***The bio will appear in a slightly different version with some crazy photos in the College of Arts and Sciences magazine, Ask, due out at the end of Oct. You could link to this page: http://drexel.edu/coas/news/publications/.
This is (primarily) the story of my life, but through the filter of language. (For a story of my life through ghostly visitations, see my short-short in Opium. For a story of my life through food, see my essay in The Smart Set. For a story of my life through sex, alcohol, and my children, stay tuned.)
I was born in Pittsburgh, PA, the third child and first daughter to my parents, Jerry and Joanne Volk. My father loves to claim that I was born talking. My mother just loved to tell the story of how much she wanted a daughter after two sons, and how lovely it was to have her daughter brought to her on a sunny Palm Sunday. I like my mother’s story better.
When I was in about 4th grade I had a severe case of walking pneumonia and was homebound for more than a month. During that time, my mother bought me book after book after book. I read all of the Five Little Pepper series, The Borrowers, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Little Women, and probably at least half of the Nancy Drew series. I see that period as the beginning of my never-ending love of books.
I was such a nerd that, at one point, in about 6th grade, I created my own library cards for my books, complete with plot synopsis, a numbering system, etc. My class did a Polly Anna for the holidays and I put down my preferred gift as a bound notebook and a package of classic blue Bic’s—still a favorite pen choice. My crush picked my name and I was humiliated when he handed me the package. The other kids were opening cassette tapes and nail polish sets and Bonne Bell Lip smackers and card games. My crush chose a black faux leather journal and the requested Bic’s. When I opened the package he whispered, “I like to write, too.” I was thrilled on many levels.
I grew up in this strange pocket of the South Hills of Pittsburgh—a tiny neighborhood called Lincoln Place, somehow classified and as part of the city of Pittsburgh even though we were surrounded by other towns with their own school districts. This meant the Bookmobile came to the local A & P parking lot. I read every YA book and every slightly appropriate classic novel they carried. The librarians loved me, of course, and would bring five or six books they hand selected each week.
This weird location meant a 20-minute bus ride to high school. This meant more of sense of displacement for me, but I found my niche; I found other would-be writers and love-to-read’ers and in my junior year, developed a literary magazine at my high-school.
When I was in high school I would lay on pink shag rug in the bedroom I shared with my sister and play “Greetings from Asbury Park” over and over and over again, letting images of Wild Billy and Sandy and all of the others play out in my mind. I would moan longer than Bruce did at the end of “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” waiting and waiting for someone to pick me up off that rug, waiting to be spirited away in a Chevy, in any car that went fast enough to get me out of those Pittsburgh valleys and hills and to the Jersey shore, where I was quite sure I belonged.
Just recently, WXPN did a 100 top Bruce song count down, and I listened to most of it. By the top ten, the final ten they played, I was reduced to lying on my bed, silently crying, still mostly singing along, often throwing a fist in the air, but thinking a lot about the little girl laying on her pink shag rug in Pittsburgh. I still love story, I still love bad boys, I still love Chevy’s and the beaches of Jersey. I am including my love of Springsteen here because his lyrics most definitely began my love of poetry.
For the past few years I have dreams where I meet him, backstage. They are the type of dream where it all feels normal, but the thing is he always already knows my name, tells me how happy he is to meet me. In the very last one, he sang a few lines from a song he’s working on. I try to make these dreams happen, of course, but I can’t. They come like surprise gifts.
When I was a high-school senior, my boyfriend was a freshman at West Virginia University. My thoughts had been Penn State, in order to follow my big brother, or Carnegie Mellon University. I visited my boyfriend for a weekend—-we had a terrible, dramatic scene at a freshman dance party, because I would not fuck him in the laundry room—something he assured me all college-aged kids do. I literally wandered around the campus with only the vaguest idea of where I was, and attempted to find the only other student I knew there. Just when I was beginning to panic about where I would sleep that night, I literally bumped into her on the street.
So, to quote Steely Dan, “the weekend at the college didn’t turn out like I (you) planned,” but I fell in love with West Virginia University and ended up going to college there. And what did I do my first week on campus? I found the literary magazine and joined up.
I hate to fast forward through my college years here, but I must. I planned on only talking about my life, but only the reader/writer part of me, so I don’t need to tell you about the WVU football games and the aching mountains and moonshine parties and pick up blue-grass bands and cow pie football and the owners of the clothing store where I worked sometimes taking so much pity on me —or being embarrassed by me—I could never be sure—walking me around the shop and saying, “Here, wear this. Here, try these on.” So, I won’t tell you those stories, I will just ask you to imagine how it felt to be cradled by those mountains, at that age, that point of my life, and feel so tiny and so full of possibility at the same time.
