Poem of the Week, by Cecilia Woloch

My father, who died last month, was a giant of a man from boyhood on. He was famous for keeping the house-heating wood stove in our kitchen cranked to stupefying levels of heat. Much of our childhood was spent in service to that wood stove: cutting, chopping, hauling and stacking wood to keep it fed.

Many of my abiding memories of my father are centered around wood, which, even in his eighties, he continued to chop and haul. As a child, his giant presence could be overwhelming, but I picture him now, and think of how easy it can be to overlook, in a giant man, the tenderness and gentleness that also lived inside him.

The Pick, by Cecilia Woloch

I watched him swinging the pick in the sun,
breaking the concrete steps into chunks of rock,
and the rocks into dust,
and the dust into earth again.
I must have sat for a very long time on the split rail fence,
just watching him.
My father’s body glistened with sweat,
his arms flew like dark wings over his head.
He was turning the backyard into terraces,
breaking the hill into two flat plains.
I took for granted the power of him,
though it frightened me, too.
I watched as he swung the pick into the air
and brought it down hard
and changed the shape of the world,
and changed the shape of the world again.

Click here for details and to register for our new Write Together session in early June. 

Click here for more information about Cecilia Woloch.​

Dear Brother, coming to bookshelves this summer!

Welcome to the world, Dear Brother! I’m so happy that this book, a collaboration with Tuan Nini (the artist I refer to as the Mad Genius) will be in the world as of this summer. (We’re thrilled that it’s already been chosen as a Junior Literary Guild selection.)

I’m horrible at describing my own books but here goes me trying to think like a book jacket person: Dear Brother is a graphic novel-ish (yes, I made up that category and I’m sticking with it) about a little sister whose travails with her older brother are chronicled in notes, photos, sketches and texts. Sister’s always the sidekick, never the star, or at least that’s how it feels.

Brother proclaims himself America’s Famous Chef, but it’s Sister who does the chopping and clean-up. Brother proclaims himself America’s Famous Magician, but it’s Sister who’s the one he nearly saws in half. Brother proclaims himself America’s Famous Daredevil, but guess who ends up with the broken leg?

Worst of all, when it’s time to get a family pet, Sister wants the dog she’s always longed for, but Brother insists on…a bearded dragon.

Like Dear Sister, the first in the Dear series, Dear Brother chronicles the evolving relationship, over time, between siblings. A cult favorite among siblings of all ages, Dear Sister has been described as both “unremittingly funny” and “I’m not crying, you’re crying.”

Dear Brother will be here on August 8, but you can pre-order it now, and I would be so grateful if you did. Here’s why: the number of books printed is determined by the number of pre-orders it receives. This seems backward to me, and maybe to you too, but we live in an inside-out world.

Soooo…if you’ve got a child or an adult in your life who was once a sibling, or who ever felt overlooked, or unseen, or ignored, and maybe feels like laughing and possibly crying about it all, Dear Brother is the book to pre-order. Here are a bunch of pre-order links for you. Thank you so much!

Dear Brother from Red Balloon Bookshop.

Dear Brother from the Wild Rumpus Bookstore.

Dear Brother from Barnes & Noble.

Dear Brother from Amazon.

And, of course, free from your local library!

Poem (excerpt) of the Week, by Tim Seibles

Lots of old photos have been passing around my family these days, some I don’t remember ever being taken, except there I am: a laughing baby, a smiling teen, a young woman making funny faces at her babies, most recently a middle-aged woman in a pink sweatshirt crouched next to her dad, both smiling up at the photo taker.

Oh my face. You’ve been with me through every moment of my life, never questioning any feeling or how to express it. Immediately and by instinct you pull yourself into smiles, tears, laughter, anger, excitement. The older I get the more I appreciate you and all we have been through together, and the fact that no matter how you change, you are the face that everyone who loves me loves.

