CONtraflow: New Orleans’ Own Taste of the Geek Life by Anna Harris

IMG_1807-0If someone had told me a few months ago that I’d get some of the best writing advice of my life at a hotel out by the airport, I’d have been suitably skeptical. It’s just that when one imagines a scene filled with award-winning authors, aspiring wordsmiths, and a sizeable contingent of steampunks and Chewbacchanalians, the Hilton on Airline Highway is probably not going to be the first place she thinks of. Not that the Hilton isn’t a great hotel, of course – just that it’s not that high in the list of wretched hives of scum and villainy. That fact notwithstanding, it turns out that the organizers couldn’t have picked a better spot to house the odd and amazing convergence known as CONtraflow.

Now in its fourth year, CONtraflow is a fan-organized, volunteer-run convention that focuses on science fiction and fantasy in literature and art. It’s a small convention (for right now, at least), but a robust one. This year the gathering boasted 100+ educational panels, parties, and concerts, featuring over 55 well-known names in the sci-fi and fantasy community. The gathering attracts writers, artists, vendors and fans (and everything in between), who mingle and bond over a shared love of geekdom.

At 32, until very recently it was a necessity to keep my geeky interests a secret, lest I be branded a weirdo. Even though pop culture has thoroughly embraced gaming, comic book heroes, and various sci-fi franchises over the last decade, if you’re my age (and especially if you’re female) you probably remember a time when it was just not possible to admit that you read fantasy novels and knew a smattering of Klingon without being ostracized. It’s only within the last couple of years that I started meeting geeks who were proud to share their interests with others, and started to realize that it was OK to be geeky. Meanwhile though, old habits die hard, and I’m still getting used to not being ashamed to buy comic books or profess my love for Settlers of Catan.

So while a large contingent of my comic book-loving, RPG-playing, sci-fi movie quoting friends regularly attend huge and hallowed conventions like Dragoncon and San Diego Comic-Con International, the bulk of my con experience begins and ends with Star Trek conventions with my mother, circa 1990. As you can imagine, I hadn’t revealed my secret to any of my friends – how embarrassing to basically be a con virgin! I was hoping that CONtraflow would give me a decent taste of what it’s like to go to a convention, without the huge crowds and overstimulation. I figured I could work my way up to the crazy stuff if the basics seemed interesting enough.

Luckily, my expectations were right on the money. From the moment the Hilton’s automatic doors sluiced open, enveloping me in brightly printed carpet and the sweet, sweet caress of over-conditioned air, I knew I was home. Two steampunk pirate wenches and an excellent Maleficent walked in with me from the parking lot, and I followed them through the hotel to the registration desk.

I had hoped to attend all three days, but as it turned out, Sunday was my only opening to check out the panels. I explained this to the lovely volunteer at registration, and she gamely recommended the best panels that day, based on my interests. While we were talking, I explained that I was new to this whole “being vocal about being a geek” thing. Without missing a beat, she reassured me that there’s nothing like going to a con – in fact, she’d met her husband at one! I made a mental note to keep my eyes peeled, just in case Destiny happened to be cosplaying that day.

The first panel on my list was “How to Write a Great First Line”, with author and radio talk show host M. B. Weston. Weston’s specialties are fantasy, YA, steampunk and paranormal fiction, and her enthusiasm for her craft was immediately evident as the panel got underway. “Punch, and punch hard!” was the message of the day. During the hour-long open Q&A, Weston shared her experience in crafting first lines made to immediately reel a reader in, and keep them hungry for more. The author explained that first lines were a kind of bait, or a drug, if you will. Keep adjusting the formula as you get to know your readers more. Introducing sensory details, inciting curiosity, and creating a sense of urgency are all ways to get the reader hooked. Most importantly, don’t get caught up on the first line. Keep writing, and let that perfect introduction come to you as you build the rest of the story. You can always go back and edit.

