“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”

Anais Nin

Edited and compiled by Robert Sward

Beyond Cats and Chocolate: Two Writers Learn through Friendship and Work

by Suki Wessling

I met Penny Cagan at the Vermont College Post-Graduate Writers Conference. It was the first conference---or workshop, for that matter---that had attracted me for years. My last writing group had descended into psychotherapy on the cheap---"What does this story say about Suki's relationship with her mother?"---rather than real critique. But I hoped that this conference would be different. At least, I assumed, there would be no beginning writers there who would ask what point of view was.

I was a fiction writer at the time. I was suspicious of poetry and poets. The former because I'd been taught very badly in high school that poetry was "serious," and I'd taken refuge in fiction, which could be "fun" as well as meaningful. The latter because MFA programs seem to foster this mutual suspicion, in spite of the many cross-over writers who are among our greats. There was a poet in my fiction workshop at Michigan, and without fail she was critiqued with a sort of patronizing pity---"her images are beautiful, but the plot doesn't hold together."

So there I was in Vermont, in the middle of a room where everyone seemed to know each other. For the most part, they did. Most of the students were former MFA grads of the college. There were chairs set up for a reading. Sitting alone in a sea of empty chairs was a striking woman in black. "I have always felt like a head without a body," was one of the first things she said to me. Then we found out that we both had beloved cats, and loved chocolate. Not much more is needed for a friendship.

What grew from my friendship with Penny, however, has been much more than girlish chats (we've had many of those), support through hard times (I think we rate well there, too), and loyal enthusiasm for what the other is doing. Penny introduced me---again---to poetry. This time, the right way. Penny's love of poetry is deep and instinctive. She can keep up with the best of them in literary analysis, but when you ask her what she likes in a poem, she tells it from the soul. She's introduced me to some of my favorite poets, suggested I read others I didn't care for. In every case, I've learned from her long love affair with poetry.

Early on in our friendship, when I had a small graphic design business, I confided in Penny that I'd always had the dream of starting a publishing company. "Then you'll publish my first book," she said matter-of-factly. It seemed silly to me---she'd been published in many fine journals and had a growing reputation. Why have a novice publisher put out her book? But I thought it would be fun, so we put together a chapbook of what I called her "city poems"---her work that reflected her great love of New York City. It was a great thrill and also instructive---never again will I hand-bind 250 copies of a book with a rivet gun!

I assumed that Penny would go on to publish with a larger publisher, as I made plans to go forward with my small company. She did, in fact, start working with a very well-known publisher on her book, but she felt that her work was just getting lost in a large bureaucracy. Once again, she came to me to publish her work. I was honored but also wary of the responsibility. I warned her that I wouldn't be able to get the distribution that the large company would have, that the Chatoyant name on a book would mean nothing to people who didn't know her work. But she had loved the intimate process of her first book so much, that she convinced me it was the way she wanted to go.

Penny's book And Today I Am Happy is now on Chatoyant's list, and doing well. Penny is still working and living in New York City. I am now a mother of a small child (with another on the way) and going on with my publishing. Our friendship thrives. I know that my relationship with other authors will probably not be one founded first on friendship, but I hold my relationship with Penny as an example of how writers can work together, teach each other, and also be friends. Penny has never let any professional disagreement we might have get in the way of our friendship, and I continue to learn from her and enjoy her company---whether we're talking about writing and publishing or cuddling with our cats and a good cup of hot cocoa!


Suki Wessling is a writer and publisher of Chatoyant, a small poetry press. Her work has been published in a variety of literary journals, and she has a great stash of rejected novels on her hard drive.

Back to Perihelion