An Interview with Matthew Olzmann

by Nicholas Howard

Along with editing Hunger Mountain, students in the Publishing and Fieldwork class also met with each of our visiting writers. Our first guest was Matthew Olzman on Friday October 5th

Matthew is the author of two collections of poems, Mezzanines, which was selected for the Kundiman Prize, and Contradictions in the Design, both from Alice James Books.  He’s received fellowships from Kundiman, the Kresge Arts Foundation, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.  His poems, stories, and essays have appeared inBest American Poetry, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Necessary Fiction, Brevity, Southern Review, Tin House, and elsewhere.  He teaches at Dartmouth College and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

He was extremely generous with his time throughout his visit. He sat with us for an hour fielding questions and listening to us speak about our own work. He then joined us for lunch in Café Anna and spent some time in the afternoon with second year students in the Poetry and CNF seminar course. That night we all returned to the Café to hear him read, along with our professor Justin Bigos

As the year went on, I continued to explore his work while trying out new forms on my own, amongst them, a series of letter poems addressed to various members of my extended family. When I saw that Matthew had written some letter poems of his own, I reached out to him, and this is where our conversation opens. 

Nicholas Howard: I would like to begin with some of your most recently published poems, the ones in the Spring 2019 issue of Waxwing. Two of them are named as letters. Could you please share your thinking behind that distinction? What inherent qualities arise when prefacing an address as a letter? 

Matthew Olzmann: In those, the title frames the poem as a letter, but each title is also used to provide some type of background information. In “Letter Written While Waiting in Line at Comic Con,” the title locates the reader in a specific place. In “Letter to the Person Who, During the Q&A Session After the Reading, Asked for Career Advice,” the title locates the reader inside a particular situation and contextualizes the monologue that follows. Both of these are part of a collection of (mostly) epistolary poems I’ve been working on for the past seven-eight years.

NH: Where there any letters in that collection that surprised you?

MO: I hope every poem surprises me. Occasionally, I set out believing I know what I’m going to write, but my initial expectations rarely align with the final results. Also, I tend to abandon a lot of poems. A large part of my revision process is going back through early drafts and then deciding what I’m still excited about.  Usually, the ones I’m most drawn to and feel most enthusiastic about continuing to work on are those that leave some room for discovery, improvisation, detours, and an unexpected strangeness.

NH: In “Letter to the Person Who, During the Q&A Session After the Reading, Asked for Career Advice” you are speaking to a specific person while also exploring the collective career expectations. In “Letter Written While Waiting in Line at Comic Con” you open describing the depths of Science Fiction culture to then turn and have the speaker address a love.  Would agree in both instances you begin with an inciting incident or concept and expand into the heart or core of the poem? If so, how is it to a poet’s benefit to use this mechanism? To a reader’s? 

MO: Yes. I think that the movement from a particular moment to something with larger figurative intentions is something of many of my poems reach for, and that’s probably true of many poems in general.  One of my teachers, Stephen Dobyns, used to always tell me, “Subject is pretext.” What he meant is that we often begin by writing about one subject, something local or specific (what you’ve called the “inciting incident”) as a way to talk about something less tangible or conceptual. As for the benefit of using this approach? As both a reader and a writer, I’m often interested in how a poem acts as a type of metaphor. With this type of approach, I’m forced to think more figuratively than I usually would.  I’m a naturally distracted person, and when I find the poem moving from that inciting incident to something (anything) else, I’m often able to locate a parallel resonance between those two points. 

NH: Working in this style of having the speaker address someone or several people in a poem is something you have done in earlier poems. Several of the ones in Contradictions In The Design work in a similar fashion. What did you learn from those poems and how did you build upon that knowledge in these letters?

MO: My earliest attempts at creative writing probably resembled unmailed letters. These weren’t poems or stories; they were just things, fragments, thoughts, etcetera. But most of them had a specific addressee in mind. They were things I wanted to say but couldn’t. Or things I wish I said differently. So, I think that element has been with my writing from the beginning.  If I’ve learned anything from repeatedly using that approach, it would probably have to do with a broadening understanding of the context needed to locate a reader at the beginning of a poem. In making any poem, the poet has to consider what information to include and what to omit. Every poem has an implied story or situation that extends beyond the frame, that exists prior to the first line, and the writer has to decide how much of that the reader actually needs to know. But the epistle occasionally presents this problem in a heightened manner: there are times when the reader and the addressee actually need different types of information. 

NH: In an interview you gave to my mentor and professor Justin Bigos back in 2012 you stated that you feel the voice of a poem has to be considerate of the reader. Is this difficult when the other person, the one being addressed, is off the page and does not speak directly in the poem? 

MO: What I meant by that comment was that, in making a poem, you’re trying to create an experience for the reader.  I don’t find that to change much in relation to who is being addressed. The type of experience might change; when using the direct address, we create the illusion that we’re talking to someone other than the reader. But it’s an illusion; the reader or the idea of a reader—a general anonymous, figure not addressed in the poem—is still out there somewhere. In most poems, the line of communication goes poet to reader (or speaker to reader), and that doesn’t really change. What does change is where the reader is positioned in relation to the “conversation.” Often, with epistles or other types of direct address, the reader might be situated as someone outside of a conversation in-progress; they’re listening in as an eavesdropper of sorts. And the issue of context might be complicated if the speaker and addressee have a long, shared history which the reader does not have access to. But overall, the same basic impulses guide the poem regardless of who the addressee is or where that addressee is located: you’re trying to create an engaging experience for the person who is reading the work.

NH: In the title poem for that collection you mention the Magic Eye posters and write,  “posters where if you stare long enough / you’ll swear an image pushes through. Don’t believe it.” You describe the image or images as “lapses in reason.” 

Another writer I love Elisa Gabbert also brings these posters up in her essay “What Poetry Is.” In reference to reading poetry she writes, “You must enter a state where you come to understand meaning-resistant arrangements of language as having their own kind of meanings. It’s quite similar to those Magic Eye posters from the ’90s.” To connect your two pieces, does reading poetry require some lack of reason? 

MO: I don’t know if the act of reading itself requires the reader to have a lack of reason, but there is something about the experience of reading a poem that seems to transcend reason. Though a poem is made of language, poetry often guides us to a place that ordinary, discursive language can’t or doesn’t. It’s why a poem about yearning, wonder, or dread doesn’t simply say “I feel some things.” It tries to take that idea and make it more tangible, either by dramatizing it, or by creating a figurative moment that makes the feeling accessible, surprising and new. 

NH: I’ll reference the interview you gave to Justin again. In it you mention being drawn to poems containing empathy because they do not take the reader’s attention for granted and foster an experience for the reader within the poem. Is there something about poetry specifically that it can do this? 

MO: Writing poems requires a type of empathy because you’re trying to imagine how someone who is not you will experience the work.  Reading poetry, or any literary work, depends on (or even creates) a type of empathy as a reader experiences the world through someone else. It’s an act of the imagination allows you to experience someone else’s event, to feel through someone else, or inhabit the world through someone else’s words. I’m personally drawn to how this works in poems—that particular effect being produced in such a compressed and swift manner—but I think that connection and experience is true for all literature, not just poetry.

NH: One group of writers I like to be mindful of is those who have not pursued an MFA and are trying to enter the writing community in other ways. Do you have any advice specifically for them as they try to share their stories with the world? 

MO: Obviously, you don’t need an MFA to be a good writer. You don’t need any kind of degree to sit at your computer and write a poem. You don’t need a degree to send that poem to a magazine, or for an editor to accept that poem, or for some anonymous person on the other side of the country to read the magazine and love that poem.  You don’t need a degree to apply for grants or go to conferences. You don’t have to take out student loans to get a library card or to access a couple thousand years of great literature on your phone.

There are some advantages to going to graduate school, especially if you are deliberate about that process and find a school that’s an excellent fit for you. A good writing program can provide mentorship, personalized instruction, and connect you with a community of peers.  When I was in grad school, my instructors introduced me to the work of countless poets—poets whose work would become very important to me—and it might have taken me many additional years to find those poets on my own. My teachers gave me some tools I didn’t know existed.  

But all of this is something one can work toward on their own. It just might take a little longer. You can find mentors outside of academia.  You can take online classes. You can go to summer workshops. Depending on where you live, you might be able to take fantastic classes through local arts organizations nearby. You can create your own communities. My current favorite poetry reading is a house party reading series in North Carolina. The two people who run that series happen to have MFAs, but you don’t need that to do what they’re doing. They spend two days cooking food, get a cooler full of beer, and invite a couple poets to read in a living room. The last time I was there, they had a crowd of seventy people. Anyone can do that. Anyone can start their own magazine. Anyone can create a workshop in a living room or a café or library. 

And even if none of that is available, the books by the poets you love can also be your best guides through the world. You can study the poems you most admire and learn from those. A poem isn’t like a building where all the wires and pipes are hidden beneath the floorboards or behind the walls. In a poem, the machinery is completely visible; all the parts are exposed. You can study that and learn whatever you need to learn.

NH: I’ll invoke Justin for a third and final time and end in a fashion similar to how he wraps up interviews. What are you up to these days? Any projects you can share? Any new interests you are trying to explore in your writing? 

MO: I’m finishing a new collection of poems and am looking forward to working on other things. I don’t have any specific new poetry “projects,” just a pile of drafts of new poems I want to work on and an essay about prophecy.  This new collection has been so focused on the epistolary that, while trying to finish it, I’ve neglected almost anything that hasn’t “fit.” That, I suppose, is one downside to a focused project; usually, I’m writing one poem at a time, not thinking of how they connect to or correspond with other poems. I tend to emphasize the poem as its own, self-contained project. That allows for a lot of freedom when starting a new poem: it doesn’t need to cohere or fit with a larger body of work (at least, not in that moment). When working on a project that’s more concentrated, that becomes a challenge; if you ever want to finish the book, you’ve got to be single-minded.  But I’ve now got a pile of new drafts which have been waiting for me to return to them, and I’m excited to see where they could lead.

Nicholas Howard is a native of North Attleboro, MA, a graduate of Stonehill College, and a current candidate for an MFA in the Writing & Publishing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His words have appeared in Stonehill’s journal for student work the Cairn, Stonehill’s Alumni Magazine, the bi-weekly Warwick Beacon, and the blog for both the Flynn Center for Performing Arts and PoemCity. He enjoys performing his poetry at open mics and tries to live by the rule “listen more, waste less.”

Channeling Stories & Creating Patterns: An Interview with Dana Lyons

by Cameron Finch

Dana Lyons lives and works as a user interface designer in Pittsburgh, PA. Using language, vector graphics, and vibrant colors, her work often explores the intersection of ethical design, technology, and human behavior. 

Lyons received her MFA in Graphic Design from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2018, and she was recently awarded the Hunger Mountain Design Fellowship to design the fabulous look and layout of Hunger Mountain Issue #23: Silence & Power. 

What follows is a conversation about the inspiration and development of her signature design style, as well as Lyons’s fascination with how smart technology affects the human brain. 

Dana Lyons

CF: Let’s start from the beginning! What were some of your passions when you were a child? What did you want to be “when you grew up”?

DL: My first love was dance. Ballet was always my favorite. I always claimed to want to be a prima ballerina when I grew up, but as I got older, I realized that dancing to make money would take the love out of it for me. 

I danced for fifteen years, and when it came time to choose a major for undergrad, I settled on double majoring in communication and dance. I ended up dropping dance after the first week and started taking yoga classes at the gym. Getting graded on something that had always been a passion sounded miserable to me. Moving my body has become a crucial part of my creative practice, but it’s more about self-love now than performances.

You are an alum of the MFA in Graphic Design here at VCFA. What was life as a VCFA student like for you? 

I knew that I could easily hide behind a computer screen to complete a Graphic Design MFA, but something about low-residency sounded thrilling to me — especially as an introvert. Somewhere between my first residency and my last, the people around me became my family. If I had to describe VCFA’s Graphic Design MFA program in one word, I think it would have to be healing. I had so many preconceptions coming in to the program about what design was. The VCFA experience has this way of challenging everything you think you know to be true. I made things, wrote things, and designed some things, but ultimately, I think being a student in the design program changed (for the better) the way I see the world, design, and myself. 

“Mind the Gap”: Dana Lyons’s graduate thesis

I don’t think we at Hunger Mountain will ever be able to tell you just how much we love your design of our newest issue, “Silence & Power.” The cover is your original design and resembles the technicolor graphic cover you created for your graduate thesis. How did you develop your “signature” style?

You’re so sweet! It has been such a pleasure. 

I’ve always been pretty savvy in Illustrator, but I never truly explored this illustrative approach until my thesis semester. I’m an Interface Designer professionally, so I work with iconography and vector graphics quite frequently. Book design has never really been my forte, but I knew I wanted to try to design something that commanded attention for the cover. There is some commentary on “The Attention Economy” in the book, so it just felt right. 

In my thesis, I explored the gap between “The World of Things” (the material world) and “The World of Ideas,” (the internet/digital space). Virginia Heffernan writes of these worlds in her book Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art which really had an impact on me in my research. Ultimately, I decided to design a cover that might represent this space for me graphically, inclusive of my pet cats and houseplants! This similar approach seemed appropriate for “Silence & Power” because it became a channel for stories from each side of the double-sided journal to intersect. I would definitely love to do more work in this style if the opportunity presents itself.

Do you have a particular approach as you begin a project?

I tend to mind-dump. The notebook that I carry with me totally looks like the scribbles of a madman. I like to make mind maps, lists, and sketches until I find connections that can become larger projects.

As an emerging artist myself, I have to ask, have you ever found it difficult to sustain yourself? How do you support your physical self and your creativity?

Oh, absolutely. Sometimes when I’m working, I forget I have a body. I think the way I treated myself as a student has helped to teach me what not to do in order to sustain a practice. 

I mentioned earlier that moving my body is really important to my creative practice: walks, hikes, yoga, HIIT, or even just stretching helps to reconnect the mind and body. I feel less anxious and have a much easier time channeling ideas and shaking self-doubt. 

I also like to set alarms so that I have disruptions that remind me to take a break. Alternatively, I normally keep my phone on do not disturb (and sometimes in a drawer a few rooms away) to shut off unwanted disruptions that will keep me from getting into a flow.

Your graduate thesis, entitled Mind the Gap, uses design as a lens to consider your concerns regarding human connection and agency in the digital age. Can you tell us a bit about what drew you to this topic? Did anything surprise you in your research? 

I think it was while I was studying communication in undergrad that I really started to understand and acknowledge the shift that was happening in interpersonal communication, especially among my own age group. At that same time, I was also studying web design and, at that point, responsive design was in its infancy. Responsive design is the use of flexible grids so that a design can properly respond for many viewports, particularly mobile screens. As someone who designs digital products, I’ve always felt a responsibility to understand the ethics behind what I am designing. It is very common to copy design patterns in my field. For example, if I were to work on a banking app, I would study the way other banking apps function in order to work on my task at hand. 

I think the most shocking idea I came across in my research is that design patterns, like device notifications and social media mechanisms such as “likes” and “follows,” all tap into our brain’s reward system and exploit psychological vulnerabilities. I became fascinated by this concept that interfaces have become an extension of the world around us. My thesis challenges designers to think about the way we are designing products and patterns, and to acknowledge these patterns as design objects to be critiqued. It is a topic that is relevant to designers but also affects anyone that uses digital products on smartphones, which is now over two-thirds of the world’s population.

On a related note, where do you go to nurture your creativity and escape from the compulsive pull of social media and the Internet? How do you “unplug” from an art form that demands so much time on the computer?

I love to fall back on meditative activities. Some of my favorites are embroidery, macramé, bullet journaling, and playing with India ink. Really anything that keeps my hands busy and lets my mind wander. 

Why do you think this form of artistic expression suits you? 

It’s great to be able to express myself both digitally and with my hands. When it comes to any of these practices, there is always something new to learn and problems to solve. There are always patterns to follow and new patterns to create.

What inspires you? 

Part of the beauty of the internet is to be able to follow such an eclectic variety of inspiring people! I definitely draw inspiration from all of the faculty and students in the VCFA Graphic Design program still. Some of my long term go-tos have been the Note to Self podcast, the Almost 30 podcast, the words of Brené Brown and Alan Watts, and the design communities and thought leaders on Medium and Sidebar.io.

Cameron Finch is a cross-genre writer and editor. She is a recent MFA in Writing & Publishing graduate from VCFA, where she served as Managing Editor of Hunger Mountain. Her creative work and artist interviews can be found in Entropy, Windmill, Glass Poetry, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Michigan Quarterly Review, BUST, Midwestern Gothic, My Modern Met, and Artscope, among others. Find out more about her at ccfinch.com or on Twitter @_ccfinch_

A Profile of Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

by Nicholas Howard

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg began her visit to Kellogg-Hubbard Library on October 11th by reading from her latest release Miriam’s Well: A Modern Day Exodus. She shared with us the opening chapter when the story’s main character Miriam, her brother Aaron, their friend Alan, and Miriam’s family get caught in the subway during a blackout in New York City during 1965. I was struck by her ability to bring all of us in that subway car with them through rich descriptions and interesting dialogue from strangers they were meeting only by circumstance. Caryn describes the novel as historical and mythological.

She then transitioned us to the writing workshop portion of her visit by going over thirteen rules she has developed over many years. Some of the highlights include: Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, and most of all, making sense. Practice trust. Trust yourself to write what you need to write, how you need to write it. No self-deprecating remarks allowed (especially when preparing to read your work). Quickly after finishing up her final rule and without much of a pause she emphatically said to all of us: “You’re the boss of you.”  

She guided us towards writing any pieces we might be comfortable attempting that evening. She “assigned” us a couple of prompts but said we could go in any direction we wanted. When it came time to share, we were free to take a pass. One man struggled a little getting his words out and communicating. Caryn reassured him and made him feel welcomed. Just by witnessing this, I also felt welcomed. As someone who is just starting his journey towards leading workshops, I felt inspired to provide a similar presence for others.

The day before this visit I had the good fortune of being able to speak with Caryn  on the phone about her career. It has included being the Poet Laureate of Kansas, a Faculty member at Goddard College where she found the Transformative Language Arts Concentration program, and a facilitator of community writing workshops for many popuulations, including people with serious, late-stage illness. In everything she does, she strives to help others to “make the invisible visible.”

I was really curious to see if Caryn believed writing workshops facilitated community. “Without a doubt,” was her response. Bursting with pride in every word, she detailed her experience in the workshops she leads. They have been “powerful and wonderful.” The participants might be battling cancer, M.S., or Parkinson’s but they are “writing together and speaking freely using their own language.”  Caryn’s attributes this to the fact that “the veil is pulled off” for people living with serious illness.

This work is personal. Caryn is a survivor herself and lost loved ones to these types of disease. During 2002-03 when she was in treatment for breast cancer, she added to the community writing workshops she had been doing for years by offering to lead such workshops for people living with cancer. This exemplifies that for her there is no gap between what she espouses could benefit other writers from and her own process.

Our conversation then turned to the Transformative Language Arts Concentration program at Goddard. It is defined as “the intentional use of the written, spoken and sung word for individual and community growth, development, celebration and transformation.” Caryn invites incoming students to be “in conversation with what is calling in their lives.” As the program webpage details, this is achieved through creative writing, songwriting, drama, and performance, plus a community-based practicum, and deep study in the theoretical underpinnings of this field. According to Caryn, along the way there is “healing/health and social change.” She is in touch with many of the graduates, and she is proud to say they are still doing work related to their time in the program. She traces this to the low residency model and the freedom it gives students to remain in their communities while also delving into the craft of writing. As listed on the program’s web page, it follows in the tradition of Tikkum Olam, the Hebrew phrase that refers to “putting back together the broken world.”

For Miriam’s Well, Caryn turned to another Hebrew tradition known as Midrash. It refers to the actions of “re-interpreting and re-envisioning.” I asked her if she felt this was important in American society today. She replied by calling my question a leading one but also adding that it is “important for us to have a method for working with myths.” At the reading she shared with the audience that “sacred stories are central in our beings.” Along those lines, she explained that many scholars spoke of the Torah as “black fire written on white fire” and the white space on the page is symbolic for the groups in society who have been traditionally unrepresented. For Caryn, it is also where the real story lies.

Caryn finds herself drawn to story. In Miriam’s Well, she is working with the story of Exodus and retells it in the context of the most important events in the second half of the Twentieth and beginning of the Twenty First centuries. Readers can expect the main character Miriam to turn up during the AIDS crisis in San Francisco, the bombing in Oklahoma City, the attacks on 9/11, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and others. For me, it is a unique mix of Biblical Characters and Forrest Gump. It inspires a re-engagement with the American story. In other words, it is the perfect ambassador for Midrash.

The book took over 14 years to complete and came out of her method of working on three or four projects at a time. According to Caryn, this method holds off writer’s block from settling in. Traveling back and forth between Kansas and Vermont twice each year, with additional travel to promote her books and lead workshops, she tries to spend as much time as possible writing in between her other work. She characterizes it as “touching base.” I find it to be a practice I want to emulate.    

Travel was also a key part of her time as Poet Laureate of Kansas from 2009-2013. When the state arts commission, which housed the poet laureate program, was eliminated by the governor of the time, Caryn took the mission on the road. She crowd-funded her travel expense funds and collaborated with others to produces three anthologies.  She eventually found a home for the program under the Humanities Council of Kansas. She is proud to say both the council and the laureate position are still going strong today.

In her work as the Poet Laureate, she enjoyed most being able to connect with other poets. In her view, if a person does not like poetry, then “they haven’t found the right poem.” During the workshop I attended I began to write a poem focused on the image of my grandfather standing on his front lawn, waving us out of the driveway. It built off another poem I had just written as a letter addressed to him. I was excited to have written a poem connected and in conversation with another. I was eager to continue working on it.

Caryn believes writing is a “constant process of getting lost to get found again.” It is a chance to affirm a person’s connection with living on earth. She encourages people to fall because they can first feel the ground “catch” them and then ponder the metaphorical falling available to us. This philosophy mirrors the final two lines of her poem “You Rise Up to Meet the Falling World”:

We are made to catch the falling world,

just as the earth is shaped perfectly to catch us  

She implores others that with “so much around us at each moment” and “living in screen-focused culture” to “open your vision.”

Caryn opened my vision to true literary citizen, advocacy for expression, and how to make someone supported and heard. I will continue to return to our conversation, her reading, and that driveway poem I drafted. I know that if I have any questions, as I did while writing this feature up, I can always reach out to Caryn and she will be there to help; the same way she is for an entire community of writers who consider themselves fortunate to know her.

 

Thank you again to Caryn for speaking with me, being so inviting and welcoming, and for helping with some of the wording of this profile.

 

 

You can see about Caryn at her website: www.CarynMirriamGoldberg.com.

 

Nicholas Howard is a native of North Attleboro, MA, a graduate of Stonehill College, and a current candidate for an MFA in the Writing & Publishing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His words have appeared in Stonehill’s journal for student work the Cairn, Stonehill’s Alumni Magazine, the bi-weekly Warwick Beacon, and the blog for both the Flynn Center for Performing Arts and PoemCity. He enjoys performing his poetry at open mics and tries to live by the rule “listen more, waste less.”

The Practice of Joy: An Interview with Jen Currin

by Rebecca Jamieson

I met Jen Currin several years ago when we were both invited to do readings for a trans friend’s top-surgery benefit party in Portland, Oregon. I felt immediate kinship with Jen, both as a writer and an amazing human being.

Her poetry and short stories get under your skin with their spare, earthy elegance. She can write about love, family, and spirituality in a way that shifts your perspective and makes those topics feel fresh and mysterious. I love to read Jen’s work partly because it gives me the chance to get inside her wonderful head and see the world through her eyes.

Jen is a also a true literary citizen. She’s championed the work of countless other writers, and her kindness, genuineness, and fierce curiosity is a standard we could all do well to aspire to.

Jen was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, and did her schooling at Bard College (B.A.), Arizona State (M.F.A.) and Simon Fraser University (M.A.). She lives and works on unceded Coast Salish territories (New Westminster, Surrey, and Vancouver, B.C.), where she teaches in the Creative Writing and Academic and Career Preparation Departments at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

Jen’s first collection of stories, Hider/Seeker (Anvil Press, 2018), was named a Globe and Mail Top 100 book of 2018. She has also published four collections of poetry: The Sleep of Four Cities (Anvil Press, 2005); Hagiography (Coach House, 2008); The Inquisition Yours (Coach House, 2010), which won the 2011 Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry and was shortlisted for the 2011 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize (B.C. Book Prizes), the Lambda Literary Award in Poetry, and the ReLit Award; and School (Coach House, 2014), which was a finalist for the 2015 ReLit Award, the Dorothy Livesay Prize and the Pat Lowther Award. Her chapbook The Ends was published by Nomados in 2013. Jen was a member of the editorial collective for The Enpipe Line: 70,000 Kilometers of Poetry Produced in Resistance to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline Proposal (Creekstone Press, 2012).

It was a pleasure to talk with Jen over email. Our conversation covered a wide terrain, including her relationship to writing as part of social justice work, the importance of community, the differences between writing poetry and stories, and the importance of practicing joy.

Rebecca Jamieson: What inspires you right now?

Jen Currin: I have been reading some great books lately and they are really inspiring me. I’ve been enjoying the poems of Tomas Transtromer, Jaime Forsythe, Shazia Hafiz Ramji, and Tongo Eisen-Martin. I’m in the middle of Otessa Moshfeg’s Homesick For Another World, Michael Cunningham’s A Wild Swan and Other Tales, and Carleigh Baker’s Bad Endings, all collections of stories. I recently finished Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony and found it deeply moving and wise. There is so much good work out there and I feel grateful to have some time to engage with it. Reading has always been one of my biggest inspirations and it continues to be.

What else is inspiring me right now? I am really noticing the effects of climate change and global warming, and while this is not inspiring me in a positive way, it is giving me a lot to think about and it is making me want to figure out how to write about it more—how to approach it on the page. As I write this, it is late October and the weather has been sunny for weeks. People in Vancouver are walking around in t-shirts. At parties, friends admit to guiltily enjoying the weather even when they acknowledge it as “abnormal.” I bless the sun on my face even as I pray for rain because the forest fires these last few years have been merciless. It is enormous to think about and try to write about.

Inspiring in a more uplifting way are the many communities I am a part of. It’s fall, so that means lots of book launches, and I have so enjoyed hearing friends read from their just-released books and also encountering new writers. At the community garden I am a part of, we are trimming back the plants and preparing the plots for fall. There have been a number of great parties this fall in my queer community, so many that one friend has quipped that October should be called “the gathering month.” The communities I am fortunate to be a part of are a central inspiration in my life.

RJ: As a writer, I also find myself struggling to write about climate change and the many other terrifying political and social issues we currently face. How do you attempt to approach these topics in your writing?

JC: I don’t know really exactly how I approach them…it’s not always a conscious thing. I think they are a big part of the atmosphere of my life, of our lives, so they make their way into the work. I guess I do try not to be too didactic, although even typing this I’m smiling because I know how preachy I can be!

RJ: I’m also struck by what you said about how the communities you’re part of inspire and sustain you. Can you say more about the role of community in your life? And specifically in terms of literary community, what does being a literary citizen mean to you?

JC: My first community was my family; I come from a big one, eight siblings, and that was my first sense of being a part of a larger group. It was a very tumultuous and hard childhood, but I still had this sense of the tribe, of this strong bond connecting us. Since then, I’ve co-created many other families with groups of friends. Community at its best can be an exemplar of loving interconnectedness. Of course there will be strife and drama at times, but there is also this capacity to work through that and feel a sense of home or family in community. I have experienced this happening and it has given me hope. Communities can be amazingly resilient. I don’t know how I’d live without them. Without the love of and connection to others, it’s really difficult to want to keep living.

In terms of being a literary citizen (I like that term), it means connecting with other writers near and far, reading their books, being in conversation with them, sharing opportunities, going to their events if I can, hosting events if I can, promoting others’ events. It means wishing other writers well, not engaging with the dog-eat-dog capitalistic thought-energy that is so rampant at this time.

RJ: What does writing give you?

JC: Writing gives me so much that it is hard to articulate all of the gifts. It gives me a space for pause and reflection, and at the same time a way to connect to the stream of life—to enter this stream via writing, if that makes sense. Writing gives me a place to record experiences, thoughts, and dreams. It gives me a connection to a deeper part of myself, and a connection to a sustaining, sustained practice. Writing helps keep me steady. There is a sense of relief or homecoming I have when I write something in my notebook (I am one of those writers who always carries a notebook). Even if I never use the fragment I’ve scribbled down, the very act of writing it gives me something—this satisfaction in noticing, this tiny contribution to the work of the world.   

RJ: How do you work with resistance to writing?

JC: I accept it. If resistance is there, it is there for a reason. Sometimes we can’t write, or can’t write something that we “want” to. If that happens, I try to be patient, to wait and to listen. Maybe it means I need to be doing something other than writing, like taking a walk or reaching out to a friend. Or maybe it means I should be writing something else.

Sometimes, especially when working on stories, I feel a lot of resistance and I try to push through it and keep writing. This hasn’t worked very well for me. It’s been more helpful to take a break, maybe do some research for the story or for another piece, or go exercise or meditate. I respect resistance as a necessary part of the process and try not to fight with it—I try to trust that, after whatever necessary time of resistance, the story or poem will let me in again. It might take a few hours or days, and that’s okay. I haven’t yet had the experience of encountering a block of resistance that lasts months or years; but then, I’ve also never attempted a novel!

RJ: I’m currently getting an MFA, and I’ve heard many stories about people who stop writing after they finish their programs. What are your thoughts about this? What advice do you have for writers who have stopped writing but want to start again?

JC: I’m not surprised that a lot of people who did MFAs aren’t writing anymore. I mean, I love writing, but it’s hard—the dedication, the hours required, the constant trying and often failing. It’s not for everyone.

Advice—giving it or receiving it—makes me a little nervous, although I do find myself doling it out at times (my poor students!), even when I should know better. I guess if someone came to me and said, “I have stopped writing and I want to start again. What can I do?” I would first ask them if they knew why they stopped writing. Understanding this might lead them to a solution to their problem. For some folks who like the energy of a group, taking a class or joining a writing collective is helpful. For people who prefer to work alone, a morning ritual with their notebook might do the trick.

RJ: You’ve published four books of poetry, but your latest book, Hider/Seeker, is stories. My experience of your poetry is that it isn’t strongly narrative. Talk about why you made the transition into stories and what it was like for you to work in that form.

JC: I have always loved stories and novels. I grew up reading a lot of novels. Later, I delved into stories and fell in love with the genre. So, I’ve been a reader and appreciator for many years, and I dabbled in story writing in undergrad and grad school, taking classes with some good teachers. But for a number of reasons, I didn’t keep up the practice, and that part of my writing remained dormant for many years, until about eight years ago, when I started seriously working on and studying the form.

When I was younger, I had this love-hate thing with narrative. I loved reading narratives, but I struggled with feeling that stories and novels were “fake” or “inauthentic,” somehow—that they couldn’t capture the multiplicities and complexities of life. I thought poetry was better for that. But this view changed over time. I so deeply appreciate what short stories can give a reader that I wanted to learn how to write them. But it was and is intimidating.

There is comfort to be found in writers like Chekhov, who said that stories and poems have more in common than stories and novels. The density of imagery and capacity for mystery in both forms are a part of what engages me as a reader and a writer, but I find stories a lot more difficult to write than poems. Stories take a long time for me to compose—many, many drafts. Whereas many of my poems might need only 4-5 drafts, the stories need at least 20-30. I’m hoping this might get easier as I become a more experienced practitioner of the form, but I’m not sure it will.

Writing stories has also forced me to think more deeply about devices like plot, characterization, and dialogue. I’m grateful for the opportunity to engage more extensively with these devices, even if it feels like I still have so much to learn. But of course, that is also part of the attraction—being a perpetual beginner!

RJ: I’m intrigued by this idea that poems are somehow more “real,” and that stories and novels are “inauthentic” or “fake.” Can you say more about why that idea changed for you?

JC: I honestly don’t know if it did completely change. Poetry is still my first love and I think poems can do things other genres can’t. Poems can be the wildest creatures; fiction in comparison often seems more tame. Initially, I was very put off by things like plot and characterization. They just seemed so clunky and forced to me as a writer. Like, how to make a character believable? Dialogue? How to do that?

Now I’m interested in these questions. I’m trying to learn to write stories that have some poetry in them—that can capture some of what I love so much about poetry. One of my favorite writers who does this in the short story form is Denis Johnson. His recently published posthumous book The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is full of stories that move like poems. I read it recently and am already craving another read. I want to study how he made those stories work.

RJ: I experience your poems as political in a deeply personal, embodied way, which can sometimes be challenging to do when talking about such enormous issues as systemic oppression or environmental destruction. Do you see your writing as a form of activism?

JC: I think of writing as activism when it is part of an action, like a reading at the anti-Olympics Tent City in Vancouver, or a performance at Standing Rock, or writing a script for eco-guerilla theater performed at an oil company’s headquarters. Using this definition, very little of my writing is activism. But, I do think writing can play an important part in changing the consciousness of whoever encounters it. Even if an audience for a piece is relatively small, the reactions can create ripple effects in spheres we might not even consciously be aware of.

Writing—and all imaginative acts—are important because, in addition to containing the possibility for joy, they allow us to conceptualize change. Writing can create a space for visions of the past, present, and future that we haven’t yet seen and need to see. I’m interested in imagining and working towards a future where Earth is honored and respected and humans work together in dynamic harmony for the collective good. (Which isn’t to say that I won’t write stories or poems that express hopelessness, conflict, etc. at times—giving voice to these realities is also important.)

Writing and imagining is only part of the political work, of course. There is also the important on-the-ground work, which we can each take part in, in large and small ways, in our communities.

RJ: “The possibility for joy”—I love that! So often activism, or overtly political writing, is characterized by anger, struggle, and grief. As you say, it’s important to honor those realities, but can you say more about how and why joy enters into your work?

JC: I think some people are more oriented towards joy, but even if you already have this bent, it’s still necessary to work at it. Joy is a practice. For me, it’s about clearing away some of the mind-gunk so that I can actually feel the life-force thrumming through me—I experience this force as essentially joyful; it’s just happy to exist, to be able to live. Underneath it all, for me, is the heart—this universal, impersonal source that we all have access to, even if we don’t consciously know it.

How this connects to writing is that writing, for me, comes from this same life-force energy that brings joy—this is what I understand creativity to be. I don’t always write from a joyous place, but I always write because of that life-force energy. Without it, there’s no movement—the words can’t get on the page.

RJ: You currently teach creative writing at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. How have you supported yourself as a writer at other points in your career? How do you find a balance between teaching and writing?

JC: I started working outside my house at 14, at a fast food restaurant, and have worked ever since. I devoted myself to the path of writing at 18. So, for most of my writing life, I have had one or more jobs. I’ve done a lot of things; when I was younger I worked mostly in restaurants and coffee shops, and then after my undergrad I worked as an early literacy program coordinator and later as a grant writer and literacy tutor before going back to school for my MFA. Since I got my MFA, I’ve mostly been teaching; English, academic writing, creative writing.

It is always a dance to find time for writing when needing to work a certain amount to pay the bills. I will soon be able to have one semester off a year, and am excited to dedicate that time to writing more intensively. I have a lot of stories I’ve wanted to work on during the last couple of years that I haven’t managed to attend to. I have been jotting down some poem drafts here and there; I have a few on my desk right now that I need to type up. Poetry is easier for me to write in the nooks and crannies of the day; I often write poems on transit or in coffee shops when I’m supposed to be grading. Fiction takes a lot more hours, and so I need concentrated time off to work seriously in that genre.

RJ: I think I remember that you meditate, and your writing often explores spiritual and ontological themes. Talk about the relationship between writing and spirituality for you.

JC: The two are very interlinked, but then I see all of my life through a spiritual, for lack of a better word, lens. It’s hard to put into words. I’m always thinking about things like death, reincarnation, bettering myself as a human being, the spiritual causes of political problems, peace, how relationships can be our spiritual teachers, karma, forgiveness, why we are here, etc. So these topics usually make their way into my poems.

I do not subscribe to any organized religion, but I’ve read a number of religious texts and they have helped inform my world view. Writing is a practice like a spiritual practice in that it’s something you have to really devote yourself to—you can’t be half-hearted about it. Or, if you are, that will be shown in the work.

I haven’t been sitting down to meditate a lot lately, and I miss it, but what I have been doing is practicing more mindfulness from moment to moment in my daily life, which has been really enriching. I meditate a lot on public transit. Interestingly, I just got an email from the incredible San Francisco-based writer Camille Roy and she said she’s been doing this too. I wonder how many of us are meditating on buses and trains! Maybe it could become a movement and change transit as we know it…

One thing I’ve noticed is that this connection to the breath, whenever I’m able to notice it, has opened up more spaciousness in my life. Even though I am very busy with teaching right now, I simultaneously have the sense that I have plenty of time—the attention to the breath and the present moment gives me this. This can help a lot with writing because the space for creating can still be there—at least somewhat—even when we think we don’t have it. That’s how I can manage to still write some poems and sketch ideas for stories while teaching five classes and keeping up a bunch of other commitments. I feel I’ve gotten a bit off-track in this answer…?

RJ: No, not at all! I love where you went in that answer. I especially love the idea of using our time on public transit to meditate. I’ve done that before, and am inspired to do it more, after reading this! I’m also really struck by what you said about writing as a spiritual practice that you can’t be half-hearted about. What does that look like in your own writing practice?

JC: Devotion practice is a big part of my life, and the writing practice is one of my devotions. I approach writing with the knowledge that it will take huge amounts of time and energy, and that even with intense commitment I will never be a master in this lifetime, and also with deep gratitude to be able to even have a practice like this. I think the least I can do is try to give it my all. I think about love and spiritual practice all the time and I also spend a lot of time thinking about writing. They are very interlinked for me.

My deepest thanks to Jen for her willingness to engage in this conversation with me. It was one of those exchanges so packed with inspiration that I find myself returning to it again and again to continue contemplating the insights she shared. Please check out Jen’s amazing books of poetry as well as her new book of stories, Hider/Seeker.

Rebecca Jamieson is the author of the poetry chapbook THE BODY OF ALL THINGS, published by Finishing Line Press in 2017. Her writing has appeared in various publications, including CalyxLion’s RoarRattle, and Stirring. A longtime student of meditation, Rebecca is the founder of Contemplate Create, where she teaches Mindful Writing classes in person and online. Rebecca has also taught with Write Around Portland, a nonprofit that offers writing workshops for marginalized communities. She is currently the Teaching Fellow at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she is pursuing an MFA in Writing & Publishing.

Labs, Love, and the Sweet Iron Odor of a Sheared Lawn: An Interview with Andrea Rothman

by Cameron Finch

 

A scientist and a writer, Andrea Rothman knows more than a thing or two about smell. She was a postdoctoral fellow and research associate at the Rockefeller University in New York, where she won two individual grants from the National Institute of Health to study the neurobiology of olfaction. She went on to earn her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and served as our very own Assistant Fiction Editor here at Hunger Mountain for five years. It was my great pleasure to chat with her about her debut novel, The DNA of You and Me (William Morrow, March 2019).We talked about women in the sciences, smell as metaphor, and much more! 

 

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You come from a scientific background of studying the sense of smell. How did you first get the inspiration to write a book about this topic, and a fictional novel at that? 

The neurobiology of smell is a fascinating topic, but that’s not what my novel is really about. The science of the novel frames the story and serves as a metaphor for the larger themes, which are mainly choice and identity: the choices people are faced with at key moments in their life, and who they are at the time. It takes a lot of self-knowledge to choose wisely, and many people, especially young ambitious people starting out in their careers, don’t know themselves well enough. Even if they did, who is to say in the long run that the best road was taken, or that a better destination did not exist? The science behind the sense of smell lends itself metaphorically to this kind of story because what makes smell possible is that sensory nerves from the nose need to reach and connect with particular targets in the brain. During the journey to those targets, the neurons are aided by guidance cues that hem them in their path towards the final destination. The story’s protagonist, Emily Apell, who is at a crossroads in her life, discovers a new guidance molecule, and coins it Pathfinder, which incidentally was also the original title of my novel.

In the Author’s Note, you mention that the research projects and findings in The DNA of You and Me are fictional, but are based on established scientific principles and other examples. What was the research process like for you? 

Because I have a background in science and worked for many years in olfaction, this aspect of the research was relatively straightforward. The more difficult part was tying together all of the scientific knowns and unknowns in a coherent fashion and coming up with an important scientific question and a plausible research project for Emily: mainly, is there a new and, as yet, undiscovered family of guidance molecules out there, specific to the sense of smell? This question (and its plausibility) required some extensive reading on existing axon guidance families and their role in olfaction. Because the novel is set in 2003, most of the scientific papers I probed are from that period. In addition, I also did some extensive research on Anosmia, defined as a total or partial loss of the sense of smell, and read the memoir Season To Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way by Molly Birnbaum. Another book I read that helped me write about the sense of smell was the novel Perfume by Patrick Suskind. 

Was there anything you learned about olfaction that surprised you, or that you hadn’t thought about until writing this novel? 

Until I wrote The DNA of You and Me, I had never appreciated the significance of our fifth sense. Most people believe that smell is important because it enables them to smell the roses, perceive flavors, and avoid rotten food or a potential fire, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. In reality, because of the way olfactory neurons are wired in the brain, our sense of smell is our strongest, most faithful portal to the past. Smells can trigger the recollection of autobiographical memories in a way that none of our other senses can. It’s little wonder that Proust’s madeleine-dipped-in-lemon-blossom-tea passage from Remembrance of Things Past is so ageless and also so steadfastly true to the human condition. 

You deftly weave hard scientific language with the dreamy lyricism that describes the feeling of falling in love. How did you achieve this balance of seemingly disparate dictions?

I think the balance you describe is achieved through the use of science elements that resonate with Emily’s formative years and with her state of desire at different stages in the novel, in particular during her time in Justin’s lab. Describing the database of the lab for instance, and the gene she hopes to find, Emily equates finding the would-be gene to finding a bird in a forest. Birds, the reader discovers several chapters later, symbolize truth and hope for Emily. The importance of the gene she eventually finds in the database rests in a sequence deep in the DNA strand of the gene that contains mirror repeat letters. It’s kind of like a palindromic word that reads the same backwards and forwards, MADAM, but with the 4-letter DNA alphabet instead: …ACTGC:CGTCA… Emily envisions the mirror-image sequence as two halves of a bridge, which resonates with her desire to connect with other people, in particular Aeden in the lab. The contrast between who Emily is as a person and what she hopes to achieve in her personal life is what drives the forward movement of the story and defines the urgency of the voice in the novel. 

In the novel, Emily must choose between her love for Aeden and her love for her scientific work. This need to make a choice between work and love is a deeply-rooted historical (and I think, problematic) issue for women, perhaps no matter the field of study. While I do believe this attitude is changing, can you talk a little more about this pressure put on female scientists specifically? And what has been your own experience as a woman in the lab? 

