Dan Pape is a mysterious fellow. When we first met at the NEPA Creative Writers Group, I’ll be honest—I was intimidated. His writing was visceral and powerful in a way I could only dream of mine being. I know I need to share his works with you.
A fan of Ghostbusters, beer, and hanging out with friends, Dan has countless facets to him. Getting a start in middle school as a writer, he’s dabbled with many genres: lyrics, novels, short stories, and poems (his main squeeze for now). Having recently entered the blogosphere, too, it’s certain his time to shine past the bounds of this region is nigh.
Dan’s enigmatic appeal is not only in his writing but in talking with him. One thing that is not obscured is his emotion captured in his works through his words. His allusions run from classical to modern, and even if you’re not sure of their references, you still feel what he wants to get across. And he challenges you to want to find out more.
Dan started writing recently on The Game Chateau’s blog, Rolling the Dice. A different approach to blogging, the site takes topics that all contributors for that quarter write to. Dan’s contribution, “Rapture,” is bittersweet and magnificent. His first piece of magical realism ready for the masses (in the vein of some of his favorite writers including Marquez and Borges) pulls the reader into the narrator’s raw, heart-rending world. The seeming brief romance of two young women ended abruptly from intolerance punches deep—and leaves you willingly wounded. He talks about this piece humbly, as he does about most of his writing, saying that he was concerned about taking a chance on writing from a woman’s perspective, and from another sexual identity’s perspective as well, but that in the end he wanted to do the characters justice. He went on to add that he hoped his piece would, “[help] to put [a sensitive topic] out there by a voice you don’t expect it from,” and that hopefully his sincere treatment of the trauma involved in the story would help others see people who are “different” as not so different from the rest of us.
Dan doesn’t mind a bit of pain himself it would seem though. I had heard through mutual friends about his monstrous Master’s thesis pursuit of James Joyce. Having tried to read several of the author’s works (Finnegan’s Wake? Come on. That’s just jibberish…), I felt compelled to find out why Dan had chosen such a great, and complex author for his topic.
“I thought if I could pick it apart, maybe I can learn something about the craft [of writing]” he confesses. And what a pursuit it sounded like he was on. It involved a whole section of the library and special access to Joyce’s notes on his masterpiece Ulysses. Dan insists that the novel is “the most human thing I’ve ever read” and he appreciates its commentary on loss and the randomness of its topics just adds to its beauty.
The Joyce influence is clear in Pape’s works, whether it’s a story or his poetry. We discussed poetry as a genre while we were talking, too, and Dan had some spot-on insights. He feels it’s time for poetry to make a comeback—that it is a way for writers to attack all of the “poisonous stuff out there” though he admits that online rights are sketchy and unclear as to who owns what, and that that can be a downfall of fighting the powers that be with the written word. Still, he knows that if poetry can be taught well to younger generations—and not as some unreachable and opaque genre that no one can penetrate—that poems can push our culture forward and out of its seeming recent complacency.
“Anyone can try poetry and with practice [they] can get pretty good at it,” he goes on to say, and his hope is mine: that the intimacy and directness of poetry can get people to take notice.
Some Sage Advice
Not only poetry is accessible to all the would-be writers out there. Dan says writers should find a group to share their work with, and give feedback on others’ works in return. And then, he put it even more simply—in a list!
Read great writers.
Join groups to hone your craft.
Meet other writers.
Just get out there and do what you have to do, in other words. And like Dan Pape says, “You’ll find something about it that’s lifelong. Don’t be afraid.”
And for the record, he wore the black cap long before Jim Halpert from The Office did.
This article was written by one of the writers featured in our column, “The Writer’s Edge,” Alex Lotorto. In Alex’s article, he writes about the interview he had with our talented columnist for the “The Writer’s Edge,” Marcie Riebe. Alex writes:
Classical writers used inkwells to replenish their quills, but in our area, many writers turn to Marcie Riebe to refresh and refine their craft.
A local university professor, poet, caseworker, union maid, and actress, Riebe is a well of inspiration for Northeast Pennsylvanians making the most of our transitioning region. During the school year, Riebe is an adjunct writing professor at Wilkes University.
