Monday, September 28, 2009

Guest Blog: The Contents of the Bags: A Review of Coming in Hot

By Jennifer McStotts

When the draft for Vietnam was in full swing, my father volunteered not because he believed in the war or lusted for battle, but because he couldn’t avoid the draft. He knew if he volunteered, he would get a better assignment, and if he survived, his life afterward would be more stable. A risky reason to enlist, but it is also common thinking among women who serve: the desire for training, for education, for opportunity and stability. Much like many women who serve today, his enlistment launched three decades of silence in his family. The first time I remember him mentioning Vietnam was in my late teens. We were in twining lines waiting for flu shots, staying together until we were divided, men to the left, women to the right. He stood just off my shoulder, and as we neared the split, he asked, “Are you squeamish about needles?”

I chuckled. “No, are you?”

To my surprise he gave the smallest shudder and said, as our lines split apart, “I’ve put parts into body bags that you couldn’t even tell were once a person, but for some reason needles still give me the creeps.”

He didn’t speak of his service even as I considered joining myself, except to say that a commission was better than enlistment and that serving as a woman was not easy. Choosing to remain a civilian isn’t something I regret; in fact, it is a luxury for which I am thankful, but it was pressing on my mind as I sat down, Saturday evening in Tucson, Ariz., for the performance of Coming in Hot.

The stageplay is an adaptation of selections from the Kore Press anthology, Powder: Writing by Women in the Military, from Vietnam to Iraq, which collects the work of nineteen women who served in the U.S. military in a variety of roles. Lisa Bowden and Shannon Cain, the co-editors, admit that they “went into the project with the idea that this work would contribute to the chorus of opposition to the war in Iraq . . . We saw immediately the necessity of setting aside any bias and agenda.” It was, nonetheless, this agenda, bias, and perspective that made me wonder if the adapted work would be solely anti-war, primarily a piece of activism, especially given that the work was produced by Kore Press and directed by Bowden.

What the audience witnessed was a well-balanced collection of monologues composed into a one-woman show featuring Jeanmarie Simpson (original score by accompanist Vicki Brown on strings and pedals, with recorded voice talents of Donald Paul Stockton and Kaylene Torregrossa). Before I go any further, I would like to applaud Simpson. While her performance wasn’t flawless, she was also presented with a nearly impossible task in portraying 14 distinct characters in 80 minutes, without costume change; she did so successfully — laudably — using her voice, her mannerisms, and her versatility as an actress, but at times the variety of accents necessary to distinguish so many women became less convincing.

It is troubling that the adaption and direction called for Simpson to do so in the first place. The message or point of the play could have been narrowed, refined, or, in the alternative, the number of monologues could have been reduced (19 contributions became 14 characters, and an even greater number of segments given the recurring appearance of Charlotte Brock’s character in Mortuary Affairs). Characters could have been conflated without much loss of narrative effect and without forcing Simpson to stretch to distinguish them; as one audience member said immediately after the performance, “There were too many stories. It was too much, and it didn’t say enough.”

That said, despite missed light cues, despite a few stuttered lines and awkward moments involving her blocking, Simpson brought life to characters within the simplicity of an otherwise stark production. The set consisted only of one chair and one table — more of an operating table, clinical and spare — which was primarily used for the Mortuary Affairs scenes in which Brock’s character stood over it as if looking down on a body. The lighting consisted of only a few overhead fixtures at various angles with the exception of one water effect and one flashlight held by a crew member. What felt strange, to me, was the balance the director struck between the one-woman show format — meant to emphasize character and message — and the use of recorded voice segments to supplement Simpson’s work. In addition, it was confusing that at first the recorded voices were only used for the male voice of a boot camp instructor, then a female voice for the character Simpson was portraying silently on stage, and finally that same female voice switched to a male role. While I don’t agree with one audience member’s assessment that it would have been better to focus on a very small number of stories — four being the number she mentioned — it did feel inconsistent to rely on the one-actor model while supplementing and distracting from her performance in a variety of ways.

The original score by Vicki Brown was a perfect accompaniment to the monologues. Brown used the same themes and structure each time Simpson returned to the recurring character of Charlotte Brock in the mortuary. At other times, her music set the heartbeat of the scene, calling its pace; at every moment, she took the pain and the challenge of Brock’s writing (and Simpson’s portrayal) to a higher level.

These recurring scenes pulled me in the most and made me think — again, as I often have before — of my father’s offhand comment. “I’ve put parts into body bags that you couldn’t even tell were once a person.” Brock says something very similar about “the contents of the bags” that Mortuary Affairs handled, especially in one harrowing scene in which the deceased is little more than “a head, a hand, and an arm.”

What Simpson, Bowden, and Cain attempted to do in the adaptation and performance was no easy task — to tell these stories and to grant these women their individual voices when their silence has been so pervasive. What perhaps made the sections by Brock so powerful was that she, too, was trying to give someone a voice, both herself in the world in which she found herself surrounded, but also the dead who lay upon that table.

About the Blogger

Jennifer McStotts is the daughter, niece, and ex-wife of United States Marines, as well as a second-year MFA student in creative nonfiction. Her work has been published in Future Anterior, in International Journal of Heritage Studies, and by Preservation Books.

Thursday, September 24, 2009 Issue Launch & Reading Tonight! A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments, a Tucson-based online journal that examines the interface between the built and natural environments, is holding its first-ever issue launch and reading tonight!

8 p.m. : University of Arizona Poetry Center : Tucson

This celebration of the “Borders & Bridges” issue (No. 24) features readings by contributors Christopher Cokinos (Hope is the Thing with Feathers and The Fallen Sky), Pamela Uschuk (Crazy Love), Deborah Fries (Various Modes of Departure), and headlining artist David Rothenberg. It will take place on September 24, at 8 p.m., at the University of Arizona Poetry Center in Tucson.

