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My Reading with Write Night! Next Up: Dinosaurs.

 

Last night, I had the extremely great opportunity to perform as one of the five Selected Readers for Lit Literary Collective’s Write Night in May, organized by Krista Cox and Ultreia, Inc.

Thank you, to Krista and Lit Literary and everyone, for having me. I haven’t read in over a year, and I needed it; the company was great; and my fellow readers were excellent.

Here are a few photos from my little sliver of the night, taken by my wonderful friend, Jenn Adams. Thank you, Jenn, for being there, and for taking these and a video.

And thank you to my friends, Jonathan Adams and Joe Eggleston, for also being there and supporting me. You all make me laugh, and you make me feel more deeply, which is what this whole big artistic world is all about.

Next up in my little world of reading: dinosaur poems in Chicago. Stay tuned!!

 

 

 

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Poem of the Day: John Ashbery

 

AT NORTH FARM

 

Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?

Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky. Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?

 

—audio recording available with Academy of American Poets

 

 

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Poem of the Day: Julie Bruck

 

                —after Philip Larkin

 

TO BRING THE HORSE HOME

 

Is all I’ve wanted past wanting
since I was six and delirious with fever,
an infinitive forged from a night
when giant ladybugs with toothpick
antennae patrolled my wicker nightstand.
Yes, I’ve been with horses since,
travelled illegally with them in trailers,
known certain landscapes only framed
by alert ears, and with one in particular,
spent whole afternoons with her big jaw
heavy on my shoulder. Still, I hatched
plots to bring a horse to the house, to ride
to school, to pasture one or even three
in the garden, shaded by that decorative
willow, which could have used a purpose.
But there were city bylaws in two languages,
and over the years, a dog, stray cats,
turtles, and many fish. They lived, they died.
It wasn’t the same. Fast-forward, I brought
the baby home in a molded bucket seat, but she
lacked difference, attuned as I was, checking
her twenty-four-seven. Now that she’s
grown, I’m reduced to walking city parks
with this corrosive envy of mounted police,
though I’m too old for the ropes test,
wouldn’t know what to do with a gun.
If there’s a second act, let me live
like the racetrack rat in a small room
up the narrow stairs from the stalls,
the horse shifting comfortably below,
browsing and chewing sweet hay.
A single bed with blanket the color
of factory-sweepings will suffice,
each day shaped to the same arc,
because days can only end when
the lock slides free on the stall’s
Dutch door, and I lead the horse in,
then muscle the corroded bolt shut.
That’s what days are for: I cannot rest
until the horse comes home.

 

—appeared previously with the Academy of American Poets

 

 

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Poem of the Day: Danez Smith

 

not an elegy for Mike Brown

 

I am sick of writing this poem
but bring the boy. his new name

his same old body. ordinary, black
dead thing. bring him & we will mourn
until we forget what we are mourning

& isn’t that what being black is about?
not the joy of it, but the feeling

you get when you are looking
at your child, turn your head,
then, poof, no more child.

that feeling. that’s black.

 

\\

 

think: once, a white girl

was kidnapped & that’s the Trojan war.

later, up the block, Troy got shot
& that was Tuesday. are we not worthy

of a city of ash? of 1000 ships
launched because we are missed?

always, something deserves to be burned.
it’s never the right thing now a days.

I demand a war to bring the dead boy back
no matter what his name is this time.

I at least demand a song. a song will do just fine.

 

\\

 

look at what the lord has made.
above Missouri, sweet smoke.

 

—appeared previously with Compton Foundation

 

 

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Poem of the Day: Franz Wright

 

                —in the wake of another tragedy: praying for France

 

THOUGHTS OF A SOLITARY FARMHOUSE

 

And not to feel bad about dying.
Not to take it so personally—

it is only
the force we exert all our lives

to exclude death from our thoughts
that confronts us, when it does arrive,

as the horror of being excluded— . . .
something like that, the Canadian wind

coming in off Lake Erie
rattling the windows, horizontal snow

appearing out of nowhere
across the black highway and fields like billions of white bees.

