Biopoetics: Dicotyledons

First published in Mind Murals, page 10, Spring 2016. Listen to it read aloud here.

Photo by George Wesley and Bonita Dannells entitled ‘Maple seeds – the samara’ (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic), link through photo

The poem is the only shape poem I’ve ever attempted, but I was inspired by the uniquely beautiful shape of the double samara – the ‘helicopter’ fruit. These seeds are characteristic of dicots (short for dicotyledons), so named because they have two (di) cotyledons (small leaves inside the seed that are the first “leaves” to appear after germination).

In sugar maples, these cotyledons store food/nutrients for the seed and, once the seed germinates, photosynthesize until true leaves can grow. I feel the poem is a bit misleading (unintentionally) where it says ‘abs orb nutrients’; I meant only that nutrients were packed into the cotyledons as they were formed – that they absorbed nutrients as the fruit grew. I learned later that some monocots (mono = one cotyledon) actually have cotyledons that absorb food stored elsewhere in the completely formed seed. In comparison to the story of monocots, I feel this line could be easily misconstrued.

When the germinated seedling gains its first true leaves, they appear broad and almost rounded compared to the cotyledons thinness and do not yet have the class sugar maple leaf shape. Following the left side of the poem, we learn that sugar maple seedlings can germinate in a thick layer of ‘humus’. Humus is a dark soil composed of decaying plant and animal matter, making it nutrient rich and good at retaining moisture while also remaining well-drained. It’s generally considered an excellent soil type for sugar maple growth.

Following the right side of the poem, we see the seed germinating. The radicle “root” is the first part of the seedling to emerge during germination. The radicle pushes down through the seed coat and snakes through the soil to find water and set up a root system, eventually growing large enough to be the tree’s ‘tap root’. The radicle grows via its apical meristem (a region of actively dividing cells that grows the tips of shoots and roots) at its tip, helping it to bury deep into the soil and look for water. This water allows for the rise of other tissues as the seedling grows larger (like true leaves, sweet for their photosynthetic production of carbohydrates). Each seed generates one radicle root and it is white in color since, like other roots, it stays underground and does not photosynthesize.

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‘Bee’ Reviewed: Soil

Nyx: I will let you take pictures of me only when the book you want a photo of is grey and in shadows.

This week on ‘Bee’ Reviewed is Tim Cresswell’s Soil, a poetry collection packed with detritus and reference to place, be it urban or natural. Tim Cresswell is a poet and geographer from Britain and Soil is his debut collection of poetry. I typically try not to write negative reviews, but unfortunately this collection mostly wasn’t my speed (but who knows – it could be yours!).

Each of Cresswell’s poems very clearly evokes a feeling of place, be it the airport, the countertop in an urban home, a mine fallen into disrepair, or the forest floor. We are moved constantly as Cresswell chooses to relocate us; the result of this constant relocation is that most poems failed to engage me sufficiently in their singular world before I am forced to move on, even if I revisit similar locales several times throughout the book. I would have preferred some grouping – which this collection could have used on the whole, from the very beginning of the process (to the level of which poems made it into the book, not just their order of display). It was very difficult for me to draw enough connections between poems to find any overall thread to really unite the poems, making me feel like this was a ‘hodgepodge’ more than a ‘collection’.

Cresswell has incredibly sparse language; while sometimes this was evocative in a very concise way, many times I found it dissatisfying – particularly with poems like “Footnote”, “Feverfew”, and part 20 of the longest poem “Soil”. I might even refer to some of these poems as straight lists of related terms. The almost cheeky brevity and lack of unique language in some poems, especially when contrasted with the beautiful language and imagination in their neighbors, was off-putting and made the collection feel unbalanced.

Cresswell incorporates some biology and a lot of scientific information about soil. Similar to my comment about his concise language, many of this information was simply dropped like a paragraph from a textbook into the middle of the book. This was jarring, and felt somewhat lazy, especially compared to beautiful poems like “Rare Metallophytes,” which incorporates its science in such a subtle, poetic way that you hardly realize it’s there. Indeed, some parts of “Soil” were acknowledged to be directly pulled from a song; while I’ve nothing against incorporating the work of others on occasion, the frequency to which this and the information-dropping occurred left me annoyed that I hadn’t just picked up a textbook on the history and importance of soil instead.