(Excerpt from) Ode to My Hands, by Tim Seibles

Five-legged pocket spiders, knuckled
starfish, grabbers of forks, why
do I forget that you love me:
your willingness to button my shirts,
tie my shoes—even scratch my head!
which throbs like a traffic jam, each thought
leaning on its horn. I see you

waiting anyplace always
at the ends of my arms—for the doctor,
for the movie to begin, for
freedom—so silent, such
patience! testing the world
with your bold myopia: faithful,
ready to reach out at my
softest suggestion, to fly up
like two birds when I speak, two
brown thrashers brandishing verbs
like twigs in your beaks, lifting
my speech the way pepper springs
the tongue from slumber.

Click here for details and to register for our new Write Together session in early June. 

Click here for more information about Tim Seibles.​

alisonmcghee.comMy podcast: Words by Winter

Books I Read in February

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates is one of my favorite writers. After reading an interview in which he talks about his experience writing the first six books in Marvel’s Black Panther series, I read the first in the series, a gift from my Coates-fan son and his partner. The majesty and gravity of the visual and literary collaboration between Coates and artist Brian Stelfreeze held me in its grip for an afternoon. Black Panther reminded me of childhood, when I was obsessed with Batman comics (still am, actually) and would dream myself to sleep at night making up scenarios in which I was Batgirl, saving the world. Comics and graphic novels: I so admire what writer and artists, working in sync within the freeing confines of the hallowed graphic form, can create.

Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson. Such a quiet, introspective, surprising novel. It completely absorbed me, and since finishing it, I’ve been thinking about how our early adolescence –just a few moments, even—informs our understanding of adulthood ever after. How we turn those moments over and over in our minds and hearts as we age and gain wisdom. A few trustworthy friends had described this novel as “nothing happens!” so (despite the fact that I often secretly think the same of my own novels) it was never on my must-read list. But I found it riveting in the way that sitting by the bank of a river for a slow afternoon, absorbed in watching the eddies and swirls, is riveting. Highly recommend.

Kira-Kira, by Cynthia Kadohata. I didn’t want my heart to be broken by another book –sometimes your heart just gets tired of breaking, you know?—and I had long assumed this novel would break my heart, because such is the way of most Newbery books. But I picked it up one morning and finished it the next, swept along by the narration of Katie, the middle child of the Takeshima family, who’s blunt, funny, enjoys being “bad,” and whose sister Lynn means everything to her. Set in the 1950’s, in the chicken-sexing Japanese-American subculture of southern hatcheries, this novel feels so real in its depiction of poverty, the cruelty and abuse of racism, endless work, family devotion, and a childhood filled with wonder and love. This is also an example of the rare child narrator who feels truly, infectiously, beautifully real. This lovely novel and its people will stay with me forever.

The Keep, by Jennifer Egan. Every once in a while, I pick up a novel by Jennifer Egan and each time she surprises me with the way she bends and twists her people and their narratives. She’s incredibly inventive, layering in all kinds of unusual twists that in another writer might seem showy, but not her. Who’s telling this story? I kept asking myself as I read this novel, because the narrators keep changing as the story deepens. Two cousins, bound by a singular traumatic childhood event, meet again as adults with a vision of turning a European ruin of a castle into a tech-free hotel. Technology and our addiction to it, imagination and our fundamental need for it, guilt and the ache of dreams that didn’t come true, all against the chilling backdrop of a castle from which you can never escape infuse this novel with a despairing kind of love. Brilliantly wrought.

Transit, by Rachel Cusk. Onward, ever onward, with my new infatuation with Rachel Cusk. Transit is the second in a trilogy of novels about a writer, recently divorced, whose books are both well-known and well-reviewed, who teaches occasional workshops both in England and abroad, who has two children currently staying with the father while the writer undertakes a difficult renovation of her newly-purchased awful house in a neighborhood she loves. That little summary makes it seem as if Cusk’s writing is pretty standard, yet it’s anything but. Only at the very end of Transit does the writer-narrator finally let us know her first name. Every actual “fact” of her life is painfully extracted, but who cares, because facts are not the point of these novels, in my reading of them. Instead, Cusk lays bare, with unsparing honesty, the heart and soul of a person’s hard-won insight into human nature. The conversations throughout these novels are like the (few) purely honest conversations I’ve had in my life that happen when everything is stripped away and there’s nothing to lose. I’ve already bought the third in this trilogy. Cannot get enough of this writer.

