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The Life of Riley

a quest for the good life in New York City and beyond

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Shortly after moving to New York City, I had the honor of meeting Maya Angelou. Unlike the random glimpses of celeb elite on crowded streets or in dark corners of restaurants, a simple author event turned into a powerful life lesson.

It happened on the cusp of a losing battle with the New York public school system, and after I’d been handed over  and reluctantly accepted the honorary title of homeschool teacher/mom. Defeated, I worked hard to create an environment that took the sting out of the fact that my daughter, Jordan, wasn’t surrounded by peers in a classroom. We’d been discussing poetry and creative writing for her English requirements, when I heard about the next author event at Barnes & Noble, Union Square. Maya Angelou. The only caveat, she was promoting her latest book, a cookbook, Great Food, All Day Long. And I quietly worried that her appearance and conversation wouldn’t be  in any way focused on all of her others works. Hesitation proved brief.

Quickly we organized our lessons around Angelou’s works. I shared my knowledge from my time in college, and from reading her books, articles, watching her in videos and in conversations with Oprah. Jordan read her biography and shared facts and daily trivia with me, like, did I know, “Maya Angelou worked as a street car conductor in San Francisco?”  I didn’t know. And so the student taught the teacher too. This continued for weeks until we made our way through the crowds, finding prime seats in the first few rows. We awaited her arrival like family at an airport watching for that first glimpse of a loved one we hadn’t seen in ages.

Surprising us all, Angelou arrived in a wheelchair, appearing fragile and aging. Then she smiled at the crowd as she glanced around the room, happy to see her fans. She wore a black dress with dangling pearl earrings and dark red lipstick, looking elegant as always. Once she was settled on stage, she began speaking, and the strength of her words and her voice filled the room. You could no longer hear whispers, shuffling in seats or the buzzing traffic outside, only Maya Angelou speaking to us as if we were old friends. And all of a sudden you knew you were a part of something special, larger than life, something that couldn’t be captured in any other form, really, but being in that moment and savoring the lovely memory.

I managed to take a short video, featuring the last few things she shared with us. Next we were invited, as is customary at book signing events, to form a line on the side of the stage. I asked Jordan to calm down. She was nervous about meeting her and what she’d say. I didn’t want her to be disappointed and let her know that usually the process was quick with the assistant placing the yellow sticky note with your name on the page the author signs, and a brief exchange of words, usually not much more than a smile and a thank you.

But Maya Angelou was different. There were children touching her, drawn to her wise soul, and adults having conversations with her, laughing and lingering for more than mere seconds. Fans handed her flowers that she gladly accepted. And she looked completely in her element, at home with it all, comforted, perhaps, that she’d made such a difference in the world and people knew it and appreciated it. When it was Jordan’s turn to walk up the steps and stand in front of her, I stood off to her side, allowing her the moment.

“Where do you go to school in the city, Jordan?” Angelou asked.

Jordan looked at me nervously. “I don’t yet. I recently moved here and have to do homeschool until next year.”

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I know she felt embarrassed as did I. But that didn’t last but a few seconds as Angelou looked at me, drawing me into the conversation. She caught Jordan by complete surprise as she took Jordan’s hand in hers and said, “Oh, that gives you time to read and study so many wonderful things.” And she began to give Jordan and me the name of a few books to study, allowing Jordan time to write them down. “Never stop learning,” Angelou reminded in a soft but urging voice. She chatted with the two of us for a few more minutes, sharing her thoughts on education and being a life long learner, not just in school, and not just from books. She asked questions about what I was teaching in homeschool and what Jordan was learning, smiling and nodding, whispering words of encouragement.

 

This morning when we found out about Maya Angelou’s passing, it felt personal, like we’d lost an old friend. I immediately pulled out the photos, the video, and even the cookbook from its perch on our kitchen counter where it’s been since that day in Union Square. I closed my eyes, thinking back to how she reached across the table and held Jordan’s hand tight in her own, reassuring us both about where we were then and the glorious path unfolding before us. Of course she was right as Jordan skipped a grade, due to our hard work, and now prepares for graduating from I.C.E., her NYC high school, and then an exciting move to Ithaca College in the fall, a glorious path indeed.

Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now. ― Maya Angelou

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What's Love Got To Do With It
Love Statue, John F. Kennedy Plaza, Philadelphia. Photo Credit: Maria Riley

Renowned artist Robert Indiana created the LOVE image in the early 1960s, inspired by the God is Love inscription in the Christian Science churches he attended in his youth. While Philly is one of the most well-known places to get up close and personal with the iconic four-letter word, Indiana’s LOVE sculptures can be found all over the world. And though this may be Indiana’s most famous piece of art, his poetry, frescos, and watercolors prove that there’s more to love about this artist than what sits on the surface.

A Literary Journey with Jay Asher

In honor of #BannedBooksWeek, the Life of Riley interview with author Jay Asher

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The Life of Riley

Suicide is a taboo subject in our society. So it’s refreshing and yet somewhat surprising when a novel—a young adult novel to be more specific—finds its way into the hearts of people all around the world, achieving a coveted spot on the New York Times Bestseller lists, numerous literary awards and an upcoming film adaption. Thirteen Reasons Why tackles a teen’s suicide by unveiling its complicated layers. The novel has sparked a much needed conversation and continues to attract new followers every day.  

While working as a newsletter editor for a suicide prevention organization in 2009, I reached out to and subsequently interviewed Thirteen Reasons Why author, Jay Asher. He was humble, kind, and elated with readers’ reactions and feedback.  He spoke of the fans who stood in the back of crowded rooms after readings, waiting to thank him personally for writing a book that encouraged them to reach out…

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Rapture In The City

Gold Rush 79 photo courtesy of John Jones & K-tel

The year was 1979, and the album, Gold Rush 79, a 2 LP set courtesy of the beloved compilation king K-tel, featuring an eclectic smorgasbord of hits from Peaches and Herb to Dr. Hook. Shaking my groove thing while knocking on wood, I became one with those albums, literally treating them like gold, perfecting record player needle moves, careful not to leave a single scratch. One song in particular stood out among others, and I played it nonstop like teens tend to do when music speaks to them—”Heart of Glass” by Blondie.