 

—previously appeared on Poetry Foundation

 

 

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Poem of the Day: Elizabeth Bradfield

 

PURSUIT

                —for Arctic Explorer Donald B. MacMillan
                  Provincetown, September

 

All summer, town kids pose at the edge
of the pier named after you

and leap. I’ve just flown home from Baffin,
Mac. A month of spotting polar bears,

lecturing on tundra as raw wind shrugged us off,
then winter chased us down the coast.

But it’s still season here, and so I’m at the gangway
loading a boat to look for whales.

Boys dash between pickups. Girls strut
the edge, do the same. No one throws coins for them,

but I know you jumped for the bright glint
tourists threw, and (I’m sure) for the thrill

of being watched do it. These kids leap
to break the hot September days and because tonight

they might find themselves midair, recorded
by some out-of-towner’s gadget and posted online

for view-count and comment, their currency. Would I
have strutted, have jumped at their age, yours then? I can’t decide.

At high tide, their knees are eye level from my place
on the finger pier. One girl wears a silver bikini.

It shines like ice on the horizon. I can’t help but stare.
Suddenly, I see it is desire

that links us, that galvanizes
the thin substance of our ambitions.

 

—previously appeared in the Academy of American Poets

 

 

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The Rhythm of Reading & Hearing Poetry: Reading Three Beautiful Collections by Susan Lewis

 

Do you ever find yourself in a reading slump? Or too unreasonably busy to even consider finding a way to fit reading in? And when you finally do have the time and energy, do you find yourself searching for that writing style that just throws you back in, every time? Well, this summer, as I mentioned in some of my more recent posts, I have been going through a series of transitions: out of an MFA program and into full-time, one-year-old motherhood, and finding my place at my work, and there just hasn’t been much time for personal pleasantries such as reading, let alone writing something about it. But finally I have made the time, and I discovered a really wonderful poet who has reintroduced, thrown, and forced me back into the beautiful, haphazard, yet peaceful art of reading and writing: Susan Lewis.

I spent some time with Lewis’s following three collections: State of the Union, How to Be Another, and This Visit, and while all different, her work largely capitalizes on rhythm, sound, and reinvention. To be quite honest, these qualities are not what I often look for in contemporary poetry anymore, because, while sound is still valued, and rhyme and rhythm are still indirectly employed, I do not often read poets who still demand these recurring sounds,
Susan Lewis_State of the Unionand these pentameters, in their poetry. But when I read Lewis’s poems, I read them rapidly—I felt the need to read them rapidly, an urgency in the line—and the phrasal combinations, as well as internal and slant rhymes leave me reading these poems quickly, and with a popping enunciation. And while reinvention, internal examinations, and redefining are hardly a thing of the past in contemporary poetry (and wondrously, this is true whether we are discussing narrative or experimental poetry, and any form in-between), Lewis employs and demands these characteristics of each and every one of her poems. Looking at a poem such as “This is Not a Movie” from State of the Union, we see how Lewis employs reinvention and challenges the limits of playing with language and what can be said when a phrase is altered mid-sentence (whether incorporating a “naught” in parenthesis, implying that we could read it or omit it, or inserting an oppositional phrase after a comma, implying what could be an alternate universe in the poem—what is and what could be).

THIS IS NOT A MOVIE

but now & then it feels like one, & often has the same
symptoms. With this overload of blurred identities,
it may be advisable to drag our feet through the
conceptual mud, a necessity devoutly to be resisted.
Unless it’s preferable to jump ship & sink on our
merits, like grief-stricken elephants. Which is not
to say you shouldn’t arrive at your reunion prepared
with garters, buckshot, & dungarees, in case the
situation goes south & you’re feeling peckish. The
man in the moon may bring his husband. As acolytes
they are dry, sometimes even down in the mouth, but
never dead in the water. Come to mama is what they
might think, if they weren’t too worn & weathered to
fall for anything an order of magnitude more inviting
than this insidiously tempting razor’s edge.

