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“My mother owned this dictionary for decades before I ever knew about it,” she says. “She had packed it away in a chest with a bunch of her father’s belongings long ago and forgotten it was there." - Karen Donovan

On the Power and Magic of Words: An Interview With Karen Donovan

A 1925 Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language that once belonged to her grandfather became the inspiration for Karen Donovan’s forthcoming Aard-vark to Axolotl (Etruscan Press, 2018). It is an eclectic series of tiny stories and prose poems, based on a set of illustrations from the pages of that very dictionary. She collected pictures of plants and animals, diagrams and devices, and created a new narrative for each one. The charming result of her effort is an assortment of small poetic stories that work on the reader like alternative definitions for items drawn from a cabinet of curiosities.

How did Donovan come to be in possession of her grandfather’s dictionary? “My mother owned this dictionary for decades before I ever knew about it,” she says. “She had packed it away in a chest with a bunch of her father’s belongings long ago and forgotten it was there. One day she showed up at a family gathering with it in her arms and said to my husband, Walker, ‘Here, you like books.’ I think it amused her to unload this gigantic dictionary on him and see what he would do. Of course, he was delighted because she was right. He does like books. We trucked it home and immediately set it up on a bookstand.”

And that’s where the dictionary lives now. “It’s a venerable presence in a house full of books,” Donovan says. “Picture a very small cottage perched on the edge of a tidal marsh off a small cove of Narragansett Bay. Inside the house, you can pretty much get anywhere you need to go in a few steps. It’s really more of a boat than a house. The walls are covered with art, and the ratio of books to total square footage is considerable, so visitors don’t have much chance of noticing the dictionary per se right away. Once you see the darn thing on the bookstand in all its tonnage, though, there is a definite wow factor. The digital generation can’t quite believe it exists.”

Although she lives in a house full of books, she wouldn’t consider a love of books necessarily runs in her family. “To wit, my mother’s relief that we agreed to take the dictionary off her hands,” says Donovan. “But my lifelong practice of book hoarding has made up for any lost ground. It’s lucky that I turned out to be a poet, because you can easily fit four or five books of poems on a shelf in the same space a novel would occupy. That works out great.”

But there’s more to the story behind Aard-vark to Axolotl than meets the eye. Sure, it’s a fun and fascinating read, full of wit and whimsy and clever observations on life. But Donovan’s connection to her grandfather, to whom she dedicates this book, goes far beyond being captivated by the pictures in his old dictionary. She says, “I knew my grandfather Raymond as a gentle, soft-spoken man who taught me how to play chess and died when I was ten years old. Not until much later did I learn about his awful drinking problem and then finally understood why he did not live with my grandmother and why my mother was mad at him a lot.”

She goes on to describe a bookplate pasted on the flyleaf of the dictionary. “It reads ‘The R. H. Burton Estate Service, established 1921.’ It gives his office address in downtown Providence in the Industrial Bank Building, an iconic feature of the city skyline that everybody calls the Superman Building. An old leather bookmark is still stuck in at the start of the ‘O’ section. For me,” she says, “the dictionary is a token of the real man behind the disease. He managed to have a life before everything fell apart on him, and this dictionary tells me he would have been thoughtful with language—that he cared about words.”

It’s obvious this attention to the details of language and words was passed along. Not only is Donovan the author of two prior volumes of poetry, Your Enzymes Are Calling the Ancients (Persea Books, 2016) and Fugitive Red (University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), but for 20 years she and her husband co-edited a literary journal of short prose called ¶: A Magazine of Paragraphs. It was a true labor of love. “We published ¶ from 1985 to 2005,” she says. “From the beginning, it was a tremendous amount of arduous, painstaking work and a total blast. We did our entire run of 25 issues before the Internet struck. Everything was paper. Piles and piles of submissions coming in the mail from everywhere, following us doggedly through three states and five changes of address. One day the postman asked me, ‘What is it you guys do again?’”

