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Nicky Pham: Chasing my Dream of a Career in Writing

May 19, 2015

Our blog this week has been written by Nicky Pham, one of  our magnificent interns.  In this post, she writes of her . . .writing life.

My name is Nicky. I’m a transfer student at Montgomery College and an intern for the Potomac Review. I hope to write and make positive impact on the world through writing. I’m becoming the cat lady that I never imagined myself to be. I love creating and hope to fulfill a career in the Arts or Humanities.

Everyone reads. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, we are reading more now than ever. The emergence of tablets, iPads, and smartphones accommodated by social media has revolutionized the ease of access to information. A massive amount of information is readily available for anyone to read at their fingertips—online articles are leaked and shared among sites such as Facebook, omitted travails such as the Kenya massacres, police brutality and prejudice, and even down to the recent phenomena on the white and gold or black and blue dress, we are reading more than we ever have been. And exactly, how are we reading at all? Because… writers.

I don’t want to be a “writer,” I want to write. But according to my jobless friend who graduated with a C average in Computer Science and still lives with his parents, while on his 3rd double IPA and working his 5th cigarette of the day… in broad daylight, my seizing writing as a career is equivalent to becoming, and I quote, “a broke alcoholic, cigarette smoking hobo with body odor and greasy hair.” When people ask me what I’m studying, what my major is, and what I’m going to do with that major after graduation, I want to rip my arm off, backslap myself in the face, then throw it at them and take off. There is no point in speaking about something nonexistent, knowing an opinionated life lecture is forthcoming. So, in response to those questions that dictate my life and question my entirety, as my insides would scream while a squeamish qualm would tickle my guts, I’d utter lies to dodge their opinion on, “realistically,” what I should really be doing with my education.

The hypocrisy of education in America has been parasitic to the lower to middle class minorities of my parent’s generation, eventually infecting the majority of the kids in my generation. The American Dream was ever so tangible, ideally bedazzling. Opportunity for success marketed at the price of education. And little did my father know, the promising dream for prosperity and success would cost… prosperity and success. An eye for an eye, and I’d be entrapped by extrinsic motivation for a higher education if I’d remained obedient. A lawyer, engineer, doctor, biochemist, or business executive is exactly what my family had in mind when sending their youngest and last hope to college. And I have to admit, it isn’t their cup of tea that writing is one of my areas of interest. My best friend’s mother, Rhonda, whose house I often visit for late night study sessions, frequently enjoys creeping about the room, without announcing herself while startling me to a near heart attack, to offer me some more food. Though, I’ve already force-fed myself the inhumanly large plate she’s prepared out of love. Then, she weasels her way into nagging me about my future career choice and compares me to her acquaintance’s daughter who is 25 and working in Wall Street. I seldom nod and make erratic eye contact with her while she attempts to inspire me to pick a stable field to study. Over half an hour later, I’d managed to completely tune her out while petting my cat, Casper, until his highness bites and run to hide somewhere—something I’ve considered doing to Rhonda.

Yet, realistically, to all the currency contaminated eyes, success can only be measured by mansions and Mercedes. My definition of success does not entail wealth. The adverb “realistically” followed by a gerund as despicable as “speaking” often resounds through opinionated voices as I go about my days. I’ve grown absolutely sick, yet, terrified of this misconception of pragmatism for realism. Torn between the dollar, they’ve become reluctant of dreaming; and, adrift along the current, they’ve been imprisoned by capitalism. Stagey and accosting, I know, but realistically, even science defies the social standards.

The intrinsic reward I achieve from writing defies even the nourishment I get from wine. The study of psychology suggests intrinsic motivations to be psychologically and intellectually nourishing, as oppose to extrinsic motivation. Motivation is a basic human initiation to act. As motivation is active, a reward is anticipated. When one participates in an activity and is motivated by extrinsic means, such as going through medical school for the future assurance of a 6 figure salary, or exercising to show off one’s aesthetics, the motivation for rewards eventually ceases. However, an intrinsically motivated chap is scientifically proven to perform more productively, creatively, and progressively. Enjoyment and appreciation is internalized, stimulating the overall continuation of that motivation.