Lead singer Debbie Harry provided an edgy punk rock style I’d never witnessed before, and I couldn’t get enough . . . I owned all of her records, watched appearances on Bandstand, and simulated dance moves in homage to those hits—my generation’s anthems. With a mixed attitude of strength and indifference, Harry inspired girls everywhere to own it. She was the 80s teen’s version of Lady Gaga.  And as I experimented with parachute pants, punk hair, eyeliner, cropped tops, baggy jeans, and leg warmers, Blondie did the same, creating music with forceful lyrics, romantic tensions, and funky pops of hip hop and rap, including a Brooklyn shout-out to Fab 5 Freddy, introducing us all to a whole new world of music.

Today Debbie Harry remains relevant. Featured in French Vogue, Interviewed by Lady Gaga in Harper’s Bazaar, and working on the Occupy This Album collaboration with other celebrated artists, Harry doesn’t miss a beat capturing the spotlight. A sixty-something female icon, who looks every bit of 45, Harry still pushes fashion to the limit, inspiring new generations of women, as well as reminding her original groupies, like me, to embrace age and womanhood with confidence, determination, and a little bit of kick-ass attitude.

She continues performing and creating new music with Blondie’s latest album, Panic of Girls, released in September 2011.  “Wipe off My Sweat” and “Love Doesn’t Frighten Me” speak to me and have become new favorites.  As I listen to Panic I can’t help but notice how Harry reinvents herself, a musical chameleon—mastered by a select few artists—holding true to her original voice, not shying away from experimenting with new sounds, but avoiding that all too familiar plea from retro artists to gain new followers or speak to a new generation . . .  Harry is simply making great music with longtime friends and keeping it real, Blondie style. And I wouldn’t expect anything less.

Harry joins another longtime friend and artist, Roy Nathanson, and his students, The Institute for Collaborative Education (ICE) High School Band, on stage at the Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square on Thursday, February 2nd. Led by a teacher who is a celebrated saxophonist, a founding member of the Jazz Passengers, an actor, and poet, ICE strives each year to maintain their incredible and one of a kind music program. Thursday night’s event benefits ICE and its extracurricular programs. Your ticket purchase is a tax-deductible contribution. For ticket information, visit the ICE PTA blog. You can connect with Debbie Harry and Blondie on Facebook and Twitter.

A Literary Journey with Jay Asher

Suicide is a taboo subject in our society. So it’s refreshing and yet somewhat surprising when a novel—a young adult novel to be more specific—finds its way into the hearts of people all around the world, achieving a coveted spot on the New York Times Bestseller lists, numerous literary awards and an upcoming film adaption. Thirteen Reasons Why tackles a teen’s suicide by unveiling its complicated layers. The novel has sparked a much needed conversation and continues to attract new followers every day.  

While working as a newsletter editor for a suicide prevention organization in 2009, I reached out to and subsequently interviewed Thirteen Reasons Why author, Jay Asher. He was humble, kind, and elated with readers’ reactions and feedback.  He spoke of the fans who stood in the back of crowded rooms after readings, waiting to thank him personally for writing a book that encouraged them to reach out for help.  

Two years later, fear of following up his bestseller nothing but a vague memory, Asher’s awaiting the publication of his second novel, The Future of Us, due out this November and co-written with Carolyn Mackler, author of Tangled. Here he shares a few literary milestones along his journey.

Life of Riley: My first question to you back in 09 centered on the stigma of suicide and mental illness, and how readers and the public at large would react to your book. Two years later, it’s obvious that the reaction has been extremely positive. Was this something that took time? Or do you feel that the public embraced 13 Reasons almost immediately?

Jay Asher: On a small scale, people embraced the book immediately. The reviews were wonderful and the letters I received were so enthusiastic. I especially loved when readers said they told all of their friends about the book. One of the reasons I wanted to write the book was because our society does a horrible job of discussing these issues honestly. But when people talk about a book like this, they can’t help but also discuss the questions it raises. Readers were so passionate about the story and its message, they just kept spreading the word.

LOR: #1 New York Times Bestseller. How does it feel? What does that mean to you as an artist?

Asher: If I hadn’t seen that list for myself, I would say it’s unbelievable. It’s a very weird concept to fully appreciate, so all I can do is thank my readers for their enthusiasm. As an artist, there will always be critics who just don’t get it for various reasons. But when this many people obviously do get it, I feel comfortable knowing that I wrote the book exactly as it needed to be written.

LOR: Okay, one of the coolest parts of your blog, the international book covers of 13 Reasons Why—surreal to see your story translated throughout the world? (The Serbian cover is pictured to the right.)

Asher: Absolutely! While writing the book, I never even considered how it would be received anywhere other than the U.S. But the book is about some very basic concerns and emotions, so it actually does make sense that teens (and adults) around the world would be able to relate.

LOR: So fill in the time gap a bit if you will. What have you been working on since I last spoke with you?

Asher: For a couple of years, I didn’t work on anything. I travelled around the country speaking about Thirteen Reasons Why, and I still do, but I didn’t write anything. The success of Thirteen Reasons Why gave me a lot of fear about following it up. But then Carolyn Mackler, one of my favorite authors, said she was interested in co-writing a book with me. From that moment on, I’ve found the joy in writing again.

LOR: Congratulations on the film adaption. What was the catalyst for such a venture?

Asher: Even while writing the book, I pictured it as a movie. The structure of the scenes and the dialogue were heavily influenced by cinematic storytelling, so it was always my hope that it would get made into a movie. Some producers did make offers, but I kept declining for various reasons. Sometimes they were very small reasons, but the story meant so much to me that even the tiniest thing could keep me from selling the rights.

LOR: Funny that we discussed the possibility of a movie and who would play Hannah, Clay and the rest of the 13 Reasons ensemble. Were you a part of the team who worked on casting?

Asher: So far, the only role we’ve announced is that of Hannah Baker. Selena Gomez and July Moon Productions contacted me about turning the book into a movie, with Selena starring as Hannah. After meeting Selena and her mom to discuss their vision for the movie, as well as to hear how Selena pictured Hannah, I was sold.

LOR: Selena Gomez. She has a huge following with the tweens and teens. How important do you think her celebrity and connection with the younger crowd will affect the film?