Poem of the Week, by Nikki Giovanni

How do I love thee, this poem? Let me count the ways. 1. Because I’m a sucker for teacher praise poems. 2. Because as a child the only way I could cope with the horror of writing elementary school book reports (people! to reduce a book to a plot summary is to kill it dead!) was to make up imaginary books and then write fake book reports about them. 3. Because I too adore Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks. 4. Because Nikki Giovanni is a lifelong badass and I love her. 5. Because censoring what a child reads and which books are allowed on shelves is a crime. 6. Because every book a child reads is a rung on a ladder leading up and up and up to a future they dream of making.

In Praise of a Teacher, by Nikki Giovanni

The reason Miss Delaney was my favorite teacher, not just my
favorite English teacher, is that she would let me read any book I
wanted and would allow me to report on it. I had the pleasure of
reading The Scapegoat as well as We the Living as well as Silver
 (which was about a whole bunch of rich folk who were
unhappy), and Defender of the Damned, which was about
Clarence Darrow, which led me into Native Son because the real
case was defended by Darrow though in Native Son he got the
chair despite the fact that Darrow never lost a client to the chair
including Leopold and Loeb who killed Bobby Frank. Native Son
led me to Eight Men and all the rest of Richard Wright but I
preferred Langston Hughes at that time and Gwendolyn Brooks
and I did reports on both of them. I always loved English because
whatever human beings are, we are storytellers. It is our stories
that give a light to the future. When I went to college I became a
history major because history is such a wonderful story of who we
think we are; English is much more a story of who we really are.
It was, after all, Miss Delaney who introduced the class to My
candle burns at both ends; /It will not last the night; /But, ah, my
foes, and, oh, my friends— /It gives a lovely light.
 And I thought
YES. Poetry is the main line. English is the train.

Click here for Nikki Giovanni’s brief, funny, wonderful ‘biography.’

My podcast: Words by Winter.

Poem of the Week, by Julie Kane

Bookstores, libraries, friends’ bookshelves, my own bookshelves: many hours of my life have been spent with my head bent, inching sideways, pulling out this book and then another. Inscriptions are clues to whom it once belonged to and who it came from. To my beautiful granddaughter on her eighth birthday. To my husband on our 40th anniversary. To my best friend from her best friend.

Once, at Half Price Books near my house, I found a hardcover copy of my first novel. I flipped it open to the title page to see, in my own angular scrawl, that I’d signed it with love to a long-lost friend in Chicago. It was like finding an old friend, a reminder of the person I used to be.

Used Book, by Julie Kane

What luck—an open bookstore up ahead
as rain lashed awnings over Royal Street,
and then to find the books were secondhand,
with one whole wall assigned to poetry;
and then, as if that wasn’t luck enough,
to find, between Jarrell and Weldon Kees,
the blue-on-cream, familiar backbone of
my chapbook, out of print since ’83—
its cover very slightly coffee-stained,
but aging (all in all) no worse than flesh
through all those cycles of the seasons since
its publication by a London press.
Then, out of luck, I read the name inside:
The man I thought would love me till I died.

Click here for more information about poet Julie Kane.

My podcast: Words by Winter

Join us for Write Together, June 10-17, 2023

Our first-ever Write Together session in January was such a wonderful experience that I’ve decided to offer it every January and June. The experience of writing together in silence, each in our little Zoom boxes, was simultaneously comforting and freeing. Was it the energy of knowing we were all writing together? The structure of a guided prompt and a time limit? The knowledge that we were writing for ourselves, but in community?