Weston’s talk was so engaging that I found myself staying put through the break to chat with other members of the crowd who’d stuck around to talk about first lines. Before I knew it, the next panel was getting under way. During “How to Promote Yourself & Your Writing”, independent author Ben Herr and author/actor/publisher Allan Gilbreath encouraged the writers in the crowd to start thinking of themselves as brands, and to start getting their messaging out to the right target market. Herr, creator of YA fantasy series Alynia Sky, is a fascinating example of how to be your own best brand ambassador. He shared valuable lessons on what’s worked – and what hasn’t – for him as he’s made it his mission to see his stories travel the globe. Gilbreath’s advice was even more interesting, as he’s had the opportunity to view the process from the writer’s chair as well as from the publisher’s point of view. His tips on how to succeed (and avoid screwing up) were useful and frequently hilarious, including the best thing I heard all day: “Interns are an invaluable resource – and they compost well!”

Despite the great advice had in the first two panels, the next panel I attended was definitely my favorite. Authors J. L. Mulvihill, Rob Cerio, and Kimberly Daniels led a very engaged crowd through an active discussion on “Writing Good Villains”. Between the three panelists, they covered a diverse set of genres, including YA, steampunk, fantasy, sci-fi, and comedy, but also were able to reference villains and plot points from TV, movies, comic books, classic fiction and even non-fiction sources. This created a rich and very accepting conversation, where the crowd felt encouraged to bring up ideas and share their struggles and successes with writing villainous characters. We even talked about how societal norms change our concept of villainy, and how to build a story where the villain is the landscape, or the society, or even the protagonist. Best of all, during the panel, I felt a light bulb switch on in my mind, as a story character I’d been writing and rewriting for a couple of years now suddenly completely made sense.

Afterward the day of awesome panels, I realized that it was pointless to try avoiding the siren song of geeky baubles any longer. As I wound my way through the serpentine field of merch tables, exploring my options, I could almost hear my bank account groaning. Bags laden with new books, I wandered back out to the parking lot, mentally signing myself up for next year’s CONtraflow. Wonder if the Hilton takes Vulcans?
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Anna Harris is a New Orleans-based marketing consultant and blogger. You can find her online at Compass & Quill and The Camino Plan.

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Missing New Orleans

I was offered a place at an artist’s residency called Soaring Gardens for the month of September. I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to finance a month of writing without a source of income, so I launched a GoFundMe campaign. While I haven’t yet hit my goal amount, I’ve been inspired and encouraged by the generosity and support of everyone who’s donated and that has made me more determined than ever that this is going to happen.

With that in mind, I thought I’d share a list of what I’ll miss about New Orleans while I’m gone for the month. I’ve picked 6 things for the 6 days left of the fundraiser, which wraps up next Wednesday, August 20th.

1. My communities of friends, fellow writers and artists and other tango dancers. All the coffee dates, writing meetings and tango events that I would otherwise attend were I here. This includes one regular Peauxdunque Writers Alliance meeting and a special tango workshop with amazing teachers.

2. Saints games! I’ll miss the first 4 regular season games, unless I can find a local bar and convince them to show the games. The house is very rural, so this could be touch and go. But even if I do manage to watch them while I’m gone, I’ll miss the experience of watching them with friends *here* at places like Pelican Bay.

3. Speaking of Pelican Bay, one of my favorite things to do lately is pick up one of their daiquiris and take it to Indywood Theater (they’re close to each other on Elysian Fields and Indywood is BYOB). I’ve seen so many amazing movies there recently and their August calendar looks great. I’m afraid to even see what I’ll miss in September.

4. While this isn’t technically a New Orleans thing (or in Sept), I’m going to miss the So You Think You Can Dance tour at the Saenger on October 1st. I’ll be driving back from the residency then, unfortunately. Darn!

5. Whenever I’ve left Louisiana in the past, I’ve craved good red beans and rice as soon as I cross the state line. So I’m sure that will happen now. And I’ll miss the roast beef po’boy at Parkway Bakery. I’ll miss a lot of other favorite restaurants/dishes, too many to name, but I know I’ll miss being able to get those red beans and that roast beef po’boy. It’s only a matter of time.

