Conversation

"All Sextoned Up": A Conversation with Henrietta Goodman by Peter LaBerge

BY KARIN SCHALM

 Henrietta Goodman, author of  All That Held Us  ( BkMk Press , 2018).

Henrietta Goodman, author of All That Held Us (BkMk Press, 2018).

Henrietta Goodman is the author of three books of poetry: All That Held Us (John Ciardi Prize, BkMk Press, 2018), Hungry Moon (Colorado State University, 2013), and Take What You Want (Beatrice Hawley Award, Alice James Books, 2007). Her poems and essays have recently been published in New England Review, Mid-American Review, Gulf Coast, Field, Guernica, 32 Poems, and other journals. She teaches at the University of Montana.

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Karin Schalm: Henrietta, your new book, All That Held Us, came out this year as the winner of the John Ciardi Prize. Congrats, by the way. It’s an absolutely beautiful book—a poetic memoir of linked sonnets. How did you get started on such a strange and serious project?

Henrietta Goodman: Thank you! I started by accident. I had written formal poetry before, but I had never thought of myself as a formalist. A friend gave me an assignment to write a poem in terza rima, so I did, and that got me started thinking about other forms I had never tried. I had written a few English sonnets, but never an Italian sonnet, so I tried that—and the subject I chose (my mother’s fear of water and the absence of men throughout my childhood and adolescence) was something I had never written about. So, the experiment with a form that was new to me corresponded with my realization that I was interested in exploring that subject beyond just one poem. So I wrote another sonnet, and then another, and then I felt that I should either stop, because the poems were so different from the other poems I was working on at the time, or I should keep going and see what happened…which is what I did.

KS: What did you learn about yourself (and language) from writing these personal but highly structured poems? Did you find words through the demands of form that startled you? If so, did these words persuade you to tell stories in new ways that you might not have expected?

HG: I didn’t want the form, especially the rhyme, to draw attention to itself, so I tried, for the most part, to rhyme words that wouldn’t stand out as being unusual. I did learn a word, though, in the process of writing the poems, that ends one of the poems in the last section: escapology. It means the art of escape, Houdini-style. In the poem, it refers literally to escaping from a large spiked frame called the Table of Death, used in stage magic, but I came to think of it as referring to the process of extricating myself from the damaging aspects of my family history, and to think of the book itself as an act of escapology.

KS: As readers we understand there’s a difference between the speaker of a poem and the writer, but how does this play out when poems are actually based on the poet’s life? This book travels through the speaker’s childhood to adulthood. How do you, the poet, see yourself in regards to this speaker? I’m thinking about the scene where the speaker (who is just a child) is sexually and violently abused by a doctorIt’s such a painful moment, mostly because of the mother’s lack of response to her child’s screams. Have the formal constraints of the sonnet helped you tell this story?

HG: Thank you for asking this question. The two poems you’re talking about are near the end of the sequence and function as a flashback into a traumatic event from the speaker’s childhood. And the speaker is me, since the book is intended as a memoir-in-sonnets. I’ve made no attempt to separate myself from the speaker in this case, except to note that the poet and speaker are always different, in that the poem is a deliberately crafted piece of art with a voice that is not the same as the poet’s everyday voice, whether the poem is autobiographical or not.

I had never thought of writing about the incident, though I had certainly thought about its impact on me over the years and had learned to call it what it was—rape. When I thought of including it in the book, so much of which deals with my relationship with my mother and my attempts to understand some aspects of her past and her nature, I was drawn to the idea of writing about such a shocking physical violation in sonnet form. Form, of course, and poetry in general, is one of the ways we have of imposing order on chaos—of putting experience to use. We can’t control what is done to us, often, but we can control what we do with what is done to us.

As I was working on the two poems, I thought also of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “In the Waiting Room,” which describes the speaker’s experience, as a child, of waiting for her aunt in a dentist’s waiting room and hearing her aunt make a small sound (“an oh! of pain”). This experience contributes to the speaker’s sudden self-awareness and awareness of the distinctions and connections between self and other. I wanted, somehow, to allude to Bishop’s poem in my own poems, since my poems detail a coming-of-age experience also, but in a situation that inverts Bishop’s—I am the child in the exam room, while my mother is in the waiting room. I’m sure part of my goal was to write something that couldn’t be dismissed as self-indulgent or “therapeutic”—the accomplishment of writing about the experience in Italian sonnet form, combined with alluding to a significant figure in my poetic heritage, made me feel more confident in writing about an incredibly personal experience.

But, ultimately, I’m not sure that I did allude to Bishop’s poem, because the word I chose to end one of my two poems on this subject is “inscrutable,” a word that appears not in “In the Waiting Room,” but in another well-known poem of Bishop’s, “Sestina,” which ends “and the child draws another inscrutable house.” I hope, though, that at least a few readers will hear an echo of Bishop in my poem.

