Originally published in the Union College Magazine, Winter 2013
It’s different and a little offbeat, but somehow universal too, speaking to an experience everyone has had—or could have had—in one way or another.
She is trying to learn his language.
She makes T sounds.
They are awkward on her tongue. She makes T sounds.
They are awkward.
She approaches his language from a
different angle. She makes vowels.
You’re giving it too much air, he tells her.
Fine, she says.
She studies textbooks and manuals.
She gets tapes.
Guh, she tells him. Goo.
He checks his watch.
There’s someplace I need to be, he says.
She does not reply.
She will keep trying to learn his
language. She will force her mouth
around the shape of it, by God.
Yes, this piece called “Language” and all the others from Julianna Spallholz’s new book, The State of Kansas, are different. They’re short (the longest just one-and-a-half pages) and they’re not structured in the tradition of any single genre. Her fans and critics alike have struggled to categorize her work, but that doesn’t trouble Spallholz.
“There has been a lot of good-natured debate regarding the definition of its form,” said Spallholz, a 1998 graduate. “Some people have called it prose poetry and others have called it micro-fiction or flash fiction.”
“Ultimately, I don’t bother myself too much with the question of genre. The iconic American writer Jack Kerouac wrote, ‘What you feel will find its own form,’ and this is the idea I return to,” she continued. “I believe that each tale has its own personality, and that a writer must listen to it in order to understand how it must be told in the moment of its telling.”
And what she mostly tells in her book, released last year by GenPop Books, are stories of her own experiences.
“Most of my work is based in memory, in my real life. This is not to say that I remain factually exact to my memories,” Spallholz said. “I use them as a starting point. I try to understand what they indicate in a way that is bigger than the details of the memory, and then write about that.”
As an author, she has been very much influenced by her time at Union. During her student days, she was involved with the Coffeehouse, a former Theme House.
“It functioned as a regular venue for musical and literary entertainment, intellectual conversation and general good times,” said Spallholz, who was Coffeehouse president. “Thirty strong-willed college students living together and developing, promoting and caring for what was essentially a business—though no money was exchanged—was no small feat.
“I learned a lot about event planning and about identifying a goal and seeing it through,” she added. “These are skills I’ve used again and again in the coordination of literary projects and art events.”
She also repeatedly calls on what she learned from Professor of English and poet Jordan Smith.
“As an 18-year-old English major and aspiring creative writer, I don’t know that I knew, before I met Jordan, that this kind of life was actually possible,” Spallholz recalled. “Any young writer needs this— evidence that there are people out there actually doing what you want to do.”
Smith’s teaching style also affected her, and has made her the professor she is today.
“The professors with whom I connected most at Union—Jordan Smith, Harry Marten, Jim McCord - were some whose great love for stories and teaching was apparent and infectious,” said Spallholz, an adjust English instructor at Siena College and Hudson Valley Community College. “I wish to offer my students the same kind of encouragement they offered me.