A Writer’s Insight: Josh Foreman

joshforeman2016_resizeJosh Foreman’s essay “Age of Swine” appears in the autumn 2016 issue of The Southern Review. You can read the essay in the issue, or online at Lit Hub, where it appeared as “Everyone Used to Raise Hogs.” Read on to learn more about Foreman’s inspiration, research process, and his love of the Cheju black pig.


Kathleen Boland: The opening vignette in “Age of Swine” is of a ship captain and a hog making a bargain, shaking hand and hoof. Why begin with this surreal moment? Further, what is your stance about how “creative” creative nonfiction can be? What are the limits, if any, of nonfiction?

Josh Foreman: The simple answer is that I thought it was a funny, weird image and I wanted to include it in the essay somehow. After researching these animals and their relationship with the Europeans who brought them over, I was struck by what a good deal it was for both parties—the pigs basically kept those first settlers alive, and the pigs benefitted a lot from a whole new continent open to habitation. At the same time, the introduction of pigs (and Europeans) to the New World created a lot of problems. So, that scene sort of encapsulates that idea—a furtive, fateful deal between these two parties.

As far as pushing the limits on being creative in nonfiction, I think it’s clear that the meeting didn’t really happen. Thus, I don’t feel like I’m breaking any sort of contract with my reader. I had an interesting discussion with some of my writer friends recently about Michael Herr’s Vietnam War book Dispatches. Herr made up “composite characters” and dialogue, placed himself in scenes he wasn’t actually present for, and got details wrong. My friends and I agreed that as beautiful and “emotionally true” as his writing was, he had crossed a line, and his work could not really be considered nonfiction.


KB: What was your research process for “Age of Swine”?

JF: For a couple years I’ve been researching the life of my distant ancestor, who immigrated to Virginia in the early days of the colony. I became interested in pigs after a research trip to Surry County, Virginia, where my ancestor lived. People I talked to kept telling me about the pigs their grandparents raised in the county, the ham they ate as a kid, the famous ham maker who lived down the road. It became clear pretty fast that the pig was an important animal for these people. At the same time, the archival sources I was reading mentioned pigs a lot. In particular, my ancestor’s estate inventory, gave me a personal stake in the investigation. I found out he bred pigs, clashed with his neighbors over the animals, and died with several dozen roaming his property. From those interviews and documents, I started telling the story of pigs and their relationship with my family and Southern culture. I was lucky to have had a number of run-ins with pigs over the years and to live down the street from a heritage pig farm.


KB: There are a wide variety of locations throughout the essay: London, Virginia, New Hampshire, Florida, North Carolina, Mississippi, and more. Is this a product of research, or did you set out to tell a roving narrative? If so, why?

JF: The path that my ancestors took started in London and ended in Mississippi (where I grew up, as did my dad, my granddad, and a few more generations), so that geographic trajectory was in my mind as I wrote the essay. The pig’s migration route was similar—they thrived in the South, and that’s where populations really took hold. Research necessitated that I bring Florida and North Carolina into it; the Spanish introduced pigs in their territories, which included southern Mississippi, when they arrived; North Carolina was the setting for the infamous introduction of the Russian boar. New Hampshire isn’t really important to the story of swine in America, but it’s where I live now. I had easy access to the pig farm down the road here, so that’s how it got worked into the story. The pig theme is really what holds it all together…


KB: The essay is nonlinear and modular, with familial history interwoven with the history of pigs in America. Why did you choose to structure the essay as such? How do these different modules operate in regard to the content of the essay? I’m thinking especially of the “FRAME NOT INCLUDED” moment in the etymology printouts: What is the frame of “Age of Swine”? Is there one?

JF: Like I mentioned before, over the past couple years my writing has focused on my family’s history, and through that the history of the South. I kept stumbling on so much pig-related material while researching my family’s story that I decided I had to write a pig-focused essay. The structure of the essay is a reflection of the research I was doing—little tidbits here and there, vignettes that work together to say something.