As you can see in this poem, the ability to reevaluate a phrase or surprise the reader is highly important to Lewis, and this is an admirable constant in her work. But not only do we see beautiful work being done at the level of the line, we also see, implied in the title, How to Be Another, the presence of the Other, the role of isolation, and even her challenging of relationship dynamics, which came to be some of the more important themes I searched for and prized in her work. If we reread “This is Not a Movie,” or even the upcoming poem, “Dig,” from How to Be Another, and look for these complicated relationship dynamics, or the role of isolation, or one or more figures presented as the Other, we will not be disappointed. The idea alone of being a “grief-stricken elephant” or coming prepared with “garters, buckshot, & dungarees, in case the / situation goes south” at a family or high school
Susan Lewis_How to be Anotherreunion is funny, interesting, and a little shocking to the senses. Knowing the heart-wrenching, almost-infamous level of grief felt by elephants, and pairing these feelings and preparations for the outdoors with a reunion makes the occasion feel that much less civilized and severe and suggests the physical level our emotions can reach when things go south, which isolates the reader (the “you”), as well as the narrator, who warns us of these possibilities. So too we see the level of isolation preserved in the relationship between the narrator and the addressed in “Dig,” through the physical act of digging and the passive, perhaps voyeuristic, act of watching. Through the withholding of information, of intimacy, of mutual ground, in the poem, the narrator is left with little but the ability to keep digging, with the hope of arriving at some sort of consensus when whatever is being searched for is found, if it does, in fact, exist. This concept, too, of existence, is an odd constant in these two poems and suggests not only the possibility of what could be that I mentioned earlier, but also that gnawing possibility that what we are expecting—things going south, or finding something in the ground—will never turn up… but it is, indeed, important enough that we must continue to hope or look for it, even if it will only ever be a haunting in our lives. Lewis’s ability to connect with her readers through these hauntings and desires is indisputable, and these moves, particularly in these two poems, have stayed with me, rigorously, over the past weeks.

DIG,

is all you ever say, & I do, becoming ever grimier & less
enlightened. If only I had a daughter; she would, no doubt, cheer
me on. She would have good faith & long eyelashes, perhaps even
a tiny butterfly tattooed beside the corner of her coy little mouth.
I don’t know this; I’m just saying. Dig, you reiterate. Which revives
my surprise that you have nothing else to do. In the past I have
asked for justification—or, at the very least, suggestions. But
answer came there none. I have asked for reassurance: a caress, or
even the briefest wink. I have asked for a daughter, either plain or
tattooed. Once, during our third or fourth eclipse, I thought you
might speak. I wouldn’t mind any of it, if only you would tell me
where to look. I have burrowed, you see, in every possible
direction. So far, I have unearthed no secret treasure; no new
perspective; no offspring of any kind; not even the slightest touch
of your still unsullied, impossibly smooth, irresistibly trembling
hand.

Susan Lewis holds a lovely command of rhythm, sound, and the weird possibilities that enter our relationships and life events. Whether we are reading her prose poems, like “This is Not a Movie” or “Dig,” or we are admiring the line breaks and white space of her linear poems in This Visit, we are always thinking about our connection to the narrator and the imposed distance from everyone, and everything, else, reflecting that same isolation
Susan Lewis_This Visitwe may observe when moving through our own lives and being aware of our impact on others, and their impact on us. I found these poems to be wildly interesting and thought-provoking, and they have stayed with me for weeks since I closed these three books and left them on my desk until I could review them. Sometimes a writer will do something in their work that gets a tight hold on me, and Lewis’s ability to surprise me through the narrator’s reactions to average goings-on (the digging, the hunter’s gear) has such a tight hold on me, and I don’t want it to let go. These images are so vivid and, cliché or not, leap off of the page and challenge my perceptions. Whether you are struggling like I was to find time to read and enjoy, or if you are simply looking for the next book to buy for your shelves, get your shovels and travel gear ready, and look Susan Lewis up. I am so happy to say that I picked such an excellent writer to turn to for my first day back to reading and reviewing books, and I’m sure, with not the slightest sliver of doubt in my mind, that you’ll enjoy her work, too, and become haunted by it.