It was a beautiful challenge to design the Write Together session: Seven days in a row, one hour in the morning and another hour in the evening, each with a different reading and different, guided prompt. Our spring session will feature the same format, with different readings and different prompts each time.

Some participants used each prompt to explore new forms and new material, others adapted the prompts to works in progress, still others leapt off the proverbial creative writing cliff and went where the muse took them. Here are a few responses:

I loved your class and got so much out of it. It was wonderful to write together twice a day for a week! It felt like a rare and fortunate thing to be able to do, and the poems were inspiring and powerful. Thank you!

I am soooooo grateful that you did it–this was a wonderful (and very generative) experience for me, and I will come back to these readings and prompts often–as well as continue to work on the pieces I started.

Thank you for this wonderful Write Together opportunity. I can’t begin to say how meaningful it was for me on so many levels. 

It re-energized me and got me back into a routine. I find that I need that momentum and structure to get into a groove.

I absolutely loved it.  Loved having two sessions (per day) and I’d love to do the workshop again.

I loved this class.  It was such a unique format, and so low-pressure, in terms of “performance” … it was also oddly comforting to know there was no expectation of turning in an assignment.  I could just follow the muse down whatever rabbit hole it went down, fearlessly. 

If you’re interested, I’d love to see you in our June session. Here are all the details.

Write Together: June 10-17, 2023, 10-11 am CT and 7-8 pm CT every day (note time zone)

In the second offering of our Write Together session, we’ll convene in our Zoom Room for one-hour sessions twice-daily (drop in for one or both a day, or whatever suits your schedule). Each hour includes a brief reading and continues with a 30- to 45-minute guided prompt related to the theme of the day. Each session is designed to wake up the magical inner writer who lives within us all.

Each prompt and reading will be recorded separately, so if you miss one, you’ll still be able to view it.

The Write Together session was inspired by my own yearly practice of a week devoted solely to generating new ideas, having fun, and playing around with cool new prompts. You won’t have to take a week off work or your daily routine –unless of course you want to–but you will have fourteen hour-long opportunities to write in a focused, intensive, exhilarating way in a room full of others doing the same thing. Limited to 30. Come have fun and see what you come up with!

Fee: $200, payable via Venmo to @Alison-McGhee-1, Zelle to alisonmcghee@gmail.com, Paypal to alison_mcghee@hotmail.com (use the “send to a friend” option), or by personal check. I also offer two $100 half-price scholarships; if you’d like one, just let me know and it’s yours, no questions asked. Please email me with any questions.

Bonus: Weekly writing prompts will be emailed to you every Friday for one month after class.

Poem of the Week, by Hafizah Augustus Geter

A friend and I were talking late the other night. Her daughter was upstairs, crying, so sad about something my friend couldn’t help her with, though she desperately wished she could. Oh my God it would be so much easier if we could bear it for them, my friend and I said. So much easier on us, is what we meant.

Witnessing your child’s grief is its own special kind of hell, which is one of the reasons I so love this poem. When I’m gone, I hope my children move me to a land where grief is in the background. Where they remember how much I loved zooming down the giant slopes of Glass Factory Road, or that one time I got stuck behind the Christmas tree, and how about the embarrassing number of letters I wrote them when they were away at camp? I hope they think of me and laugh.

Praise Song, by Hafizah Augustus Geter

After she died, I’d catch her
stuffing my nose with pine needles and oak,
staring off into the shadows of early morning.
Me, too jetlagged for the smells a ghost leaves behind.
The tailor of histories,
my mother sewed our Black Barbies and Kens
Nigerian clothes, her mind so tight against
the stitching, that in precision, she looked mean
as hell, too. My mother’s laugh was a record skipping,
so deep she left nicks in the vinyl.
See? Even in death, she wants to be fable.
I don’t know what fathers teach sons,
but I am moving my mother
to a land where grief is no longer
gruesome. She loved top 40, yacht rock,
driving in daylight with the wind
wa-wa-ing through her cracked window
like Allah blowing breath
over the open bottle neck of our living.
She knew ninety-nine names for God,
and yet how do I remember her—
as what no god could make?