A theme of my writing is the historical amnesia that many Southerners seem to have. I recognized it early on in my own life: I didn’t really know anything about my family beyond my grandparents’ generation. I hungered for a sense of identity growing up, to know where my family had come from. That “FRAME NOT INCLUDED” scene stuck out in my mind because it was so disappointing to have this paper in my hand that I thought could satisfy that, only to realize it was a vapid moneymaking gimmick that didn’t really tell me anything about my family at all. But it tied in nicely to the essay, because that old “scroll” my parents had did say the Foremans were pig farmers. I still don’t believe that document was insightful or even accurate, but I now know at least one Foreman was a pig farmer.


KB: Finally, what is your favorite breed of swine? Your favorite pork dish?

JF: This is going to come out of left field, but my favorite breed of swine is the Cheju black pig, which only lives on an island off the southern coast of Korea. I lived in South Korea for about eight years after college. The Cheju black pig is revered there for being particularly tasty. One of my fondest memories is from a hiking trip to Cheju Island I did with some friends. We spent a whole day hiking the volcanic mountain in the center of the island and were totally wiped out afterward. That night we splurged on a big meal of Cheju black pig. The server brought it out piled up on a platter, some of the black hair still sprouting out of the meat to prove it was authentic. We sat on the floor of the restaurant around a little charcoal grill drinking onion-infused soju, the favorite Korean liquor, and grilled the thick slices of pork. It was the kind of celebratory, life-affirming meal that doesn’t come around too often.


Josh Foreman’s travel and food writing appeared in Groove Korea from 2009–2014. He is a nonfiction writing student at the University of New Hampshire.

Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in fiction at Louisiana State University.

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The autumn issue is out: embrace your love

The other day I was talking to a friend who, upon seeing a crate of submissions in my living room, asked if I spend my whole day reading poetry. I said that on some days it’s most of the workday, but there’s also a lot of other things that need to be done. He was curious to know if I could tell right away if a poem is great, and I said, sometimes I’ll know immediately that it’s exceptional in its development of form or images or subject. I appreciate a skillfully executed poem, but, more than anything, I usually want some emotional heft to bolster the intellectual argument.

Eventually our conversation got around to his asking who my favorite poets are. That’s an impossible question to answer because, probably like every reader, I admire writers for different reasons. As I wrote in one of my first blogs, “Poems I’m Glad I Know,” back in April 2011, “I lean toward the long poem, but love the very short, poignant poem, as well.” My “favorite” list had “traditional forms and breaks from that and everything earnest in between.”

I had the autumn issue—just in from the printer—on my coffee table. I opened to the table of contents and said, “When I read this poem, I knew it was a keeper,” and I pointed to Bob Hicok’s “Standing up,” a poem about having a friend who is dying from cancer and loving that person so much that you hope you can help kill him when he’s ready to die. It’s sad and beautiful and painful in its understanding. When I first read it, I knew right away it was great; I knew it when I read the line “. . . And a bed shouldn’t be / the last thing to hold him. . . .” That line continues to stop me. Every time. The poem goes on to present one of those exceptional images I mentioned earlier: “I’ll get in / behind him, put my arms around his chest, / my right ear to the back of his heart, / and squeeze.” Hicok has recorded it for our audio gallery this season.

There’s a lot of other terrific poems in the autumn issue, including sprawling narratives from previous contributor Dana Roeser (“Poem Starting with Dry Cleaning”) and Kate Gleason, a voice new to our pages, whose “Single Twins” weaves together astronomy and vanishing twin syndrome. In contrast to the long poem is David Curry’s “Honeycrisp,” which is five lines of vibrant images. Marilyn Nelson has three wonderful poems about women artists that she also reads in our audio gallery: “Plautilli Nelli,” “Otagaki Rengetsu,” and “Andrea and Claudia de Mena.” Additionally, there are works in the hexameter, sonnet, and villanelle forms, as well as much in between.

This issue also has two related works by David Middleton, a poem called “The Break-In” and an essay called “In Allen Hall: LSU, The Southern Review, and Baton Rouge.” I’m particularly fond of Josh Foreman’s essay, “Age of Swine,” about his family’s history in Virginia and, well, hogs; and Anna Journey’s essay, “Modifying the Badger,” about her experiences with taxidermy and teaching poetry.