 

SUSAN LEWIS lives in New York City and edits Posit. She is the author of This Visit (BlazeVOX, 2014), How to Be Another (Červená Barva Press, 2014), State of the Union (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2014), The Following Message (White Knuckle Press, 2013), At Times Your Lines (Argotist Ebooks, 2012), Some Assembly Required (Dancing Girl Press, 2011), Commodity Fetishism, winner of the 2009 Červená Barva Press Chapbook Award, and Animal Husbandry (Finishing Line Press, 2008). Lewis’s work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has been published or is forthcoming in such places as The Awl, Berkeley Poetry Review, BlazeVOX, Boston Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Cimarron Review, Connotation Press, The Journal, LunaLuna, Monday Night, The New Orleans Review, On Barcelona, Other Rooms, Otoliths, Ping Pong, Pool, Phoebe, Propeller, Raritan, Seneca Review, SpringGun, Truck, Verse, Verse Daily, and Word For/Word. Lewis received her MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and her BA and JD from UC Berkeley. She taught creative writing at SUNY, Purchase and has served as an editor and guest editor on several publications.

 

 

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Reading Allan Peterson

 

CONTINENTAL

 

We were sinking

The windows were filling with cities

as if poured into glasses

No one was thinking of drowning

No one thinking air ship

but there we were submerging

A captain turned off the cabin lights

We folded our tables    headed down quietly

The moon holding its breath floated up

 

KNOWLEDGE FIRST

 

We call it knowledge first to be nice, then superstition

if it’s theirs, then demonic if it means contradiction.

Remember the Tree of it, how dangerous, how nothing stays

in its place once you know feathers drop symmetrically

so the skimmer doesn’t fly in a circle. The very idea

of its place is the forcing of facts into a philosophy

someone is paying to maintain. The moment the sugar

crystals surrender to syrup out of sheer curiosity

they start to rebuild again drying to a small city on the knife.

Lilacs are massaged along the fence by windy hands.

You can see them give and moan from their fingers.

This is what they told us we’d die from, wasn’t it

—love, teeth first in the pinnate leaves, then the hickory

chewing on its lip lies to us again. How after dying it recants.

 

FEELING LIKE THE AFRICAN

 

Where I am, with me is

Frances to whom my muscles are attached,

dogs that perk with a whistle,

catching urgency from whatever state I call.

Even the strangest will do the same:

And what has flown low below me, stingrays,

loons, hooded mergansers

the almost frozen wolf eel ribboned in the depths,

whose beauty is my god’s

revenge on austerity, whose cloudy wrist tells time,

white as a moonstone.

But I have no god.   It is just me feeling like the African

figure full of nails

that says the future is likely all rust and worms, muscular,

attentive, but with extra dogs.

 

*

 

all from Allan Peterson’s Precarious (42 Miles Press, 2014)

 

 

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Counting Down to the New Year: Five of My Favorite Books of 2014

 

happy-new-year Happy New Year, all! I hope you had a wonderful celebration of the upcoming new year and were able to spend some time recounting the good memories of 2014. Along with going to school and becoming a mom, this was definitely a year for reading and reviewing books. I learned a great deal this year—about the art of reviewing and commenting on a text, about my personal tastes and what styles and moves in a text tend to stick with me the longest. Today, I went back through the list of books I read throughout the year and considered which books were the most influential. It was a difficult process. The five books I’ve included below were, both, among my favorites (which were far more than five titles!) and the most striking or memorable: the ending of The Art of Floating, the rhythm I swear I can still feel in my stomach after reading The Bottom, the blue room in The Language of Flowers, the opening poem in Trances of the Blast, and the hilarity of the narrator and the purity of the baby in What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day… These were such beautiful books, and whether read at the beginning of the year or more recently, they have stayed with me more than my other titles in 2014.

Because it was so difficult to even narrow down to five titles, I’ve decided not to rank them in an particular order; I’ve simply put them in alphabetical order, by title.