KS: I love Bishop and hear echoes of her in your work. Who are some of your other poetic influences?

HG: I love this question! Two of my earliest and most important influences are named in the book: the poet Anne Sexton and Paul Westerberg, the singer/songwriter for the band The Replacements (my favorite, ever, from age thirteen to now). Sexton appears in the poem that begins section three of the book, when I mention getting “all Sextoned up,” and Paul Westerberg appears in section two as the music I’m listening to in my room as a teenager.

Fairy tales have long been an influence on my poetry also (since college, when I took a literary theory course that used fairy tales as the vehicle for various approaches to interpretation and analysis), and one of my sonnets references the story of Bluebeard, who systematically married women and then murdered them. And, in another of the poems, I refer to Milton’s Satan as “my twelfth grade English crush.” In this book I was looking back at some of the literary figures and concepts that were important to me as I was beginning my life as a poet, many of which I’m grateful to have encountered in Mrs. Johnston’s twelfth grade AP English class.

KS: I’ve been a big fan of your work over the years. Your first two collections, although personal in content, don’t read like memoirs. Nor do they make the same formal demands as All That Held Us. Given that your work is changing, where do you plan to go from here? Have you decided if you will continue with form or go back to free verse? 

HG: After writing 48 sonnets, it was difficult to stop. I realized I was thinking in iambic meter. I asked my friend, the poet Ryan Scariano, to give me some assignments that would force me to go back to free verse, where I had initially felt much more comfortable, but which now felt foreign. We exchanged poems by email for quite a few months, and then he suggested that we collaborate on a project—an alphabet of animal acrostic poems, or two alphabets, one from each of us. I realized that I had never written an acrostic and that the project was appealingly strange—and I was really drawn to the idea of doing something that sounded a bit ridiculous (like a children’s book but for adult readers of serious poetry, or like 48 linked Italian sonnets that were also a memoir) and doing it well. Plus, I like Ryan a lot as a poet and as a person, and I like animals, so I definitely wanted to do it.

We started the project about a year ago, and Ryan is finished with his alphabet, but I still have 6 or 7 more poems to write. The acrostic form has been a delightful challenge—I’m not good at very short poems, so I’m constantly fighting against the length constraint (when the word is done the poem is done, so my lines tend to be very long). And, I also have to attend to the integrity of the line and the placement of the line break in a way that free verse doesn’t require. We intend to publish the manuscript as a book that invites the reader to participate—like, here’s Ryan’s acrostic about a robin, and here’s my acrostic about a raccoon, and now, you, reader, have a blank lined page on which to write your own acrostic about a rabbit or a rattlesnake or a reindeer or whatever you like.

I don’t think I’ll ever really give up form after this. Even if I’m writing in free verse, I like the idea of devising some “rules,” if for no other reason than to break them.

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Karin Schalm is the Office Manager at Submittable.

Hope, Hypervigiliance, and Human Hours: A Conversation with Catherine Barnett by Peter LaBerge

BY HEIDI SEABORN

 Catherine Barnett, author of   Human Hours  (Graywolf Press, 2018) .

Catherine Barnett, author of Human Hours (Graywolf Press, 2018).

Catherine Barnett is the author of three poetry collections, Human Hours, Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced and The Game of Boxes, winner of the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets. Her honors include a Whiting Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is a member of the core faculty of New York University's Creative Writing Program, a Distinguished Lecturer at Hunter College, and an independent editor in New York City.

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Heidi Seaborn: In your new collection of poems, Human Hours, there is an intimacy of voice that is utterly engaging, beguiling. How did you arrive at this voice?

Catherine Barnett: In these new poems, I tried to let the pleasures of tracking the mind in its circles and leaps enter the poems as vividly as possible. My tendency has been to compress my work; in this book I tried to give it freer range, trust it more. “Add add add; cut cut cut,” Anne Sexton advised. I then practiced the “Add add add” whenever I felt my inner critic threaten to take over, and I tried to take the reader into confidence.

HS: The notes for Human Hours are a found poem of their own. I was fascinated to read all the influences, borrowings and references. What tends to be a catalytic influence versus an informing or even factual influence on a specific poem or series?

CB: There’s no distinction for me between these kinds of influences. Last spring I taught a class on literary influence, a subject that’s enlivened and vexed by questions of tradition, appropriation, theft, originality, etc. Everything I read keeps me company and if others’ work shows up in my pages, I’m thrilled and honored. I try to note where the borrowings come from. I love “borrowing” in all its forms. I borrow my clothes from the thrift shop and will return them to the thrift shop; we’re here on borrowed time; anything we think we own we are really just borrowing.