The art this autumn is by Joel Kelly, a New Orleans–based artist who also teaches high school science. He describes his paintings of figures and landscapes as “layered and shifting” with an aim for the viewer to be able to “wander unhinged.” They are lovely with their muted palette and intimate subjects. You can view them and read more about the artist here. I’m seeing now, looking at the copy of the journal, which is now on my desk, that his painting Death and the Maiden is of a man and woman embracing, the woman behind the man, his back against her chest and her arms around his, holding or squeezing.

So this is where my meandering blog circles back and usually comes to an end, and so it will. Be sure to embrace your love: poetry and people. Tonight my daughter (yes, dear reader, I know you were wondering when I would mention her) will perform for her first time with her school’s drama troupe. They will be doing a number from A Year with Frog and Toad; but she’s eight, and, when she dances, she embodies the spirit of Edward Albee’s Honey and will most certainly wander unhinged, doing her interpretative dance, as everyone should. It’s bound to be spectacular, and I can’t wait to put my arms around her when it’s over.

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A Writer’s Insight: Anne Valente

Anne Valente’s story “Who We Were” appears in the summer 2016 issue of The Southern Review. “Who We Were” is an adapted excerpt of Valente’s debut novel Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, forthcoming from William Morrow/HarperCollins (October 4). Hear Valente read from “Who We Were” in our audio gallery here; read more about her process of crafting the story and novel below.

 “Who We Were” is a harrowing story about a terribly tragic event, a school shooting. Out of that context, however, I’d argue that the story’s structure and language are remarkably playful: the first person plural narrator, the multiple tense changes (past, conditional, future), the frequent use of repetition and lists. How do these craft choices relate to, interrogate, or reflect the larger themes of the story? Why have so much narrative play in such a heavy story?

In general, I’m a writer who enjoys narrative play—I love repetition and listing, and any other mode that experiments with linear storytelling. But beneath the surface of structure, I also contended with what narrative mode would best tell this particular story. So much of this story—and so much of the novel—is about memory, and how each character attempts to reckon with this tragedy. Neither memory nor grief are linear: both double back, both take loops and turns, both obsess and repeat, and both follow maddening paths that are anything but straightforward. To best reflect the process of grieving and memory, I chose a structure that mirrored the ways our brains attempt to make sense and move on.

One of the more astonishing aspects of this story, to me, is how expertly the narration guides the reader through the school. We also shift between the points of view of Lewis and Clark’s yearbook staff members: Christina, Zola, Matt, and Nick; and there are shifts in time, toggling between scenes before, during, and after the shooting. This creates a chorus-like effect, further underlined by the use of the “we.” Could you talk about why you chose to write from this point of view, and how it might influence the telling of this kind of trauma?

Much in the same way that memory circulates in nonlinear ways around trauma, I think that point of view is also so difficult to pinpoint around a tragedy like this. One of my leading questions while writing this was: Whose story is this? I think we’re accustomed to stories of tragedy belonging to the media and news, and it’s one of the only ways we access information about mass violence. Broadcasts bring such authoritative voices, and I didn’t want a singular voice to own this narrative. The news is only one voice, and I imagined whether trauma like this belongs to everyone, or to each individual who experienced it, or to some gray space in between. I wondered if this kind of tragedy would bring a community together—a township, a high school, an entire city—while also splintering the collective apart, since no one experiences grief in the same way. By shifting the points of view between the collective and the individual, I wanted to explore the ways in which trauma is communal but also singular.

Unfortunately, school shootings like the one featured in “Who We Were” are all too common. How did current events and politics influence you while writing this story? Moreover, why set it in 2003, rather than, say, 2013 or 2016?

I began writing this in early 2013, just after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I’d been a junior in high school at the time of the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, and a college instructor at the time of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. I couldn’t believe in 2013 that as a nation we still hadn’t found a way to prevent mass tragedies like these from happening. Though gun violence occurs every day in America, something about mass shootings—maybe because they are almost always carried out by men—suggested to me a fixation on power and a perceived threat to that power. Though this isn’t explicitly explored in “Who We Were,” I set the book at the time of George W. Bush’s presidency and the search for weapons of mass destruction. The audacity of that search, as well as its need for power and answers when there weren’t any, felt like the right backdrop for a community seeking answers where grief so often provides so few. I also wanted to set this at a time when we as a nation hadn’t yet grown numb to so many incidents of mass violence.