While I agree that this gender-biased attitude in disfavor of women is changing in many highly competitive careers, including sports and politics, I also think that science and STEM-related fields have been slow to catch up with the trend. The leaky pipeline is all too real; while most students pursuing a PhD in science are females, most people who end up actually staying in academia and having leading roles in science research are males. This is due in part to old school biases and expectations passed down from an era when the scientific workforce in the lab was predominantly male. Early-career scientists, leading up to a faculty position, are expected to work at minimum sixty-hour weeks, which runs contrary to being a mother and having a family. If this weren’t the case, I might not be writing these words right now. I am one of those women who left a career in science after I realized that being a working scientist and a mother would be too difficult. In the end, it’s a personal choice. There are plenty of women scientists who run research labs and have young children at home, but the fact that there are so few in relation to men speaks volumes. I think what needs to change in order to help women stay in science is mainly the culture of science. Taking time off for family care should be viewed as a normal and acceptable part of the science career path, and funding policies from both private and public sectors should run in favor of this view. 

Because this is a story concerned with ‘the smell of things,’ let’s talk about how to write using the olfactory sense! In Chapter Three, you describe the “sweet iron odor of a sheared lawn,” which intrigues me. I’m a writer too, and for me, smell is often the most difficult sense for me to write, as I always have to use other smells and materials to describe the sensation before me. In other words, smell seems to be inherently metaphoric. As a writer, how do you continue to find new ways to describe smell, without recursively saying, say, “The orange smelled like an orange.” 

I think what helped me as a writer to describe smell is being in touch with the state of the main character’s desire. I needed to understand who the protagonist is and what she wants, and then infer from this how she would perceive a particular smell at any given moment in the narrative. For instance, in Chapter Two, when Emily is recalling her father and their home in Rockford, Illinois, she describes the smell of laundry detergent as clean and comforting. Many chapters later, after a brief sexual encounter with Aeden in the lab, Emily describes the smell of his shirt as having the smell of sea breeze, which is a more ephemeral and dreamy way of describing the same thing.  

When trying to find words to describe a particular smell, it also helps me as a writer to break down the source of the odor into its essential components, so as to better understand where it’s actually coming from. For example, I learned that grass, when it is cut, exudes volatile organic compounds, known as distress signals. The idea of a freshly mown lawn therefore is suffused with trauma, but also with resilience; hence the “sweet iron odor” of a sheared lawn. 

Let’s end with some fun! In your opinion, what is: 

A delicious smell? Undoubtedly, the smell of ground coffee beans!

A nostalgic smell? The smell of the pages of an old book that hasn’t been opened in a while.

The worst smell ever? The smell of a mouse room in the lab after a long weekend. Fortunately, most people never come across this smell, but as a former research scientist, I did much too often. 

 

Learn more about Andrea Rothman at andrearothman.com, or on Twitter @rothmaa

Interview with Linda Pennisi

by Lennie DeCerce

By the time I found my way into a creative writing workshop I had already been to and dropped out of three different colleges. I had published a shitty, immature collection of poetry, fiction and non-fiction and had no formal education in writing whatsoever. I had no one directing me, assisting me, telling me what was good or bad. My only teachers were the writers I read and they didn’t respond when I repeatedly asked them – how did you do that?

This all changed at LeMoyne College, in Syracuse, NY, when I decided to change my major for the final time from Psychology to English. I entered a classroom of round tables and folding chairs filled with excitement and fear and the cockiness that only a 26-year-old that knows nothing can have. Enter Linda Pennisi. A pocket-sized woman with a passion for words, passion for her students and fearless when it came to critiquing her students work. Linda was the first to instill the importance of the ever-present phrase show don’t tell. The first to teach me that writers together are a community. Linda was the first person in my world to give me what I needed as a writer, not what I wanted. I am thankful that I knew her as a professor before I knew her as a poet because had it been the other way around, I would have just been a fangirl gazing at her adoringly.

Linda publishes her work under her full name, Linda Tomol Pennisi and her full-length  publications include: Seamless and Suddenly, Fruit.

Seamless won the 2002 Perugia Press Intro Prize and was the first runner-up for the Philip Levine Poetry Prize.

Suddenly, Fruit won the 2005 Carolina Wren Press Prize.

Her chapbook, Miniscule Boxes in the Bird’s Bright Throat was one of four winners of the Toadlily Press 2014 Quartet Series and appears in, The Good Wall.

Linda’s poems have been published in literary journals such as: Bellevue Literary Review, McSweeny’s Book of Poets Picking Poets, Prairie Schooner, Hunger Mountain, Lyric Poetry Review, Midwest Quarterly Review, and Bitter Oleander.

Currently, Linda is Writer-in-Residence for the Creative Writing program at LeMoyne College.

 

Q: You are currently a Writer-in-Residence at LeMoyne College. What does that mean?

A: I teach two courses per semester for the creative writing program at LeMoyne College. Patrick Lawler and I basically share one position within the English department and we both share that title. It’s a contract position, but isn’t a tenure track position. It’s an adjunct position with a bit more stability.

 

Q: Service-learning was a big piece of the education at LeMoyne College. You taught “Writing into the World” which paired students with senior citizens. I recall the class being very close to your heart. Are you still involved with this program or one similar?

A: Since that class was worth only one credit, after the first few semesters it was difficult to fill.  I still feel, as I did then, a need to give back in some way. I am fortunate in many ways, and one of those ways has to do with experiencing the joy of writing and of teaching creative writing. I have a need to give back, and that course stemmed from this need. Now I find other ways, such as founding and supporting the Y-arts program for students at our local YMCA. It offers students an opportunity to attend writing workshops, take music lessons, attend summer camps, etc.

 

Q: For a moment, let’s pretend I was not your student. What is one thing you hope to impress upon your students when a new class begins and why?

A: I think the most important things I want to establish those first few weeks, especially in an introductory workshop, is a sense of community, a sense of excitement in regard to the possibilities of language, and a sense of safety in the classroom. I try to let them know that though their writing is read aloud and critiqued, it will be done so with sensitivity and an appreciation of the fact that revealing one’s work this way is a challenging thing to do. Especially for undergrads, and oftentimes new writers, that’s important.

 

Q: I very distinctly recall reading “Perspective on Chaos” for the first time. Your first line, “I am not a box of wings” made me gasp. That line stuck. It pops into my head frequently and I wonder, is there a line from a poem that does that to you? Appear out of nowhere and linger? 

A: Yes, more than one. The poem “A Summer’s Day” by Mary Oliver contains a line that completely knocks me out. The poem culminates with these lines:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

Other than meaning, what draws me is the music of the lines and their rhythm—the way the monosyllables slow the passage and create an emphasis that heightens its urgency. Also, I appreciate the way it begins with the imperative and ends with a question. It’s hard to ignore a passage like that.

 

Q: I’m curious about your process. Do you have a room of your own like Virginia Woolf? Do you listen to music or need silence? Do you write in a notebook or type on a laptop? Would you be willing to share a bit about your how and where?

A: Most times I sit at my kitchen table. I love the light there, and it overlooks the woods. My office doesn’t have the same kind of view. The walls are dark and stacks of books clutter all the surfaces. I now need my computer for writing, though of course I scribble notes wherever I can.
I recently went on a retreat with a friend of mine and the imposed silence of that first evening was at first daunting, even a bit terrifying, but then the silence was what grounded me in the writing room that I often find so elusive. I realized that weekend how much technology gets in my way. Though I am not terribly phone-driven, when I could not use my phone for that weekend I saw how much it does get in my way.

 

Q: Continuing along the same process vein, your poetry unfolds so beautifully, so fluidly. I’m thinking specifically about In the Stars: “It was then she realized she had always wanted to be Jesus.” Did this line surprise you? Or, are there other lines/stanzas/entire poems that you finished and were like – where did that come from?

A: Thanks! Actually, that line did surprise me when it came. After I wrote it, the rest of the poem unfolded easily and wrote itself. That’s a rare occasion for me.

 

Q: If you could attend a weekend writer’s retreat surrounded only by colleagues and practitioners, alive or dead, who would you choose?

A: Blake and Wordsworth and Keats and Dickinson would be there, and on the more contemporary front it would likely be friends and colleagues, as well as poets such as Jane Hirshfield and Sharon Olds and Brigit Pegeen Kelly and Mark Doty. Of course, I could go on and on…and would add all my former advisors from VCFA, as well.

 

Q: When I need a reminder, when I feel like writing is an impossible task, I read Credo, by Jack Kerouac. It’s like the poem version of Tony Robbins. Is there a poem, story, quote that is your go to when you need reminding? This is assuming of course that you have these moments?

A: I must admit, I am a bit of a head case in this regard. I sometimes experience what I read this morning that Amy Tan also experiences, the fear that I’ll never write again. Sometimes it’s to Richard Wilbur I turn. In “The Writer,” as I’m sure you know, the speaker watches his daughter writing a story, listening to the stop and start of the typewriter keys. Reminded of the starling once trapped in her room, he recalls that it could not immediately find the window he has raised to let it escape. Speaker and daughter watch the bird

…drop like a glove

To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,

For the wits to try it again;

Finally, they both bear witness as it “…lifted off from a chair-back, / Beating a smooth course for the right window / And clearing the sill of the world.” Wilbur’s words acknowledge the difficulty in the process, and the joy when one finds her way. Much encouragement there.

 

Q: It is important for writers to have at least one person that they trust implicitly with their work. I have this fantasy that you, Lawler, Lloyd, and Roche sit around a round table with coffee and stacks of yellow legal pads, workshopping. I imagine Ann Ryan pops in carrying a basket of fruit. Is this how it works? Who is your person?

A: Oh, that sounds like fun in some ways, but the group focus you mention appeals right now only in fantasy, like your earlier question about the dead and the living. Over the last few years I turn to my colleague and first poetry teacher, Patrick Lawler, who is my most consistent and trusted and nurturing reader.

(Of note: Patrick Lawler, David Lloyd, Dan Roche, and Ann Ryan are all professors in the English department at LeMoyne. All are on my list for my fantasy writer’s retreat.)

 

Q: You are primarily a poet. Do you ever work outside your genre? Perhaps play with fiction? Tinker with essay?

A: Occasionally I am drawn toward the lyric essay, but have yet to really focus in that direction.  Who knows where that might take me.

 

Q: Are you currently working on a new book? Do you have any pending publications?

A: I’ve been thinking for the past couple of years that the poems I’m writing are feeling like a book in progress. I’m still letting that percolate, however, with the focus being new poems and seeing where they take me. I am pretty settled now with the fact that I am not a prolific writer. Though at one time this was a concern, for the most part I’ve let it go.

 

Q: You are an alum of VCFA. After 5 incredible weeks here, I never want to leave. Do you have any advice for current / future students?

A: I remember that I felt lost when I graduated from VCFA. It took a long while to figure out how to function as a writer again without the richness of that experience, without the rhythm of deadlines and mailings and those incredible seven-page responses from mentors. From the newsletters I read, it seems that there are now ways to curb the loss of that rhythm through feedback groups with other alums, etc. As advice, I’d say try to prepare yourself for that transition by planning for it, being sure you have a reader or readers to whom you can regularly turn when the program ends.

I graduated from LeMoyne College ten years ago. In that space between then and now, Linda and I have kept in touch and she has always been willing to read and critique the poems I’ve sent to her. When she found out I was applying to VCFA, she contacted me immediately and gave me the Tony Robbins treatment to quiet my panic that I wouldn’t be accepted. She told me that this was the perfect place for me. She was right.

For Folk’s Sake: In Brief with GennaRose Nethercott

by Desmond Peeples

 

 

This fall will be many readers’ first introductions to GennaRose Nethercott’s potent, monstrously creative poetry. Her debut book, The Lumberjack’s Dove, has earned the loyalty of Louise Glück, queen of night poems here in America, and will be published in October as a National Poetry Series winner. If you don’t know GennaRose yet, you can find her poems all over the internet—but your paths may have crossed already.

More than any other young poet I know, GennaRose has worked to spread her writing’s reach far and wide, body to body. She’s busked custom poems-to-order in cities across America and Europe (you can order online, too); architects and small business owners have commissioned her words, paired them with million-dollar homes and displayed them as product copy; she is in constant collaboration, always crossing her work with other creative disciplines; she winters in New Orleans, has slept on a bookshelf in Paris.

GennaRose is an old friend, a co-conspirator—we ran a ruthless kindergarten gang together, and more recently an indie lit mag—and a fellow Vermonter. Over the long, storm-addled winter, we paper airplaned this brief interview between New Orleans and Montpelier:

From the passersby who prompt your poems-to-order to the musicians featured in your recent album of ballads, a diverse array of perspectives, both artistic and otherwise, have been welcomed into your creative process. As a poet, what is the significance of collaboration and community to your work?

On the purest level, my collaborative work stems from loneliness. Being a writer is often immensely isolating, and I’ve long struggled with how to maintain my creative practice while still being a member of society, still connecting with other people. Often, I fail at balancing the two. However, with collaborations such as the ballads or the poems to order, I’m able to escape that isolation—and allow forging relationships with other people to be not a distraction, but rather an essential part of the creative process.

Beyond that, working with other people and other artists allows my work to transcend my own limitations. Take the Modern Ballads album, for example: I wrote a series of narrative ballads that I wanted to take the form of songs. I’m not a skilled enough musician or singer to lend them the sounds I desired for them, so I partnered with a team of professional musicians who set the ballads to music and performed them. Thus, the lyrics were able to far exceed the limits of my own skills, and become better works of art. Other creators are amazing! Don’t get so bogged down by a sense of do-it-yourself egoism that you prevent your work from being as good as others might help it grow to be.

Could you talk a bit more about what inspired the Modern Ballads project, and what drew you to the ballad form in general?

The idea for Modern Ballads first materialized when I was living in Scotland, studying oral folk traditions as part of my undergrad. I became infatuated with the work of ballad collector Francis James Child, who traveled England and Scotland in the 1800s, gathering and transcribing traditional songs and poems. At the core, I was mainly drawn to the storytelling aspect—ballads, by definition, are poems/songs that tell a story. They’re narrative, telling of illicit love affairs and murders and rogue fairies. They have a mystical quality to them that enchanted me. I thought, How cool would it be to write a series of new ballads, based on, and slightly subverting, those traditional forms? To study the Child Ballads, and create something contemporary? And then have a bunch of bands set them to music? At the time I tabled the idea, because I didn’t know any musicians. Then four years later, I moved to Boston and fell in with the folk music scene—and now I know too many musicians. So figured I may as well make use of ’em.

Your work as a folklorist clearly influences the majority of your poems and stories. In your writing—and in the writing world at large, if it’s not too much—what are some essential ways that folklore and literature intersect? And for that matter, have you encountered any fundamental conflicts between the two fields?

At the core, folklore and literature are both about reflecting the society which creates them—designed function as a mirror of the time and environment in which they were born. But where they differ is largely in process: Literature is single-authored, written down, and static, while a folktale is authored by many voices, passed through oral storytelling, and changes with each telling to adapt to whatever time and circumstance it’s in. Those differences aren’t in conflict, however—they just both fulfill different roles in the world of storytelling. And for me, it’s the storytelling ability of each that’s fascinating. The potential to snatch away a reader/listener and deposit them in some other life.

Your forthcoming book, The Lumberjack’s Dove, tells the story in poems of a lumberjack whose hand, when chopped off, becomes a dove. The idea reminds me of a quote from the folklorist and fairy tale scholar, Jack Zipes: “If there is one ‘constant’ in the structure and theme of the wonder tale, it is transformation.” To you, what is the greater significance of transformation within folklore, and within your own writing?

Shapeshifting is my ultimate obsession in storytelling. Because as we all know, change is unyielding and constant. It never sleeps. Shapeshifting stories allow this truth to manifest literally—so ultimately, transformation is ever-present in lore because it is ever-present in life. In shapeshifting lover tales, for example, where a sweetheart morphs between an animal and human form, it forces us to ask ourselves: Do we truly know those we love? Can we be sure they will maintain the Selves we know them as? At what point do we stop recognizing our dear ones? Ourselves? And in the case of Lumberjack, in which a part of his body, a part of himself, is severed and transformed, it speaks to how once something, even something we consider fully ours, is taken away, it belongs to itself. It becomes something new. And once something changes, truly changes, to the point of sprouting wings or fangs or scales, nothing can ever return to what it was.

As a winner of this year’s National Poetry Series, The Lumberjack’s Dove marks your arrival on the national literary scene. What’s your ideal public role as a writer with national readership?

I’m still figuring this out, since that position is so new and strange and surprising for me. But ultimately, I just want to be able to continue writing and have my work connect with readers in a way that offers some sort of solidarity and giddiness. I want readers to feel seen when they encounter my work. And personally, I want to be on the road as much as possible, touring my writing, doing readings, meeting people in-person. I’ve always been drawn to the traveling bard archetype, so part of me wants to embody a modern version of that—to serve as a sort of footsoldier for language and story, an ambassador.

Here’s a quickie—what have you been reading lately? What literary happenings have you excited?

I just read The Bear and the Nightingale, which is a beautiful Russian fairy tale by Katherine Arden (the sequel was just released, as well). Before that, I gleefully shimmied my way through Before the Devil Breaks You, the third book in Libba Bray’s The Diviners series, which are YA books about teen psychic flappers in 1920s New York City who fight ghosts and investigate occult murders. All the best things! And I’m always re-reading everything Kelly Link ever wrote. I’m super into contemporary fabulist fiction writers. If you’ve ever been near me when I’m tipsy at a party, you know this, because I basically just ramble the words, “Kelly Link! Aimee Bender! Karen Russell! Angela Carter! Helen Oyeyemi!” on repeat like some kind of sports chant. Oh, and I just got Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, which I haven’t started yet but am very excited to dive into.

Care to share any new projects you’re working on?

I’ve been chipping away at a book of spooky short stories (possessed roosters, paper children, women turning into houses, etc…), and agent-hunting for another manuscript of mine which is a bestiary of imagined creatures. Otherwise, prepping The Lumberjack’s Dove to come out in the fall, and Modern Ballads to drop in the early spring.

~

GennaRose Nethercott is the author of The Lumberjack’s Dove (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2018), selected by Louise Glück as a winner of the National Poetry Series. Her other projects include A Ghost of Water (an ekphrastic collaboration with printmaker Susan Osgood) and the narrative song collection Modern Ballads. Her work has appeared in The Offing, Rust & Moth, PANK, and elsewhere, and she has been a writer-in-residence at the Vermont Studio Center, Art Farm Nebraska, and the Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris.

She tours nationally and internationally composing poems-to-order for strangers on a 1952 Hermes Rocket typewriter—and is the founder of the Traveling Poetry Emporium, a team of poets-for-hire. Nethercott holds a degree in poetry, theatre, and folklore from Hampshire College. A Vermont native, she has lived in many cities across the US and Europe, but is always drawn back to the forest.

On Finding Nourishment and Sanctuaries: An Interview with Maggie Nowinski

by Cameron Finch

Maggie Nowinski (MFAin Visual Art ’07) is an interdisciplinary visual artist, arts educator, and curator who lives and works in Western Massachusetts. Her work frequently exhibits throughout the New England region, as well as nationally. In addition to teaching at Westfield State University and Manchester Community College, Maggie also serves as an Artist-Teacher mentor for current MFA students at Vermont College of Fine Arts. When VCFA Visual Art faculty member, Humberto Ramirez, recommended Maggie’s work to be featured in the newest issue of Hunger Mountain: The VCFA Journal of the Arts, I instantly connected with her work, which explores “themes of internal and external processes.” Her drawings of botanicalized human organs are both familiar and utterly original. Maggie is an inspiration to me for her incredible artistic talents as well as her drive to persevere as an artist. She was kind enough to allow me to interview her. Here, we discuss her artistic life, as well as the development of her “signature style.”

 

Can you remember the first time you drew something and thought, “I want to be an artist?” Can you take us back to that moment?

I don’t think there was a singular “aha” moment. When I was a child, I constantly built and decorated structures I could put my body in (making elaborate forts) inside our small apartments and outdoors too, and I was always drawing. I made sure to pack drawing supplies with me wherever I went.

Although I pretty much lived in my high school’s art rooms, I didn’t even consider pursuing art in college. In fact, I was caught between focusing on African American Studies, Psychology, and Photography as major disciplines. It was my first roommate—an art major herself—who encouraged me to make art. I took a figure drawing class at the University of Massachusetts after my freshman year and was shocked to find I could draw well from observation. I found it all a bit seductive. Perhaps this was the “aha” moment! I made some more work and put together a portfolio and was accepted into the art program at my university.

The next big moment came in my first painting class when my professor assigned us to do a single object small painting. I worked so hard and was quite proud of mine (a toy cow figurine on a pillow). He totally trashed it. My feelings were hurt, but then I thought “I’m going to be an artist. I’m going to be a painter.”

 

What was life as a VCFA student like for you?

I loved it! I was 33 years old when I entered the program and I was working as a bartender/waitress, retail in a musical instrument store, and playing in bands. After my BFA at State University of New York at New Paltz, my priority was to have a giant studio in a former industrial building. So at age 23, I made it happen and loved my studio space (which was 1500 square feet). Growing up, I experienced a lot of displacement, but I found myself really rooted in my community and my studio and so while I knew I wanted to push my work into a more rigorous dialogue, I didn’t want to relocate. Low-residency seemed perfect.

I entered the program with paintings – some mixed media, some oil. I moved quickly into installation—incorporating found and collected objects, sculpture, sound, video, and photography. Drawing always played a part in moving through ideas, but was not in the foreground of my work in any recognizable way. In my final two semesters, I made complex multimedia installations centered around singular large structures with a clear interior and exterior spatial significance. In a way, I returned to that childhood practice of making and decorating forts.

During my final semester at VCFA, I became interested in the possibility of teaching at the college level. I knew I didn’t want to rely on my artwork for income as my art making felt entirely unrelated to a market economy and was feeling like I’d gotten all the community and intellectual fulfillment out of bartending that I could. Having connections in my community, I asked a professor at a local community college if I could be his TA. After graduating, I was at an after-school arts program, teaching kids with autism, before landing my first adjunct teaching position at Manchester Community College. Subsequently, I kept adding classes at different colleges and universities in studio art and art history. It was certainly a learning curve with each subject, but I have grown to really love teaching.

 

As an emerging artist myself, I have to ask, have you ever found it difficult to sustain yourself? How do you support your physical self and your creativity?

Being an artist is difficult. I’ve worked hard (we all do). I have never had a problem making work and showing work and have done so consistently since receiving my BFA in 1997. Still, I think I’m constantly emerging. I have always found ways to sustain a focus on my studio practice—I guess my drive for creative output is something I have prioritized nourishing above other things in my life. I also found that collaborating with other artists has been an exciting way to produce projects, including curating. I think VCFA inspired me to engage with other artists in my communities (local and in terms of colleagues) and that has kept me in a creative, connected zone. I maintain a regular crit group with area artists.

My work, however, does not financially sustain me in a direct way. I have received grants and do sell some work here and there, but this is not something I have relied on and I haven’t wanted to put pressure on my work to sustain me in that way. Teaching has managed to sustain me and has proved to be a creative process in a different way from my studio work. While I have had consistent teaching gigs, as an adjunct it is always a struggle as there is no real job security from one semester to the next. I’m lucky to feel valued and somewhat secure at this point in the institutions where I teach. As I get older and take on more projects, I find it’s an ongoing challenge to balance everything and protect studio time. As a result, my projects have become a bit more reigned in and I only look for funding when I want to pursue larger-scale or site-sensitive projects.

 

How did you develop your “signature” style?

I was asked to be in a show with the loose theme of “Laboratory.” I had been playing with stains made by Advil and OTC NSAID, and I noticed the different colors for each generic brand. I have semi-chronic migraines and these over-the-counters are always around! I decided to make an installation expanding on these experiments, and dig in a bit more conceptually. One part was a series of drawings I made on OTC NSAID stained paper. The drawings depicted internal organs that deal with digestion. I loved using the pen and ink approach and in a way, this was a hook for me. I had so much fun drawing in this precise way and I was ready to take my practice back into the studio having done some large projects mostly out of the studio. Conceptually, the work grew and changed from there and I sort of shed all of the elements, allowing myself to hone in on drawing. This was in 2013…I’m still hooked.

 

I’m fascinated by the precision of your drawings of human anatomy and biological processes! Do you study medical diagrams in order to make art with such accuracy?

I look at a lot of source imagery and then I put it away. At first I was more strict about the source imagery I was looking at—mostly human organs that deal with digestion and a myriad of esteemed medical illustrations, like Gray’s Anatomy. A friend lent me a book of turn-of-the-century illustrations and botanical remedies, and I used this as a sourcebook for a while. I quickly let go of rules I had around source imagery and this opened the door to look at microscopic organisms, deep sea life, fossils, fungi and various botanical forms. There are a few books I return to for inspiration, such as Karl Blossfeldt’s Art Forms in the Plant World. I tend to return to drawing continuous contour from observation, but I let go of the need to make my forms function in terms of scientific logic. I imagine that each is a living system—with locations for intelligence and intention, a muscular center, circulatory, digestion and nervous systems, and limbs for mobility.

 

 

How do you know what will result in a drawing and what belongs as an installation?

I think there is a kind of fluidity for me between different iterations of my work—materially and conceptually. I just finished a wall piece, called wHoles, for a show in Easthampton where I installed hundreds of cut-out drawings in the corner of the gallery. I knew these would be more of an installation because of the repetition of the form and this particular show provided me an opportunity to try something with them. They are arranged so that they seem to enter from beyond the corner—as if moving into the space. This felt far more natural to me than putting framed pieces on a wall.

 

What kind of environment do you work best in?

My studio is now 1,000 square feet, still in the same industrial warehouse from the 1890’s. It has lots of light, a view of our local mountain and other cool local businesses and artist studios in the building. I love working there. I’ve also done some site-specific projects. One was an installation in an abandoned jail cell-block in the city of Holyoke, MA that had all the makings to be creepy. It wound up feeling like a kind of sanctuary. I also made a giant mirrored-shed/camera obscura at a beautiful apple orchard and it was a pleasure to work outside. Nowadays I love my drawing practice in the studio and depending on what stage of the drawing I am working on, I listen to podcasts, audiobooks, music or am silent.

 

Where do you go to nurture your creativity?

My studio! Art museums and galleries. The woods. The fields behind my house. Greenhouses with crazy succulents. MassMoCa. NYC (the street art gets me revved). The ICA in Boston…so many to name. Also, unexpectedly, Instagram has introduced me to some inspiring artists.

 

What’s next?

I will have work included in an exhibition of select Fine Art New England Faculty at the Berkshire Museum in North Adams this summer (opening in June 2018) and I have a number of collaborations on the horizon. Mostly, I want to reserve time to start developing some animation skills. I have been playing with hacky stop motion bits with my drawings and I’d like to get a bit more of a handle on working with animation for installation with sound.

 

Ruben Quesada Talks Poetry, Translation, and Neck Tattoos

by Blake Z. Rong

Ruben Quesada & Miciah Bay Gault in Cafe Anna

On the right side of his neck, just below his ear, poet and professor Ruben Quesada has a tattoo of the Chinese character 晨, set within a thick black circle, which he tells me means, “early light.” Quesada was born on an early morning in a late summer day, in August in the 1970s. “I feel that idea of light embodies who I am, and my personality,” he said. Getting that tattoo “seemed like the right thing to do.”

Quesada (MFA, PhD) grew up in Bell, an oft-overlooked city tangled within Los Angeles’ grid-like boulevards, five miles southeast from downtown, close to where the 5 and 710 Freeways converge. His mother immigrated from Costa Rica just before he was born. With the help of relatives she left Quesada’s father and an abusive relationship to move to Southern California, where she worked to raise Quesada and his two sisters. Next door was a Chinese family that had come from Nicaragua. They had six children, five of them daughters. The son was just a month older than Quesada.

“We became best friends,” said Quesada. “From kindergarten to high school we were practically inseparable. I was at their house daily. I learned so many things I would have never learned within my own family. I learned about pop culture, about computers, about nature—I would go camping with them, to Sequoia National Park, Yosemite, Joshua Tree. Because my mother had to work, she couldn’t take any time off to take us on vacations. I learned about their culture, their daily way of life. This family took me in.”

When Quesada completed his MFA, he sought a reminder of the past. In many ways, he said, earning graduate degrees in the arts severs you from this personal history: you either have to let go of it, or find a way to integrate it into your work. “I knew there was a lot that I had to let go,” he said. “But growing up with that family was something I wanted to hang on to, and to be physically a part of me.”

Quesada’s debut poetry collection, Next Extinct Mammal, was published by Greenhouse Review Press in 2011. He is the translator of Spanish poet Luis Cernuda’s work, Exiled from the Throne of Night. When he is not teaching, he serves as Contributing Editor to the Chicago Review of Books, Senior Editor at the UK-based Queen Mob’s Tea House, and the moderator of the AWP Conference’s annual Latino Caucus, which he founded. He earned his MFA at the University of California Riverside, then a PhD at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, a town he recently immortalized in verse.

On the cusp of debuting his second collection of poetry, Quesada sat down with me at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where he’s teaching a course on poetry and translation. We spoke in Café Anna, on the ground floor of College Hall, named after the ghost that still haunts the building.

 

Do you still talk to your friend?

Not regularly. After high school, he did what many people you grow up with do—people move, people get married…we lost touch just after graduate school. Almost 30 years after we met.

 

So he doesn’t know about the tattoo.

No.

 

But he’d probably be pretty excited.

I think his whole family would be! I think of them often.

 

Were you able to find a unique identity as a Central American in California, within the Hispanic and largely Mexican community?

That’s a good question. In the Los Angeles area there are predominantly Mexican people, and in the city of Bell, there were a few other Central Americans. I remember knowing a handful of El Salvadorian people, maybe one or two from Nicaragua. Early on, I knew that Latino culture was quite diverse, that there were others who spoke Spanish like me, but maybe not held the same ideas about food, or ritual, or tradition. The unifying factor was language. We understood that our way of life was different. But we all could speak to each other in Spanish.

 

How did you come to poetry growing up?

My mother encouraged me to read early on, read widely and broadly. She gave me a book of poems by Pablo Neruda that she had brought with her from Costa Rica. That was my first exposure to poems. But I didn’t really think I could make a life with it.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started writing letters, which was cathartic. I didn’t understand that writing letters could be a form of poetic expression until high school. My school offered college guidance, but the resources were minimal: I didn’t know that I could go to college and study poetry. I was very good at math and science, and I was going to major in physics, but at the very last minute I discovered that if I majored in English, I could still have access to poetry.

Ultimately, I ended up going to a community college and taking classes in poetry writing before transferring to Riverside, because it had a department of creative writing that was separate from English. It was then that I knew that I could major and focus in poetry, and I learned that I could make a living teaching poetry.

 

When you graduated, you said: “I knew that I wanted to lead a life in the arts.” Did you ever have any doubts?

I had doubts because I heard that it was difficult to get a full-time job teaching poetry with just an MFA. Even now, with a PhD, it’s still quite difficult. I wanted to do it full-time. So it was a really interesting psychological change—but also, the tattoo was a bodily change, right? Having changed my appearance in this way immediately limited the kind of work that I’d get. In many ways, it forced my hand.

I doubted whether I could make a living mostly because I didn’t have any models. I didn’t know anyone who did it except for the professors that I had. And none of them looked like me. None of them had the same background that I had. It became critically important to me that I ensure that the visibility and presence of people of color, and queer people were in the literary community in the arts. And so that is one of my passions: not only to create space, but to feature their work.

 

Ruben Quesada smiles at podium in front of abstract posters at Cafe Anna

Ruben Quesada reading at Cafe Anna

Translation must have been inevitable from the study of poetry.

I believe that any time we speak, it’s a form of translation. Any time we’re trying to convey the ideas that we have in our own head, and we put those ideas into language, it’s a form of translation. But what really draws me to poetry is that initial interaction I had with it when my mother gave me that Neruda book as a child. While I grew up speaking Spanish and learning to read Spanish, it always felt like something that I wanted to share with others in my life who didn’t speak Spanish. I knew that the best way to do that is to interpret those words into a language that was familiar to those I knew.

 

If you could convey one thing to our translation class you’re teaching this semester, what would it be?

Over time, the concept of translation has changed for me. In recent years, I started putting words to images, to sound. There’s an interesting take on a biblical passage from Genesis that is on my Soundcloud page. I translated Genesis into the sound of gunfire and also into the sound of a harp. Like language, it’s a really interesting performative aspect to translation. I continue to challenge my own notions of translation. Now that I have a chance to teach it, I have a really interesting, challenging thing to do. But my hope is to show others how translation can live in these multiple forms.

I think there’s certainly an academic notion that translation is a lexical exercise where you’re translating something word for word, or sentence to sentence, but what I believe is important is being able to convey an idea or an emotion that might bridge or transgress language or culture.

 

An alum from this program recently founded their own journal, and you’ve had your hand in two: Codex Journal and Stories & Queer. It seems to be something that a lot of us might pursue.

I started Codex in 2011, during my final years at Texas Tech University. I wanted to find a way to integrate tech and also create a space for people who weren’t visible, including an annual queer people of color issue that ran once a year.

Stories & Queer is a traveling reading series that my partner and I started in 2013. Its aim is to travel to rural areas where there’s a lack of visibility of LGBT people—we find a space and we create a literary event, so people there have an opportunity to tell their stories. In Montpelier I’m currently organizing a literary event with a Vermont group called Outright.

 

What are some things that surprised you when you launched a journal?

Codex has been on hiatus for some time. But toward the end, I found guest editors. It takes a lot of time to curate an issue—this was a quarterly journal, and even four times a year, it was a lot of time to try to either solicit or go through submissions and create a cohesive idea for each issue. Even though I found guest editors, trying to find a guest editor who was passionate about a particular idea also took a lot of time. It’s a digital journal, and that also takes some financial backing. To ensure that all the work I publish lives online, I have to continue hosting that URL. There are so many small journals I see disappear in a year, mostly because people don’t have the time and money to ensure that it’s gonna be around. The long game is important. If you’re going to feature people’s work, you owe them the space to ensure them that their work will survive.

Maybe it didn’t necessarily surprise me, but I don’t know if surprise is the right word—it renewed my respect for literary institutions that have been around for decades.

 

What drew you toward Luis Cernuda and his work?

I was drawn to Spanish language poetry because of my background. The most recognizable poets of Spain might be those of the late 19th or early 20th century, a group known as the Generation of ‘27. That includes another recognizable name: Federico García Lorca. Cernuda was a contemporary. They were the only two gay poets of that group—Lorca was not out, but Cernuda was. In many ways, his openness with his sexuality may have hindered his success. I started studying Cernuda during my MFA program, and began to translate my work then. There are three American poets who have translated most of his work—Reginald Gibbons, Derek Harris, and Stephen Kessler who’s won many awards for his translation of Cernuda.

 

But there is one collection by him that has not been completely translated. When I was in graduate school I reached out to his family and acquired rights to translate his work. It’s his collection called Las Nubes, or “The Clouds”, that I’m currently working on. As I finish my second collection of poems, I’m slowly returning to Cernuda.

 

How does Las Nubes fit into his overall body of work?

This collection was written in exile. Cernuda self-exiled in 1937 and he never returned. So these poems were written during his time outside of Spain. He taught at Columbia University and at UCLA, and it’s during his time at UCLA that he died. So it’s interesting to translate these poems that were written in his native language, while he was outside of his home country.

The poems align themselves with most of his other work, which is spare, influenced by surrealism, and focused on love and desire. Throughout his body of work, he’s wrestled with his homosexual desires and how that fit into his world. He does that through the implication of the body and nature.

 

Tell me about your second collection of poetry.

The second collection is a departure from my first. My first collection is focused on my time in LA, my childhood, and my family. I think place and family play a prominent role in that collection. If someone was to examine many first collections of poetry by Latino writers, they might find that those are pretty common themes.

The current manuscript is focused on desire and religion. The book is organized by different Catholic sacraments—there’s a section on communion, there’s a section on confession, and the poems are organized in parts. One section might have a title, but poems in that section are numbered. What’s different about the way they look is that they’re laid out in blocks of text with no punctuation, so they appear to look as tablets.

The idea for that really came to me when I was reading at the Art Institute of Chicago. There was a Mayan stone in the shape of a square. The stone itself tells a story in hieroglyphs. Those glyphs reminded me of contemporary use of images to convey ideas, emojis, and I began to think of my use of imagery in a similar fashion.

 

You said you live in Chicago. How do you like the city?

I love Chicago. I’ve been in the Midwest five years, but I’ve lived in Chicago just over two. There’s many things I like about it. Its public transit, the skyline, the lake, the weather. The way the city is laid out reminds me of Los Angeles in many ways: the city spreads out into little neighborhoods just the way Los Angeles does. So in many ways it feels like home.

I’ve considered living in cities like New York City and I still think about it sometimes, but the pace of New York makes me a bit nauseous. There’s just too much happening at once. Los Angeles is in retrospect too spread out. Chicago is busy enough and there’s enough culture that it feels like a middle ground.

 

How do you write? Do you write at home, in a coffee shop, etc?

I write anywhere I can, at any moment. Revision is a different story. When I revise, most of the time I’ll revise at a desk, at a table.

I love revising, I think I do it too much sometimes. You know, I’m reminded of Walt Whitman’s incessant revisions of Leaves of Grass and I have to remind myself to step away and not labor so much over an idea or a moment in a poem. I try to step away from something as often as I can.

Michael Brosnan Feels Like One of the Lucky Ones: Poets in Conversation

by Lennie DeCerce

poet Michael BrosnanMichael Brosnan is a writer, educator, and editor. He is the author of Against the Current, a book on inner-city education for kids at risk of dropping out and most recently, The Sovereignty of the Accidental, his debut collection of poetry.

Brosnan’s poetry has appeared in numerous journals, including: ConfrontationNew LettersBarrow StreetPrairie SchoonerThe Moth, and Rattle.

His work has won awards from the University of New Hampshire, C.W. Post College, The Live Poets Society of Maine, New LettersWest Winds Review, and the PEN Syndicated Writing Project.

As an adjunct, Brosnan taught writing at Queens College, C.W. Post College, and the University of New Hampshire.

He was the longtime editor of Independent School, an award-winning quarterly magazine on precollegiate education and is currently the senior editor for Teaching While White (www.teachingwhile.com), a website dedicated to assisting white educators develop the cultural competencies to teach all students well across the racial spectrum.

Michael Brosnan expresses the awe and wonder he brings to the literary art in his writer’s statement. “I feel like one of the lucky ones,” he writes. “Years ago, I was walking home from a day of picking apples for meager wages. Passing by the English department at the local university, I got the notion to walk inside, find a writing professor, and ask him what I need to do to be a writer. To my amazement, he opened the door for a dirty, hungry kid in need of a shower and a mentor. I’m still writing in gratitude. I’m still amazed.”

Lennie DeCerce: Your poem, “Cocktail Hour,” was published in Rattle, 2016. I was struck by your writer’s statement – there’s so much love in it. I see the petals of a flower opening. A boy beginning to breathe holy air. How has that experience influenced/informed you as poet, practitioner, and literary citizen living and working in the world?

Michael Brosnan: I suppose it’s good that Rattle asked for a nontraditional bio. For most author bios, I usually just note some of my publications and small details of my work and life. But Rattle forced me to think about why I write — and to be concise about it. The generosity that one professional writer showed me — it was Theodore Weesner, author of The Car Thief, by the way — was one of those life lessons I’ve tried to hold on to. And, yes, it was a pivotal moment in my life, because I wanted to learn to write well and here was a successful writer inviting me into the community. I don’t think I’ve ever worked as hard as I did in graduate school, mostly to prove that I belonged.

It’s obvious to say: Humanity is a jumble of things — from selfish and indifferent to generous and giving. I think all of us bounce around this emotional spectrum, maybe even daily. But I try to remember in my writing and my life that the point is to make our limited time on this planet as fulfilling as possible — for ourselves and others. Although we know of plenty of artists and writers who have lived less than exemplary lives, I think of art and literature as a collective effort to make life more meaningful. I hope some of my poems help.

LD: The question of the semester for us at VCFA has been why do you write? I like to think the response is relatively the same for all writers – because we can’t not – but I wonder, what brings us to the page? What brought you?

MB: I wasn’t a great student in school. I didn’t read a ton as a child. My family had books around. But I didn’t know any writers and my parents didn’t encourage or discourage me from writing. I spent most of my childhood either outdoors or wanting to be outdoors. I was more athlete than writer. But I think some of us are just inclined toward art and literature — and maybe there’s a way to trace the cultural influences, and maybe not.

Oddly enough, my writing path was formed in part by the fact that I didn’t like much of what I read in school. By my mid-teens, however, I was starting to read works that completely took me by surprise and engaged my mind the way no earlier literature had. One summer evening in high school, for instance, my brother handed me a copy of Rolling Stone with an installment of Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I read it straight through — almost stunned that someone did any of these things or that a publication would ever publish it. I think the thought bubble over my head read: “If he can do this, I can write about anything!” Years later, I reread Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and didn’t care for it. But at the time it opened up the possibility of writing for me.

My path as a writer has been a serpentine, intuitive journey. I suppose I’m still writing because I’ve enjoyed the journey, because I have found the art of poetry so compelling and both personally and culturally valuable.

LD: A major force that drives me is obsession. My pupils narrow and I am ill-content until I exhaust a focal point or am distracted by another. What force drives you? What are your obsessions?

MB: I experience that ill-content, too. I recently published a poem titled “Good Morning, Get Up” in the blog of young online literary journal. The editors asked if I’d be willing to be interviewed about the poem — about what I see going on in the poem. We haven’t actually had that conversation, but I reread “Good Morning, Get Up” a number of times trying to think about that conversation, what I’d say. I’m much happier not talking about what my poems mean and what impulses led to their creation — probably because so much of the process is felt. But looking at the poem again, I could see it is partly about that inner drive in all of us. We wake up and we’re not content — at least most days — to just sit there and do nothing. We seem to be genetically inclined to engage with the world in novel ways. “Good Morning, Get Up” is a short poem about our nature — about nature’s nature — to create.

What compels me is the same force that compels musicians to get better at their instruments or athletes to get better at their game. I want to see where writing can take me. I want to do it well. I want readers to feel drawn in by my poetry. I want them to find something there. So I wake up and work. To tell the truth, much of my time is spent doing other writing and editing — to earn a living. But I make sure I fit in poetry. I’m kind of a miserable person when I don’t.

LD: I find a certain Philip Levine quality to your work – such fluid narrative! Is he an influence of yours? Who are your writers?

MB: I’m so glad you mention Philip Levine. Many writers have influenced me in direct and indirect ways. But Levine would be on my short list of most influential poets. I love his work — especially about “work.” I was recently doing a reading with another poet, John Paul O’Connor, who also mentioned Philip Levine as a major influence. Maybe Levine is a mentor for many white male writers of a certain age. I don’t know. I just know I read his work and both love it and get supremely jealous (which is one way I know I’d admire another writer). I love the way he finds so much poetry in the slog of daily living.

As you know, I just published The Sovereignty of the Accidental with Harbor Mountain Press. What you don’t know is that I had sent out an earlier version of this book to a few contests without any luck. But in one of those contests, the final judging poet chose my manuscript as an honorable mention — in a contest that didn’t have an honorable mention category. The poet: Philip Levine.