Ever felt so empty and uncertain? Most of my peers are going or have already gone through this frustration. That specific void we’ve felt, that’s our intrinsic motivation screaming to be nourished. While the temporarily fulfillment of by extrinsic rewards remain insatiable, the soul remains hungry for the nourishment of intrinsic rewards, leading one to seek alternative means for the neurochemical reward experienced through intrinsic motivations. This is why I’ve learned to excuse the pungent taste of vodka. All my friends are high; “I like having something to look forward to,” my friend, the medical school student and golden child of his family, justifies himself for being doped on MDMA every weekend at Echostage.

To the bigot, materialistic, and self-proclaimed ‘realist,’ you and your stagnant office cubicle are welcome 9-to-5 your life away. You can question my appetite to fulfill my dreams, but I’ll remain insatiable even if you lavish me with money. You can tell me I’ll starve, suffer, and die a nobody. But, you can’t lie to me about the naked truth that modern civilization is built on dreams. Dreams live. Dreams live in the nights of snoring fathers and restless insomniacs. Dreams have been living across our centuries for as long as starlets have chased the stars to conquer the skies they now occupy. Dreams have erased the illusion of race and unchained our brothers and sisters of slavery. Dreams have ignited cities by cities and awoken those whose lives belong to the night. Dreams have conquered as they have killed those who’ve died chasing them. For what it’s worth, I’d rather starve, suffer, and die chasing my dream than live, floating alongside the current as another byproduct of the social standards.

Writing Naked

May 12, 2015

Associate Editor Hananah Zaheer reflects on the idea of nakedness in this smart essay.

Naked (nākid/)
1. (of an object) without the usual covering or protection. Vulnerable.
2. (of something such as feelings or behavior) undisguised; blatant.

Writing naked is not a new exercise. But it is an admirable one.

Victor Hugo famously instructed his valet to hide his clothes so that he would be forced to stay inside his house and thus do nothing else but write. Hemingway wrote not only nude but also standing up, more defiant than inebriated in my imagination although the anecdotes say otherwise. D.H Lawrence did not merely like to write in the nude but apparently also to climb Mulberry trees while naked in order to gain inspiration—an enviable act of courage. In fact, my dedicated following of all films that showcase “a writer’s life and angst” as their main premise, reveals that most writers, at some point or another, are found in a state of undress while creating. Nudity is tantamount to art, somehow, my brain concludes.

On the one hand the idea speaks to me of utter abandon, a stripping away of all pretense and outward appearances to, literally, be present–the stuff of clichéd dreams. On the other hand, I imagine hot coffee, an accidentally unlocked door (perhaps defying the purpose of nudity anyway?) and a free peep show for the workers who seem to be permanently occupied with the foliage on the road beside my house.
It has also not escaped my notice that most of these writers are men, the women restraining themselves at writing in pajamas (like Francine Prose) and perhaps the odd composition in the bathtub a la Agatha Christie.
Either way, I simply don’t have the…er…cajones.
In truth, who can really recall what they were wearing when they created a particular piece of poetry or fiction? It is more likely that one remembers the emotional state one was in, perhaps the feelings of joy, or truth, or sadness, or even fear. To me, this writing naked business is not merely a physical act of artistry, but a reflection of the mental state one needs to be in to write well, or at all. A writer saying, “Here I am, as I am,” driving themselves to expose the imperfect truths about human lives, laying bare thoughts and emotions one would not normally voice. That, too, in my book, is a defiance, a declaration of intent, a situation to restrict one’s self to the naked truth.
I understand this concept well even as I find myself struggling, at times, to reach that place of complete abandon. There is always a covering, a veil, partly because us as writers have to be cognizant of lifting from real life. Also, because there have been many times when an acquaintance has pulled me aside to express sympathy because they read a story and assumed I am the character in my own stories.
And perhaps part of the restraint is due to the writing culture I belong to.
As a writer of Pakistani origin, I often find myself congratulating writers, especially women, who tackle things like relationships, sex, depression, all the taboos that are cultural whispers, observed but not talked about. Once, I showed a story I was working on to someone close to me (See? I can’t reveal who it is). The story involved a sort of twisted act of revenge sex and after a quiet moment, the person’s response was: “Why do you always have to write about sex?” I don’t. Always write about sex, that is. I write about people, and relationships, and traumas, and identity, and so many other things. But clearly the one thing that struck a cultural nerve for that person was the idea that such an intimate thing would be put out there for the world to think of, that somehow I revealed myself as a wanton person, depraved even, by exposing those thoughts, that brain, that act. And worse, that perhaps I was exposing this in others, admitting out loud that this kind of thing might happen.
That has been my own struggle to nakedness, fighting against cultural norms, against perceptions of my own “community,” being measured against writers from the same traditions as the ones I came from. Which, if I were to draw a Venn diagram of social class, religious beliefs, professions, family names, skin color, height, eye color, would be, give or take, twenty people. Twenty people who like the idea of values and whose voice says in unison: Why don’t you write something with a moral?
And I argue that I do. Except the moral I am reaching for is the idea of being truthful and present. And completely, utterly, naked.