6. I’m not sure what I’ll do without the New Orleans Public Library. While the house has a library, I have been so spoiled by our wonderful library system and librarians. Books, movies, music, all at my fingertips. They just had a wrap party for their summer reading program and had adult summer reading activities all summer as well. But, in any season, the library is my mainstay. I’m going to be very sad when I take all my borrowed books back, and when I suspend all my holds. That will be the moment when I’ll know this dream I’ve been working toward has become a reality.

I know I’ll miss so much more than this (and people will be the biggest part), but I think I’ll be surprised by what I’ll miss once I’m at the residency. Luckily, it’s only a month and I’ll be back for the Louisiana Book Festival and Words & Music and… It will be a lot of fun to enjoy those six things (and everything else) once I’m back, having missed them for a little while. I hope you’ll enjoy all that New Orleans has to offer in the meantime.

There will be a going away party/celebration this coming Sunday the 17th, starting at 2 p.m. at Pelican Bay. If you’d like to contribute to the campaign, send me off or just enjoy brunch and daiquiris, you should swing by.

Good Times/Bad Times: May 25 – 31

Today I have for you (channeling the chefs on “Chopped” which I just finished watching!) a little list of some of the good things and bad things that I read on the internet in the past week. Most of them are from other blogs, some from NOLA, some not. It’s just a hodge-podge of articles that I liked or …… didn’t, but all are decidedly shareable.

Good Times

Road trip! Follow Ian McNulty on a trip down the bayou to Terrebone Parish in Bayou Country journey offers glimpse of small-town life at the end of the line.

Local blogger Blathering shares her recent outing to City Park’s Botanical Gardens with a walk through Enrique Alferez’s sculptures in her weekly feature “Arty Tuesday”.

“Blackberries Everywhere” , via Bouillie blog, takes us along to pick wild blackberries in rural Louisiana and adds a bonus of a recipe for Blackberry Cornmeal Cake that sounds scrumptious. The photos of the finished cake made my mouth water and put it on my list of recipes to try this summer.

I’m always complaining to myself that I don’t have the kind of time I’d like to read. This is really not exactly true since I often  end up surfing the internet when my intention was to read my ebook.  I even tweeted about it. So I was happy to find this post, 7 tips to help you read more (& love it).

 Bad Times

Local political journalist John McGinnis died last Sunday at the age of 66. Robert Mann penned a wonderful memoir and tribute to Mr. McGinnis here,  a worthy read about an exceptional journalist.

#YesAllWomen was a hashtag on fire on Twitter this past week. It apparently first popped up Friday 5/23 in the aftermath of the Elliot Rodger shooting spree in California in response to his misogynist rants on YouTube. When social media takes up a cause like this, I find it much more interesting and enlightening to read personal blogs written by everyday people to get a feel for how the issue affects or is affecting everyday people. Here are a few blog posts I read this week that touched me (to tears in some cases) and/or just made me think in a different way, breaking open the festering sore of misogyny.

First, here’s a link to a Vanity Fair article that includes a graphic showing how the hashtag spread worldwide.

Brandi writes a very personal account of her experience of being bullied by a boy (and, yes, it was bullying)  at age 11. I really identified with this post because I experienced the same thing at the same age and I remember the humiliation I felt.

Roxane Gay’s post, In Relief of Silence and Burden, is a heartbreaker written in the unmistakably honest voice that is Roxane Gay. Reading this made my stomach hurt.

Walking While Fat and Female – Or Why I Don’t Care Not All Men Are Like That was an eye-opener. I guess I’m naive but it never occurred to me that adult men acted this way.

And, from the men:

My Girl’s a Vegetable: A Father’s Response To Isla Vista Shootings  in Luna Luna Magazine shares how a dad’s eyes were opened to the every day misogyny directed to women via his daughter’s experience while walking home from school.

Local Blogger Ian McGibboney writes “A Letter To All the Nice Guys”and makes some really good points.

And, finally, Emily Shire says “#YesAllWomen Has Jumped the Shark” and wonders if it’s being diluted by people tweeting about such things as “complaints about women being told to smile”. What do you think?