“My writers,” as you put it, change with time, which I think of as a good thing. It means, I hope, that my writing evolves. But here’s a short list of the poets who are up there on my stage with Philip Levine this year: Eamon Grennan, Anne Carson, Charles Simic, Wislawa Szymborska, Li-Young Lee, Linda Pastan, Wallace Stevens, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Seamus Heaney. I don’t like the idea of having a list like this, of course. There are so many amazing poets out there currently writing stunningly moving and engaging poems. What I love most is the idea of swimming in this beautiful stream with all of them, learning something from every poem I read.

LD: You worked as editor at Independent School magazine for 20 years, taught high school, college, led writing workshops for educators – how have you found time to write? Have you developed tricks along the way? Do you have a writing schedule?

MB: Most of the busy-ness has been out of necessity — the need to make a living. But I’ve also enjoyed most of the non-poetic work I’ve done. Editing Independent School for 20 years is probably the most surprising thing. I didn’t expect to stay so long, but it turns out that the field of education is one of our major cultural battlefields and the past twenty years have been interesting and challenging times. I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to help shape the conversation on what matters in education — and I’ve loved connecting with so many amazing, committed educators over the years. Educators deserve more love and support from us than they get. I’m still engaged in writing and editing pieces on education because I believe the future of the planet depends in part on the quality of our schools.

But, yes, it can be hard to find time for poetry. I think what has helped me stay focused is that I’ve made sure I continue to read poetry so that I’m constantly thinking about poetry, even when not actively writing. I make sure I give some quality time to it weekly. Some weeks that means every day. Some weeks that means longer hours on the weekend. Now, I mostly try to dedicate my first few hours of the day to poetry. If I have time in my work schedule, I’ll pull up some poems that are still in draft form and hammer away at them for a while — see if I can move them to a better place. What matters is that I keep things moving forward. Be patient, but committed. In truth, I often wish I had had more time for poetry.

LD: In addition to finding or making time to write, do you have a particular place you like to write? An office? Coffee shop? Do you need silence or prefer the noise of the world?

MB: I have no special place. I write at home or in coffee shops or in libraries. I’ll write on trains and planes and in the car parked by the beach with the dog looking impatiently out the window. Most of my writing is at home — usually at the kitchen counter. But I find staying at home, writing alone, can make me feel disconnected. So I often head out to local coffee shops to write. If I’m interrupted by a friend or neighbor, that’s fine. It’s important to feel like part of a larger community, right?

LD: Your book, Against the Current: How One School Struggled and Succeeded with At-Risk Teens, was the basis for the 2009 documentary Accelerating America. The documentary won the Special Jury Prize at the Seattle International Film Festival and the Best Documentary at the Rhode Island International Film Festival. Would you care to talk about how that happened?

MB: First, I encourage everyone to see the film. It’s an inspiring story. I wrote the book in the mid-1990s — mostly as a way to help this one school and its amazing principal get the attention they deserve. Writing the book was a big risk for me. I didn’t have a publisher when I started, but I decided to quit my job at the time to dedicate myself full-time to visiting the school, interviewing folks, reading up on education, writing the book, and searching for a publisher. Of course, I ended up broke and needing to borrow money just to eat. And I needed to find a job quickly after writing it. But I’m glad I took the risk.

The school in question, the Urban Collaborative Accelerated Program, is in Providence, RI. The filmmaker, Tim Hotchner, was a student at Brown University who volunteered at the school for one semester. If I have the story right, after he graduated from Brown, he went off to study filmmaking. When my book came out, he read it and returned to the school to say he wanted to make a documentary film on the place. I’m not sure how influential the book was in the process, but I like to think it help Tim Hotchner get clarity about the value and importance of this particular story.

Of course, I encourage folks to read the book, too. It’s out of print, but easy to find online.

LD: As both educator and writer, do you have any advice for writing students? A personal philosophy that keeps you grounded? Pearls of wisdom you’ve gained through the years?

MB: If you want to be a writer, trust that instinct, read and write steadily, find a community of writers to connect with, do whatever kind of work you need to do to stay fed. There are no guarantees, but most everyone I know who has wanted to be a writer is now a writer in some capacity.

Most of us are full of doubts — especially as young writers. Some days, I still tell myself that I’m not smart enough or good enough to be a “real” writer — but now I’m experienced enough to tell myself to shut up and write. The joy is in the daily creative engagement. Don’t overlook that while worrying about how things will turn out ten years down the road.

LD: If you could attend a weekend writer’s retreat surrounded only by colleagues and practitioners, alive or dead, who would you choose?

MB: I suppose I’d enjoy a weekend with the poets I noted earlier. But I’d also be fine to be surprised. If you want to pick the group — any group of dedicated writers — I’m sure we’ll have a great weekend. If they can cook and play musical instruments, even better.

Alternatively, I might pick the talented poets who live in Exeter, NH, where I currently live. The group would include Maggie Dietz, Todd Hearon, Ralph Sneeden, Matt Miller, Kevin King, Sarah Anderson, Kelly Flynn, and Willie Perdomo. I’m probably missing a number of people, for which I apologize. From a literary perspective, this is a very interesting town. And because I’m stupidly shy sometimes, it would be nice to be with people I already know and admire. If possible, could we spend the weekend at the Fogo Island Arts Residency in Newfoundland, Canada, around mid-July? Can you arrange that, and cover our transportation costs?

LD: Your debut book of poetry, The Sovereignty of the Accidental, was published December 31, 2017. While you already had books and individual poems published, did the publication of this collection feel different? Are you even more amazed?

MB: I’m not amazed. I feel as if I should have had a book out much earlier in my life. But I’m thrilled that the book is out. And I’m grateful to Peter Money at Harbor Mountain Press for finding me. I’m also grateful to my daughter, Molly Brosnan, for producing such engaging, beautiful cover art. Publishing the book has been a wonderful experience mostly because it has connected me with people in new ways. Lots of people have known I write poetry, but few of them read any of my work in journals. The book has started new and deeply engaging conversations. Because of my earlier book and other writing on education, I’ve had interesting, important, thoughtful, deeply enjoyable conversations on education. It’s so wonderful now to be having similar conversations on poetry, too.

Peter Money, Editor of Harbor Mountain Press, tells us this:

“I was riding in a plane from Dublin when I read Michael Brosnan’s poem in The Moth. You know when you feel you’ve found a poet for keeps? At that moment I wondered if he had many books. Turns out, Brosnan had no poetry book. Now he does.”

THIS!! Writers, poets, wordsmiths, word engineers!! Do you see it? Do you see hope?

The Many Hats of Dede Cummings: An Interview

by Ma’ayan D’Antonio

From her corner in Brattleboro, Vermont, Dede Cummings has carved out a multifaceted career: poet, literary agent, publisher, and book designer. Her debut collection of poems, To Look Out From, won the 2016 Homebound Publications Poetry Prize: “New England poems that transcend New England,” praised the poet Clarence Major.

A little over three years ago she launched Green Writers Press from the kitchen of her home, a publisher that now boasts dozens of titles and a freelance staff of ten writers, editors, and interns. She runs the book design company DCDesign, continues to serve as a literary agent and consultant, and her journalism and poetry have appeared in publications such as Mademoiselle, The Lake, InQuire, Connotation Press, and Mom Egg Review. Cummings’ second book of poems, titled The Meeting Place, is due out in spring 2019 from Salmon Poetry.

As a young writer, it was her impressive work ethic and diverse publishing roles that fascinated me. I sat down with her to ask: how does one stay creative in a life that at times can be overflowing with other work?

 

Ma’ayan D’Antonio: What made you want to become an agent?

 Dede Cummings: When I started out in publishing after college, I worked at Little, Brown and Company in Boston. During that time, I was a book designer. In 1996, when I became a freelancer after I moved back to Vermont, I began to take on writers in the hopes of selling their work to larger publishers using the connections that I made at Little, Brown. I didn’t specifically seek to become an agent until 2005. At that time, I was doing more of my own writing, and I saw the need to help other writers find the best place for their work.

 

MD: How do you find it best to find new clients/writers?

 DC: Back when I started as a literary agent, I sent in my bio and photo to a blog that has tons of followers called Writing and Illustrating.  It was incredible, because after Kathy Temean posted my write-up and photo on the blog, my email just exploded with queries! One of the more recent books I sold was called Mountain to Mountain: Adventure and Activism for the Women of Afghanistan, which was auctioned to the highest bidder, St. Martin’s Press. That was exciting. I love being an agent, but it is incredibly hard work to sell a book, so I started small and got some encouragement from many of the big New York publishers. I still rep a few writers, and recently sold a book called Immunopatient: The New Frontier of Curing Cancer by Peter Rooney. Most of my writers find me through word of mouth or agent searches online. I don’t have a lot of time to agent, so I mostly write back and encourage them to keep trying!

 

MD: Do you find it easier to work with new writers or established writers?

 DC: As an agent, I mostly work with new writers, but as a publisher, I work with emerging writers and well-established writers alike. I like to work with writers who are not afraid to roll up their sleeves and work with me; writers who are helpful and understand that I don’t have all the time in the world to devote to their books since I, too, am a working writer. I usually feel them out as to how willing they are to actively participate in the process. Teamwork is important in publishing.

 

MD: How do you go about “branding” a writer?

 DC: When I first sign a writer, I send them an Author Questionnaire I have developed that has everything in one place. A book description is crucial—a short one, a longer one with a synopsis, and an elevator pitch of around 25 words. A good author bio and an author headshot, along with a list of previously published work and blurbs from other books, or blurbs for the new book from someone well-known in the field. The author folder and questionnaire help us build on the author’s platform.

Rather than using the term “branding” for a writer, I like to apply a mission statement to the work and emphasize how the author is uniquely positioned to write the book and sell it. Rather than the book being the only focus, the author becomes a brand and the book is just one product. Publishers like to go with big platform authors, but some are willing to take a risk on a lesser-known author who has a lot of momentum along with unique sales channels (i.e., they will do a TED talk and travel the country giving talks that are already part of their work; they have a large following due to some success or career path). For example, the author of Mountain to Mountain was a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, in the NY Times, and endorsed by Khaled Hosseini (author of The Kite Runner). Publishers were very interested in this first-time author’s platform.

It is very competitive out there in the big wide world of publishing, but good writing is still something that the editors are looking for. An agent’s job is to make a match, to find out what the editor is looking for, what they like and are signing, and have an instinct for what is selling on the market. It is a balancing act that requires a lot of patience and organization, as well as enthusiasm. When I pick up the phone to call an editor in New York, or Minneapolis, or wherever, I usually have my pitch typed out in front of me as back up, but I memorize it and present a short pitch that usually ends with the editor saying, “send it to me.”

 

MD: As part of the “branding” do you believe every writer should have a website?

DC: Yes, a website is pretty much de rigueur in the business these days—it is nice to have a link to share for the editor and marketing folks to look at where everything is in one place; however, that said, the writing sample and/or book proposal is what really needs to be solid and the attached marketing plan has to be well developed with an implementation strategy in place. Sometimes an editor goes immediately for the sample writing, or beginning of the novel, to see if the writing is good. These first 25-50 pages really need to be tight.

My advice to writers starting out is to keep trying, read the work in your field, apply for residencies (like Bread Loaf, The Vermont Studio Center), and set the bar where you feel comfortable (maybe try for The New Yorker anyway!). I recently had a poem accepted online by Green Mountains Review after trying for a number of years to get my work published there. One more piece of advice on the road to getting your work published, would be to attend the AWP Annual Conference and soak it all in and make connections. This year, they had an agent pitch and quite a few writers got picked up on the spot.

 

MD: What would you say your greatest literary accomplishment is, and why?

 DC: Without hesitating, I will say that I was completely blown away at the young age of 21, when a poem of mine was accepted by a then-prestigious magazine called Mademoiselle in New York City. They even paid me money for it and my college made a big fuss about it (I graduated with a poetry prize that year), and my parents were thrilled after having warned me during college that majoring in English with a focus on poetry was going to be a dead end career-wise! Then, I’d say having my first poetry book published (To Look Out From, Homebound Publications, 2017) and a book deal for my second poetry book (The Meeting Place, Salmon Poetry, due out in 2019) was the second-biggest accomplishment for me. I already had seven books published traditionally, but they were all nonfiction titles in the health and holistic living field, so having my creative work published was by far the greatest thrill.

 

MD: As a writer yourself, do you find it easier or harder to be an agent?

 DC: Now that my own writing is really a part of my life (as mentioned above, I was a late bloomer!), I am not as focused on being a literary agent. Being an agent and an editor is a very specific skill that can be rewarding (when you sell a book, or when you edit a great book and help it launch as a published work), but it is also time consuming and I just don’t have as much time as I would like to devote to being an agent. I don’t want to commit to signing a new writer unless I can devote everything I have to help them get published, so I decline many queries due to my day job as a book packager and a publisher.

 

MD: How does it feel to have your own collection of poems be out there for the world?
 

DC: When I give talks to writers’ leagues, or workshops, I always mention the fact that it took 30 years for me to get my first creative writing book deal—the audience usually groans!—but I always tell writers

To Look Out From by Dede Cummings

to “never give up.” I have been writing poetry all my life, but I never had the time to really devote to putting a sequence of poems together in a full manuscript until my kids were all away at college and out of the house. I was accepted into the summer program at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in 2013, and the Vermont Studio Center in 2016. After my time at VSC, I submitted my first full poetry manuscript to five contests and actually won one of them much to my surprise and delight! When readers tell me that a particular poem resonates with them, or gives them hope, or they delight in the way the poem speaks to them, I am so touched and I am finally able to say “I am a poet,” because from about the age of thirteen, I wanted to have a book of poetry of my own – it was always there in the back of my mind.

Now that my work is out there, I love getting feedback from readers and I especially like being able to read my work out loud to an audience. Poetry, after all, is lyrical and reading the words using cadence and emphasis really helps to bring the meaning to fruition. Hopefully, my work will continue to resonate with listeners and readers. My best and most cherished reader is my mother, who has always encouraged my work since I was a teenager. She is a great editor, too.

 

MD: How do you find inspiration for your writing? And how do you keep that momentum going?

 DC: It was our very own Vermont poet, Robert Frost, who said he walked every day in his beloved woods to “do his daily work.” I took that to heart when I began writing poetry in my middle age (not the “dark wood” of Dante though). I felt like it was a necessity for me to get away from the hubbub of being a publisher and working in front of the computer sometimes for hours, to walk 3-5 miles every day (at least). It is where I can be alone with my thoughts and observe nature and the simplicity and endurance found there. It was Thoreau, in his journal, who said “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”

 

MD: I also saw that you write for radio. Do you find that the writing is different for radio and podcasts?

 DC: I have to say writing for radio has made me a better writer, at least I hope so! My editor at VPR, Betty Smith, is an amazing editor. She is demanding in that I have to write my own lede and then fit everything I want to say into under 400 words. I can usually spew out (think Anne Lamott’s advice in Bird by Bird to “write a shitty first draft”) 1,500 words in a flurry… I like to write my first draft without a critical voice breathing down my neck and just “get it out.” Then I begin the process of cutting, “killing your darlings,” as Faulkner said. This editing and cutting process has made me appreciate the fact that your words have meaning and they carry weight, so it is worth it to make them sing.

Silhouettes of a Vermont Poet at Home: An Interview with Kerrin McCadden

by Valentyn Smith

In an ideal world, Kerrin McCadden and I have found ourselves sunken into the velour armchairs of some vintaged cafe and have spent the last hour huddled over our steaming teamugs, deep in conversation. We’d be talking poetry—especially because Kerrin McCadden’s poetry earned her the 2015 Vermont Book Award, as well as the 2013 New Issues Poetry Prize. Alas, in the real world, Kerrin is as incredibly busy as she is incredibly accomplished. ­­­Over this fall, she was on a deadline for a magazine while judging a book contest and guest teaching at UVM. All this in addition to the balancing act that is her life as a full-time Vermont writer, teacher and parent. Yet there’s still more to what makes Kerrin so fascinating. And it’s the other life Kerrin lives that intrigues me, the life of a poet at the desk with her pens, dreams, words; a poet at home.

The first time I saw Kerrin, she was spotlighted at the 2017 Vermont Book Award Gala as the 2015 winner for Landscape of Plywood Silhouettes, a collection of poems. As a current MFA candidate, I have been curious about the creatures of habit that are writers, about their ghosts, their portals and their story-telling origins. Here, Kerrin granted me the tales of her own storytelling origins as well as the art of multitasking while sneaking a peek at her nightstand. Fortunately, she carved out some time to share her writing chops, warmth and artistry with me as she juggled la vida loca as well as treated me to her sagey insights and poetic word-smithing and, wisdom-wise, it reads like a string of pearls.

 

Valentyn Smith: We’re going to dive into portals—great writing that triggers our imaginations with inspiration, gets our creative juices flowing and (vicariously) transports us. I’m curious about the books on your nightstand (could be a proverbial one), as well as favored books on your shelves, and favorite poems and poets. For starters, what is a book that you’ll turn to for inspiration, time and time, again? What books or writers are your “portal-reads,” transporting you to times, places, memories or worlds that bring you back to the now and then to the page, ready to write?

Kerrin McCadden: Weirdly enough, on my nightstand is the 1912 edition of the Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases by P. M. Roget, a beautiful little pair of books full of common and not so common words and phrases. There are some real gems in there—words and phrases no longer in circulation. It’s both a soporific and an imagination agitator.

I also have my travel journals from recent trips (France and Ethiopia), the novel Grace, by Paul Lynch.

On my proverbial bookshelf, re: books I return to, is a pile of The Art of books, including The Art of Syntax, by Ellen Bryant Voigt, The Art of Recklessness, by Dean Young, The Art of Description, by Mark Doty. There is also Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song, which stands as a sacred text. I mostly only read poetry these days and have collected hundreds of contemporary collections, which I cycle through—moving a new handful of them to my table periodically to revisit.

 

VS: Who is a writer and/or what is a book that you believe everyone should read in their lifetime? In that same vein, what other book(s) do you highly recommend to young writers and poets?

 

KM: I know my reading history is skewed, as is everyone’s. We are pushed toward and away from books according to our education systems, our circumstances and our tastes as they emerge. I’m hesitant, ever, to say who should read what (though telling people what to read has been my life’s work—so, irony, yeah), but in any context, I can only say why I’ve chosen a book for the moment of my recommendation. I’ll say that for myself, a seminal work was Tess of the D’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy. I don’t know if everyone should read it. I read it by accident, and it rocked my young world.

For young poets, I want them to read the poets writing now—otherwise they insist on writing with all kinds of old-fashioned flourishes (grammatical inversions, clunky rhyme, forced patterns that are not consistently deployed). When I show them what poems are doing now, they can gain a sense of how to invent a poem, which is what we are all doing with every poem we write. I show them literary journals online. Most of them don’t know what a literary journal is. I have them sign up for the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day series—anything to put contemporary poems in front of them. Once young people start to read contemporary poetry, they can begin to know what the conversation is that they are trying to enter.

 

VS: What is the best piece of advice on writing (or piece of writerly advice) you’ve been given? 

 

KM: I think across the board, it is the learned willingness to keep at the page—both to create new work and to revise what I’m building. One time at Bread Loaf, Ed Hirsch gave a lecture in which he said that writers need, primarily, to show up at the page. He exhorted us to bump our heads against the ceiling of our abilities, not our willingness to show up at the page. By which he meant you can’t know what you can do unless you continually practice. Showing up at the page is the magic answer. Show up again and again, or lose hope, really, of being a writer. If writing is how you process the world, then you need to have the practice of writing. I can’t stand it when students of mine say, “I just couldn’t come up with anything.” Any human can come up with something. Imagination is our central gift. I’m pretty sure imagination is how we first figured out how to use tools. We could imagine something we couldn’t see. What they really mean when they say, “I just couldn’t come up with anything,” is that they don’t like what they wrote, or they didn’t come up with anything. Just keep putting the words together.

 

VS: Storytelling has its origins in the oral tradition. How much of your work do you write by ear and how would you describe your work’s relation to sound?

 

KM: This is an interesting question, and, I think, goes back to my response about practice. When I first started putting poems out into the world, one consistent response was about musicality in the poems. I know that when I write, there is a certain moment when I discover that the language has settled into what I want, but the toggle switches that I throw to decide are many, and it’s a process that’s become largely intuitive. I also know that all my early memories of poetry were the language of the Catholic mass, which I had memorized by the time I left for college. The mass is designed to be effective to a listening audience that may or may not be reading along. It’s a collective language experience, so the language is heightened in importance not just because it’s about God—but because a huge number of people are sharing it. Church was where I experienced formal language, language as an act of performance, language that transcended daily language—and I memorized it through sheer exposure to it. I know that musicality in language is part of the pattern of how I think. And before I read contemporary poets, I read the Romantics and the Modernists, who also teach line by line how sound can work in poems.

I’ve also always been a mimic, picking up accents in ways that are sometimes embarrassing. I catch on to phrases I like and use them repetitively in spates. I catch on to patterns obsessively. I’m really in love with sound, which is tough, because I’m losing my actual hearing. Good thing, I guess, that language happens inside the mind as well as in the ear!

 

VS: What was the first poem you read (or heard) that blew you away and lit your fire? Why?

 

KM: It was probably “Marriage,” by Gregory Corso. I read it during high school, and it was unlike anything I had ever read in school. I loved how unhinged the speaker was and how highly tuned Corso’s imagination was—how ranging and wild it all was. I think this is the first poem that taught me what poems could do in our time.

 

VS: Are you into form? If so, which and why, or why not? Details, please!

 

KM: I’m totally into form, structure. Every poem invents its own form even if the form of the poem is received. Regardless of the fixed nature of a form, of course, there is always invention—even on the obvious level of sequencing words. By which I mean to say every poet is into form. For me, I don’t revel in received forms, but I do love watching a poem as I’m writing it and making the formal decisions that are good for the poem. When a poem is drafted, one of my favorite editing sequences is moving it into and out of various shapes and forms. Shifting a poem from long lines into short lines, for instance, tends to expose baggy phrasing—and that’s how I tend to find it, when a line is shortened and I realize there’s nothing necessary in it. Shifting between different forms, even ordering of the lines, helps expose what should be cut. I’m a poet who errs on the side of too many words, and it takes me tricking myself to see where I should lose any of them.

 

VS: What was your very first encounter with poetry? What inspired you to write your own, and at what point in life was this? Also, how would you describe your current approach to writing poetry, compared to when you first started writing? What compelled you then versus now?

 

KM: I have some ridiculous snippets I wrote when I was little, in grade school. What is clear in them is that I was already interested in making connections that were not ready-made. I love to think associatively. In fact, one thing I struggled with when I was a young student was the idea of outlines. I had no idea how to plan what I was going to think. Writing was the act that made the ideas show up at all. I’ve always written to think. So, I wonder early on if my corrections on my papers regarding “organization” were actually not weaknesses but the beginnings of poems or poetic thinking. I was never effectively able to fight my interest in letting my ideas wander. I could always write good sentences (the “Test of Standard Written English” was the only part of the SAT where I earned a perfect score), but they were always serving different gods than the outline, or the prescribed sequence. Now that I actually get to be a poet, I’m glad I resisted. I just wish that someone had seen the way my mind worked as a potential strength.

My current approach to writing poetry is pretty sturdy, by which I mean it hasn’t changed very much. I walk about in the world like a collector, looking for images and ideas that I want to put into poems. My daily life is full of this kind of walking meditation. I keep notes, I worry an idea for a poem until I know what I want it to feel like once I’ve written it. At some point, I make the time to sit and write. I just start, because I know that later on I can improve the beginning. I let the first draft just come out. Sometimes I let it be a “talking” draft that just explains the ideas, allowing clunky phrases to be there. On a second and on subsequent passes through the poem, I clean and move, clean and move. Then I usually put the poem away for awhile, so that next time I see it, it isn’t familiar. I fall in love with every draft still—thinking this is my best poem ever. Which it never, ever really is. So, I wait, and then I take it back out, show it maybe to a good friend who knows my poems so they can tell me what moves I just keep making, or can push me toward a core issue in the poem. Most poems take months and piles of drafts. This plays out over and over again!  I know I learn and change over time—for instance right now I’m uncharacteristically attracted to making shorter lines and altogether shorter poems.

 

VS: What does your ideal place of work look like? Where and when do you write? How—longhand or screen? Also, how do you go about insulating yourself while in craft mode?

 

KM: My usual place of work is the red sofa in the living room. I have had various office spaces, but I like to work in the living room. I like good light and windows and a fire during winter. When people are around, I tune them out, or am just really clear that I’m working, or I wait until I’m alone for a number of hours. I also have a right hand man in my little poodle. He’s been next to me when I’ve written almost anything. He’s next to me right now!  I write on my computer. I’m old enough that I learned to touch-type, so I don’t need to look at the keys and I type really fast. The beauty in typing quickly is that making the words appear is not the chore. Being a good typist means there is one less thing in the way when building a poem. But the speed at the keyboard does not mean I write poems quickly, as I said earlier. They take so many visits to get anywhere close to finished. I’ve learned to be very patient. Right now, though, I’m almost five years away from when my first book was accepted for publication. I’m getting antsy to finish this next collection. Patience isn’t feeling like a friend in that department.

 

VS: What are the lessons and perks or roots that living in Vermont has offered your poetry?

 

KM: Well, one perk is material support. There are a number of agencies in Vermont that have supported my work, from the Vermont Arts Council to the Vermont Arts Endowment Fund, to Vermont College of Fine Arts through the Vermont Book Award, to a fellowship at the Vermont Studio Center. I am also a public school teacher at Montpelier High School, and it needs to be said that my school is a great supporter of my work as a poet—even when it means leaving the building to read or travel or teach. I’m surrounded by support. Almost every college and university has invited me to come read, and many bookstores. Vermont loves its poets. And Vermont’s poets find each other. My writing group has been meeting for almost a decade and is like family.

There is also the way the cold seeps into our lives—making everything a little treacherous. In Vermont, neighborliness is a survival strategy. No matter who is in your community, you’d better remember that each person might be someone you need, whether you are in a ditch, or suddenly sick, or suddenly can’t heat your home. By this I mean to say there is a fluidity between people—a willingness to honor and see each other with generosity. Sometimes this makes its way into my poems. I am also entirely in love with the hardscrabbleness of Vermont, how nothing is a given and luxuries are to be revered. God, it gets cold here. And you can’t go anywhere without knowing people. So, if you are a poet who is inherently interested in people, they come out in droves to things. There is so much to see, everywhere, be it landscape or human landscape. And the plants and animals have beautiful names: jewelweed, ermine, aspen, pig week, lambs quarters, Winooski River, Camel’s Hump, Mount Hunger, Eden, Moscow, Buel’s Gore, Hardack Mountain, lynx, fisher cat, coyote, great blue heron, bobolink, june bug, mayfly, etc.

VS: Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes is a delicious title. Absolutely delicious. Many titles in the collection were great—”Elegy for the Woman Who Became a Chair”! How do you create titles? Do they come before the poem, created during or afterwards? And when do you know it’s “the one?”

 

KM: Thanks! I don’t think much in poetry comes sequentially. I think everything comes out of order, all the time—that’s the beautiful nature of this art. Titles usually come before the poem, to create a working frame for what I’m doing, then, after the poem is written, the title is the last thing to be solidified, most times. I usually change a title a number of times. In fact, there are a few poems I am convinced are finished except for the title. I’m stuck at the title!

 

 

VS: If you could offer young writers a recipe consisting of what they’ll need to sustain them for the writing-life, what “ingredients” would be called for to serve them in the seasons to come?

 

KM: Well, again, just to always show up at the page. I think a lot of young writers think writing is some strange gift—either you have it or you don’t. Sometimes young writers can’t figure out a poem and so they give up, assuming they just don’t “have it.” I often hear young writers say things like, “I couldn’t think of anything to write,” or, “I had writer’s block.” Young writers may not know precisely how to make a poem work, and this is I think what they mean when they say they have writer’s block. Writer’s block to me seems a luxury—I mean, if a person can put another word next to the words that are already there, then there is no such thing as being “blocked.” What writer’s block means is that the writer is afraid they can’t write anything good—that they are self-policing and stopping themselves from experimenting, from throwing words on the page, from even trying. Since poems in our age are invented as we build them, the only way to know how to write a poem, or how to make a poem “good” is to practice. Practice means two big things, two big commitments: reading poetry (contemporary poetry, traditional poetry, poetry in translation, etc.) and drafting. Drafting means sketching, trying, experimenting, learning how the poem can work. It means being willing to unseat the poem, move the lines around, change the words, write the poem the way it begins to want to be written. I like to write poems until it feels like the poem is taking control. I know a poem is “done” when the poem resists change. Getting to a place where your practice is codified in any way means screwing it up so many times you can’t count. Young writers need their 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, too.

 

VS: What is your writing practice and process? What is a writing ritual that you have that continues to encourage your growth as a writer and keep you writing?

 

KM: Right now I have 107 students in my course load. Despite my job, I’ve always felt compelled to keep writing, so I encourage looking at the vocation of writing as a compulsion, or else, in these busy times, it will never happen. I’ve learned to carry ideas for poems around in my head—roll them around, play with them until I can make (not find…make) time to sit and work the poem out of my head. I dream up poems while I’m driving, while I’m teaching (bless “free write time”) and while I’m falling asleep. I have really good “critical friends”—writers I can bring poems to, or complain about poems with, or work through how a poem works with, or just piss and moan with. There is nothing like finding, nurturing and keeping friends in this art—otherwise it’s a lonely business. Some of my friends and I have a weekly writing workshop—it’s highly ritualized and ends up being possibly the most fun I ever have during most weeks, which is not to trivialize my life but to celebrate the great luck through which I found them. We have a blast and we also blast the poems we bring with our poet lasers. I learn so much from them.

 

VS: What words of wisdom or anecdotes would you offer to other working writers regarding project design and organization? What are specific things you do, in order to efficiently and productively manage your time? How do you make sure to allow yourself time to write, revise and hone your craft even when you are extremely busy?

 

KM: I make dates with myself—carve out blocks of time. I take myself away from my house—to my husband’s airport, maybe—although it’s been forever since I’ve done this. I fantasize about going to stay in a convent for a weekend, or renting myself a house somewhere with some poets (something that’s in the works right now). I mean to say there is no way to productively manage time. I think one needs to make time. Carve it out.

 

VS: My absolute favorite poem in Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes is “Skeletons.” Its speaker describes a scene from a dream, but the effect of your language does so much more. What dream or dream scene have you vividly experienced that has inspired you to write?

 

KM: Thanks! I love that poem, too—especially how it turns around inside itself. There are moments of language in that poem I loved discovering. Actually, though, I haven’t ever written from dreams! Any poem of mine that claims to originate in dream is lying, or feinting. I’m primarily interested in imagination, which is itself a kind of dream… day dream. I think all poets enter a dream state when they write, a place where nothing is quite as precise as our waking lives, but everything is also more precise and pointed. In poems, letting the imagination loose is a way of dreaming.

 

VS: How does your environment, both past and present, influence you as a writer? How has your life’s landscape inspired your writing?

 

KM: In Vermont, I’ve lived on a farm and in an actual village—one of the very few that was not run through by a state road. People actually walked around in it, from place to place, and I lived right on the sidewalk. My front yard was about eight feet deep. People’s heads bobbed past my windows in my living room all day and night. There was always someone doing something, someone to observe, someone to get to know, and many of my poems have come from the ten or so years I lived in that place. I think my book is practically infused with Plainfield, Vermont.

When I go to Ireland, my language and phrasing get different. It’s strange. I think my speaker, too, is very different. I’m a different person in Ireland. I spent my whole young life daydreaming about this place we had come from, and when I finally went back to find it, it was a mythical place in my mind, but I had to reconcile the myths with the terrifically real place I found. I am always doing the math of who am I? when I’m there, pushing my speaker more off-kilter. I’m also so fascinated when I’m there, like a toddler, by naming things, asking what everything is called.

 

VS: In an interview with Rachel Contreni Flynn, you were in Ireland, “home on holiday,” and you stated that being in Ireland put your family’s ghosts in front of you. What did you mean by that? I just love the sound of that statement, and it reminded me of your poem, “Little Ghost Girl.” What are your thoughts on the idea of us travelling through life with our family’s ghosts? Do these ghosts enter your writing and, if so, what is that like for you?

 

KM: Poems collapse time, don’t they?  They are artifacts of memory pretending to live in the moment. They collect and collect and sort and sift. What else is there to put in poems but ghosts?  Everything we remember is a kind of ghost—as is everything we imagine or send into the future. Our imaginations are machines that fabricate reality. Everything is exactly as it was, and nothing is. So, I’m comforted, really, by the idea that ghosts are what populate our poems, inasmuch as ghosts are shadows of what really was, who really did what. Maybe our ghosts are the antidote to the young person’s requirement that a poem represent “what really happened.” Every time a young person, just to circle back to the younger ones one final time, insists that a poem needs to represent what “really happened,” or every time a young person resists revising a poem because then the poem will no longer be a record of what “really happened,” what they really need is ghosts—entities that can float through anything, be anything, capture anything and stir anything.

 

VS: And lastly, what’s next?

 

KM: What’s next?  Finishing my second book of poems. That would be the best next thing. I have a monster pile of poems. Maybe I’ll find two collections in the pile!

The Ins and Outs of Freelancing: An Interview with Michelle Fabio

by Paul Daniel Ash

Michelle Fabio and I had been friends online for several years before my wife and I spent part of our honeymoon in the southern Italian village where she lives. A fellow Italian-American from Pennsylvania, Michelle writes a blog, Bleeding Espresso, that I’d followed assiduously since deciding to get my dual Italian citizenship in the early 2000s (and that was named the Best Living in Italy Blog by Italy Magazine in 2016). She’s a Duke and Temple Law grad who’s been a writer for LegalZoom since emigrating. She was the About.com Guide to Law School, and has been a freelance writer ever since.

 

We chatted on WhatsApp about writing, the expat life, and balancing a freelance career with raising a precocious tri-lingual (English, standard Italian, and Calabrian dialect) four-year-old.

 

Paul Daniel Ash: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

Michelle Fabio: It’s trite, but I’ve wanted to write as long as I can remember. I was one of those kids who wrote short stories for fun and just loved to sit in the library and soak in the atmosphere.

PDA: Did being an expat influence your decision to freelance full-time?

MF: It actually worked in the reverse for me. I had always wanted to freelance, but lower middle class/poor kids from Podunk who do really well in school are supposed to be doctors and lawyers, not freelance writers. So, I did the whole traditional education route (college immediately followed by law school, 20 straight years of school that started when I was 4). Then the opportunity arose to move abroad at the end of my two-year judicial clerkship as I would have to find a new job anyway. Yes, I absolutely wanted to live abroad in my ancestors’ village, but a huge draw was also that I could shed the societal pressure to do what was expected and pursue freelancing without anyone watching, so to speak. At the age of 25, I felt like it was a now or never kind of thing. I chose now (then). And here I still am, fifteen years later.

PDA: What is your writing process like? Has being a mother affected how, where, when you write?

MF: Since having a kid at home, this has changed quite a bit — now I just use whatever time I can find and adjust what I can do, the mental process I have available. A lot of times, for instance, I will go through and gather all the research for an article while the kid is playing on her own with an activity that I know will still require occasional participation from me, even if it’s just to tell her how I love the colors she’s chose or whatever. It’s easy to Google, scan text, and copy, and paste into a Scrivener project even if I’m half paying attention to what she’s doing. I try to save actual writing for when I know I will have fewer interruptions. Brainstorming is pretty much all the time — yay for always having a phone nearby that I can speak or tap words into.

PDA: So, a lot of mom-ti-tasking, you’re saying.

MF: Yeah. It’s bath-time right now, actually, so I may be a little slow in responding for a bit but I’m still here.

PDA: Oh, no problem.

MF: Wanna guess what else I’m doing right now with her?

PDA: What?

MF: “Frozen” sing-along via YouTube

PDA: Gah

MF: Don’t be jelly

MF: Let it go

PDA: Yeah, so… tell us about marketing. Do you do more or less or about the same marketing as when you began?

MF: Marketing…hmm…I guess my blogging was a big part of marketing in the olden days, and that has basically fallen off a cliff, so that has changed. I think it’s important to have a website, an online presence with a portfolio (Contently is my current favorite), but aside from that, I don’t do much at all.  The other day there was a pitchfest kind of thing on Twitter for agents/publishers – you tweet about your manuscript with the hashtag #adpit and they Like your tweet if they want to hear more.

PDA: Oooh, what was your pitch?

MF:

#Cozy #M #OliveYouNot Rural S.Italy. Dead: priest’s shady bro. Suspect: ex-lawyer Dahlia D’Amato. Barista: hot. Cop: PITA. Goats: obvi. #AdPit

PDA: Cool! Did you get any Likes?

MF: I got two agent bites that are probably meh, but still interesting nonetheless.

PDA: Nice. Wait: “Olive You Not” is your title?

MF: Yup. It’s during olive harvest.

PDA: Got it.

MF: Update, kid’s conditioner is soaking in so I have some more time now.

PDA: Haha, great. how much creative versus purely mercenary writing would you say you do and how much do you wish you could do?

Badolato, Italy in the snow (© Michelle Fabio)

MF: Last November (NaNoWriMo) I basically cleared off the mercenary calendar to work on my book. That went well and continued for a bit into the new year . . . then of course the funds got awfully low so now I’m back to wishing I had far more time to work on my creative projects. The feast/famine nature of freelancing actually isn’t so bad in this respect if you can discipline yourself to fill the famine with personal projects, but we all need mental breaks, too, so it’s a tough balance to achieve.

PDA: What advice would you have for a starting writer with regard to establishing oneself in the field, finding opportunities and so forth?

MF: My best advice is to find your niche. I am extremely lucky to have the law to fall back on as my niche. Even if it’s not always what I want to be writing, it has definitely kept me afloat as a freelancer. I’m not naturally a networker–even online–but it’s still the best way to fill up your freelancing calendar. Letting your connections know what you’re looking for can bring many opportunities you never would have found on your own. Writing groups, especially on Facebook, can be extraordinarily helpful too.

PDA: Is there such a thing as momentum or are you basically Sisyphus pushing that stone up the hill on the regular?

MF: There is such a thing as momentum. Life as a freelancer has definitely gotten easier for me as the years rolled on, but I also change tracks every few years to keep things interesting–like when I cut back freelancing to be the managing editor of an independent press for a few years. The most recent example: I had never been a freelancer who pitched a bunch of articles constantly to various publications, but I became inspired to finally do that late this past summer. That type of freelancing career had actually always been my concept of what I had wanted to be doing, and I finally realized, hey, you have to actually do that if you want to do that. So, I focused on that in September and landed two regular gigs (one ghostwriting legal website content and another as a Forbes contributor) and several assignments in the types of publications I had been wanting to get into but just hadn’t tried (Frommer’s, Fodor’s, Broadly). It was a great month and has inspired me to aim higher. While there’s momentum, there’s also something to be said for creating your own momentum, too.

PDA: From your lofty professional peak: do you have any advice to the unpublished writer?

MF: Hmm… it’s so cliché but writing what you know (and writing often) is really the best way to gain confidence. And embrace your voice! I had started several novels, and they kept seeming to steer to a particular genre, more mainstream fiction. But I kind of subconsciously fought it because that isn’t necessarily what I WANTED to write. But I have landed on a cozy mystery series, and maybe I just need to get these out to move on or maybe this is my thing, I don’t know yet, but all I can do is move through it, work with it and not fight against it. And it’s going so much better this way.

PDA: That’s great.

MF: I wonder if the kid’s a prune yet

MF: Should probably check…

PDA: Haha, maybe you should. Thank you for taking the time!

MF: Absolutely! This has been fun.

Balancing Life and Writing: A Conversation with Sean Prentiss

by Kayleigh Marinelli

Sean apologized for his messy desk almost as soon as I walked into his office. He had multiple books spread out across his desk with notes scattered throughout. He is hoping to use all of his research to collaborate an Advanced Non-Fiction textbook for high level courses with Jessica Hendry Nelson and his desk had become the place where all his notes were kept together. I wasn’t surprised by his process because he often had more than one thing going on at a time (this is why he keeps multiple to-do lists both in his office and at home, so he doesn’t forget anything). This sheer organization is contrasted by the Chacos that he sported on his feet during class. His students love this. It makes him professional and relatable.

I was mesmerized by how Sean was able to juggle working at two universities, writing multiple manuscripts after the success of Finding Abbey, and spending time with his baby girl and wife at the lake. I figured there was no way he was sleeping at night, but it turns out his process is a lot different than I imagined.

 

 

Kayleigh Marinelli: I was wondering, since for Finding Abbey you did so much research and went on this whole journey, what the challenges were for you taking the adventure and translating it to the page.

Sean Prentiss: Well, I’m going to answer the exact opposite question to start out with. Alot of it was very easy because if I did talk to someone or do an interview, like we’re doing right now, I would have all this data right here that I could incorporate, or if I drove somewhere and looked at something I could write about it literally the next day. So, I’m not plumbing my memories from five years ago for the most part, I’m looking at something that occurred yesterday. That was the easy thing. The hard thing was you might write a chapter about say, a visit to Santa Fe, that is thirty or forty pages long and by the time the book is done, it’s eight pages long. It was not knowing what’s important until a lot later. You’re recording everything, compiling everything, organizing everything, writing everything, and then realizing “I can get rid of that, that, that, and that” and discovering what matters is one central question or driving idea. So, the easy part was having all this information and the hard part was knowing what was relevant, and the same goes with interviews. I wanted to sculpt it for the reader in a way that portrayed it as both honest and artistic. I could argue that I wasn’t being honest because I was focusing on the artistic, but I could also argue that you can get rid of the maneuvers and that’s what we do with dialogue, that’s what we do with scene and we have to do that.

KM: Speaking of relevance…before each of your chapters you have a quote, how did you decide which quote to put with which chapter?

SP: Goes back to that central idea, “what is this one chapter doing:” if I don’t know what the chapters doing, I don’t know what the quote is. So, I would write the chapter, revise the chapter, revise it seventy-five more times and then figure out how that chapter plays into the central question throughout and then find a quote for it. A lot of times it was the very last thing I was doing. Sometimes, say, I’m thinking of the David Peterson chapter, he is talking about his love for Abbey. I changed those quite a few times.

KM: What drew you to Edward Abbey in the first place?

SP: I’ve always loved reading, that’s how I came to reading: just a little kid, a little geek, just give me a book, and I loved to do that and I miss that. I don’t get to read for pleasure anymore, and it’s a travesty. I can’t wait to retire just so I can read a book a week, or maybe two books. But, about Abbey: I remember that when my best friend gave me the book, Desert Solitaire, it was the first time I have ever read an author who seemed like he fit into my world. I could envision him as a friend or as a mentor. He used the voice of people I knew. So rather than seeming like an artist way over there, he seemed like someone I could hang out with. He spoke about concerns that I didn’t know I had until I read him and I was like “yeah, yeah!” It was like running into a best friend and pretty quickly you just meet somewhere and say “you’re gonna be my best friend, I don’t know if you know this yet, but you are” and luckily for me Abbey was dead so he couldn’t say no. He was my best writerly friend and I would argue that he is what made me a writer.

KM: Were you always interested in writing non-fiction then, or did that come along later?