Reviews: Loss and Lampoon

May 5, 2015

Associate Editor Albert Kapikian inaugurates our book review thread with his thoughtful reading of two books:  one,The Last Girl, by poet Rose Solari, and the other, The Wizard and the White House, by local author and associate editor Mike Maggio:

SolariThe Last Girl, Rose Solari’s latest book, begins with the writer engaging us in an internal dialogue highly unusual for a poet. Solari, who has been writing poetry since she could hold a pencil, but who has also done formal research into the divergence between British and American poetry of the 1950s, suggests an ars poetica not only for herself and her reader but for the little girl she once was.

“Come/with me as I walk the perimeter/of this field, and don’t be afraid.”

— “The Treehouse of the Dream Child”

The perimeter denotes the form which she has finally found to speak about her lifelong preoccupations. In granting the girl the safety she had sought but not always found in the treehouse where she practiced her “solitary art,” the mature poet is able to access the intense feeling of this child, and at the same time inhabit the cloud of unknowing in which she is ensconced.

“Hear/the floorboards singing her step, see/her old, new face.”

Poetry, then, Solari seems to be saying, if properly practiced, can summon the child to rescue the adult and summon the adult to rescue the child.

“she is a word/for keeping and losing, a talisman/against this sky, which is
red-black,/now, and terrible, and our own.”

Solari’s preoccupations have been career-long, indeed lifelong, so constructing an ars poetica to accommodate the girl she once was is not a contrivance. Maryland born and bred, she is rare among Maryland writers for keeping the state always in focus, even as she writes a novel set in England.

More important, perhaps, to the girl she was and the woman she has become is her brother, dearly loved, a Vietnam veteran who never really came home and who died in 2009. The safe space created for the girl is created for him as well:

“Walk into it, beloved hard-lost/boy. You will be, at last, all right.”

–“Another Ending”

Solari has always been salvaging her past, trying to find a way to inhabit it that will allow her to move forward with it unencumbered. Indeed her novel, A Secret Woman, is about salvaging, sifting through, and ultimately finding a measure of meaning in a collection of manuscripts, old books, and floppy disks belonging to the narrator’s mother. Written partly during her period as advisor at the Centre for Creative Writing at Kellog College, Oxford, its epigraph is from Dante’s “Inferno.”

Even in her first book of poems, Difficult Weather, recently reissued in a 20th anniversary edition, the poet tries to salvage the things the little girl had experienced as an adolescent in the lower-middle class working suburbs of Maryland.

Now that Solari has found a new way to inhabit her preoccupations — a way that lets in the girl she once was — some great poems issue forth. In the three poems dedicated to her brother, she begins to come to terms with the most difficult preoccupation of them all, while at the same time offering us another meditation on the nature of the poetic process.

It is essential to imagine
one thing as another – as when
the small hard winter apple becomes
a globe for the dollhouse schoolroom

where the rubber children learn
their geography; as when a pan of mud
is really quicksand, and in it G.I. Joe
is sinking, sinking, until a buddy

pulls him out in time; as when the old
round wooden drying rack, with all
its bare arms up, is your helicopter,
rising over the shores of Okinawa.

where you will find your brother,
not yet broken, and carry him home.

— “Another Shore”


Local poet, Mike Maggio, has published a novel, his first, The Wizard and the White House. It is a satire — not one-size-fits-all, not us against them — but an equal opportunity satire worthy of Gogol, sending up all parts of our current society.

