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There are so many ways to tell a story. Every time I begin a book I consider how best to convey the tale; how I might expand the reader’s access to the emotional arc of the events. More than once I have chosen free verse as my structural vehicle, each time for a different reason.

In the case of WITNESS I envisioned the book as a trial with the speaking characters offering their testimony. I hoped to help the reader form a more balanced opinion of what transpired by presenting various points of view. No one character has all the answers nor knows the entire story. In my mind it was imperative to relate the events that way to avoid a single, prejudicial narrator.

My hope was to deliver the story in a series of rotating depositions. Poetry seemed the most concise and efficient method to invite the reader in, to allow the reader to identify with each speaker, even the ones they might not have wished to identify with, and to eliminate anything extraneous.DSC05673

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In part the characters in WITNESS grew out of the research. I needed certain characters to carry the different aspects and angles of the story I wanted to tell. Here’s the fun part. When I began to build my characters I took inspiration from a book of symbolism. I opened the book to the section on animals and assigned an animal profile to each character. By the time the book went through its final revisions, the vestiges of that animal phase had mostly vanished, but you can still see traces in certain names and personality traits.

Witness Post Card - Copy





The photograph of the man in the lower left corner of the WITNESS cover is meant to represent Johnny Reeves but in fact the photographs come from the Walter Dean Myers photograph collection, and the photo albums of the families of Edith and Herbert Langmuir, Dean Langmuir, and Joan Lacovara, relatives of an employee of Scholastic Inc.

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This is a very important question. The decision to capitalize “God” was deliberate. I am so delighted that you focused on not only the rare capitalization, but the character speaking at the time it occurs. You’ve come this far. I have complete faith that you have your own answer to this question. I’d be quite interested in learning what you think.



they sing together, this random gathering of women,

in rounds, in layers, making fertile harmonies.

ghosts loiter in the halls. spirits hover above

drinking the sound like a marvelous wine from a fine-stemmed goblet.

these women hardly know each other,

meeting once a week in the church’s dining room

down the hall from the sanctuary.

they arrive from their separate directions in their flannel shirts, their yoga pants, their long underwear.

the bitter air clings to them, painting their cheeks and

the tips of their noses. they strip off their outer clothes,

leave their boots in a long line on the metal grate, and pad, barefoot,

to form a circle in the wood-paneled room. within minutes

they are making a sound so exquisite the pastor in his office pauses, resting his hands on his cluttered desk.

the singers are oblivious to the effect, they are sailing on their ocean of sound.

toddlers attending the day care center in the church basement stop crying and wide-eyed,

the tears drying on their cheeks, they smile around the soggy plug of their thumbs.

the women open their mouths and their hearts.

the air dances with the dazzling communion of their spirits.

 glasses and bowls in the church kitchen store the vibrations for later

when a handful of congregants will gather to discuss the jangling needs of the world and

unknowingly, draw comfort from the harmony the singers have left behind.

the sopranos, the middles, the altos know nothing of this, or each other.

at the end of their two hours they re-wrap in hats, gloves, coats and scarves;

they pull on their boots warmed by the heat rising from the church’s furnace, and go their separate ways.

but the walls remember, the chairs remember,

and the toddlers downstairs at the day care center

take blissful naps, their little brains electric with  harmony.

karen hesse, february 6, 2015

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I’ll be reading this poem on November 21st and 22nd at the First Baptist Church in Brattleboro, Vermont as part of the Brattleboro Women’s Chorus’ 20th anniversary concert (I’ll be singing in the concert, too.). The poem, inspired by my first experience singing with a small portion of this large and harmonious group, is no longer true in the sense that many of these singers are “hardly” strangers anymore. If you’re going to be in Brattleboro this weekend, please join us.

Learning to paint snow

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I began painting a little over a year ago. This is one of my early attempts at depicting snow.

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Join a writing group (either on-line or around a real table–or both). Travel, when you can, to writing conferences where you will meet interested (and interesting) fellow writers, editors and agents. Perhaps you will make a connection at a conference that will lead to an invitation to submit your work. Make note of the houses publishing books you admire. Consider how your work might fit with those publishers’ lists. Let editors know why you would like to work specifically with them. And keep writing! If you spend all of your creative energy waiting to hear from editors you will miss the opportunity to perhaps generate something even more exciting and polished than your present project. So get to work on your next manuscript while your first one is out to market. I wish you all the best of luck in your quest.

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 I most certainly did. The type of poetry that uses the shape of the poem to illustrate the idea behind the poem is called shape or concrete poetry. Perhaps you’d like to try writing some, too.



Life is a challenge. It tests us each day, whether we’re aware of it or not. Some days we disappoint. Some days we do so much good. Most days are a mix of the two.

With each decision we make, we have the opportunity to grow. It takes courage to live. But the rewards are so numerous and so diverse. They can be as minor as a “good job” offered by someone you respect. Or something more public like scoring in a game, or performing at a recital.

It would be foolish to submit an assignment if you hadn’t done the work. It takes courage to share that assignment with your peers even if you know you’ve given it your best.

Have the courage to make mistakes and then the courage to learn from them. Reading provides an excellent space where you can witness characters making choices and suffering through the consequences of those choices. How many times have you wanted to yell at a character, “NO! DON’T DO THAT!”?

Listen to that voice when it’s trying to guide you. It is very wise. It will help you to be brave without being foolish.

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For a brief period, before I set down a single word, as I began imagining the project, I referred to it as The Klan Book. It didn’t take long, however, for the scope of the book to widen. I began my serious research for WITNESS in the courtroom, watching the judge preside over hearings on numerous cases. WITNESS, essentially, is a trial, where the cast of characters testify regarding what they saw, thought, felt, and heard when the Klan came to town. Because that was my concept for the book from the beginning, it bore that title all the way through the writing process. Other books may have experienced a dozen different title changes, but WITNESS, from the time I started writing, never changed titles.


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