HS: What role does metaphor play on the page and in your life?

CB: I don’t think metaphor can be willed, but since language is inherently metaphoric, it can’t help but show up on the page, the wilder the better. And yet often I side with readers who want a metaphor to work at a literal level, too. I direct my students to that wonderful 1926 exchange of letters between Harriet Monroe and Hart Crane, in which Crane reprimands Monroe for her desire for more “logic” in his metaphors. I hate to admit that I, too, am a sucker for logic, but I like especially logic that undoes itself or undermines itself or goes to an extreme.

I’m always looking for ways to figure out our absurd existence: what else is this like? Metaphors leap to help us. I guess this search for likeness is also part of the pattern-seeking mind of the poet.

HS:  In David Biespiel’s new book, The Education of a Young Poet, he describes metaphor as hiding “in random visible experiences like a dark suit pulled from the back of a closet found to still fit.” Your poem, “Idée Fixe,” opens with the line, “No woman wants to be low-hanging fruit,” a metaphor that you turn into something very literal. Which came first, the metaphor or the literal fact?

CB: The poem was triggered by that phrase, “low-hanging fruit,” which I honestly hadn’t heard before and which sounded like a good thing to me, though I could tell by the way it was said that it wasn’t a good thing. I took the mistake and ran with it. I love mistakes, to tell you the truth. When I was a journalist working at an art magazine, I wrote an article on the painter Willem de Kooning, who painted sometimes with his left hand so that he wouldn’t know quite what he was making, so that he could find or make or invent a “mistake.” I look for ways to do this kind of thing, or to find it in the world—and I think it does have something to do with the gap or the disruption that leads to metaphor.

When I was trying to dream up a possible cover for this new collection, I thought of this poem, “Idée Fixe,” and asked my mother, who’s an abstract painter, if she could make a painting of a peach. She sent photos of her work-in-progress, accompanied by brief notes that could themselves be poems. This is one of the many emails I received from her as she painted: “A bit of a sad peach. Brave, independent, worn honored. It just wanted to be seen. If I could I would take it to a color lab and make it a warm and fuzzy peach tone, which would be nice but not very true. Black and white would make it a literary peach. Maybe it really is an apple.”

And before that she wrote: “I will try. I will be as free as possible. It is very, very hard to create a beautiful line. I don’t think I have ever done it in my work.” In poetry, too, it is very, very hard to create a beautiful line!

Back to metaphor more explicitly, the poet Ed Hirsch says “Poetry is made of metaphor. It is a collision, a collusion, a compression of two unlike things.” It’s a pleasure to collude and collide in these ways.

HS: Do you believe in the “muse” or is that just a metaphor for inspiration? If you do, who or what were your muses for Human Hours? If you don’t, what else inspires you?

CB: I’m embarrassed to admit that I do kind of believe in a muse—a muse that can be a little bit withholding because she believes simply in hard work, in writing even when words or ideas or feelings are recalcitrant. I try to show up every day so that the muse will know I’m serious even when I’m flailing. I tell myself that I can’t worry about not being able to write until I’ve written every day for three weeks straight. This is a good strategy for two reasons—firstly, because it’s hard to make it through three weeks, so I always have an explanation for why I’m not writing well; and secondly, because the muse seems to take pity on me if I show up every day with nothing.

Other inspirations? Café con leche. Beckett’s Happy Days. Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Headwaters. Kathleen Peirce’s poems and her chicken and dumplings. Dickinson’s letters. Keith Johnstone’s Impro. My inner agitations. Hope. Mistakes. My watch.

HS: Speaking of watches, time functions as both subject and method in this book. It’s both a constraint and a motivation. How would you describe your relationship to time? What has become urgent?

CB: I think I’ve always been in a rush, all my life. I live on the east coast now and I feel I’m always three hours behind, still living on west coast time. I ride a kickscooter all up and down NYC (wheeling it even into the subway car) because it saves me ten minutes on every commute.

Mark Doty gave a lecture—years ago!—on the difference between “lyric” and “narrative” time (terms I borrowed for the title of a poem, “Lyric and Narrative Time at Café Loup”) and I realized then that the biggest source of tension between me and my then-young son was that I had to live in narrative time, where the clock is operative and has power, and he wanted (as did I) to remain in lyric time, where the clock disappears. Writing, and working on a poem, is one good way to enter lyric time. Reading, too.

HS: There’s a line in the title poem from your last book, The Game of Boxes, that could be a precursor to the poems about your father in Human Hours: “I draw all night / to distract my boy / from life’s greater deletions.” In your new book, poems seem to hover ahead of loss—on the wavering edge—yet they never dip over into the sentimental. Can you talk about holding that edge in your writing?