In Maggio’s novel, the President of the United States wakes up one morning to find he has no mouth, while in another part of Washington, D.C. a janitor wakes up to find he has two. A Pakistani immigrant in Arlington, Virginia, hears the voice of God in a waterspout and soon finds himself, despite every effort to refrain from doing so, speeding towards the White House gates.

And unbeknownst to all of them, these characters are being controlled by a malevolent wizard secluded somewhere in the Hindu Kush mountains nursing a terrible grudge.

Maggio, moreover, possesses that rarest of talents that allows for great satire — an understated tongue-in-cheek humor that is somehow at the same time outrageously funny. When the Chief of Staff, Mark Drove, discovers the President’s condition, Maggio writes:

And while he always strove to be politically correct, he managed, just the same, to be as truthful and forthcoming as circumstances would allow. So now, as he stared incredulously at the President, like a scientist examining a rare and strange-looking creature, he coldly assessed the situation and surveyed the room, as was his habit, to make sure no one was around, closed the door and carefully locked it to ensure privacy.

‘Mr. President,’ he said calmly and without emotion, ‘you have indeed outdone yourself this time.’

The satire, again, is equal opportunity. The pastor enlisted by the janitor’s wife to heal him, the Reverend C.J. Willis, is an opportunist whose proprietorship of a “storefront operation” in Southeast Washington is founded on a three-week mail-order course.

After the Pakistani immigrant, Falluzin Choudry, is arrested at the White House gates, we are introduced to our eponymous wizard, Sharir, who sees in his crystal ball Secret Service agents drag Choudry away and says to his enslaved assistant Akram:

“It’s wonderful, don’t you think? To watch them in action thinking they control everything they do?”

The novel traces recent events, and if you want to see George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Dick Cheney in its caricatures, you certainly can, but Maggio has more serious ambitions as well, and he began this novel before there was ever a “Quincy” from Texas in the White House.

Like the great satirists, Maggio wants to send up principles, not just individuals. In Maggio’s case, it appears that in the person of the wizard, he is just as interested in the ontological genesis of the events of our time as in the paupers and politicians that carry them out.

Nevertheless, it is perhaps less improbable that the President have no mouth than that he plead weapons of mass destruction that do not exist as a rationale for war.

Or as the Vice President admonishes the Chief of Staff while discussing strategy for dealing with the President’s current quandary, “Well, Mark. It seems to me we need to be truthful, as we have been all along during this administration, with the American people.”

From Our Interns: Mary Rose Winters

April 28, 2015

Each semester the Potomac Review works with three (magnificent) student  interns who do most of the behind-the-scenes heavy lifting.  Without their  plugging away at the computer, the PR would exist only as a dream or a handwritten note delivered by pigeons.  We will be presenting a post from each of them as our way of thanking them and publicizing the work that they’ve done.

Our first post, by Mary Rose Winters, reflects on the visit by author Jennifer Clement this semester. By way of her bio, Mary Rose writes that she is “incredibly grateful for the opportunities I have had as an intern with the Potomac Review this semester. I will be graduating from MC in May and transferring to St. Mary’s in the fall where I plan to study psychology and neuroscience. I need creative writing and the people I have met through the literary world to keep me sane.  God has big plans for everyone and I look forward to seeing what He does in her life next!”


