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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

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.

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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.

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.

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 Art of Interviewing

Josh Dudley

 

I’ve had the good fortune to interview several podcast hosts for the New York Observer, most recently James Urbaniak. I’ve also talked to Russ Haven, legislative counsel for The New York Public Interest Research group and a very independent film director. The first interview I had was with Scott Bateman, the film director. Now, even though I was friends with the guy, I was scared, nervous, and intimidated. In my head, I thought I was trying to bridge a divide that I had no business going near.

After conducting several interviews, I realized that having the interest, the opportunity, and the desire to put the work into perfecting interviewing skills means I do belong in the same level as Bateman. I think Bert Cooper’s  quote from Mad Men is particularly relatable: “The Japanese have a saying: a man is whatever room he is in, and right now Donald Draper is in this room.” If given the opportunity and time to prepare, you can successfully interview anyone.

HOW DO I DECIDE WHO TO INTERVIEW?

The best interviews come out of passion for the interviewee and their craft. You are providing a conduit for them to expand or reach their fan base, and the best way to do that is to be a fan yourself. You don’t necessarily have to agree with them on everything, but if it’s a major issue that hinders you from appreciating them, put it aside and try to examine it in context with everything else they’ve produced. If you still can’t get behind it, or at least compartmentalize it, then you may need to accept that you are not the right person to conduct the interview.

HOW DO YOU STOP YOURSELF FROM BEING SO NERVOUS BEFORE AN INTERVIEW?

Immerse yourself in your interview subject’s world. Watch, read, or listen to what they have created until you understand their point of view. If you don’t understand where they are coming from, your questions may come off as ill-informed, wrongheaded, or even combative.

Take copious notes on everything until key themes emerge. Even if you’re interviewing people who have a wide range of interests, if you really study them, you will notice patterns and themes that repeat themselves. It’s from those themes that you will develop inferences, and from those inferences that your best questions will come.

When you have a good understanding of the subject and several questions to ask, keep researching their work right up until the interview. You never know what new insights you might glean. The more comfortable you feel about their material, the more comfortable you will feel around them.

You need to be comfortable to make them feel comfortable talking to you. If your interview is over the phone, be prepared to be in your room or a quiet workspace for as long as you think the interview will last. You don’t want to be interrupted or distracted. Give yourself a glass of water, but no food, and be ready to put yourself in their headspace.

WHAT DO I DO DURING THE INTERVIEW?

Treat your guest like a friend by asking first about their wellbeing and what they’ve been doing this week. Don’t rush right into your questions. You don’t want to sound forced and/or canned. In addition to ingratiating yourself, it can also serve as an excellent segue, as their answers might very well be relevant to your interview questions.

Keep an eye on verbal or visual cues that they give you, as this may give you an idea for a follow-up about their response. Do your best to make your questions short and efficient. Your guest’s time is valuable, and you need to treat it like gold.

Hopefully, your new friend is passionate and connected to what you are asking them about, in which case the natural course of the conversation may flow out of that. Keep your questions and notes handy during the interview. Think of them as guidepost markers to keep you on the trail should you wander too far off.

WHAT TO DO AFTER THE INTERVIEW IS OVER

Thank them again for their time by text or email, and try to give them an idea, if you have one, of when the interview will be published. If your talk lasted for an hour, and you have it recorded and transcribed, then you may be looking at several thousand words more than you want in the final product. You will need to do some severe cutting.

What you are now creating, in effect, is a commentary of what you believe happened. You want this commentary to be the most interesting and informative version of the event as possible.

Your original notes and questions had a theme, and you will soon discover that the answers you received have one as well. When choosing what to reduce or eliminate, look for things that are farthest from that theme as well as obvious redundancies. It’s your job to put the interviewee in the best light possible, so use care. You don’t want lack of time to be the reason for cutting an entire paragraph.

When you’re finished, give them a heads up, and consider sending them a copy in advance to avoid embarrassing revisions or retractions after your story is published.

Congratulations! You’ve told the world about someone, and their work, that you find interesting. Hopefully, you’ve also made a valuable new friend.

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.

 

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.

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.

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.


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