When asked to list the three most important lessons of her Academic Writing class this semester, Marcie replied, “First, writing is an ongoing process and it doesn’t stop. Second, some international students come from countries that don’t value writing as intellectual property. In some Arabic speaking countries, it can be an homage to a person to use their words. So, I emphasize the importance of research and sources. “For the third lesson, she paused then added, “The more you read, the better you can write.”
Riebe shares her talents of writing and critique at local writers groups. You can find her at Northeast Pennsylvania Creative Writers every other Wednesday night at the Taylor Community Library. Once a month on Saturday afternoons, catch her at The Game Chateau’s writers group in Wilkes-Barre.
“I love it at The Game Chateau. It’s an oasis of creativity in NEPA. They offer writing workshops, art, writers’ groups…you should check them out!” she said.
Her work can also be found on topic-focused blogs including Project Wednesday (a positivity blog), here at the Thirty-Third Wheel (local arts and culture), and The Game Chateau’s upcoming feature blog, Rolling the Dice.
As a young person, Riebe started writing as a hobby while working as a tutor in the writing center at Wilkes.
“I realized I was talented and tried to help other people,” she said.
Riebe pursued genres of writing including dramatic writing, short stories, screenwriting, poetry, and essays. Some of Riebe’s early works included a one act called Have that was published in the Wilkes Manuscript literary magazine.
When asked to describe the plot, Riebe blushed, as every writer does when asked about their early work.
“A guy and a girl who knew each other in high school were the ones that got away from each other. The play was set up as a confession of how they felt later, divulging feelings. Like a confession booth. It was never performed.”
Riebe said she enjoys writing poetry the most.
“I can get something out and see a result, something that feels finished, in a relatively short amount of time. It is gratification for me. Lately, I have been writing a lot about women as subjects and their experiences,” she explained.
About a year and a half ago, Riebe brought a friend along to see a show at the Scranton Cultural Center. While waiting on line for a while, Riebe observed her friend’s fragrance, which inspired her poem “No Scents.”
A woman at work
Wears the perfume
I avoid her.
If I smell it–
For the rest of the day.
I’ll only think of your
Roan, curly hair–
Flitting in a July breeze
Getting caught in your sunglasses
With the tortoiseshell pattern
That almost matches them–
And the hem of your
Evergreen, gauzy dress
Tipped up, a moment,
In the same balmy breeze
With the sun on your side
My eyes squint to keep it out
But they lose for longing to look
One morning in June, Riebe woke up to the grueling heat. Tangled in her sheets and sweaty, she remembered the biweekly prompt of her Northeast Pennsylvania Writers’ group, “sleep”. She went downstairs to her notebook and penned:
I wake long before I should have to see you
The heat alerts me with a start
Caught and tied in my damp nightshirt
Restrained in moist bedsheets
The pillow I hug wetter than me.
Riebe’s favorite poem in that little notebook makes her hungry. She smiled and said, “It’s about spaghetti that I had at my friend Bernie’s house.”
Crimson sauce disperses
Forming a fiery tomato nebula
A significant galaxy within
Of beef, egg, breadcrumbs
Sausage asteroids, slippery, in transit
Past meridians of a universal plate
Studded with white dwarfs of garlic
And distant yellow suns of onion
A black hole’s gravitational pull begins
Fork spinning slowly on an axis
Guided by a spoon, a fleeting meteor
Together sounding the serenade or remote
A Parmesan supernova in perigee
The vastness smells of
When asked to name writers that inspire her, Riebe rattled off, “Locally, my favorite poet is Daryl Sznyter because she reveals raw emotion that I feel a connection to.”
“Of all time, Tennyson inspires me the most. My favorite of his is ‘In Memorium’ because I associate it with my grandfather. I read it at his funeral,” she recalled. “In the poem, Tennyson had a special connection with his friend and I’d like to write a poem that can show my connection to someone like that someday.”
Riebe added, “Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are melancholy like I am and realistic. I find things in their characters that I can relate to, at least in part.”