Asher: Selena obviously has a large fan base, which I’m sure looked good to the movie studio. But when I decided to go with her, it was only because of how powerfully I thought she could portray the entire journey of Hannah’s character.

LOR: In a recent blog post, you discussed meeting with Jennifer O’Kieffe in LA. Was that a normal evolution to adapting the book to film—handing over the reins to a scriptwriter? How did you feel about that? And were you worried about the book’s dynamic staying true to your vision?

Asher: I was there when Jennifer originally interviewed for the screenwriting job. She pitched her vision, which basically enhanced our vision, so I felt no worries handing the story over to her. We’ve had several meetings and conversations since then, where I occasionally offer suggestions. But I’m lucky that I can mostly just sit back and marvel at how she’s adapting this oddly structured book for an entirely different medium. The book and movie will complement each other beautifully.

LOR: Let’s talk about your new book, The Future of Us, that you co-wrote with Carolyn Mackler.

Asher: Carolyn and I hardly knew each other when we decided to try to write a book together. So before we fully decided to do this, we talked a lot about our likes and dislikes of other collaborative novels. We talked about character development and our basic approaches to storytelling. The similarities in the way we viewed those things made the writing process extremely smooth. We brainstormed the entire book together as we wrote it, and then edited each other’s chapters as we went along, wanting the book to feel like it could’ve been written by one author.

LOR:  I’ve noticed that you’ve become a professional collaborator, working with the film industry and O’Kieffe and writing with Mackler. Writing is a challenging career. Do you find the collaboration process as another level in your writing career or as a support system for making it all work?

Asher: I think all writing has various levels of collaboration. I had a critique group for many years, and I was essentially working with them to make my manuscripts stronger. Authors also collaborate with editors to make the writing even tighter and more compelling. Wherever the most intriguing idea is, whether it’s to write something on my own or with someone else, that’s where I’ll go.

LOR: What’s next for Jay Asher?

Asher: We’ll see! 

 

Author of the #1 New York Times bestselling novel Thirteen Reasons Why, and The Future of Us (co-authored by Carolyn Mackler, available November 2011). Visit Jay’s blog at www.jayasher.blogspot.com. You can also keep up with the latest news and interviews by visiting Jay’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/jayasherwriter or following him on Twitter @jayasherguy.  

 

To read more from my 2009 interview with Asher, visit the August edition of Life Support.

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

Interview with Fernando  Martinez

Fernando Martinez commands a room. Whether you chat with him over a cup of coffee at Starbucks, catch a glimpse of  him on the comedy scene or watch the trailer for his new film, No Charge, you find yourself drawn to this multi-dimensional character. A New Yorker from the streets of Flushing now living along the palm-tree lined streets of Orlando, Nando draws upon his past and present in building a  viable career in the entertainment industry. He’s bold, witty and passionate–and it shows in all that he does. Living by his mantra, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, Nando is an unstoppable force.

Life of Riley: So when did you first recognize that you were funny? An entertainer?

Fernando Martinez: I knew I was funny and an entertainer when instead of focusing on my school work I would do silly things JUST to make the other kids laugh. The more they laughed, the more I wanted to do and say outrageous things to get a rise out of my classmates.

LOR: Tell me a little about your connection with Pablo Francisco and how you were inspired to break into the comedy scene?

Nando: I was a regular guest on an Orlando radio show in the mornings.  We met when he came in to be interviewed to promote the weekend’s show. After the comedy shows late at night I would be the guy to show him what’s what in town—where to party, where to hang out . . .  We were drinking in his hotel room one night and coming up with skits, just joking around. And he says you’re funny . . . come on tour with me and let’s keep writing. So I did . . .  then a few weeks later he suggested I try to do stand up myself . . . so I did. I just started doing standup as Nando. Now I still perform part-time.

LOR: What are some of your most memorable moments performing comedy?

Nando: My most memorable moments on stage doing comedy are plentiful . . .  performing with Pablo doing skits was a lot of fun. And he’s such a big name. So it’s something special to me. Of course you just have those nights where the most random things happen… like an overzealous cougar in the first row letting you know she’s down for a good time . . . lol. Comedy is crazy—the most.

LOR: From comedy to film . . . natural progression?

Nando: I wouldn’t say comedy to film is a natural progression. They’re very different things. They’re both entertainment but one is live and unpredictable and all your own. Film is more controlled and collaborative. Also it requires two very different skill sets—skills that really need to be honed and kept sharp. I don’t like it when every comic comes up to me saying they want to be in films too. Acting is an art form, one you have to really commit to. I cherish it very much, but the very same thing goes for stand-up comedy. I know comics would get annoyed by an actor who always wants to ask for stage time because he just feels like it at that time or to do it just for the sake of doing it. Stage time is a precious commodity. You have to earn it. And deliver when you get it.  Both arts need to be respected, but generally a very good comic can act because he allows himself to be free and truly express true thoughts and feelings. A good actor can’t necessarily do comedy though . . . live comedy is a beast! Lol

LOR: Your mantra, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, taken from Jeff Chang’s Book or the Young Gunz song? Why does it speak to you?

Nando: I actually heard that in a Young Gunz song, like you pointed out, and it always stuck with me. It serves as my mantra because I’m determined, passionately determined to do what I want to do.  I grew up with nothing, eating baked potatoes every day, which is why I’m not a big potato fan now by the way. We didn’t go on trips.  We didn’t leave the block. Part of the reason for not leaving the block too was because chances were real good that you would get jumped if you did. Where I grew up in Flushing, Queens it’s very diverse, literally from block to block it was run by a different ethnic group, and for some reason none of them got along.  I guess I just grew up in the time where everything was about protecting your block. So I felt trapped my whole life in many ways . . . economically, emotionally and spiritually.  Once I turned eighteen, I graduated high school, and I told myself that now I control my life. I’ve been a very free spirit since then. I’m always down to try anything.


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LOR: I see that you just wrapped up working on a new project,  No Charge. Can you tell readers a little about this film and your part in the venture.