Click here for more information about Hafizah Augustus Geter.

My podcast: Words by Winter

Poem of the Week, by Danusha Laméris

Once, a friend and I sat on a long and deserted stretch of sand. This was on the Forgotten Coast of Florida, and it was late, and the sky twinkled overhead. My friend gasped and pointed at a shooting star.

Oh my God, she whispered. I’ve never seen one before.

I, who had seen many, stayed silent in the face of her enchantment. Another star melted down the sky, and another. My friend was speechless now, and so was I. Her wonder made shooting stars new for me again.

Pigeons, by Danusha Laméris

Because they crowd the corner
of every city street,
because they are the color
of sullied steel,
because they scavenge,
eating every last crust,
we do not favor them.

They raise their young
huddled under awnings
above the liquor store

circle our feet, pecking at crumbs
pace the sidewalk
with that familiar strut.

None will ever attain greatness.
Though every once in a while
in a tourist’s blurry snapshot
of a grand cathedral

they rise into the pale gray sky
all at once.

Click here for more information about the wondrous Danusha Laméris.

My podcast: Words by Winter

Books I Read Last Month

Outline, by Rachel Cusk. This was my first Rachel Cusk novel, and once I finished it I immediately tromped out to Magers & Quinn in -5 temps and bought Transit, the next in this trilogy. What a fascinating read, narrated by a woman, a writer herself, who’s on a week-long teaching residency in Greece. We learn virtually nothing about the narrator –I felt at arm’s distance from her all the way through the book, as she eats and drinks, goes for boat rides, teaches, and meets with friends—and yet I was drawn in to this book the same way I was drawn to the Ferrante novels, by the narrator’s sharp, level, unsparingly honest observations.

Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus. My mother gave me this novel for Christmas and I was delighted, because I’d heard trustworthy friends say how much they’d enjoyed it. Enjoy it I did, and I sent it on to my own daughter, so the female line of McGhee-Garmus fans might continue. Funny. Acerbic. Enraging in an exhausted, eye-rolling, my God can we just once and for all dismantle the patriarchy because everyone’s lives would be so much better way. Snappy. Skewering. Elizabeth Zott, the chemist at the heart of the book, is irresistible, at one point following up her use of the word water with “or H2O, as it’s more commonly known.” Completely enjoyable.

This Must Be the Place and The Hand That First Held Mine, both by Maggie O’Farrell.

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet stunned me, and the day I finished it I walked to Magers & Quinn, once again in sub-zero weather, and picked up This Must Be the Place and The Hand That First Held Mine. I can’t get enough of this writer. Her brilliantly wrought characters, especially the women, oh the women. Thank you for your women, Maggie O’Farrell. Thank you for the way you write about the wild pull of motherhood, and the simultaneous and equal wild pull to make art. Thank you for way you skip back and forth in time and place, the way you weave a magic invisible web that somehow includes small me within it.

The Phantom TollBooth, by Norton Juster, ill. Jules Feiffer. I’ve been interspersing contemporary books with long-ago children’s classics I somehow never read before, The Phantom Tollbooth being one of them. This wordy, odd little book would be worth it for Jules Feiffer’s illustrations alone, but once I decided to go along for the ride of the wordplay and allegorical references throughout, I had fun. At one point I dog-eared a page so I could go back and copy out a quote from it, and I actually did go back and copy out that quote, which, trust me, doesn’t always happen.

The Roof Over Our Heads, by Nicole Kronzer. One of the many interesting aspects of this novel, about a theater family and their many actor friends and recruits who create an immersive, Victorian-themed escape-room mystery in their falling-apart Victorian mansion in a desperate attempt to raise enough money to pay for necessary repairs, is that it reads almost like a play in book form. There’s lots of rapid-fire dialogue and action narrated by an introspective, charming teen struggling to help his family and himself. At heart, The Roof Over Our Heads is a novel about the complications, depth and devotion of family love.