SP: I always kept a journal, at least from my freshman year of college on, and it was terrible writing: very much who, what, where, when and that was it, there was no “why” to it, there was no central question, no driving idea. I came to writing and journaling as a way of recording my life and, later on, understanding my life. I respect fiction, I’ve written it, published it, but it almost does nothing for me emotionally, psychologically. I find the most beautiful thing in life is finding the metaphors in the world around me, rather than inventing them because they are already there waiting to be lit on fire so people can see them. What drives me is essay, trying on new ideas, experimenting, and attempting to understand my life. I think it makes me healthier in ways that fiction doesn’t. I cannot do anything right now but write non-fiction.

KM: Staying with non-fiction then, since you are working on the collaboration with Jess Nelson, what are some tips you can give when working on a collaborative piece?

SP: I’ve worked on two collaborative pieces. I’ll talk about the one with Joe Wilkins, Environmental and Nature Writing: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology, because we completed it. Work with someone that you admire. Find someone who works harder than you, because you never want to be pushing anyone to do something. I love it when I’m motivated and inspired by someone else. We had a project and I completely trusted that Joe was gonna get his project done. There were times where I was behind schedule, or he was behind schedule, and I knew that was because of life and not because of work ethic. The other thing is that you want someone’s voice who you trust and someone who trusts your voice. I felt very comfortable writing a chapter, giving it to Joe, and saying “this is now your chapter, do whatever you want with it.” If we were going to delete something major, we would talk about it. I wanted Joe to add his voice to mine. Really trust each other, really know that each other is going to work hard, really admire each other’s voices and let those voices come together. It was easy. It was really easy. It makes the writing process quicker. It makes you smarter. Get someone who has different ideas than you. Those would be some of my ideas about collaboration.

KM: Between working at Norwich University and the Vermont College of Fine Arts, how do you find time to write?

SP: Writing is much bigger than typing. Writing begins with having a quiet moment in your life for an idea to bubble up. Writing is writing a rough, terrible first draft of a book, an essay, a story, a poem. It’s the revision process. It’s the workshop process. It’s the writer’s group process. It’s the proposal process. It’s the looking for journals and submitting, book contests and all that. It’s signing the contract. If I’m dealing with contract stuff I consider that my writing time for the day. I might not be touching a keyboard creating or revising but this is writing. Even reading. I need to do my research. I did an interview for a book club out in Colorado and that to me is writing time. I exploded what it meant to be a writer because I would hate it when I was promoting my book and not getting writing done. Now I’m realizing that promotion is part of the writing process. The other thing is, I try to write when other people are not. This morning at 4:30 I was getting work done, when most people are asleep. If I wake up, I’m going to try and get some sort of writing done. I always have my to-do lists. I have one right here, right here, and another one here, actually two more. If you go to my house I have a chalkboard with a to-do list. One on my desk. I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m nuts. I have a new baby at home, a wife I want to spend time with, a lake I want to be on every day. So, I figured out what needs to get done. Oh, I forgot to show you this to-do list! My online calendar. I try to keep things going. My dad always taught me that you have to work harder than everyone else and writing is not a competition, which is a complete lie because it is, but I don’t want it to be. If I’m not working hard, I’m not going to have success. My mom taught me that you have to have passion. I love writing. A bad day for me, well I don’t have bad days, but If I did it would be because I’m not doing what I love. I would rather be tired from not sleeping than to not do things. Does that give you some ideas?

KM: Yeah, definitely.

SP: So, it’s a manic life, but I love it.


Finding Abbey by Sean Prentiss

The Stories We Dare to Write: With Robert Beatty

by Patrick Graff

Robert Beatty is the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling Serafina series published by Disney Hyperion, a spooky mystery-thriller about a brave and unusual girl who lives secretly in the basement of the grand Biltmore Estate.

Serafina and the Black Cloak was a #1 New York Times best seller, has been on the list for more than 59 weeks, and won the prestigious 2016 Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize. The second book in the series, Serafina and the Twisted Staff, became a #1 New York Times best seller in the first week of its launch and earned a “Starred Review” from Kirkus Reviews, which said, “Even better than its predecessor, a sequel that delivers nonstop thrills from beginning to end.” Enjoyed by both young readers and adults, the books are being taught in over a thousand classrooms nationwide. When the third book, Serafina and the Splintered Heart, came out in July 2017, it earned a Starred Review from Kirkus Reviews and propelled the Serafina series onto the New York Times Best Selling Series List.

Patrick Graff: You have worked variously as an entrepreneur, inventor, and chairman/CTO of Narrative Magazine. How do you think all of your previous experiences and skills have come together to make you into the writer you are today?

Robert Beatty: Working with Narrative Magazine provided me with valuable exposure and experience in many different areas of the publishing process. It not only helped me tremendously to improve my writing skills, it gave me a whole new perspective of what it means to be a writer. My other careers and interests have also impacted how I write, how I manage my time, the way I structure my projects, and in so many other ways.

PG: Was there ever an experience that you thought at the time was a complete waste, that has come back to help you in your writing?

RB: I’ve been writing and practicing and working on improving my craft for many years. Over the years, I have read and studied many books on writing, attended many workshops, and had several deeply experienced mentors who were important to me. Sometimes over the years I would attend workshops that I didn’t think were valuable (while others felt extremely valuable), but in retrospect, I think I gained something from all of them.

PG: Is the Serafina series your favorite story you have ever written, or do you have another one that holds a special place in your heart?

RB: I have a number of unpublished stories from my past that hold a special place in my heart. But of all the stories I’ve ever written, Serafina and the Splintered Heart (Serafina Book 3) is my favorite and the one I’m most happy with.

PG: You have said that Serafina was written with and for your family, and family bonding is a theme throughout. Are you approaching your next project, the Willa books, in the same way?

RB: Yes. Definitely. It’s a family project.

PG: You said that your wife’s cancer was a catalyst for your writing career. You sold your business so you could spend more time on what you want, both family and writing. Do you sometimes feel that the universe has conspired to help you follow your passion?

RB: This question made me laugh. No. The universe has conspired to THWART me from following and achieving my passion. I have had a deep and lasting passion for writing all my life. But I received hundreds of rejections on my previous manuscripts, worked through years of writing and rewriting, and encountered many obstacles and failures before I finally wrote Serafina and the Black Cloak, which was then published by Disney Hyperion and became a New York Times bestseller. Sometimes I joke that, “Yes, I was an overnight success… after 38 years of practice.”

PG: Your success story in whatever you have applied yourself to is an inspiration. Do you feel like there is anything else you absolutely must do in your life?

RB: My goal in life was to be happy, to love and be loved by my family, and to publish at least one novel before I die. I have everything I’ve ever dreamed of, so now I can die a happy man. J

PG: The art of story-telling has been a lifelong pursuit of yours. What tips would you offer to young authors who also want to master the craft?

RB: First, understand that your purpose is to tell your readers a story that engages them. It’s not about you as much as it’s about them, and how they respond to your story, how they view your story, what they get out of your story. You are of course writing for yourself, with your own heart, your own passion, your own ideas and creativity. That’s a given. But forget about that. Don’t consciously write a story for you. Consciously write a story for your reader.

PG: Part of the magic of Serafina is that is has a wide appeal, not just to kids but to adults as well. Do you plan on writing purely for adults in the future, maybe when you’re daughters have grown up?

RB: I’ve written many unpublished manuscripts in the past that were purely for adults. And I have several new stories that I’m dying to write. I may do that someday. But right now, I’ve been enjoying the types of stories that I’ve been writing with Disney Hyperion.

PG: I am also a lover of the Biltmore Estate, and it was fascinating to be back there in your story. You have mentioned a Civil War battlefield has got you thinking before, do you have any other dream locations for the setting of a book?

RB: Oh yes. The current book I’m working on is called Willa of the Wood. It takes place in Serafina’s world and time, but the main character is a young forest girl named Willa who lives in the Smoky Mountains during a time of great change and upheaval in that wonderful part of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

PG: “Our character isn’t defined by the battles we win or lose, but by the battles we dare to fight.” This is an important theme in the book about a hero who wants to fight for what is right, even though the odds are against her. Was there a special moment or epiphany when this quote came to you?

RB: When I wrote that line, I was deeply immersed in Serafina’s consciousness and world, imagining I was in her situation, moving like she does, thinking like she does, and the line just came out. As soon as I wrote it I realized that it was going to be one of the important themes of the story. The theme of a story is critically important to me.

PG: What has been most surprising about getting your stories published? Is there one moment that stands out above all others?

RB: For me, there is nothing more satisfying than when a reader—young or old—tells me how they felt and what they experienced when they read Serafina’s story.

PG: I hope I get to see the movies soon. Any news from Disney?

RB: I love movies. I love everything about them. They’ve been a huge influence on my life as a story-teller. Keep your fingers crossed.


                                                Serafina and the Splintered Heart by Robert Beatty

An Interview with Sandra Nickel, Maggie Lehrman, & Victoria Wells Arms

by Cameron Finch

The Stuff Between the Stars is a story by Sandra Nickel, which was the Category Winner for Children’s Books in Hunger Mountain’s 2017 Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing.

We are most grateful for author Sandra Nickel, editor Maggie Lehrman, and literary agent Victoria Wells Arms for taking the time to chat with us about the legacy of Vera Rubin, women in science, and the process of writing a nonfiction children’s book.

 

Thanks so much for sharing an excerpt from your forthcoming children’s book, The Stuff Between the Stars, which introduces us to Vera Rubin, a pioneering female scientist remembered for her observations of galaxies and her discovery of the existence of dark matter. What first sparked your interest in Rubin’s story? Is there anything specific that encouraged you to publish it as a children’s book?

SN: I first learned about Vera from another VCFA grad, Kate Hosford, who had read about her death in the New York Times. I was immediately fascinated by Vera—by everything she accomplished, but also by her passion for what she did. We often ask children, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I believe the better questions are, ‘What gets you excited? What fascinates you? What do you love doing?’ Vera is an excellent example of this. At ten, she looked into the night sky and fell head-over-heels in love with the stars. It was this passion that drove her entire life.

 

Do you come from a science background?

SN: I do have a bachelor’s degree in science, but I also have degrees and certificates in law, social work, creative writing, theology, bread baking, acting, film, and French. In short, I am curious about nearly everything.

 

The book’s major themes are inspiring in nature and include the idea of foregoing group acceptance to follow individual dreams and passions, and to not become discouraged, even if others don’t believe in you at first. These words of advice are not always easy to follow—in fact, we see in the book that Vera must overcome many obstacles to find her eventual success. How do you think Vera’s story is relevant to young girls’ experiences today?

VWA: I hate to dwell even more a moment on current events as, like all of you, I’m finding the news so distressing, but every day it seems another corner of our world is finding girls and women who’ve had to be brave in the face of not just sexist attitudes, but abuse, both emotional and physical at the hands of men they work with and for. When people wonder why I’d put my girls in the protective environment of an all-girls school, it is not to protect them, well, not only so. It is so they can practice being brave in a safe environment, so that when they are out in the world, their minds are ready for anything that comes their way. They will have practiced bravery in a safe space. You don’t need a girls school to do that. Literature can do that for anyone—a reader can practice being brave by reading about women like Vera, and then when faced with such attitudes in their own lives they will have a blueprint for action, for strength, for knowing that yes, they can break through anything and succeed.

SN: Building on what Victoria said, one of the things I love so much about Vera’s story is that it shows young people that there are many ways to live a dream. We can choose to follow the path that has already been established by others before us. Or, we can make a choice that is tailor-made to who we are as individuals. Vera didn’t like conflict. Who can blame her? She chose to research areas far away from others, where she could work quietly at her own pace. What is so beautiful about this choice is that it not only suited Vera perfectly, it led to her most profound discovery.

ML: I agree with what Victoria and Sandra have said. To me, the struggle to be taken seriously as a scientist is relatable for any child—children’s worlds are controlled by their parents and guardians, and trying to get grown-ups to listen is one of the recurring themes of childhood and children’s literature. And specifically for girls, though society may have outwardly changed since Vera was starting out, there’s still the incredible weight of history that tells girls that discoveries are made by men, along with anything else “important.” It’s still necessary to provide examples of women and girls who have made significant contributions to our society and culture and understanding of the world–both to balance out that weight of history and also to help instill confidence in a new generation of scientists, artists, and citizens.  

 

There’s a line in the story that shocked me: “At Mount Palomar Observatory in California, Vera’s first discovery was that there was no women’s room.” This reminded me of several scenes in the book and film Hidden Figures, where the women were forced to run half a mile at the NASA headquarters in order to perform fundamental human activities, like going to the bathroom. Were you shocked by any research you found along the way, pertaining especially to the exclusion of women in scientific fields?

VWA: That is an unforgettable detail, thank you for calling it out. It really drives the problems home, doesn’t it!

SN: Vera, like many women, had truly shocking experiences. When she told her master program’s supervisor that she wanted to present her thesis to the American Astronomical Society, he told her women weren’t allowed to do so. He proposed that he put his name on her work and he present it. Later, in Washington D.C., an eminent cosmologist asked Vera to come to his office because he wanted to talk with her about her research. When she arrived, she was forced to speak with him in the lobby because women were not allowed upstairs in the offices. Most shocking of all, however, is that Vera—whose work is recognized as truly revolutionary, a game-change in the world of physics—was never awarded the Nobel Prize.

 

What was the research process like for you?

SN: I think most people would be surprised by how much research goes into a nonfiction picture book—months’ worth, actually. I, of course, tried to find every interview and speech, keeping a special eye out for anything Vera or others said about her childhood and personal life. I tracked down out-of-print books. I culled through newspaper microfilms. The most challenging and fun part of the research was learning the science so that I could translate it into language and metaphors that children (and parents) can understand. We’re talking about dark matter here, after all. I took a stab at simplifying concepts, ran it by my daughter and husband, tried again, ran it by my critique group, tried again, gave it to Victoria and then to Maggie and tried again and again. I strongly believe that no concept is too complicated for children. It is simply a matter of finding the right way to explain it.

 

How is creating a nonfiction children’s book different than a fiction tale for kids? Is there a difference in approach?

VWA: Research! It’s very hard to do nonfiction without a ton of research!

ML: From a publisher’s perspective, a lot of the process is the same as for fiction picture books, but there’s the added responsibility to make sure the information included in the book is factual and clear—and to direct the illustrator to represent real-life people and places with the same accuracy. One of the most interesting things about editing non-fiction is thinking about why we want to tell particular stories. Not all stories are equally interesting! Even when recounting history, the author will have a point of view, and of course as Sandra said, when talking about revision, there are so many ways to get across the same information—it’s fascinating to find the right one!

 

There’s a growing market for “women in science” books, which is so fantastic to witness!!!! Do you see this topic persisting into 2018 and beyond?

VWA: I know my three daughters can’t get enough of it. I hope it’s not a trend, though, but a sea change in how we see women participating in the sciences.

ML: Agreed. I think a part of this wave of books is a correction to years of being overlooked, but going forward I see it as a permanent part of the children’s book canon.

 

If you could go on a cross-country road trip with any strong female icon, who would it be and where would you go?

VWA: I’m not an icon type person—I’d take Sandra and Maggie on a cross country food-and-wine tour with a final destination of Vera’s beloved observatory.

SN: What a fantastic idea! I would love to take a cross country trip with Victoria and Maggie (two very smart, strong and creative women) and visit all of Vera’s landmarks from Washington, D.C. to California.

ML: I would never say no to food, wine, and good conversation!

An Interview with Derek Nikitas

by Mariah Hopkins

Derek Nikitas is the author of the only James Patterson book you’ll never read. The Murder of Stephen King was an installment of Patterson’s quick-paced BookShots series about a stalker terrorizing the eponymous author by re-enacting scares from King’s own novels. The novella was ready to publish in 2016 when Patterson, in an effort to avoid causing King any discomfort, canceled it. Thankfully, the next two novellas Nikitas wrote for BookShots have been published without any hitches. Diary of a Succubus was released earlier this year and You’ve Been Warned–Again, a horror story about a family Thanksgiving gone wrong, came out this October. If you’re noticing a pattern in the BookShot novellas you’d be right. Nikitas is a fan of thrillers and mysteries and authored three of his own suspenseful novels before he started writing for BookShots. Pyres, a crime thriller following three distinct women in the wake of a murder, was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author; The Long Division, another thriller-bent novel about a long-lost mother and son reuniting and becoming caught in between a police deputy and a hunted killer’s endgame, was a Washington Post Book World Best Book of 2009. In addition to writing his own novels and for BookShots, Nikitas is an undergraduate advisor and assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Rhode Island, where he has had a hand in developing their new creative writing option.

Nikitas was one of my professors in my last year at URI, which I’d begun with no real plans for what I’d do once I graduated in the spring. I knew I was vaguely interested in creative writing, and I had some seedling notion that I’d apply to graduate school someday. Before taking Nikitas’ class my writing was directionless, but his boundless enthusiasm and support helped me realize my talents and eventually apply to the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Thinking back, it seems incredibly happenstantial that I emailed Nikitas earlier that summer to ask if I could join his already filled-to-capacity creative writing class—this probably makes it the most fortuitous coincidence of my life.

And now that I’m no longer in Rhode Island, Nikitas remains as supportive as ever: sending me well wishes, offering to read the stories I’m writing, and, of course, answering my interview questions.

 

The University of Rhode Island is establishing a new creative writing major—what are the goals of the new major, and did you have any role in shaping it?

 

So, it’s an “Option” within the English Major. The option is a way to give the students a sequence of courses culminating in a new creative writing capstone course. Our hope is that the Option will also tighten the sense of community and identity among writers on campus, increase English majors, and strengthen the college’s commitment to our department and our great activities, like the Ocean State Writing Conference, the Read/Write Series, the Ocean State Review and the Barrow Street press.

The department has long wanted this program, but it wasn’t feasible before I started my appointment. I wrote the specifics, with input from my colleagues, who had a long-gestating sense of what they wanted the Option to look like.

 

How do you manage all the different responsibilities in your life? From teaching to your duties as an undergrad advisor, to writing, and having a family.

 

I don’t always manage! Family and my own writing come first, and I try to write in the morning after the kids are in school, when the house is quiet, and before the work obligations creep into my mind. But still I live in a perpetual state of guilt that I should’ve written ten novels by now.

 

You’ve moved around quite a bit. You’re from New Hampshire but your education took you to North Carolina and Georgia, while you’ve taught in Kentucky and Rhode Island. Have the different environments/cultures affected how you write?

 

I just counted—I’ve moved twenty-five times in my life.

I feel like I’ve lived a good cross-section of American culture. I grew up a city kid with a single mother on government assistance for the first few years, visiting rural New Hampshire cousins and New England seaside upper-crust cousins. But I spent my teen years in the epitome of American suburban privilege, and have since lived in city and semi-rural environments. I’ve become a good chameleon, but when I think of “home,” nothing really comes to mind—or no one place does.

My first couple novels were rather focused on small-town Midwestern life and often highlighted the working poor. Getting my MFA in the South defined the way I wrote those early stories and novels. There’s a Southern ethos—the emphasis on regionalism, on hardscrabble lives, and “no nonsense” fiction that privileges scene and character above all else. Compare the narrative acrobatics of, say, Nabokov to the plainspoken, homespun style of Flannery O’Connor.

Since then I’ve been equally influenced by Yankees, who are prone to 19th Century-style austerity, and Europeans, who are prone to postmodern acrobatics. This is all horribly reductive, but not entirely false. I like to think I’ve learned to wear all those masks.

 

Do you have any special rituals you perform before you sit down to write?

 

Not really. I try to write at relatively the same time every day. When I’m really into a book, my goal is to get a rough draft down, or at least one third of the book, before I start revising. Otherwise I’ll obsess over language and never make any progress. I give myself a daily word count, just to push the book a little further. Usually around a thousand words. But during the brainstorming and revising phases, the process can be pretty haphazard. I’m pretty prone to writer’s block if I don’t have a solid plan, so these days I always have outlines to guide me.

 

You’re primarily known for writing crime thrillers. What draws you to the genre? What are the complexities of devising a “whodunnit” and revealing it to the reader in due time?

 

I’m interested in what drives people to bad behavior, the psychological element. I see crime stories on the news and that empathetic impulse kicks in: What emotional and mental conditions would have driven them to that behavior?

I’m interested in extreme mental states, how people think when they’re driven to the edge. These obsessions usually lend themselves to crime fiction, though sometimes horror and certain kinds of “weird fiction” as well.

I wouldn’t be the first to suggest that contemporary crime novels are the evolution of the so-called “social novels” of the 19th Century—the works of Dickens and Hardy and Eliot. Building a plot around a crime is a great way to explore a social tapestry, how characters from different social strata intersect and interact with each other across a highly structured narrative.

Honestly, the whodunit structure is probably the least interesting to me. I love intricate plotting and ironic turns, but the actual revelation of the bad guy at the end and the requisite uncovering of motive is often so perfunctory. If it somehow enlightens and deepens the characters, well, that’s all you can ask for, but that’s rare.

Take Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. A classic crime novel, with beautiful evocations of character psychology and social tapestry. The least interesting thing about that book is who the killer turns out to be. On the other hand, his novel Gone Baby Gone is a stirring example of how to get it all right, including the reveal, because it’s so resonant.

 

Do you employ the same techniques when writing screenplays, or does the different format require a different approach?

 

I used to be much more improvisational with fiction because that’s how I was taught. But learning how to write scripts has made me a much more deliberate fiction writer as well. Now I can hardly write anything without mapping it out, scene by scene. Turns out, that’s my natural instinct, but I’d been resisting it for so many years because I was convinced it was somehow not “creative” or “intuitive.”

Even so, writing the rough draft of any piece of fiction, for me, is torturous and terribly slow because of the intense concentration on getting the language right. Language is vitally important in a script as well, but for some reason my script rough drafts tend to be comparatively breezy. It’s the careful molding of subsequent drafts that makes screenwriting a challenge.

 

Has writing for James Patterson’s BookShots taken any time away from your own personal projects? And if they haven’t, do you care to reveal what you’re working on right now?

 

I’ve written three BookShots (one of which will never be released!), and each of those books was necessarily written in a highly structured and disciplined three-month timeline. During that time, I was glad to avoid other projects.

Right now, I’m working on a couple scripts and a novel. The novel is a mystery set in “South County,” Rhode Island. It’s about a high school art teacher who becomes the focus of an investigation because she’s the only possible connection between two kidnapped students. It’s a “paranoia thriller” from her point of view. I’m trying to bring together my style and what I learned from Patterson—focused first-person narration, propulsive story, etc.

 

In an interview with The Providence Journal, you said Patterson comes up with the idea for a BookShots book and you flesh it out. Does being handed a set story hinder your creativity?

 

Just the opposite. I find parameters inspiring. I’m pretty scatter-brained, so it’s hard for me to focus on a totally blank canvas. But rules create focus, and that smaller area of concentration generates ideas much more readily.

Sure, the Patterson BookShots gave me parameters like I’ve never had before. Were there times I wished for more autonomy? Yes, but I had to remember I was writing for a reason beyond my own “vision.” I was writing to a readership much larger than anything I could’ve otherwise reached. So I had an obligation to Patterson and his readers to meet challenges within their expectations. In the end, I think it has made me a more flexible and less self-involved writer.

 

What are you reading right now and what’s the last great book you read?

 

Two fantastic books I’ve read this year are Dodgers by Bill Beverly and Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh. Right now, I’m reading a whole lot of student fiction and re-reading classic short stories in preparation for class.

 

 

Nikita’s most recent novel, Extra Life, was published in 2015 with Polis Books. 

Interview with Linda Pennisi

by Lennie DeCerce

By the time I found my way into a creative writing workshop I had already been to and dropped out of three different colleges. I had published a shitty, immature collection of poetry, fiction and non-fiction and had no formal education in writing whatsoever. I had no one directing me, assisting me, telling me what was good or bad. My only teachers were the writers I read and they didn’t respond when I repeatedly asked them – how did you do that?

This all changed at LeMoyne College, in Syracuse, NY, when I decided to change my major for the final time from Psychology to English. I entered a classroom of round tables and folding chairs filled with excitement and fear and the cockiness that only a 26-year-old that knows nothing can have. Enter Linda Pennisi. A pocket-sized woman with a passion for words, passion for her students and fearless when it came to critiquing her students work. Linda was the first to instill the importance of the ever-present phrase show don’t tell. The first to teach me that writers together are a community. Linda was the first person in my world to give me what I needed as a writer, not what I wanted. I am thankful that I knew her as a professor before I knew her as a poet because had it been the other way around, I would have just been a fangirl gazing at her adoringly.

Linda publishes her work under her full name, Linda Tomol Pennisi and her full-length  publications include: Seamless and Suddenly, Fruit.

Seamless won the 2002 Perugia Press Intro Prize and was the first runner-up for the Philip Levine Poetry Prize.

Suddenly, Fruit won the 2005 Carolina Wren Press Prize.

Her chapbook, Miniscule Boxes in the Bird’s Bright Throat was one of four winners of the Toadlily Press 2014 Quartet Series and appears in, The Good Wall.

Linda’s poems have been published in literary journals such as: Bellevue Literary Review, McSweeny’s Book of Poets Picking Poets, Prairie Schooner, Hunger Mountain, Lyric Poetry Review, Midwest Quarterly Review, and Bitter Oleander.

Currently, Linda is Writer-in-Residence for the Creative Writing program at LeMoyne College.

 

Q: You are currently a Writer-in-Residence at LeMoyne College. What does that mean?

A: I teach two courses per semester for the creative writing program at LeMoyne College. Patrick Lawler and I basically share one position within the English department and we both share that title. It’s a contract position, but isn’t a tenure track position. It’s an adjunct positi

on with a bit more stability.

 

Q: Service-learning was a big piece of the education at LeMoyne College. You taught “Writing into the World” which paired students with senior citizens. I recall the class being very close to your heart. Are you still involved with this program or one similar?

A: Since that class was worth only one credit, after the first few semesters it was difficult to fill.  I still feel, as I did then, a need to give back in some way. I am fortunate in many ways, and one of those ways has to do with experiencing the joy of writing and of teaching creative writing. I have a need to give back, and that course stemmed from this need. Now I find other ways, such as founding and supporting the Y-arts program for students at our local YMCA. It offers students an opportunity to attend writing workshops, take music lessons, attend summer camps, etc.

 

Q: For a moment, let’s pretend I was not your student. What is one thing you hope to impress upon your students when a new class begins and why?

A: I think the most important things I want to establish those first few weeks, especially in an introductory workshop, is a sense of community, a sense of excitement in regard to the possibilities of language, and a sense of safety in the classroom. I try to let them know that though their writing is read aloud and critiqued, it will be done so with sensitivity and an appreciation of the fact that revealing one’s work this way is a challenging thing to do. Especially for undergrads, and oftentimes new writers, that’s important.

 

Q: I very distinctly recall reading “Perspective on Chaos” for the first time. Your first line, “I am not a box of wings” made me gasp. That line stuck. It pops into my head frequently and I wonder, is there a line from a poem that does that to you? Appear out of nowhere and linger? 

A: Yes, more than one. The poem “A Summer’s Day” by Mary Oliver contains a line that completely knocks me out. The poem culminates with these lines:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

Other than meaning, what draws me is the music of the lines and their rhythm—the way the monosyllables slow the passage and create an emphasis that heightens its urgency. Also, I appreciate the way it begins with the imperative and ends with a question. It’s hard to ignore a passage like that.

 

Q: I’m curious about your process. Do you have a room of your own like Virginia Woolf? Do you listen to music or need silence? Do you write in a notebook or type on a laptop? Would you be willing to share a bit about your how and where?

A: Most times I sit at my kitchen table. I love the light there, and it overlooks the woods. My office doesn’t have the same kind of view. The walls are dark and stacks of books clutter all the surfaces. I now need my computer for writing, though of course I scribble notes wherever I can.
I recently went on a retreat with a friend of mine and the imposed silence of that first evening was at first daunting, even a bit terrifying, but then the silence was what grounded me in the writing room that I often find so elusive. I realized that weekend how much technology gets in my way. Though I am not terribly phone-driven, when I could not use my phone for that weekend I saw how much it does get in my way.

 

Q: Continuing along the same process vein, your poetry unfolds so beautifully, so fluidly. I’m thinking specifically about In the Stars: “It was then she realized she had always wanted to be Jesus.” Did this line surprise you? Or, are there other lines/stanzas/entire poems that you finished and were like – where did that come from?

A: Thanks! Actually, that line did surprise me when it came. After I wrote it, the rest of the poem unfolded easily and wrote itself. That’s a rare occasion for me.

 

Q: If you could attend a weekend writer’s retreat surrounded only by colleagues and practitioners, alive or dead, who would you choose?

A: Blake and Wordsworth and Keats and Dickinson would be there, and on the more contemporary front it would likely be friends and colleagues, as well as poets such as Jane Hirshfield and Sharon Olds and Brigit Pegeen Kelly and Mark Doty. Of course, I could go on and on…and would add all my former advisors from VCFA, as well.

 

Q: When I need a reminder, when I feel like writing is an impossible task, I read Credo, by Jack Kerouac. It’s like the poem version of Tony Robbins. Is there a poem, story, quote that is your go to when you need reminding? This is assuming of course that you have these moments?

A: I must admit, I am a bit of a head case in this regard. I sometimes experience what I read this morning that Amy Tan also experiences, the fear that I’ll never write again. Sometimes it’s to Richard Wilbur I turn. In “The Writer,” as I’m sure you know, the speaker watches his daughter writing a story, listening to the stop and start of the typewriter keys. Reminded of the starling once trapped in her room, he recalls that it could not immediately find the window he has raised to let it escape. Speaker and daughter watch the bird

…drop like a glove

To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,

For the wits to try it again;

Finally, they both bear witness as it “…lifted off from a chair-back, / Beating a smooth course for the right window / And clearing the sill of the world.” Wilbur’s words acknowledge the difficulty in the process, and the joy when one finds her way. Much encouragement there.

 

Q: It is important for writers to have at least one person that they trust implicitly with their work. I have this fantasy that you, Lawler, Lloyd, and Roche sit around a round table with coffee and stacks of yellow legal pads, workshopping. I imagine Ann Ryan pops in carrying a basket of fruit. Is this how it works? Who is your person?

A: Oh, that sounds like fun in some ways, but the group focus you mention appeals right now only in fantasy, like your earlier question about the dead and the living. Over the last few years I turn to my colleague and first poetry teacher, Patrick Lawler, who is my most consistent and trusted and nurturing reader.

(Of note: Patrick Lawler, David Lloyd, Dan Roche, and Ann Ryan are all professors in the English department at LeMoyne. All are on my list for my fantasy writer’s retreat.)

 

Q: You are primarily a poet. Do you ever work outside your genre? Perhaps play with fiction? Tinker with essay?

A: Occasionally I am drawn toward the lyric essay, but have yet to really focus in that direction.  Who knows where that might take me.

 

Q: Are you currently working on a new book? Do you have any pending publications?

A: I’ve been thinking for the past couple of years that the poems I’m writing are feeling like a book in progress. I’m still letting that percolate, however, with the focus being new poems and seeing where they take me. I am pretty settled now with the fact that I am not a prolific writer. Though at one time this was a concern, for the most part I’ve let it go.

 

Q: You are an alum of VCFA. After 5 incredible weeks here, I never want to leave. Do you have any advice for current / future students?

A: I remember that I felt lost when I graduated from VCFA. It took a long while to figure out how to function as a writer again without the richness of that experience, without the rhythm of deadlines and mailings and those incredible seven-page responses from mentors. From the newsletters I read, it seems that there are now ways to curb the loss of that rhythm through feedback groups with other alums, etc. As advice, I’d say try to prepare yourself for that transition by planning for it, being sure you have a reader or readers to whom you can regularly turn when the program ends.

I graduated from LeMoyne College ten years ago. In that space between then and now, Linda and I have kept in touch and she has always been willing to read and critique the poems I’ve sent to her. When she found out I was applying to VCFA, she contacted me immediately and gave me the Tony Robbins treatment to quiet my panic that I wouldn’t be accepted. She told me that this was the perfect place for me. She was right.

“Little Grace Notes in a Story”: A Conversation with William Marquess

by Laura Kujawa

 

The office of William Marquess is small but colorful. There is mischief here: rows of books, equal parts vibrant and muted, line the walls, and a herd of plastic and rubber figurines stare impassively from his desk at all who enter. Pictures and poems and paintings galore are tacked to free wall space. Yes, there are stacks of papers and drafts cluttering the odd corner as, it seems, with all academics. There’s also a sense of uncanny order.

I met Professor Marquess, or Will as he is more fondly called by students and colleagues alike, in the fall of 2011. He taught my first-year seminar with a reserved grace, encouraging an unlikely comradery from a collection of disparate Freshmen. He coaxed curiosity from even the most poker-faced, the most wooden.

I met the author Will Marquess a few semesters later, when he led a fiction writing workshop and steadfastly participated in the process with us all, from initial “seeds,” to the self-explanatory “shitty final draft.” In 2016, he published a collection of short stories entitled Boom-shacka-lacka with an interesting twist: all of the pieces had been, in some part, a product of a workshop he had taught, including my own. I recently got the opportunity to sit down with him. We discussed world wisdom, words, and the weather.

Laura Kujawa: What are you reading right now?

Will Marquess: My reading is almost always shaped by what’s happening next in class or next semester as I’m planning for it, which is, by the way, one argument in favor of not teaching anymore, that I would have time to read just for my own bloody self. Last week we read a story by George Saunders, which was quite wonderful and weird, ‘The Semplica-Girl Diaries.’ And I’m reading the brand new Best American Short Stories–always comes out just in time for Christmas shopping–because that’s what we’ll use in fiction writing workshops in the spring, and that’s always just an act of faith. You know, I like some of the collections better than others, but we’re just going to use it and make the most of it, because it’s fresh and I’ve never taught any of those stories before. I’m just looking forward to reading more stories.

 

LK: How would you describe your own writing?

WM: Besides torturous? [He laughs.] I don’t know quite how to describe it. But I will try, of course. I’ll try a couple of stabs.

I think I tend towards realism. Just thinking about types of writing—and I know there are limits to that but I hope to be aware of them—if realism always is an aesthetic construction and it’s made out of words and it’s not real people. And yet, when I read, I’m most often interested in thinking about people, and how they behave. And at the same time, I’m always interested in calling some attention—that may not be the right way to put it, because calling attention means that I’m trying to get a certain effect—but being aware of language as I’m writing. Sometimes it’s just little puns or twists of language, sometimes it’s built into the story.

[One of] my favorite stories of my own in recent years is about a guy who makes up languages, who’s in the “constructed language biz” and he’s inventing a language. He’s at a conference for “conlangers” as they’re called, constructive language people, which is a real thing that I read about in The New Yorker and thought, wow, this is interesting. This is fun. There’s another one about an eleven-year-old girl—I think that may be the one I wrote in the workshop with you—which has some invented words because she’s eleven, and she’s “freeping” and “thirling” around and I enjoy that kind of wordplay. I’m interested in people, and language, and how we understand [people] through language…so I’m a linguistic realist or realistic linguist or something.

 

LK: How is it that you write—what’s your secret?

WM:  Deadlines. We were referring to this perhaps before the recording began. Deadlines are what makes it work for me—and part of me thinks “well, that means you’re not a real writer, because real writers just write, just have to write, and they don’t need deadlines.” But that’s probably hogwash. I think most of us, even the so-called real writers, propose their own deadlines. It’s why I’ve been so pleased about the process in being involved in my own writing workshops, which occasionally feels selfish on my part, that I’m just indulging myself and imposing my own writing on the students…but mostly I don’t think so. I’m always apologetic in case a student might feel that way, but mostly I think they’re thrilled that—man, he’s doing it too. We get to see what he’s doing too. And it means I just have to get a draft done. So that’s a somewhat facetious but also honest answer about how it happens…I just have to impose that kind of external impetus to make it happen. Shame myself into it.

 

LK: I found myself on your profile on the College’s website, and under research it says, “my research consists of reading as much fiction as possible and also just paying attention to the world.” Any world wisdom you’ve stumbled upon—any writerly moments lately?

WM: When you mentioned the word “wisdom,” I thought oh god, I don’t have any of that. And I hope it’s not false modesty. I’m wary of people who think they have wisdom. Probably the greatest wisdom is to know that you don’t.

But I’m stumbling on things all the time. It’s just paying attention to things as much as possible. When the power went out this morning, and I had to grope in the dark to find some candles, I thought well, I could use this. I haven’t figured out what the weather is in the story that I’m writing right now, but weather’s almost always interesting because we live in it all the time. If nothing else, it gives you texture, but it often also gives you character, because everybody has feelings about kinds of weather and reactions and ways they deal with it.

I wouldn’t call this wisdom, but if there’s any wisdom in it—I hope—it’s being aware that everything counts. Anything could become part of a story. This is one of the more important things that I might be able to teach my eighteen-year-olds who might come in thinking, “well, the way you write a story is that you come in with a plot, and you have this big twist, and then it ends with a surprise.” And that could work. I’m not going to tell them that it’s wrong. But I’m going to ask them to think about the weather. Or write a car scene. Or what kind of food this person hates. And those little things could be only little grace notes in a story, but they still could be the texture and the way we actually know a character.

 

LK: I wonder if we could talk about Boom-shacka-lacka. I remember you using that phrase in class, and I’m curious where it came from. What does it mean to you, and why did it make its way onto the cover of your collection of short stories, and into the foreword, where you go into your experience with cancer?

WM: As far as I’m aware of its origin, it comes from [the band] Sly and The Family Stone, “I Want to Take You Higher.” There’s a bridge, a break in the melody a couple of times where it comes back to “Boom shacka lacka lacka, boom shacka lacka lacka,” [he sings the baseline].  And that’s always just spoken to me as a little piece of rhythm and language that appeals to me. It’s purely self-indulgent, egotistical—I just like it.

The way I use it in the foreword to the book is maybe evasive, because that’s a piece about having cancer and understanding one’s mortality and how impossible it is to articulate anything about it, so that when I’m asked about it, here’s what I have to say: boom shacka lacka. Maybe if I were smarter I would have greater wisdom to articulate it. I think it’s also that the response to that question is life its own damn self, and one way of expressing that is “boom shacka lacka lacka, boom shacka lacka lacka, boom shacka lacka lacka.” It’s being in a moment, living with the rhythm of music and language. That’s the only thing I know how to do when I’m thinking about the fact—which is true for all of us, not just somebody who’s been through cancer—that I’m dying and that I won’t be here forever. And it makes me feel alive.

 

LK: Why is fiction what does it for you? Where did that come from and how did it start?

WM: Where it comes from is an intense curiosity about people and myself. Where it started was ‘see Jane run.’ ‘See Dick walk.’ It started with a kindergarten primer that excited me because these are words. These things that I’ve been saying for years now, they’re actually on a page and I can connect one to the next, and you keep connecting them and they reflect something about human brains and hearts and what magic that is.

It’s not only stories. Poems are just as thrilling to me. Either I’m not as good at writing poems, or I’m better at writing fiction…maybe that’s the more positive way to put it. So that’s where I’ve spent more time. But it’s consciousness of language and how mysterious it is, and often beautiful and often frustrating.

 

LK: That’s lovely. I can’t wait to write this all down!

WM: Good luck.

 

LK: I know this is one of those stereotypical, “you write, so you must have advice” kind of questions…but you write. You must have advice.

WM: Try not to be such a perfectionist…It’s lethal. Fatal to a writing career if you allow it to overwhelm you, because you’re never going to create perfection, and you have to let it go. That’s a lesson about life too. We’re all going to die and my life is less perfect too, day by day, and I’ve been proving it for the last half hour! And I have to let that be, and make the most of it.

Don’t go into this thinking you’re going to write the next great novel. Go into it with an interest in a little piece of energy. The way that woman walks down the street. Or the way that girl thinks about her mother. The way the great uncle creates goulash. Those are the little things you make stories out of.

That seems picayune, but it’s the substance of somebody’s life that I respond to in fiction. It also—and this is maybe the closest to wisdom that I can get—It does help me appreciate the world more. Thinking as a writer makes me pay more attention to things…instead of just my own default settings, the way I normally respond to things. It’s making me think about the way other people would.

 

LK: Excellent. Thank you, professor.

 WM: Basta!

 

Boom-shacka-lacka by William Marquess. Available now.

An Interview with Louis Sylvester

by Lauren Lang

 

Louis Sylvester is a cool man. He’s an Associate Professor of English at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho. He earned his PhD from Oklahoma State University.

As a professor, many students refer to him as the “fun professor” to work with. He mostly dresses in printed cartoon t-shirts and jeans and there is always laughter in the class, mostly because of how he comments on what he refers to as “the materials” he teaches. He teaches screenplay, fiction and nonfiction.

Besides teaching, Sylvester is an avid board game player. He owns more than one thousand board games and often hosts a weekly board game night on campus playing with his students. His dog’s names are Cake and Muse.

Sylvester recently co-authored Legends of the Lost Causes, an adventure novel for middle-grade, with Brad McLelland. We spoke with Sylvester about his soon-to-be-released novel.

I know a little bit about Legends of the Lost Causes with the given synopsis that are out on the internet. It’s for middle-grade, but can you tell me more about the story? And why write it for middle-grade?

 The story is a rip-roaring fantasy western centered around a group of young teens who must stop a villainous desperado before he uncovered a magical artifact called the Char Stone. Our hero, Keech Blackwood, discovers that his adopted father once ran with some wicked men and they have come back in search of the Char Stone. After Keech’s home is destroyed, he and a few other orphans set out to stop the outlaw before he can wreak further havoc.

We wanted to write at the middle-grade level because 1) We wanted to really focus on the high adventure and not worry about romantic relationships, like seems to be a requirement in YA lit. And 2) We wanted to tell a story that felt like a mix of The Goonies, The Cowboys, and Stranger Things. (To be fair, we started in 2010, well before Stranger Things, but that show really captured the spirit of adventure we were aiming for.)

 

You mentioned that you co-authored the book with Brad McLelland. Can you tell us about the creative process of writing this book? For example, where did the idea come from, what were the challenges, what was the research process like, and what was it like writing a story with another writer?

 Brad and I met in grad school in a creative writing program. We were friends, and one day we discussed the kind of writing we wanted to do once we graduated. We met on a number of occasions to create a plot that we thought would be a ton of fun to explore and then I moved to another state. So, we came up with a plan where I would write a chapter, send it to Brad, then he would edit my chapter and write a new chapter, then send the doc back to me. Then I’d edit all the writing, and write a new chapter. We did this for the entire book. We worked off of an outline and we gave ourselves deadlines.

The biggest challenge I faced was dealing with edits on a sentence that I held dear. It’s tough to write something and be proud of it, then watch your partner delete it because it doesn’t work for him. BUT we talked about this and realized that the book we wanted had to work for both of us. We found a way to communicate and now I wonder how writers get anything done without a partner.

Research was tricky. We set the tale in 1855 and while writing we would suddenly ask, “Hey, did this item even exist in 1855?” It required us to do a lot of online research. After a while, we just bought a bunch of books on the history of the old west.

 

Can you also tell us about the publishing process? For instance, did you get an agent from a publishing company?

 After we had finished our first draft and polished it to the point that not a single comma was out of place, we took it out in search of an agent. Brad met our agent, Brooks Sherman, at a writer’s conference down in Texas. The two sat and chatted about our book for an hour and Brooks agreed to read it and give us feedback. We got a list of about 1000 things that needs to be addressed.

