Thursday, June 23, 2016


LUCY BURDETTE: I'm thrilled to introduce debut author Laurel Peterson. Not only does she write novels, she's a poet--in fact, she's the poet laureate for Norwalk, CT this year--which I think is the coolest thing ever! Welcome Laurel! 

LAUREL PETERSON: First, a big thanks to Jungle Red Writers for hosting me.
I’m really honored to be here. 

Perhaps social justice isn’t something that one considers when
writing, even though mystery novels are filled with situations that depict bringing
criminals to justice.

For a long time, I struggled with my purpose for writing. Especially
if one is never published or is published for a small audience, who cares? Why do any of us do this?

I’ve been named poet laureate of my city this year, the first one ever, which means I get to write about public art like this (a collection of words of welcome, titled Gateway to Norwalk)

As I set up events, and as I work to publicize my first
mystery novel, Shadow Notes (which, funny
enough, has wicked politicians as a theme), the same question arises: How do I
get people to care about and connect with language and literature?

I sat with five kids from the  Norwalk
Housing Authority, who said they didn’t write or even like poetry. Then, they
spent an hour writing two poems about themselves
(I am a lion, because I’m strong and love my family and just because I’m annoyed with you doesn’t
mean I don’t like you
…): vivid, interesting, unique poems that gave voice
to their inner selves. Bravo.

They reminded me of the most important thing I believe about
writing: it’s about giving voice—whether in poetry or prose.

At a reading, I once shared a poem about the death of a
spouse, and after, a woman said to me, Thank
you. That’s exactly how I felt.
Yesterday, a woman emailed to say she knew
the same kind of self-absorbed, wealthy women I describe in my novel, because
they acted as panicked and self-righteous in Texas as they did in Connecticut.

If my voice touches my reader—makes her laugh, cry, rage—I’ve
succeeded. If I can help others, through my writing or teaching, to discover
that they have a voice, too, like those kids—even just for a few minutes—then
I’ve succeeded.
It’s not just a
mystery novel, or just poetry. It’s a
model that I’m writing. Maybe others will follow.

As a culture, we need art at all levels—from Stephen King
and Jonathan Franzen to the guy with the plastic bags who shows up to read once
a month at the poetry reading. All art matters. All art gives voice. Those kids
have had a chance to speak now, and maybe they’ll listen to another writer
because they know what it means to say something. Maybe their voice will help
them find their place in the world, or maybe some other writer’s words will
help them see themselves more clearly. That’s why I write.

What are your thoughts about the purpose of your writing? Do
you notice local art and artists? Read less well-known authors?
Thanks for
stopping by.  I’d love to hear from you! 


Laurel S. Peterson is an English professor at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. Her poetry has been published in many literary journals and she has two  poetry chapbooks. She is currently serving as Norwalk, Connecticut’s first poet laureate, and her mystery novel, Shadow Notes, has just been released by Barking Rain Press.  
Links:  Twitter:  laurelwriter49
Clara Montague’s mother Constance never liked—or listened—to her but now they have to get along or they will both end up dead. Clara suspects she and her mother share intuitive powers, but Constance always denied it. When Clara was twenty, she dreamed her father would have a heart attack. Constance claimed she was hysterical. Then he died.
Furious, Clara leaves for fifteen years, but when she dreams Constance is in danger, she returns home. Then, Constance’s therapist is murdered and Constance is arrested.
Starting to explore her mother’s past, Clara discovers books on trauma, and then there’s a second murder. Can Clara find the connection between the murders and her mother’s past that will save her mother and finally heal their relationship?     


Joan Emerson said...

How wonderful that those young people had the opportunity to interact with you, to find their own voices.
I'm looking forward to reading "Shadow Notes" . . . .

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Laurel, congrats again on the book! I'm very interested in hearing about the difference in mindset (if there is one) when you sit down to write a poem, versus work on a novel.

Laurel said...

Thanks, Joan. It doesn't always happen that they do, but it's such a pleasure when something clicks for them!! Thanks so much for stopping by.

Laurel said...

Great question, Roberta. I think poetry for me is about capturing a moment--a particular feeling about one event or image. What is that poignant expression on my father's face, for example. If it's a poem, it's about capturing the moment; if it's a novel, it's about exploring the psychology of the person, his history and relationships. Does that make sense?

