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I’d waited months, nay years, for this moment. I was finally getting a tattoo and not just any tattoo but a tattoo of a Hamilton lyric after seeing the musical on broadway. In high school I was dead set on getting the Fall Out Boy lyric, “I can write it better than you ever felt it,” in dainty script across my rib cage. I was introduced to their music at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (or PAFA) summer camp in middle school and ever since, their music was the lifeblood of my of young angsty want-to-be-artist soul. So after seeing them live and getting into college as an English major, I felt I needed something to commemorate both my love for this band and for writing. But that was a childish notion (that my mother said absolutely not to). I was 17, what did I know about anything? Plus, now at 22, I barely even listen to Fall Out Boy. But Hamilton — a Tony award winning, constantly sold out, people of color driven narrative — was never going to go out of style.

Now after spending months scrolling through BuzzFeed articles about the best tattoo artists around Philadelphia and New York, I found the place, Bang Bang tattoo studio. The minimalist black and white building, the artist bios about how each person has carefully cultivated one skill or another, and of course the owner, Keith McCurdy, nicknamed Bang Bang for reasons I didn’t bother to google, who’s tattooed everyone from Rihanna to Adele. This was it. This was the place I was going to get my tattoo. After months of scrolling through images of script, watercolor, and portraits, the day was here. I should have been excited. More… “Like You’re Running Out of Time”

Byshera Williams is a Senior English Major at Drexel University and the current Associate Editor for The Smart Set.

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I knew Walden was a dangerous book from the first few pages.

“The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad” I read, “and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior.”

I remember looking up when I read these words to see if anyone was watching me. I was alone, sitting in the English Resource Center, which was a small library controlled by the English teachers in my high school. On most days, there were a handful of students hanging around — all members of an unofficial clique of mostly freshmen and sophomores who liked reading and discussing books. This is where the literary magazine Savannah was cut and pasted together, literally, twice a year, and where six of us hatched a school newspaper in our sophomore year. Kids came to the ERC to read, hang out, think revolutionary thoughts, and practice our best avant-garde poses. There were several second-hand couches and chairs, which together formed a sad little lounge area; an adjoining office with a mimeograph machine, typewriters and filing cabinets; and of course, the books, which were displayed in several creaky free-standing bookshelves that leaned forward from the white-painted cement-block walls, threatening to collapse into the center of the room from the sheer weight of intellectual curiosity. The shelves were jammed with novels and literary nonfiction — some philosophy and history too — and the air in the ERC always carried a faint whiff of paperback, that mouldering acidic smell that any collector of books will immediately recognize. I had thumbed through nearly all of these books, discovering for the first time names like Hemingway, Joyce, T.S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard. More… “Steal This Book”

Daniel Vollaro is writer and teacher of writing whose fiction and nonfiction has been published in Boomer Cafe, Blue Moon Literary and Art Review, Crania, Creo, Fairfield Review, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Paperplates, and Timber Creek Review.

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Michael Andreasen’s first book, The Sea Beast Takes a Lover, is one part Twilight Zone, a hint of Twin Peaks, with a dash of Booshian surrealism. Anchoring his short stories is one of my favorite sensibilities in film and literature: the extraordinary in the ordinary, whether that is making the banal fantastic or normalcy perverse. Below, Andreasen, graciously addresses some of the questions I had about Sea Beast, gearing up for his first book, and his inspiration.

More… “Sailing with Michael Andreasen”

Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.

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“Well, what does sex mean to you?” he asked. I laughed. Kyle repeated the question, “Seriously,” he said.

We were young and 20, saddled up next to each other in my twin bed. The metallic frame chirped as he propped up on his elbow and stared at me. I stared at my ceiling, the textured drywall, the swirls in pale green. My bedroom in Pittsburgh was different from my bedroom at home where my mother and I had painted the walls a bluish green, sycamore.

“You’re tense,” Kyle said and then began typing his coarse fingers along my forearm. When I took his hand in mine and guided him to softer longer strokes, he pressed harder.

It was only our second date but I felt as if I were always playacting with Kyle, like I had to adhere to a script. In the past, when I’d told people that I had never had sex before (not for religious reasons, just because), it was never a big deal. But Kyle seemed to think that it was, which was why we had stopped. It made me nervous. I had sprung it on him; that much was true. Surely, I owed him that. More… “Geography”

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communist symbol as a question mark
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Until January 27, 1973, all young men were required to register for the Selective Service and were eligible to be drafted into military service. A month after I had turned 18 in 1955, I received my letter telling me to report for the mandatory Selective Service physical and registration . . . After my physical examination, I stood totally naked in a line with 24 other young men on the third floor of my Selective Service Center, when a sergeant with a clipboard approached and asked several people to step forward. My name was the first he called. There were other names, but I paid no attention after he called mine.

I had been poked and prodded. I had peed in a cup, bent and spread my cheeks, and had my testicles held while I coughed. I had no doubt about the physical exam. I was on the University of Illinois wrestling team, lifted weights every day, and was in excellent physical condition. I looked forward to my second year at the Chicago’s Navy Pier Campus of the University. More… “College Manifesto”

Mel Goldberg earned an MA in English. He has taught high school and college literature and writing in California, Illinois, Arizona and as a Fulbright Exchange Teacher at Stanground College in Cambridgeshire, England. With his life partner, artist Bev Kephart, they sold most of their possessions in Sedona, Arizona, and traveled in a small motor home for seven years throughout the US, Canada, and Mexico. They now live in the village of Ajijic in Jalisco, Mexico. His stories and poetry now appear online and in print in The United States, The United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, and Mexico. His book of haiku, The Weight of Snowflakes, is available from Red Moon Press.