Nando: We just wrapped my new short film No Charge in Deland, Florida. It was summer so we took over the cafeteria in Stetson University and made a really good film about a man’s struggle to break free of the suffocation he’s feeling in his own life. Basically he’s caught in a rut and the monotony of just trying to make it one day at a time. You know how you just stick to your routine and then one day you open your eyes and wonder what the hell happened to all the time that just flew by? My character, Antonio, the procrastinator, and I use that word loosely for this character, lol, he gets a moment, a glimmer of hope in this otherwise crappy day and then well, you’ll have to wait and see what happens. I came up with the concept for this film while working at Starbucks. I pulled a Daniel Day Lewis—very method approach to acting.  I collaborated with a great writer/director Carmen Treffiletti and he along with Dan Luby out in Los Angeles put together this great script. I added many of the punch lines in it, lines I just drew from real life experiences. We got some money together and made a great film. It was my first time producing as well, and I loved it. I will definitely be doing more of that in the future.

LOR: You grew up in New York and now live in Orlando. Where do you call home?

Nando: I do live in Orlando now but NYC is home . . . always will be. Those were my formative years. I learned and experienced a lot that molded me into who I am. I cheer for NY sports teams still, and I always go back even if it’s just for a day.  I just need my fix sometimes.  There’s an energy in NYC that you just don’t find anywhere else. I like Orlando too, don’t get me wrong. It does have a homey feel to it because I know so many people here. And I love the beach.  So I am currently bi-lattitudinal. I made that up myself. lol. Starting in January, I plan to be bi-coastal as well. To do bigger things I just have to be in NYC and LA on a regular basis.

To learn more about Fernando Martinez, visit his website at www.thefernandomartinez.com and IMDB page at www.imdb.me/thefernandomartinez. Also Nando is known for his insightful daily tweets @itsthenando.

Fernando Martinez grew up in New York City and now resides in Orlando, Florida. He recently completed filming No Charge, in which he worked as lead actor and as a producer. Martinez continues performing comedy. He lives each day by one mantra—Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop.

Mothering From the Inside: An Interview with Filmmaker Jen McShane

The film Mothers of Bedford follows the struggles of five women serving time in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a women’s maximum security prison. Aside from being fellow inmates, the women also share one vital characteristic—they are all mothers. Filmmaker Jenifer McShane spent more than four years working on the film—listening, watching, and questioning. She allows the stories to unfold naturally, without judgment or bias but instead encouraging freedom for the characters to speak and interact in a way that leaves audiences connected. These women become people you feel you already know. McShane provides painful, raw footage of families torn, children aching for their mothers. At times you want to look away, but then you remember its authenticity, its value, and you watch, and you learn. It’s a film that lingers.

Life of Riley: When did you first become interested in filmmaking?

McShane: I was working and living in NYC and took a working holiday in Northern Ireland volunteering at an integrated school there. I was impressed with the grassroots movement and felt it was a story that needed to be told. I met with various people at CBS (where I worked) and realized I had a different vision of the story and decided to make a film myself with a partner.

Life of Riley: Who were role models or icons that you followed for inspiration?

McShane: Specific to Mothers of Bedford, I would have to say Sr. Elaine Roulet was the inspiration for the film.  She is a visionary and just stubborn enough to make things happen! The parenting programs at Bedford exist in large part because of her sheer will and, honestly, that is the case with independent documentaries that deal with social change. Most are completed because the filmmaker just won’t give up. Then as I got to know the women better they became my inspiration for finishing it no matter what.

Life of Riley: Tell readers a little about your first film, A Leap of Faith.

McShane: Having grown up in NYC attending diverse public schools, I was intrigued with the notion of integration as it relates to Northern Ireland. I had great respect for the parents who decided they wanted something better for their children than the segregated system they found themselves in.

Life of Riley: Did you expect such overwhelming success?

McShane: No, it was the first film for me and my co-director, Tricia Regan.  When we were accepted in to competition at Sundance Film Festival we were still finishing the documentary and did not even have funds available for the film print! After Sundance, it screened at many film festivals and aired on television here and in Europe.

Life of Riley: Before we talk about your most recent film, Mothers of Bedford, I’d like to discuss the actual filmmaking process. I know you spent more than four years visiting Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Does each project dictate the length of time you’ll devote to research and filming?

McShane: It is based very much on the topic and the people you are following. Obviously, I had very limited access compared to following a story on the outside so that required as many visits as possible. Also, I think the more time you spend the greater depth you achieve. As a filmmaker the more time you spend the more clearly you understand the situation you are observing. Also, I think, with more time the women featured knew that my goals were not exploitative.

Life of Riley: Recently I attended Mothers of Bedford at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. The film is powerful—beautiful, sad and raw. What has been the overall reaction to the film?

McShane: Extremely positive. From Hot Docs Festival in Toronto where it premiered to NYC the response has been terrific. I made the film in large part for those who have no experience with prison. I feel strongly many will not care about the topic, sadly,  unless they can relate to the women in some meaningful way– this is why it is a character driven piece. I feel blessed that I have such amazing characters in the film and a wonderful editor Toby Shimin who was a joy to work with. Shimin is the editor of the current box office hit and Sundance winner, Buck.

Life of Riley: A key ingredient to any film’s success is the cast. And there’s no exception here. How did you decide on these particular five women?

McShane: My first week filming at prison was a random week of the prison’s “summer program”.  There was little notice – so little that I had no time to find a camera person and my brother generously stepped in and spent his vacation shooting for me. I met none of the women in advance.  There were about 15 mothers participating with their children. Four of the five women I follow were in that first summer program week I filmed so it was about as close to a random sample (of women in parenting program) that I could get. The nursery mother’s baby was too young to be in the summer program so I met her in the visiting room and she kindly let me follow her experience.

Life of Riley: As a mother, how hard was it to see the effect of incarceration on these women and their families, specifically their children?

McShane: Initially, I was very depressed every time I left the prison.  My heart breaks for Tanika Dickson who is still incarcerated at Bedford and recently missed her son’s high school graduation. Overall, it became a positive experience as I was moved by the mothers’ decisions to nurture their children and work to keep the mother-child bond intact.

Life of Riley: What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?

