An Interview with Bethroot Gwynn, Honoring Women’s History Month

Bethroot Gwynn graduated from Duke University and Union Theological Seminary. She lives on women’s land in the forests of Southern Oregon, where she has been writing, growing food, making theater and ritual since 1976. She has taught, directed, and performed Personal Theater for Women, crafting experience into physical symbol and personal myth. Her first theater production was Feathers in My Mind, an autobiographical play. She created several one-woman performance pieces, including Theaterwoman, Immaculate Decision, and A Mind Play — celebrating lesbian-feminism and Goddess spirituality at conferences, festivals and other venues. She directed some of her students in two performance pieces —Pieces of Truth, and Childtracks and Amazon Wings, and created an ensemble piece called Women: The Longest Revolution — A Performance Documentary.

 Her poetry and essays have been published in WomanSpirit, Manzanita Quarterly, MoonSeed, Sinister Wisdom, The Poetry of Sex, and other publications. Bethroot is a longtime editor of We’Moon: Gaia Rhythms for Womyn, and her writing is featured regularly in the We’Moon datebook. She published a chapbook in 1990 — Under the Heartstone: Poems from a Lesbian Love Spell. In 2018, We’Moon published a collection of her work — PreacherWoman for the Goddess: Poems, Invocations, Plays and Other Holy Writ.

Bethroot Gwynn
Bethroot Gwynn
photo by Hawk Madrone 2017

We'Moon 2020 front cover art "Lioness" by Saha Taj 2014


We’Moon 2020 front cover art “Lioness” ©Saba Taj 2014

For those readers who may be unfamiliar, what is We’Moon?

We’Moon is a unique datebook, graced with art and writing submitted from women all over the world. It reflects a spirituality that honors Earth/Moon/Sun/Stars — and Woman. Gaia, the primal mother earth Goddess in Greco-Roman mythology, interacts with her celestial neighbors every day, and We’Moon keeps track of those actual rhythms. It is a daily/weekly calendar and appointment book packed with astrological, lunar and Sun-seasonal information. It’s also a book of devotions: sacred space where women share written and artistic inspirations from their life-experiences, their love and concern for the world, their delight at saying Goddess! out loud as a name for divine energy. “We’Moon” = we of the moon, we whose bodies cycle in Moon rhythm.

We like to say that “If Mother Earth needed a datebook, She would choose We’Moon.” There is really nothing quite like it. I’m thinking of it as a spiritual Rorschach: there is something for you to be gifted by, depending on what you are looking for. Thousands of folks rely on We’Moon for its detailed astrological and lunar data. Every day’s calendar space includes lunar phases and detailed astrological entries (the movement of the Sun through the signs of the Zodiac, planetary travels through those signs: aspects, transits, ingresses, etc.). This information is important for people who take sky activities into account as they make plans and write in their appointments and seek to understand unseen multiplicities in their lives. Insightful articles by women in the Introduction and Appendix serve as a primer for deeper explorations of astrology, eclipses, Tarot, herbs, and the solar cycle of seasons.

Others are more drawn to We’Moon’s poetic and artistic qualities. For some it’s like a spirit-filled coffee table book; opening to any week may reveal an oracle of color and verse that offers guidance and wisdom. I’ll say more about We’Moon magic shortly.

The We’Moon calendar honors eight Holy Days: the two solstices and two equinoxes marked by how the Sun and Earth play with each other and create seasons — and the four in-between, cross-quarter days from the Celtic calendar: Imbolc (Candlemas), Beltane (May Day), Lammas, Samhain (Hallowmas). Each holyday receives a double page spread of art and writing, and each year a gifted writer accents our travel through this Wheel of the Year.

Every year the datebook has a theme, a touchstone to inspire our contributors and our organizing of the material we receive. For the past 21 years, our annual theme has been drawn from a card in Tarot’s Major Arcana. We’Moon 2020 spins off from the Judgment card, #20, and proclaims Wake Up Call as the thematic clarion. And within the datebook there are always 13 Moons or chapters, from one New Moon to the next, with art and writing threaded through the daily/weekly pages, following a sub-theme of that year’s wider focus.

In order to give readers a bit of a sample of what one would find in the We’Moon datebook, would you share a few favorite pieces?

Enough talking about the book already!

Let’s look at a couple of actual pages from We’Moon 2020.

Here is a poem by Lorraine Schein, companioned by an art piece from Sudie Raskusin. It is on page 77 and is part of Moon IV Awakened Woman.

From Moon VI Earth Answers, we are sharing here a poem from Cindy Ruda, and art by Rachel Houseman. You can see that this page has no daily calendar space. It is part of the Moon Page VI spread, accompanying the title page for that Moon chapter.

I chose these selections as examples of the now provocative, now reverent material that We’Moon publishes. There are clearly political stirrings among We’Moon writers and artists. We hear impassioned alarm about the state of the world, offerings of hope about building global community. Sometimes there is quirky relief, wit to shake us up. And we also get to bow in gratitude for the prayers and paens that remind us of benevolence at the heart of reality.

How do these contributions of art and writing come about? How are they gathered and chosen?

This part of the story is quite remarkable. There are other astrological moon calendars, a few dedicated to women. What makes W’e’Moon so unusual, I believe, is this wave of art and writing submissions every year — more than 3000, from 400-500 women around the world. From that treasure trove, approximately 150 pieces of art, and 150 writings, wind up in the datebook. The wave comes in response to the Call for Contributions that we send out in the spring, spinning an invitation based on our chosen theme and a bevy of questions to spark creative impulses: what imaginative uplift, visions of truth might women create from their pens and paintbrushes, keyboards and cameras?

“We” who gather this rich material together are a staff of 7 women, most based in Southern Oregon, a mix of full- and part-time employees with years of longevity among us. We’Moon staff are sometimes a little bonkers about what year we are in. Calendar-makers have to be far ahead of the game. Right now in mid-March we are selling/using We’Moon 2020; We’Moon 2021 was sent to the printer last week, and we’ve just completed and released the Call for We’Moon 2022.

Those thousands of submissions will come in over the summer. And here is Part 2 of We’Moon’s unlike-any-other-datebook story: a democratic layer of women’s community participation in the process of selecting art and writing. In September, women are invited to join us to review the material, at about a dozen Selection Circles held in different parts of the region. Each piece of art/writing has an easy rating code on the back, and women come together in these small “study halls” to register their druthers about the material — about 200 participants in all. The final circle, held in Ashland, also includes feedback about possible covers, and Moon theme subjects. We’Moon staff spend months in fall and winter reviewing the materials, firming up Moon theme clusters, choosing and placing art and writing on calendar pages of the next We’Moon, changing our minds 300 times. We consult the circle druthers for advice as we go along. We also go searching for additional pieces if crucial topics need more focus than we find in the mix of submissions.

And women’s community participation comes full circle in the fall when we hold an Unveiling in Ashland of the new We’Moon. This is a public-invited event where local area contributors of art & writing in the brand-new datebook share their work. The Unveilings are vibrant with creativity, resonant with appreciation and celebration.

What are the origins of We’Moon? How did it begin?

The story of how We’Moon came about is a fascinating tale. You can read about it in detail in an exquisite book: In the Spirit of We’Moon. It’s a 30 Year Anthology of Art and Writing from We’Moon 1981-2011. The anthology is narrated by Musawa, co-founder of the datebook and owner of We’Moon Company. She was there from the beginning!


In the Spirit of We’Moon front cover art
“Beauty” ©Jeannine Chappell 2006

We’Moon began as part of the late 20th century feminist revolution, the lesbian back-to-the-land movement, the emergence of eco-feminism, and the rebirth of Goddess spirituality. The datebook’s actual birth began on women’s land in Denmark, where 50-60 lesbians were living close to the earth, creating community, and exploring spiritual connections with each other and with natural earth-sky cycles. Astrology became a common language among these women from different countries, speaking different native languages. I’ve heard it said that, for instance, the Libras might cook dinner together, or the Pisces women do a harvest day. Their natal astrological charts hung in the living room and deepened their fun and wonder with each other and the cosmos.

Suddenly, the land was commandeered by a corporation, and this nurturing experimental community had to disband and separate. Musawa and Nada, her then-partner, in diaspora, took on creating a novel way for these women to stay connected: We’Moon! “Faced with loss of our home base, we turned to the Moon, Sun and stars to keep us in touch with ourselves, each other and the Earth’s cycles” (Musawa, In the Spirit of We’Moon, p. 24).