CB: Mostly I live in a state of hope bumped up against hypervigilance, which sometimes takes the form of anticipatory grief. In fact, I became a writer because I thought writing might help me deal with the loss I knew was built into the human condition.

I’m all for true sentiment, which is not the same as sentimentality. It’s a kind of bliss to be able to access real feeling—so often it’s diluted or distracted away. On the other hand, sometimes—often—it’s too much to bear or to handle, and the shaping and making of art is a powerful container both for the maker and the reader. Maybe some related questions, which I like to think about but can't answer, are: how and when does feeling usefully challenge restraint? and how and when can restraint give us access to true feeling?

HS: And yet, in this collection, your poetry has an exposed, vulnerable quality that often approaches what little remains of what is considered taboo. Do you ever feel the need to self-censor?

CB: I wonder what you’re seeing that seems close to taboo? I might like to be someone who breaks taboos but I don’t think I’m that kind of writer, not here in this book and not in either of my other two books. Vulnerability, yes, I believe in making oneself vulnerable. I think it’s a kind of strength, actually. But even art that feels vulnerable has been made. It’s made out of aesthetic decisions, and it’s not the transcription of a diary by any means, even when it might approximate that. Beckett said, “To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist....” What is it Rimbaud says? “I is an other.” Yes, the I in these poems often resembles me; but she is also very other, a collage, a made thing looking for a “form that accommodates the mess.” It’s true that I try to leave interpretation and judgment behind when I’m writing but the poems go through endless revisions. The question of self-censorship seems pretty much beside the point. Of course there’s self-censorship! Writing is not life, it’s art, which has a shaping force to it. A transformative and transforming force.

HS: The reviews for Human Hours highlight the tragic-comic quality of this collection. We are living in a time where humor is not just a pleasure but a survival technique. What brought on this shift in tone?

CB: I went to lots of improv shows, I tried out some improv classes, I let myself be more prolix and discursive and wandering. The material in this book is different from the other books, so it allows for different ways of saying. My first book was a book of elegies and there was certainly no room for humor there. In this book I wanted to attend to the possibilities in language itself and to the absurdities of our human situation. Right now I feel the absurd has slipped right into the dire, and humor is both a little more of a luxury than we can afford and more necessary than ever. Francis Bacon says, “The imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.” And recently I just heard someone say that humor gets people to laugh, and once their mouths are open you can slip in some truth....

When I went back to a college reunion years ago, someone told me to “turn around”—he wanted to check out my ass to see how I was faring.... That was the last time I ever went back. And yet that was the culture I was raised in. The speaker knows she’s long been confused and disappointed by the expectations and demands placed on girls and women. The poems try to chronicle the ways a woman might feel both constrained and free, afraid and courageous, lonely and eager for solitude. I think at least one of the the artist’s jobs is to question the status quo. Certainly to pay attention and to ask, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

HS: Do you think of the four “Accursed Questions” sequences as prose or poetry or lyric essay? Each is comprised of questions, answers, statements and the artful dodge. For me, they capture the muddle of human experience, what we know and the limits of what we can know. Can you share how this series came into being and its relationship to the rest of the collection?

CB: I think of these sections as lyric essays, with lots of connectives rubbed out. Some of the material was drawn from pages of daily notes I wrote on the subject of questions. A friend and I were both hoping to write prose books and so we made a pact to exchange 500 words every day on our respective subjects. Matthew Zapruder finished his wonderful book—Why Poetry—and rather than a prose book, some of my late-night explorations made it into these brief lyric essays. I’m still taking notes because I am still questioning questions. I love them. I’m addicted to them. I think they more than anything can help us empathize, understand one another. Now the trick is to listen.

HS: Catherine, it’s been a pleasure to listen to your answers in response to these questions. I also want to personally share my gratitude for the last stanza of “Accursed Questions, i”—it captured my whole childhood (yes, the red speedo) in a few lines.

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Heidi Seaborn is Poetry Editor for The Adroit Journal, a New York University MFA candidate and author of an award-winning debut book of poetry Give a Girl Chaos forthcoming from Mastodon Books in early 2019. Since Heidi started writing in 2016, she’s won or been shortlisted for over a dozen awards and published in numerous journals and anthologies and in a chapbook Finding My Way Home. Her website: www.heidiseabornpoet.com

Fighting the Silence: A Conversation with Alexander Chee by Peter LaBerge

BY KIRIN KHAN

 Photo by M. Sharkey. Alexander Chee, author of  How to Write an Autobiographical Novel  (Mariner Books, 2018).

Photo by M. Sharkey. Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (Mariner Books, 2018).

Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh, The Queen of the Night, and the essay collection How To Write An Autobiographical Novel. He is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and an editor at large at VQR. His essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, T Magazine, Tin House, Slate, Guernica, and Out, among others. He is winner of a 2003 Whiting Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in prose and a 2010 MCCA Fellowship, and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Civitella Ranieri and Amtrak. He is an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College.

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Alexander and I discussed his essay collection while seated outside on a hot day at the Tin House’s Summer Workshop at Reed College in July, where Alexander was faculty for one of the novel workshops. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Kirin Khan: In your essay “On Becoming a Writer,” there’s this moment where you talk about how in the U.S., there is an insistence that the measure of success for an artist is becoming middle class, and that failing that means your art has failed. How would you describe success outside of that middle-class aspiration?

Alexander Chee: It’s often unspoken but it’s something I’ve definitely experienced so regularly over time that I started speaking about it. For my first novel I was paid $4,000 out of a $6,000 advance before the house went bankrupt. I saw the paperback rights get sold, ended up getting half of half of that money because of the bankruptcy. It was probably significantly less money than a lot people make for a novel, so it was funny that one of the first reviews that would come up when you google my name was by someone who had taken my poetry career very seriously and accused me of ‘selling out.’

It’s been very moving to me over that last two years to have so many young writers who are so different from each other tell me how much my work has meant to them. How it’s helped them connect to themselves, to write the stories and poems that they have been wanting to write. I think for me the definition of success is making space for other writers, especially at this point in time in our history as a country and culture.

A friend of mine (Noel Alumit) sent me these postcards from a prisoner who had read my first novel. The prisoner, a convicted pedophile, described himself not being able to speak for the four days that he was reading it. He went on to say it was the first thing he’d ever read that ever showed him how what he did was wrong. I didn’t realize that I had written my first novel to do that, but that strikes me as a measure of success.

KK: That moment was incredible to me, just reading about it in the essay “The Autobiography of My Novel.”

AC: It’s what you end up meaning to people that is the real marker. You should want to get paid, even paid well, but we’re trying to change people’s minds, trying to illuminate, to help people reconnect to themselves and others. That’s the marker I use to see if I’m succeeding or not.

KK: In the essay “After Peter” you talk about being a minor character in this story, and that you tell it because the people who would tell that story are all dead. That devastated me. How do you write about large scale loss? In the collection, you confront it again after 9/11 (“On Becoming an American Writer”), this massive scale loss, and how paralyzing it can be as an artist.

AC: It’s important to remember that your despair is a gift to them—not to ones who were lost but to the ones who took them. In these conflicts, they want you to feel like their win is inevitable, they want you to give up on fighting back or succeeding. It’s interesting to see things like the cultural production that we have in the U.S. that is much richer and more diverse than it has been in a while. At an age when we have more and more Black filmmakers, POC filmmakers, writers, thinkers, critics doing astonishing work, at the same time, we have this white supremacist takeover of our three branches of government. It points to the way they really are a minority and the country is not with them. This is their revenge on us. They are trying to act like they are the majority and that their wins are legitimate—and they’re not. It’s on all of us not to give up in the face of that, not to give this country to them in the process.

KK: Do you view writing about the people we’ve lost is a way of resisting that?

AC: Yes. I think one of the biggest challenges we face is the loss of intergenerational knowledge. I had a student last year doing an assignment for a writing class. She was a Black Lives Matter activist and she started doing some research into her family and discovered she came from a family of Black Panthers. None of them had told her. She was stunned to discover this, like, “Were you just going to not tell me?”

That’s very rare, not common at all, but in that silence, there is something to investigate. Why would they watch her doing what she was doing and not tell her about their own experiences? That silence, whether it’s born out of death, loss or fear, it’s something that we have to reach into and fight so that we can have those lessons of, how did we fight before this? How did we find courage before this?

The thing that’s very moving to me now are the intergenerational conversations that are possible with internet and social media. One of the things that’s been most gratifying to me is connecting to young queer writers and young writers of color, hearing from them, the work they are producing. I’m still part of a very small group of out gay Korean American writers—for a long time I was an only one, and the first. Then there was Sam Park, who died just as James Mattson debuted last winter, this sad mix of debut and loss. Sam died of stomach cancer; his posthumous novel is coming out this fall. I’m waiting for there to be so much more than there is, and I can see it coming. I feel myself still trying to hold that space for people. I’ve been funding fellowships at Jack Jones Literary Arts and Lambda Literary and am looking at creating one in Sam Park’s name at Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center.

KK: When you say you’ve been waiting for it, what do you mean?

AC: The writers who are arriving are the ones that I’ve been waiting for.