“Who We Were” is being published in 2016, a year that feels marked by an excess of gun violence. These incidents, as well as so many that occurred after I finished writing the book in 2014, have further saddened me about the state of violence in this country—mass shootings, including those in Charleston and Orlando, but also police brutality in Ferguson and Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights and so many other cities in America. I don’t know what to say about so much violence, other than that I hope we continue to stay vigilant to not grow numb, and to continue speaking out and fighting against brutality, gun violence, and excessive force.

This story is the first chapter of your forthcoming novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down. Why or how is “Who We Were” a beginning, structurally, tonally, or otherwise?

I think “Who We Were” sets a tone of interrogation of memory; that in the wake of trauma building an archive is not only an objective but also an impossible task. For the yearbook staff members, the project of building a book after this kind of tragedy is both a diversion and a compulsion—a project that helps organize and funnel their grief, but a project that is essentially intolerable because of the material it forces them to engage with. I also wanted to begin with an account of the shooting so that the novel explores the aftermath—what we so often never see after television cameras and newscasters move away. Our media tends to focus on shooter and motive, and not as readily on how a community does or does not move on. “Who We Were” addresses the shooting immediately, but through the prism of four points of view, so a new narrative can unfold considering how these points of view process grief.

Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down is also your debut novel. Congratulations! You’ve published dozens of short stories, including two collections. How did your process change while writing a novel? Did it change? What advice would you give to someone shifting from short stories to their first novel?

Thank you! I did write only short stories when I first began writing, and I still write short stories now. To write a novel, I extended what I knew of short stories to a much longer form—that there still needed to be conflict, rising action, everything that a short story required, but outlined across multiple chapters. My process didn’t necessarily change, though I’d say that writing a novel required far more mapping of events, of timeline, and of the background of 2003. I built a big visual map above my desk to keep me on task. It also required more devoted time to stay within the world of the narrative, so I made time to write every single day.

For someone shifting from short stories to a first novel, I’d definitely suggest creating concentrated time each day so that the world of the novel stays fresh and immediate. In terms of more abstract advice, however, what was most helpful for me was to hear that a novel can be an enormous umbrella for many ideas. Whereas so many of my short stories tackle a single narrative across fifteen to twenty pages, I’ve found that a novel can contain even the kitchen sink. Part of the fun of the novel was drawing connections between fragments of ideas I’d kept but not known where to place: gun violence, but also astronomy, swimming, memory, cicadas. I found ways of exploring these ideas through character development and setting within the novel. Constellating ideas together is a big part of my process, and the novel provided a bigger playground for drawing connections between different strands of thought than short stories.


Anne Valente is the author of Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, forthcoming from William Morrow/HarperCollins, and the story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names. Her stories and essays have appeared in One Story, Ninth Letter, and the Washington Post. She teaches creative writing at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.

Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in fiction at Louisiana State University.

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A Writer’s Insight: An Interview with Alison Pelegrin

Alison Pelegrin’s poem “Poem Folded into a Boat and Offered to the Bogue Falaya” appears in the summer 2016 issue of The Southern Review; her essay “Waterlines” was published in The Southern Review’s summer 2015 issue on the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Waterlines is also the title of her new collection, published by LSU Press this month. This interview was conducted and condensed by The Southern Review/LSU Press marketing intern Megan Feifer. Conducted prior to the August 2016 flooding in Baton Rouge, the interview speaks volumes about the power of poetry in times of crises.


1). In your nonfiction piece “Waterlines,” you describe “Poem Folded into a Boat and Offered to the Bogue Falaya” as a prayer. Can you speak more on this?


I had been writing poems nonstop for a while, and then one morning I sat down with my notebook and nothing happened. Even though the creative cycle of flood and drought is a familiar concept, the actual shift from inspired to shriveled up is always a surprise. I wanted to write, was ready to write—and I had nothing but a blank page and a question. Oh my God—what comes next? Then the title came to me. I stared at it for a while and tried to remember how to make a paper boat. Then the words came in a flash and I wrote them down.