Riebe has spent the last eight years as a caseworker, working with the Spanish-speaking population in Northeast Pennsylvania.
“I was a sociology major at Wilkes as an undergrad. When I worked at the writing center I got interested in English as a second language (ESL) classes and veered off the sociology track. I couldn’t find a job doing that in public schools, so I went back to school for my secondary education degree. I was teaching Composition 101 at Wilkes and I ended up working at the International Student Services office while I was teaching.”
A family connection pointed her to her current career.
“My father in law worked in social services and while he knew that I loved my job at Wilkes, he knew that my husband and I just bought a house and he encouraged me to take the civil service exam. I didn’t hear anything for almost two years and then I got a call from human resources, took the Spanish test, and started my current job,” she continued.
Riebe quickly got involved with her union.
“I grew up in a family of teachers and unions were part of my upbringing. I started getting involved in our union, taking note of workplace issues and going to our chapter meetings. Then in 2015, I ran for union shop steward on a ticket with two other women for our union election and we won,” she said.
When asked about her role as a shop steward, Riebe explained, “I believe in equity for members, which means being treated fairly according to our contract. I try to help people see how the union works for them and how, if they are involved in it, they can feel ownership.”
A woman of many parts, Riebe participates in local community theatre as well.
“Early on, I did community theater and little kid plays at day camp. I didn’t get back to it until I was in high school at Danville Area.”
In May, Riebe performed in Diva Productions’ The Smell of the Kill (Molly) at the Olde Brick Theater in North Scranton.
“I like to do comedy because I competed in speech in high school in humorous interpretation,” she explained.
In the dark comedy, Riebe played one of three wives cleaning up after a dinner party and discussing their husbands’ abuse, stalking, and microaggressions. Their husbands are playing golf in the next room shouting expletives until they suddenly go missing. The wives discover the men have locked themselves in the host husband’s meat locker downstairs and wonder aloud, would the men rescue their wives from the freezer if the tables were turned?
Riebe analyzed, “From a feminist theory perspective, the play depicted women working as a team instead of working against each other. In the beginning of the play, every time one woman leaves, the other two are talking about her, but by the end, they come together to share how they would all like to kill their awful husbands.”
Riebe combined her passion for labor unions and theatre in her most recent performance in After the Shots Were Fired as Mrs. Stephen Philips, the wife of a coal miner shot dead by William Walker Scranton’s coal company militia during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. The play, performed at the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum’s Labor Heritage Day and Pittston Riverfest, was written by local historians Margo Azzarelli, Marnie Azzarelli, and myself.
Riebe’s character bemoans her husband’s death, “I have no money for us this week and hardly any food left. Our debt to the company is high, and if I don’t start to pay it, they will take our home from us. I must send the children to work. I could lie about young Stephen’s age so maybe he could be a laborer. I could send the three oldest girls to the mills and the youngest boy to the breaker. I could take in miners that need boarding, or I could marry again. If that’s what I need to do to keep my family alive, I will do it for us. I will do it for Stephen.”
Riebe, originally from Danville, asserts that she is native to central Pennsylvania, not northeastern. I argued that Danville is within the WNEP viewing area and therefore, she is from Northeast Pennsylvania, but she was adamant. Either way, she’s firmly rooted herself here in NEPA with many contributions made and many still yet to come. We should all be proud to have her to replenish our pens.
Seeing my writing friend, Sara Hubert, is like seeing a beautiful morning sunrise. Her shy, but quick smile and glow welcome and warm hearts all around. They are a beacon of the caring and creative light inside of her and her works.
Sara and I met recently to mull over many topics to do with her writing, but they all go back to her vivid imagination and her myriad talents in not only writing, but art as well.
“Weird Horror” was Sara’s response when I asked her to share what she called her writing style. It seems apropos, as the first story of hers I’d heard dealt with brownies overtaking a business (and we’re not talking desserts here, folks). She’s into writing about strange surprises that pop up when you’re expecting something completely different going in. And it keeps things interesting—not only in her written works, but in all of her artistic ventures.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s stick to the writing things first.