KK: Like a queer, POC revolution?
AC: Yeah, exactly. Patty Yumi Cottrell. Franny Choi, especially.  She’s amazing. One of the reasons I’m still on Twitter is that I get to see her tweets. It’s a delight to me. Chen Chen is fantastic, too.

KK: In “Girl,” you explore the shame of being misgendered as a kid and what’s underneath that. I was often mistaken for a boy as a kid. When I was a bit older, I’d get these sexy, cheap costumes for Halloween, and I’d wear a wig and high heels, but then I’d get mistaken for a man in drag. It was really disorienting that there was no way for me to be perceived as female, whether I performed this kind of hyper-femininity or wore my brother’s hand-me-downs.

AC: You were always trying to be a woman and not quite getting there.

KK: Right. I just am what I am. I thought it was interesting that in your essay, you explore that childhood shame of being mistaken for someone that you can be much more comfortable with later. I was wondering if you had things to say about that, that moment of being mistaken for a girl as a kid versus looking really hot as a girl and passing in that moment as an adult.

AC: One thing I like about what’s happening with gender now is that we’re thinking about it more as a relationship to the self rather than a relationship to others, making self-identification more important first. A panoply of identities is making that possible. What makes me interested in say, queer liberation, is that it makes room for other people whether they are queer or not. It allows young children to feel the freedom of identifying as a boy but wearing hot pink shoes to school and butterfly wings.

KK: And getting to be pretty.

AC: Yeah, getting to be pretty. Nail polish and what not, all these things that were so risqué as a teenager in the ‘80s, that are so mainstream now.

KK: You write about the excitement and potential violence there.  I felt that.

AC: That’s the thing, especially for men who do drag for the first time, who pass. It’s a vision of the reality of being a woman in a way that nothing can prepare you for, which is the constant threat of violence.

KK: Do you think writing about large scale loss, such as the AIDS crisis and 9/11, is different from writing about individual loss, like your father or Peter, specifically? Does it feel different?

AC: Grief and grieving are never really over, because they’re born out of love. So long as the love is there, the grief is also there. You learn to live with the loss, and it becomes this long-term meditation. One of the great wounds of the AIDS crisis was that the Gay community finally had this tremendous victory for pleasure in terms of sex, so many different kinds of sexual explorations were happening. The other was this way in which it was a warning, for those who were able to take it, about what this country would face under healthcare for profit. It was happening just as that change was happening in healthcare. When I look at this friend of mine who just got 185K bill for this cancer procedure she had—it’s just a crazy way to think about trying to live a life in this country where 40% of Americans would have an emergency if they needed more than $400.

KK: That reminds me of how, in the book, you talk about there being three decades worth of wealth accumulation for the rich, and that this was literally letting the poor die and determining our value.

AC: Right, acting like its natural.

KK: That it’s a reflection of our worth that we are poor in the first place. Therefore, our deaths are justified.

AC: In the aftermath of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s win, it was funny to see this renewed attention to the sorts of values that she is putting forward: healthcare for all, a climate change proposal that’s aggressive and confronts what’s actually happening to the earth, and suddenly, there was a lot of discussion of whether these kinds of values would work in the rest of the country. At the same time, there are polls that show that Democrats are favored at 49% versus Republicans at 37%—this massive leap has opened up. These issues are supposed to be hurting Democrats and Americans, but what if this is what people want? Healthcare for all has been widely supported by a majority of Americans for a very long time, going back to Obama’s election. The only place where it hasn’t had widespread support is in Congress.

KK: Noel Alumit previously said, in conversation with the 2017 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellows, that one thing he wanted us to know is that “your novel will not fix you.” And that that is something he wished he knew with his first novel.

AC: That’s funny.

KK: In “The Guardians” you talk about your novel waiting for you to reach where it is, in terms of speaking out. What are your thoughts, do you agree with Noel?

AC: You’ll still be the same person after you publish your first novel. It won’t magically fix any of the problems you have with your personality or government or any of those things. The cognitive process of being able to reconcile that which was not reconciled before certainly was a profoundly, psychically transformative experience for me, and that was part of what I write about in the collection, in both “Autobiography of My Novel” and in “The Guardians.” I don’t know that it was the writing itself that was the recuperation, as much as the writing was how I was able to see what needed to be recuperated and how I was able to chart that for myself.

It reminds me of when I was a yoga teacher and was learning about chanting. Chanting was a way of observing your breath through the sound that your voice makes. Writing was also like that, a way to observe the mind. It is not therapy, and I think that people who think it is therapy are putting a lot at risk. I was talking with another friend who writes memoir about the importance of doing the private writing for the self—many of these essays were born out of or reliant on journals that I’ve kept. Journals allowed me to reflect and tell myself things that I needed to tell myself. Out of that, I was able to figure out what I needed to put in an essay. If I was using the essay alone to do that, the success or failure of that essay would weigh too heavily on the recuperative process, and would be an incredible violation of it as well. That’s why I think it’s dangerous to think that your writing can fix you, as Noel said. It can’t fix you. But it can show you how to be fixed.

