What Quilting and Embroidery Can Teach us About Narrative Form “Stitches Might Help Writers Break from the Traditions of Built Texts”


Quilted Essays by Sarah Minor

Quilting is best known as a domestic art, but traditional quilts follow deeply coded patterns that communicate much more than comfort and artistry. A quilt’s surface can often be “read” through linguistic and graphic cues. In many cultures, quilts act as historical documents that preserve narratives about place and identity. The scholar Mara Witzling writes that quilts historically “enabled women to speak the truth about their lives” by joining many disparate fragments, which when read together make a specific and often subversive “utterance.” In 19th century America, quilts made many different utterances: they could transmit a local history, recount one version of a family feud, or physically connect living women to their ancestors by combining inherited fabrics. Before women’s suffrage arrived, American women also made quilts to express their political sentiments. Many examples of political quilts, like those credited with securing the presidency for William McKinley, joined campaign ribbons with fabric and other text-based materials. These quilts gave a voice to women who could not yet legally submit their votes.
Like every quilt I’ve started but never finished, many traditional quilted patterns begin in the middle. First, the quilter chooses the centerpiece and, then, works outward, attaching sections of fabric with even stitches as the blanket begins to expand. Colors, textures, and weights are joined gradually to develop a composite image. Quilters call this process “piecing.” As a material metaphor for nonfiction, writers interested in new forms might consider “piecing” sections of text as a means of working outwards from a kind of center. This center could be the most significant or challenging moment in an essay. From there, the process of “piecing” a text, rather than writing it in a straight line, could free the writer from concerns about repetition, foundations, and chronology. In a quilted essay, a newspaper headline might fall beside a personal scene, and beside other diverse materials that build gradually toward a larger complex “utterance.” To talk about a quilted text, we writers might admire the variety and contrast of the materials an author chooses or the way a writer situates sections carefully, in conversation, so we readers can still keep our eyes on the center.


This fascinating essay came to me via Kate McCahill.

Photos of Chinese tribal dowry quilt, editor’s collection.

Hula-Hoop Mojo by Cheryl J. Fish

Hula-Hoop Mojo

Thirty years after Mount St. Helens
spoke with a maddening clarity
I picked up a hula hoop–that old charmer
Left by some child who forgot to pack it
I could swirl the hoop that morning, endlessly
It encircled me, a gravity polka
Hips and lips and holes

East to west, low to high
I kept it spinning, it spun me
Mountains have no apparent rhythms
Like apparitions and lost souls

Unsuspected hoopla can’t be ruled out

As a young girl I had known the joys of batons and hoops
(but not since)
twisting wrist, undulating tummy
Throwing them high for all to see
you have to look at me

Now with no one watching but birds
And sullen peaks
My hips rocked that vortex     plastic centrifugal force
A lifeline.        Saturn’s rings, kamikaze locomotive
near the volcano’s
geothermal underbelly

botched terrain in quiet glow of July

surrounded by old growth forest
fir trees and mosses, girth of elephants’ ears

Purple lupine and fanning ferns.

Note from the poet: This poem, “Hula-Hoop Mojo,” is from my manuscript Crater & Tower, which juxtaposes my traumatic experience living and working near ground zero on 9-11-01 in NYC, with time spent at Mount St. Helens Volcanic National Monument in Washington state 30 years after the 1980 eruption. I was a writer in residence at the Pulse Gathering of Scientists, where I began to process the aftermath of one human-made disaster with the “succession,” the ecosystem that follows natural disaster.
This poem appeared in the journal Reed, Issue 69, in a slightly different form.

Las Vegas and Me by Devon Miller-Duggan

Las Vegas & Me

I think of myself as a relative badass. For a 63-year-old white bourgeois church-going grandmother with artificial knees, and a bunch of conditions that need medicating, anyway.

This week damn-near did me in. This kind of thing tends to. For a (relative) badass, I’ll admit freely that I have pretty thin skin. I’m okay with that. We (Americans/humans) like to act sometimes as though we’re supposed to not be battered by what goes on—the “Keep Calm and Carry On” thing. It’s useful to remember that that poster (now endlessly played-with meme) was never actually used in Britain during WWII. I don’t know why, but I’d like to think that someone in the propaganda office noticed that it was bloody callous.

Here’s what I did. It’s not the more general sort of Really Wise and Useful list Miriam published earlier in the week. It’s mine:

I teach two Intro to Poetry Writing classes and one Advanced this semester. I spent half of each class reading them poems about 9/11, gun violence (I found out that the website of the Academy of American poets, which lets you search by theme has a listing for “gun violence), and grief. Then I had them write for the rest of the period, using the line from Donne “Rest of their bones and soul’s delivery” as the starter/prompt. I wrote with them. I don’t know whether those 4 pages will ever get shared—I haven’t been able to look at them yet. I didn’t ask my students to share what they wrote.
One student put her hand up and said she thought I should be reading poems about change instead of poems about grief. I will admit that I said I didn’t think there would be meaningful change until the 2nd Amendment is repealed, and that I thought we might want to give the dead and the grieving at least 24 hours of grief before we moved on. God only knows what she’ll write on my evaluation at the end of the semester (she’s already, 1/3 into the semester made it clear that I irritate her). Several emailed to thank me. Other professors canceled classes (the minority) or carried on without acknowledging what had happened (the overwhelming majority, which is fine—other courses don’t have the flexibility that mine have). One student came to class not knowing what had happened, so I ended up telling her. She offered me a hug after class (yeah, I know I’m not supposed to hug them, or them me, but human…). I took it. I hugged her back.