The first We’Moon was wee: a pocket-sized astrological moon calendar for 1981-82, hand-written in five languages. Copies traveled around Europe in backpacks and travel bags, creating a new kind of community, one in which women could turn the page and know that other women, wherever located, were greeting the same sun, dancing under the same full moon, in the same cyclic rhythm. The Libras and Pisces and other signs could continue to be in cosmic communion. And women could sense their dreams and struggles connected even at a distance.

Musawa brought We’Moon back to the US in the late 1980s when she returned to the women’s land she had founded in Oregon, and after some bumps on the publishing road, production of the annual We’Moon datebook grew in the 1990s to become a cottage industry for the residents of We’Moon Land. Over time, the datebook flourished as a channel for women’s creativity, an everyday anchor for connection with earth rhythms, and a touchstone for Goddess celebration. New technologies made it possible to expand circulation and develop new products: greeting cards and a wall calendar; the In the Spirit of We’Moon Anthology; The Last Wild Witch, a children’s book authored by Starhawk & illustrated by Lindy Kehoe; and in more recent years, my own book of poems, PreacherWoman for the Goddess; a Spanish language edition of the datebook; and — coming out in fall 2020, A We’Moon Tarot!

Production shifted to Southern Oregon in 2007, and We’Moon made itself at home again in the hands of countrywomen, several of us living on lands in the area, working at We’Moon’s hub.

What challenges has We’Moon faced in its 40 years of publication? What challenges does it face currently?

Challenges? For sure! Small independent publishers don’t have an easy time of it, and the ups and downs of business cycles always involve taking risks.

A dramatic setback occurred in 2001 when the Main House at We’Moon Land burned down, taking with it the We’Moon offices with reams of records and documents, art and archives, production capacity. A magical story emerged from the ashes. Four of us had just completed choosing the art and writing for the 2002 datebook. The notebook where we had recorded our choices was destroyed, as was every piece of writing submitted for the 2002 datebook. How could we make a new We’Moon? We sat together for hours and days, and we entered into the sacred realm of collective Memory. A scrap of phrase would come to someone, a fleeting image would partner it in someone else’s mind, and Voila! we would restore the visual, the verbal, page by page. We wound up recalling art and writing for all but about 3 out of 153 pages; charred release forms helped us re-find our contributors. That We’Moon of 2002, Priestessing the Planet, remains one of my favorites.

Not every challenge has an inner magical story. But We’Moon continues to defy the odds. Think of it: here is a hard copy daily planner made of paper — how quaint! — in an age when digital information and interaction are the yardsticks by which millions of people measure, record, plan their every day. We’Moon swims upstream in the roiling river of electronic media. And our natural home among other feminist publishers and booksellers has shrunk drastically. 13 feminist bookstores remain in the US and Canada. In the 1980s, there were as many as 350; by 1992, less than 100. The same sharp decline has affected feminist presses and publishers. The big fish have eaten the small fry; Amazon and the big box stores have snapped up the alternative books market. Even the big publishing houses have had to scramble to stay viable in an age when print media has become archaic in many quarters. And feminism has become backlashed into disfavor, as though misogyny and abuse of women had been vanquished, as though women’s empowerment had been fully achieved.

We’Moon has continued to offer itself as a Challenge: to a mainstream clogged with sexist, racist detritus from an imperial and patriarchal system of control by white, Western, male power. Yes, an astrological lunar calendar can do this! And women have continued to discover and adore this publication. Hard copy or not, We’Moon has 50,000 customers buying products, 80,000 followers on facebook. We know that there are thousands of women hungry for an electronic version of the datebook. We’ll get there, when the budget can support such an enormous expense. But meantime, what a hoot that we are thriving! For that matter, thousands know that there is nothing like running your hands over the smooth full color pages of exquisitely designed artistry that Says Something!

That print vs. digital edge nudges a generational challenge. We’Moon came of age among women like myself now in our elder years. It will survive only if younger generations of women reach out and claim it. That is happening to some extent. Our staff group has some mixed generations, and that makes for vigorous instruction for us all. We see women of different ages at Selection Circles, and at the annual Unveiling. But there are a great many grey-haired crones at these gatherings. We’Moon has outreach work to do among the mothers and maidens. We know that some younger women are submitting their art. Edgy images are arriving, a modern flair that takes risk. Reflection of risky times, an edgy world.

The challenge for We’Moon about racial and cultural diversity is acute and rich with opportunity. We’Moon was born into a multicultural and international cradle and had especially strong and enduring connections with women in the UK and Germany (a German language datebook was published for many years until 2016). Although there are Women of Color who have been We’Moon devotees and contributors all along, We’Moon’s cultural bases have for the most part been Euro-centric. That we use the Celtic Holy Day calendar reflects our kinship with Dianic Wicca and European pagan traditions.

We’Moon culture has always been eagerly open to participation from Women of Color, but the demographics and the geographies of unconscious racism have surely been a part of We’Moon’s history. We are actively committed to interrupt these patterns, working with some Women of Color to reach out in their communities and among indigenous women, seeking contributions of art and writing, and participants in Selection Circles. We particularly seek art that represents people of color created by women artists of color. The pages of We’Moon 2020 and 2021 reflect this work: a new harvest of multicultural offerings, and a more comprehensive weave of the We’Moon web.

The international story shifted enormously in 2018 with the publication of a Spanish edition of We’Moon, involving a far-flung multi-national team of translators. We hope that new marketing alliances can support this more global outreach. And: of the 150 contributors in We’Moon 2020, 35 are from countries outside the US. Yes, most are English-speaking. But the web does reach wider and wider. My favorite proofing task is to take a careful spin through the biographic notes in the We’Moon Appendix. It is fascinating to read about the varieties of women world-wide who are practicing their creativity, healing arts, Goddess devotions, earth-tending.

We’Moon has clearly meant a great deal to a great many women. What need does We’Moon fill? How does We’Moon impact women’s lives?

How would we know how to answer this question? The anecdotes give us some information, the stories that filter in through love notes, phone order conversations, appreciative emails. I was near the shipping office a few weeks ago and heard about this plea: “Please rush my order. I can’t live without you!”

I know a woman who gathers all her many years of We’Moons around her every Holy Day and makes it part of her ritual to call in We’Moon wisdom and inspiration from the Equinoxes and Solstices of the past.

Often women call or write looking for a particular piece of art or poem that touched them years ago. They remember and hold onto those deeply meaningful inspirations long after the year has closed. One woman spoke of saving an old We’Moon for years; there was a specific poem that moved her, and she wound up reading it aloud as she spread her mother’s ashes. And then there is the classic remark from a reader who called We’Moon “Church in a purse.” That one says it all.

Stepping back, I see that We’Moon gives women a chance to speak and listen to one another. There is a community of discourse, a town hall of spiritual conversation as women reflect, write, paint, unload, share at deeply personal levels. In a time of social dislocation, vitriol on the digital airwaves, planetary degradation, unabated violence — and now pestilence! — it is comforting to turn the page and be bathed by another woman’s wisdom in these unnerving times. Maybe she helps me sleep; maybe she inspires me to plan a march of resistance. We don’t know precisely how women respond to each other’s work. We know there is a world wide web that pulses among women as we share the common ground of Earth rhythm and the blanket of sky.

For decades you have been involved in artistic and creative endeavours in the Oregon women’s community. How did you come to be involved with We’Moon and how have you contributed to We’Moon over the years?

I don’t remember when I first encountered We’Moon, but it was definitely on my Goddess-loving path. I was on land in Southern Oregon in the late ’80s, creating ceremony and feminist theater, when Musawa was introducing We’Moon to women’s land communities and inviting participation in the annual datebook project. I attended and hosted some Selection Circles (we called them Weaving Circles in those days, a more imaginative title but baffling to literalists).

My more formal, staff relationship with We’Moon began in the winter of 1996-97. Women at We’Moon Land were beginning work on the 1998 datebook. The Tarot card offering theme guidance was The Crone; Wise We’Moon Ways was to be the theme of We’Moon 1998. Those in the staff group looked around at each other and decided they needed a woman older than they were to be working on the datebook and its invocation of Crone magic. They asked me to be the honorary Crone that year — I was only 55! — and to be a Special Editor for that issue. That was 24 years ago, and I am still called Special Editor for We’Moon.