Donovan especially loved reading submissions. “Once the box of envelopes reached a certain unmanageable height, we would call time and spend a weekend reading,” she says. “The magic was that you never knew what might be in the envelope. When all you ask for is paragraphs of 250 words or less, you can get some wondrously berserk and idiosyncratic voices. The concept behind ¶ was homeopathic. Many small doses of reality in very short form, perfectly sized to fit in the back pocket of your jeans. We assembled each issue, printed only 400 copies, and sent them out as an antidote to the world’s ills.”

Donovan has continued this thread with Aard-vark to Axolotl. Her quirky images and definitions may not be the solution to the problems of our world, but they certainly are a welcome distraction and sure to cure what ails you.
Pamela Turchin is pursuing her M.F.A in fiction from Wilkes University, where she serves as a graduate assistant and as the production editor at Etruscan Press.

New Releases from Etruscan

We’re proud to welcome Will Dowd’s Areas of Fog to the Etruscan Press family.

Areas of Fog is a collection of lyric essays recording one year of New England weather.

Each essay opens with a weather report, combining wit, humor, and poetry taking readers on a journey through themes of solitude, madness, and the nature of happiness. Paul Mariani, author of The Whole Harmonium and Epitaphs for the Journey, says, “Will Dowd guides us through the seasons, describing with a mastery of language what no weatherman I know even comes close to describing. Here in these pages we can delight in the sea-changing weather of a mind ranging from the autobiographical to a kaleidoscope of literary allusions which–far from dragging us down–lift us with the flair and insight only a poet can offer us.”   
In the Cemetery of the Orange Trees by Jeff Talarigo

We’re also proud to welcome Jeff Talarigo and his novel In the Cemetery of the Orange Trees to the Etruscan Press Family.

In late 1948, Ghassan is threatened by two talking jackals. If he doesn’t paint the signs of the newly named villages and towns, his wife will give birth to a goat. Thus begins the exile to Gaza of Ghassan and his goat.

In the Cemetery of the Orange Trees presents the history of Gaza told as never before: through the eyes of a night guardian of a talking goat; a carrier pigeon that befriends a young boy who sells photos of martyrs; a refugee who eats books and then recites them word for word; a Palestinian father who sneaks animals into Gaza through a labyrinth of tunnels; a talking sheep who is caged in the Gaza Zoo. In the Cemetery of the Orange Trees is a disquieting allegory of the clash between the powerful and the silenced.  Colum McCann, author of Thirteen Ways of Looking, says, “As much a book of poetry as a novel, as much a symphony as a memoir, this is an extraordinary book from a writer at the top of his powers.  Reminiscent of Berger and Calvino, Jeff Talarigo manages to capture the breadth and circumference of story-telling, while also giving us a privileged insight into the daily life and dreams of Gaza.”

Outreach in Youngstown

Remica Bingham-Risher, author of What We Ask of Flesh, and Aaron Poochigian, author of Mr. Either/Or, visited five schools and taught at both men and women's prison classes while in Youngstown, OH. 

From November 13 to 16, Remica Bingham-Risher, author of What We Ask of Flesh, and Aaron Poochigian, author of Mr. Either/Or, visited Youngstown, OH as part of a four-day outreach program sponsored by The YSU Poetry Center and Etruscan Press. The outreach program brings acclaimed authors to work with under-served students in area high schools, as well as incarcerated citizens, increasing the literacy of the students and offering a general appreciation for the literary arts.