Ramona said...

Laurel, thank you for a thoughtful post. I like your thoughts on social justice and bringing--ours and fictional--into writing. Congrats on the book and on touching readers with your poetry.

Your question about engaging the public to care about literature and poetry is a good one. I am a judge at the state level for the Scholastic Writing & Arts Scholarship program, and that provides a mechanism to reach students already interested. To reach other students, it's more of a challenge. To reach adults, it's a bigger challenge.

I live in Delaware. We have a very active open mic and spoken word scene. If ever you are down this way, maybe we could set up a guest reading from you?

Laurel said...

Hi Ramona: I agree about how hard it is to reach a wider audience. I think people have been taught to be afraid of literature, as if it's some kind of puzzle they have to decode (and I'm guilty of this, too), and so many feel they just don't have the tools. I tell my students that they speak in metaphor all the time and just don't realize it. I also struggle with the standards issue in the schools--students have to be able to perform certain tasks to graduate. How do I create a love of language and still get them the skills they need? Tough stuff.

Thanks so much for stopping by! I would love to do a reading in your neighborhood. Let's discuss!

Laurel said...

I actually have to go off to teach some young people for a couple hours, but I'll be back around 11:30!

Mary Sutton said...

Laurel, congrats on the book!

Voice is important. I've heard writers say, "If I touch just one reader..." And I think that's true (of course, we all hope to touch as many people as possible). I don't know that I think very hard about social justice when I write but it's got to be in the back of my mind I suppose.

And I agree with you and Ramona that people have become afraid of literature - genre and other. My girl (almost 16) loves to read all kinds of things. She says she gets asked, "Why would you read when you don't have to?" I wonder sometimes if all the "required" reading in schools discourages kids from reading for pleasure. Not that I think required reading should go away. But maybe how it's taught?

I love finding lesser known authors. I think, sometimes, they are the most fun.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

It's so wonderful ! But I always wonder about being asked to write a poem about a specific thing. Also ..because of you --now thinking about whether you write poetry because you are inspired, and how that changes when you HAVE to write something.
And wow--so cool! Poet Laureate.

Hallie Ephron said...

This is so true: "As a culture, we need art at all levels"

I truly am in awe of poets. Because every word choice matters.

we belong to art museums, go to galleries and readings... showing up and listening and looking.

Keenan Powell, Attorney at Law said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Keenan Powell, Attorney at Law said...

Great post, Laurel. All of my mysteries have revolved around a social justice issue. That's what is important to me and keeps my attention long enough to commit to a book. And I love to read poetry but haven't written anything since I was a morose teenager.

vicki batman said...

What touched me most about this post was the kids not writing poems. And you worked with them. Thank you.

Laurel said...

I think one of the things I love most about Sara Paretsky is her fierce devotion to social justice in her
Books. She always seems
To be saying: sit up and take notice!!

Laurel said...

Thanks, Vicki. Just worked with about 40
More! Phew!
Such great energy and some good connections. A pleasure.

Laurel said...

Yes, right? I want my students to know they don't have to be "great" or "important " to be artists or writers.

Laurel said...

Thanks, Hank. Writing is writing. As a poet, I have to show up at the writing desk just as much as when I'm wearing the fiction hat. My latest project, a collection of poems about art works, made me go looking for things to write about. I tell my students that if you don't show up regularly at the writing desk, the Muse doesn't know what hours she's supposed to work.

Laurel said...

Hi Mary: I do think it's how it's taught but I'm not sure I've yet figured out the perfect way to do it!! :).

Julia said...

Laurel, I agree with everything you wrote. Social Justice can and should be a huge component of the arts, but bringing art for art's sake to everyone, especially people whose access to art had traditionally been marginalized, is also a powerful form of social justice.

Imagine what sort of world we might live in if every child received a thorough education in the visual arts, literature and poetry, dance, music and theater.

Deborah Crombie said...