Some of my tasks remain the same: I work with the submitted art and writing after “the cream has risen to the top” in the Selection Circles process. We call this my “broody hen” stage: I go through the material, sometimes diving into the “reject” boxes to see what jewels may be hiding there. Often they do sparkle. I let art and writing find each other and can frequently suggest pairings of words and images. Some other staff women are beginning to take on some of the broody hen work. I am Really a Crone now, and we want to be realistic about generational succession for We’Moon’s long term future.

A big part of my work is refining the 13 Moon themes and clustering the art and writing thematically. When our “Creatrix” group meetings begin, I’m bringing rough draft possibilities for how this voluminous amount of material can be organized. We meet in the fall making tentative art and writing placements, and then refine our choices weeks later during another stretch of meetings.

Meantime, feature articles from astrologers, the Holy Day writer and others who write for the Introduction to the datebook are coming in. My inner grammarian is joyfully released into this job. I get to be precise about semi-colons and commas, except for the exceptions.

A particular gift has evolved in my work with We’Moon which I both offer and am blessed by. Each year, I create the Invocation for next year’s We’Moon: a poem/prayer that summons Goddess energies specific to the datebook’s guiding theme. I get to prowl around online discovering arcane Goddesses from many parts of the world, Goddesses rarely known of outside the culture in which they are or were honored. And then, it turns out, I know how to pray out loud. My priestess vocation speaks up. My sister editors help burnish the language; we word-wrestle with sacred expression. The Summons resounds — printed in the Call for Contributions and in the Datebook, read aloud at Selection Circles and the Unveiling. Those Goddesses show up! They serve as Muses for the work that fills We’Moon. They travel the world and touch women with power, love, magic, compassion, imperatives, hope.

Would you describe your journey toward earth-based/goddess spirituality? Where does your spiritual vision come from and what does it mean to you?

I don’t think I can speak to these questions any more clearly than I did in the Introduction to the PreacherWoman for the Goddess book. So here are some excerpts from that writing: PreacherWoman for the Goddess front cover art
“Dancing with Lightning” ©Deshria 2006

“I come from a long line of back-country Protestant ministers, and something in the inheritance must have stuck because I wound up in theological seminary in the mid-1960s — drawn to passionate conversations about the great Life/Death questions and the socio-political revolutions at hand. But when my revolution came — the Lesbian-Feminist one — I was done with patriarchal religions. I was on fire with female-centered spirituality and joined other women to create women’s lands as Sanctuary for empowerment and imagination; to make art, culture and community devoted to a spirited embrace of earth-life and celebrating the Female as Holy. The domination of divine metaphor by male deity was Over!

There is no simple switch here from patriarchal God to a matriarchal version of Chief Deity … In theological terms, we veer toward immanence: divine spirit infuses all existence — the far reaches of cosmos, the inner quantum depths, the immaterial mysteries of consciousness, time, energy. And when we reach for imagery to reflect the Inexpressible, it is high time we look into the mirror. There you are. There I am. All the varieties of us. Woman. Holy.”

And from my apologia for the Spirit that inhabits my work as a creator/performer of Personal Theater: “The Spirit of Theater/The Theater of Spirit”

“Theater is a way of Opening. Ritual is a way of Opening …


We Beat the Drums.

We Call In the Gods and Goddesses. Make a Joyful Noise in the House of the Lord …

In Theater, as in expressive worship,

We imagine. And most important: we embody what we imagine …

We pretend that we can even speak about the Ineffable. — God? …

We can really only point to The Divine.

All we have is metaphor. And that is Perfect for Theater! …

My calling is to redress the balance of the last 5000-50,000 years, when divine metaphor has been occupied by male deity. It is long past time for Her to take focus. I am Her Priestess.

Theaterwoman, serving the Goddess MetaPhora.

I have enactments for you–In Her Honor.”

I would love to hear your thoughts on these questions taken directly from the We’Moon website. “Where and how are womyn transforming the dominant world order, and reclaiming Herstory? What is happening as more womyn move into power? What is the priority work on your To-Do list as an empowered woman?”

We are at the cusp of extraordinary change in the world as more and more women take power in their lives, in their communities, on the world stage. Sexual abuse and violence are called out as never before. Powerful male predators are brought down. Women fly airplanes, repair space stations, push research at the edges of scientific inquiry, govern (some) countries.

Because misogyny still survives, the glass is both half empty and half full. There are women murdered in the Amazon precisely because they have taken leadership in the environmental movement to protect the forest. (A special feature in We’Moon 2017 honored a number of these women.) Feminists in Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries have been killed because they insisted on women’s rights. Femicide — of all archaic brutalities! — is on the rise in Mexico! Thank goodness that the women of Mexico en masse are refusing to tolerate it. Pictures of their marches are on my mental screen as soon as we enter the empowerment discussion. Half empty, Half full. Women marching on International Women’s Day in other countries were attacked — generally by Islamists — for celebrating female power. How can this be? The entrenchment of hatred for women should they defy servitude as sexual and reproductive objects continues to be rigid and virulent, even in the 21st century.

And yet . . . Women Are taking power in public life all over the world. Many parliaments and city councils look different now, with female decision makers actively visible, even and most especially in some third-tier countries. Hospitals, clinics, labs, courtrooms, graduate faculties are staffed by women who did the training and secured their expertise. I’m amazed to see group photographs of US Congresspeople: look at all those women! There were so many articulate women at the microphone during the presidential impeachment hearings.

Ahem . . . . There’s that pesky glass. 75% of the US Congress is still male. 76% is white. We have come so far, and we have so far to go.

Yes, the campaigns to empower women as voters and officeholders, professionals, athletes, scientists are vigorous and successful. And No: girls are still refused education in die hard Islamist regions. Sexual slavery and trafficking of women have not diminished one whit. I believe it is imperative to keep naming the inequities and abuses that women face, to shout them, cry them out.

Feminism in America took a back seat not only because of male backlash, not only because uppity women are maligned, and many women are afraid to be uppity. Feminism faded also because of a classist narcissism: many women who progressed into some semblance of personal power and responsibility forgot their impoverished and mistreated sisters. Careerism and focus on Me inoculated a couple of generations of young women against commitment to collective wellbeing. The early Women’s Liberation Movement insisted: There are No Personal Solutions. Women’s liberation is about collective empowerment. So long as there are women anywhere in the world who are denied liberty, we cannot rest.

We’Moon is part of the Yes — celebrating women’s empowerment — and part of the No — calling out female oppression. How wonderful to affirm women’s rise to power and responsibility for shaping the world we live in! How fiercely we must insist that All of Gaia’s daughters must be free!
We’Moon 2020 back cover art by “Crescendo” © Cheryl Braganza 2010

Finally, what do you foresee in We’Moon’s future? Any final parting thoughts?

And now, in these very days of March 2020, the global human community shivers with fear. A new biocide targets our species. Pandemic. The Cassandras have long been saying that this day would come. Some dreadful planetary spasm would end life as we know it; we would join the polar bears and snow leopards and tigers and honeybees whom we press toward extinction in a mighty struggle to survive.

What can a lunar astrological calendar do? What can We’Moon offer in such drastic times?

I open the spiral datebook for today, March 17, and this Spring Equinox week. An elegant poem excerpt reads:

” I come up for air

whipping my hair

in an arch of splintered light

and I am humming

raw and incandescent”

(by Meredith Heller)

No matter what, the Sun will arch her light to give us Equal Day, Equal Night on Thursday, Equinox. “The return of spring, time of holy equality,” writes Oak Chezar, our Holy Day writer for 2020. “Walking in the woods, see that trees aren’t isolated individuals. Each one is Forest, Forest, Forest. I walk in the world, and I’m not even me: I am World. Gaze through the mirror. World. World. World.”

We may not be able to gather in person this Equinox. But we are gathered, held in mysterious Balance. And like the women who founded We’Moon, we turn “to the Moon, Sun and stars to keep us in touch with each other and the Earth’s cycles.”

Blessed Be.

We’Moon website

Mary Gently is an aspiring historian based in the Rogue Valley. She recently graduated from Southern Oregon University with a Bachelor’s degree in History and a minor in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. She graduated Summa Cum Laude with Departmental Honors and is the recipient of the Arthur S. Taylor Award for Outstanding Student in History 2018-2019. She will begin a Ph.D. program in History at Rutgers University in the fall of 2020. Mary enjoys traveling, watching classic movies, and drinking beer.   