Bingham-Risher and Poochigian were both excited to participate in Etruscan’s outreach program to help foster a literary community within the Youngstown area. Bingham-Risher says, “I'd participated a few years ago when What We Ask of Flesh was released. I loved my experience then, so I came back when Phil [Brady, Etruscan Press Executive Director] invited me. Working with Aaron Poochigian this time around was fantastic. We developed a real rapport, that I think the students all felt.”
"Some of the students seemed hungry for more experiences like this ... I think this points to the fact that some are always looking for validation for their art, encouragement, and tangible evidence that it is possible to do something they are passionate about and make a living at it," Bingham-Risher said.
Poochigian says, “I was excited to participate in Etruscan’s Outreach Program because it fits in perfectly with my broader #SavePoetry campaign. This campaign treats poetry as an endangered species—endangered because, however many people might be writing it, very, very few read it outside of classroom assignments. To build on the analogy, while I am grateful for the “preserves” of colleges and universities, I want to release poetry “back into the wild” by making it a part of daily life…I imagine an America in which people quote poetry in everyday conversations and where it is just as common to see someone reading poetry on a city bus as listening to music on headphones.”

During Bingham-Risher and Poochigian’s stay in Youngstown, they visited Austintown Fitch High School, Chaney High School, Choffin Career & Technical Center, East High School, Youngstown Early College, and taught both at men and women’s prison classes. Poochigian, a classics scholar as well as a poet, also visited Dr. John Sarkissian’s YSU Classics seminar. Students at all the schools and in both prison classes received copies of What We Ask of Flesh and Mr. Either/Or and a study guide that corresponded with each book. At Chaney High School, Bingham-Risher and Poochigian awarded a cash prize for a one-page writing contest. Winners were presented with an Etruscan Press tote bag containing Etruscan titles, while honorable mentions were awarded Barnes & Noble gift cards.
"I want to release poetry “back into the wild” by making it a part of daily life…I imagine an America in which people quote poetry in everyday conversations and where it is just as common to see someone reading poetry on a city bus as listening to music on headphones,” Poochigian says. 
Bingham-Risher and Poochigian also participated in one joint public reading during their stay in Youngstown, held at the Youngstown Public Library and co-sponsored by the friends of the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning Valley and Etruscan Press. Bingham-Risher also participated in two other public readings during her time in Ohio: the Youngstown YWCA featured both a reading and a discussion, and the ACTION Clergy Caucus Fellowship Breakfast in the Newport Library. (ACTION stands for Alliance for Congregational Transformation Influencing Our Neighborhoods, which focuses on a range of social issues, including crime prevention, education, immigration, and health and wellness.) Following her reading, Bingham-Risher signed copies of What We Ask of Flesh for the community.

Of her time in Youngstown, Bingham-Risher said, “Some of the students seemed hungry for more experiences like this: many stayed after and asked us questions upon question about our life and work; some wanted selfies with us and others asked for email addresses so they could share their own work and get feedback. I think this points to the fact that some are always looking for validation for their art, encouragement, and tangible evidence that it is possible to do something they are passionate about and make a living at it. Knowing this early on would have surely been a great gift to me. Because of all this, I think the Etruscan Press/YSU Outreach Program is invaluable.”

Poochigian was also impacted by his time in Youngstown. He says, “I was most affected by my conversation with the male inmates in a correctional facility. They became comfortable enough with me to share poems they had written. One poignant poem, “My Weekend Off,” expressed an All-American desire to be home with family on the weekend, go fishing and build furniture in a garage workshop. Another described a prison religious conversion through a whispered conversation from cell to cell.”

For more information about the Etruscan Press/ Youngstown State University Poetry Center outreach program, please visit our website.

AWP18: Meet Us in Tampa

Tim Seibles(Fast Animal and One Turn Around the Sun) signed books at AWP17. 
Etruscan Press is once again exhibiting at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference (AWP), which will be held in Tampa, FL from March 7-10, 2018. Partnering with the Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Wilkes University, Etruscan will host author signings during the Bookfair in booth (1202). For more information about our book signings, panels, and readings, please visit our website.

We can't wait to see you there!

About Etruscan Press:

Housed at Wilkes University and partnering with Youngstown State University, Etruscan is a non-profit literary press working to produce and promote books that nurture the dialogue among genres, cultures, and voices.

For the latest Etruscan events, please visit our website.
Copyright © 2018 Etruscan Press, All rights reserved.

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