Let the Water Hold Me Down
Michael Spurgeon ’92
Ad Lumen Press (2013)

When you’re witness to the beginning of a revolution and your future wife serves lasagna to the guerillas, you know you have material for a novel. Michael Spurgeon ’92 published Let the Water Hold Me Down (Ad Lumen Press) in June with a plot that mirrors his own experiences laced with healthy helpings of invention. Soon after graduating from Colby, Spurgeon spent a year in Chiapas, Mexico, where the Zapatista Rebellion unfolded in 1994.

“This was far and away the most dramatic moment of my life,” said Spurgeon, “falling in love with this woman while this conflict was going on.” Spurgeon had come home to the United States for the holidays and watched on TV as his girlfriend’s apartment was shown at the epicenter of the conflict. “The moment I could go back [to Mexico], I did. … I was politically and socially conscious before the uprising, but I became a lot more aware as a result.”

Spurgeon’s novel is about a young man who has lost his wife and daughter and goes to Mexico to grieve, becoming caught up in the political turmoil just as Spurgeon did. He sees it as a call to action. “I’m hoping it gets people to say, ‘I have a responsibility to be engaged.’”

Spurgeon and his wife now have two children and live in Sacramento, Calif., where he teaches English at American River College. He’s also an active volunteer who remembers his commitment to be involved. He created an annual writers conference that lasted seven years, and he organized an affordable creative writing colloquium at his college that has now run for two years.

He also created 916 Ink, a literacy project for at-risk youths in Sacramento loosely based on author Dave Eggers’s 826 Valencia program. “We’re about turning kids into published authors. Every child in our program gets published. That’s what we do.”

The 12-week project involves six weeks of writing, six weeks of revising, and a launch party for the resulting anthology that makes parents and kids swell with pride. There’s a secret agenda, says Spurgeon: “We really want to make them avid readers. We’re a literacy project posing as a writing project.”

Spurgeon was off to Chiapas this summer for a book tour, and he’s already been featured on the home page of Mexconnect.com, a website for English language speakers in Mexico that claims to be one of busiest websites in the world. What’s next? He’s working on two new novels, both with a political bent.—Erika Mailman ’91

 

Hawai’i
Mark Panek ’90
Lo’ihi Press (2013) 

This isn’t the Hawaii of sun, hula dancers, and Waikiki Beach. Nor is it James Michener’s Hawaii or even the Hawaii of Hawaii Five-O.

Mark Panek’s Hawaii is a place that the tourism industry would like to keep a deep, dark secret. In this sprawling, bowl-you-over novel, Panek blows that secret world wide open, serving up a place that may be paradise but that is also replete with political corruption, racial conflict, drug addiction, and conflicting loyalties. 

Panek, who teaches at The University of Hawaii at Hilo, takes readers a long way from the familiar. The plot follows the maneuvering of State Senator Russell Lee, who needs to cash in before his leveraged life implodes. Developers, underworld wheeler-dealers, gambling magnates, gangbangers—this is the Hawaii honeymooners miss.

Kekoa knew his own dad never would have allowed it back when he was alive, except that after weeks of getting turned away even for the ten-dolla-whore jobs that these frikken mainland community college dropouts seemed to walk straight into, he’d worked it out that the old man would have understood that nowadays Javen’s offer was all you had left, the only way to equal Dad’s tremendous pride for Hawai’i, the only chance Hawaiians had anymore to take charge of their own land, put this place on the map, a map that was looking more and more like a map of California.

This is a breathless book, with shifting allegiances, crime kings clinging to power as younger toughs circle like sharks, and backroom deals that worked 10 years ago—so why aren’t they working now?

Panek, a New York City native who has lived in Sydney, Tokyo, and Honolulu, is a quick study when it comes to absorbing culture and tradition and creating a sense of place. Serving up Hawaiian brah slang and the double-talk of influence peddling, Panek whips it all into a harrowing froth. It’s a Hawaii that’s been there all along. This novel will leave you wondering how you missed it.

—Gerry Boyle ’78

Lid to the Shadow
Alexandria Peary ’92
Slope Editions (2011) 

Emily Dickinson said poetry made her feel as if the top of her head were taken off. For Alexandria Peary ’92, the sensations are similar. “I actually tremble when I read my poem ‘The Gift’ at poetry readings,” she said. The poem arose out of her daughter’s premature birth and long hospital stay.