This blog post was made possible in part by a grant from the Oregon Heritage Commission to Southern Oregon University, to document the Rogue Valley Women’s Movement, 1970-1990.

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A Linguist’s Guide to Internet Fluency–A guest post by Levi Coren

I don’t enjoy most social media, but I will admit to spending time on Tumblr, a social media platform with a penchant for encouraging tight-knit communities based around books, television shows, hobbies, and other special interests. My time on Tumblr has allowed me to become fluent in a new form of language, a type of English that exists only in digital spaces. Without access to facial gestures or vocal tonal shifts, written language has needed to evolve for a setting as informal as ordinary speech. Internet users have created a grammar out of misspellings, carefully placed punctuation, capitalization, and emoji. It is not limited to Tumblr; my time on other social media platforms, communicating with people through online messaging systems, and interacting with friends through texting all use the language of the internet. In spite of its prevalence, I rarely see people older than myself recognizing the ability of language to communicate casually through texts, emails, or posts on social media. The internet represents a new frontier in language, a wild west of communication that needs a dedicated linguist to categorize, analyze, and understand.

Gretchen McCulloch is one such linguist. Her book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, takes the internet’s ways of communicating as its subject. McCulloch, a self-described “internet linguist,” is a millennial fluent in internet-speak. She also has the resources, education, and grit to attempt to capture the internet into a single compact volume. Having encountered attempts to analyze internet communication in the past, I was hesitant, but McCulloch won me over in about eleven pages. During the first chapter, McCulloch discusses social, as opposed to formal, acronyms, including omg (oh my god), btw (by the way), and lol (laughing out loud). When I use these acronyms, I never capitalize them. Capitalization in internet communication is already a tricky thing, with some people I know going out of their way to write all in lowercase, but traditional acronyms like NASA, DNA, and AIDS are displayed in all caps. Some publications consider it proper to capitalize all acronyms in this style, regardless of how they are actually used. To me, this is an immediate giveaway that the writers, editors, and publishers behind articles about newfangled acronyms never use the acronyms in their daily lives and have no actual understanding about their use. When McCulloch writes that she “made the stylistic decision to write social, internet acronyms in all-lowercase,” I know that this was the book for me. Because Internet is not a discussion of internet language from the perspective of an outsider, but rather from someone who is not only fluent in internet-speak but also passionate about it.

I am an outsider to the field of linguistics, but McCulloch made me feel welcome. Part of this is the subject matter, which I know well, but much of it comes from her informal tone and willingness to explain specialized concepts. She discusses every idea in just enough detail for me to understand without drying up the subject matter. She also contextualizes the terminology that she uses, framing it in such a way that I felt connected to her ideas. For example, McCulloch divides internet users into five categories. She starts with the Old Internet People, who got involved with the internet in the earliest years, when a person needed programming skills to do anything online. She continues on to the Full Internet People, the group that she includes herself in, who got involved with the internet as a way to engage with new communities. In the same wave as the Full Internet People are the Semi Internet People like my parents, who treat internet culture as an extension of their real-world personal or work lives. Finally, the last wave of internet people includes the Pre Internet People like my grandparents, who have as little interaction with the internet as physically possible, and the Post Internet People such as myself. Initially, I resisted her classification, but she explained that Post Internet People are internet users who “don’t remember the first time they used a computer or did something online” much in the same way that previous generations don’t remember the first time they watched television or used a phone. I found that her classification made sense and helped me to understand how people interact with the internet. I feel comfortable communicating on the internet, but McCulloch reminded me that there is still a lot I can learn.

Because Internet covers a wide range of topics, from internet people and tone of voice to emoji and memes, because the internet is a complex place with a specialized and challenging language. Without that language, navigating the internet is difficult. Because Internet is both a key to that language and a celebration of it. It takes a little-understood topic that I see almost no love for in the world at large and elevates it to something worth studying. It acknowledges and embraces the internet as the future of language. Above all, it is a testament to the idea that in order to understand something, one must first appreciate it.

Levi Coren is a Post Internet Person. He spends objectively too much time mired in a small variety of toxic social media cesspools. In spite of his passion for the growing legitimacy of internet culture, he is completely out of touch with the internet lingo of people only a few years younger than him.

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An Interview with Morgan Pielli

Connecticut-born Morgan Pielli has a BFA from BARD COLLEGE and an MFA from THE CENTER FOR CARTOON STUDIES. He works as a Graphic Designer with KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP and his comics have appeared in The New York Times Online. He is also a voice-over actor and storyteller who has performed on RISK! LIVE, WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID OF?, and TALES FROM THE COSMOS. He co-hosts the monthly show storytelling and live therapy show RELATIONSHiT.

You can find more of his work at If you’re in the NYC area, come see him perform at QED in Queens every third Friday of the month at 7:30.

Ed Battistella: Welcome, Morgan. How did you get interested in art and in the arts?

Morgan Pielli: In kindergarten I watched in awe as a classmate drew a house. When I tried to draw a house, all my brain could make my hands do was scribble squiggles everywhere. I became obsessed with cracking the mystery of how making art works and started drawing constantly, wherever I went.

EB: I love the caricatures you’ve done for Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels, in the New York Times, and elsewhere. What goes into a good caricature?

MP: Thanks! I think one key element is posture. Everything comes from a person’s posture; it magnifies their mood, tugs or pushes at their facial features, it dictates the hang of their clothes, which in turn creates the illusion of motion(or lack thereof). So much of a person’s personality can be conveyed by the way they carry themselves.

EB: You also write and publish comics. Can you tell us about that? Where can readers can find them?

MP: I used to self-publish a quarterly minicomic called “Indestructible Universe,” that featured short science fiction and horror stories. I’ve also had my political cartoons published on The Nib and through Joyce Brabner’s Comixcast. More recently I’ve been focusing on my first graphic novel. Right now people can find my work on my website:

EB: Who are some of the influences or inspirations for your work are an artist?

MP: Lately my big influences have been cartoonists Paul Grist and Phil Hester. Beyond them: illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, abstract painter Ad Reinhardt, writer Kurt Vonnegut, and political cartoonist Thomas Nast. And like a billion others that I’ll remember tomorrow morning.

EB: Beside storytelling through comics, you are also a story teller vocally. What’s the relationship between story telling with pictures and with words?

MP: Telling stories on stage forces you to be looser and to find the story in the moment. There’s a great expression that cartoonist Nate Powell (another influence!) either said or quoted: “Think with the ink!” The idea being that the decisions you make on the fly are often better than those you labor over. I’ve also heard this called “first thought, best thought.” It’s the very basis of improv comedy, and live storytelling isn’t much different. I walk on stage with a loose outline of what I want to say, and I often find myself making connections and forming the shape of the story once I start talking. This has inspired me to take a more loose and expressionistic approach to my comics.

EB: What’s your superpower?

MP: I can wiggle my ears back and forth and up and down. Because as a kid I spent every night for a year in front of the mirror trying to figure out how, for reasons only a kid would understand. This is how I will rid the world of crime.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

MP: My pleasure! Thanks for writing the book I got to illustrate; it was a blast!

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An Interview with Dennis Baron, author of What’s Your Pronoun?

Dennis Baron is an emeritus professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and the author of eight books, including Grammar and Good Taste: Reforming the American Language (Yale University Press, 1982); Grammar and Gender (Yale University Press, 1986); The English-Only Question: An Official Language for Americans? (Yale University Press, 1990); and A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2009).

His most recent book is What’s Your Pronoun? Beyond He and She (Liveright, 2020), which Publishers Weekly called “entertaining and thoroughly documented.”

A former Guggenheim Fellow, Baron, who tweets as @DrGrammar, is a regular media commentator on the English language.

Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed reading What’s Your Pronoun?—and several of my students are reading it as well. Tell us about the “missing word” of the English pronoun system. What’s missing?

Dennis Baron: What’s missing is a third-person singular pronoun that is gender-neutral and nonbinary. The pronoun it is neuter, to be sure, but it typically refers to things, or maybe also animals. We used to use it for babies, but I think that’s not very common any more. In 1808, Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested it as a common-gender pronoun (today we’d call it ‘gender neutral’), but using it for people is generally insulting—both desexing and dehumanizing. In the 19th century, American politicians sometimes called their opponents it. And it’s still common for political rivals to insult one another’s sexuality.

