four years of my undergrad program.”

Forcier was recognized for her story, “Enough.” She is in the M.F.A. program, studying fiction. Keylock and Mottola, both M.F.A. students and past winners of the Connellan Prize, each received an honorable mention in the Leeds competition, Keylock for his poem “The Didicoys” and Mottola for her poem “Men in Bars.”

The members of the creative writing faculty see the laurels garnered by their students as testament to the students’ talent and to the strength of the writing program. Troy, administrator of the M.F.A. program, says, “Our writers are the heart of our program, and both in the classroom and with awards like these, they are proving themselves to be a remarkable, diverse and publishable group.”

Parrish, a co-director of the M.F.A. program with Mock, concurs, pointing to “the hard work, determination and love for writing that are the hallmarks of our students.”

This spring, the winners will read at major literary events at the Mark Twain House, the Wallace Stevens Theater at The Hartford and the Hill-Stead Museum. The winners will also have their work published in the spring 2010 issue of Connecticut Review. The honorable mentions will be included on the Connecticut Review Web site: www.connecticutreview.com.

 

Lee Keylock was “bombarded with poetry” when he was growing up in England. “Whether or not I liked it as a kid, I was exposed to it,” he says. It seems that all that exposure is paying off for Keylock, a graduate student in creative writing at Southern: he recently won both the 2009 Leo Connellan Prize for his poem “The Tattie Hawker” and the 2009 John Holmes Poetry Award for his poem “Font.”

The Connellan Prize, open to students at the four CSUS universities, is named for the former poet laureate of Connecticut, who was also CSUS poet-in-residence. The John Holmes Award, given by the New England Poetry Club, the oldest poetry club in the country, is presented for a single outstanding poem by an undergraduate or graduate student enrolled in a New England college. Vivian Shipley, professor of English and a prize-winning poet herself, calls the prize “significant.”

Keylock has been working towards an M.A. in creative writing at Southern but was accepted to the university’s new M.F.A. program in creative writing, which starts in the fall, so he will continue his work in that program. He earned his undergraduate degree at Southern, as well as an M.S. in English with teacher certification.

An English teacher at Newtown High School, where he teaches juniors and seniors, Keylock also co-coaches, with poetry slam champion Elizabeth Thomas, Connecticut’s youth poetry slam team. Keylock explains that slam poetry is “more urban and hip hop” than what he teaches or writes himself but that “the kids love it.”

Slam poetry, performed for an audience and judges, “can be very contemporary,” Keylock says. “It can be a response to war, or to something else in the news, and it can be highly personal.” The best slam poets, he says, are the ones that work “both on the page and on the stage.” The youth slam team Keylock co-coaches is now headed to represent Connecticut at Brave New Voices / International Youth Poetry Slam and Festival in Chicago in July.

Keylock’s own poetry is largely inspired by his experiences within the volatile atmosphere engendered by the Irish/English conflict in England during the 1980s, when he was growing up there.

“As a kid in England,” he says, “I had jobs picking potatoes and baling hay, and these were the only times in my experience when English and Irish would mix. There were a lot of Irish in my town, and in the ‘80s, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was pretty big. There was tension between the Irish and the English. Bombs were going off every week in England. Leaving England and being away from it for so long, I write a lot about that topic now because I have some distance from it.”

Keylock left England when he was almost 17, backpacked around Europe and came to New York City by himself when he was 18. Always a reader, he found books to be great traveling companions. He only began writing poetry in earnest about four years ago, once he had finished his teacher certification. “I started writing and just got into it,” he says. “I started reading more about poetic structure and form and learning more about the genre. I became more willful in my choices as I wrote.”

He started writing “The Tattie Hawker” on his own and finished it in a workshop. The poem draws on the tensions Keylock recalls between the Irish and English in his hometown and portrays an English boy’s futile crush on an Irish girl. Having taken poetry writing workshops with both Shipley and English professor Jeff Mock, Keylock gives credit to both for having helped him shape this poem.

Mock describes Keylock’s poems as “tough-minded, gritty, muscular and still elegant.” Shipley says Keylock’s poems “offer the consolation of an intelligent human spirit who speaks of what flails at his heart. He struggles with the blackness and is not broken, showing us that we must not refuse to look away from the world, from its terror, but that we also must not ignore its ravishing beauty.”

Keylock received the Connellan Prize at a writers’ conference at Central Connecticut State University in April.

Southern’s second terminal degree program is the first of its kind in the state

Writers and poets with a drive to learn more about their craft, and to do it within a community of other writers, now have a home at Southern. On Sept. 17, the state Board of Governors for Higher Education approved a new degree program at the university: a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, only the second terminal degree to be offered by the university and the first full-residency M.F.A. program in the state.