KK: In “The Guardians” you also talk about being in a video/documentary where you lie about how abuse hasn’t harmed you. I felt that there’s this desire to say that, even when it isn’t true.

AC: Your feelings catching up to you can take so long.

KK: Which isn’t something people tell you. In the same essay, you discuss repetition as a form of forgetting. Can you ever really write the trauma? Do you feel like you go back to it and are writing about it in different ways? Or do you feel like at one point you’ll be done, or is it more like grief, where it transforms as you grow?

AC: It’s a Freudian idea, Freudian repetition trauma. With this book, I do have this feeling of having concluded something. There may be more to write later, but I think now I’m really excited about turning to other projects.

KK: In “Girl” you write that sometimes you don’t know who you are until you put on a mask. You repeat the idea of the mask: in “Girl” you put on the mask and find out who you are without it, and then in “The Guardians,” there’s another mask, whether it’s behind the novel or in the documentary, of pretending to be okay. That idea is also talked about as passing as whole. There’s passing as straight, passing as white or by race, and then there’s passing in relation to trauma, passing as “okay.”  Can anyone really pass with respect to trauma?

AC: Lots of people are fooled, and they can’t be faulted for being fooled if you put all your effort into it. I should add that, unfortunately, people have some pretty horrific opinions about how you should handle sexual abuse and rape.

KK: And whether it was bad enough.

AC: Yeah. I went through that with one interviewer recently who was like, “Well what you describe in there, it wasn’t that bad, right?” It was a woman. I was just like, “Yeahhh, I don’t know how to talk to you about this, it was really clear in the essay.”

KK: It’s a scale used to silence people. I’ve heard that the fewer details about rape that you give, especially when pressing charges, the more likely it is that someone will sympathize with you. Because the more they find out, the more likely it is that they will say, “I would have done something different.”

AC: Yes, yes. I remember that. Even when I was very young, seeing how my friends who had been in this choir with me had to leave school, because they were harassed once the story of the crimes came out. No one was empathetic. At least if they didn’t actually have to be, and even then, empathy was its own fraught situation. So, it didn’t seem like there was any reward in trying to talk about what was left.

It’s the strangest thing. I was teaching the novel Agostino by Alberto Moravia to my students in Italy.  The story is of a young boy who is on vacation with his mother, who is this beautiful widow, and he falls in with this very rough crowd of boys while she is enjoying herself with a new lover. They introduce him to the ringleader of the child gang, this older man who is a pedophile. They trick him into going on a boat ride with the man—that is essentially how he inducts boys into this gang. My students were really horrified by the novel and by what they saw as the misogyny in the novel—the mother is treated constantly like an object of desire by everyone, including her son. Her value is always focused on her looks; she’s always judged on her desire to have a sex life. And I kept trying to push the conversation further, and finally I had to lay out—in the novel if you look carefully, the pedophile eventually becomes this boy’s mentor on how to be a man. This mother is considered an enemy of his manhood, and I said, “The mother has only ever supported him, the pedophile is the one who abused him. Why in this world is the mother the one who is hated? I know you’re struggling with the misogyny but I need you to look all the way in. What does the structure of the novel communicate? It’s the depiction of a world that’s gone wrong—what is it saying that’s wrong, and that, finally, was what you could see when you pull back from all the rest.” It’s a slim novel, but it lays bare a structure that we see again and again in terms of what’s happening along the border with children being separated from their parents and being essentially pushed into situations where they are in the hands of abusers. And we’re being asked to treat the kids as criminals, as the trespassers and blame their parents as well. It’s a lot.

KK: It really is. In “The Guardians,” you get down to the “this is what happened” piece and you take us through it, which is incredibly hard and incredibly brave. In the #MeToo movement, there are narratives about women being abused as adults, but I don’t see as much about childhood trauma, and men and boys are just beginning to step forward publicly as survivors—it’s rampant for all genders. I just wanted to emphasize that that’s no small thing that you’ve spoken out so boldly about it in your essays. People are going to ask you about it and that’s got to be hard. What were your thoughts when you decided to really write this essay?

AC: I was trying to get at the ways in which you turn yourself into something else in the attempt to hide the pain. How you engage in a second kind of erasure after the first erasure that was the trauma itself, and how hard it was to reconnect to that boy who was so alone back then, and who built these baroque defenses that turned out to long outlive their capacity to protect me, and that I had to dismantle in order to engage in the kind of recuperation that I desperately needed.