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New-To-Me Blog of the Week

To end on a lighter note, I want to share a blog each week (or so) that’s new to me and that I enjoyed reading  – you know, show a little link love.This week it’s  The Art of Simple, a blog that shares ways to live a simpler, more meaningful life as well as giving great organizational tips. Give it a click, I think you’ll like it!

 

 

 

 

 

Women Who Write: Kelly Harris

This is the first of a four-part series featuring Louisiana women poets in celebration of National Poetry Month. Each profile will highlight a poet from New Orleans or Southeast Louisiana including interview, biography and an original poem selected for this feature.

Kelly Harris

Kelly Harris

This week we feature Kelly Harris. Kelly earned her MFA in poetry from Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. She has been awarded fellowships by Cave Canem and the Fine Arts Work Center and won a Wendy L. Moore Emerging Artists Award from the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland. Her poems have appeared in Say It Loud: Poems for James Brown, Yale University’s Caduceus, PMS, The Southern Women’s Review, PLUCK Magazine, DrumVoices Revue and other publications. The Kent State University graduate serves on the board of STAIR, (Start the Adventure in Reading) and is the editor/founder of brassybrown.com

Kelly will be speaking at The Contemporary Arts Center on April 18th in celebration of National Poetry Month and the 30 Americans Exhibition.

 

Stick Fighter
for Winnie Mandela

his breath on your neck

    his morning posture
    at the breakfast table

keepsakes of an ordinary wife

    freedom is not a love story

jumping the broom
is a weapon against those

    who see no danger in a woman

wearing a gele
crossing the threshold

    of her forbidden country

she is mad as the man
she married

can’t wait for God’s will

    demons are necessary
there must be blood

concrete to kiss
a modest woman will not have

    her name carved in stone
freedom is not a love story

               Winnie

the iron that sharpened him
all those years
               into a fist

~ ©Kelly Harris

How long have you been writing and what inspired you to choose this craft?

As a child I could always recite speeches and poems. I don’t really know how I developed the skill. I just always remember speaking somewhere and being mindful at an early age. I’ve been writing seriously since I was an undergraduate at Kent State University. I entered the university as a magazine journalism major, but it was always poetry that had a hold on me. I won a pageant contest my freshmen year. My talent was poetry, and soon after I become a poetry editor for the Black student’s publication and ran a poetry series that’s still active today. I don’t think I ever woke up one morning and said to myself, “I’m going to be a poet today.” I believe life calls us to become who we are meant to be.

Is poetry your primary genre? Do you work in any others?

Poetry is my first literary love. My blog, BrassyBrown.com, allows me to stretch my writing and of course, share my poetry. I just finished a major writing project about Black women in New Orleans that should be released soon by a nonprofit. I also do freelancing when I can. I am in the process of trying to find interest for my children’s book manuscript called “My Hoodie Keeps me Warm.” It’s the story of a group of African-American teenage boys being racially profiled. I am looking for a press for my poetry manuscript, “Revival.”

What is your earliest recollection of writing and poetry as a passion? Do you remember your first poem?

My first poem was called “Be a Leader Not a Follower.” I wrote it in 5th grade at my grandmother’s coffee table. I used to write poems in a spiral, pink Mead notebook. I threw
away many of my earliest poems because I was teased for being a poet. There weren’t a lot of poetry programs in the schools I went to. I didn’t pick up writing again until about 11th grade. I grew up in a very poor neighborhood. The great thing about my street was people were always talking, gossiping, cussing, and when you juxtaposed that with jump rope songs, hip-hop, my mother’s music collections, attending church with my family and black girlhood, it makes for great poetry.

Is writing your full-time occupation?

I wish. I’m a stay-at-home-mom and do contractual gigs in literacy, strategic planning and business writing. This may be hard to imagine, but I think becoming a mom has helped me become a better writer. It’s sharpened my attention to details and sound. To watch my 18-month-old daughter’s evolution of speech really has helped me think about language as a unit of the body.