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A man sitting inside a woman's ovaries, reading a book.
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In the early ’80s, my mother — barely 30, but already divorced — took a children’s lit course at community college. We were living at the time in a rented house next to an old tuberculosis sanatorium that had been turned into a home for the developmentally disabled, and every night, while the old buildings on the hill above us were lit like spaceships, my mother read in a small pool of light, her feet tucked beneath her, occasionally hooking a fallen strand of hair behind her ear. My brother and I read with her: Watership Down and Charlotte’s Web and Where The Wild Things Are. More… “Are You There God? It’s Me, Crenshaw.”

Paul Crenshaw’s essay collection This One Will Hurt You is forthcoming from The Ohio State University Press in spring 2019. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, anthologies by Houghton Mifflin and W.W. Norton, Oxford American, Ecotone, Brevity, North American Review, and Glimmer Train, among others. @PaulCrenstorm

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Late one night on a hot summer five years ago, I found myself in a room packed floor to ceiling with bunk beds and sweating human bodies. This was no prison or hippie commune, mind you; I had just embarked on the Camino de Santiago — a grueling journey of 800 kilometers that starts from a small village in the south of France, crosses northern Spain, and ends a mere 90 kilometers from the Atlantic ocean in the town of Santiago de Compostela. In medieval times, the road to Santiago (as the name translates to) was a major pilgrimage route culminating at the town’s eponymous cathedral, which, legend has it, holds the remains of Saint James, one of Jesus’s apostles.

I am not religious, but neither were most of the thousands of people who would walk the Camino that summer. Unlike the ragged, world-weary, indulgence-seeking travelers of old, modern pilgrims come here clad in high-tech mountain gear for reasons ranging from the lofty to the prosaic. Among the people I met at various points were: Catholics looking for divine communions; garden-variety spiritualists on the hunt for energy fields and epiphanies; hedge fund managers in the throes of midlife reckonings; recent graduates desperate to ward off adulthood for as long as they could; and a slew of curious, more practically motivated characters hoping for a soulmate, weight loss, and cheap thrills.
More… “Millennial Sin”

Elitsa Dermendzhiyska is an entrepreneur in London who builds digital products, travels the world and studies mental health. In 2016, she took a break from business to research the links between genes, genius and madness. Her writing has appeared in the award-winning book Not Knowing: The Art of Turning Uncertainty into Possibility.

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That first blast of fall air can bring sensational reminders of good ol’-fashioned school days. If not received already, many will be getting an invitation to attend a school reunion this fall. Reaction to these invites, however, is often met with great angst. On balance, responses from alumni are less than sanguine and may be sour.

Considering going to a reunion could conjure up sundry emotions such as: “Why do I want to go back to see those jerks?” or “Nobody I hung out with will be there” or “I see the people I need to see in my life now” or “I would love to go, but what if I see (him/her) again; I just could not bear it.”

Certainly, such emotion is understandable, especially if it is your high school reunion — adolescence is a tough and awkward time for all. While Hollywood gave us the good feeling that we can overcome the deep and personal pain of those school days, as did members of The Breakfast Club, sticking one’s neck out in the schoolyard again is too much reality. More… “Reunited . . .”

Stephen F. Gambescia, professor of health services administration at Drexel, has perfect attendance at school reunions.

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Once we were mighty. Once we were legion. Once we reigned over colleges and universities like demigods. Well, OK, we English majors were never that important, except maybe in our own eyes. According to a report in the New York Times, degrees awarded in English at American universities fell from seven point six percent of the total in 1971 to three point one percent of the total in 2011 — which goes to show, I suppose, that the golden age was never quite so golden. Still, better the periphery than where we are now — the periphery of the periphery.

One of the less-happy consequences of my decision to major in English 40 years ago is that I haven’t met many (or any) people who share my enthusiasm for the writings of John Dryden. Another is that I make about as much money as a janitor and live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. I knew what I signed up for. My life sentence as an English major has taught me not to care overly much about what are laughingly called “the good things in life.” For better or worse, I can’t look at the glossy advertisements in The New Yorker without a feeling of cognitive dissonance. How could anyone who reads the poems and short stories and criticism in that magazine really want all that crap? If that’s a prejudice, the fault lies in me, not in my discipline, which includes plenty of practitioners with a somewhat more realistic financial outlook than my own. Anyway, for me, it’s less a discipline than a passion. I expect that that beleaguered three point one percent on campuses today feel much the same way. Against the advice of their parents, the social pressure of their peers, and the severely utilitarian direction of American society, they obdurately go on piling up their useless, unremunerative literary courses. See the trouble you get into when you listen to your soul? More… “English Majors’ Twilight”

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library. A collection of his essays, Culture Fever, was published in January.

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As a teacher of first-year writing since 1987, I have learned to share my passions with students. Sharing what really matters to you can lead to deep learning, but it can also involve emotional risk.

In a class that focuses on using research, writing, and re-writing to think about the connections between literary texts and our lives, I have chosen a theme I think about a lot: Deception. We read short stories in which characters deceive or are deceived. How many of these stories do you recognize? More… “Magic Class”

Fred Siegel teaches in the English and Philosophy Department at Drexel University. His writings have appeared in The Drama Review, Journal of Modern Literature, Kugelmass, When Falls the Coliseum, and Painted Bride Quarterly. He also performs magic shows in a variety of venues, and plays the role of “Fred” in the autobiographical performance, Man of Mystery. A copy of his doctoral dissertation, The Vaudeville Magic Act, 1880-1932, mysteriously appeared on eBay recently. He has lied for money in the Coney Island Sideshow (1989-90), and has been logging his dreams since 1993. He also does improvised performances with Comedysportz Philadelphia and Tongue & Groove. To read more, go to his Geekadelphia Profile.

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