April Events with me!

I’m giving several readings and talks this month–details below. If you’re local I’d love to see you! 

April 8th 6:00 – 8:00pm – URBAN ARTS PLATFORM, Parking Garage Roof at The Northern

Join us on Saturday, April 8th for a night of international and local talent featuring a stunning view of downtown billings atop the Northern Hotel parking garage!

This will be a 2 part event featuring:
-Video art screening by G. Roland Biermann
-Discussion with the artist and Dr. Aaron Rosen (author of Art & Religion in the 21st Century)
-Poetry readings by local poets Pete Tolton, Ashley Warren, and Meagan Lehr, as well as MT Poet Laureate Earl Craig.
-Drinks (for 21+)
-A discussion on the future of cutting edge art in Billings!

Part 2 of the night, located at 2905 Montana ave. will feature all local musicians including:
-Grant Jones
-Golden Hour
-Bull Market
-Snow Bored

April 11th 7:00 – 8:00pm ARTFUL WOMEN OF MONTANA, Community Room, Billings Public Library

Please join Zonta Club of Billings and Billings Public Library for our next event on Tuesday, April 11, 7-8 p.m. when our guests will be Anna Paige and Ashley Warren. In this Artful Women of Montana talk, they will be discussing a multi-disciplinary approach to the arts, the importance of collaboration, and empowering community voice through writing.

From a desire to connect writers to one another and grow the literary community in Billings, Ashley Warren and Anna Paige created Billings Area Literary Arts (BALA). Active in the writing community, both Ashley and Anna are faculty at Montana State University Billings, poetry teachers with Arts Without Boundaries, and instructors for Big Sky Writing Workshops. Through BALA, they host bi-monthly Write-Ins where they invite the community to “occupy space in form of creation.”

Ashley writes fiction and poetry. She’s a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA program, and her work has appeared in The Examined Life, Easy Street, and in the anthology Poems Across the Big Sky II among other places. She was recently an Artist-in-Residence with the Billing Public Library and teaches youth in the juvenile detention system through the nonprofit organization Free Verse.

Anna is freelance journalist, photographer, and poet. A Montana Slam Grand Champion, Anna has also been named Best Spoken Word Artist by the Magic City Music Awards in 2012 and 2014 – 2016. She’s performed spoken word poetry in several collaborative pieces, including a short act in Billings’ Fringe Festival and with Terpsichore Dance Company of Montana. She also co-hosts “Resounds: Arts and Culture on the High Plains” on Yellowstone Public Radio.

April 26th 5:30 – 7:00pm READINGS FROM POEMS ACROSS THE BIG SKY II, This House of Books, 224 N. Broadway, Billings.  

Poems Across the Big Sky II is a significant collection of Montana poets that came out late in 2016. Lowell Jaeger, the editor, wrote that the collection is an “effort to uncover hidden talent, to combine novice poets and acknowledged poets, to pay homage to Montana’s many voices, many poems.” Billings writers are well-represented. Come to hear your neighbors share their poetry of our place. This House of Books, from 5:30 PM to 7 PM. We gratefully acknowledge the effort of Corby Skinner, who wrote the Humanities Montana grant that allows Lowell Jaeger to attend our event.


I Was a Waitress for One Night

For one night I lived out a small fantasy. I got to be a waitress.

You might be thinking (especially if you’ve worked in restaurants) that my fantasy is a bit absurd naive. Difficult customers, low pay, other unappealing aspects too numerous to mention–where’s the fantasy in that?

It’s probably because sometime when I was small and in the I-can-be-tricked-into-doing-chores phase of development, my mom convinced me it was cool to set the table.

How I managed to make it through my teen years, college, and grad school and never work in a restaurant, I don’t know. I guess I assumed I didn’t have enough experience. Being a waitress has been a fantasy of mine simply because it was something I’d never done.

The details of how I found myself being a waitress are not super important. The easiest way to explain it is to say that I had to do it for a job, and also that I worked at a nonprofit (fundraising, donor appreciation, you get the idea).

