Widgets Magazine
A very Virginian Stegner session with Courtney Kampa and Michael Sears
Courtesy of Stanford Creative Writing

A very Virginian Stegner session with Courtney Kampa and Michael Sears

Last Wednesday’s Stegner Reading, by a funny twist of fate, featured two writers with connections to my hometown. Michael Sears, the fiction fellow who read on Wednesday, once worked as a personal trainer in Charlottesville, Virginia, and earned his MFA there. The poetry fellow, Courtney Kampa, also hails from Virginia. It turns out she’s married to singer/songwriter Will Anderson (of Parachute fame), who grew up about five houses down the street from me. My mother insists she had told me about Will and his wife moving to the area. She may be right, but it was still a pleasant surprise for me to see Will and meet Courtney last week.

“Courtney [Kampa] is a clasically-trained ballerina, it says here,” J. Bruce Fuller joked in his introduction of Kampa, adding “and I believe her.” He spoke of the litheness of Kampa’s poems, many of which center on topics of sisterhood, and Kampa’s own sisters. Her book, “Our Lady of Not Asking Why,” is dedicated to her many sisters. When she thanked Fuller for his introduction, Kampa was close to tears.

“She’s so cute,” I heard somebody whisper as Kampa approached the podium. Although true, I found this remark somewhat belittling. Kampa’s blond hair and perfect red lips did present a Taylor Swift-esque vision — but I couldn’t help thinking that her work is not in the realm of “cute.” To stand in front of a room and read words that you have written, especially words that pierce the core of your own self, that bring tears to your own eye — this is no small feat. This is the realm of the brave, bright and badass. Not to mention, Kampa’s mastery of language and fluency with human emotions put the likes of Taylor Swift to shame.

In her first poem of the evening, “Bella Figura,” Kampa described a dance in which the ballerinas all perform with bare breasts. Her sister is one of the dancers. She showed us the inevitable shock that radiates through the audience, gazing at this combination of “red silk skirt and sudden nudity.” Even the conductor was beside himself, his gestures “frantic with this news of what a woman’s body could contain.” The poem danced between breathtaking descriptions of what must have been a truly stunning performance — “the light has yet to notice it’s been torn in half behind her” — and lighthearted details, like how the dancers smell of “hairspray and wedgie-guard.”

The poem was also steeped in sisterly love, as Kampa seemed both protective and in awe of her half-nude sister on stage. She described a man seated next to her in the audience, “rating each dancer’s nipples on a scale from one to ten … Any minute now my sister steps on stage, and he will score her as he has the others, and I’ll hear it.”

Her final poem honored another sister — Kampa’s youngest sister, who is adopted. In “Ars Biologica,” she gave us care in the form of nail polish. The colors she chose, as gifts for her sister, are “‘Not Really a Waitress, Plasma and If You’ve Got It, Haunt It.” We learned that these polishes are “a reparation for last week’s purchase, Miso Happy With This Color, which I painted on your toes and still feel bad about.” Kampa tenderly examined what it means to have an adopted sibling, a person who looks nothing like you but is still a part of you. Her line about her sister’s birth mother was particularly moving: “Forgive me, for forgiving her, for giving you away.”

Masculinity took its turn in the second half of the evening. In her introduction of Michael Sears, Second Year Stegner Fellow Jenn Alandy Trahan invoked another Michael — Michael Chabon. In “Manhood for Amateurs,” Chabon writes: “This is an essential element of the business of being a man: to flood everyone around you in a great radiant arc of bullshit.” Sears’s characters, though they appear to fit into traditional masculine roles, are not afraid of being vulnerable. They know that “true power doesn’t come from mansplaining — but if Michael’s characters ever did, it would be beautiful,” Trahan said, praising Sears’s eloquence and depth of writing.

“That was, like, the nicest stuff anybody’s ever said of me,” Michael Sears stated softly before beginning his reading. The story he shared with us was about “a guy named Christopher who works in a gym.” (A gym in Charlottesville, to be precise.) Sears also told us, “I hope you realize that this story will follow this shirt very closely.” He wore a tight-fitting, lace-backed, black tank top — a great way to show off some very impressive biceps, and perhaps a way of letting us know that Christopher, the personal trainer, was going to be a man with many layers.

A main focus of the story is Christopher’s fraught relationship with his boss, a man only ever referred to as “Coach.” The men are eating breakfast together in one scene, and Coach comments on a young woman: “‘Her pussy must be so …’ he looked at me as he often did when he was searching for a word. 


The audience laughed heartily at this word choice. I was too busy feeling for Christopher, who reacts to Coach later in the scene: “I smiled, nodded, slightly confused at first, then more and more.”

When Sears took the story into the gym, it is on a Monday — the day when they squat. Christopher describes the cast of characters: “Our 9 a.m. clients are middle-aged men. Financial analysts at Wells Fargo, vets, doctors, head chefs. Big Bill is the bouncer at Rapture.” (Rapture is a restaurant and nightclub on Charlottesville’s downtown mall.) These are Coach’s favorite clients, and they enjoy goading him into squatting alongside them. In the scene we observed, Coach, “shaking his head at the stupidity of it — maybe theirs, maybe his own,” allows himself to be pressured into it.

Christopher is spotting, and he watches Coach carefully, seeing in his face “that hard singleness of purpose, which is the opposite of personality.” He says to us: “Let me tell you something. It is my favorite thing to do, to watch the face of the man as he squats.” He describes “the plates rattling like a cabinet full of china,” and the lifter rising, “like a man suffering a stroke on an escalator.” It was by far the most poetic thing I had ever heard about squatting, or any exercise, for that matter. This is Sears at work — it isn’t just his own writing, which is precise and beautiful. It’s also the depth of the character he’s created, for Christopher is a man who isn’t afraid to see the poetry in another man squatting under prodigious quantities of weight.

Our window into Christopher’s thoughts can be summed up nicely in the story’s ending line: “I don’t like Coach. Sometimes I hate him. But other times, watching him emerge from under those hundreds of pounds, I feel for him the tenderness of a mother.”


Contact Claire Thompson at clairet ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Claire Thompson

Claire Thompson is a coterm M.A. student in Environmental Communication. In her undergrad, she studied Earth Systems and Creative Writing. She loves food, mopeds, and mountains especially. Reach out to Claire via email at clairet 'at' stanford.edu.