McShane: I want to  humanize a segment of population that is largely forgotten. Sister Elaine Roulet, the founder of the program, says “bars can not separate a child from their mother’s love”. This really resonated with me. If as a society we claim to be rehabilitating people rather than warehousing them, we must give inmates the opportunity to strengthen family relationships so that they have someone to return home to.  A loving relationship of some type is something we all need whether we are incarcerated or not and it is vitally important for someone behind bars.

Tanika Dickson is applying for clemency and I support that and hope it is granted. For information on Tanika’s clemency application and how you can support it please contact her attorney cheryl6401@aol.com. If this film can help in even the smallest way I will be very happy.  The program budget for Bedford’s parenting programs has been slashed. Again, my hope is this film will, perhaps, illustrate the vital need for this work in as many prisons (male and female) as possible.

Learn more about the Mothers of Bedford project and film at www.mothersofbedford.com. You can keep up-to-date on upcoming screenings and the latest news by following the Mothers of Bedford on Facebook and Twitter.

Jenifer McShane, director of Mothers of Bedford, was born and raised in New York City.  Jeniferʼs first film, A Leap of Faith, about an integrated school in Belfast, Northern Ireland premiered in competition at the Sundance Film Festival in 1996.  A Leap of Faith screened at many film festivals, played theatrically in NYC, Boston, and San Francisco and was televised in the US and abroad. During the intervening years, Jenifer was the US Executive Director of the non-profit, Co-operation Ireland.  She lives in CT with her husband and two sons, Owen and James.

The Wild Fig

Spotting Indie bookstores throughout the city gives me pleasure. Whenever I’m just strolling, as much as you can stroll on the streets of Manhattan, I leave the crowds behind and browse the beautifully diverse shelves of these stores. And no matter where I’ve traveled–the south, north, east coast, west coast–the Indie bookstore remains synonymous with intimacy. It’s as close as you can get to curling up with a good book in your favorite comfy chair and a steamy cup of hot chocolate on a cold and rainy night. Indie Owners are the people who get that.

When I heard that my former professor, Crystal Wilkinson would be opening a bookstore, it made sense. I remember the active class discussions regarding the books we were reading and writing about–faded books, forgotten on the shelves. As I dug into the pages of Lee Smith’s Me and My Baby View The Eclipse and John Edgar Wideman’s Damballah, a new world opened and I stepped in. These books I never would have read on my own, but Wilkinson’s class inspired me. The Indie bookstore works much the same way. You have book lovers, literary aficionados, who lead the way and invite you into their humble homes, offering a warm cup of joe, and the opportunity to sit awhile. And maybe they’ll tell you a story, one you’ve never heard, and if you listen really closely you hear it, even feel it as the world opens.   

Life of Riley: Was the idea to open the bookstore a whim or something you and your partner Ron put a lot of thought into?

Crystal Wilkinson: We have both always wanted to own a bookstore but this happened very quickly. He worked for Morgan Adams Bookstore and when Mary Morgan announced she was closing the store things fell into place for us to keep it. We were and ARE very excited and feel fortunate to be able to do this work.

 LOR: Did you ask other writer friends for advice on this venture? If so, what were some of those responses?

Wilkinson: I didn’t really ask for advice but all of my writer friends know that they are free to tell me what they think so they either weighed in that they thought it was a perfect venture for Ron and I to do or they said how “brave” we were for opening a bookstore when there were so many bookstores closing around us. But many of my writer friends have donated books or offered to come in and help to help build inventory.

It’s been great! One dear friend drove in from Louisville on the second day we were open to give us six boxes of quality books. That is the sweetness of our writer friends. Pure kindness and with the exuberance to want to see us succeed.

LOR: As we see the mega bookstores, like Borders and Barnes and Noble, struggle in this economy, do you think an Indie store can capture the market and community in a different fashion?

Wilkinson: Well I think that we at The Wild Fig and other independent bookstore owners (here in town and across the country) can provide community and warmth to people in ways that the biggies can’t. They have more books of course but we have more spirit. We actually know our customers and often know what they are looking for when they walk in the door.

LOR: Can you explain the importance of an Indie store existence? Its importance to writers, publishers, and consumers?

Wilkinson: Well so many moms and pops in every community have been torn from the communities to make way for some corporate entity with big pockets. When a consumer buys local it keeps the money and the energy in the community. Our store is literally two minutes from where we live. We are vested in our neighborhood, in our city in ways that a corporate entity might not be.  The energy is good. The service is good.

And as far as the importance to writers, we have free wi-fi and have eked out some interesting little places in the store for people to sit with their laptops to write. It’s  a quiet space and a good place for writers to gather. From the publishing standpoint, we have tried to get copies of as many local and regional writers as we can but we are a quality used bookstore with limited new books so that is a bit difficult. One thing that we are in the process of doing is getting new books from local and regional publishers. For example Charlie Hughes who runs Wind Publications brought us his entire current catalogue (well a large selection from it) and it’s nice to see an entire shelf and a half of new books by Kentucky writers there on the shelf for people to buy. We hope to do this with some of the other KY publishers as well.

LOR: I know you inspiration for the new bookstore is The Wild Fig, inspired by Gayl Jones. Can you explain what that symbol and writer mean to you?

Wilkinson: As an African American writer Gayl Jones means the world to me. I love her writing and her intellect (which are one and the same). She’s a brilliant writer and thinker. One of Kentucky’s treasures. When I travel in African American literary circles and say I am from KY, I always get the response “Gayl Jones is from KY!” and that always makes me happy. So Ron and I both love her writing so we gathered up her books into our laps and began rereading her work searching for a name.

We wanted to name the bookstore Xarque from her book Xarque and Other Poems but when we researched and  noted that it was basically jerky (dried meat) we decided against it but we liked the way the word looked and sounded. As we read further we both came up with  The Wild Fig. She has a wonderful, thoughtful, poem of great depth called “Wild Figs and Secret Places” and so in addition to the use of wild figs in other poems, this sealed it for us. We then went on to find other symbolic uses of the wild fig throughout the world and were even happier with our choice. People keep telling us new “fig” stories and tales. We love it. One of our dear writer friends said just last night that he didn’t care what the impulse was behind it that he just liked the beauty in the name so that is perfect.