Sara says she began writing as a child—and that her mother has saved her early works. One she remembers writing was a tale of a camel salesman, complete with illustrations. Not really the weird horror one might see later, but it was a progression to get to that over time with scary movies and Stephen King novels working their way into her imagination.
She finds inspiration all over—in books, movies—and in her online wanderings. She keeps a folder on her computer with images and ideas for use in future works. One example she knows is in the list of possibilities in a small mouse clinging to a Queen Anne’s Lace flower. She thinks he’s ready for her to write his adventures out—and says they’ll be weird ones, too.
Her works are not only weird horror though. Many times, they take a spiritual turn. Sometimes after meditating, she’ll be calm and centered enough to just let her mind take her where it will. Sara says, “You can’t control what happens, but you can control how you react. [That] makes you mindful. There are all sorts of paths possible from one incident.” And it seems, from talking with Sara, that that’s the whole idea—the journey of seeing where things end up.
But Sara’s interests go further still. She loves animals (and has multiple, adorable pets), she’s an artist with her own Etsy shop, and she is a painter. She hasn’t incorporated her art with many of her writings since the good old camel salesman, save the story of one of her pets of yore who inspired a Yule story for Sara’s mother entitled “Olaf the Yule Rat.” She hopes to turn it into a book. That’s a children’s story to watch for, certainly.
Another Writing Form
I wanted to talk to Sara about her storytelling skills with regard to role-playing tabletop games as well, as she runs the game “Unknown Armies” that all of her players (including me) jones for when we’re not playing. Effortlessly she leads us through 2024 as teenagers recruited to work for a Raccoon Corporation/Pentex sort of conglomerate that employs magically-gifted people for artifact investigations (among other morally questionable assignments along the way). It is a dark, weird, and sometimes horrific game that Sara doesn’t ever look nervous running. I asked her how she does it so easily. Nonchalantly she smiles and shares that while she has plotlines constructed in outlines of where she wants things to go, the process is really cooperative, depending on how we, the players, decide to adventure in her world—and that’s the challenge of it that she loves. This cooperative idea is really symbolic of Sara—she obviously cares for others and values all opinions, whether they’re her own or not, and it’s obvious she takes joy in finding how others will respond to things that come up in-game. And one of her other miracles of gaming that I’m a huge fan of, and am planning on using in my own writing, was used in character creation for the game. Instead of having us write a background story, as is usually the case in games like these, instead we were instructed to come up with a five song playlist that describes our character. It’s one of the best things I’ve had to do. Talk about making you think. That’s a Sara thing, too.
Moving Forward and Sage Advice
Sara’s main writing venture coming up is participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this November. She and her husband, Karl (watch for an article on him here sometime soon), will be competing with one another to produce books from their active, exciting brains. She’s still deciding where the novel will go, but looks forward to pushing herself, which is the advice she has for all aspiring or new writers. “Move out of your comfort zone,” she says. “If you want to write about something, go experience it. You might find something you really like doing. That’s good advice for life in general.” She’s so right—and she practices what she preaches.
Sara is a featured writer at “A Halloween Execution”hosted by Ink Writers Group at the Game Chateau in October where she and other featured writers will be sharing creepy writings of the season. Look for her, too, in Elle Hammond’s upcoming blog, “Rolling the Dice” as a contributor, also starting up later this month.
Sara’s got a lot of good things to say. You don’t want to miss them.
Self-styled as fiction writer, activist, amateur historian, union member, and actor, Alex Lotorto does it all. We spent time together in the Electric City recently to talk about his novel, his plays and his philosophy.
Why Historical Fiction?
A history fan, Alex has always been fascinated by what happened in the past. Growing up in Pike County, stories of the Underground Railroad, the labor movement, and famous people passing through Pennsylvania have piqued his interest in the beginnings of Northeastern PA.