Overall, I would recommend this book to people who love reading the poetry of place and don’t mind a ‘collection’ of poetry where each poem must be appreciated very independently of its fellows. If your mind can very quickly switch from one task to another you may find this series less jarring than I did, and thus more enjoyable. Those who really enjoy brevity in their poems, choice language that surprises and can make you laugh, poetry in and about urban places, and, of course, soil, will probably appreciate this book. Those who like to immerse themselves in a flowing narrative will be disappointed.

A special shout out to the poems “Rowan”, “Metaphor”, and “On entering the home of the bourgeois intelligentsia for the first time” all of which, with “Rare Metallophytes” made me glad I’d picked up the book despite its many shortcomings.

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DIY MFA Part 2: My Big Kid Pants Don’t Fit… Yet

Excuse me, Provost? Yes, I think there must be some mistake. I thought I ordered ‘Big Kid Pants’ for graduation but all I got was this shapeless gown and a funny hat with a tassel.

When I was a young girl, I despised writing… book reports (hah, gotcha). In fourth grade when my mother discovered I had neglected to write over twenty, one-page reports for a book we were reading in class, first she sat me down and made me write them. With her. All night. And second, every day on the way to school, she made me say ‘I love writing book reports. I love writing book reports.’ fifty times over in the car.

Fascinatingly, eight years later I became an English major who elected to take extra lit classes.

If anything in life were to show me the simple power of the pen, that moment was it. With words you can rewrite your world. You make the world what you tell yourself it can be.

In the DIY MFA mindfulness manifesto, we are given several principles to digest that make good sense to me: your resistance to a project could mean it will be a breakthrough project, writer’s block doesn’t exist, don’t compound your failure with feelings of guilt, and one writer’s best practice may not (likely will not) be yours. These all seem like good tools to have in a mental toolbox for motivating oneself to write, to write the way you do best, and to write without guilt.

But I struggled with some of Pereira’s phrasing – particularly “Sometimes you desperately want to write but you just… can’t…when you sit down to write, you freeze.” Pereira states that the solution to this bewildering resistance is to ‘put on your big-kid pants and write’. You and what words, Pereira? Seriously, though – how?

 I know this feeling of freezing, having written about that anxiety in my post on The Perpetual Writer’s Block. Unfortunately ‘just writing’ when frozen is as alien a notion to me as asking a drowning man to put on his big-kid pants and just breathe.

Trust me, if that was an option, I would.

Hopefully, Pereira expounds on this foundational principle later in the book – on how to get your big-kid pants on and break the ice, so to speak. However, I sense this is the attitude of a senior writer speaking almost condescendingly to a novice, forgetting the distinct helplessness of those fledgling moments. I believe it is the practice, practice, practice that Pereira rightly espouses later in the orientation section that teaches one how to break the ice (or avoid it altogether), not any momentary mental gymnastics. Just like my mantra on book reports took eight years to turn me into an English major, so too does learning to break the writing freeze take considerable time and effort.

Writing daily is like repeating the mantra ‘I can write at will’ in your head and the more you do it, the less likely you are to get frozen. Unfortunately, the point when you may be most frozen – as a novice – is when you have the least support, community, etc to help you ‘put on your big kid pants’ and move forward. Younger writers must be given real strategy, not condescending metaphor, to train themselves to get past these frozen moments. This may be especially important for young hopefuls coming out of academia where external motivators were a sole source of motivation and, without pressing deadlines, these post-education writers are forced to suddenly develop sufficient internal motivation overnight.

Are you a senior writer who still struggles with the feeling of being frozen – a junior writer who has uncovered tactics for pushing on past the ice? Share your tips with me below – I’d love to hear them. Until then, I’ll just practice, practice, practice!

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‘Bee’ Reviewed: Bycatch

A seahorse, possibly not of the Pacific variety; photo from The British Library flickr. For a better illustration of a Pacific seahorse see the Terrain link

I first discovered the Bycatch project (I think that’s the right word) when I stumbled across two poems, “Pacific Seahorse” and “Shovelnose Guitarfish” in Terrain magazine where they were published. Eric Magrane and Maria Johnson are part of the 6&6 project which aims to bring scientists and artists together to portray and understand the Sonoran Desert (this is my favorite type of collaboration). Interestingly, it seems both Magrane and Johnson have science and art experience – Magrane is a geography PhD candidate and writer, Johnson is a marine conservationist and illustrator.