LOR: Share your vision of The Wild Fig. Paint a picture for readers—what can they expect when walking through the doors?

Wilkinson: They can expect a world of books of every type and age. We have an eclectic mix of old and new. They will hear jazz or blues or Bluegrass music depending on our moods or the mood of the day, good organic fair trade coffee and an atmosphere where the book lover can make themselves at home. Those who loved Morgan Adams Books as much as we did will fall in love with us too. Two book lovers to help you find the book you’re looking for or one that suits you fine, a good cup of coffee and a place to sit and muse on it all. What more could anyone want.  And soon you will be able to come by and hear live readings or live music coming  from our tiny stage. We are looking forward to it all. We are so very happy with all of this.

You can visit The Wild Fig Bookstore at 1439 Leestown Road, Lexington, KY 40511. You can contact the store via email at  wildfigbooks@gmail.com or phone at 859/381-8133. You can also enjoy a Virtual Visit to The Wild Fig Bookstore at their Facebook and Twitter Pages.

CRYSTAL WILKINSON is the author of Blackberries, Blackberries , winner of the 2002 Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature and Water Street , a finalist for both the UK’s Orange Prize for Fiction and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. She is currently seeking a publisher for her third book The Birds of Opulence. You can learn more about Crystal Wilkinson’s writing at Write With Your Spine.

The Life of Riley Interview with Robert Walker

One cool afternoon on the busy streets of Winter Park, Florida, I joined Connie May Fowler and her friend Robert Walker for drinks and appetizers. It was my first time meeting Rob, and I instantly liked him, sucked in by his charming boyish grin and wicked sense of humor. We became fast friends, spending lots of nights talking about stories, writing starts and lonely dead ends, famous writers we rubbed elbows with on occasion, life as we knew it, and love—the good, bad and ugly. Nowadays we don’t see each other, although a summer trip is in the works, but we talk, like most long distance friends, via Facebook and email. I’ve enjoyed the links he’s shared over the years to his published pieces scattered about various magazines and online venues, including a wonderful feature in MiPOesias. When I recently learned about the publication of Rob’s debut poetry collection, The Buoyancy Of It AllI anticipated a colorful conversation focused on his journey as a writer. Along the way, it turned into something a little more, and that gift I share with you here in a candid interview with the talented Mr. Walker.

Life of Riley: Have you always wanted to be a writer? If not, when did you start contemplating that direction? And when did you start calling yourself a writer?

Robert Walker: Always is a really long time, but no. When I was really young I wanted to be an astronaut; I also wanted to marry a girl named Amanda (young me didn’t have the best grasp on who I’d become). I entered college as a Political Science/ Pre-Law student. I enjoyed Poli Sci classes, but I enjoyed creative writing more. Writing was always more honest. I guess you could say I got tired of the bullshit involved in Poli Sci and heard enough people tell me I had a knack for this writing thing that I decided to go for it. I swapped majors and the rest, as they say, is history.

Life of Riley: To get an MFA or not to get an MFA is a hot topic in the literary world right now. You recently earned your MFA from Virginia Tech. How did you make the decision to do the MFA? What was the experience like? And do you recommend an MFA for all up and coming writers?

Walker: I knew I wanted to get back in academia. I love being in that world (the real world just isn’t nearly as fun–far less space for experimentation, thoughtfulness, and ideas). The MFA seemed the logical choice, because I could get back to school by doing something I did anyways. I do have to credit Denise Duhamel for being one of the first people, along with Connie May Fowler, to tell me I should get an MFA. After Denise told me that I went home and Googled “MFA” because I’d never heard of one, LOL. It’s very interesting the way life unfolds. I actually didn’t know about the VT MFA until I met Nikki Giovanni at a reception and she told me to apply. They didn’t accept me that first year, but I applied again and they decided I was cooler the second time around.

My MFA experience was pretty awesome & life altering. I also combined falling in love and shifting my perspective on life with my MFA experience, so, I suppose, my experience is somewhat unique. The faculty at Virginia Tech is truly awesome. They’re all great writers and seem to truly enjoy mentoring young writers. I wouldn’t have written the book I wrote, which I very much love, without my awesome thesis committee (Ed Falco, Erika Meitner, and Jeff Mann–they’re great teachers and I see aspects of each of them & their influence on me in this book).

I wouldn’t recommend an MFA for everyone. If you aren’t interested in being challenged, revising, and learning new writerly tricks you probably shouldn’t go to an MFA. Also not the best place to go if you just want your writerly ego stroked.

Life of Riley: How autobiographical is your poetry? Has it become therapeutic in many instances?

Walker: This is a tricky question. There is a lot of really honest autobiographical stuff in this book. There is also some stuff that isn’t from my life at all. I could never write memoir because I need the space the lies provide in order to tell the truth (perhaps this is some lingering element of the poli sci major in me). I will say my new project is 100% autobiographical. I’ve found myself in a very interesting moment in life and am writing exclusively out of that moment. Is it therapeutic? Yes, in that, for me, writing it down requires an understanding of things. To tell the story correctly I had to understand it and before I could understand it I had to make peace with the truth of it. I suppose that is both therapeutic & liberating. It’s why I think everyone should engage in some type of writing. It allows you a means of understanding life in all its complex beauty that few other activities allow. I’ve been told that Yoga comes close, but I’ve never been flexible enough to truly get the full Yoga experience—one of the burdens of being large I suppose.

Life of Riley: You write a lot about sexuality, hiding and exposing, kind of a see-saw effect. As a gay man in today’s diverse universe have you found that to be true to life? Are you constantly hiding yourself, your sexuality and then exploring moments of explosive exposure? Or did you have this great epiphany or aha moment and embrace the inner you?

Walker: The hiding & struggle with it in the book are more aspects of young me. They’re reflective of that fear most young queer folks have. It is a fear of rejection and an internal struggle to accept a self that you know society has defined as somehow non normative. There are several poems that explore the idea of a gay man having adventures with women in this book. While I did, once upon a time, take a trial trip to lady-land, those are honestly written out of the fact that I get hit on by women a lot and I always find that funny and thus worthy of poem making (funny because I so fully embrace my gayness that it’s odd to me that it isn’t obvious to others). My sexuality isn’t something I hide to any degree these days. I’m very out. My students know, my family knows, my friends know. It doesn’t define me, but it is a basic elemental aspect of my identity (who are we without our desires?). I’m also very open & strive to be visible as a gay man, because I believe it is important for those of us who can be out & open in all aspects of our lives to do so and serve as role models & mentors for the next generation of queer folks. There is this modern myth that folks no longer struggle with their queerness and that simply isn’t true. To any not fully out queer folks reading this: do the younger generation a favor & get out!

