Thursday, 30 April 2020

Virtual Final Thursday Reading Series: April 2020

It’s the last Thursday of the month, and that means the Final Thursday Reading Series is happening, even if it can’t happen live. This month features a range of “open mic” videos followed by a featured reading by poet Jim Johnson. You can also read an interview with Jim about his work here. The Final Thursday Reading Series will be back in one form or another at the end of August. Let’s hope we can all meet back at the Hearst Center for the Arts then.

Open Mic

Kaitlyn Askelson, "The Old Man"

Sheila Benson, “Bagatelles”

Bill Chene, “Jazz”

Abigail Kraft, "Dear Dad"

Kayla Lawrence, "What's Florida Like?"

Alexis Meek, "Light as the Sun"

Jim O’Loughlin (performed with Ian O’Loughlin), “Alphabet Game”

Thea Schaff, "Fortuneless Cookie"

Alexsis Smith, "When Death Collects"

Daria Tessmer, "My New Normal"

Hannah Wiles, "Birdbrained Steve"


Featured Reader: Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson reads from his new collection, One Morning in June: Selected Poems (Red Dragonfly Press). Johnson is the author of nine other collections including The First Day of Spring in Northern Minnesota and Driving Gravel Roads: 50 Prose Poems. A former Poet Laureate of the city of Duluth, he now splits his time between Cedar Falls and Isabella, Minnesota.

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Jim Johnson: What Connects Us All

Virtual Final Thursday Reading Series returns on April 30. On that date, this site will be updated with a featured reading by Jim Johnson, who was originally scheduled to read at the Hearst Center for the Arts.If you would like to contribute a video "open mic" reading, please email a link to by Wednesday, April 29.  Click here to see examples from the March Virtual FTRS. 

April's featured reader, Jim Johnson, is the author of the poetry collection One Morning in June: Selected Poems (Red Dragonfly Press) and over nine other collections including The First Day of Spring in Northern Minnesota and Driving Gravel Roads: 50 Prose Poems. Much of his work draws upon the physical landscape of northern Minnesota, where he lived for many years. A former Poet Laureate of the city of Duluth, he now splits his time between Cedar Falls and Isabella, Minnesota. 

FINAL THURSDAY READING SERIES: As a selected collection, One Morning in June involves that difficult challenge of choosing from among previously written work. How did you make decisions as to what poems to include?
JIM JOHNSON: When I began writing, I took a workshop from Sigurd Olson and I was inspired to write about the wild. I wanted to write poetry but found it difficult to publish my early poems of the wild. I had more success writing about my Finnish-American heritage. A few years ago I noticed an increased awareness of climate change, extinction, etc. and realized I needed to write again about plants and animals. So after publishing The First Day Of Spring In Northern Minnesota, Yoik, and Text For Our Nomadic Future, I wanted to pull together into one volume poems that relate to how we, as humans, observe our interconnectedness to, rather than dominance of, the natural world.

FTRS: You grew up in northern Minnesota and have embraced being a midwestern writer. However, what it means to be a “midwestern writer” can vary a lot from person to person. How do you define the distinctiveness of midwestern writing?
JJ: I once was told that Minnesota poets were disciples of either Robert Bly or Tom McGrath. I don’t know if there is a formula for Iowa poets. Though I was probably more of the Sigurd Olson school, I think I found a midwest voice, as have poets like Dave Etter, Bill Holm, Louis Jenkins, Bart Sutter, Connie Wanek, Joyce Sutphen, Tom Hennen, and Ted Kooser.

FTRS: A lot of your writing evolves from careful observation of the landscape. Can you talk about your process for writing about the natural world? Do you go outdoors with the purpose of writing or does inspiration come to you? Are you taking notes or relying on your memory of experiences? Do you find yourself needing to do research to supplement what you see?
JJ: The poem “River Otter” was inspired by skiing across a frozen lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. I once wrote fifty poems from notes taken while picking wild blueberries. So experience is important to me as a primary source, when it works out. I use and recommend research. We can only go so far.