The restaurant, a small establishment downtown, reminded me of something you might see in a city much bigger than ours. Painted brick, hardwood floors, high ceilings, a stylized logo across one of the view windows. Inside, empty, except for the musician warming up and a man behind the bar drying glasses, I was immediately put to work preparing for the patrons to arrive. And as I worked I was struck by the artistry already creeping into the experience. White tablecloths covered unused tables to make lines of symmetrical squares. Silverware was wrapped in napkins folded like origami then placed on plates, each at exactly the same angle. Even the font on the menu was beautiful, clean, precise.

The man behind the bar and two other gentleman (henceforth referred to by their roles: The Sommelier, The Apprentice, and The Chef) worked the restaurant that night and brought their individual artistries to the experience. I learned that in addition to his extensive wine knowledge, The Sommelier was a painter, whose work was hanging on the restaurant’s walls. I watched The Apprentice nimbly dice something green and fragrant into pieces so fine they stuck under my fingernails when I was allowed to garnish the entrees.The Chef magicked a gelee that tasted and felt like soup-Jello in my mouth, and made me feel nostalgia for some comforting down-home experience from my past I knew I’d had but couldn’t remember.

As The Waitress, I floated between tables and removed dishes in a tempered, tai-chi fashion–a rhythm that rarely characterizes my movements in a normal day. Confidence came from somewhere, and I found myself joking with the patrons, caring about their needs. I was serving them.

Being allowed into this world for one night, I developed an appreciation for food and its production in the way I can appreciate a cellist who attacks her instrument during an allegro, or a poet who selects a word for the way it feels coming out of her mouth. And in the feeling of serving others, I felt the immediate satisfaction of delivering something to someone, in this case, a six course meal, six works of art, and was witness to the experience of that art.

Spending the evening with The Sommelier, The Apprentice, and The Chef, I was in concert with artists, each of us connected by our own appreciation of that which we find beautiful, clean, precise.

The Chef joked that the restaurant was hiring. Did I need a job? He knew a guy. And for a moment I seriously considered the offer, then wondered if being in this world night after night would make it lose some of its splendor. For the sake of holding onto the feeling, for engaging in art for art’s sake, for being reminded of that truism, I don’t think I’ll ever take him, or anyone, up on the offer to work in a restaurant.

Farewell to the Movies

I went to a movie for the first (and probably last) time since I sustained a TBI. I have been feeling better in a lot of ways and the return to normalcy has almost been insipid. Until I stepped through the theater doors I had almost forgotten the various ways I’ve altered my life to accommodate my various needs.

On the other side of the double doors a screen just feet short of IMAX proportions loomed. Images flashed in bright colors. I wished I’d brought my sunglasses. By the time the previews started the theater shook with sound. I couldn’t discriminate between background music and sound effects. It was so loud I started to have a panic attack.

We almost left the theater but, thankfully, the actual movie was quieter. To be fair, I expected some sensory overload. I mean, we did elect to see Captain America: Civil War. But as I sat there, I began to wonder–was I really more sensitive to the movie-going experience or had something changed?

A cursory google search suggests I’m not the first person to have an issue with noise at the theater. I think what fascinated me more was thinking about why movies are louder, brighter and more visually stimulating–are we really in need of these extreme sensory experiences to feel stimulated?

According to industry guru Randy Thom, the answer is no. In an article for FilmSound.org her writes:

The problem seems to me to be an aesthetic one, not a technical one. If I as a sound editor or mixer am presented with thirty solid minutes of visuals involving gunfire, vehicle chases, screaming people, explosions, etc., what am I supposed to do? Play it all quietly in deep reverb as if it were a dream?

Badly designed films are unrelentingly loud. Badly designed films don’t take advantage of dynamic range. They are as silly as a newspaper would be if it were printed entirely in capital letters. Great roller coaster rides last a few minutes (not thirty), and set up each fast moment with a slow one. They bring you back to where you started, but with a new perspective. Film makers who resort to screaming at the audience continuously for two reels are desperate film makers grasping at straws.

One of the rationales (excuses) one often hears for designing long film sequences with non-stop in-your-face action is that the so-called “MTV generation” demands it.

Wrong. Young people today demand what they always have: something worth spending their time on, something interesting.