Life of Riley: Do you think you may want to take on an active role as a Role Model/Spokesperson for the Gay Community? It sounds like something you have thought about and maybe even embraced? Because your honesty in your work and conversation speaks, without a doubt, to many, you could really be a difference maker in our society.

Walker: Are you suggesting I run for gay-office? Robert Walker official spokesperson for the Homo-people, LOL, I’ve no desire to run for anything. I tell my truth because being honest seems, to me, to be the only true option we have in this world. That and I’m a dude who happens to romantically dig other dudes (shorter, less hairy, but equally curious about the world ones to be specific) and I don’t see why that’s something I ought not be honest about. People do worse things than fall in love with folks with matching genitals. In all honesty, it took me a long time to make peace with my desires, I hope, maybe, by sharing something of my narrative I can make that peace a little easier to come by for some young queer guy or gal out there. If I could have this book accomplish one thing it’d be that: to help someone claim & make peace with the honest narrative of who they are. Shame & denial are such a waste of energy & emotional resources.

I’m a teacher, well, that’s how I pay the bills (despite what you may have heard this poem making gig isn’t all that lucrative). I’m out in my classes, so I serve as a role model in that space. I’ve had a handful of students comment that I was the first “grown up gay” or the only gay person they’d ever gotten to know. The “grown up gay” comment always seems double-edge—I’m always suspicious that 18yr olds don’t mean it as a compliment. But being the first gay person they got to know is important to me. I think getting to know folks is where understanding begins and understanding leads to changing hearts & minds. We’re all just people. Just trying to live our lives, fall in love, have a comfy place to sleep with the one we love. Folks aren’t all that different and I like to think I live that in my classes. I’m not obnoxious about my sexuality, I don’t have a phallic shaped dry eraser marker or anything; I’m just honest.

Life of Riley: Topics you write about prove unique and wonderful. Where does this come from? Where do you find inspiration for your writing?

Walker: The short answer: life. I’ve been told I see the world in a very odd way and I’m finally starting to suspect that, that is, perhaps, true lol. I really don’t know. The things I connect seem obvious to me. They’re how I understand the world. I find inspiration in things I find odd or that excite me or that I struggle to understand. On some basic level I think poetry is an attempt to, in writing, make sense of that which we struggle to make sense of. I kind of want to give you some angsty writer response like: I find inspiration at the bottom of every bottle or the smoke rings of the peace pipe. I fear I’m growing less angsty in my old age.

Here’s a look at one of the poems, Turning Back Time, from Buoyancy.

Life of Riley: You mentioned that you feel like the older you become, the less angsty you are . . . have you seen your writing grow in the same way? Do you think that’s a positive? How so?

Walker: Wow, the symmetry of life: I was just talking to my aunt recently who recalled my poems from some time ago as, “angry young gay poems.” I was mildly offended. Okay, that’s the wrong word–never offensive when something sticks with someone, but I was bothered. I don’t consider my book or my current project angry. To quote Ani Difranco, “I know what all the fighting was for and I, I’m not angry anymore”—I love Ani. But I write from the gut, so angry work means an angry gut. But a funny thing happened to me on my way to becoming an angry gay poet, I fell in love, I got some perspective—I just got un-angry. I suppose this is a bad thing for folks who dig angry poems, but it’s a nice thing for me. I like this work. I consider it more honest. Anger and angst are kind of limiting & easy emotions (I’m about to have a Star Wars dark side of the force moment). I like the idea of work that marvels at the truly, sometimes painful, complex beauty of life—angry poems can’t do that. I guess, in finding the place to tell the honest story, I realized there isn’t, truly ever, anything to be angry about. Life is just life and anger is, usually, just a mask for fear (and what’s there to fear, but fear itself–this interview is brought to you by numerous clichés lol).

Life of Riley: Do you have a specific mantra or statement that encompasses your message to the gay community?

Walker: I was recently visiting with a former professor of mine, Dr. Jill Jones, and she reminded of this line from Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, “You are fabulous, each and everyone.” I guess that’s what I’d say to all the other queer folks out there, well, that and be out, be unashamed, because you’re beautiful (and there is someone out there who will see just how beautiful you are). I’m about to have a Cyndi Lauper True Colors moment, so I’m going to go to the next question now. Oh, straight folks, y’all are beautiful too (you probably have a different set of baggage involved in accepting that, or maybe y’all accept it more easily–I’m not much of an expert on the hetero life experience).

Life of Riley: Music or no music while writing? If music, what do you listen to?

Walker: Usually, yes music. What music varies. Certain projects have soundtracks. Most of this book was written listening to funky electronic stuff: Thievery Corporation, Above & Beyond, Burial, Telepopmusik, Trentemoller, The Postal Service, and several mixes made by various people. The project I’m working on now, which is this odd exploration of what love is within the context of a specific moment of estrangement & separation from the lover, is being written with nothing but Radiohead playing–that could change, but Radiohead is currently serving the tone of the work (well, I’m much funnier than Radiohead).

Life of Riley: Always use a computer or do you write freehand as well?

Walker: I used to do more by hand, but almost all on computer now. It’s just easier. I tend to lose things, so lines written random places get lost. My new phone has a notepad function and I usually have some random lines or bits of poems there. The current project is probably 25% on my phone, 75% on my laptop, and 0% organized–my process is usually messy (this project is messier than usual).

Life of Riley: What does The Buoyancy Of It All mean to you?

Walker: I wish I had some profound deep response to this question. I feel like I should, but here’s the honest story: my editor sent me a link to a website to select cover art. And, after hours, tears, and three phone calls to mom, I finally found this image that spoke to me. During the third phone call to mom she said the word “buoyant” and that turned into the title. It speaks to how everything floats, I guess. Does that even make sense? I don’t know that I can explain it any better than to say: once I said it aloud I knew that was the name for this book. It just fits.