Magrane and Johnson traveled on a shrimp trawling boat as part of their collaboration, gathering bycatch data (all caught species that are not the target species). Several poems and illustrations came out of the collaboration, including “Shame-faced crab” (published in Zocalo Magazine and easiest to find in a blog post on the 6 and 6 website), the two published in Terrain, and “Sonora Scorpionfish” published in Coordinates Society

These poems are addressed to the bycatch and are accompanied with detailed illustrations that use dots to imply shading and patterns. I feel as though Johnson deliberately chose this style though I am not familiar with her body of work. The beauty of the whole being made up of the sum of these tiny individual pinpricks (rather than flamboyant colors, fancy materials, or computer generated additions) seems to speak to the necessity of each individual species, each fish, of bycatch to the beauty of the oceans, but I could be reaching. These species are often of special concern, lending the poems the narrative tone of a conservationist from the get-go of the title, and the voice of the poem takes that voice quite seriously.

Each poem gives special attention to the species it dotes on and seems to address a specific fish found on the trawling boat: how it  got on the trawling ship, and a little bit of scientific information about it carefully hidden (in the description of its habit or habitat). Each poem also seems to philosophize about the species, utilizing its relationship with humanity (going so far as to anthropomorphize certain species) to make a point about it’s existence as a part of the bycatch. Each poem, by highlighting this ‘unwanted’ or ‘forgettable’ part of the day’s catch on the boat, draws attention to the uniqueness of the species. Magrane makes us feel for the loss of life of each fish through beautiful, short stanzas punctuated by an abundance of white space that creates a sense of breathlessness, a feeling perhaps like a fish out of water.

By far my favorite poem is “Sonora Scorpionfish”, which contains the following lines:

“what are the chances/ from thousands of eggs

one will grow to display/ your red pectoral fin

what are the chances/ a human will be drawn

 to your sharp appearance/ pick you up

  by instinct or chance/ and the next day

their arm will go numb/ all numb,

is that slight/ consolation?”

I recommend you check those lines out in the original (link provided again here) because Magrane’s use of white space and stanza breaks heightens the suspense and, again, makes you feel breathless and light-heated as you grieve for the loss of the fish, which is really amazing (and sad, all at once). This poem really inspires me – without drowning its reader in guilt or even anger, Magrane manages to draw out intense feelings of compassion for marine life. Magrane may have the poem directly converse with the

Nyx’s ‘eyebrows’ are particularly on point for this one thanks to the sunlight (print copy of “Shame-faced crab”)

fish, but really he is opening the door for a philosophical conversation with his readers about the state of our marine life and the extreme loss of life in the environment that is the ‘bycatch’ of our industrial goals. Do we care? Is a numb arm consolation for the loss of the beautiful world we inhabit?

I would recommend these poems and illustrations to anyone who loves marine life or wants to experience the ongoing sad, deep, and beautiful conversation poets are having about conservation. I hope to see more of Magrane and Johnson’s collaboration in other journals soon.

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DIY MFA Part 1: Orientation

For those of you paying close attention, you may have noted I’m intending to go to graduate school in Biology in the fall and not to earn my MFA. And yet, here I sit, managing a blog and website more dedicated to my love of the craft of writing than to my personal scientific pursuits. Since I would hate to miss out on any opportunity for schooling, I decided to pick up the DIY MFA, a new book by Gabriela Pereira that teaches its readers to write with focus, read with purpose, and build a community (what Pereira asserts are the three main principles of an MFA program).

Pereira’s book calls for her readers to do some surprising work that, at its surface, isn’t writing; many books, such as Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See, teach us that there is more to being a good writer than writing itself. I’d like to follow my journal engaging with her material and doing my own DIY MFA as a bi-weekly segment on this blog for… well, however long a DIY MFA lasts. Hopefully, for other writers working on developing their writing, reading, and community outside the MFA this experiment of mine will be useful.