FTRS: You’ve written a lot about ecological issues and the interconnectedness of humans with the environment. Has the current COVID-19 pandemic changed or confirmed any of your thinking?
JJ: I understand that technology, especially in this time of coronavirus catastrophe, is critically important and that technology makes this presentation possible. Yet we must realize this pandemic has taken out of the newstream the issues surrounding our effect on climate change. This virus lets us know, as a species, we do not control nature, it controls us. We are fortunate if we can get out into the natural world, and it is important to our mental, as well as physical health.

-- Interview conducted by Jim O’Loughlin

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Virtual Final Thursday Reading Series: March 2020

TECH PROBLEMS FIXED! Links to videos will work now.

Hello, and welcome to the first ever Virtual Final Thursday Reading Series. While the vibe of the Hearst Center’s Mae Latta Room and fresh Sidecar coffee can’t be reproduced online, feel free to settle back with a good cup and view this month’s offerings. There are a selection of “open mic” videos shot this week by participants. After that, check out the featured reading from Andrew Farkas’s novel The Big Red Herring. You can also read an interview with Andy about his work here.

Feedback? Suggestions? Should we try this on Zoom next month? Let me know. Take care and stay safe.

Open Mic

Kimberly Groninga, “Period,” “Sunflowers,” “Isolated”

Abby Kraft, “Blueberry Pancakes”

Rachel Morgan, “Break” by Dorianne Laux

Anne Myles, “Corvid”

Jim O’Loughlin, “What Am I Doing?”

Seth Thill, “Tetris Syndrome”

Kat Wohlpart, “Creating Your Own”

Featured Reading

Andrew Farkas reads from the opening of his novel, The Big Red Herring

Want to read more by Andrew Farkas? Check out “Pool Hall Legend” or order a copy of The Big Red Herring from KERPUNKT Press.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

FTRS Still Happening Online!

In the spirit of making the best of things in our current moment, the Final Thursday Reading Series will continue online this month. On Thursday, March 26, this page ( will feature a video reading by Andrew Farkas (who originally was scheduled to come to Cedar Falls).  And since it wouldn’t be FTRS without the open mic, you are invited to contribute a video of you reading under five (5) minutes of your own creative work.  It would be easiest if people just put their own videos on YouTube or some other service and sent a link that can be posted on this page.  Send links to by Wednesday, March 25 to ensure that they will be posted. If you have questions or trouble getting a video online, send email to that address as well, and we will try to figure something out.

Before all of the recent developments, FTRS conducted an interview with Farkas about his work, and the text of that interview appears below.

Andrew Farkas is the author of the novel The Big Red Herring, which Publisher Weekly says, “leaves narrative convention lying dizzy on the floor ... readers will enjoy this humorous, high-energy romp.” Farkas is also the author of the short story collections, Sunsphere and Self-Titled Debut. He is a fiction editor for The Rupture and an Assistant Professor of English at Washburn University.

What inspired The Big Red Herring?
ANDREW FARKAS: I originally wrote a short story called "Vayss uf Makink You Tock" in 2001. It was about a character who didn't know what he wanted to do with his life, and one day the Gestapo showed up and began interrogating him. They refused to tell him what they were interrogating him about, though. And their questions really didn't make sense. After writing a draft, I set the story aside and didn't come back to it for a couple years. I did this a few times before I finally figured it should be a novel (since every new idea I had kept making the story bigger). I wanted to keep the Gestapo, so I decided The Big Red Herring would be an alternate history novel (since the Gestapo are around in the 21st century). I also decided it would be a mystery of sorts. Originally, the mystery was, "Why are the Gestapo here?" But for a novel, I needed a bit more. So I added the murder mystery aspect (though, of course, the Gestapo are more interested in things other than the murder). Ultimately, though, the novel was inspired by the (failed) short story, which was likely inspired by my fear that I was never going to figure out what I was going to do with my life. That's not at all what the novel is about, but it appears to be the original inspiration. Maybe I answered the question: I'm going to write this book is what I'm going to do with my life.  