So we spent a couple more years basically rewriting the entire book based on Brooks’ suggestions.

He was impressed with our rewrite. Not because the book was now ready, but because we showed him how ready we were to work with an agent. We listened and took his advice seriously. Brooks agreed to represent us at that point. We signed contracts and then he gave us a new list of a 1000 things to address.

We wrote for another year, again building a new book. This draft was something Brooks thought he could sell. He shopped it around to his various publishing contacts and within 2 weeks we received a wonderful offer from Henry Holt Co.

 

When you knew that the book was going to be published, did you have any idea of what the book was going to look like? For example, did you know how the cover, the paper, and the design would appear?

 I had very little idea how the book design would appear. Once we had an editor, we spoke with him about the things we wanted for the book. We said we wanted art that included an evil crow for the cover and we also were hoping for some illustrations inside.

Our editing team then went out and found an artist named Alexandria Neonakis. They worked with her and sent us the art that Henry Holt had approved. We loved it. We did ask for a few alterations, which Alex made.

 

What are the messages, if any, that you hope the readers will take away from your writing?

 I think that our story has a rather strong message regarding using your wits to overcome challenges. There is a lot of action in the story, but violence fails to resolve problems. Our story suggests that cooperation and clever thinking are a better way to achieve your goals.

 

Legends of the Lost Causes will be released in February 2018.

Jessica Hendry Nelson Wants to Eat All the Books

An Interview by Lindsay Gacad

I jumped at the chance to interview Jessica Hendry Nelson, the whirling dervish, who works as an author, professor and editor, and lives in Waterbury, Vermont. As a fan of her non-chronological essay style and focus on creative nonfiction, I looked forward to discussing her award-winning memoir-in-essays If Only You People Could Follow Directions (Counterpoint Press) of which the Kirkus Starred Review said, “It takes a virtuoso writer to make another familial memoir of addiction seem as vital and compelling as this stunning debut does…Unforgettable.”

We sit down in The Moore Room, a small space in the Gary Library which houses just a beige couch and a white armchair by the window facing the green. Its intimate setting provided the privacy I quickly learned we’d need.

Once Jessica Hendry Nelson enters the Vermont College of Fine Arts Gary Library, she is greeted by a bevy of excited students who are giddy to say hello. Her energy is infectious, and what was previously a quiet Monday afternoon turned into a cacophony of laughter and hugs in the library’s foyer. Effortlessly chic, Jessica is donning an olive green felt hat, wide-legged black pants, and a dark denim jacket.

~

LG: Was it difficult to write your memoir, If Only You People Could Follow Directions? Did it take time to pull together? Because it is so beautiful, I really enjoyed it.

JHN: Thank you. I started writing it when I was really young, right after my Dad died, after college, and that felt like the easy part. Living it is difficult, but writing it is easy to do. I was using the creative part of my brain to make a piece of art out of things that are huge and messy and chaotic. By the time I started writing this material in any direct way, it didn’t feel personal. It felt like writing somebody else’s story. So, I didn’t really struggle with that emotionally, because some things had already been processed.

LG: How was it received by your family? 

JHN: That’s always a big question with creative nonfiction—“how do we broach this?” In fact, I just did an hour-long lecture on this subject, because it’s so charged. People feel a lot of responsibility, guilt, and a lot of fear because you don’t know how people will react. You can only control a few things: the empathy that you bring to the page, committing yourself to writing full, true stories, and the idea that the page is never the place to condemn or to call anyone out, or bring anyone to bear. It is the place to really understand the fullness of a human, or of a story. So, if you can do that, you know that whatever you are ultimately showing them comes from a place of love and empathy and of curiosity and wonder and not from a place of trying to bring someone to task for past sins.

LG: Or judgment.

JHN: Exactly. I think of when I write about my family or loved ones—I’m really trying to write love letters. They might not seem that way on the surface, but I think it is an honor to be seen, and to be seen fully and intimately. I think that that’s an honor. Even if you’re not aggrandizing anyone or making anyone holier than thou, you’re creating true full portraits.

My family knew for a long time that I was writing this material, and they were always really open about it and proud. And they think they’re like rock stars. {Laughs} My brother—this is one of my favorite stories—when my book first came out, he was living in Philly, between halfway houses, and the book was in The Oprah Magazine, and he called. He’s getting on the bus and I just hear him go, “My sister wrote this book and I’m the drug addict in the book!” He was so proud, and I hear the bus go “Yayyyy!” All these people started clapping. So, I think I’m really fortunate. I don’t think everyone’s family is necessarily going to be that open and willing to share their own stories.

And I would say, with CNF/memoir, don’t show them anything till it’s done. You don’t want other people’s voices in your head when you’re writing, and anything that can mess with your own psychic workings-through can be a real roadblock. Until you know it’s going to be published, there’s no reason to necessarily burden a relationship if it feels at all tricky. Give yourself the freedom to go where you need to go, without any sort of anxiety or fear about their reception. You have to separate those two parts of the process as much as you can. Otherwise, you’ll never do it if you’re constantly negotiating the relationships while you’re trying to write honestly.

LG: Did you start writing CNF in undergrad, or at Sarah Lawrence? Did those feel like safe places to experiment with writing?

JHN: Yeah, I did. I ended up working with a poet, Vijay Seshadri. He taught me more about writing than almost anyone. I first started writing CNF in undergrad and didn’t know anything about it. It wasn’t nearly as prevalent as it is today on the market, or at least I wasn’t aware of it as much, so it felt like the wild west. It felt like we could try anything and there was no real rulebook that said you can’t tell a story this way.

Naivety can be a really powerful, creative fuel. Your own ignorance can be a driver because you don’t know any better. I was just trying some shit out, and thank god, because now I could never get back to that place in my writing—before you start taking yourself seriously, where there are no pressures of publication or expectations or anything. That purity of digging in for the first time. That’s such a great place to be.

My brother is in jail right now, and he barely graduated from high school. He just started writing in jail, and he read me some of it over the phone the other day, and it was so beautiful and unhindered. You can tell he has a natural gift and knack, and it’s not at all beaten into place by other voices. It’s in an unfilteredness place that I wish I could get back to.

In school, I was just so hungry and desirous of all of it, and I didn’t feel the same sort of self-awareness that I maybe have now. That can be prohibitive in your work. You don’t want to ever take yourself too seriously.

LG: Right. A lot of how we feel now as grad students is a place of “I don’t know…”

JHN: “I don’t know” is the best place to write from. I tell my students this all the time, never start an essay because you have some lesson to impart, or you have some theme or thesis already devised in your head. Always come to the page from a place of not knowing, and write in order to refine the question, but not to answer the question.

LG: I love that.

JHN: You can tell when you pick up an essay and the writer had an agenda—there’s no discovery in that. There’s not ecstatic understanding, so it becomes instead a series of prescribed rhetorical moves that end up feeling really predictable. Whereas essays that start in wonder and end in wonder are the ones that excite me the most.

LG: That’s so true. What kind of things do you do to get yourself out of your head? I know that you love it here in Vermont and nature. 

JHN: You mean besides when I beat my head against the wall repeatedly every morning? {Laughs} That’s number one. Drink a lot of wine, that’s number two. I do think that when writing is going really well, it’s physical. We write from the body, more than we acknowledge. I tend to be a rocker when I write: I have to stand and move. There’s something about the narrative energy—not to sound too woo-woo—I think we have narrative in our DNA. Story is in our cells, our bones, our blood. Why wouldn’t that also be a physical process as well? And walking, that’s every writer’s favorite. And for good reason, because that stimulates and connects body and brain.

My space, where I write, is really important to me. I need a space where I can feel free to just move around and get up and stretch and rock and look really weird.

LG: There are tons of strong settings in your book. For me, it was wonderful how you weaved the story through them; it propelled the story forward along with the story of your family. 

JHN: Good, good. I try to make setting a character. And at the very least we have to remember our stories do not take place out of space and time. My memories taking place in Philadelphia would’ve been very different set in Seattle. Moving to Vermont has made me even more aware of the ways in which the rhythms of the seasons really impact everything. Not just superficially—it changes the way humans move through the world, what we do, how we’re feeling, and then that impacts our relationships, which impact our emotions which impact everything. So, trying to be cognizant of setting and how it impacts story is important to me.

LG: You’re also Managing and Nonfiction Editor at Green Mountains Review. I’m interested in how you balance that and how it helps your writing.

JHN: Six years ago, when I started doing that work, it was really helpful to peek behind the curtain, because it felt like such a mysterious process. It’s made me much more patient with other writers, and with myself.

When you see these submissions pile up, and the work, heart, love, and sweat that goes into each, it feels like a communal, mutual desperation, our hopes, insecurities, and love, where else do you go to work and engage with people’s deepest, most complicated intimacies. And they’re complete strangers. {Exhales} Essay after essay, that is humbling. And feels like a lot of responsibility.

I know how vulnerable that can feel to submit your work into the ether and just wait for someone to come down with a verdict. But it’s doing your part to contribute to this creative community. I believe the best sense of literary citizenship—which is a term I think gets thrown around a lot—is like service learning. I get to be a curator and reach out to people whose work I admire, and have something to offer them.

LG: Do you have a big team there, or is it just you?

JHN: We have just three of us main editors, Elizabeth Powell, Jensen Beach; Deedee Jackson is also a poetry editor. It’s really a three-man brigade. For nonfiction, I do it all.

LG: Who are your people?

JHN: At its best, writing is a collaborative process. Writer’s groups are key; they’re my lifeblood. And if you can find an agent you trust, that’s gold, man.

LG: Here come the standard interview questions: What are you currently reading? What’s on your nightstand?

JHN: I love these questions, they’re my favorite to answer. I just finished Outline by Rachel Cusk. It’s a beautiful novel, comprised of conversations that other people are telling the main character. Black Wave, a novel by Michelle Tea, I read. I love novels that feel essayistic, or that have a nonfiction style of writing that feels more dialectic, not just relying on the same plot structures that we’re so familiar with. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill is one of my favorite books in recent years.

But not just CNF. I loved Melissa Febos’ Abandon Me. And there’s a great book called Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor. It was sold as stories, but to me it feels like essays with letters. Anything playing with form in new ways, or that is hybrid in nature, whether in content or form. The Folded Clock, by Heidi Julavitz, you should read that.

LG: I get overwhelmed by how much there is to read, but it’s also a wonderful problem to have.

JHN: I know, I just want to eat all the books and have them inside me already.

LG: And so, what’s next for you? What has you excited?

JHM: I have a lot of projects in the pipeline. I just finished a first draft of my next book, which I think will be a book-length nonfiction narrative. It will probably be sold as memoir, which is kind of a shame because I feel like that word is sort of too vague for some of the kinds of work that other people are doing.

LG: I feel like “memoir” has a sort of negative connotation. Do you?

JHN: We understand what creative nonfiction is in the literary community, but the mainstream sees memoir as audacious, like we think we have some sort of wisdom to impart. That’s a huge misconception. But that is tied to my second project—I’m co-writing an Advanced Creative Nonfiction textbook with Sean Prentiss. Part of that is trying to get people to re-see the possibilities of creative nonfiction, and that means changing the nomenclature a little bit. It’s really exciting and definitely necessary.

 

Jessica Hendry Nelson’s memoir, If Only You People Could Follow Directions (Counterpoint Press), was selected as a best debut book by the Indies Introduce New Voices program, named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus Review, and reviewed nationally in print and on NPR—including twice in O, The Oprah Magazine. It was also a finalist for the Vermont Book Award.

Nelson’s work has appeared in The Threepenny ReviewPrairie SchoonerTin HouseThe Los Angeles Review of BooksThe Rumpus, and elsewhere. She teaches in the MFA Program in Writing and Publishing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, the MFA Program at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, at Champlain College, and she serves as the Managing & Nonfiction Editor of Green Mountains Review.

Practicing Perfection: An Interview with Kelly McMahon

by Cameron Finch

Kelly McMahon is a one-time poet who walked into a print shop and never looked back. She has a BA in English Literature from Smith College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from California College of the Arts, where she spent (a little) time writing and (much more) learning the craft of letterpress. She now lives in Montpelier, Vermont, where she founded and runs May Day Studio, a letterpress purveyor of “quirky paper goods.”

Photo by Jennifer Langille

As graduate students of the MFA program in Writing and Publishing here at VCFA, we are encouraged to find internships at literary or art-affiliated organizations. I knew I wanted to work with words in a tactile way, and May Day Studio offered an internship position that would give me the exact experience I was looking for. I had no background in letterpress work at all, but Kelly was immediately generous with her time and devoted herself to teaching me all she knew about the artform. Each week, I spend three wonderful hours in the one-room studio with her: engaging in everything from distributing and organizing typefaces (aka fonts) to packaging products for upcoming craft fairs to marbling paper. Kelly is perhaps the most organized person you will ever meet; she has a delicious taste in music (yes, I have heard her “KEXP Song of the Day” mixtapes more than once); and she creates an impressive range of paper goods that just beg customers to reach out and slide their hands over the many textures.

I am thrilled to share the conversation I had with Kelly about her childhood passions, poetry, and the infectious joy of letterpress art.

 

Cameron Finch: What were some of your passions when you were a child? What did you want to be “when you grew up?”

Kelly McMahon: I have always loved reading. Words and stories were and continue to be my escape from daily life. I thought that being a librarian would be the best job ever—I could read all day long!

CF: How did you get your start in letterpress printing? Do you remember a defining moment that drew you to this field?

KM: I took a seminar in graduate school called “Writing in the Book Structure.” It was an art school, so we had vague class assignments like “print something on the printing press” and “make a book.” I set my longest poem—over 30 lines—in (unbeknownst to me) a very worn font of type. The professor then showed me the brand new type and I reset the entire text. It was beautiful!

CF: Why does this form of artistic expression suit you?

KM: I get to practice perfection every day! Setting type, mixing ink, cutting paper, achieving perfect alignment of form and paper are all so deeply satisfying.

CF: Thats funny that you mention perfection! I remember one day during my internship at May Day, you shared that in college, you took a course called “Failure.” Could you tell us a little more about that class and how you implement its teachings into your work now?

KM: I took “Failure” my second semester of graduate school. The course had readings, films, and visual art components that explored the various ways in which we fail as humans, as artists, and what happens after. We had two main assignments: to fail privately and to fail in public. And to document it all. The class sessions were amazing (and overwhelming) explorations of what it means to be an artist, and how failure is not the opposite of success—but a step on the path.

CF: What led to the creation of May Day Studio in 2006?

KM: I finished graduate school in 2004 and was working two part-time jobs: at a retail paper/art shop and as a legal assistant. I was offered promotions at both jobs, and had to choose between a low-wage but creative job or a higher-wage but supremely boring job. I picked poor but creative, and here I am!

CF: What inspired the name “May Day Studio?”

KM: My birthday is May 1 (aka “May Day”). Folks assume it’s the distress call “mayday”—but I wouldn’t want to feel panicked every time I thought about my business!

CF: Can you describe your favorite press you use to make pieces on?

KM: They’re all my favorites! I love the rumble-rumble-click-click of Lucy, the Vandercook, and the way the paper slides smoothly out of my hand around the cylinder. I love the whoosh-clank of Butch, the Chandler & Price platen press, as the dog turns the ink disc. And Minnie, the little Chandler & Price Pilot, was my first press and does all the little jobs with no fuss.

CF: What tools of the trade can you not live without?

KM: Top three: my favorite mechanical pencil, a line gauge (aka a printer’s ruler), and my Pantone book of colors.

CF: Do you have a particular approach (or process) as you begin a project?

KM: I make lists! And more lists. Listing all the variables and options and costs helps me reduce a complex process down to its most elemental. And once the clutter is cleared, then I can get creative!

CF: Is there a project/piece youve worked on that you are especially proud to have made?

KM: I am so proud of the poetry broadsides I’ve designed and printed for “Poets Pulling Prints”—the poetry reading and broadside-printing event I’ve hosted at the studio for the last two years.

CF: You also are a poet and studied poetry in graduate school. What is your relationship to poetry now that you are a full-time letterpress artist?

KM: I take lots of notes! I write poems in the car, while I’m driving, and hope the words will still be there when I reach my destination. Someday I will find the time to write it all down again.

Butch the Platen Press

CF: How does your meticulous and precise process with the letterpress influence the way you write and compose your poetry? Have you found it has changed at all since your graduate school days?

KM: I am a word nerd, through and through. My word choices—and their sounds and meanings and histories and echoes—are very important. I think my recent notes/poems are more spare, less effusive. They are moments, rather than hours or days.

CF: Are there any particular themes you are drawn to write about in your poems?

KM: My theory of language is all about relationships—the words that bounce around my brain are related to, but not exactly the same, words that find their way out of my mouth, and once those words are in the air, they are heard/interpreted/reacted to by another brain. So much gets lost (and found?) in the movement. That’s really a long way of saying that I write about everything, but usually it just sounds like I’m writing about myself.

CF: Who are your artistic influences?

KM: That’s so hard for me to narrow down! Writers—Emily Dickinson. Sylvia Plath. Joan Didion. Virginia Woolf. Filmmaker—Sofia Coppola, for sure. Artists—Marc Chagall. Claude Cahun. Cindy Sherman. Joseph Cornell. And for a letterpress bonus: Jessica Spring and Chandler O’Leary, aka the Dead Feminists.

CF: Is there a book or a film that has changed you as a person?

KM: I keep coming back to my childhood favorite—A Wrinkle in Time. Meg Murry was my ultimate awkward-nerd hero.

CF: Whats next for May Day Studio? Any new products, events, or projects in the line-up?

KM: We’re heading into the busy holiday season right now—so I’ve got lots of craft fairs plus two pop-up holiday shops to stock with quirky holiday cards and gifts.

 

Stay up to date with Kellys latest products on May Day Studios website:  http://www.maydaystudio.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Motion of Poetic Landscape: An Interview with Sherwin Bitsui

by Bianca Viñas

I place my bag on the chair beside me and the weight gives way, my books and notes spilling everywhere. I kick them aside; it is a minor distraction. The room I’m standing in is auspiciously staring back at me. There is an oblong conference table straddling what could only be described as the 40 yard line in this grand white space, a group of writers huddled in one end zone, absolutely nothing in the other. This is the room we will be interviewing the remarkable author of Flood Song.

“This isn’t going to work.” Someone interrupts.

I agree with a nod. Three other heads bob in unison.

To the east of the room, an AC unit heaves gusts of frozen air into a corner all together larger than my studio apartment. Thirty feet west another studio is framed by three concrete pillars, the center decorated with sofas and armchairs; there are three voice recorders on the coffee table.

“We might need to move some chairs…”

We all turn around and see Sherwin Bitsui surveying the other end of the room.

“Hi…” I shyly utter. The notes I had taken for this interview are at his feet, his most recent book of poetry, Flood Song is wedged between Zong by Nourbese Philip, another favorite of mine.

He smiles and puts his briefcase down. “A circle over there maybe?” He points to the Westside studio with its ivy red sofas. “Yes, that will work.” He begins moving chairs.

I put my book down and move to a sofa with another writer, an Italian-American grad student best known for his recent dystopian piece about a cyborg dog. “I think this needs to be moved… it’s in the way…” I see him pointing to a concrete pillar. Sherwin stops; he does not know my friend will be literal about this .. He wraps his hands around the pillar and heaves a deep, guttural “hmmfhh.” There is a pause; he puts his hands lower and tries again “hmmmfhh.” We all begin to laugh. “It won’t move?” Sherwin asks.

Once seated, a group of 30 or so writers waits for Sherwin Bitsui to begin. He is generous with his glances… quiet. The silence is restorative, his connection to everything around him evident as he stares meaningfully at the floor and then back at us. He begins.

“Yá’át’ééh shi Dine’é everyone.

“Shi’eiya Sherwin Bitsui yinishyé…But you already know that.” He laughs.

He spends a few moments explaining his sacred ancestry and then looks to the person nearest him. “I would like to hear your name… Where you are from … Something about yourself…” He spends the next thirty minutes asking each person in the room about their home and heritage, listening in quiet admiration.

~

Bitsui is both poet and translator of the ever-evolving discourse between land and spirit, a gift of his Navajo heritage. He is Diné of the Bitter Water Clan, born of the Many Goats People of a matrilineal society in the Navajo Reservation of White Cone, Arizona. The language of his ancestors is rooted within the landscape of the Four Sacred Mountains, a “directional floor to the sky and its constellations.”  Sherwin is humble, yet brilliant: “Sǫ Ahótsií”, I believe a Navajo would say… a man that mirrors many “stars linked together.”

In his most recent collection of poetry, Flood Song, he suspends astonishing surrealism and poetics into an image of “fossilized amber, dimming gas lights between rain and fall.”

Sherwin is the author of an additional collection of poetry, Shapeshift, and the recipient of the American Book Award. He is joined today by an audience of creative writers.

 

A writer from Ibadan, Nigeria, fluent in Yoruba, asks the first question, clapping his hands in front of his face with an affirming “wow.”

 How does your native language inform the colonial language in which you write your poetry?

Navajo is thought in motion, a very verb driven language. Everything is tactile; everything is about moving within the world or having the world move within you. [The Navajo] also have this ability within the language, its philosophy and worldview, to make the metaphorical very real… to make it literal in a way. Perhaps because we live in a ritualized, ceremonial space, our culture exists in an inner relationship with all things. A lot of the houses face east, because the eastern doorway welcomes the rising sun. I think we live in a dimension of place and time that is also spiritually linked, a kind of mapping/topography that belongs to the people.

Sherwin points with his index finger to his eye, and moves this hand to his chest. He pauses and outstretches this palm to the air. We look and realize he is holding his words.

We have a word, Nizhóní, which describes something beautiful or balanced… the philosophy that everything must return to Nizhóní; everything must return to this balance.

Sherwin assures everyone this act of beauty is for everyone to claim. He repeats Nizhóní once… twice.

When you are out of balance, ceremony and ritual language balance the forces, harmonizing it. And that is the other kind of poetic I have access to, an ancient poetry that comes from the soil, comes from this land. This is brought to a kind of quality that resonates with language, somehow becoming the voice of the land. Language is another kind of landscape, an extension that goes away like the mist or the air that you breathe. Colonial language feels very segmenting, in a way, like it has a different function living within that function, an architecture of these places and these thoughts that enter organic, traditional spaces. For example, traditionally, [the Navajo] live in one space. There was never a sense of “do I need a room of my own, a segmented living space?” Once this thought [of segmentation] entered into our traditional tribal spaces, a kind of segmenting happened [and an evolution of relationship to space].

 

An author/curator based in Los Angeles leans into the circle, her hands adjusting her sea green scarf:

You have a wide arc of experience… what do you think about the lifetime commitment to the practice [of poetry]?

 The Navajo word for “north” is náhookǫs. As a child we knew it as the Big Dipper, the North Star, Polaris, but when you read it three times, it enacts a motion… a turning of the skies, like a clock. That is what I want my poems to do. I want them to be engines that turn something.

 

Could you talk about moving in and out of narrativity in poems and whether or not you think of them as stories?

When I began writing Flood Song, I let myself accept the weird, in a very literal way. [In our culture] we have medicine people, people who are gifted, a space in our culture that accepts omens and songs. When I started writing Flood Song, I felt that song was coming to me, and I had to write it. I could’ve rationalized it… I could’ve ignored it, but I just said, “Ok, why not? Why not believe in something?”

Over the course of maybe 5 years, I started writing these fragments. I packed up all my fragments into a paper Trader Joe’s sack [and traveled with them]. I had just had a pile of pieces. One day, I laid out the poems on these long tables on the outside of my house [in Marfa, Texas}.

Sherwin inches out to the edge of his seat, tucks his feet at an angle from his knees, and begins positioning the work with his palms to the air.

I started taping [the fragments] to the walls [above]. I read through some of the fragments and [I began to realize] there’s a flood happening in this work! There are people escaping this flood… There is disaster.

A gust of wind from the lot behind the conference room rattles a window, the shade clanking to its tempo as Sherwin continues speaking.

There are moments where these figures in a feverish state have visions. There is a singer. There is a song…There is a narrative in there somewhere. But [there was no] linear beginning, middle, or end. [I just asked]: “how do I compose this? What is the form for this particular piece?” And somewhere in the midst of me trying to figure out what the form was, I said to myself, “I want to create a poem that floods,” to make something very literal, but, in terms of compressions, [something with] movement. “Where are the places where I want [the narrative] to move fast and [at what places] do I want people to slow down?”

The trees outside are shuddering in waves, leaves falling to the ground.

So the construction itself took a long time to realize. Also, there are two beginnings: you have the water dripping, and you have the actual song, and the sounds of the rattles and the sounds of the drumming, the rasping of a basket. The first poem is just a sound poem, so we begin the song. And the [structure of the poems] mimics the flooding when [pages are turned]. I was interested in that…. the words spilling out of the book.

 

A budding comic skit artist and travel memoirist, recently back from the Matisse Mountains of New Mexico, inquires about the cover of Flood Song.

How does your writing pair with your visual art?

I take photographs and I also paint. My paintings lead me to my poems. I’ve been trying to write new poems, and yesterday I was like, “I gotta get my paint out, because I’m writing crap.” In a way, it’s digging into another field, bringing the light out from another space, letting go, creating textures and gestures. That surprise is what I’m looking for. And then the poems disorient me, so I create language in surprising ways.

The cover art of Flood Song was a piece painted by Sherwin in the 90’s. It was entitled “Drought.”

When I’m traveling, I take photographs, try to see the light… I love painting but it drives me crazy. I’m kind of a madman when I’m painting. I’m someone you don’t want to be around—Jekyll and Hyde… but it’s because I’m so passionate about it. Painting is a language, but it’s also something I don’t know. So I get really frustrated, because a painting looks good but then, eh, it could be better. My father used to paint with sand. It’s a whole ritual. Those paintings are destroyed after the ceremony. You work on it all day, and at the end of the day, whoosh, brushed away.

 

An ethereal writer of haunting stories and magical scenery lifts her pen in the air:

What was the first story that spoke to your imagination as a child? Why do you think this is, and who told it to you?

I really love my grandparents. I really enjoy listening to them talk. My grandpa was a medicine man, and he had this other knowledge about the world, about history. One story really ignited something in me. It was a memory our people had about being in that place. We were going through a really severe drought, in the early 90s. I was a shepherd at that time, herding the sheep for my grandparents. I remember the desperation. The cows had all gone hungry, and they looked skeletal. People were selling their cows for a penny just to get them away. I remember traveling to Montana those summers, and seeing the abundance of water…having this relationship with the north.

Sherwin looks to the bottle of water at his feet and picks it up. He acknowledges the reality of what he is holding. 

At some point, during the drought, even the notion of praying for rain and watching a cloud go overhead with a single drop of water… that single drop was significant. My grandpa [also] pulled out a bottle….he mentioned something about the day we would start selling water. I thought there was something about [those moments].

We all look at the water bottle he is holding. Some whisper “wow.” Others hum in affirmation. We are a bit shocked and want to ruminate in this silence… we do not move to the next question for some time.

 

The memoirist is brave and traverses the silence:

How do you go from being that kid on the school bus on that border town to going on book tours? What choices did you make? Did you wish for others?

A lot of my people are still struggling. I just had a cousin, my aunt’s son, two and a half weeks ago he was found in a border town dead at 32 years old. That’s the reality. There are many, many traumas happening in this space, and everywhere, but I feel it really acutely because these are people in my community, these are family members who are really struggling. Somehow they don’t have the opportunity that I have. And maybe its books and stories… somehow the beauty of creating dazzling language took me out and gave me wings. I get to talk to you because of that. I look back at it now and it does feel like another time.

Writers begin collecting their recorders from the coffee table. Sherwin stands up and clasps his hands.

“Should we take a little breather before we write together?”

 

Sherwin Bitsui reading to VCFA students and faculty.

Avoiding Reality with Erin Moulton

by Lindsey Brownson

Erin Moulton is the author of four YA novels – the most recent being Keepers of the Labyrinth – and serves as editor of the forthcoming anthology Things We Haven’t Said. Her books have been nominated and selected for the Kentucky Bluegrass Master List and the Isinglass Teen Read Award List. Erin also works as teen librarian at the Derry, NH public library, and is an active school visitor, mentor, and workshop leader to writers of all ages. She is a proud VCFA alum, teen advocate, humanist, feminist, and a would-be philanthropist if she could find any extra dollars.

Lindsey: You graduated from Vermont College with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Having just embarked on my own graduate education at VCFA, I’m wondering if this particular genre was what you knew you wanted to pursue before applying.

Erin: I’m going to be completely honest. I applied to VCFA to avoid reality. I’d just finished my BA in theater design at Emerson College. While I was there I took a fiction class as an extra course and it was like waking up. Unable to face the real world and annoyed that I’d spent so much time on theater when I should have spent it on writing, I applied to a few Vermont colleges that offered an MFA in writing. I was 22 at the time, and children’s writing fit me well as I was still a young adult. I may migrate away from that, one day, which is fine since story craft is story craft.

As far as genre, I jumped around, doing a bit of contemporary, a bit of historical fiction. During the MFA, I was largely encouraged to take the time to play and experiment and I’m glad I did. My creative thesis was contemporary fiction and was the first novel I published.

L.B: How important do you think finding a chosen genre is before trying to get your writing
published?

E.M: I’m not sure I have a set genre.  I’m not sure you will find one or always stay in it forever. Even Sara Dessen is wrapping up her sweet teen romance career. I think she’ll try out a new genre soon. Challenge herself. I will say that publishers often want you to choose a genre to build platform, at least at the start. I put together contemporary sister stories for a few books, but now have diverted back to my roots. I’m writing fantasy and loving it.

L.B: About publishing—do you have any advice about submitting for publication in general, or just finding some foothold into that whole world?

E.M: This is a tricky one and can be a long process. Especially since VCFA primarily focuses on the craft and not the business of writing. I became a member of NESCBWI (New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and illustrators) and they have a great annual conference for children’s lit writers. You can get query critiques, editor critiques, etc. It’s a wonderful conference. There, I started to get a foothold in how to submit to agents. I would recommend finding an agent so that you don’t have to worry as much about the business aspect of writing. Especially if you are planning to make a career out of writing instead of just selling one book.

L.B: I’m really interested to know how long you’ve been writing. What are your earliest memories of wanting to be a writer?

E.M: I always put books together as a kid. I have some memorabilia from 2nd grade and 4th grade and 6th grade….and too many embarrassing journals to count. It wasn’t until I stepped into that fiction class at Emerson where I realized that I’d taken the wrong route. Diving into my MFA right out of undergrad made me a serious writer and also taught me how to write as I continued to develop into an adult.

L.B: What books or authors inspired you to want to write when you were younger?  Given that you’re writing books for young adults now, I’d love to know what books you read when you were young that had a strong impact on you.

E.M: So many! The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander. A Murder for her Majesty by Beth Hilgartner. Lyddie by Katherine Paterson.

L.B: Other than literature, what else inspires you to continue to write on a consistent basis, and do you consider environment to have an important effect on your writing?  Growing up in Vermont, I’m curious as to whether you think where you were raised greatly informs your writing style and perspective. 

E.M: I think growing up in the woods, in the family that I grew up in, made me a writer. Stories seem to float around the woods. I can feel it when I go home. Or maybe it is just my memories working and churning, but either way, it’s there and it’s a real thing. Flutter has a great deal of Vermont in it, the other books less so.
I feel a returning coming on, though. Sisters also feature heavily, so there is a good dose of reality in relationship and character in my stories, too. I think your reality sinks into your work regardless of genre. Bits and pieces of you can’t escape the page.

L.B: Living where you do now, do you feel that same level of inspiration?

E.M: To be frank, living in the suburbs of New Hampshire drains me. I’m not saying it’s bad, It’s a good spot. But it’s good to go home.

In Conversation with Trinie Dalton: Traveling Geographically and Creatively

by Sarah Leamy

Travel, community, writing, art, and finding ways to combine these passions are consistent themes in my life. I recently met an author from LA who fully embodies this notion of a creative and wandering imagination and I had to find out more.

photo by Blake Z. Rong

Trinie Dalton is the author of six books including most recently Baby Geisha, as well as Sweet Tomb, Dear New Girl or Whatever Your Name Is, and Mythtym. All are deeply set within sensual worlds full of magical details and imaginative and playful language. The rich images are so unexpected that her stories often make me laugh out loud. She also curates exhibitions, works on collaborative art projects, writes art critiques and essays. Interdisciplinary creativity is her forte. She lives it, loves it, and teaches it. We met at the Vermont College of Fine Art, where she is on the faculty and I’m a grad student. I invited her to join me for tea and shortbread one afternoon. We sat down in a small office room at the library with comfortable armchairs and windows overlooking the college green.

I wanted to talk about travel, community and what sparks her prolific imagination. Was she always telling stories?

Trinie’s answer is so sure and so solid. “Yes. I was a kid who wanted to be a writer. Artist or writer.” Her schooling initially focused on art, and then later switched to poetry. Her prose is condensed, full of vibrant language with few wasted words. Poetry makes writers aware of each single word and there’s little in her work that comes without a punch or a tickle. The longest piece she’s written so far is Sweet Tomb, a novella: it was at one point a 200-page manuscript and ended up being under 100 pages when published. Trinie grinned at the memory of editing it down to that slim book.

A goal of hers is to have a shelf at home full of her own books with each unique in size, style and even in content. “It’s a real preoccupation for me,” she admitted with a shrug and smile before speaking of her present work. One is a fine art project which will be a limited edition, singular in shape and form. There’s also a book of photography with text. Another is a collection of essays that will be mostly text with only a few black-and-white images. Trinie explained how agents can be helpful for writers with this kind of broad range as they can suggest different publishers to fit each genre. Word of mouth is key with her publishing work, curating art shows, writing articles, painting, teaching, and even creating cross-discipline exhibitions; the LA community knows her work and supports her fully. We then talked more of community and our roles within them, and she has advice for me as I’d just moved cross country for graduate school.

“My experience here in Vermont is that you can create a community but unless you make stuff happen, people will have their own microcosms, stay to themselves. It takes energy and being proactive, but it’s doable.”

The concept of community and its importance comes up often in our conversation and we loop back to it from different directions and digressions. Trinie talked of how she stays in touch with people for a long time, and of building a strong community having grown up and lived most of her life in LA. There is also the idea of maintaining a nomadic community from her travels as an artist and teacher, and “you just see each other during those travels, in those overlapping worlds.” For now, she’s mostly in New York, the Southwest, and Portland, Oregon. She also travels to Vermont to teach at VCFA four times a year. “Traveling is really good for inspiration, but I’m consciously practicing being in one place as I’m not very good at it,” she admitted. “I like having a home base, but I’m used to living in two or three places at any time.”

“Landscape is an important factor for a lot of people,” Trinie said, explaining how she now lives in Joshua Tree in the Mojave Desert because “wilderness ethics are important to me.” No matter where she lives, though, LA is ingrained in her diction and infects her writing. Her stories aren’t set in the city but all over the world yet there’s something in her humor, rhythm, and conversational style, one that feels authentically Southern Californian. She then mentioned her love of airports. “I’ve written whole books on airplanes,” she said, adding “you can hear a great variety of speech patterns and languages. You might hear five different languages within minutes. Inspiring.”
What could be better for a hungry mind like hers than to travel, teach, create?

I asked about using a variety of locations as well as points of view, and what was her preference these days. “I got irritated with third person, having to create characters from scratch. I wanted to talk directly. When I work on prose, I’m not in the mood to build those characters right now. I’m interested in the limitations of first person and that it implies autobiography yet how it blurs and there are moments and questions of what is true, what isn’t.” Trinie added, “I like the ability to move within that view point.”
Then, she admitted to being irritated when after a reading she’s asked if something had actually happened to her or not. “That’s not the point of the work,” she said. “It’s about textures for me.”

We then talked about how fiction and nonfiction are both based on scene, character, on making selections, and of the different ways to reach that truth: the poetic, emotional, or journalistic truth. Trinie sees this blurring as a freedom. Her characters come from action and not necessarily a traditional plot. Her stories are often absurd, details are missing, and the language twists you in unexpected ways.

With a focus on creating a “source of anxiety” in her characters, Trinie depicts that unease with immediacy, like a painter does, which is unsurprising as all forms of creativity are continuous to her. She moves back and forth between art and words, between the visual and verbal, partly because she’s not very good at just sitting at a desk; it’s not physical enough. This movement between forms bleeds into many of her projects. Mythtym is, for example, a compendium of work she’d made on her own as well as pieces contributed from artists, cartoonists, critics, and others less definable. They then brought Mythtym into public events, art exhibitions, and film screenings. The latest works in progress are a mix of solo projects as well as collaborative, saying “I always have both so that I can move between them.”

For the last ten years Trinie didn’t have a separate studio, but now her home has a place for her tables of artwork, writings and collage materials. As her days are always different, she divides them up with time for teaching, for family and friends, as well as for her creative projects, at least one or two per day and she says, “It’s not the clock per se. Creating habit is important no matter how it looks, even though it’s hard at times to stick to it.”

It’s an interesting process to know when, where, and how we create, one all of us need to discover for ourselves. I’m always fascinated in hearing about how other writers work best and ask Trinie about this preoccupation with the lives behind the works.

“Yes, I’m interested in biographies of authors and painters, who they are and how they create,” she said. “On a personal level, especially the question of longevity, finding role models makes all the difference. It’s great to see how they do it and to be inspired on that level. Yet, it can be difficult, not all boundaries are respected. If that writer wants to be private, or perhaps this person is so horrendous and disgusting, how do you work with it? How do you support that writer if you aren’t comfortable with their lifestyles? There’s a slippery slope of when and how to separate the person from the work. These are the complex questions that interest me; the conversations we need as artists.”

Trinie talked of how it’s not good to stay in a bubble of comfort as an artist. She likes to confront and grapple with these questions, saying that an author’s troubled past and history still teach us even if it’s not easy to take, or lies outside our own experiences. Many authors have been judged for being provocative or for writing about uncomfortable content, but surely writing is a great valve and imagination is a release. Trinie isn’t afraid to let her mind go to weird spaces. She likes to see what people react to, are agitated by, and what is hard to write and hard to read out loud. What will they say, for example, after she reads a sex scene at a public reading? Yes, she’s constantly testing herself and her audience. What I’m left with when we’d finished our cups of tea is her provocativeness and playfulness. I had a sense of Trinie Dalton as a thoughtful artist and writer who knows what she’s doing and does it with confidence, intelligence, and an extra dose of mischief.

“Art that is disturbing and uncomfortable is much more interesting, especially if it doesn’t make sense. And often it doesn’t.” She added, “That’s probably the most important thing to me.”

Visiting with Lin King

by Claire Guyton

What inspired “Rumor Has it in Winthrop” that won our fiction prize?

In my English class, we were frequently discussing the definition of truth. After reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, our class became obsessed with the idea that there is no absolute truth. When we were assigned to write any short story we liked, I decided to expand on the idea that “truth” is like a cubic painting of an event—a collection of perceptions.

The American suburb has always intrigued me as a setting simply because I know many people who grew up in one but could never relate to it myself. The suburban life in John Green’s Paper Towns was an inadvertent inspiration as well (I was also vaguely inspired by the Desperate Housewives commercials). As for the (spoiler alert) same-sex affair surprise near the end…well, I don’t really have an explanation for that brainwave. I’m an LGBT rights supporter, for one thing. In hindsight, I quite like how it somewhat resonates with the old “boy and father get in car crash; doctor says ‘that’s my son!'” riddle.

Is there something you would love to write about but can’t? Or something you have written about but wish you hadn’t?

I would love to write screenplays, but I’ve never taken a film or drama class and simply don’t have the tools to do so. I’d love to explore that field in college, though. I’d also love to do science fiction because I love reading/watching it, but I don’t know enough about science to craft that well either. As for something I wish I hadn’t written—basically every diary entry I’ve ever written.

What’s the sound track to this story?

“The Suburbs” by Arcade Fire (not a very subtle reference)
Some of the lyrics:
You always seemed so sure / that one day we’d be fighting / a suburban war / your part of town against mine / I saw you standing on the opposite shore
But by the time the first bombs fell / we were already bored / we were already, already bored

Where do you most like to write?

In bed with my laptop. When everyone else in the house is asleep.

“The Only Life and Death Matters Are Life and Death”: A Few Quick Words from Porochista Khakpour

The following originally appeared as a Facebook post on March 7, 2017, and is reproduced here by permission.

PSA: everyone is moving too fast. It’s chaos. See our dictator & co. But it’s everyone. Myself included! My old mantra for students: the only life and death matters are life and death (and hey, I experience several of those regularly). But people are not reading carefully, not being mindful of others, making all sorts of messy calls, information is getting warped and lost. Please, take a second and breathe and think and give yourself a chance to do things right!

Anxiety and mania are close relatives, and this can be a very tough season for many. Please make space for yourself and for others — that’s a very generous act, and to do it right involves communication; not just ignoring them either! Ask them to slow down, ask them to read; do the same for yourself.

Challenge that American addiction to speed — figuratively and literally! The worst writing I have ever seen has come from prescription stimulants and too much coffee, and sometimes both. Not judging you, as I know some of you have to be on it, but for those that take it recreationally or for work — and there are many! — just FYI, I’m very productive and I don’t go near either. In fact, I drink chamomile tea and such to slow down. That’s also what I drink at readings and for public speaking. Some might benefit from this. I used to use coffee mainly for the gym — and I’ve dabbled in butter coffee practices — and stimulants felt best suited there!

Whatever it is, for the sake of yourself, for those under your care, for those around you, slow the pulse of your world as much as you can. There is much ancient wisdom around this. Anxiety and mania can be very destructive. And elders (I count myself as one of the Newly Olds), don’t be afraid to tell younger people this and help them — stop adapting to their suicidal rushing instead. Let’s be mindful and deliberate in this truly terrifying time.

Comics = Cultural Criticism: An Interview with Bill Kartalopoulos

by Gina Tron

Cartoonist Bill Kartalopoulos.

Bill Kartalopoulos once lived in a large apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, known as the Cartoon House. In 2012, VICE called the home “a giant flophouse where cartoonists live.” Cartoon House was full of goodies: crazy art on the walls; easels and cartoonist’s desks; a giant bubble-letter neon sign that read “CARTOONS”. It was a space where the big names in the art world often came to hang out and drink wine (or more likely, Pabst Blue Ribbon).

In addition to cartoonist parties, the space hosted numerous creative theme parties, including one inspired by the Harmony Korine film, Spring Breakers. I had the luck of attending a few of these soirees, which is how I first met Bill. He was always pleasant, seemingly unfazed as he spewed dry humor with ease. When I think of him, I imagine him as he looked then: clad in a sweater and circular-framed glasses, always appearing effortlessly cool.

Kartalopoulos is a critic, teacher, and author, as well as the editor for Best American Comics, the #1 New York Times best-selling series published annually by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. In addition, he is writing a history book about comics to be published by Princeton University Press. Kartalopoulos has written on the topic of comics for publications such as The Huffington Post, Publishers Weekly, World Literature Today, American Book Review, The Comics Journal and others. He teaches Comics History in the MFA Visual Narrative program at School of Visual Arts, and Graphic Novels at Parsons’ The New School. Currently, he is the programming director for the MoCCA Arts Festival.