And I do call it an experiment since Pereira’s first piece of advice (when distilled) is for writers to use the scientific method to develop good writing habits. She develops the acronym VITAL: choose input and output Variables, collect Information, set a Trip wire, evaluate and Analyze, and Learn and decide what’s next.

For my first two weeks, Aug 1 to Aug 14, I will be travelling between my former home and new home, so I’ve decided to test the input of light exercise over factors I think are actually more important to my writing (like place, writing time, and music/noise) which I cannot control given my extended travel. Each day before writing, I will stretch and take a ten minute run (hey, it’s hot out okay?) to see if that unsettles or invigorates me.

I’ll be using Pereira’s writing tracker to note my quantitative writing progress and qualitative experience over the two weeks, as well as which type of project I’m working on (as my needs for CNF, poetry, and genre fiction seem to be very different). My ‘tripwire’ (something that reminds me to evaluate my progress) will be this blog post; I will evaluate my previous twelve days of writing through the newest post and then learn and decide what my next variable will be as I write.

So far as I know, my best writing happens at midnight in Dennys at Geneseo with coffee, sad music, pancakes, and a looming deadline.

Throughout the two weeks, I will also be updating you with my thoughts on various parts of DIY MFA and how I think they fit into the reality of being a ‘young hopeful’ writer.

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‘Bee’ Reviewed: Science on Stage

Science on Stage 4
Nyx: Oh look, a book. Maybe I’ll stop to read it.

I first came across this academic resource while working on one of my honors theses in undergrad – Science on Stage: An Examination of Scientific Rhetoric in Drama. This thesis really pushed me into reading (and writing) science-theater hybrids and was inspired, in part, by reading this book. And that’s what this book mostly does – it inspires one to consider science on stage as a cultural entity, even if the book can be considered a bit biased (more than I would generally recommend for an academic source). Then again, Shepherd-Barr is breaking some ground here by collecting a whole book of science-play criticism in one place and is very upfront about her definition of science, so perhaps its unfair to judge the book as anything other than a little lax on what is considered a culture-shaking play or actual science.

Shepherd-Barr covers a lot of science plays, from the modern and popular like Copenhagen by Michael Frayn to the old and unexpected like Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, with a lot of coverage in between. The book is a good jumping off point for thinking about how science functions in plays, what can be considered science, how scientists and the process of science are portrayed, and how these science plays impact our societal perceptions of science. The book is comprised of chapters that focus on plays of different themes – physics, medicine, biology, etc. – and Shepherd-Barr also tries to touch on trends, tradition, history, and the importance of theater to science in other chapters.

Science on Stage 7
Nyx: Perhaps I shall read it, after all. Hmmm.

The book is an interesting read, if dense, but only for someone who is well-read in the science-theater genre (you won’t get much out of reading about plays you haven’t read). That being said, the book is a great starting place to look for plays that would be of interest to you as the appendix in the back is really helpful. I would recommend anyone interested in theater, or even writing plays that deal with science, pick up this book and delve into the world of science-theater hybrids.

A cautionary note: Dr. Carl Djerassi has a great article about this book and how it exaggerates the prevalence of science plays on stage, in part by having a somewhat loose definition of what a science play is. I would recommend reading his article – it’s important to recognize that Shepherd-Barr is casting a wide net, with many of the plays she mentions not having been performed frequently, if ever, and other plays featuring characters like Newton or Einstein but with no real science behind them at all.

I personally fall somewhere between Shepherd-Barr and Djerassi’s views on science-plays, not as harsh as Djerassi about the necessity of ‘real science’ to be the ultimate focus of the play but also not willing to say the barest hint of a scientist’s name qualifies a play as a science play (sorry, Darwin in Malibu). To me, each play that has a primary or secondary focus of science informs us about how our culture views science, and is thus a science play even if it doesn’t quite get around to teaching us the inner workings of a transmembrane protein. And how our culture views science is important – science cannot stand alone. So pick up this book to get a start on understanding the complexity of science plays – and make your own decision about what a science play is to you!