What was the process of writing The Big Red Herring like? How, if at all, was it different from writing short fiction?
AF: I tend to juggle quite a few different elements at one time even in my short fiction. For the novel, I was able to juggle even more elements. I learned with a previous abandoned novel, however, that I couldn't just keep throwing stuff up in the air. I say that because I quit the abandoned novel after writing over 100 pages and realizing that it was probably going to be about 2000 pages long, if I ever finished it. With The Big Red Herring, then, I learned to structure my writing so I could actually complete the book. I never had that trouble with short fiction because, unconsciously, I just always seemed to know how many elements to include. So even though Red Herring isn't a traditional novel, I figured out how to include just enough plot so the reader could be pulled along by it, and I could be reined in by it.

As for the process, I tend to pace a lot while I'm writing. So, I would pace around, pretending to pitch baseball games, reading The Journal of the American Cocktail or The Gentleman's Companion: Around the World with Jigger, Beaker, and Flask, then writing writing writing. When I would finally get to a place where I could show my work to someone, I'd send what I'd written to my friend, Lewis Moyse (who I dedicated the novel to), and normally just before he'd head off to Vegas, he'd write me some awesome feedback. Then, after I had a complete first draft of the novel, I used Lewis' feedback and my own ideas and research to continue on. At the end of each complete draft, I'd go to Kinko's at about 2:00am, have them drill holes into the manuscript, buy a binder, and then set that draft aside until I was ready to read it with a mind toward the next draft.

What kind of research did you do, and how long did you spend researching before beginning the book? Did anything surprise you?
AF: Because I knew that I didn't want to write a traditional murder mystery, I read a lot of the books listed on the Postmodern Murder Mystery website. I also read quite a lot about conspiracy theories and about conspiracist thinking. One thing that surprised me was the fact that it's pretty common amongst people who believe in conspiracy theories to believe in multiple theories that very obviously contradict each other. You'd think that they'd get rid of one or both, but somehow, folks who think like this, don't see it as a problem. I also did research on the Singapore Sling, other cocktails, and tiki bars, since all of those things play into the novel. My problem, especially early in the going, is that all I want to do is research. I have a bad habit of going down the rabbit hole of just about any topic because I can say, "This is research, so it's important." What it really is, at a certain point, is procrastination. I have trouble in the early stages of writing because I hate looking at blank pages/blank screens. What I have to force myself to do, then, is just keep writing what amount to lousy drafts while I'm researching. That way, when I finally know what I need to know, I won't turn and see that blankness gaping, yawning in my direction.

What writers and/or books have inspired you?
AF: The four most important books for The Big Red Herring are Karen Hellekson's The Alternate History, Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds, Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.

If you could go back in time and tell your pre-author self anything, what would it be?
AF: This is a tough question because I've been writing since I was in eighth grade. But I suppose I'd say that you, Andy Farkas, should get over thinking that first drafts, someday, will be easy. That said, the thrill of finishing a story or a novel is more than worth the pain of the beginning.

Why is humor so important to your work?
AF: Well, I tend to write about rather dark subject matter and I do so in a somewhat nontraditional mode. But I find that people can handle anything if they're laughing. Plus, I think there is a dearth of absurdist humor out there right now. There's lots of awkward humor (which is not for me), there's lots of lowest common denominator humor, but I find absurdist humor to be conspicuously absent. I hope to change that.

—Interview conducted by Alyssa Minch

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Rachel Morgan at FTRS

February’s Final Thursday Reading Series brings Rachel Morgan back to the stage. Morgan is Poetry Editor for the North American Review, and author of the chapbook Honey & Blood, Blood & Honey. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in publications including Alaska Quarterly Review, Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), and Poetry South

You’ve had a really productive streak of publications lately. Any pieces you’d like to single out? Any magic formula for getting published?
RACHEL MORGAN: I often think that getting work published is rain or shine; it happens all at once or not so much for a while. As a writer, I try to divide my time in thirds: a third to generate new material, a third to revise, and a third to submit and read the work of other poets. I do try to think about audience when sending a piece out to a literary magazine: who reads this magazine and what’s their aesthetic. I wrote a poem “Sequelae” which was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, sure a prestigious publication, but publishing here might not mean so much to a poet trying to place a poem in Poetry. “Sequelae” struck out when I was sending it to traditional literary magazines. After it was rejected enough times, I sat with it and tried to figure out if it needed revising or if it hadn’t found the right home, and that’s when I recognized that all the medical jargon dominates the poem. Normally, I would revise a poem after a realization like that, but this poem felt central enough to its manuscript that I did minimal revisions and decided the poem was for a different audience: doctors and researchers who speak its language.