GT: Do you still live in the Cartoon House? I love that place.
Kartalopoulos: No, I left it about three years ago and it got turned into a nicer, more expensive apartment — like most places in Williamsburg.

GT: How did you become the series editor for the Best American Comics?
Kartalopoulos: The Best American Comics series has been running since 2006. It’s part of a bigger line of titles, such as Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays, et cetera. They all pretty much follow the same model where there are a series editor and an outside person who doesn’t work at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt who works on the books for a certain number of years but also collaborates each year with a special guest editor, typically a more well-known person in the field.

Matt Madden and Jessica Abel — a husband-and-wife team who are both comic artists but also teachers — had that [series editor] job for six years, but they left because they got a residency in France.  I guess they recommended me to the publisher and I went in and interviewed. It worked out well.

Working on the book has been interesting and enriching in a lot of different ways. It’s also a very visible project.

Comics can respond quickly to an event and communicate a response.

GT: What are the responsibilities of a series editor?
Kartalopoulos: The way these books work is that they each have an open submission process. There is an address that anyone can send work to. An author or comic artist can send their work in and it doesn’t matter if it’s been published or self-published. On top of that, it’s my job to, in essence, make sure that we get everything that we should be getting. So, in addition to the large volume of stuff that comes in through the open submissions process, I also do a lot of outreach.

If I see that an artist has posted something about a comic or zine that they have self-published, I may individually email them to ask them to send their stuff in. I spend a fair bit of time just looking around at comic book stores and comic shops to see if there is anything that is not in the submissions pile that I should have. I go to festivals and walk around and ask people to submit their work. I also talk to colleagues and friends who know a lot and they sometimes have been really helpful in recommending work that may not have been on my radar. So, I end up with a huge quantity of comics. I also look around online because there are so many people posting comics online. It’s not possible to keep up with all of it but I at least make an effort.

I spend a ton of time reading through the various works I’ve accumulated then I make a pre-selection of about 120 pieces that I think are the most outstanding pieces to send to the guest editor. Then, the guest editor makes the final choices about what goes into the book. They have some latitude, too, to bring in some material that they have discovered on their own. I’m always surprised in a good way to see the final choices the guest editor has made.

Once they have made their choices, then I have to reach out to all the artists and get preliminary formal permission to include their work in the book. I write a foreword to the book every year and the guest editor writes an introduction. I also compose a list of about 100 notable works that we also list in the book in addition to the work that we are printing. That is a place to at least mention the work that I saw and appreciated but didn’t make it into the final volume.

I also have to communicate with the art director at the publishing house and the designer. We deal with decisions that come up in the course of figuring out how to design and organize the book. We find an artist to draw the cover for the book. We’ll also commission some original art for the book, even though much of the art is already published.

GT: Are there any factors you consider when making your choices on the art?
Kartalopoulos: During my conversations with the guest editor, I try to feel out the kind of work they like to see and if there is anything, in particular, they are interested in so I’m not wasting their time.

GT: What kind of influence does your past work with Art Spiegelman have on your work with Best American Comics today?
Kartalopoulos: Working with Art was a huge education because he has a real encyclopedic knowledge about comics. On top of that, he also has a really strong analytical and critical point of view. Spiegelman — together with his wife, Françoise Mouly, who is the art editor of the New Yorker (and has been since 1993) — edited in the eighties and early nineties a comics anthology magazine called Raw, which has a reputation for being one of the best comics anthologies of all time. They were very selective about the material that they chose and were attentive to design and presentation.

The standard that was exemplified in Raw persists in Art when he is looking at new work. He is always interested in knowing what is new in comics, but at the same time, he also has a real high standard for excellence. On top of that, Art works very hard; he has a perfectionist tendency towards the projects that he gets involved in. So, all of those things have, to a greater or lesser extent, informed a lot of the projects and work that I have gotten involved with.

Working with Art Spiegelman was a huge education because he has a real encyclopedic knowledge about comics.

GT: Tell me about your upcoming book.
Kartalopoulos: I’m writing a general history of comics for Princeton University Press, focusing on North American comics. It’s a book that is badly needed, I think. It’s something that comes out of my teaching. This book would certainly be useful for me to have in my teaching, but it would be of interest to general readers too.

There are a lot of books about individual subjects in comics that have come out in recent years, ranging from multi-volume reprints of well-known comics like Peanuts or Little Orphan Annie to biographies of comic artists, like the creator of Wonder Woman.

There are also a number of books about specific subjects such as American comics in the 1950s. The list goes on. But there isn’t a Comics History 101 book for someone who just wants to understand the broad overview of the story and to see how all those other pieces fit together in a sort of narrative. So it’s a little backward, in the sense that we have all these very specialized books, but we don’t have a book that should function as a starting point.

GT: Why are comics so important right now?
Kartalopoulos: There are a lot of reasons why comics remain relevant. For one thing, I think they are unlike a lot of other visual media — ones that require budgets; a lot of people; access to technology, or all of the above. Somebody can make a comic with pretty modest means. It does not take a lot to make a comic. It’s basically just pen and paper. In theory, you can do anything with that. You can create an entire visual world that way, whether it’s a personal world or a fantasy world.

I also think that we live in a visual culture. I don’t really think comics are necessarily on the cutting edge of that visual culture like they used to be because technology keeps moving forward. I think that comics at one point seemed like a step beyond prose towards a more visual narrative, but now we have so much video and interactive online content. Comics start to look more traditional somehow by comparison.

Comics take a bunch of images and put them together in a coherent and articulate way, where you go from image to image, and from text/image combination to text/image combination. Then you look at it all and it all adds up to something. If there is an intelligent cartoonist at work then there is a design behind it all. By the time you get through reading it you can comprehend the design and see that there is maybe a larger concept behind it. I think that that in a way is almost like the equivalent in poetry relative to our visual culture, which is so incoherent. We just go from web page to web page, from video to message, from this to that to the other thing. You can get really drowned by this mosaic of stimulation over the course of the day as you consume media, but by the end of the day, it may not add up to anything or you may have to struggle to make it add up to anything.

It does not take a lot to make a comic. It’s basically just pen and paper. In theory, you can do anything with that.

Artist Nadja Spiegelman with “Resist!” at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington.

I feel like comics process all those elements and present them in a coherent design. It models a deeper understanding of fragments of text image combinations. I think, from a media studies point of view, there is something to that because it is a very direct medium and should have an ongoing grassroots appeal as a way to express oneself visually.

GT: How can comics be utilized in our current political climate?
Kartalopoulos: There is a newspaper that just came out called RESIST! that was edited by Françoise Mouly and her daughter, Nadja Spiegelman. It was full of comic strips and cartoons — mostly drawn by women — initiated after the presidential election and published in Time for the Women’s March on Washington. They made thousands of copies of it and gave it away at the March. That shows how comics can respond very quickly to an event and communicate a response, a point of view.

Other work can be much more considered. There’s an artist called  Joe Sacco who creates book-length journalistic comics. He goes to war zones, and has been in places like the former Yugoslavia and Palestine, and has created these very journalistic research-based projects where he interviews a lot of people, does a ton of research, takes photos and creates sketches, and then goes home and works for years to produce hundreds-of-pages books about a subject.

That certainly does not permit an instantaneous response like the newspaper I was just talking about, but there is a lot of value to that work because it shows something about how long comics can document something real, true and important in a way that other media can’t. He can put the reader in places where the camera can never go. He can present these characters, real individuals, in a way that represent their points of view intimately. It’s closer to the way that a writer would work, but he is able to provide visuals in the manner of a documentarian without the need to provide the kinds of happy accidents that make a good documentary.

Living in Stereo: An Interview with Alex Green

by Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons

 

Writer Alex Green.

Four years ago I found a Facebook message in my inbox. The sender liked an essay I had written and wanted to read more of my work. His name was Alex Green. Me being me, I Googled him to make sure he wasn’t a stalker. He wasn’t. I soon found out who he was, though.

Green is the author of The Stone Roses, a book about the influential British band of the same name, published as part of Bloomsbury’s acclaimed 33 1/3 series. He’s also the editor of Stereo Embers, a music and entertainment e-zine. When he asked me to write for the site, I told him that if he was looking for someone to say that One Direction was nifty keen, I wasn’t his girl. He didn’t, and we’ve been working together ever since.

Since then Green has released two more books: Emergency Anthems, a collection of poetry and short fiction; and his debut novel, The Heart Goes Boom (published last year by Wrecking Ball Press). The Heart Goes Boom details the journey of Kieran Falcon, a C-list actor who is told he must find true love in a matter of weeks. Falcon enlists the services of a writer, a magician, and a wise man to help him along the way.

When he’s not writing, Green is busy interviewing authors at Kathleen Caldwell’s A Great Good Place for Books (located in the Oakland’s Montclair district), teaching English at St. Mary’s College, and hosting a top-ten radio show on Primal Radio called … what else? The Heart Goes Boom. He also still produces Stereo Embers, which recently received a fan letter from Amy Winehouse’s mother, Janis.

Somehow in the midst of everything, Green managed to have time to answer some of my burning questions.

JKG: The Bay Area has been home to many writers, including Anne Lamott, Michael Chabon, Jessica Mitford, and YA novelist Yvonne Prinz. How has the Bay Area affected your writing?
Green: It’s affected it a great deal; I’m a bit obsessed with Northern California. It’s fertile ground for artists. It’s always been a community that’s alive with theater, music, bookstores, and indie movie theaters. Plus, the terrain is so redolent with promise, beauty, and heartbreak, it’s an irresistible thing to not write about.

California itself has appeared almost as a singular character throughout my writing, kind of like the hotel in The Shining, but less creepy — or more creepy, depending on how you view my work.

JKG: We share an appreciation of the absurdities of pop culture. Tell me about your first pop culture love.
Green: The movie version of Hair rocked my fourth-grade world: the hirsute bravado, the shaggy rebellion, the unexpected tragedy. Then MTV sucked me in back in 1981, and nothing was ever the same. Bowie, The Specials, Talking Heads … maybe even that J. Geils Band video, “Centerfold” — a portal opened that knocked me out.

JKG: Music is woven in all your work, be it Stereo Embers or your books. What was your first record? What are you listening to right now?
Green: My first album was The Police’s Ghost In The Machine. Now I’m listening to The Vaccines, The Paper Kites, Modern Space, Golden Curtain, and for some weird reason The Babys.

JKG: Would you describe Emergency Anthems as poetry, short fiction or both?
Green: Short fiction disguised as poetry that’s disguised as an 85-page homage to the Twilight series.

JKG: The Heart Goes Boom starts off with an emergency when the protagonist, Kieran Falcon, is pushed through a psychic’s window. What attracts you to writing about emergencies and calamities?
Green: My therapist might answer that question better than I can, but what’s always interested me about emergencies is what comes after. The emergency itself is largely uninteresting.

What’s compelling to me is how people assemble in the aftermath of a seismic event. They can grow cold or warm — it can go a number of ways, but you see who people really are when the struggle is over and the dust is settling.

JKG: Kieran Falcon has a Lorenzo Lamas vibe about him. Did you base him on Lamas, or on any other 1980s heartthrob?
Green: I based him on every ‘80s heartthrob; he’s a composite of them all. He’s also based on a character from a 2006 film called The Big Bad Swim. Originally he was based on a guy I taught tennis with back in the early ‘90s, who was such a tennis pro cliché that he literally slept with every woman in a 438-mile radius of the club. He may or may not have had a new strain of chlamydia named after him. Worth Googling.

JKG: Falcon also has a Ted Baxter/Derek Zoolander quality. Were you scared he could fall into the himbo stereotype?
Green: I was scared that people might not like him and that they wouldn’t hang in there to see if he could be redeemed. He’s a sweet guy who hasn’t grown up, so his teenage obsession with sexual triumph is a skin he’s never shed and he absolutely needs to. The book kind of suggests that that mentality will prevent you from experiencing real love and will guide you smoothly down a long and lonely path to oblivion. So it was a risk because his behavior is awful, but I thought people would take a chance on seeing if someone who’s so lost can ever be found. By the way, that last part may or may not be stolen from an Ed Sheeran song.

JKG: There are many current pop culture references in The Heart Goes Boom. How did you choose which ones to use?
Green: 
I picked ones that are absurdly famous and I picked them to poke fun at the extremity of celebrity culture. I also picked ones that used to be absurdly famous because they’re where the currently absurdly famous are headed.

JKG: Aren’t you worried those references might date your book?
Green: A little worried, but I thought I could change it every year and swap out [Canadian pop star] Justin Bieber for [Canadian Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau.

JKG:  What are you working on right now?
Green: I’m working on a YA detective novel about a black market organ ring that’s set against the backdrop the thrash metal scene. It’s a Christmas novel.

Humor is how I’ve always shielded myself from the world; there’s no lock that humor can’t pick.

JKG: When you interview authors for A Great Good Place for Books, do you ever get nervous about asking questions that sound great on paper, but possibly goofy aloud?
Green: I never bring questions. I have no idea what I’m going to say until the interview starts. A risky move, but it just feels better that way.

JKG: Does that means that your interviews turn out to be more conversational and free-flowing?
Green: Conversational, free-flowing and I’ve been told, utterly devoid of thought or meaning.

JKG: Recently Stereo Embers heard from Amy Winehouse’s mom, Janis, about an essay you ran on the site about the late British singer. Can you say more about that letter?
Green: She wrote it to the author of the piece, Paul Gleason. Paul’s a lovely guy. He was very moved. It was a brilliant piece and her mother quite liked it. I was happy to see that our little magazine is reaching a bigger audience and that sometimes that audience is related to the subjects we write about. That’s a very cool thing.

JKG: You’re a funny guy. How do you incorporate humor into your writing?
Green: Humor is how I’ve always shielded myself from the world; there’s no lock that humor can’t pick. It has an instantaneous way of making the terrifying seem silly.

JKG: Who are your comedic influences?
Green: Woody Allen. George Carlin. David Letterman. Without them, I’d be glumly selling real estate in Oregon.

JKG: Do you think you can sustain that sense of humor in the Trump era, or is it gone with the wind?
Green: It’ll never be gone. It’s the only way I can make sense of the world.

From The Provost.

by Jeremy Wolf

From The Provost.

Interview with Dr. Stephen A. Germic

 

Dr. Stephen A. Germic is the Provost and Academic Vice President at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana and the author of American Green: Class Crisis and the Deployment of Nature, a comparative study of the origins of national and urban parks.

His creative non-fiction has been published in journals such as The Cape Rock, The Coe Review and The Carolina Quarterly and he is finishing work on a new poetry manuscript.

Dr. Germic was one of my professors from my undergraduate years at Rocky Mountain College, and part of the reason I am pursuing an MFA in writing. He cultivated strengths in each individual student and inspired the classroom with lively discussions about craft and sentences. It was customary to follow him from a three-hour workshop class to the bar across the street for a pint or two — or three.

Conversations with Dr. Germic could lead anywhere—from the intricacies of academia to sailing off the panhandle of Michigan—but they were always infused with his spirit. He taught me that sentence pacing is everything in prose, and it is evident in his work.

The moment I stepped into his classroom at RMC to learn about a subject I didn’t know existed—creative non-fiction—he captured my attention. So, you can imagine my excitement to catch up with Steve when he agreed to an interview. After acquainting him with the snowy happenings of small-town Vermont, we got right to it.

JW: How do you mitigate all the different responsibilities in your day-to-day life? From being a father to being a teacher, and a writer and administrator, it all seems to be a lot to balance.

Germic: It’s tough. My daughter is away. In some ways that’s the saddest thing in my existence, but it allows me to be able to accomplish other things. If someone came up to me and looked at my life and said, “Hey, does this dude have good work/life balance?” They’d probably say, “No, not really.” On the other hand, I’d say, this is what I do.

I come to the office in the morning by seven-thirty or eight o’clock, and I’m there until five or six o’clock, then I go home and I answer email and do work, or whatever class prep I need to do. That basically takes me until I need to go to bed. It isn’t until the weekend that I sit in the coffee shop for a couple of hours and work on my creative writing. So, I’m able to put in 4 or 5 hours a week on my own work. During the summer I get to do that four or five days a week, and double or triple my productivity. But during the year, I just can’t. That’s how my life rolls. That’s just what it is. But it’s tough, you know?

The key to it is — and I did this when I was building my poetry manuscript — I had to get out of my house and get to a space where things are happening, where I was being stimulated—coffee shops, good libraries—and I would just sit there. I’d say, I’ve got to write a couple poems or I’ve got to write two pages, that’s just what I have to do.

Half the time, the poems are alright and the prose pages generally work out, but it’s all about that discipline. It’s all about ratcheting in that time. You can’t sit around saying, “Oh, I’m not in the mood,” even though sometimes it’s inevitable.

Here’s one of my techniques:

I’ll sit down, read, get a phrase or a line, and I’ll just leverage off of that. I’ll write that and build around it. It gets the language operating. I’ve always told students there’s never writer’s block because you can always sit down and describe. And if you’re writing a research paper, you can always quote the work that you’re writing about. You can say, I think this is important, then introduce the quote, then talk about it. All of a sudden, you’re writing. It might not be good, but you’re writing.

JW: Are you working on any new projects right now?

Germic: Yeah, I just wish I had more time. I started a novel about a month ago, and I’m fifteen pages in right now. My goal by the end of the semester is to get to fifty. It’s going to be rough, but I can get to 100 by the end of the summer. When I get to fifty pages, I’ll start marketing it around and see if I can find a buyer.

JW: What’s it about?

Germic: Well… (laughs) it’s kind of hard to describe. A literary kind of fabulism, I suppose, would be the way to describe it. It’s a kind of mash-up of literary fantasy fiction.

JW: Oh, I haven’t seen a lot of that out there.

Germic: Yeah, there’s probably no market for it.

(Both laugh)

JW: I also heard there might be a book of poems?

Germic: Yeah, basically it’s done.

The model is: finish your manuscript, then send it out to contests and hope you win. I have to put it up to one more edit, but I hope, by the end of the semester, to have it out under consideration at some places. It finished up as about a 65-page poetry manuscript. I will be shopping it around at the end of the term. (Chuckles) I’m guardedly optimistic.

JW: When I’ve read your work, I’m always surprised by your descriptions of the natural world. What draws you toward this type of writing?

Germic: For me, in creative writing it’s description. I have poems where I often count things, like four birds along the shore.

For some reason, that works for me: describing the world I am inhabiting and hoping that, by the end, I’ve created something that has some resonance, some potential, or implicit metaphoric punch.

JW: Who were some of your influences? Are you a Thoreau guy?

Germic: I’ll tell you who I was more influenced by—a guy by the name of Jim Harrison. Not his prose, but his poetry. I don’t think he’s a great prose writer, but he’s a very good poet. He knew the world that he inhabited. He didn’t call something a tree or a bush. It was a scrub alder, or something like that.

For me [writing] can’t be inward looking; it’s only inward looking by misdirection. I see the world out there.

JW: In today’s difficult political climate, what do you think the role of a writer is? What can it be?

Germic: For a few years of my life, the Poetry of Witness was important to me. Carolyn Forché is kind of the originator of that. She put together this anthology called Against Forgetting, which was pretty important to me at a certain time.

I’m not a political writer, even though if you read my academic work, I’m a Marxist. Or a critic. It’s what I do. In a way, my politics are so far left that where we are now doesn’t surprise me at all. I think we’ve allowed this to happen. People on the left have allowed it to happen, and I think that it needs to be a wake-up call.

We can’t sit there and pretend that we did not ignore the problems that upset this world, problems that ultimately have to do with race and class. We are reaping what we have sown. Our job is to think, in really subtle ways, about that. I would say that anyone who wanted to think about “our moment”, should think about their own role in creating it.

But to my mind, we’re just too delusional; too easy to blame other people for our current political situation. Those of us with liberal pretensions, we created this condition. We ignored the American underclass; we allowed this political and economic system to develop; we didn’t hold the previous administration accountable enough and this is what you end up with.

JW: You’ve worked at a lot of universities — from Dubai to Michigan, and now in Billings, Montana. How would you say this track into academia has shaped you?

Germic: I started at Michigan State then went to James Madison University, then American University in Cairo, then the American University in Dubai and now, to Rocky Mountain College. It’s funny—I left what was essentially a Dean position at the American University in Dubai. I moved steadily up the ranks as I moved around. I got run out of Michigan State and James Madison for what amounts to political activism, both in the larger global politics sense and in the micro-institutional politics sense. I just pissed off the wrong people and they made it clear that I didn’t have a future at those institutions. This, unfortunately, interrupted my research agenda.

I was a fast-paced and productive research scholar until I went overseas and I no longer had access to my research materials. That’s when my career shifted to administration. I began doing some administration in Cairo, and then more in Dubai. I got disgusted and quit there. Then, I came here — never intending to get back into administration — and here I am, the Provost.

JW: Provost and Academic Vice President. That’s a big title. How challenging has it been to adjust to these new responsibilities while also having a teaching career?

Germic: I still teach a couple classes a semester. If my daughter was still around, there’s no way I would do it; I wouldn’t sacrifice that much. But she went off to college and I got divorced, so I’m a single dude now. I can put in a 12- or 14-hour day. I won’t give up teaching because it’s the most affirmative part of what I do.

As long as I feel that I can meaningfully help this institution move to the next stage of its evolution; as long as I feel like I still have traction and we can push this place forward, then I feel really good about the work I’m doing here. When a pattern develops, when I feel like I can no longer do that, then it will be time to move on.

 

Beyond Words: An Interview with Shozan Jack Haubner

by Kim MacQueen

Shozan Jack Haubner is a Zen monk and the author of Zen Confidential, released in 2013, and Single White Monk, forthcoming in October 2017, both from Shambhala Publications. His work has been featured in The Sun, Buddhadharma, Tricycle and Lion’s Roar.

The pen name Shozan Jack Haubner is a nod to the Zen monks of old who were also writers and painters and took a different name for their creative projects. I first ran across his work when I was a brand-new Buddhist trying to soak up all the literature I could find about the practice.

The Zen literary tradition is full of apocryphal stories about the Buddha’s life and path, consistent entreaties to look inward for the answers to the questions we all ask ourselves every day, and lots of allegories involving animals. Most of it could be described as quiet and calm writing designed to guide the reader toward their spiritual destiny. This destiny involves sitting cross-legged on a cushion and staring at the wall for hours at a time. Not much of it is particularly funny. Until you read Haubner.

In Zen Confidential’s introductory chapter, he warns his readers about what they’re in for:

A Zen monk, I feel, is someone unafraid of being bare. He leaves himself exposed, spread-eagle, always. And so you are witness to the most intimate workings of the human spirit. His approach may be crude, but it is the exact opposite of pornography, so much so that an analogy is inevitable: he strips himself away, layer after layer, to reveal your own image and likeness, the one we all have in common, staring back at you from the space where he used to be. The private is made public, universal.

Put more modestly, all work that seeks that which is fresh and true is “dirty.” And all monastic work is dirty. And so I will try to undress before you in the pages to come. I will get shy and excited. It will get a little weird at times. I’m warning you.

The book’s next essay is a discussion of how, as a newbie or “chicken monk” in the Zen parlance, Haubner tamed the monastery’s composting toilets. “Middle Way Manager” in Tricycle describes the writer dealing with a unexpected overwhelming post-ordination humility as he grapples with his important new role at the temple but also describes in detail how he comes to step accidentally in a bucket of pee. “Spring Prayer” from Lion’s Roar is just thatHaubner’s heartfelt hopes for humanity offered as the sun finally returns to the mountain that houses the monastery. It also involves bug fornication and snakes.

Since Haubner’s second book is slated for later this year, it seemed a good time for an interview.

KM: When you first went to the monastery, did you plan to write about it so deeply?

Haubner: When I went to the monastery I quit writing. I offered it up. Just before I went I had taken some time off from working in Hollywood as a script editor to try and finish my own script. And then I just plain ran out of gas. It was sort of a tectonic-plates- shifting-underneath-the-surface-time in my life. One of the big shifts was that I decided I don’t have left anything to say right now. I have to let this go. I have to go deeper into life before I ever have anything to say again as a writer. Hollywood will do that to you.

Hollywood is good in the sense that you learn the craft of storytelling; you learn how to write tight, lean, economical stories and how to do character development. But it’s also a place that can, in a very subtle way, take what you’re passionate about, and what you know as a writer, and force you to try and make that marketable to the point where you lose your voice.

So I had no notion of getting [monastery life] down on paper. Then about six months into my stay I got a package from my mom at Christmas, and in it was this beautiful hardbound notebook. I started taking notes about life at the Zen Center. It felt good. I used clean handwriting; usually my handwriting is a disaster, but there was just something about this beautiful book. About six months after that I got the idea to write something about the composting toilets. It was just low-hanging fruit. It was too good.

KM: Like a lot of your essays, it’s really a return to the self, and that self is often debased and very funny.

Haubner: A lot of times I’ll sit with an experience and let it germinate. Part of it will be something that happened to me, and part of it will be something that I’m trying to work through in my practice. Usually I’ll try to throw a little bit of humor in there, for sure. Once I get going on a piece, it’s like, how am I gonna make this readable? Over and over again, what seems to come up is the human side of the practice. And the human side is usually pretty humorous.

KM: Do you take the same approach with your second book?

Haubner: I’ve got a lot fewer portmanteaus and poop jokes in this book. We can all be grateful for that. I think in the first book I was more of a greenhorn, a newbie. I was kind of in love with this new way of life, this monk’s life.

Actually, the night I handed in the draft of my second book, my teacher, the Roshi, got really sick. That was the beginning of a series of deaths and challenges in our community. With this book I just kind of dove into all that. It’s largely a book about death. It’s humorous, I hope, but the themes are more serious and more focused.

KM: The Zen tradition seems to de-emphasize both reading and writing in favor of direct experience of the practice. How do you make peace with this as a writer?

Haubner: That’s a really deep question. I don’t have an easy answer for it. The practice of Zen comes from this apocryphal figure named Bodhidharma in the 5th Century. This guy was a spiritual descendant of Buddha, and he thought that the whole system of Buddhism in India had become too rigid and intellectualized. He practiced wallgazing, which was, basically, sitting in his cave. He sat in his cave and he stared at the wall. One of the things he supposedly said was that Zen is a tradition that exists outside of any words or scripture. That was over 1,500 years ago, yet that spirit really still survives today. So you’ve rightly sensed a kind of prohibition, or suspicion, about trying to capture experience through words in Zen.

I’m definitely conflicted about it as a writer. I don’t have this all worked out. I do think it’s really helpful for writers to occasionally be able to get away from words.

For me it’s a really deep question of what role does capturing experience in words actually play? Is writing in itself a kind of spiritual practice, and if so, how? If so, what does it mean when you’re trying to find a way of making a career out of it? How can that path wind together with a more formal spiritual practice like Zen?

KM: I’m thinking about that too. I hate to set aside my spiritual practice to spend more time writing; that doesn’t feel right. But neither does participating at the level one is often expected to in any more formal tradition.

Haubner: Right. Me too. I’ve struggled with this from day one, in one way or another. Why can’t my self-expression, my personal journeythese very Western conceptswhy can’t that path exist right alongside this spiritual, Zen path?

For one thing, I would like to find a wayI think there’s got to be a wayto include creativity in Zen practice somehow. I’m a writer. Zen has been great for my writing. It’s given me access to parts of myself that I never could have gone to just with words. Silence is really important.

I find myself asking the question of what a practice is for. One answer is that your Zen practice is there for you when the writing isn’t working. And when it is working. It’s bigger and deeper than your personal projects. It’s not necessarily going to serve your project or torpedo it. Your sitting can’t be in the service of your writing in the same way that if you’re a Catholic, you can’t just come to church and pray for stuff that you want. So I go back and forth on this. I think to myself, where does my path end and my project begin, and vice versa?

I find this with new students. They’re wondering how to do the practice, and does it work? Am I doing it right? Am I wasting my time? It’s an ongoing question for people because it’s such a simple, straightforward practice.

It’s not very sexy. It doesn’t promise you a lot. You sit, and breathe.

 

Shozan Jack Haubner is the pen name of a Zen monk whose humorous essays have appeared in Tricycle, Buddhadharma, the Shambhala Sun, and The Sun, as well as in the Best Buddhist Writing series. He is the winner of a 2012 Pushcart Prize. The events described in his books are true. Shozan’s name has been changed to protect the innocent.

Straight Forward: In Conversation with Fiction Writer Jensen Beach

by M. Demyan

Jensen Beach.

He’s fluent in Swedish. He has numerous tattoos. When he’s not on the mountain, soaking up fresh pow days while skiing with his kids, you can find Jensen Beach in a classroom, sitting at a comfortable (and self-described) “sixty-degree slouch,” meditating on Melville’s obsession with the color white during one of many classes he teaches at multiple Vermont colleges.

Beach is also the author of two story collections, For Out of the Heart Proceed and Swallowed by the Cold. In addition to being a writer and instructor, Beach serves as the fiction editor for Green Mountains Review.

I recently met up with Beach while we were both in Washington D.C. for the 50th Annual AWP Writer’s Conference. He was there with GMR, in the back room of A&D Bar, celebrating the release of two titles published by the newly-launched GMR Books: Alyse Knorr’s poetry collection, Mega-City Redux; and Christopher Kang’s When He Sprang from His Bed, Staggered Backward, and Fell Dead, We Clung Together with Faint Hearts, and Mutely Questioned Each Other. Kang’s 141-page book, a collection of 880 stories, was also the winner of The GMR Book Prize winner (selected by Sarah Manguso).

Beach and I shared ski lodge stories over a flask of scotch, then made plans to set up this interview. We ended up talking late into the evening over the phone, as Beach was fighting off the flu he brought back with him from the nation’s capital.

MD: You were just in Washington D.C. for AWP. Any highlights or absurdities on your end?
Beach: There’s good food there. My last night there, I ended up in a cigar bar. They were serving alcohol until about three in the morning, which was terrible because I think that’s what got me sick.

MD: Tell me more about the GMR event you hosted in D.C.
Beach: We ran a contest last year for a book of prose and book of poetry. I was looking for books that might have otherwise not have found a home — weird stuff, strangely imagined books — and we were lucky to find two great ones. The event we hosted in D.C. was a lot of fun: a reading from both writers at a bar. We sold books, got to meet our audience up close, and introduced our writers to people there at the event, then later at the conference itself.

MD: When you’re not attending events like AWP, teaching at various universities, or working on your own writing, what are some of your extracurricular activities?
Beach: Teaching is such a fun career. I think of it is a thing I get to do that is both recreation and a career. I actually like teaching. It takes up a lot of my time, but it’s something I find really energizing and invigorating. I get to move from one classroom to the other, I find that fun.
I love to ski, I love hanging out with my kids, I’m big into traveling. I’m not a hobby kind of a guy. I like to read and I like to teach. It’s pretty straightforward.

MD: When it comes to your process, you said in a previous interview that some stories have taken you several years or tries to “get it right.”
Beach: It’s always a new set of problems, and I’m a really particular and slow writer. Which is ironic because I’m always telling my students: “Hey, have stories to me by Wednesday” or whatever. Is that irony or coincidence?

MD: Irony, I think.
Beach: (laughs) Tragic irony in fact. I’m inclined to take things slowly. I think about stories for a really, really long time.

MD: You wrote your first book, For Out of the Heart Proceed, during graduate school, correct?
Beach: A little bit before, and some during that first year.

MD: Did that process, and the experience of a graduate program, influence the way you approached writing your second collection, Swallowed by the Cold?
Beach: I didn’t even know an MFA was a thing, but then I started applying. Some of the stories I used during my application I later workshopped; they made their way into the book. But it was sort of separate if I can make that connection. It was just stories I collected and then I thought, oh shoot, I got 27 stories or something, and I thought this could be a collection.
Then, with Swallowed by the Cold, I wanted to do something that I had never done before. I didn’t feel ready or confident enough as a writer to write a novel, so I wanted to write a book that did something in between what I had written and what I wanted to aim for. I’ve always loved stories. I think I will always be a short story writer. With the second book, I wrote that first story and I liked it. I thought I could just keep writing these Sweden stories, so I kept going and kept pursuing that and seeing what would happen. The thing that became my MFA thesis, of course, ended up being about 30% or something of that book.

MD: Did you purposefully set out to write a collection of linked stories, or did it just develop that way?
Beach: The answer is both. I don’t think I necessarily started with the idea that the book I was writing would be linked stories because I didn’t know I was writing a book necessarily. I didn’t set out to write it. It developed as I started writing the stories. I had this cast of characters and I started to see pretty early on, maybe about by the fourth story I had written, that the characters shared a lot of common traits…in terms of personalities. I started to pursue that, but still didn’t feel the confidence I needed to make the weird connections and tethering I ended up making in the book, so I just kept producing work thinking that that was the thing that I could do and I kept experimenting with – form isn’t the right word, but with shape or story structure, or seeing if I could do things in weird ways. To be totally honest with you, I was just trying to teach myself how a story worked.

MD: You lived in Sweden for a while, isn’t that right?
Beach: I did live in Sweden, for about six years. Also in Massachusetts and Illinois. I grew up in California. I find places really generative and exciting. That fuels a lot of my creativity; I often write about place and find a lot to mine in the notion of geographies and topographies and directions and histories. I just always loved travel and adventure and, I have to admit, the hassle of it all. I find that really exciting. Maybe a little less so as I get older.

MD: As the genre walls continue to blur and writing forms move more toward hybridity, are there any writers currently doing things with their work that is particularly interesting to you?
Beach: I tend to bring the kind of things into the classroom that I am most excited about. I use the classroom as space for me to be excited as a writer and a teacher and to be among peers, frankly. To be like: “Hey, you guys are nerds about this just as much as I am, let’s ‘nerd’ out.” So in a way, I think it’s just that. The [John] D’Agata anthology that just came out [The Making of the American Essay], it’s that [Max] Porter [Grief is the Thing With Feathers], it’s that Idra Novey novel [Ways to Disappear] that weirdly plays with mystery tropes and translation ideas and language and all sorts of goofy stuff. That’s the very stuff that inspires me.
I think I look, in certain respects maybe a step ahead. I might be at AWP or another book fair or something to pick up a book that I know and have heard about that is coming down the pike that is a thing that might be in my own … (sighs) I’m going to use two terrible clichés like, in my own wheelhouse. Something that I think is to my own interest, or to my own teaching interest. But honestly, the stuff I teach is the stuff that I’m the most jazzed about. It’s the stuff that I return to. I like to use the classroom as an experimental platform. I think it’s important to do that. I don’t want us teaching the same stuff over and over again because I think that does a disservice to our students. The landscape changes.

MD: I read that Porter book on the train back from AWP.
Beach: It’s so good, right? I saw him read this anti-Trump poem at the Texas Book Festival in Austin, at this outdoor bar with these lights strung, like, Friday Night Lights style. He’s standing there in this dirty, dusty, fuckin’ backyard bar, he read this thing and it literally took the breath out of the audience it was so good. He’s amazing.

MD: How about you? Is there anything new in the works?
Beach: I’m working on a novel about transitions right now.

MD: Transitions?
Beach: Yeah. I know that’s a weird thing to say. I’m just writing a novel. I’m writing a novel that’s sort of doing weird things with time and with its setting — its space and location — and with historical context. It’s called Slow to Anger.

MD: Are those some challenges that you specifically set for yourself?
Beach: No, they’ve been things that have kind of emerged as I‘ve dug into certain projects; those projects have sometimes been very personal. It’s the things that come out of my own life or the reading that I’m doing, or things that I’ve heard from friends or whatever. But in this case, I think it’s just been an ongoing evolving project that had adapted to the realities of my own life, and [it] has pushed me in different, undeveloped, or interesting dimensions and areas to explore. It’s nothing that I came in with ahead of time, for sure.

MD: So beyond this novel in progress, what does the future hold for Jensen Beach?
Beach: I’m working on some translations. Editing work is ongoing. And teaching is a thing I put a lot into and get a lot out of. I have some travel lined up for the spring and summer, which I am excited about. It all just keeps moving forward, and I’ll try to steal some time to write in it all, too.

MD: What does the whiteness of the whale in Moby-Dick mean to you?
Beach: (laughs) How do you escape this question? I don’t know — the whiteness of the whale, what does it even mean? I’m fascinated by Melville’s idea in that chapter, the idea of its own contrast, how white can be both pure and terrifying. I’m also fascinated by the larger questions that chapter poses about whiteness, and not even about whiteness but about the contrasting notions of a particular concept. Like, how do we understand things, and how are we as humans capable of dropping into them and turning our faces in every direction at once? I don’t know if I’m even capable of forming a coherent thought regarding this, but to me, it’s just sort of deeply fascinating. It’s kind of a wild piece of writing.

Living Multiple Lives Through Writing: An Interview with Stephanie Tyler

by Tierney Ray

Interview with Novelist Stephanie Tyler

Stephanie Tyler is not just a New York Times bestselling author of over fifty novels – she is a mother, a spouse, and a member of the literary community.

Photo: © Susan Woog Wagner Photography

Ms. Tyler writes romance novels under her name as well as two pseudonyms – S.E. Jakes and Sydney Croft (a pen name she shares with Larissa Ione.) Her novels as Stephanie Tyler and Sydney Croft feature paranormal, dystopian, and modern romance. The novels written under the name S.E. Jakes focus on gay romance.

I first picked up a book by S.E. Jakes when I was still Active Duty in the military; I have loved the clever, sometimes neurotic, characters ever since. The men and women in her stories are strong, but are also wounded either physically or spiritually. They never feel two-dimensional – they feel like siblings or best friends that I have in real life. Each time I open one of her novels, I become a part of them. Speaking to the mind behind the worlds I love so much is like taking a walk with the characters themselves. Tyler has earned popularity and respect in several sub-genres of the romance world.

New York is in Tyler’s personality – vivacious while still being down to earth – and bubbles over in her voice as she answers questions about her life during this interview. She is so open and carefree, I feel like a friend rather than a curious reader and admirer.

TR: How do you find time to balance being a writer with all the other roles you play — mother, blogger and best-selling author? The sheer volume of work you publish in a year is staggering. How do you get it all done?

Tyler: Let me tell you, it is not easy. This is going to sound really strange, but it was also much easier before my son was born. My daughter, she’s fifteen but she’s special needs. In a way she is easier than my son, who is six and not special needs. I have a lot of help with my daughter. You know, I have a fantastic nurse, and my daughter’s not easy to take care of, but I get a lot of work done when she’s around. My son is like a hurricane. (Laughs) I noticed that my production slows when he’s around; now that he’s in school full time some of my work is back. So, I can definitely see why authors slow down when they have kids.

“It’s hard, but I think what helps me is I love the writing. You know, when you have something you love, you are always going to find the time for it.”

It doesn’t matter how tired you are. You’re not going to be like, “Oh, I don’t feel like doing this now.” You’re always going to find a way. That really helps. I think that’s the key. Write what you love.

TR: Do you have a special place, time, or ritual that you do before you sit down to write?

Tyler: I write in bed. I went bed shopping and I told the guy, “You know, I work in bed. But I’m not, like, a hooker or anything.” He kind of looked at me strangely, and I thought wow, that sounded kind of weird. (Laughs) In my office I actually have a bed. A lot of times I work in my room, too. I just like to work in bed with a laptop. Working at a desk never worked for me. I feel like I’m always working, you know?

“I have a notebook and I write a lot of longhand. I’m never not thinking about writing.” 

I use soundtracks for my books, too. I create a different soundtrack for each book, and that brings me into a certain story. It helps to center me.

TR: Do you base the soundtrack off of plot line or certain characters?

Tyler: A little of both. Sometimes I’ll hear a song or a line from a song that reminds me of something a character would do or of a scene. It’s very nebulous. And a lot of them overlap because they’re songs that make me happy or just get me up and going. I need stuff going in the background. That helps me.

TR: You don’t just have just one pen name, you have two! What is it like to write under three separate names, including your own?

Tyler: Well, at this point, I only have the two, [Tyler and Jakes]. (Laughs) Like that’s normal. But really, I love it.

“I just can’t do one thing at a time. I can’t write just one book at a time, I can’t write in order in a book, and I think that actually helps me.” 

If I try to write only one book or in order, then I get stuck, and then I just sit there and do nothing. So, at least if I am writing on several books or out of order, I have forward motion on something.I feel like if I get an idea in my head, even if it’s not a book I am supposed to be working on, at least I get it down and it’s there.

“I never want to throw away a good story idea.”

TR: What was it like to write in a partnership with Larissa Ione for the Sydney Croft books?

Tyler: It was really exciting. We were both at the beginning of our careers and it was a lot of fun. I never knew what she was going to write and she never knew what I was going to write and we never outlined anything, so that was really cool.

We each took characters — usually I would write the main heroes and she would write the heroines — and we would split up the sub-plots. So I was writing Remy and Creed, and she was writing Anika. Then, we would switch and she would go into my scenes as Anika and change some things. I would go into her sections as Creed and change some things.

“I think it helps to have a co-writer that you really click with.”

It was very strange how it worked. We didn’t write in order and I would write a scene out of nowhere. She would be like, “Oh my God, look what I just wrote!” and I swear her scene would match my scene perfectly. It was just one of those magical things. I just look back on that time and remember it was fantastic.

TR: Do you outline for any of your books?

Tyler: I remember in school we had to do an outline for a paper first. Like, I had to write the paper before I could do the outline. I was just always last minute. I could never do anything ahead of time.

TR: Without an outline, do you ever have moments where you wonder why the story took a sudden turn that you didn’t intend?

Tyler: All the time. You know, that’s one of my favorite things about not plotting. If you can plot out in advance and make life easier, do it. But I can’t.

I wind up writing the book out of order and piecing it together like a puzzle and it’s fun, but I have everything scattered all over the place, and I think, “Oh, you have to put this whole thing together.” It’s all there, but you wind up writing more than you need. I don’t know if I would have gotten the pieces that were so cool, and [things] I didn’t expect, if I had plotted.

I look at authors like J.R. Ward, who has these massive outlines, and I feel like she almost writes the book before she writes the book. And, I’m sure she has those moments, but I feel like once I did the outline I’d be like, “Aren’t we done?” For me, it would take away some of the excitement.”

TR: When you lay out your story, do you print it and lay it all out on the bed, or do you have note cards and a corkboard?

Tyler: I’ve tried the board and I love that idea. A lot of my friends do it and it’s so pretty. Like, I have a lot of boards and note cards, and my husband is like, “Could we not order more note cards? You don’t use them.” And I don’t. I use Scrivener, which I love, but I don’t even use the note cards in Scrivener. I print it out.

There’s just something about seeing it on paper that makes a big difference. I catch a lot of mistakes. I also sometimes send it to my Kindle. It’s like a real book that way and I’ll catch a lot.

TR: How do you decide which of those pieces should go in and which ones should be set aside for a different story?

Tyler: It’s instinctive. I’ll just know that the piece either fits some earlier version of the story and doesn’t need to be there, or it’s something that belongs in a different story.

Sometimes I’ll leave a piece in and ask my editor, “What do you think? Does this need to be here?” Sometimes you like a piece so much, you need an outside source to be like, “It’s a good piece, but this has no place here.” I never throw anything away.

TR: What is the difference between writing as Stephanie Tyler versus as S.E. Jakes?

Tyler: I love writing the heroes. I think for me that was the biggest difference; in the S.E. Jakes stuff they’re all heroes. I didn’t have to write about any of the women or the women’s feelings. For me that was always a lot of fun.