The English Department has long offered the M.A. and M.S. with creative writing option; the M.F.A. will replace these degree options. The primary difference between these degrees and the M.F.A. is that the latter is the terminal degree in the field of creative writing. A more rigorous program than that leading to the M.A. or M.S., the M.F.A. is essentially the equivalent of the Ph.D. in its field, preparing students to become published writers and to seek jobs as university-level writing instructors. Southern’s M.F.A. joins the Ed.D. program as one of the university’s two terminal degree programs.

Left to right: Vivian Shipley, Tim Parrish, Robin Troy, Jeff Mock

“The M.F.A. offers a different level of professionalism, with different expectations,” says English Professor Tim Parrish, one of the architects of the new program. “In the abstract, M.F.A.s prepare people to be flexible thinkers, great written communicators and facilitators in groups,” he says, “but personal enrichment is really the draw. Students get to be part of a serious community of writers.”

English Professor Jeff Mock, who worked with Parrish on developing the proposal for the M.F.A., agrees. “We’ve had a wonderful writing community here,” he says, “but it’ll be a major difference to have these students here for this specific purpose.”

The creative writing faculty, which includes CSU Professor Vivian Shipley and Assistant Professor of English Robin Troy, along with Parrish and Mock, say that there has long been a need in Connecticut for a full-time M.F.A. program in creative writing. Western Connecticut State University offers a low-residency M.F.A. in professional writing, and Fairfield University recently added a low-residency M.F.A. program in creative writing. Low-residency programs allow students to do most of their coursework online, with only occasional visits to campus.

“With an online degree program, one misses the presence of a human community and the opportunities for personal interaction,” Shipley says. Southern’s is an on-site program, which, the faculty say, will give students a sense of common purpose and enable them to develop close friendships and working partnerships. And, as Troy points out, “People from Connecticut will have the opportunity to complete this degree without leaving the state.”

The new program is an exciting development within an already vibrant department. With flourishing undergraduate and graduate literary publications, award-winning faculty members and a visiting writers series, the department is well prepared to offer the high level of literary activity expected in an M.F.A. program. Michael Shea, English department chairman, says, “The creative writing program has a long history of great teachers and courses, and the M.F.A. program is a culmination of this tradition of excellence.” Shipley, who has been a member of the faculty since 1969, says the M.F.A.’s approval “is the most exciting thing to happen in this department since I got here.” She calls her colleagues — Parrish, Mock and Troy – “miracle workers” for what she sees as their success in bringing their collective vision for the M.F.A. program to fruition.

Parrish says that the creative writing program has been steadily evolving and that the M.F.A. is the natural next step. He points to the accomplishments of Southern’s creative writing students — publications, prizes, fellowships and acceptances to demanding M.F.A. programs around the country – as evidence that the university attracts serious writing students and supports them in their craft.

The curriculum for the 48-credit program will be based in literary studies, consisting in fiction and poetry workshops, literature and theory courses and the thesis. Currently, the M.A. and M.S. curricula allow up to 18 credits of fiction or poetry workshops and six credits of creative-thesis work. The M.F.A. will retain these opportunities while increasing course requirements in literature studies, the study of rhetoric and theory and the teaching of high school and college writing. The core of the program will be the workshop, a class in which students submit their original manuscripts-in-progress for critical examination by their classmates and the instructor.

Admission to the M.F.A. program is competitive, with roughly six poets and six fiction writers admitted each year. The deadline for applications is March 1. The creative writing faculty expect that the M.F.A. will attract prospective students from out-of-state as well as from within Connecticut, due to the increasing national competition to gain admission to residential programs.

Parrish expresses his appreciation for the support of President Cheryl Norton; Selase Williams, provost and vice president for academic affairs; DonnaJean Fredeen, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences; Sandra Holley, dean of the School of Graduate Studies; Kenneth Florey, professor of English and the English Department’s graduate coordinator; Robert McEachern, professor of English; Marianne Kennedy, associate vice president for assessment, planning and academic programs, Scott Ellis, associate professor of English, and the English Department.

 

Tony Fusco

SCSU Graduate Student, A West Haven Resident, Wins Prestigious Poetry Prize

Overnight success isn’t usually what it appears to be—it’s often preceded by years of patient, persistent work. Such is the case of West Haven resident Tony Fusco, a graduate student in creative writing at Southern Connecticut State University, who recently won first place in the prestigious 2003 Sunken Garden Poetry Festival Competition, which is co-sponsored by Farmington’s Hill-Stead Museum and The Hartford Courant’s “Northeast” magazine. As first-place winner, Fusco will read two of his winning poems in the poetry festival on Aug. 20, and the CSU literary journal Connecticut Review will publish the poems—“The Guest Upstairs” and “The Litany of Streets”—in its fall 2003 issue.

Fusco has been writing poetry for years, and he has worked hard for this recognition. The Sunken Garden festival takes place during the summer months on the Hill-Stead grounds, and it is, says Fusco, “the biggest and best venue for poetry in Connecticut. I’ll get to read two poems there, and two or three thousand people listen to you read, plus it’s on public radio. That many people coming out to hear poetry is wonderful.”

