By Kassie Charnley
The last installment of the Gwen Frostic Reading Series for the fall semester was on Thursday, Dec. 1.
This particular reading featured three of WMU’s graduates – Melinda Moustakis, Elizabeth Knapp and Jason Skipper – who said they were happy to return to read from their recently published and recently awarded books.
“Once a year we have an alumni reading, often with three guests,” Dustin Hoffman, coordinator of the Gwen Frostic Reading Series, said. “While they share the common trait of being alumni of the WMU Creative Writing Program, they also have in common the fact that they have recently released books, which we are very proud of here at the program.”
Hoffman said that allowing these authors to read in the alumni event is a way of showing the program’s pride in their successful graduates.Hoffman said that Melinda Moustakis, one of the fiction writers that read from her book, recently graduated the Ph.D. program and her debut short story collection just earned her the title of one of the top 5 under 35 authors with the National Book Award Foundation.
“That’s a big deal for not just our program, but for the entire university – to have one of our grads earn so much esteem for such a respectable organization is great,” Hoffman said.
Moustakis was a crowd pleaser with her witty remarks and daring dialogue as she read a few short stories from her book, “Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories.” Mostakis began her reading with the first short story that appears in her book.
The short story, “Trigger,” set the mood for her reading as it provided the audience with a taste of what the rest of her book would include – relationships, family, and hunting. She continued her portion of the reading with the last short story that is featured in her book. “The Last Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show” featured a young woman and her relationship with her boyfriend and moved from that young woman having children, to then following her as she visited her mother in a nursing home mixed in with arguments with her teenage daughter, as well as other bits of sensory details from the young woman’s life and those individuals that surrounded her in the Alaskan town that she grew up in.
Elizabeth Knapp, however, brought the reading a little closer to home, as she said that most of the poems in her book, “The Spite House,” were written in Kalamazoo, and some of the poems were even set in Kalamazoo.
As the WMU alumna stood in front of the room, she said, “This is truly a homecoming for me; after all, Kalamazoo was my home for four years while I went to school here.”
Knapp began her portion of the reading with what she called a private tradition.
“I like to read a poem from another author before reading my own works,” Knapp said.
She read “Sleeping Woman” by WMU’s New Issues Press founding editor, Herb Scott. Knapp read a few poems from her book, those entitled “Uninvited Ghost,” “The Burning Bush,” and “Intimacy.” She also read a couple of poems from a series that she liked to call ‘The Spiderman Poems’ – poems in which she based off of the Spiderman movies that became popular in 2002. Those poems were entitled “Spiderman on the Paradigm of Marriage” and “Spiderman Converts to Buddhism.” Both were fun to hear read out loud and even more funny to imagine. The WMU alumna even shared a few of her newer poems with the audience – “Your Life is Meaningless,” “Groundhog Day,” and “Arc.”
Jason Skipper was the final WMU alumnus featured in this reading series. Skipper is the author of the novel “Hustle,” which is his first published piece. In a brief discussion after the reading, Skipper shared that “Hustle” is a novel set in Texas that follows the adolescence of a young man named Chris Saxton. The young man, who is raised by his con artist, alcoholic grandfather and his womanizing father, grows up selling shrimp from a van on the side of the road and uses music as a means to try to survive and escape his difficult life.
When asked about the characters in “Hustle” and whether he fashions the characters around people that he knows, Skipper said that the grandfather and father characters are derived from people that he grew up around and just like Chris, Skipper sold shrimp from a van on the side of the road in order to support his family.
“Also like Chris, I am big into music, and I grew up in the Dallas music scene that produced bands like Bowling for Soup, Reverend Horton Heat and the Toadies,” Skipper said. “I like to say that I gave the characters a bit of DNA, but they, like actual people, flourished on their own, given their environments and interactions with each other.”
As the audience listened to Skipper read from the first chapter of “Hustle,” they could definitely get a feel for the novel’s central character, Chris. Skipper develops an image and a personal being around Chris in the first chapter and his reading made the character even more real. Skipper said that when he began writing the first chapter of his book, he had the thought of maintaining imagery throughout the story, but he also gave himself an assignment.
“I wanted to have one character teaching another character a skill, which is seen in this first chapter as Chris is taught how to play the guitar,” Skipper said.
Skipper’s advice to students is to read avidly.
“Read the good stuff: writing that captures the world authentically and allows you to experience even the simplest of things – like light or the movement of a crowd – in a genuine and surprising way.”
He said that from reading ‘the good stuff,’ writers can then strive for authenticity in their own writing.
“Write all the time and keep at the story until it’s finished. Try to learn something new every day that you write,” Skipper added.
This year’s featured alumni in the Gwen Frostic Reading Series brought a lot to the podium. Each author shared a bit of their story with audience members as they read from their written works.
“The Frostic Readings are first and foremost for the students at WMU. We bring authors here to offer students a unique experience with the most contemporary of literature,” Hoffman, the coordinator of the series, said.
By attending this past reading series event, students could get of taste of just that – a combination of authors with experience in writing new and exciting literature and sharing in the success that comes of it. “Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories,” “The Spite House,” and “Hustle” can be purchased at Kalamazoo’s locally owned Old-Time Newsstand downtown – the Michigan News Agency or online at Amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com.