Jennifer Clement looks like a writer. She appeared to the Montgomery College literary community on Tuesday, February 24th, elegantly adorned all in black with a long black scarf swept gracefully over her shoulders. Her glasses were robin’s egg blue, and she was surrounded by an abundance of sunshine colored hair. Eyes are naturally drawn to her face. There is no mistaking her for an ordinary person. Jennifer Clement is a writer.
Though she would not look out of place at a café in Paris, Clement was born and raised in Mexico City. She has spent years focusing on protecting the rights and lives of her fellow writers. From 2009-2012, she served as president of PEN Mexico, part of an international organization that exists as a safeguard for writers. Her most recent novel, Prayers for the Stolen, explores the lives of women and girls who are being stolen and trafficked by transnational drug cartel members. Clement spent 11 years researching and interviewing mothers and daughters about their experiences hiding to evade abduction by the cartel. The result is a poetically written protest novel. It was not Clement’s intention to write a protest novel, but her exposition of the harsh conditions under which so many women are forced to live, the fact that the government is aware of but does little or nothing about these circumstances and her revelations about the inside workings of sex trafficking within the cartel has moved her novel into that category. Prayers for the Stolen has been recognized with several awards including the New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice Book.
A number of Montgomery College students had the opportunity to sit in on a master class led by Jennifer Clement prior to her presentation and reading on the evening February 24th. She shared her insights about the writing process, gave novice writers encouragement and answered questions from students and professors. She spoke about writers’ rhythms, how each writer has to find the best time of day that they write and to write every day. For Clement, writing at dawn gives her the easiest access to her unconscious, it is closest to the dream state. While most amateur writers are prone to controlling their writing, experience has shown Clement that trusting the unconscious is a sign of a writer’s maturity.
In terms of inspiration, Jennifer Clement has a great respect for words and etymology. She explained how English has so many more times the number of words than most other languages, meaning there are numerous ways to say the same thing. The job of the writer is then to find the best compilation of specific words to create the right story. Clement herself is partial to finding the poetic experience; this is reflected in her writing. The story of the women and girls in Guerra, though based on hundreds of true stories, are given a voice with the use of a little artistic license to show the aftermath of being abducted. Prayers for the Stolen is a wonderful novel, but it is not for the faint of heart. It is not a book for those who are not willing to confront the rawness of how horribly people can treat each other. It is a not a book for those who do not wish to feel connected to the victims of human trafficking. It is a book written for people willing to be aware of the truth and if that is you, pick up a copy and become enlightened to other people of the world– they are speaking, but we choose whether or not we will listen.


Introducing Jody Shipka

April 14, 2015

Some of the good news from the AWP conference has been about the many compliments on the creative, beautiful cover of #56.  It borders on understatement to say that PR feels very fortunate to have had the photographs of Jody Shipka on #56 as part of the collage created by our graphic designer, Carol Chu. Below, read more about this gifted artist:


Jody Shipka is an Associate Professor of English at University of Maryland, Baltimore County where she teaches courses in the Communication and Technology Track.

Shipka is the author of Toward a Composition Made Whole and the editor of Play! A Collection of Toy Camera Photographs. Her work has appeared in College Composition and Communication, Computers and Composition, Enculturation, Kairos, Text and Talk, and a number of edited collections, including Writing Selves/Writing Societies, Exploring Semiotic Remediation as Discourse Practice, Multimodal Literacies and Emerging Genres in Student Compositions, and First-Year Composition: From Theory to Practice. She is currently working on a book-length, born-digital project titled To Honor, Rival and Revise: On the Process of Composing Other People’s Lives. Here, Shipka draws on theories of remediation, multimodality, and embodiment to examine a diverse assortment of “memory objects,” such as vintage 8mm home movies, scrapbooks, photo albums, travel diaries and other ephemera found at flea markets, yard sales, and antique stores. The project explores ways that these historically marginalized artifacts might be de- and re-composed in ways that allow us to imagine new potentials for conceiving of archives, authorship, agency, as well as the complex relationship between the living and the dead, between humans and nonhumans.

Read more about her work at her website, remediate this.

At The AWP

April 10, 2015

Associate Editor Courtney King has helped at the table, and we appreciate her assistance!

AND on Saturday, April 11, at 9 a.m., you’ll want to attend

Slush Pile Standouts: Thoughts from the Editor’s Desk. Four editors discuss how a submission climbs out of the slush and into the journal’s pages. Julie Wakeman-Linn and John Wang are joined by Cara Blue Adams of Southern Review and Mark Drew of the Gettysburg Review.  

Stop by our table  (#1525) at the book fair, where we will have string bags and pens and postcards for all our friends.

AWP Bound

April 2, 2015

IMG_0117On Saturday, April 11, at 9 a.m., you’ll want to attend  Slush Pile Standouts: Thoughts from the Editor’s Desk. Four editors discuss how a submission climbs out of the slush and into the journal’s pages. Julie Wakeman-Linn and John Wang are joined by Cara Blue Adams of Southern Review and Mark Drew of the Gettysburg Review. 

And don’t forget to stop by our table  (#1525) at the book fair, where we will have string bags and pens and postcards for all our friends.

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