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Bee-ing Difficult: the Nyx Edition

Here’s a sneak peak at the book chosen for Sunday’s ‘Bee’ Reviewed – getting the photos with Nyx is a real saga. I thought I’d show you what I mean (these were taken over the course of an hour as I tried to get my cat to sit, stand, lay down – anything if she could just be STILL and LOOK at me):

Science on Stage 1
Nyx: I know it really annoys you when I come really close, stand still, and look away from you. It’s really frustrating and I know you love that.
Science on Stage 3
Nyx: First, I’ll go over to the bookshelf and pretend to be interested so mom tries staging the book there. Then, I’ll turn my butt on her. PERFECT.
Science on Stage 2
Nyx: If I keep walking by, between the book and the camera, that’ll really annoy her for sure. Look, Mom, I’m not interested in the bookshelf anymore!
Science on Stage 4
Nyx: What’s this? If I pose right in front of the clean laundry mom has yet to fold, then the internet will know all about her inability to do common household chores efficiently! Hah! Perfect!
Science on Stage 5
Nyx: I know? Aren’t I cute? And perfectly posed in front of the laundry, too. You’re welcome, mom.

Get excited for a post on ‘Science on Stage’ coming soon (and more cute pictures of my cat, the star of this blog)!

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What I’m Working On

Short term projects:

I’m incredibly excited to announce that I’ve finally finished beta-testing my game, Narborion Adventures: The Burning Trees of Ormen Mau. I’ll say to beta-testers everywhere that I do not envy you and your job. Playing games in the most boring way possible is an experience I do not wish to repeat. I am sorry. You can read an interview with me about the project here, watch the game trailer here on their homepage (all the way to the left in the videos section), or – soon – buy the game in the app store (available for Android and iOS)!

After being inspired by a call for submissions of unfinished manuscripts by Carina Press, I’ve taken a small break from science-writing to work more completely on a historical romance novel that aims to turn some of the traditional regency troupes on their head. Hey, sometimes we have to give love a little time to shine, right?

Also, three of my poems, “Acerum on Fomalhaut b,” “Comma after Late Budbreak: Defoliation by an Invasive Pear,” and “Dirty” have been accepted for publication in The Trumpeter online literary journal. As soon as they’re published, I’ll be able to start posting Biopoetics for those poems!

Long term projects:

I’ve decided to join the Philadelphia Neuwrite chapter after meeting their founder; I wanted to follow up on my involvement in the science-writing collaboration group from my undergrad at Geneseo (where I was a founding member). My first meeting will be in September, but it won’t be my last!

I’ve decided to continue diversifying by joining the Collaborative Writing Challenge for Project 6, which will be a Fantasy/YA Fantasy novel. This jives well with my gamebook experience and love of the genre. The project works with four authors each signing on to write the same chapter of the book. Each author receives the chapter selected before their assigned chapter and a concept outline, after which they have a week to write their chapter and submit their material to the story coordinator. The story coordinator picks one chapter of the four submitted versions as the ‘winner’ and then sends it on to the next four writers… building the story. Submissions are accepted for the started chapter and voted on by all contributors to the project. I’ll be working on chapters 23 and 27, not due until Feb/March of 2017.

Lastly, I’ve been collaborating with my brother to create a biography of sorts about his craft distillery, Black Button Distilling located in Rochester, NY (if you have the opportunity to buy the Bourbon Cream and/or the gin, do it!).

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‘Bee’ Reviewed: Radial Symmetry

Nyx: If you won’t pet me, maybe this book will. *knocks book over*

Katherine Larson’s Radial Symmetry is less about science than I expected, given that it was written by a research scientist and field ecologist. As a book of poetry, Larson’s imagery, clarity, and vividness is to be admired – there are moments of great beauty scattered throughout the book.

Unfortunately, Radial Symmetry wasn’t really the book for me; if you’re a reader who likes a cohesive narrative (or poems that feel connected), this collection will feel disjointed. Larson writes of her own experiences with loss, love, travel, and more, couching them in biological imagery (sometimes) but leaving us without any discernible threads to meaningfully connect these reflections. Within each of these reflections, there are certainly precise and beautiful moments of writing and insight; it should be noted that Larson pays particularly excellent attention to sound within her work. But much of the collection felt vague and too personal for me to understand. There were also a lot of noncommittally ‘thoughtful’ statements where Larson seemed to be attempting philosophy but fell short of dedicating herself to it – for example a catch-all, like “Either everything’s sublime or nothing is”.