David Rothenberg is a philosopher, musician, and the author of Why Birds Sing, Sudden Music, Blue Cliff Record, Hand’s End, and Always the Mountains. His articles have appeared in Parabola, Orion, The Nation, Wired, Dwell, Kyoto Journal, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, and Sierra. Rothenberg is also a composer and jazz clarinetist, and he has seven CDs out under his own name, including On the Cliffs of the Heart, named one of the top ten CDs by Jazziz Magazine in 1995. His latest book is Thousand Mile Song, about making music with whales. Rothenberg is professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

  • Welcome, Issue Overview, Contributor and Editor/Board Callouts (in audience), and First Reader Introductions - Simmons Buntin

  • Pamela Uschuk (poetry) - 8 minutes
  • Christopher Cokinos (nonfiction) - 8 minutes
  • Deborah Fries (poetry) - 8 minutes

  • Introduction of David Rothenberg - Kieran Suckling, Center for Biological Diversity
  • David Rothenberg (music and prose) - 20-25 minutes

  • Refreshments and book signings (UA Bookstore will sell books)
Mark your calendars and please join us for this free and fun event! For more information, view

Monday, September 21, 2009 Issue No. 24 Now Live! A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments ( is pleased to announce the launch of Issue No. 24: Borders & Bridges.

Our largest issue yet, interactive contributions include a guest editorial by U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Agritopia as the UnSprawl case study, a long lost interview with poet A. R. Ammons, new poetry features (translations and our first online chapbook, with audio), essays by Christopher Cokinos and Mark Tredinnick, articles on the silence of owls and severing the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, plus new fiction, poetry, nonfiction, reviews, and more.

Check it out now at — and be sure to add to the conversation with’s new commenting tool for contributions. And then join us at 8 p.m. on September 24th at the University of Arizona Poetry Center in Tucson for the Issue Launch & Reading, featuring David Rothenberg, Pamela Uschuk, Christopher Cokinos, and Deborah Fries.

Specifically, Issue No. 24 includes:


  • Guest editorial by Gabrielle Giffords, U.S. Representative, Arizona’s 8th Congressional District : Solar is the Bridge to Our Future
  • Columns by regular contributors Simmons Buntin, Deborah Fries, David Rothenberg (with image gallery), and Lauret Savoy


  • Philip Fried interviews poet A. R. Ammons (1926-2001); an interview dating back to 1980 yet as timely today as it was 29 years ago

UnSprawl Case Study

  • Agritopia in Gilbert, Arizona — Crafted with a sort of evangelical "New Ruralism," the 166-acre Agritopia neighborhood east of Phoenix mixes gardens, pastures, orchards, restaurants, lush trails, and more with historically inspired homes designed to bring neighbors together.


  • “Night at the World’s Largest Atomic Cannon” by Christopher Cokinos, with audio
  • “Body Exposed in the Golden Wind” by Florence Caplow
  • “Positioning” by J. David Bell
  • “Lee’s Ferry” by Ben Quick
  • “Mustering the Sky” by Mark Tredinnick


  • “To Wit, to Woo: The Silence of Owls” by Kathryn Miles
  • “Ken Wu and the Fight for Canada’s Remaining Pacific Coast Old-Growth,” with online slideshow, by Joan Maloof and Rick Maloof
  • “A Hole in Time” by John Lane
  • “A Region of Wounds: Severing the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands” by Tom Leskiw

ARTerrain Gallery

  • Four series of impromptu sculptures-in-the-wild and studio sculptures by R. L. Croft


  • Borderland Translations: Tedi Lop├ęz Mills, translated by Wendy Burk — poems in English and Spanish with audio
  • God, Seed: Online chapbook of poetry and images by Rebecca Foust and Lorna Stevens, with audio
  • Other poetry (and audio, too) by Pamela Uschuk, Jessica Weintraub, Polly Brown, Linda Parsons Marion, Jenn Blair, Laura Sobbot Ross, J. P. Dancing Bear, Beth Winegarner, Peter Huggins, Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, George Moore, Eva Hooker, Scott Edward Anderson, Alison Hawthorne Deming, William Keener, Brett Foster, Thorpe Moeckel, Joe Wilkins, and Sue Swartz


  • “The Hank Williams Dialogues” by Andrew Wingfield
  • “The Garden” by Jaren Watson
  • “Stones” by Jeffrey Stevenson

Reviews of…

  • A Conservationist Manifesto by Scott Russell Sanders
  • The Trouble with Black Boys and Other Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education by Pedro A. Noguera
  • Unexpected Light, poems by C. E. Chaffin
  • Crazy Love: New Poems by Pamela Uschuk

Friday, September 11, 2009 Issue No. 24 Launching Soon!

The next issue of A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments will launch by September 21. With the theme of "Borders & Bridges," it's another outstanding issue featuring, among others:
  • A long interview by Philip Fried with the poet A. R. Ammons
  • Essays on the world's largest atomic cannon, suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge, traveling by GPS, being a single father in the West, and the Australian pastoral
  • Articles on the sudden increase in daytime owl sightings, Ken Wu and the fight for Canada's remaining Pacific Coast old-growth (with online slideshow), archaeology in South Carolina, and U.S.-Mexico border woes
  • Our most comprehensive poetry issue yet, featuring our first online chapbook (poems and images), our first translations (Wendy Burk translates Tedi Lopez Mills), and poetry by Pamela Uschuk, Alison Hawthorne Deming, J. P. Dancing Bear, Peter Huggins, Jessica Weintraub, and many others
  • Fiction by Andrew Wingfield, Jaren Watson, and Jeffrey Stevenson
  • And much more!
So tune in, and stay tuned, at