EB: I was fascinated to read about the legal wrangling surrounding women’s rights and the selectivity of the law when it came to rights versus responsibilities. Can you tell our readers a bit about that?

DB: The masculine pronoun could be ambiguous when it appeared in statutes: does he mean ‘he or she’ or ‘only men’? To try to clarify the law, England (1850), Canada (1867) and the US (1871) passed statutes which declared that in any law, a masculine word (words like he and man) referred to women as well. Suffragists seized on that inclusivity, arguing that if he in penal statutes meant that women could be punished for a crime, then he in the voting law meant women could vote. Unfortunately, judges and legislators—at the time, all of them men—disagreed. In their view, he included ‘she’ when it came to penalties like going to jail or obligations like paying taxes, but when it came to privileges like voting or becoming a doctor or lawyer, each right had to be conferred specifically to women or they were excluded.

EB: You note that top-down directives about language invariable fail in the face of usefulness. Why has singular they proved so useful?

DB: Singular they works because it is not a top-down regulation. The form has been acceptable in English speech and writing since the 14th century, appearing regularly and without comment in the works of well-respected writers like Shakespeare and Austen. It wasn’t till the 18th century that grammarians and usage critics began labeling singular they as ungrammatical. But even then, most people, including well-educated, careful writers, used the form. Today most of the major language “authorities”—dictionaries, grammars, usage guides, and publishers’ style books, accept singular they for an indefinite: Everybody forgets their passwords. Or for a member of a class: The writer should always revise their work. And more and more of them accept nonbinary they as well: Alex likes their burger medium well. Singular they is used by people who don’t give the current debates over gender any thought at all. It’s used by people deeply concerned with gender rights and inclusivity. And even people who still object to singular they use it when they’re not paying attention. Singular they comes close to being the one-size-fits-all pronoun, and it arose naturally, in popular usage, rather than being imposed by a grammarian, a law-giver, or a well-intentioned person in HR.

EB: Has there been a turning point in public acceptance of singular their?

DB: The public has accepted singular they for centuries—probably ever since English borrowed th- pronouns from Old Norse, a borrowing that occurred because the Old English third person pronouns, which began with h-, had all started to sound alike. It’s the “experts” who are now accepting it as well.

EB: I was fascinated by the number of gender-neutral pronouns you have documented, which must have taken years of research. Why do people feel compelled to invent new pronoun?

DB: People are constantly coining words and expressions. It’s part of the creativeness of language. The fact that so many people over the past couple of centuries, whether amateurs and crackpots or well-educated writers and public figures, tried their hand at inventing pronouns, suggests that there is a serious need for such a word. Only singular they has been successful, overall, but there are still a significant number of people using one or more of the coined pronouns like ze and hir, which suggests that at least in the near term, we will be dealing with multiple answers to the question, what’s your pronoun? And that’s great, since English has many ways of saying the same thing.

Remember too, though, that some people don’t want to be asked their pronouns, and others prefer no pronoun at all—just say their name.

EB: What’s been the response to your study? Have you heard from prescriptivists?

DB: Response has been favorable. Yes, a couple of prescriptivists/purists remind me that singular they is wrong, even though it’s not wrong. Others object that their freedom of speech is at stake. Both of these objections are easily answered.

Singular they no less grammatical than singular you. In fact, singular they is actually much older than singular you. Starting in the 17th century, plural you began to appear as a singular as well, pushing out the long-established singular thou, thee, and thy. When that started to happen, purists objected to singular you, calling it ungrammatical, illiterate, and ambiguous. And grammar books through the 19th century insisted that thou is singular, you, plural, long after standard English speakers and writers had abandoned thou. (Though not considered standard, the th- second person and h- third person forms persist in some British varieties of English.) Today, just as no one wants to revive thou, no one wants to go back to the days of generic he.

As for the free-speech issue, in terms of personal interactions you are free to say whatever you like, but the First Amendment does not protect you from the consequences of your speech. As for official requirements to use inclusive language, they are designed to create a non-hostile environment in classrooms, offices, and places of public accommodation, where the regulation of behavior, including language, has long been accepted as legal and useful to ensure effective human interaction. More and more businesses have discovered that pronouns are good business, and that kind of public acceptance goes a long way toward making singular they and coined pronouns a part of everyday English.

EB: What advice have you got for writers and students about using singular they?

DB: Use singular they if you feel it sounds right, and be prepared to explain it if you are questioned. Editors will accept singular they if their style guides do (the new edition of the American Psychological Association Publication Manual is the latest of the major publication guides to approve singular they both for gender-nonspecific and nonbinary referents in both scholarly writing and when dealing with clients and patients).

If your pronoun is they, your employer or your teacher should respect that. As for general “tips for writers,” many teachers may still reject singular they, though they themselves use the form all the time. Students generally give the teacher what they want (see what I did there?). They is not a hill to die on—and of course not every sentence can be recast in the plural to avoid the singular they problem. But even if a teacher suggests it, don’t go with he or she, which is a form that everybody always hated for being too long, too awkward, too repetitive, and today, too binary.

EB: What other things are you working on?

DB: I am going back to “Unprotected Speech,” a project on language and law that I interrupted to write the pronoun book.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. Best of luck with What’s Your Pronoun?

DB: Thanks.

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An Interview with Melissa Matthewson, author of Tracing the Desire Line

Melissa Matthewson lives in southwestern Oregon. She is the author of a collaborative chapbook, (un)learning, with Andrea Beltran from Artifact Press (2016). Her essays have been published in numerous places including DIAGRAM, Mid-American Review, Guernica, River Teeth, and Bellingham Review among other publications. Her first book of nonfiction, Tracing the Desire Line, is out now from Split Lip Press.
Melissa Matthewson holds a BA in Environmental Studies from UC Santa Cruz and an MS in Environmental Studies and Writing from the University of Montana, and she also holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

She currently teaches at Southern Oregon University.

Tell us about your book Tracing the Desire Line? And what is hybrid nonfiction?

Tracing the Desire Line is a memoir-in-essays, 42 chapters, in which the narrator, myself, explores questions of freedom, identity, place, motherhood, non-monogamy, and marriage. It is possible to read each chapter on its own, but read together, the fragments create a whole story. There are a number of narrative layers including the exploration of non-monogamy within the context of a traditional marriage, female desire and sexuality, music, and place. It’s my first book! (Well, I hope there will be a second…). Hybrid nonfiction, to me, is the meeting place between poetry and prose—the writer uses the techniques from both genres to create exciting new texts that blur boundaries.

How do the various aspects of your work intersect—writing, teaching?

This is an interesting question! I’ve been teaching so many different courses, so it’s intersected in electic ways over the last five years of teaching college. When I was teaching English courses, I was designing 200-level courses around topics of interest: women and autobiography, the literature of environmental justice, nonfiction writing, nature writing, and all of these classes intertwined with my own writing in that the readings inspired me and the writing and reading I was doing with students informed my own craft and art. Since I’ve been teaching Communication courses, the intersections are different, though I’ve been teaching multimedia writing, which is an entirely different type of content and in the spring, I’ll be teaching environmental journalism. I think that teaching, in general, gets me excited to write my own work because I’m often discovering new ideas alongside students.

How did you become a creative nonfiction writer? Were you always interested in writing?

I fell in love with the essay when I was at the University of Montana. I credit Robert Michael Pyle for helping me to pay attention to the world and then encouraging me to transcribe that to the page. Also, I spent a semester working with Annick Smith, a Montana writer who wrote Homestead, and I knew I wanted to write a similar book to her. It’s still one of my favorite books. It’s a memoir of her buying a piece of land in the Blackfoot Valley of Montana with her husband and sons. She’s a beautiful writer and her attention to the land inspired me to write memoir. I continued to develop my essay writing as I went on to the Vermont College of Fine Arts and many of my mentors there also inspired me to keep writing nonfiction. I’m not very good at making stuff up, though I really want to write a novel. I think I’m a confused poet. And yes, I’ve been writing forever. I still have some of the really bad poems I used to write at ten.

Who do you read? For inspiration? Craft?