This summer Peary received the prestigious Iowa Poetry Prize for her book Control Bird Alt Delete. When she got the call, she reacted with slow-motion pleasure, “like some sort of happy pavement was being poured everywhere.”

Peary’s previous poetry volumes include Lid to the Shadow (Slope Editions 2011) and Fall Foliage Called Bathers & Dancers (Backwaters Press 2008). She earned two poetry M.F.A.’s (from the Iowa Writers Program and UMass Amherst) and a Ph.D. in composition studies (at UNH) and leads a busy life of scholarship and teaching. Currently associate professor of English at Salem State University, she writes articles and often presents on the art of teaching. She’s wrapping up a book currently titled Creative Writing Studies: A Guide to Its Pedagogies, coedited with Tom C. Hunley, for Southern Illinois University Press.

“I like the balance I think I’ve struck in the past four to five years in my career—I have a lot of play space with the different genres I write—poetry, creative nonfiction, and scholarship,” she said. “Each writing session, I sit down and ask myself, without predetermination, which genre or project I feel like working on right now. And then I follow my writing instincts.”

Peary urged young writers, “Do quality work. Be patient. If your eyes stay on that goal—of doing art—and are not distracted by secondary matters like status, acceptance, or attention—then you may very well have a rewarding life of writing ahead of you.” She credits Roberts Professor of Literature Ira Sadoff, as well as visiting professor Laura Mullen, for nurturing her at Colby. “Ira’s keen insight on language probably tilted me toward my interest in meta language.”

She grabs inspiration from the visual, the random, the evocative. “For instance, with ‘The Entrance of Spring,’ the image was of a stained-glass window of a blossoming cherry tree that I just happened to see in a fashion magazine while on the Stairmaster at the gym. Just happened to see—but then I had to deal with the consequences for months, because the image haunted me until I got it right.

“Writing has formed me. Writing is my form of meditation practice in the sense that it has begun to teach me great patience and self-acceptance: I feel I am in sync with the act of living because of what my writing practice has shown me. I am in love with writing ability—my own and those of other people.”

—Erika Mailman ’91

The Destructive Element
Harris Eisenstadt ’98
Clean Feed (2013) 

Two-sport athlete Harris Eisenstadt ’98 came to Colby in the mid-1990s hoping to play collegiate hockey and baseball. The Toronto native tried out, only to discover that he’d be a benchwarmer on both squads.

So he let his dream of athletic stardom die and opened himself up to what he calls “the life of the mind in the middle of the woods.” He immersed himself in literature, discovering the complexities of Nabokov and Conrad while delving deeply into existentialism. A drummer in his high school band and jazz ensemble, Eisenstadt reconnected with the world of music and percussion on Mayflower Hill. He spent the spring semester of his junior year in Manhattan studying jazz and literature at the New School.

This spring with his group September Trio Eisenstadt released his 14th album. Its title, The Destructive Element, comes from a famous passage in Conrad’s classic Lord Jim, in which the hero declares his decision to live an authentic life. 

Eisenstadt juggles his musical career, which includes annual concert tours in Europe, with his work as an assistant professor of humanities at SUNY Maritime College in the Bronx, where he teaches freshman English, introduction to literature, world music, and Western music. 

Eisenstadt, who majored in English at Colby, is now living the liberal arts life, performing jazz around the world and teaching the literature that touches him to the core. He earned his M.F.A. in African-American improvisation music from the California Institute of the Arts in 2001. 

“It’s a great balance,” said Eisenstadt, 37, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Sara Schoenbeck, a freelance bassoonist, and their son, Owen, 4. “I’ll be touring about two months a year in Europe. My department chair values my artistic career, so I can teach some classes online while I’m on the road.”

 This summer, Eisenstadt has gigs lined up in Poland, Italy, Spain, and Manhattan. In March he led a group playing for a handful of listeners in the cramped basement of a Brooklyn bar a few blocks from his home. Mindful of the intimate setting, Eisenstadt played softly, with a deft touch, exploring African and Cuban rhythms with his fingers, drumsticks, steel brushes, and mallets as part of a trio that improvised off compositions he’d written. 

“This is the reason I moved back to New York in 2006,” said Eisenstadt, who is writing a commissioned work for the Brooklyn Conservatory Community Orchestra that is set to premiere in November. “I do concerts and also these informal, small things. I’ve got several working groups and one-offs, like this one with some neighbors. I play to big audiences in Europe, and I come back to New York to play and live my life.”

—David McKay Wilson ’76