Dybek: Voice of the Midwest

I make no apologies for my idolization of Stuart Dybek, author and poet extraordinaire. He is a master storyteller, and king of the short story. Don’t believe me? Read “Pet Milk” from Coast of Chicago (which is a collection I can’t recommend enough) and see how he paints with nostalgia; how he makes us feel the quiet moments of reflection…ponder on the human condition like no other.

It was an absolute joy welcoming Stuart to Ann Arbor last week for Voices of the Middle West 2015, a literary conference I put on through Midwestern Gothic. He read a selection from Paper Lanterns (also incredible), and I was honored to be able to welcome him to the stage for the keynote, to get to say a few words about how he exemplifies the Midwest…our mythos and stories.

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And his keynote did not disappoint. It was funny, poignant…just stellar. He gave perhaps some of the best writing advice I’ve heard in my life, a play on the old adage of “write what you know”: our lives, no matter what they are, our races and genders and creeds…these are gifts. Gifts we should embrace when we write, stories that only we can tell. And so we shouldn’t have to feel the need to be something or someone else.

That really stuck with me, and I have a feeling always will.

What a wonderful weekend, and Stuart, if you’re reading this (in my dreams): thank you.

Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out is here

Very excited to announce my chapbook Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out is now available for purchase from WhiskeyPaper Press.

Here’s what some wonderful folks had to say about it:

Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out takes flight in the jagged chasm between who we are and who we want to be, starkly illustrating how we love, and lose, only to re-build ourselves again. —Ben Tanzer, author of Orphans and Lost in Space

Robert James Russell’s voice is full of the Midwest, full of the odd mix of modesty and boastfulness, the hard rough luck and unlikely grace that characterizes this part of the country. His young narrators, unsure of themselves and their place in the world, help us navigate through our own uncertainty. —Amber Sparks, author of May We Shed These Human Bodies

Simply put, they don’t make them like Robert James Russell anymore. Witness here the craft of a master. Crisp, fine-tuned stories that milk every bit of meaning and power out of the words while still managing to touch and move the reader. We’re lucky to have him, so consume these works greedily and then do it all over again. —Jared Yates Sexton, author of An End to All Things

The book is $12, and I am so, so thankful to Leesa and Loran at WhiskeyPaper Press…so happy with how it turned out, with everything.


Sea and Rain


Sea and Rain (1865)
by James McNeill Whistler
University of Michigan Museum of Art

*Note: I can’t stop staring at this piece, which I’m fortunate enough to be able to see on display in Ann Arbor whenever I want. Something about it is so dreary and unnerving yet hopeful. Inspiring my newest project in a huge way.

Interview at Ann Arbor Current

I was recently interviewed by Brandon Bye of the Ann Arbor Current, a local arts/life publication, about the upcoming 2015 Voices of the Middle West festival, Midwest literature, and more:

Is there a Midwest Lit renaissance happening right now?

Yes, absolutely. People are seeing these stories about the “ugly” side of life, stories about the everyday, about struggling folks, and they’re embracing them. Never before have I been prouder to be a Midwesterner, and never before have I seen so much of us out there in the literary consciousness.

Thanks to Brandon for talking with me.

DAMTSIO playlist

My upcoming chapbook Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out is due out this April, and the publishers at WhiskeyPaper Press asked me to put a playlist together (they dig music + writing, and so do I), which you can listen to now over on Spotify.

Here’s the tracklist:

1. “Montana” by Youth Lagoon
2. “Oblivion” by Grimes
3. “True Loves” by Hooray for Earth
4. “Comeback Kid” by Sleigh Bells
5. “Playground Love” by Air
6. “I’m Not the One” by The Black Keys
7. “Myth” by Beach House
8. “Ces Bottes Sont Faites Pour Marcher” by Eileen
9. “Sooner Than Now” by Sin Cos Tan
10. “Retrograde” by James Blake
11. “Golden Light” by Twin Shadow
12. “Calling in the Name of Love” by Active Child

And here’s more info about the book.

The Shaolin Cowboy

Here’s a thing I recently picked up—after wanting to read for years—and it’s dazzling wonderful:


Geof Darrow’s The Shaolin Cowboy was collected in a new edition in December and it’s a crazy, hyper-violent, beautifully drawn post-Apocalyptic East-meets-West fairy tale. Holy lord the line work and colors and writing are all incredible,. Just gorgeous from start to finish, the art, the writing…so inspired by this bad boy.


Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters – Workshops

I was honored to be asked to present two workshops at the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters (GLCL), which is

a nonprofit organization based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was started by a small group of enthusiastic people with a passion for literature and a background in bookselling. In creating the nonprofit, the group hoped to satisfy a simple, but vital, mission: to encourage, promote, and celebrate the literary endeavors of writers within the Great Lakes region.

I’ll be leading two workshops. Details are below. There can only be 12 participants per, and there is a fee, so if you’re interested, check it out as soon as you can. So excited for this, to be doing some literary work in my hometown, and to partner with the wonderful GLCL. Should be a blast.

Workshop 1: Art of the Flash: Telling a Story In a Limited Space
When: May 3, from 3-5 PM.
About: A misconception that writers often adhere to is that stories must be densely-packed, long-winded affairs in order to be wholly effective. However, brief stories can be just as successful in creating lasting characters and emotional responses, utilizing every word to its fullest potential. This class will explore the art of flash-fiction writing, creating a compact story without losing the meaning. We’ll peel back superfluous storytelling methods in order to get back to the basics, and in doing so, we’ll explore ways in which to create pieces of maximum impact using minimal space.

Workshop 2: Worth the Fighting For: Utilizing Place and Environment In Your Writing
When: June 14, from 3-5 PM.
About: Sometimes, the concept of place in storytelling can become an inadvertent hindrance to the story itself. Misplacement of characters in environments that hinder their development or fail to reflect the greater ideas presented in the story can create jarring inconsistencies. How can environment used in storytelling be utilized effectively without going too far and ultimately detracting from plot and character? This class will delve into the concept of “place” in storytelling, provide strategies for making appropriate choices, and illustrate methods for successful use of environment in your writing.


DAMTSIO: The Cover

15858717983_843abe09bc_zI’m officially in love with the cover to my upcoming chapbook (read: short collection) Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out, due out in April from WhiskeyPaper Press.

Check out the WhiskeyPaper site to see the back cover (also very nifty with a WP seal on every copy!) plus all of the advanced praise and whatnot I’m so grateful to have received.

And here’s the synopsis: A great storm and its effect on a young family; a woman with a rifle in a barren landscape; boys discovering the world of possibility in online sexuality; a couple at a scenic overlook, their relationship at the verge of dissolution. Each story in Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out is a sliver of time pulled from the life of a young man, each a fragment of feeling, each a pivotal intersection of relationships. They are stories about the desperation of trying to fit in and find a kindred, to understand the elusive essence of love in all forms, to fill a void of solitude that only seems to grow as we do. They navigate the mysteries of relationships between men and women, of family and geography, and find a recurring theme of abject longing throughout.

Fellow at the 2015 New Harmony Writers Workshop

I’m humbled and honored to be a Fellow at this year’s New Harmony Writers Workshop, June 21-27.


I’m in awe of the company I’m in (Rebecca Gayle Howell and Stuart Dybek and Andrew Meredith and Ada Limón and Ross Gay), and it’s looking to be a tremendous week, so come on out, we’ll get together, have a few laughs.*

*I”m always looking for excuses to quote Die Hard.