What are the kind of subjects or challenges that motivate your poetry?
RM: I’m motivated a lot by what I’m currently reading. My undergraduate mentor, Rick Jackson, talked a lot about writers “finding their voice,” and encouraged us to read and imitate writers we really admired. At the time, for me, those poets were James Wright and Elizabeth Bishop. When Rick talked about writers finding their voice, I naively understand this as arriving at an ending. Now I understand this as a journey where the destination is always changing. We take detours and day trips. This summer I read Ada Limón’s book The Carrying, and I got to the last poem and immediately opened the collection to the first poem and started reading again. I admired how she opened poems with specific times, the earnestness of each line, her humble, but brave “I.” I liked these things at this particular time because I felt these elements were missing from my current writing. I like to read poets who are doing things and writing in ways that I haven’t yet or can’t yet. I understand now that “finding your voice” is always about the horizon, as long as you keep moving, so does it. 

I’m going to claim that the Rachelaissance began with Honey & Blood, Blood & Honey, since that was a Final Thursday Press chapbook. How does that book fit into your larger oeuvre (and, yes, I spelled that word wrong the first time)?
RM: Rachelaissance, flattering and probably too grand for my writing right now, but thanks. Honey & Blood, Blood & Honey is a “project book” based on the history of type 1 diabetes and the biography of Frederick Banting, inventor of insulin. I did a lot of research for this chapbook, but after it was published, I continued to write poems that are less centered on history and more narrative in nature. It’s also true that for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Currently, I’m writing poems that aren’t associated with a project and experiment more with form and language. 

You’ve served as Poetry Editor for the North American Review for a number of years now. How has been an editor affected you as a writer?
RM: I wish that being an editor and writer affected each other more than they do for me. These roles feel like parallel tributaries inching along and all the symbiosis happens below ground. Anyone who has served as an editor can tell you this job takes up an enormous amount of time, much time that otherwise might be used to write. As an editor, I read submissions looking for the poem that I haven’t read yet, paying attention to what’s new or intriguing—what I remember later that night while washing dishes and think about how the poet crafted the poem. I try to take this sense of wonder into my writing. I want to be brave, to take risks, to write what will surprise me, what I haven’t written yet. 

Where is your writing headed? What can people look forward to hearing at your Final Thursday Reading Series reading?
RM: I’m currently working on a chapbook about living in Los Angeles, an experience that feels far from me now. And unlike the poems in my chapbook Honey & Blood, Blood & Honey, much of which I wrote while in the midst of an experience, this book is very much about hindsight, which can sometimes be oddly clairvoyant if we’re paying attention.  

—Interview conducted by Jim O’Loughlin

Sunday, 19 January 2020

The North American Review at FTRS

Last summer the North American Review celebrated its 50th year at UNI (and the 204th year since its first issue!) with a complete revamping of the magazine’s design. At the January 30, 2020 Final Thursday Reading Series, the first NAR of the 2020s will make its debut in an event featuring NAR editors, student assistants & contributors. This interview features Poetry Editor Rachel Morgan, Managing Editor Brian Pals, Fiction Editor Grant Tracey, and Multi-genre Editor Jeremy Schraffenberger.

So, this is the third issue of the
North American Review since the big redesign/rebranding? How has it gone and have the design changes impacted how you think about what you publish?

JEREMY SCHRAFFENBERGER: So far we’re all very pleased with the new look and feel–and the newly articulated mission of NAR. Because it’s the oldest literary magazine in the United States, we didn’t take on the work of rebranding lightly. It was more than a yearlong process, guided ably by our Art Director Sarah Pauls. I don’t know if I’d say that we’ve selected different kind of work to publish since the rebrand–we’ve always wanted to present beautiful, artful, necessary writing to our readers–but we’re certainly more aware of our guiding principles of remaining eclectic, open, and restorative. 