In college I met the man who became my husband, and moved with him to Southern New Jersey. After growing up in Pittsburgh and then going to West Virginia, I felt like New Jersey was as flat as the western plains. The sudden weather changes were so odd to me, too, as was what I then perceived as the constant sunny skies. (Pittsburgh has a higher annual rain fall than Seatlle. In valleys like Morgantown and Pittsburgh, when rain comes…it stays.)
I was lost in S. Jersey, at first. I used to tell my husband that driving on Rt. 70 made me feel like I was in a cartoon—-like Fred Flintstone running with the same background moving behind him again and again. I felt better in Philadelphia, at least there were numbered streets, a grid, tall buildings to help me get a context for my bearings, like the hillsides of Pittsburgh and West Virginia.
I was married at 21 but felt unfinished, to say the least. I decided to consider graduate school with almost a coin toss: I would apply for a graduate assistantship and if I got it, I would get my Masters degree. If I didn’t, I would get a job doing who knows what. I was interviewed on my birthday, which I hoped meant good luck and it did—I got the assistantship.
On my very first day in graduate classes I looked around the room. I was the youngest by about 10 years—Rutgers-Camden attracts commuters and a non-traditional student body. I was not deterred. I sat taller in my seat and thought, “Bring it on.” The class was “Publishing and Editing.” The instructor jumped right in to a discussion of outside editorial projects each student would be doing. He went around the room and asked students to introduce their projects; I was the only one without one. He suggested I help edit a Civil War diary he knew someone needed help with. I wanted to run from the room, screaming, but I merely nodded and tried not to cry. He saw my reaction and suggested I speak with Lisa Zeidner, head of the Creative Writing program, and see if she could help me. She did.
I started my work at the Painted Bride Quarterly. I will never forget sitting in Lou Camp’s Queen’s Village living room, drinking red wine and discussing poetry. I was desperate to work with writers who were alive and writing right now. For the first time in its history, PBQ’s editors had decided to start looking for grad students at schools in the area. Serendipity.
I felt adult and hip and very honored discussing the work of authors of all different levels, having a say in whether or not we would publish them. The editors respected my novice opinions and, when the semester was over, they asked me to stay. I began my work with PBQ has now almost half of my entire life.
When that first term with PBQ was over, the editors asked me to stay and I still haven’t left. Others did, and as each person left I moved up and up in the ranks to now share co-editorship with Marion Wrenn for the past 18+ years. We were editorial nomads, holding meetings around kitchen tables, at pizza places, coffee shops, in bars. We aligned ourselves with Rutgers-Camden and ran the magazine from there.
But, life has this way of happening and happening, and I am about to synopsize 13 years of my entire life in 2 sentences: I got pregnant the month I earned my graduate degree. I had two more kids in six more years. When my children were 13, 11 and 5, my husband passed away after a nine-month battle with a cancer that was not supposed to kill him.
That first year after his death I was still teaching at Rutgers, running PBQ, taking care of my kids, trying. Early that next spring I felt like I kind of woke up, looked around, and realized my personal life had changed so much I needed to change my professional life as well. I realized that no matter how old I got the folks at Rutgers were always going to perceive me as the girl I was when I first came there.
I remembered that Drexel University had housed Boulevard, a long-running literary magazine, and I knew it was no longer there. I felt I had had nothing to lose and I threw out an e-mail to Miriam Kotzin. Six years later, I am still here.
The environment at Drexel has proven to be fertile ground for PBQ as well as me. The administration’s support and respect for the magazine are in line with its place in our culture. The energy of our students has become PBQ’s oxygen.
I am writing more than I ever have and meeting with some success. I don’t know if I could even have imagined that I would have the good fortune to still be doing what I wanted to do since about the fourth gradebesurrounded by books, writing in all its forms and people who love it as much as I do.
I am still growing up. I still read while I walk and have stubbed toes, twisted ankles, and disgruntled strangers to prove it. I still write, of course, and though I still love leather-bound journals and Bic pens, like most of us, I do most of my writing on keyboards. I feel too young to have lost my mother, and know I was too young to have lost my husband, but overall I feel grateful for the life I have. I meet fabulous new people almost every day. I’m doing what I’ve loved to do since I was 10-years old.