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Feature Story 2011

Jump to: Anthony Neil Smith  /  Judy Wilson  /  Jim Zarzana  /  Marianne Zarzana  /  and More from the SMSU English Department


Outstanding writers have been a part of the Southwest Minnesota State University English Department since the university opened its doors in 1967.
The bar was set high early on, when Dr. Delbert “Deb” Wylder, English department chairperson, brought in a trio of new faculty members in 1970: Stephen Dunn, now a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet; Howard Mohr, author of the iconic How to Talk Minnesotan; and Phil Dacey, author of 11 books of poetry now living in New York.
“Deb established a creative writing program and major. Nowadays, when every school you can think of has a creative writing component, that doesn’t seem so revolutionary, but in 1970, such programs were far less prevalent. I had teaching offers from several other schools but chose Southwest because of that program,” said Dacey.
“Ferment” is a word Dacey uses to describe the atmosphere back then. “There was a sense of newness and discovery, a sense of beginning and building and direction-setting,” he said.
“The presence of writers created more writers: neither (former faculty member) Leo Dangel nor (current faculty member) Susan Mclean, each an outstanding poet, had been writing poetry when they arrived; its creative environment rubbed off on them.”
Alec Bond would later become department chair, and in 1981, two others were hired as faculty members: the late Bill Holm, and current faculty member Dave Pichaske. Holm was a prolific writer and regional favorite at the time of his death, and Pichaske, also an author, started two publishing houses.
In the early ’80s, the SMSU English faculty would begin to gather once a month or so and read in Ghent, at events dubbed Cornstock. People would bring their own food and enjoy an evening of words and song. Some of the impromptu events were carried on local radio. “People came from all over the state,” said Pichaske. Former state Sen. Gary DeCramer, who would later be an interim president at SMSU, helped get Cornstock off the ground.
The first Marshall Festival — celebrating rural writing and culture — was held in 1986 and has enjoyed great success. Writers from across the country attend the event, which has been repeated, intermittently, ever since.
Those early faculty members established a writing tradition that has been handed down to subsequent faculty members. Writers like Dr. Anthony Smith, Dr. Judy Wilson, Dr. Jim and Marianne Zarzana, Adrian Louis and McLean are keeping that tradition alive as the ‘next generation’ of writers.
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Anthony Neil Smith

“Gonzo noir” is the way Dr. Anthony Smith describes the writing genre that includes “A mix of the absurd with the classic dark noir writers of the ’50s,” he said. “I’m glad to be called a crime novelist, too.”
Around SMSU, he’s known as Dr. Neil Smith. When he writes, he goes by Anthony Neil Smith.
His love of crime writing began when he first picked up a Hardy Boys book in the school library. “Shortly after that, I started looking at adult crime fiction. They had great titles, blood and murder, and I wanted to read those.”
A car accident took his father when Smith was 10, “and my mother handled it by getting into the nuts and bolts of the funeral industry, so I peeked with her. I toured the funeral home, learned how people were embalmed. Then she got into selling pre-arranged funerals, and that sort of macabre aspect was interesting to me, it made me want to go into the darker side of things.”
Smith is the author of five books, the latest being Choke on Your Lies. And while he went the traditional publishing route for his previous books, for Choke on Your Lies, he decided to self-publish the book and offer it on Kindle, the electronic reader that has changed the publishing industry.
“The publishing business is in a tizzy now. Editors are not taking risks on books, and agents are having trouble selling anything that’s not blockbuster ready.
“My agent, who is also a writer, had been making money on novels on Kindle and wondered why we didn’t try that. We had nothing to lose, so in January I did all the formatting and posted it on the internet.
It’s a lot of fun, a lot more fun than trying to sell print books.”
He was also able to obtain the rights to his other books — “I was lucky, a lot of writers lose their rights” — and they are on sale for both Kindle and Nook electronic readers.
“I look at it like music — there was cassette tapes, then cd’s, and now thanks to technology, I can buy single songs.”
Smith grew up in Pascagoula, Miss., 90 miles from New Orleans, La. He received his undergraduate, master’s and Ph.D. degrees in English from the University of Southern Mississippi.
His writing influences include Dennis Lehane, James Ellroy, George Pelecanos and the late Flannery O’Connor.
Smith is the publisher of the online literary journal, “Plots with Guns” ( It is described as being “for noir and transgressive fiction, as long as it has a gun in it, somehow, some way.” As for pay? “No pay, but if accepted, the editor owes the author a drink next time he sees him or her.”
His other books include his first novel, Psychosomatic (Point Blank Press, 2005); The Drummer (Two Dollar Radio, 2006); Yellow Medicine (Bleak House Books, 2008); and Hogdoggin’ (Bleak House Books, 2009). He maintains a blog that includes posts and links to publicity, video interviews and reviews of his books:
He has a new book, All the Young Warriors, coming out this month, published by a new publishing house, Blasted Heath Ltd.
He is also the co-author of the screenplay for the movie “Pulp Boy,” which is in pre-production ( and based on the life of the late pulp writer Emerson LaSalle.
Smith is blunt, and isn’t afraid to use a little blue language in his writing, or his classroom. “It’s the way I’ve always heard people talk,” he explained. “I think those words have a lot of meaning and heart behind them, and they work when nothing else will do in a very special way. I don’t bar them from my students’ work, and don’t bar them from my own talks, in or outside class. It’s the way people talk, and should be celebrated rather than snuffed out.”
He writes “about the stuff that scares me” and as a teacher, likes nothing more than to “see the light bulb go on when the concept of storytelling comes to (students).
“First-timers write with clichés, they want that shock ending, the dialogue doesn’t feel the way people talk. After a while they think ‘this should come naturally;’ it’s a process, and they eventually find it. I just love to see that happen.”
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Judy Wilson