Life of Riley: So who is your audience? Who is going to learn about this collection and rush out to buy it?

Walker: My mom. I can’t really comprehend anyone else running out and buying this. I realize there is the distinct possibility of that happening and that, in and of itself, is bizarro world to me. When I was, about, 14 I used to stay up reading Nikki Giovanni and dreaming about having my book. Seriously this people buying it thing is too unreal. I hope other queer folks dig it, I hope other folks from rougher childhoods dig it, I hope other folks who have suffered loss or felt the weight of heavy fear dig it, I hope other folks who have had break downs or fallen in love dig it, I hope other poets dig it. I guess there are pieces of all those folks in me, so I hope all those folks with matching pieces out there dig what I’ve said about that thing we share. Does that make any sense at all?

Life of Riley: When you write, do you have a specific audience in mind? Or is your writing universal? Honestly, for me as I read it, I felt it to be universal. It spoke to me on many different levels, which I feel is a huge triumph for any up and coming writer?

Walker: Wow thank you. That’s a very awesome comment. Honestly the majority of the book was written to this boy I kind of sorta have, mildly, a thing for. I think I was attempting, in the weirdest possible way, to explain why I was so weird–that’s good ol’ poetic logic: allow me to explain why I’m so perplexing to you in a series of odd poems–very sensible means of distilling information. Somewhere along the way I realized I was actually talking more to me than to him and that’s when the project took off. Frankly, you’re all eaves dropping on my self-talk. I want to work a Kylie Minogue quote in here, but I won’t (bonus points if you know what song I’m thinking about).

Life of Riley: Best writerly advice you ever received?

Walker: I want to quote Connie May Fowler here, because she once told me I was going to workshop something and wasn’t going to back out and she used the word “Bitch” (she says she didn’t, but I vividly remember that moment–and memory is so not a suspect commodity). Anyway that’s not really writing advice, but it speaks to the reality of writing, which is, at the end of the day you just have to balls up, or ovaries up, and do it.

Life of Riley:  Worst advice?

Walker: I can’t answer that without throwing someone under the bus. I can’t be that guy in an interview–but call me (for all folks reading that, I’m kidding). I don’t believe in bad advice, just advice that doesn’t fit. Sometimes that happens.

Life of Riley: All writers hold very strong opinions about the workshop experience. Obviously you’ve participated in numerous workshops while earning an MFA. What’s your view on workshops? What works? What doesn’t? And so on.

Walker: I miss workshop. I know some of my peers would look at me like I’m nuts (wouldn’t be the first time). I think, especially in the MFA setting, it can get tedious & routine (you’re always with the same folks), but the environment and having that space to share is really a cool thing. It reminds of me of show & tell day at school. What works, to me, is when people make an honest attempt to understand the writer’s project and give feedback from that space. What doesn’t work? When people don’t try or aren’t honest–or are too afraid to say something that might sound mean (honestly best thing you can hear in a workshop is what’s broken about a piece).

Life of Riley: We hear stories today about MFA students landing book deals while still completing their degree. How did the book deal happen for you?

Walker: Do we? I haven’t, but I’m not the most informed guy on such matters. Honestly I owe my book being alive to Jeff Mann. He was my thesis director, and a damn fine mentor, and he offered to put in a good word with the press, they liked what they saw, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Life of Riley: After completing The Buoyancy Of It All and finding a publisher, did you immediately start working on your second book? And how hard is it to make something fresh and new without peeking over your shoulder at your first accomplishment?

Walker: It’s hard right now, because I’ve been editing Buoyancy recently, so it has been kind of all up in my face. Not complaining. I really like this book, but it has been weird interacting with it and trying to write new stuff at the same time. I started a new project right as I was submitting this as my MFA thesis. It was a completely different, far less personal project using all these circus folks as vehicles to explore the human condition. I think that was an attempt to move away from what I did in this book. I recently put that on the back burner to work on a different project that is a lot more similar to Buoyancy. This one is all about love and the hardness of it and all its complexity–oh, crap I may well be writing the same book lol. Both are still very much in progress. We’ll see where they go, but I do hope this book is the first of many. I’d like to think I have more poems in me and room to improve craft wise.

Life of Riley: Who are your greatest supporters in life? The people you always turn to never questioning whether they have your back or not, because you have complete and total faith in them.

Walker: My mom, my younger sister Michele, and my dad. I know they’re always on my side. We may not always agree, but they’re always there. I have some amazing & wonderful friends in this world and am blessed to know them all, but there’s just something to be said for the people who have witnessed every phase of your life. They just know you (sometimes better than you know yourself).

Life of Riley: Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

Walker: Alive. Ain’t that some grand life goals? Writing. Having some sort of adventure (I’m pretty good at those). I wouldn’t complain if that adventure included a ruggedly handsome co-star (okay, a twinkish* & cute co-star–I’m rugged enough all on my lonesome–I like a little yin for my yang). I mean there are lots of possibilities, but having adventures, sharing said adventures with someone awesome, and writing about it all is more or less my basic life goal. I’m kind of making the rest up as I go along, but that’s worked pretty well thus far–if it ain’t broke.

*For the straight folks reading this use Google or urban dictionary to figure out what “twinkish” means. It is a play on the world “twink.” See this is one of those gay dude & straight folks bridging the understanding divide moments 😉

Robert Walker began writing poetry while playing bass in the cover-band ManHole (an all male group that played songs originally recorded by Courtney Love’s mid-90s band Hole). After ManHole split, sighting artistic differences, Walker enjoyed a brief solo career opening for Ru Paul. After a scandal involving George Michael and a public restroom forced him out of the music business he became a High School teacher in rural Florida; where his colorful tales of life on the road lead to him being known as the “eccentric” English teacher. Robert is a graduate of the Virginia Tech MFA program, and his poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming from Ashé: The Journal of Experimental Spirituality, Knockout, 5AM, Limp Wrist, Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, Mipoesias, Pearl, Specs, and Poet Lore. The Buoyancy Of It All is his first collection of poetry. Robert claims no responsibility for any historical inaccuracies in this biography.

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