Can you walk through the process of getting an issue out the door? What does it take to bring together everything?

BRIAN PALS: The process starts by reading the submissions we get through Submittable, and from here students and editors work to select the pieces for publication from the thousand upon thousand of submissions. Once the piece is contracted from the author, it enters production and goes through a multi-step proofing process. The pieces are laid out in InDesign and then a mock-up of the issue is made. From here, production moves more quickly, as students and editors pour over the issue and once the issue is proofed, it’s off to press.   

Any changes worth noting in terms of the kinds of submissions you are seeing or the kind of work likely to be published in the magazine?  
RACHEL MORGAN: I’ve been reading poetry for the NAR for a few years now, and I’m excited to see more experimental work come through submissions. Not only did we redesign the print NAR, but also our digital publication: Open Space, which allows us to publish hybrid, mixed media work, as well as longer narrative poems, such as Stephen Haven’s “Old Boston Roads,” that weaves the reader through memories and “a city in blossom.” Having an innovative digital space allows us, and perhaps more importantly, our contributors to create beyond the confines of a page. I think as editors, we all like to see a mix of classic craft and experimental work. 

How are UNI students involved with the NAR?
JS: Among the many things that NAR is, it’s also a learning laboratory for students, who are involved in production every step of the way. The student staff is currently made up of undergraduates enrolled in the NAR Practicum (a really great course, by the way), grad assistants, and a few interns. Running a literary magazine is also like running a business, being a publicist, as well as editing, so students who work with the NAR develop a wide variety of skill sets, and returning students get to hone skills they’re passionate about like promotion of the magazine and its content via social media or design and production. You can see some of their work on our Twitter and Instagram

Any particular favorites/standouts from the new issue?
GRANT TRACEY: I like all four stories in this issue, but two really stand out. Kate Campbell’s “Boiling Out” is a compelling piece that mixes an offbeat exploration of misguided mentorship (a farmer who is also a WWII veteran and two high-school boys), hyper masculinity, and harrowing past trauma that coalesces into a vibrant yet subtle Vietnam-era, anti-war story. Campbell’s willing to present men behaving badly, objectifying women, but they are believable and always interesting. Erin Flanagan’s “Hold Steady” has a wonderful splash opening: winter storm; a bus slips into a ditch; Mom stuck in town; the bus driver, Lucy, our narrator, is stuck taking care of Avery, her final passenger and Mom’s daughter. They make it to Avery’s house and wait things out. The big question: “So there’s booze in the house?” Flanagan knows how to create a strong narrative arc and expertly plays with time, building her story to a quiet resolve. Beautiful.

RM: The redesign of the magazine and our digital space allows us to publish unconventional work, like the graphic poem “Protest Against” by Naoko Fujimoto. The poem is a dance of boxed handwritten texts, “my first love letter hid origami paragraphs” against Picasso-esque figures and face that populate the page. Red spills across the middle of the poem, and I love the way it takes the reader in, first visually and then through text. This poem will be in her forthcoming book Glyph:Graphic Poetry=Trans. Sensory (Tupelo 2020).

JS: We’d be remiss if we didn’t point out the winner of the James Hearst Poetry Prize, Katy Aisenberg’s exquisite “The Invention of Ether.” While the poem is set in 1846 in Boston, it speaks directly to our time: “They had no thought that their civil country would suddenly split in two / Like a woman laboring to bring forth an unwieldy child.” The poem is part of Katy’s newest manuscript The Ether Dome, which she says is “
based on the theme of forgetting–personal and political. The first operation done under general anesthesia was performed at Mass General Hospital; this ‘experiment’ in forgetting pain organizes the poems in this new collection.”

Of course, let’s end with a plug. What should people expect at the FTRS issue release event? How can someone subscribe to the NAR?
JS: Each of the editors will be reading passages from their favorite pieces in the issue, and some of the students who worked in the NAR office in the fall will read the pieces they selected to edit and prepare for publication. There may be a modest offering of music (bring your harmonica!), we’ll be giving away free back issues, and there will be door prizes. Those in attendance will be encouraged to subscribe to NAR, but otherwise people can visit or email for details. 

–Interview conducted by Jim O’Loughlin