After church we did offer my poem to the Bogue Falaya. For the rest of the summer I was flooded with ideas for these origami poems that the kids would help me hide in secret places. It was kind of like vandalism, only biodegradable, and also invisible, because no matter where we put the poems, no one ever noticed. There are stories of the ancient Chinese poet Li Po writing poems and then floating them down the river, and I like feeling like a member of his tribe. Unlike Li Po, I kept copies of my poems, and many of them appear in Waterlines.

But to get back to your question, all poetry is prayer, isn’t it? You put the words out there—whether praise, or curse, or lament—and you are changed by the act of having uttered them. Communion with the world, the art of attention is a type of prayer, and I mean this in the biggest sense possible, across nationalities, languages, and faiths. Isn’t this what Dickinson meant when she wrote, “The Sailor cannot see the North—but knows the Needle can”? Isn’t this why she kept on writing, with no readers, no books, no witness to her genius?


2). There appears to be a relationship between the flow of words and the momentum of water in the poem. Is there a sort of communion happening between the voice of the poem and the river?


There is probably a communion happening between the poem and the river, but not just the Bogue Falaya. In South Louisiana, water, rivers, lakes, creeks, muddy ditches not to mention the excitement and destruction of hurricanes and floods surround me. Water is a natural marker in my life, so I guess it makes sense that it saturates so many poems.

The title of my current collection with LSU Press is Waterlines, and this is also the title of an essay I recently published with The Southern Review. It operates on so many levels. I am thinking of the inscription on John Keats’s tombstone: “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” I also think of the flood lines I have seen in my life—sometimes a flood line is a tangle of debris caught in a chain link fence, or marooned fish drying out on the sidewalk, or a coating of mud on the azalea bushes. After Katrina, many of the houses in New Orleans, my brother’s included, had multiple waterlines. His house wore waterlines like tea stains from eight feet high all the way down to the stoop.

The event of the hurricane or flood is itself a type of marker—you are always measuring yourself against it, the same way your mom might chart your growth on the back of a door. After Katrina, the door at my mother’s house with notches for me, my brother, and my children was thrown out. So now it feels like waterlines are the only thing left to demarcate my life.


3). In “Waterlines,” you discussed your inability to write poetry immediately following Katrina. Since then, you have published two collections. What did this lapse in writing teach you about the creative process?


Writing was impossible after Katrina because my life became more about survival than anything else. I will never be able to explain the extent to which my life descended into chaos, or how Katrina tore me up, tore up my beloveds. Even after we got back into our house, I felt lost because so many trees were gone that the light changed, and even familiar places were strange.

Though so many people shared my experience, and though so many were far more devastated, I felt embarrassed. Embarrassed to stand in line for food and water, embarrassed to pay with an EBT card (food stamps), embarrassed to have my house smashed open to the street and my possessions in a molded mound on the curb. People would slow down in their cars and stare. Most of all I was embarrassed by how I simply fell apart. I failed miserably at holding things together. So no, I didn’t see any poetry in my situation.

I wasn’t able to write about the storm until I found humor in it. This happened when I was making a catch list for the world’s worst contractors. I had the most ridiculous list of things for these guys to finish, and I wondered how we were stupid enough to give them a final payment. About two pages into the list I realized that the contractors would not be coming back. I was making a list of things that we would be finishing. I had to laugh about it because if not I would have had a heart attack from the stress and my unhealthy lifestyle at the time.

This lapse in writing taught me that the words will come, but never when you expect it. In my case, the words came after a fevered dream on an air mattress. I still have that notebook—there are pages and pages of insurance adjustors and contractors and estimates, and then out of nowhere is “Big Muddy River of Stars.” In my despair over my losses, I had forgotten that the words always come back.


4). Tell us about the current creative writing community in South Louisiana. Do writers still feel the compulsion to write “poetry of witness”? How have writers continued to collaborate with one another eleven years after Katrina?


I can’t speak for other writers, but I think my earlier Katrina poems were a reaction rather than the act of witness. In the immediate aftermath, any poetry I created was done so as a sort of self-defense in response to the fact that everybody seemed to be churning out Katrina poems except the people who had experienced it and who, like myself, were silent because they were putting their lives back together.