 

Kristin Bair OKeeffe_The Art of Floating THE ART OF FLOATING by Kristin Bair O’Keeffe, Penguin/Berkley, 2014
What can I say? This was easily one of the loveliest books I have read in a very, very long time. Termed by some as a fabulous beach read, I walked into the experience expecting a love story and only a love story, but it proved itself to be so much more than that. Teeming with surrealist images and ideas, this book combats what it means to feel something—how we often have to turn to metaphor in order to get our thoughts and feelings across. It’s a project that lives in that literary stance of, “I know the image doesn’t make sense, per se, but it’s right.” Real, honest, raw.

 

Betsy Andrews_The Bottom THE BOTTOM by Betsy Andrews, 42 Miles Press, 2014
Such a beautiful book! As of a few years ago, I became extremely interested in the placement of ecological concern in writing—particularly ecopoetics. What’s interesting to me is how Andrews pushes the bill and makes The Bottom much, much more than an ecopoetic piece; it’s ecopoetic, yes, but it is also political (different, in my mind, from ecopoetic), rooted (in a sense) in pop culture, and pulling from very deep ties in folklore and oral tradition. It also challenges common conceptions of the ocean, who lives in it, and who is impacted by their loss (spoiler: all of us). Deeply rendered, an oceanic rhythm, and shockingly resourceful and smart.

 

Vanessa Diffenbaugh_The Language of Flowers THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, Ballantine Books, 2012
There is something especially interesting about the concept of etymology (besides the fact that I love language)—how such a study is like a constant search for origin stories, for new meanings, and (my favorite part) varying and debatable interpretations. This concept is not overly-present in my work, as of yet, though it certainly something I am working on introducing, and something I greatly appreciate in others’ work. The Language of Flowers truly thrives inside etymology, both, as origin stories for the names of and purposes of species of flower but also how wrong an interpretation can be… and what that can mean for the portrayal and giving of a bouquet. Haunting and lovely.

 

Mary Ruefle_Trances of the Blast TRANCES OF THE BLAST by Mary Ruefle, Wave Books, 2013
I’ve always had a particular soft spot for Mary Ruefle’s poetry, though Cold Pluto has always been my favorite of her collections; there is a certain seamlessness and confidence to the collection of poems, their order and imagery, that I did not find as competitive in her other works (though I loved them, as well; Cold Pluto simply became my favorite). Now, however, Trances of the Blast came into my view, and it is absolutely wonderful. I sat one day with just Cold Pluto and Trances by my side, and it made for a truly wonderful day. An imagistic, confident and wonderful day.

 

Pear Cleage_What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day WHAT LOOKS LIKE CRAZY ON AN ORDINARY DAY by Pearl Cleage, Harper Paperbacks, 1997
Not a new book but one that was gifted to me for Christmas 2013; my friend “warned” me that it was a strange read but easily one of her favorite books, ever. This intrigued me, and from the first page onward, I understood what she meant. What Looks Like Crazy is bold and funny, operating in that strange place where grief and laughter strangely, funnily, and tragically coexist (which reminds me constantly of Cleage’s stance in playwriting, and how that stance influences the poise of her fiction, in the best way possible). It’s beautiful and memorable, dark and hilarious, easily a book I will return to—and gift and gift and gift.

 

I’m pausing for a moment and just thinking of how wonderful of a year it’s been. The past several years have each been difficult or heartbreaking in their own ways, and 2014 was the first year in a while where I reached some sort of reprieve—where my husband and I both reached some sort of reprieve—from hardship. And I think that’s been demonstrated, too, in the books I’ve read; when I first came to terms with my five “favorite” picks of 2014, I nodded to myself and said, “Yes, these titles represent me—in what I need as a writer and, perhaps more importantly, what I need as a reader and individual.” These five titles aren’t just memorable and books that I will read again in the future (and look forward to reading again in the future). They were beautiful, and they were hopeful, and challenging, and they were crutches for me during a year of healing. They were confirmation that, yes, this could be a better year than the past few, and they were a constant reminder that there is beauty to be found amidst all of the chaos. They were books I could set aside for later, to return to when things get rough again, because they always do… and to remind me that things will also get better again.

Because they always do.