TR: You had characters in the background of the Stephanie Tyler novels who were in male/male relationships. Did that help take away some of the stigma of writing gay romance for you?

Tyler: You know, I never really thought of it until recently. I’ve always had gay characters in the Tyler books, but it’s only been recently that I’ve gotten a few — and very few but a few — letters like, “I wish you wouldn’t put gay characters into your books,” or “Why do you feel you have to do this?” But, how do you answer that, you know? I mean, I honestly don’t feel like I have to do anything. There’s no political pressure on me. I’ve been doing this since 2007, and it’s just a natural part of the way I write. The characters walk into my head and they’re either gay, straight, or bi and I don’t change that.

TR: Your characters are all really well-rounded. They have flaws. They’re funny, clever, bitter, angry, and capable people. It seems like you know them.

Tyler: I just… they really just walk on. I know it sounds incredibly odd. Every once in a while, I’ll call a psychic. I was on the phone with one at one point and she said to me, “Oh, wait. Hang on. Hang on, they’re speaking to me.” And I was like, “Go ahead.”

“I understood exactly what she meant because that’s how I feel about my characters. They arrive and they’re just people. I can’t rename them or change their back-story. I couldn’t change them any more than I could change my son’s eye color. In a way, I’m lucky because that’s how they arrive.”

I don’t know why these broken men find me. I had a very nice childhood, everything was good. You know, a stable home, only child, parents around. I don’t know how or why, but all the men that walk on in my head are very broken. Strong, but broken heroes that chose me to tell their story. It’s a very big honor, so I will do that. I’ll tell the story.

TR: It’s great to speak to a writer who loves the art and isn’t ashamed to write in her chosen genre of romance novels.

Tyler: Yeah. I still get it all the time. You know, romance…

“I can’t even tell you. You get the looks, and you just wonder, “What are you, like, twelve?” I got the looks when I was in my M.A. program. They look at you like you’re a bug. But, it’s what I love to write.”

TR: Any advice for writers who want to be published, regardless of genre?

Tyler: Finish a book. Finish one book. I wanted to write from an early age, but I couldn’t finish a book. I could write the first three chapters. I’m an editor’s dream for writing a synopsis, but the synopsis is only the first three chapters and a little of the rest. As soon as someone told me I didn’t have to write in order, I was able to finish a book. That, and write for you.

“You have to write what you love, because if you’re not loving it, then no one else will love it.”

It’s hard, and until you have a book of your own you don’t understand just how difficult it can be, but we write because we love it.

 

 

 

Wonderland of Words: An Interview with Matthew Dickman

by Lara Gentchos

More and more, I want to write honest poems that share something about my thinking and my life. – Matthew Dickman

The first time I encountered Matthew Dickman’s poetry was in spring 2016, during a reading of his work at VCFA’s Café Anna. He was reading from his fourth book of poetry, Wonderland (to be released this year). His poems were lyric and visual, sympathetic and matter-of-fact. I was struck by his ability to hold an introspective and reflective space around the objects, people, and events of his life, much of which was traumatic, if not tragic. Yet this space is neither judgmental nor sentimental. Instead, it allows for an appreciation of the human experience.

Dickman is the author of three poetry collections — All-American Poem, Mayakovsky’s Revolver, and 50 American Plays (co-written with his twin brother, poet Michael Dickman). He is also an editor for Tin House Magazine, a 2015 Guggenheim recipient, and a professor in VCFA’s Writing and Publishing MFA program.

Recently, I had a chance to sit down with Dickman to discuss the evolution of his creative process, the relationship between art and life, and his thoughts on the ethereal elements that make some poems stand out from the rest.

LG: What makes a text a poem for you, as opposed to an essay or piece of fiction?

Dickman: One thing about the question, what is a poem, or what is poetry, is that it’s a question that often isn’t asked of short stories, fiction, or screenplays. I think it’s asked more frequently, or exclusively, of poetry because poetry is so deeply linked to our emotional lives.

Poetry doesn’t come from storytelling. It comes from prayer. I think there’s something in our DNA as human beings that feels there’s something sacred about poems.

LG: Do you mean that poetry comes from prayer through its literary heritage? Or do you mean we experience it as something sacred?

Dickman: I understand it as both those things. I understand poems coming out of incantatory prayer and incantatory songs, but all poems share certain qualities — line breaks, stanzas. They utilize these things just like short stories might utilize characters or dialogue. So another answer is a poem is a poem.

I also believe in conceptual thinking, so if someone was like, “this lamp is a poem”, I’d be like, “Solid, awesome. That’s a poem for you.” But for me, poetry has changed a lot from my early memories, being nine or ten years old to being 41 years old. The way I approach my art has changed, too.

LG: How so?

Dickman: For a long time, I wrote strictly narrative poems that didn’t really free associate or go anywhere wild. They were like tidy little boxes on the page. I wrote poems in one particular way: I would get an idea for a poem, or maybe I’d read something in the paper and it’d be about bees and honey and I’d think, “Okay, how am I going to write a poem called ‘The Bee Keeper’s Daughter’? It’s going to be a poem about the beekeeper’s family, this young woman being alone and being stung, and how it all relates to her dad.” I’d have all these ideas. I’d come up with the first line and how it would end. All of it was in my brain. I would sit down and type it out, and basically transcribe it from my mind. I wrote like that for a long time.

Then when I was in grad school, after my first year there, that summer, there were a couple of major tragedies and I had kind of a psychic breakdown.

LG: Were those personal tragedies?

Dickman: Personal tragedies, yeah. A murder-suicide and then an illness-death. I just kind of lost it. I ended up in the hospital for about two days, and then I contacted the school and was like, “I need the next semester off for health reasons.” I started seeing a therapist every day, and I didn’t write poems for, like, eight months. I didn’t really even read poems. I just concentrated on being able to eat an orange every day.

I felt disconnected from poetry, but I still wanted to get my degree. So, I went back to my MFA, and I thought, “Well, maybe I’m not going to be a poet anymore, but poetry will be part of my life. Maybe I’ll be an editor or run a poetry series.”

But when I started going back to school, I had to write poems for these workshops to get credit for them. Something happened in that span of time of not writing or thinking about poems, of having to deal with tragedies that also set off memories of traumatic events in my childhood — having to work with all of that and be present with all of that. When I sat down to write a poem again, I seemingly forgot all the rules that were either given to me or that I had invented, for what a poem should be like for me. I started writing poems, like the ones you find in my first book, All-American Poem: free-associative narrative poems that kind of go all over the place.

LG: That’s so interesting. Can you give me an example of how that changed?

Dickman: Yeah. In my second book of poems, in Mayakovsky’s Revolver, there’s a poem called “Coffee.” And quite literally, I was like, “I gotta write a poem for workshop and I’m drinking coffee. God, I love coffee.” And I thought, “Okay, I’m going to write about coffee.” It was just like monkey-monkey [makes typing gesture with his hands]. My brain went all over the place. It didn’t really have to do with coffee, but it flowed all around. Instead of a box, a clean little machine of poetry, what I printed up was this rangy, free-associative narrative poem that was about coffee, but also about my older brother’s death, and Portland, and all these other things. And I was like, “That felt good.”

I didn’t really remember how it felt to write poems before, but that felt good to me. So I was like, “Well, let’s keep going with this. What else do you like, Dickman? You like public parks.” So I wrote a poem about public parks. It was just like monkey-monkey, typee-typee. Thinking about parks and writing whatever. That continues to be the case.

My poems in my upcoming book, Wonderland, are not as rangy and wild as the poems in All-American Poem, but they still come from a place of unknowing. From sitting down and having a feeling, thinking about something in a vague way and then just typing.

I do remember that in the past when I would sit down and write a poem, it felt really comforting; it felt very secure to me, like “I’m doing this thing and it’s part of my identity. I’m a poet and I write poems.” But the more I write poetry, the more it doesn’t feel like that. It feels more urgent and also a little more untethered because I don’t know what I’m going to write about or say.

LG: Do you mean untethered in a freeing and good way, or is there a stress to that not knowing?

Dickman: There’s a bit of stress, a bit of anxiety to it.

I don’t feel really free until I’ve been working on the poem a little. But when I first sit down, it’s like, “Is this going to happen? Am I going to be able to write a poem again?”

LG: But I’d imagine that anxiety also contributes to that sense of urgency you mentioned. Can you tell me more about that? How does that urgency connect to typing like a monkey, and writing “whatever”?

Dickman: It’s like I have a feeling, like a low-grade anxiety that I want to get this out of me. Then I start writing about the first thing that pops into my head, and I trust it.

LG: So, it sounds like that feeling of urgency has become really important in your process, but I’m still curious about this word “whatever”. What makes a piece that’s a free-association of “whatever” worthy of the title ‘poem’? What makes it worthy of being published, as opposed to a big messy, random pile of “whatever”? Do you tap into those rules you abided by before?

Dickman: A big issue is sincerely accepting the “whatever,” which is everything in your life, or everything in the world. Something I’ve been learning to be more and more in my writing is vulnerable. As an editor for Tin House Magazine, if it was between a super well-crafted poem and a vulnerable messy poem, I’d publish the vulnerable messy poem above the really well-made, maybe more emotionally conservative poem.

I’m going to die, and I want my experiences, as much as I can control them — which is not much — to be experiences with art that makes me feel something.

LG: Are you saying that vulnerability is key to the success of a poem?

Dickman: Yeah. This is something that I’ve learned recently. Around 2012, I was reading new poems, and a friend of mine who’s also a mentor and a poet, was in the audience. Afterward, we went out for a beer. We sat down and I asked him, “What’d ya’ think? My new hot-shit poems, right?” He was like, “Yeah, they’re good.” I was like, “Right?” And then he was like, “I have a question.” And I was like, “Yeah, what is it? Do you have a question like how fuckin’ awesome am I?” And he said, “My question is, Matthew, when are you going to stop being the hero of all your poems?” And I was like, “What?”

Then I went back and read all of my poems in my books, and I was like, “Fuuuck. I am the hero in all of my poems,” and I had a total epiphany. I was embarrassed. And I was like, “How can I write from the self, and about the self, and have it not be where I’m always the hero?”

LG: If you were always the hero, does that mean that you were always writing from a particular voice? Were you always writing from the same narrator, as a form of protection around your topics?

Dickman: Yeah, totally.

LG: But it sounds like you’re comfortable with that vulnerability now? How did that happen?

Dickman: I am now, yeah. But part of it, for me, has been seeing mentors of mine who are older who have been through a lot of crazy stuff, and who have worked really hard at being healthy. Seeing that they had no shame around things. It was a practice to both talk in public about certain things, things that could be thought of as either positive or negative, and also to write about those things — to the great chagrin of my mother and some other family members. There was an article in a big magazine that talked about a cocaine addiction that I had to deal with, and a bunch of other stuff. I was fine with it, but other people were like, what are you doing?

But, I don’t know. More and more, I want to write honest poems that share something about my thinking and my life. That’s about all I want to do as far as poetry goes: to explore different versions of what that looks like in poems.

 

For more of Matthew Dickman,  check out last week’s Etc. column where you can listen to Matthew reading two new poems  from his forthcoming poetry collection, titled “Wonderland.”  These poems also appear in Hunger Mountain 21: Masked/Unmasked, available now.

Writing In Between: An Interview with Tyler Friend

by Breanne Cunningham

Writing In Between

We’re drinking red wine out of jars salvaged from Smucker’s Natural Peanut Butter—Folie a Deux’s 2012 Alexander Valley Merlot. Later, we’ll open the Cab of the same vintage.

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros play in the background.

Tyler and I are classmates at Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing and Publishing. We’re spending Saturday night at my apartment talking about sexuality and relationships, Tyler’s experience being genderqueer, how that informs their writing, and why they choose a different preferred pronoun each time he/she/they’re asked. (I’ll do the same here.)

Geographically, we are both from the south—they’re from Tennessee and I’m from Georgia—but our paths first crossed when I came for a campus visit in the spring of 2016. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Ampersonate and will complete his MFA in May.

BC: A lot of your poetry tends to surround an ambiguous gender identity; in your writing you describe identifying with both women and men, and also being sexually attracted to both women and men at the same time.

I am remembering a poem you wrote for our shared class in which you recall your first kiss with a girl and then later with a boy. The poem (titled, The First Time will be published in Tin House in June) ends with “For the record, I like taking it in the ass.”

Do you specifically channel that duality when you’re writing? How does it affect you as a writer?

TF: I think a lot of it just happens, I don’t necessarily try to channel it.

“I definitely work from the poetics of trying to break down binaries– no matter if that is gender or sexuality, or the natural world versus the constructed world, I think that most of what I am preoccupied with is duality and binaries.”

BC: Last semester we took a Pedagogy course together and our teacher’s first question was, “What’s your preferred pronoun?”

Friend: There are lots of other pronouns like x-e, or z-e or fae f-a-e, which I think is fun because it’s kind of like a fairy. So, it’s sort of a newish thing and it’s kind of complicated. I don’t care about pronouns, and I get really anxious whenever someone asks me, so I usually answer differently every time.

In my head—to me—male and female are entirely constructs, so you can’t be born one or the other. The phrasing is assigned female at birth or assigned male at birth. So, I was assigned male at birth.

But there are also—and where this becomes an issue is with intersex people—people with ‘ambiguous genitalia.’ There have always been people who are in the middle genetically, too. So, I am ‘male’ genetically, but I tend to instinctually [fall between sexes]. The terminology is still new and I am still new to it, so I’m still trying to work it out.

People have always existed in this ‘in-between, but as a culture, it’s becoming mainstream and people are realizing it more and trying to put words to it more.

Eileen Myles, for example, went by ‘they’ pronouns—I don’t know if they still are, [but] I feel like we are getting more iconic and popular, and more celebrities are bringing it forward.

Another poet like that is Andrea Gibson. They just recently switched to ‘they’ pronouns and they’re a little like Eileen Myles. They’re rock stars.

BC: Your poetry chapbook is Ampersonate. Talk to me about the title. The cover of the book is an ampersand sign that forms the figure of a woman.

Friend: I am big into squashing words together, so I was thinking about ampersand as in ‘and’, as in ‘continuing’. And personate has implications of theatre [and] acting.

A few pieces are directly related to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and my love affair with some of the characters.

BC: What was your process for writing the poem, “I wrote it. It must be true” (which is in Ampersonate)?

Friend: This is actually one of my favorite things I’ve written. I turned this in for an undergrad workshop and everyone thought I was on ‘shrooms. But I wasn’t! This is how my brain works.

It’s one-third from a dream I had, one-third text lifted from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and one-third text lifted from a dictionary of ecology.

BC: Is that how you normally write? What is your process and how does it turn into your art?

“Most of what I write is love poetry. And a lot of it comes from dreams. A lot of it comes from lucid dreaming, that half-awake, half-asleep state.

Then, once I get that part written, I go back to other texts and lift words.

I am also really big into word banks. When I’m reading something, . Then I’ll read something else and create another list. And then I’ll find a way to mash them all together.”

 

BC: Tori Amos uses a similar method when she writes songs.
Friend: The other thing I do is steal things people say.

BC: That’s what we do as artists. We borrow.

We borrow from our siblings when they buy a shirt we like. We borrow from celebrities to get ideas for new hairstyles. We borrow song lyrics to tell our mates we love them. We borrow from a little bit of everything to make us a little bit more like ourselves.

 

What is the pinnacle of your career? What are you shooting for?

Friend: Dream goals are getting published in Poetry Magazine. Rattle. Getting published in [PANK]. All the [publications] that I love.

I love literary magazines, so I would like to be Lit Mag editor somewhere. I’m also into Art Direction. The concept of teaching is interesting to me as well, but not yet. In the future.

BC: What about the social ideal? Family? Social acceptance?

“There is a traditional trans narrative of feeling like [you’re] in the wrong body; [you] don’t feel at home. [You] want to transition and be something different than what you are.

I don’t feel any of that. Part of it is my realistic approach to bodies in general—it’s a hunk of flesh.”

I would like to have a family. Ideally, I would like to have a long-term partner and I would probably get married for legal reasons, as far as kids go. I don’t really believe in marriage, but I’ve always romanticized the idea of a family.

BC: Did your parents help shape your gender identity growing up?

Friend: I guess they did. But I ignored it. I have a brother and a sister and my mom still refers to us as ‘the boys’, so in that way, yeah, boy was always there. But I never thought of it in a broader context where it was I’m ‘like’ these people and ‘not like’ these people.

I was never really socialized at a young age to see a difference [between male and female], so once I got into situations where [gender] turned into a binary, I veered toward male because that’s what everybody else said I was. But I was never put in a position where I had to define my sex.

BC: I remember the first time I saw you, you were wearing a flowy black miniskirt with flowers on it, black tights, and a pair of wedges. Your nails were painted and you were wearing makeup. I thought you were a woman.

Friend: Thank you!

BC: You recently mentioned that after you moved to Vermont, you became more open with expressing your gender and sexuality, and that precipitated a shift in your poetry. How does the new freedom you feel in self-expression show up in your work?

Friend: Over the past year or so, my poetry has become much less constrained—by form, by norms, by what I thought I wanted poetry to do.

The poems I’m writing now are longer and feel much more open, breathing steadily. The language has become less formal, and I feel like I’m kinder toward the language—I don’t break it up as much, I don’t distort or contort it. I let repetition happen when it needs to, something I always avoided before.

 

 

All artwork featured in this article is Tyler’s original work. Check out her poetry on the Ephemeral Artery Etc. page.

To learn more about their work, visit his website, Tylerfriend.

 

Get Lit with Zinester/Book Publisher Sage Adderley-Knox

by M. Brianna Stallings

Before we proceed, know this: While this will be the umpteenth time I’ve defined a zine (say it with me: “ZEEN”), given the creative impact they’ve made in my life and the lives of countless others, I’m more than happy to keep doing it.

For those not in the know, a zine is a small-circulation photocopied micro-publication with an extraordinarily limited run (think less than 1,000 copies). Zine-making embodies the do-it-yourself (DIY) aesthetic popularized with punk rock culture and, in particular, the Riot Grrrl feminism movement of the 1990s.

Zines are commonly written by one person, or sometimes by a small group of like-minded folks writing around a theme. It’s kind of like a blog you can carry in your pocket. Zine subjects include music, politics, veganism, social theory, pop culture, and sex, among many others. Well-known zines include Cometbus, Dishwasher, and Maximum Rocknroll. Why do people write zines? For the same reasons that most people write books: it’s a subject about which they are knowledgeable and passionate, or a topic they’d like to explore more in-depth.

Zines are ephemera and, thus, can be hard to preserve. Luckily, many public and academic libraries have established zine archives – such as Duke, Barnard College, and the University of Iowa. However, zines are not relics. Quite the contrary: even with the seemingly infinite number of blogs and websites online, zine culture continues to thrive to this day, with annual festivals all over the United States and beyond, as well as a number of distributors (or “distros”).

Sage Adderley-Knox.

Sage Adderley-Knox opened Sweet Candy Distro in 2004. Formerly based in Georgia and Pennsylvania, Sweet Candy HQ is now in Washington State. The Sweet Candy site features over 200 zine titles, as well as books, one-inch buttons, bumper stickers, and much more. The zine writers are from all over the world, and write about topics like art, body image concerns, feminism, fiction, food, mental health, and parenting.

In 2013, Sweet Candy Distro added the words “And Press” to its name, with Adderley-Knox jumping into the publishing world. The company has released an assortment of titles, with Michael A. McLellan’s Civil War-era novel, In the Shadow of the Hanging Tree, being released this year. Adderley-Knox also runs Sage’s Blog Tours, virtual promotion on book blogs for authors.

In addition to running a distro and small press, Adderley-Knox is also the mother of three, and the author of the zines Marked for Life (about tattooing) and FAT-TASTIC! Her first novel, the YA book Invoking Nonna, is now in its second edition.

MBS: How did you become involved with zines? How and why do they matter in 2017?

Adderley-Knox: In 2003, I was taking some creative writing courses at Kennesaw State University. I became intrigued with the idea of publishing a literary magazine. I was online searching for information about self-publishing and came across a zine community on LiveJournal. I started scrolling through all of the posts and instantly became fascinated with zines. I didn’t quite understand what they were, so I decided to order one. A zine writer had put up a post about her personal zine that she was selling for one dollar plus a stamp. I sent them off and waited for the zine to arrive. When it did, I was not disappointed. Looking back, I can’t even remember what the zine was about, but I will never forget the way it made me feel. I was amazed that I could send someone a dollar and, in return, receive a handmade booklet of their secrets. I hopped online to find more zines to order, and here I am thirteen years later, collecting and writing zines.

Zines matter because they give people a voice. They can be used as a powerful tool in our communities.

Zines matter because they give people a voice. We are living in a scary time with this current Presidential administration. People are being lied to, silenced, and bullied. We need to document what is happening. We need to create zines to help people through this time, both mentally and physically. They can be used as a powerful tool in our communities.

“Marked for Life #11,” the latest issue of one of the zines makes.

MBS: What is the difference between a zine distro and a small press? How does running a distro also inform running the small press?

Adderley-Knox: A zine distro deals with the distribution of zines, where a small press focuses on the actual publishing process. I think running the distro helped me define and strengthen my work ethics, which carried over to running a small press. I had many years under my belt of communicating with a wide range of people in the literary world. I understood the importance of good communication with writers, setting boundaries, as well as being transparent about finances and the process of running a business. I was definitely confident in transitioning into the publishing community.

MBS: Tell me more about Sage’s Blog Tours. How does it work? What services do you provide? Why did you start doing this?

Adderley-Knox: My most popular service is blog tours – virtual book promotion for authors. I create a tour schedule for authors where they visit book blogs for a week or longer. The author might participate in an interview with the blog owner or submit a guest post to be featured on the book blog. Many times, the blogger will receive a copy of the author’s book in advance, so during the blog tour, they can feature a review of the book. In a nutshell, I coordinate the stops and make sure everything runs smoothly. Blog tours are perfect for the author who is unable to travel on a traditional book tour visiting bookstores to promote their book. It also works best for authors who are only publishing digital books.

There is such an awful stigma around self-publishing, that the books will not be enjoyable. In my experience, these indie authors just need the guidance and support to help them through the process.

I was reviewing books on my blog and read some incredible stories written by indie authors. The downside was that quite a few of the self-published books suffered from not having a good editing job, a captivating book cover, or a synopsis that matched their book. I wanted to help them. There is such an awful stigma around self-publishing, that the books will not be enjoyable. I understand how that stigma started because like I mentioned, many indie books lack the basic things that earn respect from readers and critics. In my experience, these indie authors just need the guidance and support to help them through the process. I don’t think they skip these critical steps in the publishing process because they don’t care. Some writers become overwhelmed or may not have the resources available to polish up their work.

MBS: Any upcoming zines/books/blog tours to promote?

Adderley-Knox: I am releasing the second edition of my YA novel, Invoking Nonna, next month. It has an updated layout, edit, and cover. I am really excited about it. I am currently going through the first draft of my second novel, the follow-up to Nonna.

Coming soon from Sweet Candy Distro & Press.

My small press will also be releasing a historical fiction novel, In the Shadow of the Hanging Tree, by Michael McLellan. Even though it a historical fiction story based in the late 1800s, it is very timely to some of the issues our country is facing now with racism and oppression.

MBS: Where can zinesters expect to see you this year? Any fests, conferences, tours, etc.?

Adderley-Knox: I will be participating in a literary event in Olympia, WA next month at the Lacey Timberland Library. I will be reading from Invoking Nonna and doing a Q&A about self-publishing. I am hoping to make my way to eastern Washington and participate in a zine reading in Spokane. I will be tabling this summer at the Portland (OR) Zine Symposium and of course the Olympia Zine Fest in October. I am one of the co-organizers of the event and will also table Sweet Candy Distro and Press.

MBS: What does literary citizenship mean to you?

Adderley-Knox: To me, literary citizenship is the role you play in the literary world. I like to think that my role in the literary community is to help provide a platform for authors to publish their work, guiding writers through the process, and distributing their work through Sweet Candy Distro. I am the librarian for the Little Free Library at my son’s school, and I plan on building a Little Free Library at my home with books for all ages. I think making books accessible to everyone is vital.

Julianna Baggott Whispers Urgently Into Our Ears

by Breanne Cunningham and M. Brianna Stallings

Photo Credit: Carlos Alejandro

Critically acclaimed bestselling author Julianna Baggott—who also writes under the pen names Bridget Asher (The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted) and N.E. Bode (The Anybodies)—has published more than twenty books, including novels for adults, younger readers, and collections of poetry. Her latest novel, Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders, was published in August 2015. Her novel, Pure, the first of a trilogy, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2012, and received the ALA’s Alex Award. Baggott’s most recent poetry collection, Instructions, Abject & Fuming, will be released later this year by Southern Illinois University Press.

Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Best American Poetry, Best Creative Nonfiction, Real Simple, on NPR.org and more, She’s a professor in the College of Motion Picture Arts at Florida State University and holds the Jenks Chair at The College of the Holy Cross. The mother of four children, Baggott and her husband co-founded a nonprofit called Kids in Need—Books in Deed, which gets books to underprivileged kids in Florida. For more, visit juliannabaggott.com.

The quick-witted Baggott visited Vermont College of Fine Arts on February 2, 2017 for a discussion about breaking into the world of freelance journalism through op-ed columns and essays, as well as a student Q&A session. Below are highlights from her presentation.

Julianna BaggottI want to be of use to you all, so I’m mainly going to focus on op-eds and essays. I don’t have a book of nonfiction. It’s not mainly what I do. I don’t think of myself as an essayist or an op-ed writer, but I’ve written a number of them.

Part of it is built into the roots of my relationship with my husband and the practical aspects of writing for us. One of the things that we figured out early was how to freelance, and how to make money here and there. There were a few things we learned really quickly, because our food relied on it at this point.

The number one thing is that you do the editors’ job for them.

Editors constantly have to come up with ideas for copy. If you can come up with ideas, and pitch them things that are smart and good, that makes them like you very much. So, it was just like a constant stream of not being passive, but really being active in trying to find the stories that you want to write and then turning around and saying to the editor, “Here’s what I’d like to do.”

Being omnipresent is also important for a freelancer.

If there’s any way to physically be present, be present. Right now, I’m teaching a pitching class on how to pitch your stuff in LA to graduate screenwriters, and we actually culminate in going out to LA. But a lot of it is also about staying in touch with people naturally, engaging them even when you don’t have something to pitch, then having those relationships build over time. There’s an old saying: you have to be two of three things: on time, likeable, or brilliant.

Especially in the freelance world, being likeable, being on time, being brilliant… if you can be all three, try to be all three.

One of the things that helped me a lot, mainly as an essayist, but also as a novelist, is to write a long answer to a question. A lot of times, in the essay in particular, you have a question and you’re going to show yourself on the page finding that answer. Usually with the op-ed you have more of a point of view, and you have more of something that you want to say that’s specific. So, the question is a really smart thing to think about.

The only advice that I actually believe in, that I give, that I really think actually holds up, is that a novel or any piece is much easier to write if you imagine whispering your story urgently into one person’s ear.

One person’s ear is important because you know exactly who your audience is. So one person’s ear is incredibly important. When you think about the op-ed, a lot of times you’re thinking about a wide readership; that’s gonna muddy your op-ed. You actually still have to think of that one person that you’re wanting to whisper your story to. It works for all those things, everything that I write. And I say ‘whisper it urgently’ because if you’re not urgent, then it’s probably not a story that needs to be told. That’s another way to check it, to create that lens: the one ear and the question.

The nice thing is to answer the question, you have to believe in what you have to say, and you have to believe that you’re an expert in some way.

Every single one of you is already an expert in one thing, and that is your own experience in the world.

Only you know that, and that point of view is crucial to the op-ed or the essay. This is where you have to mine your material. What is your material? What are you attracted to write about? What is your terrain? Going after a market is really important: becoming the expert in what they are looking for. Getting to know certain markets, study them.

The first category you should think about is the evergreen essay.

As somebody who writes op-eds and looks for moments and opinions, I’m putting them in categories automatically. It’s horrible when an editor tells you that your essay is evergreen because it means she’s gonna put off running it until a slow news day. But it means that it doesn’t really have to hit in any specific news cycle.

The opposite of the evergreen essay is hitting the news cycle.

It’s really hard for a young writer because, a lot of times you’re thinking reactively, and so it’s hard for you to suddenly have a full cogent thought reactively. It’s hard for me to have a full cogent thought reactively. The thing about the news cycle though is that it’s a cycle. That’s the bad part about it. So, it’s really about you honing a piece: a point of view, a perspective, your take on something, and then being prepared for it. It’s not really hitting the news cycle and it’s not being reactive, because you’re preparing for it in advance.

Sometimes you have to be waiting for the accident. 

Somebody asks you for something and you just have to be ready to say yes. Sometimes you judge your failures too quickly, and you just hear rejection, and you don’t listen to the other part of it, which is you’re onto something.

Especially the rejection of, ‘We’ve got something like this.’ That’s a great rejection. It means you’re onto something.

It means you understand the market. Make sure that you’re not taking rejection as a closing of the door. Sometimes it’s just the beginning of a relationship. Editors get so much that they can’t publish everything that they love, but they actually are interested in hearing your voice again. A lot of times there’s something there that they want more of. That’s something to think about.

Two websites I want to point out:

The Op Ed Project has a submissions page where I get a ton of information. You want to look at different markets so you’re hitting the people you want to speak to. Looking also at how to submit, how to pitch, who to reach out to, word count—it’s a great source of information on their submissions page.

For essays, I would look at the back of Best American Essays, just as a place to see what magazines they’re looking at, that they think would be good enough to have the best.

 

Q & A with VCFA students

Tierney Ray: How do you balance building a world in exposition, versus trusting the readers to build it as they read?

The most I did for world building in the strictest sense was Pure, because I had to create a post-apocalyptic dystopian world. There was a ton, and it really weighed down the first book. For people who love world building, in some ways you’re feeding that audience. In other ways, you are giving a great exposition. In anything in Sci-Fi, it’s incredibly speculative.

But after writing Pure, I realized how much world building is in every single book. You are always doing world building and it does weigh things down. So, writing the second book of the Pure Trilogy was great because I’d established world building and I could tear into the plot.

I would also say listen to the screenwriter, John August. He has a podcast called Script Notes and has one on world building, which is great. One of the lines I loved from that podcast was “remember that Harry Potter’s world exists to tell Harry Potter’s story.”

Remember, your world building works as service to the story.

My landscapes have to, in some way, exist and bow down to the story and the characters.

 

Breanne Cunningham: How do you balance being an artist and a mother, and still get the work done?

I actually have a six-week course on this topic. (Laughs) I have a very long answer for this. I have a talk on efficient creativity that I’ve given to a hedge fund in New York, but there’s a million different ways: Eat. Take snacks.

Writers are snackers. Glucose does go down when you use mental energy, it works as physical energy in your body, so have chocolate at your desk.

The one thing that I would say that is not just for people with kids, but for any other type of job or life that you have to balance, is that those jobs put you on these hamster wheel thoughts where you’re going, Did I pack the diaper bag? Do I have Cheerios? What was that weird rash? Should I call somebody about that? All of these things that weren’t getting me anywhere, but I was obsessively caught on them. So, one of the surprises having kids wasn’t that I lost my writing time, but that I was going to lose my ‘muse’ time. My best ideas and things I wanted to work on came when I was driving, taking a shower, chopping vegetables, or reading and phasing out while watching TV. So, that is what I lost and I had to be very aggressive about getting it back.

 

What happened in losing my muse time and having to be pressured to go after it,I learned this process of visualization I call “writing while not writing.”

My most important writing is done when I am not writing. I was never going to get my ten thousand hours Malcolm Gladwell popularized; I was never going to get that at a desk. I had to find it in other ways. So, there are many great things about the visualization process and writing in your head. Number one, I don’t write first drafts; I write fourth drafts.

You never really have to look at the blank page at all because by the time you’re free to write and can actually get to a computer, you already know what you’re going to write.

It’s already starting to run in your head. It was the pressure on not having time to write and having to find time to write that really made a difference. There is something to be said about pressure and being desirous and hungry.

Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons: You had an essay in Bustle about ‘suffering fools gladly’ in a workshop. Can you go into more detail about it?

Yes, suffer fools gladly. I see a certain type of person who comes to workshop and you can tell they respect two people in that workshop and they don’t respect anyone else… Sometimes it’s one… Sometimes it’s zero. (Laughs) So, the problem is that they’re not getting the best out of everybody. You have to be able to listen with a screen to every single person in that room, especially the person who doesn’t understand you and doesn’t get your work.

A lot of times, the one who says, “I don’t understand it, it doesn’t work,” the answer to [their] question isn’t ‘cut it out’. It’s, “Bring it! Do more of it!” You have to suffer fools gladly.

What more could I ask of a workshop but to have someone that is dedicated to writing and reading?  What I look for is a good reader—make friends with people who are not writers, so you can create relationships with people who are not protective of their stories. I’ve gotten the best advice from people whose work I don’t like, and [with whom] I don’t get along, but we’re trying very different things and they’ve said something to me that has altered the course of the way I write for the better.

Gina Tron: Because you’ve written so many novels, did you ever find a formula for laying out the book you want to write?

Have you? Please, God, send it to me! (Laughs) In this way, it is like having children. Each child teaches you how to raise it. I wish there were one book that teaches you how to raise children. The problem is they’re all individuals. They’re unique with their own specific, weird shit. So, no, each book teaches me how to write it.

There is a confidence that comes with having written a novel before, having physically made it through one. And I can write with blind spots now. I can write not knowing what is in the box hidden in the wall. It’s going to be okay. So, there are certain things that I have gained confidence and gotten better at, mainly decision making. I’m a much faster decision maker in the middle of a novel because I’ve had to make more decisions.

I still write novels that fail; I write the whole thing and realize it failed, but I’m not done with it [because] I also have incredible confidence in my junkyard.

So there is the feeling that nothing is ever really wasted because I know I’m going to use those characters. So, there is confidence that comes with it, but no [formula].

 

For more information on Julianna Baggott, visit her website at juliannabaggott.com

Bethany Hegedus Interviews Illustrator Evan Turk

Hunger Mountain editor Bethany Hegedus is the author of Grandfather Gandhi, a new picture book she co-authored with Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. The book, released in March 2014 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, was illustrated by Evan Turk. Here, with an introduction by Matthew Winner, Bethany interviews Evan about his picture book debut.


Matthew Winner: When I first held a printed copy of Grandfather Gandhi in my hands, I knew I had something special. The collage work and intricacy of the illustrations were immediately affecting, and the textures represented in the art gave the story a physical grounding in the landscape and people of India and to the community at Sevagram. I later had the opportunity to speak with Evan Turk, alongside Grandfather Gandhi authors Bethany Hegedus and Arun Ghandi, on a panel during the book launch at Books of Wonder in New York City. It was immediately clear that the reverence of the book’s source material resonated deeply within the hearts and minds of its creators. But what was more evident to me was that the individuals behind Grandfather Gandhi were something special. If his debut in picture books is any indication, Evan Turk’s evocative artwork will have far-reaching effects in children’s literature. In the interview that follows, Turk candidly describes his process from concept to his careful selection of materials to the message in the story’s text that he worked to communicate through the art. It’s an opportunity to discover anew the story of Grandfather Gandhi and to lose yourself in the world preserved in Turk’s art. Wonder and enjoy.


Bethany Hegedus: As this is your picture book debut can you walk us through the process of being chosen as the illustrator for Grandfather Gandhi?

Evan Turk

Evan Turk

Evan Turk: It was my senior year at Parsons and we each had been working on a senior project. I was working on an animation and children’s book of a story that I’d written about a little boy in India. We each gave three-minute presentations to a panel of professionals from the industry, and they gave us feedback on our work. One of the people on my panel happened to be Ann Bobco, art director for Atheneum/Simon & Schuster. While I was taking questions at the end, she raised her hand to her ear and gave me the “call me” sign. We set up a meeting, and I came in to talk with her and the editor, Namrata Tripathi, to show them my work. Afterwards Namrata asked me if I’d be interested in seeing the manuscript for Grandfather Gandhi and doing some samples, so naturally I freaked out a little bit, called everyone I knew, and then replied yes.

BH: Once the manuscript was assigned to you, how did you get a feel for the setting? Did you enter the story with much historical background or did you need to immerse yourself in research about life on Sevagram?  Where did you begin? And how did that entry point change or shift as you worked?

ET: Other than one Indian history course and a family trip to southern India, I didn’t have too much background when I started doing the samples. I began reading biographies and watching movies, and trying to get a feeling for Gandhi’s philosophies and how they shaped the ashram, while using historical photographs of Sevagram for reference. As I moved on to the final art, the 1982 film Gandhi was actually very helpful in terms of actually getting to see Sevagram and see the body language of the people moving and working around it.

Notes on Manuscript Pages

Notes on Manuscript Pages

BH: The final art of Grandfather Gandhi, a combination of watercolor, paper collage, cotton fabric, cotton, yarn, gouache, pencil, tea, and tin foil, is stunning and is more than the sum of its parts. There is even a notation in the book that says the cotton was hand spun on an Indian book charkha by Eileen Hallman. How important were all these details to you and what do you hope the finished images for the book convey?

ET: The look of the illustrations definitely evolved as I made them. I like to be able to be spontaneous while I’m working on something, so I went with whatever felt right to me in the moment. When I look at Indian art, there are so many different layers of patterns and shapes, so the physical layering of shapes in collage lent itself to the content.

For the yarn, I thought that the idea of spinning raw, unruly cotton fibers into yarn was a beautiful metaphor for Arun learning to channel his anger, so I wanted that to be a part of the illustrations. I had a very romantic notion that I was going to spin all of the yarn by hand, it was going to teach me self-discipline like it did for Arun in the story, and it would be this very meditative process that would happen as I was doing the book. So I bought a charkha and a box of cotton shipped from India and I planned to sit down every day I worked on the book and try and spin some thread for an hour or so. I did that for a couple of months, trying a few days a week to spin anything at all. But it was very difficult, a lot harder than I was expecting, and after two months I had made maybe two inches of lumpy thread. The book was due in two weeks and I began thinking it was time to find some other options. While looking online for somewhere that I could buy charkha-spun yarn, I found Eileen’s website (http://www.charkha.biz). She had how-to videos, which I probably should have had a couple months ago, but I called her and asked if I could buy some yarn spun on a charkha. She said she didn’t really sell it, but said, “Oh of course, I can just spin some for you.” I asked, “Oh wow, how long is that going to take?” and she said, “Oh, about, five minutes.” So when she was able to do in five minutes what I had been trying weeks to do, I was thrilled, and I think her beautifully spun yarn made a nice contrast to my lumpy mushes of cotton in the book.

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BH: How did you strike a balance between keeping the art sophisticated yet child-friendly?

ET: I think art that communicates to adults will communicate with children as well. The story is actually very heartfelt and emotional, so it was important to me for it to have that feeling and gravity. But it’s also the story of a little boy, and I wanted to illustrate it from that point of view, so I think that adds a level of playfulness and theatrics in the art.

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BH: As the authors, Arun Gandhi and I we were especially pleased to see how the theme of inner and outer shadows and lightness vs darkness that the text deals with came into play in the art. The palette ranges from bright, vibrant hues reminiscent of the Indian sky and culture to one spread that is starkly black and white. How much was this intentional? And, if intentional how did you keep this aspect from overpowering other symbols in the book—such as the spinning wheel?

ET: Most of the story is about how Arun is feeling about what’s happening, and about how he’s internalizing it, so I wanted that to take center stage in the illustrations as well. A lot of it came out of a little thumbnail I did on the original manuscript of Arun standing in Gandhi’s shadow, which is such a big part of the story, so I used the idea of shadows to communicate how Arun is feeling internally. In Indian art and textiles the colors are vibrant and vivid, which works as a perfect contrast to the shadows, so I think that struck a good visual balance and reflected on Arun’s decision about whether to live his life as light from the end of the book. The shadows also helped to tie all the other symbols, like the spinning wheel, together, because everything casts a shadow, and shadows have a way of weaving everything together into a single shape.

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BH: Did you have any fears or trepidations depicting Gandhi on the page in a new, and very human form, as he is a figure many have expectations of and revere? If so, what were they and how did you overcome them? What was it like to hear Arun Gandhi’s response to the work: “The book has taken a beautiful form.”

ET: I think I was most nervous when I was doing the samples for the manuscript before I had been given the contract, because I knew it was going to be reviewed by Arun. For me, it was a little intimidating to depict someone’s grandfather, famous or not. It’s such a personal connection, and you want to be able to capture something about how that person felt, and of course I never met him. But you hope that someone who did know him is going to see something of that person in what you draw. I think it also gave me a degree of freedom, because the whole book is about how Gandhi wasn’t a perfect saint. He was a real person, and that gave me some freedom to draw him in a way that wasn’t perfect or reverent; he could just be a loving, caring, grandfather.

Hearing Arun’s response to the book, especially after meeting him and hearing him talk about the art in interviews, was so wonderful for me. I learned that there is a different kind of pressure illustrating someone else’s text, because you want them to respond to what you’ve created with their words. As you told me, Arun is a man of few words, but to hear that he felt that the illustrations “put life into the book,” since ultimately it’s his life I’ve been illustrating, really touched me.

Preliminary Character Sketches

Preliminary Character Sketches

BH: In spending some time on your website, I know you travel and have an interest in cultures outside your own. How do you merge your own artistic voice with the art of the time/place you’re representing? What elements of the design are grounded in African art and which are yours? Where did this interest in exploring culture through illustration come from?

ET: I’ve always had an interest in travel and other cultures, and when I started doing illustration I found it was an entry point for me to be able to connect with other people and places on a deeper level and really try to understand them. When you’re looking at art from another culture, and trying to figure out why they create art in the way that they do, you really can learn a lot about their philosophy. I love looking at art from all over the world because it is often art that was created before things became so global, so people arrived at ways of looking at the world that are so completely different, but still related. When you try to make art with that philosophy in mind, it allows you to look at something in a completely new way, which is something in illustration that is always exciting for me.

I think that in terms of merging my own voice with different art styles and cultures, I think it’s something that just happens naturally. Hopefully, the more I understand a culture, the more their philosophy comes out in the art. It’s not really a conscious balance, because whatever I draw, it’s going to end up looking like I drew it, so as long as I’m trying to learn, the balancing takes care of itself. In many types of African art in particular, there is a vibrancy, pattern, and freedom to exaggerate that I always respond to, and I think these have become a part of my own taste and design.

colorthumbnails

BH: What is next for you—in children’s books—or otherwise?

ET: I have a few animation and illustration projects in the works, but one in particular is a children’s book I’m working on about the art of Moroccan storytelling, and how stories are what create culture and give people hope. There is a thousand year old tradition of public storytelling in Morocco, where religious stories and folktales are passed down through generations, and each storyteller becomes a library of thousands of tales. But as the storytellers have gotten older without apprentices, the tradition is dying out. I wanted to make a story that talks about the importance of this kind of storytelling, not just for Morocco, but all over the world. The book is about how storytelling created Morocco, sustained it through generations, and ultimately, with the help of a young apprentice storyteller, what saves it from the desert in the end.