Katrina is a marker—everything is either before or after. I have finally relaxed a bit—on the ninth anniversary of the storm, I forgot about August 29 and only remembered the anniversary on August 30. But no matter how much time passes, to a certain extent Katrina gets blamed for everything that is lost. For my mother, it was Hurricane Betsy (1965), and for my grandmother, Hurricane Camille (1969). I have a poem about that, by the way, published in The Southern Review!


Alison Pelegrin is the author of four poetry collections, including Waterlines from LSU Press. She has received creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Louisiana Division of the Arts. Her work has appeared recently in The Cincinnati Review and Crab Orchard Review.

Megan Feifer is a doctoral candidate in English with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University. She received her MA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in English (Modern Studies). She is the cofounder and president of the Edwidge Danticat Society.

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Thank You, Thank You. Humbly, The Summer Intern

Dear The Southern Review & LSU Press,

Sometimes, falling asleep at the student desk logging acceptances and rejections in and out of the system or reading chapters 8.75 or 26.9 or 110,456.5 of The Chicago Manual of Style, I felt as though my last week would never arrive. I hate commas. I don’t want to send rejection letters; they make me so sad. I have six paper cuts from all the press releases I just stuffed into all these envelopes.

I was the ungrateful intern in those moments. The nervous rookie, still adjusting. Now, today, I am the melancholy intern, who wishes to rewind and replay the summer and relish those learning moments. But I cannot, so instead I offer my gratitude. Worth little, but genuine all the same.

Thank you, everyone, for visiting my little desk on that first day. You asked my name; you complimented my homemade lunch; you helped me navigate the submissions manager, e-mail, and piles of mail; you gave me your own parking pass so I wouldn’t get ticketed; you agreed with me that the copy machine was a complete piece of junk even though we both knew that was untrue and that I just did not know how to operate it correctly and was embarrassed and trying to save face.

Thank you for always ensuring productivity. I always felt useful, I always felt needed, I always felt like I had mentors who wanted to teach me, and, I promise you, I always want(ed) to learn.

Thank you to all my hardworking coworkers I only met once, or spoke with infrequently (like when I needed a set of keys or broke the copy machine for the seventh time that day)—thank you for your kindness. I understand how important you are and I hope to have coworkers as friendly and talented in the future.

Thank you, TSR and LSUP, for trusting me enough to contact poets and authors, many of whom are my heroes, my creative idols; thank you for not laughing at me when I geeked out that Charles Simic (!) had sent a piece of mail or Tom Sleigh (!) reached out via e-mail and I realized I had the distinct honor of responding. Thank you for trusting me with manuscripts, proposals, and editing projects. Even though my professional opinion is worth almost exactly two cents, thank you for allowing me to participate in acquisitions decisions.

Thank you for showing me that any person at any time (within the posted submission period!) can send in a poem, proposal, or nine hundred page manuscript and all submissions are read and considered equally. This gives me faith in the system and reminds me that literary meritocracy is alive in this beautiful corner of the world.

Thank you for showing me that I can be a woman and an editor of an internationally renowned literary journal, a woman and the publisher of a major academic press. Thank you for showing me that I can be a woman who works with other women without feeling threatened or the need to compete. Thank you for showing me that I can be a woman who works with men in a male- dominated field without compromising my ability or my intelligence to succeed or belong.

Thank you for confirming that the devil really is in the details. The size of the dash always matters! There are two different types of single quotation marks and they have dramatically different meanings! We must check and double-check the spelling of every noun, verb, and adjective we think we know how to spell because we cannot trust ourselves, and we certainly cannot trust writers!

Thank you for demonstrating the profound creative capacity and literary tradition of the South—I am filled with pride when I tell people that I work for The Southern Review and LSU Press. That is how Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks wanted us to feel, I think, from the coeditors all the way down to the summer intern. Your pride in your work, your endless dedication to craft, your tireless enthusiasm for language has impressed itself upon me, it invigorates me, and validates my desire to work in editing and publishing and to continue my own creative work.

Thank you for editing this letter before it appears on the website, because I am grammatically, syntactically imperfect and have not memorized the house style guide (yet).

Thank you, a thousand times thank you,
Matty Carville
Summer Intern, Enemy of Copy Machine 4106

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