I’m always interested in the writing process. Tell us a little about yours. Do you ponder a poem for a while, keeping it in a draft stage and working on it periodically or do you write it all at once, as the inspiration and words strike you? How much editing do you do on a piece?

I can sit and write a blog a lot easier and faster than a poem. Being a mother has forced me to write at God-awful-times, but I get it done because I do see writing as my life’s job. Most of my poems begin handwritten. When I type poems, I edit too fast. It’s just too convenient to backspace. I’m more likely to delete lines or words that may be useful later. I often do mental mapping of my poems. It helps me weed out clichés and tendencies and helps me see the possibilities for a poem.

Do you have a favorite place to write that’s particularly conducive to your creativity?

I write when and where I can, but I must admit I don’t write well in crowds or with lots of noise. Libraries used to be my ideal place, but now they are not guaranteed places of silence. There are very few public places where you can find solitude. Usually when everyone is sleeping, I am writing.

Do you have any tips you can share regarding motivation and/or discipline in completing a piece?

I have an MFA in Creative Writing and I sat through all sorts of lectures about motivation and discipline. First, it takes courage to write and hard work to write well, but the writing process is a lot more complicated than that. I’ve learned that everyone is different. I’ve tried to sit down each day and write on a schedule. I just can’t do it. I’m not wired that way, and my life is too hectic for structured writing. I make sure I take in a lot of music, interviews, reading, conversations and vocabulary words so that I am stock piling ideas and energy for poems to come. I’m always working on about 3-4 poems at a time. And I keep a journal of lines I’ve never used and mental notes that I sometimes use for things I’m working on. (See photo sample below)

kelly harris graphic

Whose work has inspired yours?

It depends where I’m at in my life and what I’m writing. I recently just bought “Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth” (Mouthmark Press) by Warsan Shire. She packs a lot into a line. Recently the poetry world lost Wanda Coleman and Jayne Cortez—two amazing poets of color. I’ve been re-reading a lot of their work. I bought a Sonia Sanchez album, “A Sun Lady for All Seasons” last month and she’s really got me thinking about how to effectively use repetition and sound.

Speaking of sound … Bobby McFerrin. I’m not talking about “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” He’s amazing. To me there is no other human voice on the planet that creates sound and words the way he does. My 18-month-old taps her chest and improvises with him when I watch him on YouTube. It’s pretty funny, but in watching her and him, it’s a great lesson in the art of timing.

Where do you see yourself with regard to your writing in 5 years?

Hopefully I can increase my publishing credits and teach. I really miss teaching poetry to young people. I’ve had brief opportunities to guest instruct at NOCCA and Lusher, and I loved it.

Please share five poetry books you’d recommend.

“Blacks” by Gwendolyn Brooks (I mean, do I really have to explain?)

“Rice: Poems by Nikky Finney” (“Head Off and Split” won the National Book Award for Poetry but her other books are worth reading too).

“Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African American Poetry” edited by Dr. Jerry Ward (Former Dillard University Professor)

“How I Got Ovah: New and Selected Poems by Carolyn M. Rodgers” (Not as widely known, but should be).

“The Never Wife” by Cynthia Hogue (I bought this book at Dauphine Books in the French Quarter and had no idea there would be some poems about NOLA in it. It’s a wonderful book)

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Thank you, Kelly, for this inspiring interview!

 

Veterans Day Rant

I hate the title of this blog post, but it is so true. How many of you say “thank you for your service” when you notice men with baseball caps indicating they served our country? Or National Guards people who are in uniform? I figure about 5 percent.

They have become – since the days of the Vietnam Veterans – forgotten Americans.

And they put THEIR lives on the line every day during their tours of duty so that we can hang out with friends, go to ball games and simply sleep soundly at night.

There are reputable organizations out there that help our Veterans. I donate to Paralyzed Veterans of America…$10/month.

Here’s a link for grateful Americans to help support our Veterans because American Government is NOT .