Laurel, thanks for the thoughtful post. I've recommended this book on the blog before, but if you haven't read David Denby's Lit Up, I highly recommend it! I think every teacher should read it. (Actually, I think every reader should read it:-))

I was just reading an editorial in my local newspaper this morning (three cheers for the Dallas Morning News!) about how polarized we've become as a nation in the last few years. There are lots of things that might improve this, like getting involved in local projects and local politics, so that we don't see our neighbors as "other."

But I think the greatest hope for bringing people together is reading. It allows us to experience other peoples lives and problems and opinions, to learn empathy and compassion. I hope that's what I accomplish when I write. I usually start out with individual characters and problems rather than social justice issues, but social justice has a way of creeping in as it impacts my characters.

I think your book sounds fascinating, and I love the title! So evocative.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Welcome, Laurel! Poetry AND prose, I'm so impressed! In terms of "why write?" — I love John Gardner's THE ART OF FICTION. “Sanity in a writer is merely this: However stupid he may be in his private life, he never cheats in his writing. He never forgets that his audience is, at least ideally, as noble, generous, and tolerant as he is himself (or more so), and never forgets that he is writing about people, so that to turn characters to cartoons, or treat his characters as innately inferior to himself, to forget their reasons for being as they are, to treat them as brutes, is bad art. Sanity in a writer also involves taste . . . To write with taste, in the highest sense, is to write with the assumption that one out of a hundred people who read one’s work may be dying, or have loved someone dying; to write so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write, as Shakespeare wrote, so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged to live on . . . If there is good to be said, the writer should remember to say it. If there is bad to be said, he should say it in a way that reflects the truth that, though we see the evil, we choose to continue among the living.”
― John Gardner, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Thank you, Susan!

And Laurel, that is perfect. The Muse won't know what time to show up. HA. Love that! And SO true!

FChurch said...

Congratulations, Laurel--for being chosen the first poet laureate in your state, for your new book, and for soldiering on in the trenches to reach young people. Writing is powerful--it gives a voice to a person even if their words are not meant to be seen by anyone else. I once did a series of writing workshops for AIDS' Healing Weekend retreats. A young woman got up, visibly upset, at the start of our first writing prompt and left the room. Her sister followed her and in a few minutes, they returned. One of the rules was--write only if you want to and share only if you choose. After a few more prompts, I noticed the young woman writing. Later, her sister told me that writing had always been the way this young woman expressed herself, but that she hadn't written at all since being diagnosed with HIV. All I did was give her a safe place to begin. That's the gift you are giving young people--a safe place to begin, and it may be the first time anyone has offered them that, or challenged them.

And one last comment--STEAM. Arts matter as much as Science, technology, engineering, and math--and they always will.

Laurel said...

Thanks for that great quote, Susan. So compassionate and honest. Gardner's book is a classic for a reason, and a place I return to as well.

Julia and Deborah, I would love to see a more comprehensive arts education. Right now, I feel as though the arts and humanities are hanging on by their fingernails... again... One needs to sit still for long enough to absorb an art work or piece of literature and think about it. It requires a quiet (or in process towards quiet) mind. I think we're struggling with that as a culture. Thanks so much for all your thoughtful comments!

Kathy Reel said...

Laurel, I so enjoyed your post and the comments here today. Congratulations on all the accomplishments--your Poet Laureate honor, your mystery book, your poetry collections, and your work with young people. That's a lot of great activity. I love your description as poetry as capturing a moment. Perfect description.

Helping young people to find their voice through writing is something I'm a fan of. For some years, I worked with fourth graders, then high school seniors on their writing portfolios mandated by the state. It was so rewarding when a student realized that he did have something to say and it was worth saying, that everyone has their own story. Getting to know the students through their writing often revealed parts of their life that would have been difficult for adults to deal with, let alone fourth graders or teenagers. To me, writing can be therapeutic, and I think it can be for young people, too. So, kudos to you, Laurel, for your work with young people on expressing themselves through writing.

I was heartened to read in our local paper this week (in Kentucky) that the arts were going to once again be given emphasis by making arts a part of the core studies.

Laurel said...

Having the arts as part of the core is so hopeful. Thanks, Kathy. And I agree that it's therapeutic. I used to suggest that writing murder mysteries was at least partly about revenge... so cathartic. :)

Anonymous said...

Congrats on the book! I like many less known authors. I do like a few who are on best seller lists once in a while.