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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!

In Conversation with Trinie Dalton: Traveling Geographically and Creatively

by Sarah Leamy

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

photo by Blake Z. Rong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Writing the 30th Gate

Caitlyn Renee Miller

This past summer my husband, Derek, and I spent seven weeks in Mexico, where he took immersive Spanish classes, and I holed up in our rented apartment finalizing some contracted writing projects. I also spent my days trying to learn to prepare food at regular intervals and attempting to convince myself I have the discipline to complete my own writing projects.[i] This probably comes as a surprise to no one. My friends, family, coworkers, dentist, and that lady at the mall kiosk are all equally familiar with my tenuous commitment to the craft of writing (and also my Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese lifestyle, for that matter).

I think every writer grapples with discipline.[ii] To that end, I conducted my previous writing experiment—talking about writing without writing much—for around five years post-MFA. Despite repeated trials, my results were always indistinguishable from the control. I swore Mexico would be different. I would be as prolific as Malcolm Lowry, minus the mescal, plus a stable, loving relationship. Everything would be different this time!

Except that it wasn’t. I sprawled on our rattan couch, ate a bunch of avocados, watched any show on television that was broadcast in English, and waited for Derek to come home from class. Comfortably slunk into nihilism with Will & Grace as background noise, I had some kind of revelation. Perhaps it was the altitude sickness (Guanajuato has an elevation of over 6,500 ft.) or the near-vertical walks up the infernal hill that led from the grocery store back to my apartment, but I decided I would try an endurance exercise that would, ideally, show me what improvement looks like.

Since it’s difficult for me to gauge the effect of discipline on my writing, I would paint. I would paint the same scene every week day for the remainder of our summer, allowing me to see creative growth in a new way.[iii] It was a mad endeavor, one that made my grandmother say, “My god, Caitlyn,” when I explained it over the phone, and one that taught me everything I now know about progress.

~

Guanajuato is a city at the bottom of a bowl, and mountains make up the bowl’s sides. Our apartment was perched above the city center and provided an unfettered view of La Bufa, the city’s most famous rock face. The rooms of my apartment were simultaneously small and spacious—as if we lived in Mary Poppins’ handbag.

The gate to the apartment complex required two separate keys, a strong push, and occasionally some swearing before it would swing open into our courtyard. “My” chair on the balcony faced the gate, so naturally I painted 29 representations of it over the course of 40 days.[iv]

Here’s what happened when I, a non-painter, painted for the first time as an adult: I felt clumsy, tried to use the brush like a pencil, and used paint that was much too dry. I scraped that pigment over the paper until the paper pilled. I felt proud of myself.

Gate #1

Gate #1

On day two, I was shocked at how much better I’d done. Shocked enough to feel ashamed of my painting from day one. Was this how I’d been as a beginning writer?[v] But the biggest difference was my attitude. I was experimenting. I had guesses about what I could do differently from the previous day, so I was coming at this painting thing with an attitude of genuine curiosity. I was experimenting. I was having fun.

Like all heady times, the feeling did not last long. I’d say I got about five days in before I felt like I’d made a huge mistake. So why didn’t I quit this time?

~

Prior to leaving for Mexico, my parents (who live conveniently close to an international airport and thus hosted us in the days preceding our trip) voiced some concerns about what might befall us in Guanajuato. When my mother hugged me goodbye, I couldn’t tell if her extra-strong grip was in case this was the last goodbye she’d ever be afforded—or if I was imagining it.[vi]

After I painted my second gate, I emailed them photos of the first two paintings with the subject line “A Marked Improvement in My Painting Skills.” They each responded that they could really see the progress. I decided that day that I’d email them every painting. The Gate of the Day newsletter would remain capped at two subscribers. I saw Gate of the Day as the conscription of my parents. They certainly were not given the luxury of the “unsubscribe” option of other newsletters. Each evening I took a photo of myself holding the painting in front of my face and sent it off to my mom and dad in America. It was my version of holding up a newspaper. I’m fine, it said. Each day both of my parents picked out one element of the painting to praise.[vii]

My weird forced newsletter is a key element of this story because it gave me accountability. I worried that if I didn’t send a painting, my parents would imagine I’d fallen into the hands of Chapo Guzmán himself.[viii] I obsessed that my parents could be living in fear until my return, and this obsession proved to be an effective motivator. It turns out I am also a huge fan of being praised.