Virginia Woolf. Annie Dillard. Those two are my go-to if I need to remember why I love words and language. And when I need to remember how to write again. I actually just moved all of my books out of storage and Woolf and Dillard have been hiding for many months in boxes, and I’ve freed them on to my living room bookshelf, which I think will help me as I think about a next book.

You have students who are writers. What sort of advice have you got for them?

My advice is to be determined. If you love to write, keep writing. Ignore the voices in your head telling you that you shouldn’t write. Read what you love and figure out how those writers craft stories. Don’t let anyone tell you what you should or shouldn’t write. And do the work. It really does come down to writing, and writing, then writing more, and revision. I think so much magic happens in revision. That’s my favorite part of writing: when I’ve got the ideas and the images and the play comes with finding the right rhythms and syntax. And also, to be okay with not writing. To pay attention to the things happening around you and record them if you can. And remember that all voices matter and everyone has a story to tell. We are all natural storytellers. Live. If you live, you also can write.

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Literary Ashland Author Interviews 2011-2018

Check out our author and publisher interviews 2011 through 2018

2018 author interviews

Clive Rosengren and Sharon Dean Interview Each Other

An Interview with Wallace Stroby

An Interview with Kit and Cat Seaton about The Black Bull of Norroway

An Interview with Vince Clemente and Adam Cornelius on THE PALINDROMISTS

An Interview with Amira Makansi, author of Literary Libations

An Interview with Tod Davies, author of Report to Megalopolis

An Interview with Morgan Hunt, author of Bad Moon Rising

An Interview with Sandra Scofield, author of THE LAST DRAFT: A Novelist’s Guide to Revision

An Interview with Ceil Lucas, author of How I Got Here

An Interview with Roger Thompson, author of No Word for Wilderness

An Interview with Malcolm Terence

An Interview with Lynne Murphy, author of THE PRODIGAL TONGUE


An Interview with Kory Stamper, author of WORD BY WORD

An Interview with George Dohrmann, author of SUPERFANS

An Interview with Asya Pereltsvaig, co-author of The Indo-European Controversy

An Interview with Harley Patrick of Hellgate Press

2017 author interviews

An Interview with Robert Arellano, author of Havana Libre

An Interview with David D. Horowitz of Rose Alley Press

An Interview with Vyvyan Evans

An Interview with Sarah E. Stevens, author of Waxing Moon

An Interview with Abbey Gaterud of Ooligan Press

An Interview with Bruce Rutledge, publisher of Chin Music Press

An Interview with Jessica Powers of Catalyst Press

An Interview with Kirsten Johanna Allen of Torrey House Press

An Interview with Laura Stanfill, publisher of Forest Avenue Press

An Interview with John McWhorter, author of Talking Back, Talking Black

An Interview with Sandra Scofield

An Interview with Michael Copperman, author of Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta by Allie Sipe

An Interview with Jan Wright

An Interview with Allison Brennan, a guest post by Kelly Brennan

An Interview with Lance Olsen, author of Dreamlives of Debris

An Interview with John Enders

An Interview with Victor Lodato

An Interview with Sarah E. Stevens, author of Dark Moon Rising

An Interview with Peter Mitham, editor of Amphora

An Interview with Peter R. Field, founding publisher of the Timberline Review

An Interview with James Anderson

2016 author interviews

An Interview with Floyd Skloot

An Interview with Susan DeFrietas

An Interview with Alisa Bowman

An Interview with Vinnie Kinsella

An Interview with L L Templar, author of Rafer Thorne

An Interview with Carole T. Beers

An Interview with Jason Gurley, author of Eleanor

An Interview with Louis Sahagun, author of Master of the Mysteries

An interview with Molly Best Tinsley, author of BEHIND THE WATERFALL

An Interview with Josh Gross, author of THE FUNERAL PAPERS

An Interview with Mari Gayatri Stein, author of Out of the Blue Valise

An Interview with Midge Raymond, author of MY LAST CONTINENT

An Interview with Morgan Hunt, author of WE THE PEEPS

An Interview with Nils Nilsson

2015 author interviews

An Interview with Lisa Sandlin

An Interview with Tod Davies, author of The Lizard Princess

An Interview with Chris Scofield

An Interview with Gary DePaul

An Interview with Alicia von Stamwitz

An Interview with Louisa Burns-Bisogno and Saundra Shohen

An Interview with Ellie Alexander

An Interview with Mary Norris

An Interview with Jennifer Margulis

An Interview with John Hough, Jr.

An Interview with Ray Rhamey

An interview with Amy MacLennan, poetry editor of the Cascadia Review

An Interview with Rudy Greene

An Interview with Christine Dupres

An Interview with Precious Yamaguchi

2014 author interviews

An Interview with Nicole Howard, author of The Book: The Life Story of a Technology

An Interview with Debra Gordon Zaslow

An Interview with Kit and Cat Seaton

An Interview with Alice Hardesty

An interview with M. J. Daspit

An Interview with Mary Z. Maher and Alan Armstrong

An Interview with Michael Baughman

An Interview with Diana Maltz

An interview with Tod Davies, author of Jam Today Too

An Interview with Robert Antoni, author of As Flies to Whatless Boys

An Interview with Kate Lebo, author of A Commonplace Book of Pie

An Interview with E R Brown, author of Almost Criminal

Who Needs Newspapers? An Interview with Paul Steinle and Sara Brown

An Interview with Molly Best Tinsley

An Interview with Ben H. Winters, author of The Last Policeman and Countdown City

2013 author interviews

An Interview with Heather Arndt Anderson

An Interview with Peter Laufer

An Interview with Kimberly Jensen

An Interview with Mike Madrid

An Interview with Rich Wandschneider

An Interview with Margalit Fox

An Interview with Gail Fiorini-Jenner

An Interview with Sophia Bogle of Save Your Books

Diane L. Goeres-Gardner on Inside Oregon State Hospital: A History of Tragedy and Triumph


An Interview with Hester Kaplan, author of THE TELL

An Interview with Ann Parker

An Interview with Jennifer Margulis

An Interview with Sharan Newman

An Interview with Diane Goeres-Gardner

An Interview with Virginia Morell

2012 author interviews

An Interview with Siobhan Kelly

An Interview with Alena Amato Ruggerio

An Interview with Ken Lewis of Krill Press

An Interview with Kristy Athens

An Interview with Clive Rosengren

An Interview With Molly Best Tinsley

An Interview with Vince Wixon

An Interview with Patty Wixon

An Interview with Jonah Bornstein

An Interview with Angela Decker

An Interview with Amy MacLennan

An Interview with Amy Miller

An Interview with Karen Clarke

An Interview with Michael Niemann

An Interview with Amy Richard and Kit Leary

2011 author interviews

An Interview with Dennis Powers

An Interview with Lisa Brackmann

An Interview with Carola Dunn

An Interview with Katharine Beutner

Interview with Steve Scholl of White Cloud Press

Epic Interview With David Lau

Interview with Dr. John Kalb

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2019 Author Interviews

Check out our 2019 Author interviews

An Interview with Curt Colbert

An Interview with Jeffrey Ostler

Robert Arellano Interviews Stanley Crawford, author of The Garlic Testament

An Interview with Irv Lubliner, editor of Only Hope: A Survivor’s Stories of the Holocaust

An Interview with David A. Oas

An Interview with Les AuCoin, author of Catch and Release

An Interview with Molly Best Tinsley–author of Things Too Big to Name

An Interview with Sophia S. W. Bogle, author of Book Restoration Unveiled

An Interview with Michael Niemann, author of No Right Way

An Interview with John Yunker, author of Where the Oceans Hide Their Dead

An Interview with Abbigail N. Rosewood, author of If I Had Two Lives

An Interview with poet and translator Martha Darr

An Interview with Tim Applegate

An Interview with Joe Biel, author of A People’s Guide to Publishing

An Interview with Christina Ward, author of American Advertising Cookbooks

An Interview with Sam Anderson, author of Boom Town

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Index to Literary Ashland, KSKQ Radio 89.5 FM

Check out the KSKQ Radio interviews that Michael Niemann and Ed Battistella do on Literary Ashland Radio, KSKQ. On the fourth Friday of each month.