Evan Turk is an author, illustrator, and animator working in New York City. He is originally from Colorado, and loves being in nature, traveling, and learning about other cultures through drawing. He is a graduate of Parsons and continues his studies as a member of Dalvero Academy. Visit him at evanturk.com.


Matthew Winner is the author of the Busy Librarian blog and host of Let’s Get Busy, a weekly children’s literature podcast with authors, illustrators, kidlit notables, and everyone in between.


 

First Murder: An Interview with Peter Doherty

by Leah Kaminsky

Hunger Mountain editor Leah Kaminsky conducted an interview with Professor Peter Doherty, joint winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology 1996 for a landmark discovery in the field of cellular immunology.


Peter Doherty lab photoThe first murder Peter Doherty ever witnessed was committed by his own sweet, grey-haired grandmother back in the 1940s. He was a young child living on the outskirts of the then sleepy town of Brisbane, in Northern Australia. She took him by the hand and led him down to the ‘chook house’ at the bottom of the garden, grabbing a flapping hen along the way. Young Peter watched in awe and fascination as the indulgent, old woman he loved so dearly grabbed an axe and swiftly brought it down onto a wooden block, chopping off the head of what was to become Christmas dinner for the family.

He recalls his first days at school, with leather satchels hanging in the sun on the verandah outside the classroom. By lunchtime, he had one of his first encounters with chemistry—as the whole verandah reeked from hydrogen sulphide produced from the rotting egg sandwiches, something he also jokes might have been his first vaccination against E Coli. The family lived in a ‘Queenslander’ built up on stilts and he also recalls his mother dispatching a large, brown snake under the house with the edge of a spade. Years later, when his own fatherly duties included dealing with a bountiful and ever-multiplying brood of gerbils, his own kids were complicit in and intrigued by a mass murder, using chloroform from the lab to cull the gerbils’ furry numbers.

Living in Edinburgh in the 1960s, he used to see whole carcasses hanging on hooks in the butcher’s shop.

“We live, we die—it’s all a necessary process. Everything in nature eats something else in order to survive. There is nothing more brutal. What worries me is that modern society lives in a bubble. We need to face death head on. A medical student should be able to confront a corpse—a child should know where meat comes from. Nowadays, kids grow up divorced from death. They often don’t realize that animals have to be slaughtered for us to have food. This is a dangerous distancing from our past, a total detachment from reality.”

Doherty is very down-to-earth. Spending the first ten years of his life working as a veterinary pathologist, part of his training was to serve as a meat inspector in abattoirs. It was a horrific but grounding experience. He rails against living inside invented narratives such as creationism and climate change denial, drawing attention to Conservapedia.com as a travesty against all the hard work scientists do.

When questioned regarding the ethics of scientific experiments using animals, Doherty maintains that the arguments against this practice are specious.

“Ethics committees are set up specifically to avoid unnecessary cruelty. Medical science would never have advanced to the extent it has without careful, regulated animal experimentation though maybe, with cosmetic testing for example, they could, with care, use localized skin application in people.”

At the time they won their first Nobel Prize, Doherty and his colleague Rolf Zinkernagel weren’t even aware they had been nominated.

“I was living in Memphis and my wife got the call at 4 a.m. She handed me the phone. I honestly thought someone had died back in Australia, but it was Nils Ringertz from the Nobel Committee. He told me I had five minutes to call the family before every reporter from Bogata to Sydney would be trying to reach me. I didn’t even have time to make it to the bathroom.”

Doherty remembers a moment when he was twelve and his other grandmother lay dying. A Fundamentalist Methodist minister stood beside her bed, reciting Psalm 23.

“It made me confront the reality of death.”

Although he drifted away from religion as an adult, he still derives comfort from the biblical verse that he sees as grounding us here on earth.

Other firsts in his life? “My first novel. It’s still in my desk drawer because it’s indescribably bad.”

Visiting with Emma Komlos-Hrobsky

by Jericho Parms

What inspired “Vishnu Floating on the Cosmic Ocean”?

You’ve asked this question about the right story! I don’t know that there’s anything else I’ve ever written that was sparked by a specific, identifiable incident or idea, but I do know that for this one—the story came from seeing the sculpture Vishnu Sleeping on the Cosmic Ocean at the Rubin Museum here in New York. I’d gone to the museum with a friend on a January night when I really should’ve been writing. I was closing in on my last semester of my MFA, and was feeling mumbly about the grayness of the season and about getting my work done, and there was something reassuring and quasi-magical about wandering around the warm pocket of the museum with the dark outside. The Vishnu sculpture and the story it told were a sort of perfect distillation of that same feeling. As I learned from the museum label, time is cyclical in the Hindu cosmogony, and in between cycles of time, Vishnu sleeps suspended outside of the workings of time and space, waiting for the world to blossom again from his navel. While he sleeps, Vishnu floats upon the cosmic ocean, safe and protected and at peace.

I loved the idea of being taken care of this way by the oceanic cosmos themselves, and when I got home from the museum, I started thinking about ideas of suspended time and the ocean, which lead to researching breath-holding and free-diving and, finally, the mammalian diving reflex. As soon as I stumbled upon that idea, I knew what I wanted to write. The first part of the story that I drafted was the recount of the mammalian diving reflex Dewey gets handed down from his dad—there was so much satisfaction just in trying to describe the sensations of being underwater and the body’s adaptations to this strange suspended state.

Also, under the influence of the New York winter, I’d been doing a lot of pining for California, my birth state. Writing and longing always seem to get bound up in each other for me, and so I was glad to have the chance to be writing about a place where I’d been imagining myself anyway. The story is set specifically in a place that I have only the foggiest but very best memories of from when I was quite small. My parents used to take me camping at the real Leo Carrillo, where there was (and is!) a magical little camp store, not to mention quail and ants to be combated with Blue Dutch cleanser.

The other secret element here: I dared myself to write a story with a dead parent. It struck me as a pretty worn-out trope, and hard to do in a way that didn’t feel too easy, so I decided to dive right at the idea to see what I could do.

Tell us about your writing process—either generally or specifically with regard to the birth and development of this story.

Oh, man. Would that I had something I could really call a process, a given routine I could turn to that helps to draw work out of me. Any time I’ve managed to get a piece of writing going that I don’t totally hate, I feel like I’ve made contact with some strange and unrepeatable magic, almost séance-style, that I’m afraid won’t want to commune with me again; I wish I had some routine that I knew would reliably get that voodoo working for me.

I do have writing habits, though. I almost always write at night, and I almost always listen to music unless I’m totally in the zone, at which point a sort of righteous puritanical zeal takes me over—“Thou shalt not sing along to ‘Old Man’! Thou shalt think nothing but writing thoughts!” I write especially to Neil Young, but for this story in particular, I was feeling California-y and listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. One of the great pleasures of writing for me is imagining myself into the particulars of some other space, so for this story I spent a lot of time walking up and down the Pacific Coast Highway via Google maps, not so much for logistical information as for inspiration. Also, in the story Dewey eats gummy bears, and I decided it was necessary to do some serious field research here while I wrote.

Raymond Carver said a writer should follow the command “No tricks.” Do you keep any quotes or reminders at your desk? Or in the back of your mind as you write?

One of the luckiest things of my life has been having a host of great writing teachers and mentors, and I feel like I carry advice from all of them around with me always. When I was working on this story, though, there were two particular ideas to which I kept returning. One came from poet Elizabeth Willis, a former professor of mine who I’d written to earlier that fall in a moment of crisis, and who’d told me to remember the “wild possibility” of writing, its boundless generative potential. It was terrifically grounding to read that advice—wasn’t the wild potential why I’d gotten into this gig in the first place? I remember sitting in the audience of the National Book Awards readings after getting her email and planning where I’d get “wild possibility” tattooed. (I’m horrifically afraid of needles and didn’t do it, but someday, man….) The other wisdom floating through my head as I worked on this came from Helen Schulman, my most wonderful teacher at The New School and this story’s first reader. Helen speaks always of finding a story’s “beating heart”—I felt like as long as I kept returning to that notion here, I’d find my and Dewey’s way through this one. Really, it’s pretty stellar advice for all of life.

What’s the best title you didn’t use? (Or, What’s your favorite title? Or both)?

Since the idea behind the title is where I began with this story, it’s the only one it ever had. (I did change the “sleeping” of the sculpture to “floating,” though—to my mind, it spoke more to the ideas of oceanic suspension.) But what’s my very most favorite title of any story, you ask? There’s one I’ve dreamed up that is not especially clever but that means a lot to me that’s going to stay a secret until I can find the right story for it. I will, though, take this opportunity to stake my claim on what I am convinced is the best possible name for a fictional baseball team: “The Roughs in the Diamond.” Boom. If someone has beaten me to this, please don’t tell me; I don’t want to know.

Visiting with Claire Burgess

by Jericho Parms

What inspired “Last Dog”?

Well, I went on a dead dog kick for a little while in my writing. Our family dog, a black lab named Pepper who we got when I was nine, was very old and on death’s door when I was writing “Last Dog.” She was almost blind and entirely deaf and had bad arthritis at this point, and it was tearing my mom up inside. There were some difficult things going on in my family at the time—illnesses of the physical and mental variety—which my mom was managing with strength and grace and a remarkable amount of composure, but when it came to our dog, she just broke down. I think she perhaps subconsciously tied up all the hard things she was dealing with in the dog; it became a tangible, visual representation of our family, as it had once been, ending. I, too, became mildly obsessed with dead or lost pets as cataclysmic events in my fiction for that year before Pepper died, and from that idea, this story emerged. This story was actually very important for me. The events that happen to Joel are very different from the ones that were occurring in my family at the time, but through the experience of writing the story, I was able, to a certain extent, to work through my own grappling with this reality that I had found myself in and never saw coming.

Also, a while before writing this, I had discovered fantasy taxidermy, which actually exists, and became totally fascinated with it. It seemed like a practice that was so full of symbolism and meaning, and I had always wanted to use it in a story. I tend to collect strange things in my writing notebook and use them for inspiration. Speaking of, somewhere in Britain, there’s a company that makes wallets and shoes and belts from HUMAN LEATHER. Yeah, I said human leather. I haven’t figured out how to use that in a story yet, but I want to. Don’t steal it.

Tell us about your writing process—either generally or specifically with regard to the birth and development of this story.

I don’t really have a process. I try to have a process, but it doesn’t work very well. When I try to have a process, it goes like this:

  1. Make coffee.
  2. Open Word document containing story-in-progress.
  3. Read daily blogs, check own blog, check email, check Facebook.
  4. Return to Word doc, type a few sentences, delete a few sentences.
  5. Stare at wall.
  6. Read favorite online lit mags to force creative part of brain into action.
  7. Call Mom to see how she’s doing.
  8. Check email, check Facebook.
  9. Stare at Word doc with empty feeling of failure, force out a paragraph or two.
  10. Stare at wall.
  11. Want to check email, DO NOT CHECK EMAIL.
  12. Re-read entire draft so far, disdain new paragraphs, delete them.
  13. Regret deleting new paragraphs.
  14. Give up and watch Hulu.

So that’s all by way of saying that I’m trying to establish a daily writing regimen, but obviously it needs some work. I have almost never been able to write a story by trying to force myself to write a story. Sometimes, if I sit down and start making myself write, something will click and I’ll get something good going. But mostly, the mysterious event we like to call “inspiration” will hit me at unexpected times, often while reading (which is why I read when everything else is failing), and then I’ll write like a madwoman for hours—literally like a madwoman, crouching like a gargoyle in my chair, bouncing up and down, exclaiming things to the air that make no sense to anyone in earshot, pacing around, standing on the furniture, forgoing meals and sleep and personal hygiene—until I have a first draft written. That’s how I wrote the first draft of “Last Dog,” and then the later drafts and editing happened during my painstaking aforementioned process. I don’t know why my best writing happens like that, but it can be very inconvenient. It’s like, Oh, you’re at work? TOO BAD YOU ARE INSPIRED IGNORE IT AT YOUR PERIL. So I’m trying to figure out something so I can produce writing more regularly instead of just waiting around for it. And, you know, so I can hold down a job.

Name your favorite living writer and tell us why.

Aimee Bender. She’s brilliant and so creative and unfettered by the traditional boundaries of what a short story “should” be. Her writing is often weird, usually unexpected, and always saturated with such empathy for the beautiful, ungainly, cruel, messy humanity of her characters. She writes characters like a boy who has keys for fingers, a man with a prosthetic hunchback, or a woman who plants potatoes that turn out to be living potato-babies that she keeps trying to kill but they keep coming back. And somehow, by writing these skewed and fantastic worlds, she pulls the skin back on our reality and shows us the muscles and bones, says, Look, This Is What We’re Made Of. Her work reminds me of touching the exposed nerves in a friction burn. It’s just buzzing with feeling.

I read her collection Willful Creatures for the first time at a pivotal point in my writing life, right after I entered my MFA program and really started figuring this writing stuff out, and it opened up my eyes in a way that the more realist authors I’d been reading hadn’t. Aimee Bender made me realize for the first time that the boundaries of fiction, well, that they don’t exist. I had been trying to force my stories into the established model of the stories I had been taught in school, instead of following my own intuition and exploring whatever weird or unexpected or risky direction the story wanted to take me. Bender taught me that you can do absolutely anything in a story, as long as you make it work. And that’s such a freeing and glorious thing, isn’t it?

I also had the pleasure of interviewing her for the literary journal we started at Vanderbilt, Nashville Review, and she is one of the sweetest and most genuine people I’ve ever met. I may or may not have an altar to her in my closet.

What’s the hardest thing to get right in a short story?

Well, beginnings and endings, obviously. The stuff in the middle is easy(er), but finding the right way to begin a story and the right way to end it—that’s where the pressure is. I often find myself writing my way into a story for two pages or more before the story really begins, and then I have to go back and dig the beginning out and cut away the excess. I find endings a little easier than beginnings. By the time I get to the end, I usually know how it’s supposed to happen. Sometimes I fiddle around with it too much trying to make it perfect—for instance, “Last Dog” went through three or four other endings before I finally landed on this one, which was the second one. But beginnings, that’s where you set the tone, the pacing, the characters, the expectations. That’s where you hook your reader or lose them forever. No pressure.


More Author Visits

More Fiction

Visiting with Chris Featherman

by Jericho Parms

Chris Featherman author photo

What inspired “Blacksmith” and “These Gifts”?

Both “These Gifts” and “Blacksmith” I wrote several years ago while living in Spain. I wrote the first drafts of “These Gifts” in response to witnessing, and then participating in, the anti-war demonstrations in Barcelona just prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The protests were massive, potent manifestations of the outrage many Spanish felt over their country’s participation, as a coalition member, in the imminent attacks. But it was the nightly caceroladas—people leaning out their apartment windows and banging pots and pans in protest—that impressed me most. Compared with the blurred scenes of thousands of demonstrators massed in plazas and marching down broad avenues, the clarity of individuals, leaning from their homes out over the streets, isolated by window frames but connected by this cacophonous yet harmonious sound echoing through the city, felt very personal, and thus, more powerful to me. This is why the letter form, with its intimacy and direct address, seemed right for the poem. This form also helped me temper the overtly political content of earlier drafts. As the poem took shape, the focus shifted away from the events of those specific days to a more personal, individual attempt at understanding something that reached beyond a specific moment. In that sense, my love for Miguel Hernández’s poem “Lullaby of the Onion”—and all his work, really—inspired and influenced me, too, although I wasn’t consciously thinking of that poem while I was writing. It was only something I noticed later, when I came back to the poem after years, thinking about the connection to the friend I addressed in the original letter and how nearly a decade had passed since the start of that war.

As with “These Gifts,” it was by coming upon a particular form that I found my way into “Blacksmith.” While living for a few months in Granada and traveling around Andalucia, I had a strong sense of wanting to write about family as something both sacred and secular. I’m not sure why, and that feeling and its connection to those arid southern landscapes was very abstract. But then I came upon García Lorca’s poem “Romance de la luna, luna” and its beautiful opening line, “The moon came into the forge,” and the image of a blacksmith came to me. It wasn’t one of a sinewy, mythological figure with his hammer raised above the flames. Rather, it was of someone more fragile and conflicted—a worker, a dreamer. The image in Lorca’s poem of light invading darkness also carried, for me, a feeling of coolness and mystery pervading a place of intense heat, which reminded me how we sometimes find succor and understanding in unexpected places. I felt the dramatic monologue form helped me express and convey this strangeness in the image and voice of the blacksmith, a character both alien and familiar to me. Traveling and living outside my culture has often felt like a masked experience, so that connection to the dramatic monologue form seemed right, too.

Tell us about your writing process—either generally or specifically with regard to the birth and development of these two poems.

Both these poems took a while to write and sat around in various and sometimes vastly different forms for years. This isn’t always the case with my writing, but it is more common, I suppose, when I am thinking about otherness and elsewhere.

What books have had the most impact on your writing?

Philip Levine, in some of his earlier books, such as The Names of the Lost and Seven Years from Somewhere, wrote about his experiences in Spain, too. Those books had a strong impact on me when I first started writing, and I still love them today. And it was through Levine that I started to learn about wonderful Spanish poets like Miguel Hernández and Antonio Machado, as well as Lorca, whose work has had probably an even bigger impact on my writing. What that impact has been, I’m not entirely sure. As in the development of these two poems, the push and pull, the changes and convergences, happen on their own. I just try to respect the process, to listen to it, and hope what emerges, in words, connects me to others in a meaningful way.

Visiting with Ellen LaFleche

by Claire Guyton

What inspired your poem “Mirror, Mirror”?

There is a wonderful story behind the inspiration for that poem. A few summers ago, I took my family to a minor league baseball game so we could see the future stars of our favorite team. And after the umpire told the teams to “play ball,” a group of nuns came trotting out of the dugout! True story. The Mother Superior walked to the mound and threw out the ceremonial first pitch. It was a wonderful moment—a crowd hushed in reverence, the elderly nun winding up, her long robes whipping in the wind, the catcher kneeling to receive the ball. It was a deeply meaningful and very metaphorical moment for me. I spent the rest of the afternoon thinking about the possible connections between sports and spirituality. The result was a poem about a fictional nun named Sister Beatrice who throws out the first pitch on Opening Day. This poem was published in the literary journal Harpur Palate and later become the first poem in my chapbook, Workers’ Rites. I just fell in poetic love with this fictional nun, and began to write more and more poems about her. I tried to explore Beatrice’s internal life, as well as the tensions involved when a semi-cloistered nun interacts with the community at large. She gets called to jury duty, for example, and has to reconcile her contemplative life with the horror experienced by the victim. “Mirror, Mirror” was perhaps the tenth poem I wrote about Sister Beatrice.

Tell us about your writing process—either generally or specifically with regard to the birth and development of this poem.

My writing process involves a lot of time away from the keyboard. After finishing a poem, I take some time to reflect, to cultivate new ideas and images. This reflection time might be as short as a day or two, or may extend into several weeks or more. I might take long walks, jot down some images in a notebook, read books about history or science, or discuss an idea with friends. I never know where an idea might come from, so it’s my job to remain open to the process at all times. I remember driving with my family to the minor league game, and promising myself that this day at the ballpark was going to be a mini-vacation from writing. But as soon as the Mother Superior came out of the dugout, my mind clicked into writing mode.

Once I have an image or two in mind, I sit down to write. I love the revision process and savor the way the poem evolves over time. Another part of my process is trying to write a series of poems around a particular theme. This helps me to explore a topic in depth, and seems to keep the ideas flowing, as one poem builds on another.

Name your favorite living writer and tell us why.

I read a lot of fiction and poetry. Some of my favorite novelists are Louise Erdrich, Ursula Heigi, and Toni Morrison. I love all of these writers for their focus on diversity, their powers of description, their amazing plot lines, and strong character development. My friend Sally Bellerose just published an amazing novel, The Girls Club. One of my favorite living poets is Sharon Olds, for her honesty and powerful imagery. I love how she writes about being a wife and mother. Her poems about tending to her dying father remain vivid in my mind years after reading them.

What’s the hardest thing to get right in a poem?

Getting those first few words on the screen can feel very hard sometimes. A major issue for me is anxiety. During my reflection times, when I work out ideas and themes, I sometimes feel very anxious that the next idea might never come. I would say that the hardest thing is dealing with this anxiety and recognizing that the down-time is itself a necessary part of my writing process.

Visiting with Robin Black

by Claire Guyton

What’s your best “This is how I got that idea” anecdote?

In my collection If I Loved You I Would Tell You This, there’s a long story called “The History of the World,” which is about sixty-five-year-old twins on a celebratory (sort of celebratory) holiday in Italy. He has significant trouble with word retrieval, so his speech is very stilted; and a great deal of their dynamic is defined by the fact that she often knows what he wants to say before he can think of the word. Now, I have a daughter with an expressive language disability and though she’s much, much more fluent now, when she was very small she often couldn’t come up with the most ordinary words. Like milk. Or car. And so, as her mother, I found myself having to be both in her head and in my own all the time, constantly making decisions about when to supply the word, when to “let” her find it herself—and, because she needed the practice, when to make her find it herself. Having two older children, I became fascinated with how different this relationship was, how peculiarly intimate and also in many ways how necessarily intrusive. And really, just complex as hell. I wanted to write about that, but I didn’t want to write about a mother/daughter or even parent/child. So I made my characters twins, which seemed to me like a similarly very, very intimate connection.

To me, what’s useful about that anecdote—or story—is that it illustrates the concept of how to write what you know without revealing how you know it, which I think can be an important one for fiction writers.

Tell us about your usual writing process.

My writing process is pretty scattershot, when it comes to things like timing and schedules. I don’t really have either. I’m very much someone who writes when the writing comes and doesn’t write when it doesn’t, not at all a write-a-certain-amount-daily sort. I just assume that somewhere in my brain I am working on the material and it isn’t ready for the keyboard yet. As for what is actually on the page, the best way to describe it I guess is trial and error. I am very loose with what I’m writing while it’s in process, so I’ll let myself drift off in unlikely directions for pages and pages if I think there’s a chance something good may result. And then I’m ruthless about chucking those pages if nothing did. I also re-read my own work a lot as I go along, really for psychological insight (for want of a better phrase). Much as I might do with a student’s or a colleague’s early draft, I am always trying to see what story is underlying the one I think I am telling. Like dream analysis. And then there’s craft. I play around with point of view, tense, different structures, and so on, endlessly. In other words, my process is messy, inefficient, and not recommended if you can find another way to go.

Raymond Carver said a writer should follow the command “No tricks.” Do you keep any quotes or reminders at your desk? Or just in the back of your mind as you write?

Only my own credo, which I tell my students to tape somewhere they can see it while they work: No one ever has to read a word that I write. Self-consciousness is the great enemy of creativity.

If you were to write a book on the craft of writing, what title would you use?

I would actually very much like to write such a book one day, so I think about this from time to time. (Or maybe the correct verb there is “fantasize.”) Any such book would inevitably synthesize craft with my experiences of becoming a writer in my middle years—in other words, it would be a craft-memoir weave. (Far more so than the essay I have in Hunger Mountain now.) I just wrote a blog post for Beyond the Margins about writers’ block that has the phrase “The Persistence of Demons” in the title and I was thinking hmmmmmm…. But I’m not a title genius. In my ideal world, there would be a title shop much like the wand shop in the Harry Potter books. When you were done with your book, or story, or essay, you would bring it there and they would title it for you.


Robin’s Craft Essay….…..Robin’s Fiction

More Author Visits

Visiting with Sheldon Bellegarde

by Paul Daniel Ash

What inspired your story “Night of the Spiders”?

I suppose I took a whole bunch of nasty details I remember from my parents’ long-ago-legalized sloppy divorce, and I tried to shape a narrative out of them. And, since working on stories elevates my mood better than drugs (…not that I’ve tried drugs), I could say I’m turning crappy details into joy. I mean, it’s no catharsis—I was pretty well past those miseries by the time I fumbled through this story. The details just make the story feel more realistic, I hope; though, actually, the very first time I wrote it (of many) I included so many truths that the story felt melodramatic and too dangly of thread. Realistic doesn’t always (or even often, when I’m writing it) make good story. I guess the lesson here is don’t be too honest when I’m writing fiction. Because a story, unlike a divorce, actually makes sense. But, I mean, I’m pretty well past those miseries. Yeah.

Tell us about your writing process—either generally or specifically with regard to the birth and development of this piece.

My writing process is based on routine more than inspiration, I think. I bash the keyboard at a set time every available day until something decent emerges. Which doesn’t happen regularly—maybe I need a new process. But, yeah, “Spiders” was a story of divorce and clichés—I had witnessed a divorce and I had a book of clichés, and I sat down with the book at writing time on a writing day and picked out clichés and tried to write a divorce narrative that bounced from one cliché to the next—without creating a hackneyed story of divorce. Because it’s so easy to hackney, at this point, isn’t it? Divorce is not remarkable anymore. Everyone’s doing it. I guess that’s why a book of clichés seemed to fit with that story I wanted to tell. But I lucked out, I think—whenever a story works, it feels like luck. I wonder if that’s true for wildly successful authors, as well. I just write and write in fits, and sometimes the stuff I fit together fits together well. Arguably, though, this story works despite the stuff I put together, because a lot of the clichés are gone, and they m

ight be the least interesting part of the narrative. Spiders became a lot more prominent, in the end. Spiders are also cliché, but they’re eight skittery legs’ worth of cliché. That’s automatically cooler.

Do you remember when you decided you wanted to be a writer?

I told myself I wanted to be a writer before I actually meant it. In high school, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to do for a living any of the stuff I was being taught. But I enjoyed reading things I chose to read (as opposed to most of the assigned things), and I liked making up stories about how great life could be if…well, if the stories I made up were real. So, I thought, I should totally be a writer. Problem is, I never wrote anything. Eventually, I started writing down the stories I was making up, and you know what I found out? Writing is really hard, that’s what I found out. Stories have to hook at the beginning, head somewhere smart and interesting, and end with an inevitable surprise; they can’t all have superheroes sweeping in and saving the day and introducing me to pretty girls and beating up my enemies; they should probably at least sound honest and take the real world and human nature into account. Lots of rules, actually, that I had to follow before I could break them. I probably should have given up a long time ago—it is definitely the most difficult, failure-laden part of my life. But I can’t seem to stop. What’s wrong with me?

What’s the best title you didn’t use? (Or, What’s your favorite title? Or both.)

Titles for this story included “Spiders and Apples,” “Spiders under Apples,” “Vote with Your Feet,” “Kramer Vs Kramer”—wait, no. Anyway, they were all bad. The one I picked is okay. I am terrible at titles and seldom get them right. The only ones I feel I get right are for stories that are so flawed they’re unpublishable, like “Way To Save Humanity, Bro” and “Thanksgiving as Good as You Get.” My favorite title for an unpublishable story is “Tattoo of an Unfinished Heart.” Though I don’t like to spread that around, because it sounds super-ultra-hyper-sentimentalized—the story itself was all cheese. And had super(ultra-hyper-sentimentalized)heroes. And pretty girls. And I wrote it without once thinking I might have to try to sell it anywhere, which was wonderful. Which has kept me sane more than once. That title and that story are all mine. Don’t tell anyone, okay?


Visiting with Elizabeth Gonzalez

by Jodi Paloni

What inspired your prize-winning short story “The Speed of Sound” ?

I come from a family of talkers, and family stories played a big part in “The Speed of Sound.” I have an uncle who flew F-89s out of Thule in the 1950s, and he kindly shared his experiences with me. I also have a cousin, who, like the character James, says nothing about his service; I had to piece his story together in other ways. But those stories only became my story because of a meteorite that I saw once during a visit to a local museum with my daughters. It was that bit of ash in a box, so carefully labeled with the precise date and location and time of its contact with the earth, that connected everything else for me.

Tell us about your writing process—either generally or specifically with regard to the birth and development of this piece.

My stories accrete over ridiculously long periods of time, usually around some event or object, like the meteorite, that astonishes me.

Do you remember the first short story you wrote? What was it about?

Unfortunately, yes. I was assigned to write a story in grade school based on a photo of a black man wearing goggles spattered with what looked to me like mud. I imagined he was a World War II pilot who pulled off some heroic feat only to be rejected by his unit because of his race. My teacher later told me that he was supposed to be a house painter. At the time, I thought that was a bit of a dirty trick.

Is there a “writing rule” you never break? One you love to break?

Once I waitressed in a hotel with an old head chef named Jimmy. One night I was sawing on a lemon with a cheap paring knife when Jimmy came over, took the lemon, and laid into it with his chef’s knife. While he riffled up the lemon like a deck of playing cards, Jimmy explained to me that you are more likely to cut yourself with a dull knife than a sharp one. What I took away from this, aside from a conviction never to mess with Jimmy, was that insecurity, and dull knives, hurt people.

In my experience, writing “rules” are dull knives. Whenever a writer pulls one out, whether while writing or critiquing, something bad is about to happen.

Visiting with Donald Quist

by Jodi Paloni

What inspired your story “The Ghosts of Takahiro Ōkyo”?

“The Ghosts of Takahiro Ōkyo” came out of nowhere, and everywhere.  I think of it as an attempt by my brain to pull together and make sense of a bunch of disassociated ideas I had at the time. I didn’t set out to write a story about Japan, not initially. I am fascinated by quantum mechanics and was reading about special relativity—time dilation, length contraction, and relativity of simultaneity, concepts that challenge the idea of time being equal for all observers. I also had a quote by Jorge Luis Borges stuck in my head, “Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.” Then one day my friend and illustrator, Erin Record, told me about this haunted forest in Japan where people go to kill themselves; the second-most popular suicide location in the world behind the Golden Gate Bridge. There was also this idea floating around about reincarnation not having to be linear. All of that somehow culminated in a story.


Tell us about your writing process—either generally or specifically with regard to the birth and development of this piece.

I only write two ways. It pours out or it trickles. Perhaps that’s true of everyone. I find I’m either finishing a story in a day—generally, these are pieces of flash fiction—or I’m toiling over it for months. In the case of “The Ghosts of Takahiro Ōkyo,” it was months. Though I’m a fan of Japanese culture, the farthest I’ve been in Japan is the Narita airport. Since many of my stories are written about people with backgrounds very different from my own, in places I have never been, I like to do a lot of research, a few weeks’ worth. I spend a lot of time in libraries, on Google, on databases, in folklore. Usually, thoughts come to me throughout the research process. I scribble them down on whatever I can find, in my journal, on cardboard boxes, on napkins, or even on my hand. Eventually, these scraps turn into a story. I never write linearly; that is not to say my narratives never follow a standard chronological order, but I tend to write out of sequence. Usually endings come first, and then I skip around, writing what part comes to me the strongest that day. 

Raymond Carver said a writer should follow the command “No tricks.” Do you keep any quotes or reminders at your desk? Or just in the back of your mind as you write?

I keep several quotes jotted down around me for inspiration. I have a desk but I can never write at it unless I have a deadline—often setting a deadline is the only way to focus and narrow my ideas. One quote that I always keep in the back of my mind when I write is by Kafka. He said, “Perhaps there is another kind of writing. I only know this one: in the night, when fear does not let me sleep.” That sums up the writing life, for me anyway. Another quote I carry with me, which is just as poignant, but far less literary, comes from Michael Scott on The Office: “A blank piece of paper represents limitless possibilities.” So true, Mr. Scott. So true.

If you were to write a book on the craft of writing, what title would you use?

What, Me Worry? : Poetic Syntax in Fiction. Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Red Pen: A Style Guide.


Another Visit with Deborah Vlock

by Claire Guyton

Editor’s note: Deborah was kind enough to visit with us last fall, when we published her short story Dialogue. For this return visit, in honor of her new Dentist of the Wild West, we decided to go a little further afield than usual. Enjoy!

In Fiction, do you think it’s harder to make someone laugh or cry? Why?

For me, it’s probably harder to make someone laugh – I’m not, alas, a very funny person. Although I’ve lately been writing darkly humorous stories, my typical mode is fairly serious, even heavy. At heart I’m a pretty emotional person, and I like to evoke emotions – including levity, but also anxiety, sadness, bittersweet pleasure – in my readers. Having said that, making a reader laugh or cry can each be tricky in its own way. Humor falls flat if the timing is not right, and pathos can easily lapse into sentimentality. In the end, nothing is better than reading a novel or story that makes you laugh AND cry… and these responses are a sign that the author has mastered his or her craft.

Is a short story more like a pie or a layer cake? What’s a novel?

Oh, a short story is definitely a 2-crust pie: crimped around the edges, the sweet stuff contained inside a beginning and an end that are only a few inches apart. Of course, some stories, my own included, are rather open-ended. Those might be more like the latticed pies my grandmother used to make, not fully encased.

I guess that means a novel would be like a layer cake – or better, a tiered wedding cake, with a foundation (concept) supporting multiple  layers of cake – each of which contains elements of plot, character, setting, etc. 

Who or what is your favorite literary character and why? Now you are this character’s fairy godmother at birth and you can arrange this character’s ideal or most appropriate life. What life do you arrange?

That’s easy. My favorite character has got to be Lucy Snowe, narrator of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette. I love that she feels deeply, even while casting herself as mistress of repression. And I love her (and Bronte’s, of course) extraordinary feminism at a time when women were disenfranchised and, if married, legally prohibited from owning property (they were property). Lucy loves passionately, but she also desires an independent life. In the novel, she cannot have both marriage and professional/financial independence. If I were Lucy’s fairy godmother I would give her what I’m sure most readers wish she had: a happy marriage with M. Paul and a successful career as headmistress of her own school.

Of all the books you’ve read, what title goes best with (a) a gourmet dinner, (b) an ice cream cone, (c) a chocolate bar, (d) a peanut butter sandwich, (e) a fruit salad.

O.K., here goes. (a) Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, because it is elegant, complex, and satisfying. (b) Anything by P.G. Wodehouse with Bertie Wooster in it, because he’s sweet and drippy. (c) Darin Strauss’s memoir Half a Life, which, like my favorite chocolate, is bittersweet and ultimately consoling. (d) Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love. For me, it started out delicious but was sticky in the middle. (e) White Teeth by Zadie Smith, because it’s all about the mixing of flavors and textures.

 

Visiting with Heather Sharfeddin

by Claire Guyton

What’s your best “that’s how I got that novel idea” anecdote?

I often go to the cemetery to think (not any one in particular, just whatever is convenient). A cemetery is a place where you can curse, talk aloud or cry, and no one asks if you need help. Once, while I was mulling the deeper side of life on a rural hillside, a pirate showed up. He was in his mid-forties, tall, with long black hair pulled into a ponytail. He wore long leather boots, turned down at the knee, a brocade vest over a white linen shirt, and a three-point hat. He strolled around, examining headstones for about thirty minutes, ignoring me, just like I was ignoring him. Then he disappeared. I’ve been working on a novel set in a cemetery ever since.

Tell us about your writing process.

My writing process is very simple. I never outline or bounce around. Every time I sit down to write I start by going back, either to the beginning or to the start of the section (based on the three-act structure) and I edit. When I reach the end, I write the next chapter. I repeat that process until I have a completed work, revising for new story elements as I go. Consequently, my earlier pages are far more refined than my latter pages, and I have to force myself to revise with the same attention to detail after the story is finished as I did when I was still writing it.

What books have had the most impact on your writing?

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck; This House of Sky, by Ivan Doig; All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy; Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson; The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien.

What does your writing space look like?

My writing space is a waiting room, an airport, a hotel room, my living room, my patio, a coffee shop…. I don’t have a desk, and I don’t have a dedicated space for writing. I write when I have opportunity, no matter where I am. Learning to tune in to my work and tune out the world is the single best skill I ever learned.


In Damaged Goods, Sharfeddin introduces us to Hershel Swift, a successful auctioneer living amidst the forests and hazelnut farms of small-town Oregon. A car accident leaves him a broken man—confused, angry, and unable to do the one thing he’s always been expert at—looking at anything and instantly determining its value. His past is suddenly blank to him, and the only evidence he has of the man he once was is in the accusing eyes of the people he’s hurt. This is when Silvie comes into his life, fleeing from a man who made her ashamed of her own past and desperate to escape it. She seeks Hershel out as shelter in a storm, and Hershel finds in Silvie a shot at redemption. He can’t remember who he was, but she can help guide him to what he can become.

“Sharfeddin brings a finely detailed sense of place to a gritty story…. vividly evokes the rural Oregon setting.” American Library Association

“Sharfeddin skillfully depicts both the rugged Willamette Valley landscape and the hard-luck people who inhabit it… [Sharfeddin’s] nuanced characters and clear-eyed detail, make for a satisfying thriller.” Publishers Weekly


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For more essays on craft, click here.

Visiting with Mayumi Shimose Poe

by Claire Guyton

What inspired “Death by Pufferfish”?

The strange shapes of inspiration: doodling toward a revision of “Death by Pufferfish.”

Boredom, a restaurant review, and San Francisco airport. In spring 2008, my husband Dave and I had a really early morning flight out of SFO. At the time, he worked at the airport as a Flight Operations Officer for JAL. He worked the night before we left, so I tagged along with him so we could go straight from the office to the gate. All I had with me was a single issue of The New Yorker, and I think there were ten-plus hours till our flight. So I read the issue (including a review of a new restaurant that served fugu), napped on a very uncomfortable couch, and then basically started snooping around the office. At some point, delirium kicked in and it surprisingly felt a lot like inspiration. Kazuo is a composite of my husband’s coworkers. Masayoshi came out of a kind of … “face book” of pilots. I found a bomb-threat checklist. I watched the NOTAMS shoot out from the dot-matrix printer. And I began to trail Dave around, asking increasingly more targeted and probably annoying questions.

I guess the short answer to this question would be: my husband’s patience and goodwill? It is really amazing how much you can learn about your partner by following him to work, shadowing every minute detail of his day. It can instill a newfound appreciation for him. Other people’s jobs are so weird and fascinating! I really can’t recommend enough a “Take Your Writer to Work Day.”

Tell us about your writing process—either generally or specifically with regard to the birth and development of this story.*

A chart of themes.

Reading widely. Being with people—and, importantly, being without them. Editing anthropology. Listening to all kinds of music. Eavesdropping. Angsting. Obsessing. Over-thinking. Feeling so much, all the time. Idly comparing themes that reoccur in my stories, making family trees and timelines and other strange charts like the word cloud below. Showering when I get blocked. (Not sure why this works, but it never fails—if I had a waterproof laptop, I’d be scarily prolific.) Watching lots of terrible television (especially marathons of grisly crime-scene investigations), surfing the Internet, and playing strategically placed stretches of “Bejeweled.” Research show that your brain muscle flexes better if you make it do diverse tasks. Like how doing interval training for twenty minutes can be more productive than jogging at a comfy pace for thirty. I read both of these things somewhere, I’m sure. Or maybe I’m writing fiction right now.

I made this word cloud for “Death by Pufferfish” using Wordle.**

Ok, but seriously… part of my process is just absorbing and tucking it all away, whether literally or figuratively: I have a notebook and pen on my person at all times—I’m on my 105th notebook right now—and often I keep a physical file of news clippings, quotes, photographs, articles, essays, and so on that contribute to a story so I can revisit details without having to re-research. (Which is also known as “procrastination.”) I also save lots of things that normal people probably don’t—every story/essay/poem that moved me EVER, found objects, poignant Chinese cookie fortunes, all correspondence—because I don’t trust memory and Google is no magic ball. You can’t look into the Internet and find the answer for every specific question, like “What was that essay about the Serbian girl and the Croatian boy, or maybe it was vice versa?, anyway they were dating in the post-Yugoslavia world, and it was published sometime between 2001 and 2010, maybe in The Sun or Utne Reader or The New Yorker, readysetgoAMEN, you know? (Which describes an actual search I once wasted hours on. The result, finally, was “Across the River,” by Nikolina Kulidžan, The Sun, issue 417, Sept. 2010, and it really is a fantastic essay.) So basically I save way too much shit and print out everything, tree killer that I am. In ten or so years, we’re going to have a hoarding situation on our hands.

The actual writing goes like this: Begin with a prompt, sentence, image, or idea. Then let all that aforementioned hoarded stuff inform that beginning, in a collage-like manner. My first drafts are complete nonsense. To write “Death by Pufferfish,” I did twenty-one drafts. Some had subplots about an actual terrorist, no Grandpa Masa, Kazuo’s father Tadao figuring in more, and an entire scene set in a strip bar (which I was quite sad to leave on the cutting-room floor). Reviewing the drafts is like flipping through consecutive photographs of an event—you watch me, in slow motion, trying to figure out what the F! is going on. The tricky part, of course, is knowing when you’re done drafting, and cutting, and adding out of impulse and desperation at the eleventh hour before your revision deadline. (For example, I tried to add the graphic you see at the beginning of this interview to “Death by Pufferfish,” but luckily Hunger Mountain fiction editor Barry Wightman saved me from myself.)

Raymond Carver said a writer should follow the command “No tricks.” Do you keep any quotes or reminders at your desk? Or just in the back of your mind as you write?

I was lucky enough to study with Philip Graham while pursuing my MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Having run out of polished stories to revise, I was embarking on new ones and it felt… awful. I confided to Phil that I didn’t think I knew how to write stories at all. The gist of his response was: well, GOOD. Me neither. If at some point you think you know how to write one, then you should worry. (And then he let loose his trademark cackle.) I pair that with Samuel Beckett’s “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Those two always comfort me.

If you were to write a book on the craft of writing, what title would you use?

Oooh! Good question. Maybe I’d go with Good Morning, Strange World—as reads the painting directly in my path of vision in the coffee shop where I am this afternoon. That title implies the process of writing, of anthropology—writing as a study of humankind, making the familiar strange and the strange familiar. For fiction writers, being an outsider trying to sound like an insider.

My other go-to title: You Don’t Know How To Write Short Stories? Well, GOOD. Me Neither.


*Read more about the work that went into Mayumi’s story at her blog.
**Try Wordle to generate word clouds for your stories, essays, poems.

Visiting with Natalie Serber

by Claire Guyton

What inspired your story “Shout Her Lovely Name”?

Fear. All that can go wrong and how to make sense of it.

All writers have favorite words we have to guard against over-using. What are yours?

Any words to do with dental hygiene. I don’t know why, but it seems dental care is my default mode. When I don’t know what a character will do next, I give her a toothbrush. I’ve come to recognize toothbrush, toothpaste, and dental floss as my miner’s canary—they are words that indicate I’ve momentarily lost my way. Perhaps they are my writerly equivalent to twiddling my thumbs until I find my way again.

Tell us about your writing process—either generally or specifically with regard to the birth and development of this story.

I start each writing session by re-reading and revising recent pages, then moving forward into new work. It is the equivalent (oops, maybe ‘equivalent’ is my overused word?) of wading into a lake until the bottom drops away. I’ve been working on a novel which is told from multiple points of view, and that has been a gift because it feels like I have several projects going on at once, several voices. Periodically I take a vacation from it. Recently I took a month off and wrote a long story about a woman and her therapist called “Developmental Blah, Blah” and that was a lark. “Shout Her Lovely Name” was also written as a novel vacation. The diversions refresh me and I return to the longer project invigorated. For me, revision is the fun part. Once I have a draft, as I now do with the novel, the continued act of discovery is a pleasure, like getting to know a good friend better.

What does your writing space look like?

I write at a college library. I like the quiet, the people working and sleeping around me, the respectful whispering—as if we all are engaged in important work.

 

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