~

I started to see patterns in the way I was improving, though my improvement was slow. I thought about my progress as though I were viewing myself as an avatar in a video game: I’d run forward, then have to take a step back before I could vault myself to the next level. Often my biggest leaps came after what felt like insurmountable backslides. Many of my paintings are hideously ugly.[ix]

I rated each painting on an arbitrary 10-point scale

I rated each painting on an arbitrary 10-point scale

~

Of course, these peaks and valleys inspired a lot of frustration. I’d devise new ways to make that same gate image seem new: setting a 10-minute time limit for a painting, using a single color of paint, or zooming in to paint small details instead of the full image. I would also procrastinate. Arms laden with groceries, I’d catch my breath on a bench at the mid-way point of that devil hill after my daily trek to the store. The back of the bench featured the words BAD BITCH. I’d intentionally sit next to the graffiti—I didn’t want to obscure any of the sloppy blue letters. I would nod to myself. I would think, yes. Bad bitch. Then I’d walk home with a little more surety to paint in the twenty minutes before Derek got home.

~

One day, just like that, it was over. I found myself on an airplane watching Mexico recede from view. For a while we hovered next to a mountain with a flat top before gaining altitude until nothing was in clear view except for the clouds. My 29 paintings were neatly wrapped in a plastic bag and tucked into the front pocket of my carry-on bag. My husband held my hand.[x] The final painting had felt important, so I gave myself over to it. Before sitting down to paint for the last time in our perfect apartment in a perfect city, I thought of the art we’d seen in a museum in Querétaro. I had noticed that the painters used unreal colors that somehow imbued every person or building with weight and reality. But I hadn’t been thinking at all while I painted the 29th gate—I was immersed. I leapt.

~

I fell short.

~

Gate #29

Gate #29

 And I know I’ll continue to fall short. As a writer and especially as a painter. The other thing I know is that I’ll keep showing up, keep progressing.[xi] Because for me, writing is not about writing. It’s about becoming the kind of person who is willing to leap.

~

[i] Note that there’s no way to say, “I spent seven weeks in Mexico [more or less fucking around]” without giving the impression that you’re kind of a douche. I’ve tried phrasing it different ways to no avail. Please accept my assurances that I’m mostly not a douche.

[ii] If you were expecting a statistic here about writers and commitment, you’d be wrong! I’d prefer not to complete any (potentially disheartening) research in favor of repeating comforting platitudes. Are you struggling to sit down and write? You’re not alone.

[iii] I gave myself weekends off because I’m not a monster.

[iv] It could be tempting to ascribe some kind of meaning to this choice. Something like, the gate signifies how close I am to achieving my goals, or a V. for Vendetta-esque The gate was open the whole time! Alas, I just thought the gate looked kind of cool and was visible from my vantage point of choice.

[v] Because I teach, I know the answer to this question.

[vi] My parents are lovely and open-minded people who often take my travel plans in stride. I’m not surprised they were worried about Mexico, considering the media paints it as a dystopian wasteland.

[vii] Even the shittiest paintings! My parents have a knack for finding the positive.

[viii] My husband has been following Guzmán’s exploits for some time, so it was particularly surprising that Guzmán tunneled to freedom while we were in Guanajuato.

[ix] Making ugly things can be exciting, too.

[x] Sometimes Derek would paint with me out on the balcony. I love that man.

[xi] “This is practice: if we feel like doing it, we do it, and if we don’t feel like doing it, we do it just the same. We just keep doing it.” –Ajahn Chah