I couldn’t agree more. On a recent episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour where they discussed Captain America, these sentiments were echoed when they addressed the simple yet compelling tension created by characters arguing. I don’t know about you but I experience various sympathetic nervous system reactions during an argument, not unlike the ones film makers are trying to create when they blow up buildings and choreograph impossible car chases. My mirror cells were firing during this argument–my blood pressure rose, my skin was hot–and the experience was very satisfying (it seems law dramas figured this out a long time ago). It makes me think the movie industry is trying too hard to capture my attention.

And yet, the interesting movies, the ones often lacking fight scenes and special effects, I’m not compelled to watch in a theater. I can’t justify the expense, and my sweatpants are too damn comfortable.

I admire movie-makers. I’m married to one. I appreciate the countless hours that go into making a film. But I think from now on I’ll be appreciating movies from my modest and delightfully muted TV screen.

What’s in a Name?

“Reader” By h.koppdelaney, via Flickr
“Reader” By h.koppdelaney, via Flickr

Nameless here for evermore.” – The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe

Recently I got married, and in the moments when I wasn’t deciding where my grandmother would sit during the ceremony, or trying to remember if I ate lunch that day, a quandary of many female writers weighed on my mind–once married, should I publish using my married name?

Many writers or dispensers of writing advice will tell you NOT to publish under your married name because, frankly, statistics are not in your favor. You could become Mrs. Fabulous-Last-Name (hyphenated, of course) only to find yourself divorced within five to ten years with that pesky pen name following you from book cover to book cover as a reminder of your ex.

Others will tell you not to take your partner’s name, particularly if they will be publishing too.  I always thought this argument was a little backwards. I’m sure Tabitha King has had some success because of her famous husband. And the Brownings literary success seemed mutually beneficial too. Shouldn’t having the same name as your famous partner help to boost your own success?

Before deciding whether or not to take my partner’s name, let’s take a look at the name I have: Ashley Johnson.

Do you know how many Ashley Johnson’s there are in the world? I was even a member of a Facebook group dedicated to the name that has thousands of members (which has since mysteriously disappeared from my profile).

Do you remember Chrissy form the TV Show Growing Pains? That actress is named Ashley Johnson.

Not only was “Ashley” the most popular girls’ name in 1991 and 1992, the surname “Johnson” is downright boring. For that matter it’s not even mine. My Irish ancestors used the name to come to America at least a century ago. I could be an O’Malley or a Kelly for all I know.

If you need another reason, I had a nightmarish nickname: Big Johnson.

Some of my fellow writers suggested I abandon my entire name and take on a new identity, complete with vague ethnic origins, a signature handshake, and subtle adjustments to my gait. The name they concocted for me was good. Too good, in fact, to share, in case I decide to use it to write erotica or science fiction.

These reasons aside, I’ve chosen to take my partner’s name (albeit selfishly) because I like it better than mine. To me it sounds literary. It sounds like the person I want to be.

And, I figure it can’t hurt throwing my middle initial in there. It worked for J. K. Rowling.

Stonecoast’s Faculty Blog’s Literary Moments of 2012

Here’s  a post I wrote for my other blogging gig, check it out.

Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing Blog

It’s that time of year when the world makes lists: best-of, top-this, best-that. In the tradition of fostering reflection, the Stonecoast Faculty Blog has come up with our own end-of-year list, our Literary Moments of 2012 (in no particular order). Have some literary moments of your own? We’d love to read them—just leave them in the comments below.

No Pulitzer Awarded for Fiction

Pencils dropped last April when the Pulitzer judges did not award a prize for fiction. The Pulitzer judges have withheld an award for fiction 11 times, the last time being in 1977. Three finalists were identified for the 2012 prize: Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, and The Pale King by David Foster Wallace.”The three books were fully considered, but in the end, none mustered the mandatory majority for granting a prize, so no prize was awarded,” said Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer…

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When Artists Retire

image courtesy of The Philip Roth Society

Last week, several American news outlets reported that novelist Philip Roth had written his last book.

Here is an excerpt from an article posted on Salon.com:

Roth said that at 74, realizing he was running out of years, he reread all his favorite novels, and then reread all his books in reverse chronological order. “I wanted to see if I had wasted my time writing,” he said. “And I thought it was rather successful. At the end of his life, the boxer Joe Louis said: ‘I did the best I could with what I had.’ This is exactly what I would say of my work: I did the best I could with what I had.