I made 8 purple crocheted infant hats for a project to cut back on shaken baby syndrome in Oklahoma and packed them up to send, along with the 4 I already had.

I wrote a poem. Not about Las Vegas, but about the violent world.

I worried about the First Responders in Las Vegas, who are, inevitably, also wounded.

I bought The Rough Guide to Austria and a new packable coat because the husband and I are meeting my thesis director there in January.

I spent time with my grandchildren. I bought some Christmas presents for them, and made plans for a couple of things I’ll make for their stockings.

I gave more $ to Episcopal Relief & Development. They have a very high rating on Charity Navigator and are on the ground in disaster areas pretty fast. Also, I’m an Episcopalian and I like the fact that we don’t use disaster relief as a chance to evangelize.

I declined to give any $ to the Red Cross when I picked up a prescription for my mother at Walgreens. The pharmacy assistant and I agreed that the Red Cross is not very efficient or effective.

I made a cross out of computer components. I make crosses out of all sorts of weird stuff—mostly discarded jewelry—and they’re sold at a variety of venues where the profits go to support things I believe in—the Arts or helping other humans.

I made sure that my students knew that this was not the worst mass shooting in American history. It was just the worst mass shooting of white people. This does not lessen the horror, or the ferocity of my beliefs about the 2nd Amendment, but truth and context are the very least we owe the students who pass through our classes.

I finished Ta Nehisi Coates’s brilliant article in the last issue Atlantic.

I cried through Lin Manuel Miranda’s new song about Puerto Rico, “Almost Like Prayer.” Then I watched it again.

I took really good chocolate to my department meeting and handed it out to my colleagues, then I crocheted a purple baby hat during the meeting, as is my wont. I worried for a moment about becoming the dept. granny and not being taken seriously, then decided that I’m too old to give a fat fart and that I will take chocolate to all department meetings from now on, because life in public universities is a little weird these days, even if Delaware isn’t anywhere near as mucked up as Wisconsin. And my chair is a peach whose strategic genius is being pushed to the limits these days.

I guess I prayed a lot, if you count yelling at God as praying.

I spent much of Saturday submitting poems to journals. I also let my 4-year-old grand-daughter help me change the batteries in a musical toy for the baby. Somehow, this was one of the best spots of the week.

For various reasons, I have a mildly irritating week coming up. I am solidly grumpy about this, especially since it will require that I behave well and represent my department and my brain well with a visiting big-gun. Who knows, he may turn out to be a lovely human, but at the moment, I’m just fretting about not making an ass of myself. #introvertproblems

I had several nightmares, but not about Las Vegas.

I got through the week. I’m still crying. I’ll get through next week, too. Because that’s what we do, isn’t it? I won’t keep calm. I will carry on. I will love the world in spite of its brokennesses.

What Is Locked: Poem by Miriam Sagan

This poem was written last March when I was a writer in residence in Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas. Those beautiful spring days–flowering trees, mist rising from the springs–have certainly stayed with me. The national park is a true water protector. It guards the purity of the springs and their waterways, and provides this water free to all comers at several downtown locations, right out of a tap. It’s worth it to pay to soak in a bath house, but amazing that the water is free and available.

What Is Locked

hidden springs grotto
with its iron grill and bolt

I Love Jesus
scratched in stone by the bench

nervous graffiti
in the nether regions of mother earth

world of sleep
sealed off from morning coffee

recurring dream
of a sad city


the heart

with its flight
of stone steps

I’m too crippled
to walk up

mountain laurel

green earth forgotten
like a rusted key

and no one
the doors it opens

Now the poem has been published in the current issue of the Taos Journal of Poetry. It’s a very special issue of this excellent magazine–full of poets whose work I’ve long followed. Read it all!

Book Arts

There is a terrific show in the lobby of the Roundhouse. I reaize I don’t like all book arts equally. Even though I’m a writer, I’m not that drawn to fancy books. My taste is really moving in the direction of installation.

Utopian Mining Community

A few days ago, I had the unique pleasure of staying in Redstone, Colorado. It’s quite remote–and was the far point of an 800 mile round trip from Santa Fe. I didn’t even know it existed until Rich discovered a Groupon for a stay at the historic hotel.

Wikipedia gives some useful historical background:

Redstone was established in the late 19th century by industrialist John Cleveland Osgood as part of a coal mining enterprise. Osgood’s coal empire also spurred construction of the Crystal River Railroad and Redstone’s historic dwellings. As an experiment in “enlightened industrial paternalism,” Osgood constructed 84 cottages and a 40-room inn, all with indoor plumbing and electricity, for his coal miners and cokers, as well as modern bathhouse facilities, a club house with a library and a theatre, and a school. Most of these Craftsman-era Swiss-style cottages are still used as homes.

They are beautiful–a whole hamlet full.

The hotel was used for “bachelors.”

The industrial past is visible in lines of ruined coke ovens.

The company was bought out by Rockefeller in a hostile takeover. Which instead of utopian ideals brought the Ludlow massacre to a different part of the state–Trinidad, Colorado.

I still see idealism in mailboxes and birdhouses…in what is obviously now a much loved location.