His novel in progress, The Deliverance of Charles Ball, touches on many of these historical occurrences, and builds on them with other issues and personages of the past. You’ll be surprised though—while the title references Mr. Ball (a former slave originally from Maryland who eventually made his way north to freedom) the protagonist of the book is Rachel, a young girl who lives with her sheep-herding family. When I asked why Alex had chosen a woman, he explained that he wanted history to be from a new perspective, and not the mostly male and autobiographical examples usually encountered in sources. His desire to give a new voice to history is refreshing and well-orchestrated. The novel begins in 1842—a pivotal year for Pennsylvania in many ways. Debtors’ prisons were banned in that year. The ban on slave catching was struck down, making Pennsylvania a sanctuary state no more—a similarity that makes one think of current immigration issues even today. But Rachel’s story and its parallels to today don’t stop there. Rachel and the town dwellers learn about Charles Ball’s plight through his writing and take on other conflicts of the day as well, such as labor unrest in the region and the question of the feasibility of utopia (with a guest appearance by Horace Greeley, who actually visited Pennsylvania around that time, and attempted a utopian socialist colony, Sylvania, near Shohola).
The three main topics of the work include these, according to Alex. In addition, in his work he wants to give the experience of the American slave, to show the plights of workers in the dawn of American capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, and to explore the treatment of women in this time period of national patriarchy. His narrator is written to have readers question, as she does, could people of these marginalized groups have been treated in a more humane way? Alex, through his characters, asserts that they could have, and that we need to be vigilant of these issues as history always comes back around again.
The Play’s the Thing
Novels aren’t Alex’s only genre. Acting and the theatre are in his blood, too.
After the Shots Were Fired—a play co-written by Alex in coordination with the mother/daughter duo of Margo and Marnie Azzarelli—is being performed throughout the area this fall. It tells the story of the Great Strike of 1877 in Scranton, featuring imaginations of several strikers in the riot that occurred on Lackawanna Avenue.
Alex has a screenplay in the works as well—and while a bit more light-hearted in nature, it still pulls from actual Commonwealth issues. Its working title is The Herd and it, too, focuses on Pennsylvania working heroes who save the rest of our citizens—this time not from coal bosses or slave catchers, rather the unfortunate villains are the State’s cervidae—the deer and elk.
To try to do it justice, Alex shared this summary of the trailer he envisions for the work:
A hunter, a bit hungover, is out on Opening Day of deer season. He drifts to sleep on his deer stand in the State Game Lands. Two does run by. He awakens—readied—and the buck is coming and faster than he expected. With no time to even grab his gun, the big-racked buck appears, honks, sniffs at the hunter, and then proceeds to charge right at him. Black out. Then, we hear a call from a worried wife telling the game warden about the hunter, her husband, who never made it home for dinner.
Not to give it all away, let’s just say the deer are not well, and a dark comedy in the vein of “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Independence Day,” and “Snakes on a Plane” ensues.
Just remember—don’t feed the deer.
Parting Comments and Sage Advice
Alex’s enthusiasm in his work is contagious—I can’t wait to hear and see more from him. His passion is evident in all of his characters, and it’s clear that fiction is his strength. He knows this himself and says, “Fiction lets you do the things you couldn’t do in real life.” Who wouldn’t want to live it up like that?
Alex has advice for new local writers—get out there. Join a writer’s group such as NEPA Creative Writers or Ink and find all of the other writers in the area who are willing to help get you started and “talk up” your confidence. He says that they’ll give you the accountability you’ll need to continue. He states that writer should capitalize on the area itself, too. “NEPA is a great micro-laboratory for the human experience and existence,” and adds that there is “untold content” waiting to be written about from local history to current events in our region.
Alex truly has no shortage on storytelling and he wants to encourage others to take up the cause, too, because “there’s not a person anywhere who doesn’t have a good idea to share to help make the world better.”
Want to hear more from Alex Lotorto? See him in After the Shots Were Fired at Pittston’s Riverfestthis month. He’s also a featured writer for the Writer’s Showcaseat the Olde Brick Theatre in Scranton at the end of September. He says don’t be shy about contacting him on Facebook or at the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) meetings at Café Sevda in Scranton the last Saturday morning of every month. He’ll be happy to help share ways he works to make Pennsylvania history—and more—accessible to all.