If you would like to help our Vets – from WWII thru Afghanistan – above is a link to resources. Choose one, donate monthly. It doesn’t have to be a lot. Everyone thinks “well enough people will donate, so I don’t have to”….YES YOU DO!!! THESE PEOPLE PUT THEIR LIVES ON THE LINE FOR YOU!!!!

Many of them are homeless, like the video above. Many of them are on food stamps, which have recently been cut ( thanks G.O.P.). You sent these people to witness and perform unspeakable acts and you bastards want to sweep them under
carpet?????

There are thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans who have PTSD. How many are being helped? How many are waiting almost TWO FUCKING YEARS to get help from the bogged down with government bereaucracy at Veterans Administration These people need help NOW, not when it’s convenient for some government worker to get to the bottom of their ‘TO DO’ list.

HELP OUR VETERANS, PLEASE. They didn’t think twice about protecting you.

August 29th

It will probably be mentioned as an afterthought on the nightly news, but here in Southeastern Louisiana August 29th is a day that is more memorable than the rest of the year.  On this date 8 years ago – August 29, 2005 – Hurricane Katrina roared ashore on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, devastating the small towns of Waveland and Bay St. Louis.

She also flattened Gulfport and Biloxi.

I’m not even going to go into the political impact of these storm. I’m also not going to dwell the repulsive comments from our “fellow Americans”. Although the haters represent a small chunk of our fellow citizens, their vitriol hurt. And they’re still at it today. I feel sorry for people with that much hate in their hearts.

A lot of the immediate coverage was centered around New Orleans, and rightly so.

There are so many stories of horror and survival. Even today – 8 years after the storm – when you meet someone in line at a festival or in the store, the subject usually comes up. We survivors feel the need to talk about “The Storm”. I don’t think we’ll ever NOT want to talk about it. It’s therapy to those of us who lived through it and still want to live here.

I’ve put together a montage of Katrina’s devastation on this page. After The Storm I was out of work for 2 months, so I taught myself basic HTML and created the page. It kind of helped my survivor’s guilt.

Memories of The Storm are anywhere one travels in Katrina’s path: overgrown lots, forgotten decrepit houses, flattened beachfront properties on the coast. To offset those sights, it is still evident that the area is still coming back, 8 years later.

Oh, yeah. Something else happened on August 29th: Hurricane Isaac. The odds of this storm hitting on the same date as Katrina blew us away. Isaac blew away our electricity for almost a week, flooded our streets. He did much less than Katrina, he was just a nuisance.

We survived both storms and the ineptitude of the U.S. Government in the aftermath. Today – August 29, 2013 – we are blessed with cool weather and clear blue skies. Many thanks to those who’ve cared, contributed toward our rebirth and all of the prayers.

Au Revoir

change1

NOLAFemmes has been my baby for the past four years – her birthday was July 9. I’ve coddled her along and watched her grow from a not-quite-there idea to what she is today thanks to the efforts of the amazing women who’ve written on her pages. I could never have done it alone. We’ve had some great times and achieved some beautiful things on this blog. We’ve been featured on WordPress’s Freshly Press three times: here, here and here. Two of our stories (here and here) went viral nationally. Many, many other heart-felt and thought-provoking stories have been written on these pages, big stories and small ones, and I am so proud of each and every one.  In January of this year I wrote a sort of State of the Blog post where I thanked our readers and my writers for their love and loyalty and I want to thank y’all again right now – for the last time. I’ve decided to retire as owner and administrator of this blog and to “pass the torch” to Amy Mueller. Amy has written on this blog almost from the very beginning and I know she will take it to the next level with her writing and editing expertise. And I know she will love it as I have – I believe that. The quote above is so very true. I’ve pondered for many months where I wanted to go with the blog. Finally, I made the hard decision that I simply no longer have the time or energy to give it the attention it deserves but I just couldn’t allow it to languish out there in no woman’s land. I was fighting to hold on, then fighting letting go. In the end, I know this is the right thing to do and I thank Amy for stepping up and taking over. Once again, huge thanks and hugs to our readers – you are a big part of what made this blog successful and fun and I hope you’ll continue to grace us with your loyalty.

xoxo,
Charlotte