Dr. Judy Wilson believes that every generation of writers bears a responsibility to help the next generation. She is a teacher, after all.
Wilson’s latest book, Trespass, came out this past summer. It is a collection of 13 of her short stories, most of which previously won writing awards for Wilson, Associate Professor of English at SMSU.
The book is self-published by her own On the Brink Publishing, a company she recently founded. And while writing has come naturally to the Virginia native, publishing has not.
“It’s been a learning experience,” said Wilson.
She decided to try her hand at publishing because of her own experience, and that of her writing friends. “So many were dissatisfied with their publishers,” she said. “Their book would have a six-month run, they wouldn’t do a reprint, so that’s the end of the road. As for me, as long as a member of my family is alive, they can keep printing the book. I have total control over it.”
Wilson is the author of numerous short stories and has collected many awards over the years, including a Truman Capote Fellowship, the Southern Literary Festival Award for Best Short Fiction, the Joan Johnson Writing Award and the Henfield Foundation Transatlantic Review Award.
She is also the founder and editor of Yellow Medicine Review: A Journal of Indigenous Literature, Art & Thought, published in the fall and spring of each year. The ninth edition will be out at the end of October.
“It’s really grown. It’s to the point now where we have to turn some submissions down,” said Wilson.
Wilson lives in rural Hendricks, Minn., surrounded by trees, and a soothing quiet. The inspiration for her stories comes from many places. “Each story has a seed in reality,” she said.
For example, the short story “Portrait,” one of the stories in Trespass, is about a friendship between a teenaged girl and an older woman in a nursing home. “When I was younger, my mom had me go to a nursing home and volunteer after school. I was a ‘sunshine girl.’ I got to know the old folks well, and they signed my (high school) yearbook.
“I was going through some boxes at home, and I found that yearbook. I was reading what the old people had written, and realized how much of an impact they had on me, as far as the concept of telling stories. They were the first ones whose stories fascinated me, so that was the seed of reality in that story.”
She is currently finishing her first novel. She may some day self-publish her story collection as an e-book. “We’ll have to see,” she said.
Wilson believes in a thorough revision process when she writes. “There’s always a huge amount of subtext in good literary art; there’s as much reading between the lines as there is surface detail,” she said. “When you look at (a story) more objectively, you see important things working underneath the surface —issues, concerns — and you want to refine those. I revise a lot, it’s a lot like layering.”
She is an avid fan of southern literature, as a result of her doctoral work at the University of Southern Mississippi, and has little time for her own writing once the academic year begins. “I throw myself into my teaching,” she said.
Her book, Trespass, is available online at: There is also a link off of her homepage to order the book:

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Jim Zarzana

English professor Dr. Jim Zarzana has written a four-novel set of science fiction — his favorite genre — and has posted two chapters of one of the books on the blog on his website:
“I thought a website and blog would give me a way to spread the word about my writing,” he said.
His weekly blog is entitled “Eclectic Blog” because his topics are just that, eclectic. His topics range from serious — NATO bombing of Libya — to less-than serious — his love of dogs, and dislike of cats.
He’s shopped his books to numerous agents, and the feedback, advice and support he’s received has been inconsistent. Jim indicated that self-publishing on Amazon is in his future. “I will be up on Amazon within a few months, at least book one, and possibly two will be,” he said.
“My blog and website are there to promote my writing. It has given me a chance to get my fiction out there to an audience that has to look for it, but who can find it if they want. My work is futuristic, a political dystopia where science and government have been co-opted by a corporation which seeks to insure its survival only. It is an exaggeration of what’s going on today with government in a deadlock and democracy itself in danger of failing.
“I write because I like it. It is something I can do to ‘make a statement’ in an artistic way. I try to compare this world of ours with a future world of much worse dimension,” he said.
Finding time to write is always a problem. “When I have time to write, I don’t mind writing most of the day. I just want more readers and a broader audience than those who have seen my sci-fi in bits and pieces, as is the case right now. Time will tell.”
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Marianne Zarzana

Assistant English professor Marianne Zarzana started her blog last November, when she was challenged by her life coach. She posted daily for the first six months, and now posts twice per week. Her blog, found on her website, is called “Fly-over Country,” the name of her master’s thesis.
Her website is:
She likes the feedback, especially “being a part of big conversations about writing and the writing life.” Keeping connected with past English alumni is important to her, and the blog enables her to do that. “It’s a way to nurture the writing life, which can be lonely and isolating.”
Her blogs aren’t that long, and she likes to highlight other writing, and writers, on her website. “Being a good citizen of the writing community, participating fully and supporting other writers, is important to me,” she said.
Her attitude about blogs has completely changed. “I used to think of them narrow-mindedly as narcissistic, naval-gazing forums. But there are so many cool, amazing and interesting blogs out there today.”
She appreciates new technology like e-books and self-publishing, but also said “it’s important to go through traditional avenues when you’re getting started, to submit your work to journals, whether print or online, to enter book and poetry contests. When writers can connect with readers, that’s good news.”
Why does she write? “Because it’s always been my way of moving through the mystery of this world. Because I love words, playing with them, shaping them into sentences, lines, stanzas, stories. Because words help me to hold on to the beauty, to release the pain, to capture small moments and big feelings. Because writing is like breathing. Because words keep coming, because poems want to be sung, because stories need to be told.”

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More news from the SMSU English Department:

Susan McLean, Professor of English, took second place in the Able Muse Write Prize contest. Her poem "Teaching to the Test" will be published in the winter 2011 issue of Able Muse. Recently, the online poetry journal Tilt-a-Whirl published her poem "The Language of Flowers," and the print journal Measure published "Jeopardy" and two of her translations of Latin epigrams by Martial. Earlier this fall, she had five translations of Latin epigrams by the poet Martial published in Lucid Rhythms, and one translation of a Latin poem by Sir Thomas More, “On Hesperus at Confession,” published in First Things. Three of her original poems—“Morbid Interest,” “Insomnia,” and “Walking the Human"—appeared in Light Quarterly, and “Practical Proverbs” appeared in The Chimaera. Two of her sonnets, “Dark Shadows” and “Your Other Women,” were included in Hot Sonnets, an anthology of sonnets edited by Moira Egan and Clarinda Harriss, published by Entasis Press in 2011. Susan McLean is regularly publishing poetry in a variety of journals and anthologies. Keep up with her latest news on SMSU Today, the online source for news and information from around campus.

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