“And after that, I decided that I was done with fiction. I do not want to read, to write more,” he said. “I have dedicated my life to the novel: I studied, I taught, I wrote and I read. With the exclusion of almost everything else. Enough is enough! I no longer feel this fanaticism to write that I have experienced in my life.”

As an artist at the beginning of my career, Roth’s statements seem hard to believe. With more books to read than I can count, and story ideas that keep me awake at night, how could a lifetime be possibly long enough to read everything I want to read and write everything I want to write?

Roth’s statements bring to light a great debate or paradox for many artists: is being an artist a job or a calling?

Continue reading “When Artists Retire”

Cinderella Collection by Sephora: Playing Dress Up as an Adult

image courtesy of Sephora

Once upon a time, I was a little girl and I loved Disney. My toy-box wasn’t filled with blonde, blue-eyed Barbies, it was a museum of Disney cartoons in Mattel® form: Ariel, Jasmine, Belle.

I watched the movies, read the storybooks, wore the t-shirts, had the matching curtains and comforter for my bedroom (it was 1989, they were Little Mermaid). I lived in a replicated fantasy that Disney had created for me.

Then I grew up. I realized Ariel was swimming around in a seashell bra and had an alarmingly tiny waist. I watched as the Disney Princesses needed a Prince to come to their rescue. I saw the branding and merchandising take over with “princess culture” and felt puzzled, maybe even duped. Did Disney care about creating fantasies for me or did they just want me to buy the matching toothbrush to go along with my pajamas?

Continue reading “Cinderella Collection by Sephora: Playing Dress Up as an Adult”

Album Review: How We Hunger by Peddle Steal

I had the pleasure of meeting Dave Patterson, songwriter/bass guitarist for the aptly named band Peddle Steal when we were students together in the Stonecoast MFA program. He came to me when he’d heard about my third-semester project, Today’s Body, to ask me, “How’d ya do it?”

I told him I let myself get off track. I had an idea and it expanded, and it kept expanding because I let it: I was following inspiration.

He told me he was toying with writing some lyrics for his third semester project and I gave him a few pointers on how to survive the semester without going crazy.

Six months later I saw Dave again, and the first words out of his mouth were, “I produced an album.” His little lyrics idea had expanded into a recording project: the album How We Hunger.

Continue reading “Album Review: How We Hunger by Peddle Steal”

The Benefit of Knowing Artists

“I felt a twinge of regret that I wasn’t a writer or painter, someone special enough to be invited to talk with Gertrude, to sit near her in front of the fire, as Ernest did now, and speak of important things. I loved to be around interesting and creative people, to be part of that swell,” –excerpt from The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain

“Art Opening” by Vivian Chen via Flickr

My boyfriend pointed out to me recently that all my friends are famous. What he really meant was that several of the people I’ve grown up with have gone on to accomplish things in the public’s eye. I have a friend who works as an intern for the Seattle Symphony, I used to dance with a kid who had amazing pirhouettes; now he’s a New York based photographer who shoots Broadway stars, dancers, and occasionally, Abby Lee. My friend the jeweler just made a necklace for Lisa Kudrow. My boyfriend isn’t immune to the fame-brushing phenomenon; one of his friends is a World Fantasy, Nebula, and Hugo award winner. In short, there is no shortage of talented artists in our circle of acquaintances.

I’m not here to tell you that I think my friends and acquaintances are cooler than yours. Like Hemingway’s wife in McLain’s novel, it’s that I love “to be part of that swell.”

Continue reading “The Benefit of Knowing Artists”

First Friday Art Walk Opening Reception

A sincere thanks to those individuals who collaborated with me on the project that led to the art installation, Today’s Body. Come have a glass of wine and say hello, I’ll be at The Heart Opening from 5:00-8:00pm.


Friday, November 4th 5:00-8:00pm: First Friday Art Walk Opening Reception,  The Heart Opening, 227 Congress St, Portland, Maine, 04102

Today’s Body is a multimedia presentation that explores the relationship between words and images, using poetry, photography, and dance as complementary art forms. This collection is inspired by movement and the presence of being fully engaged in one’s physical state. Featuring design by Eric Drzewianowski and photography by Eric Warren.