And, finally, a belated wish to all of you, from a writer I’ve been reading for a very long time, as we turn to 2015…

 

Happy New Year Book Wish

 

 

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Moving Forward, Moving Back: Reading Jason Odell Williams’ Personal Statement

 

Jason Odell Williams_Personal StatementWe’ve all been there. We reached the final year of high school and discovered the college, the school, the job, the career that we wanted, and we attempted to move forward. We did everything we thought we needed to do—and more—to ensure that we would land one of the open seats in the version of the future that we wanted most. But sometimes, that “more” becomes problematic; we go in too deep, lose ourselves along the way, perhaps do some things we wouldn’t normally do—or for reasons we wouldn’t have previously considered. Jason Odell Williams explores these potential problems as he leads us down four very unique paths toward Ivy League schools, scholarships and higher positions on the corporate (or, in this case, political) ladder.

When I first started reading Personal Statement, I thought I would be reading four accounts of completely separate lives that only shared the difficult acts of writing the personal statement and applying to the “right college.” But it proves to be much more than that. These four characters either know one another or meet over the course of the journey, reminding us not only of how small the world can be but, perhaps more importantly, how our decisions impact others. Two of the main characters, Emily and Rani (pronounced “Ronnie”), are best friends on very different paths (though this is unknown to Emily Kim): Emily being the overly-driven, all-that-matters-is-getting-into-Harvard-no-matter-the-costs high school senior, while Rani is more or less burnt-out, looking for a much more easy-going, fulfilling, perhaps equestrian, lifestyle. Then there’s Robert, a homosexual African American student who wants only to start over in Europe, rather than pursue the college of his family’s choice; also, he met Emily previously at a student program, beginning first as friends, only to let their competitive natures get the better of them. Last, we see A.J. (or Alexis), a mid-twenties woman who has already gone through the personal statement process but who finds herself throwing herself into a new job suddenly, in the hopes of getting her foot in the door at the White House, which involves interacting with these teens directly over the course of a weekend. Each of these four find themselves looking for that final leg up, something to help them stand out—maybe some unique volunteer work? A hurricane blowing into Connecticut, perhaps?

Yes, exactly. So we find these four characters colliding in a small town in Connecticut, offering up their (kindest? most sincere? intrinsic?) services, with the thought in the back of their minds of using this experience for a resume, personal statement or future job application. This is where the heart of the story is, where the sentiment is at its most complicated: we’re watching four people who want something so much that they are willing to do something wonderful (volunteering to help those in need at a potentially dire time) for the completely wrong reasons. So then we’re forced to ask the question, “Can performing a good deed ever impact our character negatively?” I feel Emily, Rani, A.J. and Robert spend much of their stories interacting with and answering this exact question, determining what can result from misplaced intentions, or perhaps wanting the wrong thing—or wanting something far too much.

Jason Odell Williams’ debut novel, Personal Statement, is a fine piece of young adult literature, teeming with humor and wit, and asking major questions about motive and priorities, as well as engaging with some of the more interesting developmental questions that come with adolescence (see, perhaps, James Marcia’s developmental model, which I couldn’t help but constantly think back to while reading these characters’ journeys). Rotating between characters chapter-by-chapter, I found this to be a difficult one to put down, wanting to continue listening to one character’s journey, and later marveling at their interconnectedness toward the end. Perhaps there will be some parents who will take offense at this, but I agree with earlier reviews that see this as a must-read for graduating seniors, their parents, and even their school counselors who may or may not assist in the college application process. Sometimes we have to slow down and reconsider our desires and how they are prioritized and what we’re willing to do and who we’re willing to be to gain those desires—and Williams’ novel is one to encourage just that.

 

JASON ODELL WILLIAMS is an Emmy Award-nominated writer & producer of the television series, “Brain Games”—the highest rated show on the National Geographic Channel. As a playwright, his work has been produced at regional theatres across the country and in New York City. Originally from Columbia, Maryland, and a graduate of The University of Virginia, Jason lives in New York City with his actress-singer-director-producer wife, Charlotte Cohn, and their daughter, Imogen, who is working on her hyphenates as we speak. Personal Statement is his first novel. For more please visit his website.

 

 

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