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Writing Under a Western Sky

EOU Alumni Amelia Ettinger
Ettinger graduated from EOU’s Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program in 2021 after a 26-year career teaching Spanish and biology.

Garrett Christensen 

Home means something different to everyone. Amelia Ettinger, a 2021 MFA graduate, expresses home, or rather how to find home, through poetry in her 2020 collection “Learning to Love a Western Sky.”  

“It really is looking for home in many ways,” she said. “I think that a lot of the collection is a narrator’s voice of looking how to find home when you have been displaced from your original place of birth. It’s about maturing in a foreign land and how nature becomes a place of solace and renewal for the speaker.” 

Ettinger has a master’s degree in biology and taught Spanish and science at La Grande High School for 26 years. She worked on the collection, 50 poems in total, through 2019, and it was quickly picked up by Arlie Press. 

“Learning to Love a Western Sky” tackles themes of belonging and identity in an unfamiliar land along with human relationship to nature. Ettinger explained that the book carries on themes from her first collection, “Speaking Out of Time,” with a more mature voice and view of the world. 

“I wanted to start with Puerto Rico and then from there move into the internal angst that the displacement makes and into the mature woman,” she said. “There are a lot of poems that have to do with life in Eastern Oregon, but throughout all the themes, one thread that you can find is nature. Nature is where the voice in the poems finds redemption from whatever, whether it’s stress, melancholia, whatever it might be. Nature is the bond that brings the beauty into the voice,” she said.

A notable piece from the collection is “Vulgarization,” a commentary on the general harshness and divisiveness of modern political discourse. The idea struck while she was mountain biking. 

“I really like what it says. Even though it’s talking about something so negative, the narrator has hope,” she said.

Arlie Press sent the collection to the 2021 Portland Book Festival, and Ettinger was invited to speak about her work.

“They treat you like a celebrity,” she said. 

She was interviewed by Erika Stevens alongside another author, Teresa K. Miller, in a block called “Homelands and Inheritance.” 

“[Erika] noticed some particular vocabulary where my science background shows through the poems. She asked me about the diaspora in Puerto Rico, so we discussed that and how does that feel to be gone from the island, particularly now that the island has been going through difficult times. So, that was the thread of home,” Ettinger said.  

The festival includes readings and books from other authors, including Louise Erdrich and Rita Dove and concluded with book signings at Powell’s Books, which was completely packed.

“It was just very heartwarming to do a book signing with that many people, because the Portland Book Festival brings a lot of readers, not only writers,” she said.

Even as a seasoned author, hearing the experiences and works of other professional writers left an impact on Ettinger.  

“You get so inspired by the amazing work that so many people are doing. You just don’t want it to end. You just want to sit there like, ‘Keep reading! Keep enlightening me,’” she said. 

The festival is not just for published authors, though. Ettinger believes that event could be both a learning experience and career opportunity for upcoming student authors. 

“Eastern Oregon students not only should participate in it hopefully one day, but they should start going and see what it is about and get to hear some amazing presentations,” she said. 

Currently, Ettinger has a new poetry collection, “Between the eyes of the lizard and the moon,” releasing in fall 2022 along with a new chapter book, “These Hollowed Bones,” though she is still searching for a publisher.

Q&A with Alexander Ortega

Second-year MFA student Alexander Ortega, who attends EOU while based in Salt Lake City, recently had his short story “A Real Man” published in the collection “Evergreen: Grim Tales & Verses from the Gloomy Northwest.” 

Q: What is your piece in the “Evergreen” anthology about?

A: The folkloric Coco Man (his anglicized New Mexican name; El Coco/El Cucuy in Mexico) has kidnapped the narrator, a 10-year-old boy. Yet this is the child abduction that has finally broken the Coco Man, and a boy makes him a deal to get back home. Shifting power dynamics complicate the matter more than either expect.

Q: What inspired you to write the piece?

A: I grew up with my gramita and great-uncles warning me, my brothers, mom, and aunts about the Coco Man. He’s a rhetorical tool to get children to behave or to play/prolong pranks on the entire family when you drive up in the middle of the night, in the tiny, rural town of El Rito! But once, according to my gramita, my great-grandparents got someone—maybe a neighbor or one of her uncles or something—to come to their house on or around Christmas, make her and her siblings say Catholic prayers, and insinuate that he’d take them away in a sack if they misbehaved. 

Q: How does it feel to submit your work for publication?

A: As far as the emotional end of the process, it’s really intimidating at first. You need a cover letter, often a bio, and to follow all the directions of submitting. But I promise, once you do your first one, it gets easier. There’s a lot of research involved, too. It behooves us to research the publication and the kind of work it publishes, its editorial staff, and the other aesthetic elements that may make work a good match for any given publication. Then, once you submit, you start again.

Q: What was significant about the first work you ever published?

A: The first work I published may best be described as a flash fiction triptych, called “Nubes,” that was published in “Moss,” a literary journal of the Pacific Northwest. For me, what’s significant about this triptych’s publication is the amalgamation of absurdist fabulism and my Chicano, Hispanic, and Mexican-American roots. Since my maternal grandparents are from Northern New Mexico and my paternal grandparents are from Northern Mexico, my cultural position as, functionally, a third-generation Chicano and third-generation Salt Laker infuses my harebrained premises, but allows me also to navigate what I hope is original imaginary territory.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on the short story/flash collection that will be my thesis! Herein, I’ll continue with my affinity for fabulism. One of the stories that will appear in this collection will be “Gramita’s House,” which “Quarterly West” published last year. You can read it at quarterlywest.com/issue-104-ortega.