Literary Ashland with Sonya Daw

Literary Ashland with Phil Busse

Literary Ashland with Molly Best Tinsley

Literary Ashland with Haris Orkin

Literary Ashland with Alma Rosa Alvarez

Literary Ashland with Michael Niemann

Literary Ashland with Sophia Bogle

Literary Ashland with Tim Wohlforth

Literary Ashland with Clive Rosengren

Literary Ashland with Steve Dieffenbacher

Literary Ashland with Melissa Matthewson

Literary Ashland with Erik Palmer and Caroline Cabral

Literary Ashland with Sean McEnroe

Literary Ashland with Tod Davies

Literary Ashland with Carole Beers

Literary Ashland with Brook Colley

Literary Ashland with Jackie Apodaca

Literary Ashland with Karen McClintock

Literary Ashland with Pepper Trail

Literary Ashland with James Anderson

Literary Ashland with Michael Niemann

Literary Ashland with Bert Etling

Literary Ashland with Bobby Arellano

Literary Ashland with Clive Rosengren

Literary Ashland — Ashland Literary Arts Festival

Literary Ashland with Paul Fattig

Literary Ashland with Amy Miller

Literary Ashland with Victor Lodato

Literary Ashland with Amy Blossom

Literary Ashland with Amy MacLennan

Literary Ashland with Steve Scholl

Literary Ashland with Michael Niemann

Literary Ashland with John Yunker

Literary Ashland with SOU’s Honors Students, Pt. 2

Literary Ashland with SOU’s Honors Students

Literary Ashland with Louis Sahagun

Literary Ashland with Betty LaDuke

Literary Ashland with Carole T. Beers

Literary Ashland with Dennis Powers

Literary Ashland with Bill Gholson

Literary Ashland – Conversation

Literary Ashland with Sharon Dean

Literary Ashland with Jim Risser

Literary Ashland with Rick Bleiweiss

Literary Ashland with Sara Brown and Paul Steinle

Literary Ashland with Jim Phillips

Literary Ashland with Jeffrey Gayton

Literary Ashland with Angela Howe-Decker

Literary Ashland with Sharan Newman

Literary Ashland with Darrell James

Literary Ashland with Michael Baughman

Literary Ashland with Midge Raymond

Literary Ashland with Precious Yamaguchi

Literary Ashland with Tim Wohlforth

Literary Ashland with Molly Best Tinsley

Literary Ashland with MJ Daspit

Literary Ashland with Clive Rosengren

Literary Ashland – Pledge Drive Edition

Literary Ashland with Mary Z Maher

Literary Ashland with Tod Davies

Literary Ashland with Bobby Arellano

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An Interview with Curt Colbert

Curt Colbert is a Seattle native, a history buff, an avid fisherman, a Vietnam veteran and the author the Jake Rossiter series of hardboiled private eye novels set in 1940s Seattle.

Curt Colbert has written five humorous mystery novels in the Barking Detective series under the pen-name Waverly Curtis, with his co-author, Waverly Fitzgerald: Dial C for Chihuahua, Chihuahua Confidential, The Big Chihuahua, The Chihuahua Always Sniffs Twice, and The Silence of the Chihuahuas. He was also the editor of Seattle Noir, published by Akashic Books in 2008.

His book All Along the Watchtower, featuring Vietnam Veteran and private eye Matt Rossiter appeared in 2019.

Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed All Along the Watchtower. It’s set in 1999 and I know you’ve been thinking about this story for a long time. Why is the story appearing now?

Curt Colbert: The Vietnam war has been kind of “been there, done that” with publishers for a lot of years. For instance, the superb, award-winning Vietnam novel, Matterhorn, was turned down by scads of publishers, with one saying that it was great but asking the author, “could you change the setting to the Iraq war?” LOL I believe any well written novel about war is relevant at any time. Accordingly, it took time to find a publisher who had faith in my book. Aside from that, it was a tough novel for me to write as it’s partly autobiographical and partly based on other vets I have known. In addition, I wanted to show that the casualties of war often linger long after a war is over.

EB: Can you tell us about the Jimi Hendrix-related title?

CC: I think Hendrix is emblematic of the 1960’s, along with Buffalo Springfield, and Country Joe and the Fish, among others. An irony in using All Along the Watchtower as a title attracted me – in Vietnam’s case, it suggests the futility of trying to guard against an ongoing calamity (which ultimately cost the lives of almost 60,000 Americans).

EB: How did you come up with the plot?

CC: In a dream. My protagonist, Matt Rossiter, was and is a huge Hendrix fan and played Jimi’s music throughout his time in Nam. In my dream, Hendrix tunes were set against the fear and carnage Matt experienced during the war. Upon waking, I thought it would be ironically wicked if the music that gave Matt so much pleasure turned into the calling card of the villain who is killing his old platoon members. In the end, Jimi’s music and Matt’s past and present seem to merge into one as he finally identifies and confronts the killer. In doing so, he has resolution to the mystery, but no absolution for his past and present.

EB: Matt Rossiter also makes an appearance in Waverly Fitzgerald’s Hard Rain. What’s the story there?

CC: As I was working on the book, Waverly and I decided it would be quite unique for us to write parallel novels that share characters and events. In Waverly’s Hard Rain, also set in 1999, Seattle PI Rachel Stern focuses on the anti-war movement of the 60’s and early 70’s. In Curt’s All Along the Watchtower, Seattle PI Matt Rossiter, a Vietnam vet with PTSD, hunts for the killer attacking his old platoon members. Certain conversations, dramatic events and colorful characters appear in both novels, but each can be read as a satisfying stand-alone mystery.

EB: I enjoyed the 1940s series: Rat City, Sayonaraville and Queer Street with Matt Rossiter’s father Jake. Can we expect him to turn up in this series?

CC: Yes. Although Jake barely appears In Watchtower, he will have more of a role in later books. He’s gotten up in years but is still kicking and quite hard-boiled. I thought it would be interesting to have generational interplay between the father and son as the series continues. I have high hopes for their interactions in future books.

EB: How would you compare Matt and his father?

CC: Jake was in the last “good” war, while Matt was in anything but a “good” war. Service members were cheered and celebrated when they came home from WWII. Service members were often spat upon and demeaned when they returned from Vietnam. Both Jake and Matt are tough customers, but Matt doesn’t have the veneer of having “fought the good fight” like his dad does.

EB: You are working on a second Matt Rossiter novel called Strawberry Fields Forever. I sense a theme in the titles. Can you give us a preview?

CC: ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ is a song that Matt always played when things got too tough in Vietnam, and in his present postwar condition. In this second novel featuring Matt, he is dealing with a new mystery and still trying to deal with his wartime memories. He is also dealing with his aged and cantankerous father, as well as a perjury charge hanging over him, plus the fallout from his actions against Vietnamese gang leader, Benny Luc.

EB: There is a lot going on in All Along the Watchtower—character development, action, pathos, flashbacks and period details. What was the biggest challenge for you as a writer?

CC: Trying to paint the tragedy of the war in Vietnam by focusing on only one veteran and his old platoon, while keeping it entertaining.

EB: What was the most fun?

CC: The research, the writing itself, particularly when it worked. The re-writing, which is always an opportunity rather than a drudge. And gaining more clarity about my own past through hindsight – the old “no pain, no gain” cliché.

EB: Who are some of your must -read crime writers?

CC: Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, the old masters Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the English author, G. M. Ford, Colin Dexter, Swedish authors, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, and Scottish author, Val McDermid.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

CC: You bet. My pleasure and my thanks!

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An Interview with Jeffrey Ostler

Jeffrey Ostler is Beekman Professor of Northwest and Pacific History at the University of Oregon, where he specializes in the history of the American West and American Indian history. He has a PhD from the University of Iowa and his books include Prairie Populism: The Fate of Agrarian Radicalism in Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa, 1880-1892 (University Press of Kansas, 1993), The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee (Cambridge University Press, 2004), and The Lakotas and The Black Hills (Viking, 2010). His most recent book is Surviving Genocide: Native Nations and the United States from the American Revolution to Bleeding Kansas (Yale University Press, 2019)

Ed Battistella: What drove policy toward Native Americans in the period from George Washington to Andrew Jackson? Are there some key rhetorical and sociopolitical themes?