A poetry unit in school, taught by a soul-patched goateed English teacher was all it took to get Al Man writing. He admits that, at age twelve, his poetry was “terrible” and melded into the expected romantic and pining poetry of high school, but his work now is honest, heartfelt, and inviting.
Over an iced tea and chocolate-peanut-butter-cup iced coffee we chatted about how Al got to where he is today.
The Writing Process
I began with the question of how Al goes about his writing. His answer was simple: “It starts as something in my head, and I have to write it down.”
From there it goes from a notebook rough draft to a typed one in the computer where Al edits as he retypes it. After taking it to one of his writing groups for feedback and a bit more polish, Al puts the new piece aside and waits. How long does the wait last? Anywhere from “at least a few weeks” to as long as a year before he says he’ll “put fresh eyes on it.” He often writes at home, joined by his dog, Link, on the couch. Sometimes he’ll head out for a walk though, ending up with a stop at Main Bean Coffee after to jot ideas down. He’s told me he used to write at work in the breakroom, but that ended when someone let the cat out of the bag about what he was doing in there (it was Al who told people he was writing). Now, his curious coworkers tend to interrupt, interested in what he has to say in his writing.
He admits ideas come from everywhere for him—it could be a line or two or a character stuck in his head and he writes it down. Inspiration comes from all parts of life, but lately he’s found more of a rush in the raw experiences of the common man, encountering much innovation from Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski.
He doesn’t have a specific muse currently, but instead uses what pops up, or falls down, to start writing. For example, he recently wrote about bird guano that ended up on his car’s windshield. He says, “You can write about anything around you if it hits you in the right way.”
Getting Started and Sage Advice
Al first started putting himself out in the Northeast PA writing scene in July of 2016. He braved an open mic through a Poconos writer’s group and was asked to be a featured writer at the event the next month. He’s continued attending local open mics and showcases for the last year, with one distinct high point being a headliner at the Writer’s Showcase a the Olde Brick Theatre in Scranton where he shared not only his works, but a poem of his grandfather’s as well, who wrote during his time in World War II.
When I asked Al what recommendations he had for local, new writers who need direction, his advice is simply to get out there. “Rip it off like a bandaid!” he exclaims. He says that while he knows it’s difficult to open yourself up to judgments on things that are personal to you (and, he adds, they should be personal things you write about, at least on some level), don’t be afraid of criticism because the majority of it is constructive. He declares, “You won’t know what others think of you if you don’t get out there.” And that is really the whole point.
The Kids He Works With and the Kids of His Brain
Having been in the NEPA Creative Writers and Ink Writers with Al, I’ve heard many of his musings. One of my favorites was his foray into the world of Thanksgiving with his children’s story of “Side Dishes on Strike.” But, being a substitute for Bright Horizons Family Solutions, Al is often writing stories for the amusement of his wards, so a story about Yancy the Yam makes sense. Another favorite story of the students, he says, is “The Very Grouchy Teacher” (That’s HIM!)
He feels the best thing he’s written so far is his beautiful, nostalgic baseball poem called “Pitchers & Catchers” about a former girlfriend and their trip to see the Red Sox. He says it’s not only his favorite, but it brings back good memories and celebrates the friendship with her that endures to today.
The strangest thing he’s written, then? Probably the one about the bird droppings. He wondered why he thought about it for twenty minutes or so and then wrote it, but the point is—he wrote it. And it worked.
Influences and Parting Comments
Al says imagination was always his thing—even when he was young and demanded to be acknowledged only as Batman (costume included). He is imaginative. Still, naming J.D. Salinger, Bukowski and Ginsberg as some of his current favorites fits Al. He’s up-front, forthright and conversational in his writing and in real life. Like Bukowski said, “An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.” Al’s direct, straightforward writing—whether illusory or otherwise—is approachable for all. It’s really great stuff.
Watch for Al around the area—he frequents Kester’s in Luzerne on Friday nights. He’s often at the Wednesday night open mics at Adezzo’s in Scranton, and will be one of the performers at the Game Chateau’s Spooky Writer’s Showcase in October.
Know a writer near you who’s making their own space? Send word to Marcie at email@example.com to help them be heard here.