This book of poems would work well for those who appreciate scientific reference without scientific exploration and who like to go on a personal journey with the author through a life not your own. Larson does offer a unique perspective on her human experience, particularly through poems about loss like Grandfather Outside. Readers who appreciate poetry collections in which there is a lot of variety and diversity in thought, imagery, and style will also appreciate this versatile collection.

Some of my favorite lines follow – from Statuary:

“But somewhere between/ the crane and the worm/ between the days I pass through/ and the days that pass/ through me/ is the mind…”

from Study for Love’s Body:

“Saturn revolves/ repeatedly around some distance/ where space is nothing/ yet still something that separates.”

from Love at Thirty-Two Degrees:


beyond pheromones, hormones, aesthetics of bone,/ every time I make love for love’s sake alone,

I betray you.”

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Shame and Publications

One of the alumna of my undergraduate institution, Katherine Fusco, recently wrote a post I’d like to highlight: So, I’ve Been Publicly Shamed: On Writing and Resilience. As with all posts that I write about the works of others, I recommend you read the original piece first to better understand and engage with my post.

Fusco graduated from Geneseo in 2003, long before I began attending, and went on to earn her M.A. and PhD from Vanderbilt. She has numerous publications, teaches courses at the University of Nevada, and holds the Crowley Distinguished Professorship in Core Humanities. She is an excellent role model for a younger alumna like myself, just beginning her journey towards a PhD and a writing career. Recently, Fusco was publicly mocked online for her academic work in the field of film studies.

Fusco’s article is well worth a read, crossing the STEM-Humanities divide to speak to every person who publishes work as part of their career. Fusco was mocked on Twitter, where an account I won’t name (so as not to give them attention) posted a photograph of the abstract of an academic article she wrote with the caption, “When you’re not all too bright but the salary’s better in academia than Starbucks.” Fusco speaks of old feelings of fear resurfacing as the Twitterverse began to retweet and engage – fear that she was not good enough (as an academic, a writer, a thinker), fear that her coworkers were all laughing at her, fear that her public college undergraduate education was a stain on her reputation in the often-classist structure of academia.

Fusco’s work is just one of many to be mocked; much of the ridiculed work relates to women’s issues, feminism, or is simply written by women (leaving those mocking them to distribute their picture and comment on their appearance, as Fusco notes happened to her). We could derail into a feminist dialogue here (albeit an important conversation to have), but I’d rather stay focused on something else: As writers/researchers, whether we publish academic work or creative work, we must become prepared to deal with the feelings of anger, fear, and sadness that will come up when we, and our work, are mocked online. Gone are the days when a scientist’s work and the critique of their work were largely separated from them as a person.

As a young writer, I worry that I don’t have the resilience Fusco displays – that I don’t have the maturity, sense of self, and career behind me to overcome being mocked. I hardly have the presence of self to send out work for potential publication or share my poetry with my writing group. In undergrad English courses we talked a lot about how to be resilient in the face of rejection by academic or literary journals, but not at all about how to overcome the feelings associated with being actively harassed for our work. When writers are not able to overcome these feelings of fear, anger, and shame when other ridicule or mock them for their publications, we lose valuable, communal knowledge, stories, truths, etc. as those writers/scientists stop pursuing certain lines of work or publishing.

It’s ridiculous to assume that we can stop online trolls but shouldn’t we better prepare our young writers/researchers to deal with often personal harassment and ridicule? If yes, how do we prepare them? Fusco offers some advice, as a scholar and teacher, to others who find themselves mocked, saying:

  1. Writing something better would not have mattered.
  2. Your work is not you.
  3. Some people wish you would just shut up and go away.

It’s important we teach young scholars and writers these principles (among others like: don’t feed the trolls) to prepare them for ‘peer review’ not by literary or academic publications but by the masses that often engage in ‘intellectual crusades’ against those that offer alternate views, lifestyles, etc. As our work and our selves become more intertwined with the ever-increasing net the internet casts, we must prepare the next generation of writers/researchers to deal with all kinds of critics, and to know which ones to ignore. We must teach this generation how to heal when ridiculed, how to respond, how to be resilient like Fusco works hard to be. Otherwise, we run the risk of having many writers shut up and go away, letting the trolls win to the detriment of society as a whole.

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