Jeffrey Ostler: The basic driver of policy was the imperative to take land from Native Americans so that it could be converted into private property for the benefit of settlers, speculators, and capitalist economic development more generally. But how to take Indigenous lands? The preference of U.S. political leaders was that Native nations give up their lands “voluntarily” through treaties and then eventually be Christianized and assimilated into the dominant society. But Native nations did not want to do this and so the U.S. had to use deceitful practices, including the threat of exermination, to coerce some Native leaders to “consent” to treaties. When this happened, other Native leaders with good reason regarded the treaties as illegitimate and claimed a right of self-defense against settlers who they saw as invaders. As a matter of policy, the U.S. then waged war against Nations resisting American expansion. And, this was not just any kind of war, but rather, as U.S. officials often said, it was “exterminatory” warfare, meaning the targeting of Native communities including non-combatants (women, old men, children), or, in other words, genocidal war.

In 1830, a year after Andrew Jackson became president, the U.S. was sufficiently powerful to formally enact a policy of Indian removal—forcing Native nations with homelands east of the Mississippi to new territories in the West. Although U.S. officials justified this policy in humanitarian terms as necessary to save Indians from an otherwise certain fate to vanish, the policy had horrific consequences as it unfolded from 1830 into the 1850s. Thousands of people (Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Seminoles, Creeks, Potawatomis, Sauks, Mesquakies, Ottawas, Senecas, Ho-Chunks, and others) died on multiple trails of tears and in the years after their relocation. In my view, the loss of life was sufficiently severe to justify concluding that the policy of Indian removal had genocidal consequences.

EB: Were there influential dissenting voices in that period?

JO: I assume you’re thinking here of dissenting white Americans and that we’ll get to Native voices in a minute. At times, there were influential dissenting voices within the United States. Probably the best example is the opposition by missionaries and northern political leaders to the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830. But it is possible to overstate the significance of these dissenting voices. Those who opposed the Indian Removal Act did not ultimately believe that Native people should be allowed to retain their homelands east of the Mississippi. What they objected to was the coercive process by which the Jackson administration was pursuing removal. They wanted a process that would be “voluntary.” All Americans during this period of time shared core beliefs that their way of life was superior and that it was their God-given right to have Native lands. To the extent that Americans disagreed about Indian policy, their disagreements were limited to the process for obtaining Native lands, not the ultimate goal.

EB: What were the perspectives of Native leaders during this period? Did they fear extinction?

JO: One of the things I discovered during my research was that Native leaders frequently voiced the belief that colonists (before 1776) and U.S. Americans (after 1776) intended not only to take their lands, but to kill them all. In fact, in the first written treaty between the United States and an Indian nation (negotiated with the Delawares in 1778), the United States explicitly addressed Native fears that it was the design of the United States to “extirpate the Indians and take possession of the country.” So, yes, they did fear extinction and understood that what they had to survive was not just hardship, loss of land, and some loss of life, but the very real possibility of complete and total annihilation. I think it’s also important to realize that when the United States adopted its policy of Indian removal, Native leaders explained to U.S. leaders that they were deeply concerned that the policy would result in terrible suffering and death. U.S. leaders paid no heed to these concerns, even though they proved to be accurate.

EB: Surviving Genocide balances analysis of the documentary record of indigenous and US leaders with attention to demographic data. How do those two threads come together in the book?

JO: In writing the book, I tried to balance three things: to tell stories, to analyze what was happening, and to assess the impact of U.S. policies and actions by documenting the number of people killed through violence and removal and the demographic impact over time. What I discovered surprised me. When I started my research, I would have thought that the Native population east of the Mississippi River would have declined from 1776 to 1830. In fact, however, despite periods of destructive warfare and significant dispossession, the population of most Native nations either remained stable or increased. This, I think, is a testament to the adaptability and resilience of Native communities. But I was also surprised by how catastrophic the demographic impact of the policy of removal actually was. Historians have documented some of this through looking at the removals of specific nations, but no one had tried to come up with a picture of the total impact. And, by the total impact I mean not just the impact on the eastern nations that were removed to the west, but on the nations with homelands in the west such as the Osages and the Kanzas. They, too, were adversely affected by the policy, as they were squeezed onto smaller and smaller reservations to make room for the relocated eastern nations. The results was that these western nations were increasingly subject to impoverishment, hunger, and multiple diseases.

EB: Was the impact of removal different regionally? In the North and the South?

JO: Another very interesting question. It turns out that the southern nations suffered greater loss of life than the northern nations on the trails of tears themselves. One reason for this is that as they journeyed west the southern nations were exposed to a more deadly form of malaria (which thrives in warmer environments). Northern nations were also exposed to malaria during their journeys, but the type of malaria present in areas they traveled through is less deadly. But, the northern nations had a harder time once they were in the west than the southern nations. The relocated southern nations (removed to what would eventually become Oklahoma) had more land and weren’t forced to move more than once. Some of them continued to see their populations fall, but not as much as for the relocated northern nations. Many of the northern nations (removed to what would eventually become Kansas) were removed more than once, because settlers kept coming west and the government had to find new reservations for them. Because of this, conditions were worse for the northern nations, and some saw losses of life of 40% or more over a period of several years.

EB: As a linguist, I was intrigued by your discussion of the term genocide. What went into your decision to adopt that term rather than any of the possible alternatives?

JO: Using “genocide” to describe U.S. policies and actions toward Native Americans is, of course, likely to provoke lively debate and opposition. One objection might be that it is anachronistic to apply a term coined in 1944 to earlier history. In my view, though, the terms U.S. officials regularly used, “extirpation” and “extermination,” are synonyms for genocide. That said, though, is genocide an appropriate category, and if so, why use it as opposed to a category like “ethnic cleansing,” which some historians have proposed as a more appropriate term than genocide? Ethnic cleansing is a serious charge (it’s a war crime under current international law), but it can also be euphemistic and it leaves open the question of what kind of ethnic cleansing. In theory, people can be deported without massive loss of life, though forced deportations often are accompanied by violence and population decline. So, when I looked at what happened and saw not only massacres of entire communities but the horrific loss of life resulting from the U.S. policy of removal, I felt that it would be less than fully truthful not to use the term genocide. As I wrote in the book, genocide was not happening all the time, and so to write the history I’ve written as if it was a story of genocide, genocide, and nothing but genocide, would be simplistic and miss a great deal. On the other hand, though, to write the history I’ve written as if it was a story without genocide would miss much, too.

EB: When I was growing up, much of the history was of the manifest destiny nature. But it seems to me that today’s readers—and students—are much more open to considering the complexity of the nation’s history. Do you have any thoughts about what changed? Have we just grown up?

JO: I agree that today’s readers and students are much more open to considering the complexity of the nation’s history. In an earlier book I wrote (The Lakotas and the Black Hills), I dated this shift in consciousness to the 1960s and 1970s when we saw opposition to U.S. foreign policy (especially the Vietnam War) and the Civil Rights movement. Prior to that time, the U.S. political and judicial system had been unwilling to consider the possibility that the U.S. taking of the Lakotas’ sacred Black Hills in the 1870s had been unjust, but in the 1970s, courts began ruling in favor of the Lakotas, and I think the reason is that many Americans were willing to recognize injustices in U.S. history. That said, I think part of what we’re experiencing in 2019 is a huge push back against considering the complexity of the nation’s history. A substantial minority, but an empowered one, would like to have us worship the Founding Fathers and embrace the vision of a nation in which whites are understood to be racially superior. And, there are also many liberals who want to write stories about American greatness that neglect to take Indigenous histories very seriously. I’m thinking here of David McCullough’s The Pioneers, but there are many others. I’d like to see the day when most Americans are ready to fully reckon with the fact that the U.S. was built on stolen lands—I really do believe this—but we’re a long way from that.

EB: Surviving Genocide is the first of two related books. Can you give us a preview of the second book?

JO: The second book will look at the impact of the United States on Native people in the west from the 1770s to around 1900 (I’ll also look at the many communities that remained in the east despite the policy of removal). Right now, I’m writing a chapter about the Pacific Northwest and learning many new things. For one, I didn’t realize how much violence U.S. commercial ships inflicted on Native people along the coasts of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia from the 1780s into the 1810s as they sought to gain advantages in trading for sea otter pelts. And, of course, I’ll eventually need to write about the so-called Rogue River War in the early 1850s when militias and vigilantes carried out a war of extermination against the Indigenous peoples of southwestern Oregon. I’ll also want to write about the survival of those people in the aftermath of genocidal violence. Native people are still here in Oregon!

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

JO: Thanks very much for your interest in the book and the great questions. I enjoyed the conversation.

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