This year, Sunken Garden is linked for the first time with Connecticut Review, which is edited by SCSU English Professor and poet Vivian Shipley. Shipley and Sunken Garden Director Alison Meyers have joined forces so that winners of this year’s Sunken Garden competition will be published in the fall issue of Connecticut Review, after reading their winning poems at the festival.

Shipley, a widely recognized poet and editor, says she is “really thrilled” that Fusco won the competition, saying, “This is a major thing he’s won.” Shipley adds, “It’s prestigious to get to read there. They have national figures come to read.” She describes Fusco as being very active in the graduate writing program and in the Connecticut poetry world. “Poetry shapes so much of what Tony does.” He is, she says, “an example of an older student who returns to school and can achieve. He’s a mature writer who’s been working at this for years.” Fusco is 52.

As an undergraduate at SCSU—he graduated in 1973—Fusco was the editor of the undergraduate newspaper and majored in social work. He started writing poetry in high school. Before entering SCSU’s graduate English program, Fusco participated in a number of workshops and writers’ groups and won some awards for his writing. He came to SCSU “to take it to the next level. The reason I came here is to take a workshop with Vivian Shipley.”

In addition to working with students, Shipley regularly brings poets and editors to SCSU to meet with students and discuss their work with them. Fusco says, “That kind of stuff is invaluable—you get to network, and the editors workshop your work and give you constructive criticism. Everyone is encouraged. Everyone gets positive criticism.”

Fusco describes his poems as narratives about his family and his memories of growing up in West Haven. “I used to write about mythology and more esoteric subjects. Vivian told me to concentrate on my family and my background as subjects because I do them well.” Shipley says that she has worked with Fusco on writing about what he knows best, and now in his writing he is “detailing and preserving his heritage. I’m really proud of the work that he’s done.”

Fusco is also a freelance photographer and writer for local newspapers, a cartoonist and a pen and ink and multimedia artist. He works at the Yale Medical Group in New Haven and created the Yale Physicians Building Art Place Web site and the documentary “Art Place: The Quilters @ Yale,” which was broadcast by Citizen’s Television. Fusco does videography and has a public access television show, “West Shore Poets.”

Fusco has been working on his M.A. degree for about three years, taking one class a semester. He will graduate in January. His thesis, a book of poems, has been recommended for distinction, and he plans to publish it. Shipley says that he is already actively pursuing leads as to where to get the book published.

“He’s worked hard and persevered, and he’s talented, says Shipley. “Sometimes the development of talent takes some time.”

Tim Parrish recalls being in a Baton Rouge, La., department store with his mother one day during the racially tense ‘60s. A young child at the time, Parrish innocently used a racial epithet to describe an African American fellow shopper.

“I heard my parents use this word all the time at home and didn’t know there was anything wrong about it,” Parrish says, but his mother reacted with horror to his use of the word in a public place. Her shocked response made Parrish realize for the first time that “something was being hidden in my house. People had shame about their prejudices, but they didn’t try to remedy them.”

Everything about Baton Rouge is a paradox, says Parrish, an assistant professor of English who recently published a collection of short stories, Red Stick Men. The stories are set in Baton Rouge—which natives call “Red Stick,” the English translation of its name—and reveal a strong sense of the place.

Tim Parrish

The “red stick” for which the city is named was actually a cypress tree, discovered by 17th-century European settlers, that Native Americans had smeared with blood to mark a tribal boundary. While Baton Rouge’s white natives have mythologized the red stick and its historical roots, Parrish says that ironically they are reluctant now to visit the site of the original red stick, whose location is now part of the campus of the largely African American Southern University.

Parrish’s intent in writing the stories in Red Stick Men was “to demythologize Baton Rouge, to be true to the place.” Although Baton Rouge shows up in many songs because of its romantic French name, Parrish describes his hometown as “a somewhat surreal place,” with the glow from chemical plants and oil refineries lighting up the sky.

The characters in his stories, far from fitting into hackneyed romantic Southern stereotypes, are gritty blue-collar folks who work on oil rigs, as exterminators or in pipe factories. Critics have praised Parrish, the director of Southern’s creative writing program, for his ability to bring his characters to life and to show another, more realistic side of Baton Rouge.

“I have a love/hate relationship with Baton Rouge,” Parrish says of the city he lived in for 27 years. “The love comes from family and a real connection to the place that made me. The hate comes from the fact that I grew up in a very racist environment. It caused a lot of turmoil.”

Parrish was raised on the industrial side of town in a family of natural storytellers. He credits his parents and his brother especially as influences on his yarn-spinning abilities. In his fiction Parrish also draws on his own experiences as a roustabout on an oil rig, a chemical plant worker and a counter man at a post office in a hardware store.

Baton Rouge “has a full nelson on my imagination,” says Parrish, explaining why he writes about his hometown. “Every time I go back there, something about the melange of trouble and fun and conservatism and hedonism and creativity and lethargy inspires me to try and capture it.”