KK: Which is something that people don’t talk about with PTSD—these tools saved your life at one point.

AC: Right they got you through something. Being hidden got me through something. The thing is, it was time to stop hiding.

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Kirin Khan is a writer living in Oakland, CA who calls Albuquerque, New Mexico her hometown, and Peshawar, Pakistan her homeland. Kirin is an alum of VONA, Las Dos Brujas, and the Tin House Writers Workshop, and she is a 2017 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow and a 2018 Steinbeck Fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Margins, Your Impossible Voice, 7x7.LA, and Foglifter among others. Kirin is working on her first novel.

Conversations with Contributors: Anna Rose Welch by Peter LaBerge

BY SAMANTHA SETO

 Anna Rose Welch, contributor to  Issue Twelve  and author of  We, the Almighty Fires  (Alice James Books, 2018).

Anna Rose Welch, contributor to Issue Twelve and author of We, the Almighty Fires (Alice James Books, 2018).

Anna Rose Welch earned her MFA from Bowling Green State University. Her poems can be found in a number of publications, including Best New Poets 2014, The Kenyon Review Online, The Paris-American, Guernica, The Adroit Journal, Crab Orchard Review, and others. Her first book, We, the Almighty Fires, won the 2016 Alice James Award and was published by Alice James Books in April 2018. She currently lives in Erie, PA, where she is the Chief Editor of an online pharmaceutical publication (Biosimilar Development) and a violinist in the Presque Isle Pro Musica chamber orchestra.

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Samantha Seto: Congratulations on your book!

Anna Rose Welch: Thank you so much and thank you even more for reading and taking the time to chat with me about it!

SS: Why were you drawn to the Old Testament stories around which the book is written? How did you come to the decision to arrange the book into its four parts?

ARW: To be honest—and this is going to sound more demented than I would like it to—but I was drawn to the violence of those stories. If we’re looking at the Old Testament stories as works of fiction or myths, they carry so much more emotional heft. I’m also drawn to the notion of a vengeful God because it’s a more interesting concept for my narrator to grapple with and challenge. So much of what my narrator struggles with is how to balance free will in the face of whatever has some kind of power over them—whether it be another person, a deity, lust/love, or even art. I am a spiritual person, and I had a positive experience growing up in the church. I was never taught to fear God, which is probably a big part of why I’m drawn to the darkness of the Old Testament. There are so many silences in these stories—so many instances of being told to do something or face the consequences with the rest of humanity that have lost their way. And though I studied these darker stories in Sunday School, I was never told that I was doomed or that one wrong step would lead me astray and throw me outside of God’s good graces. The Great Flood story, which is the most prominent biblical story explored throughout the book, is just as much a story about rebirth as it is destruction. God didn’t like the world he’d created and destroyed it. What came next He hoped would be a better creation. My narrator, I think, has the same hope.

I wish I could say that the organization of the Bible had something to do with the organization of my book into four parts. But I felt it fit best in four sections because of the two longer poems in the book—Noah’s Wife and Noah’s Woods—which fit so organically as their own sections. The six Noah’s Wife poems—one for each time she’s referred to and never given a name in the Bible—served as an interlude or inflection point for the narrator. I wanted to give voice to some of these silenced old testament voices, and in turn, spur the narrator on towards their own “genesis story” in Noah’s Woods.

SS: There are many references to art in this collection, many of which depict religious or classical imagery: Bernini’s Saint Teresa in Ecstasy in “Rough Music,” for example, or Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in “Noah’s Woods.” In the second part of “Noah’s Woods,” the speaker points to the simple art of the craft, “we glued popsicle sticks into rafts,” reminding your readers that anyone is able to create art. Why did you pick the pieces that you did? Do you have a background in art history? Where did your interest in writing about art come from?

ARW: I had a feeling when I went to college that I’d end up an English major, but I also wanted to explore other subjects on the off-chance that I’d find something I loved just as much, or more. Art history almost seduced me away from pursuing English. My freshman year, I enrolled in an art history survey class, and despite the fact it was at 8 AM, there was something wonderful about being sleep deprived in that dark room watching the slides and hearing my professor talk about art techniques and subject matter—a majority of which was religious. Though, in the end, English/creative writing became my major, I loved art history so much that I ended up getting a minor in Medieval Renaissance studies because it combined history, religious studies, and, most importantly, art history. One course in particular—an upper level seminar on “The Renaissance Woman”—continued to haunt me for years after and was a big influence on my work. So much of the scholarly literature we read in that class circled around the female body and how the body was depicted through art, or how women altered, abused, or subjected their bodies to extreme conditions in an effort to express piety. I was also drawn to the merging of the sacred and the erotic. So much of the artwork in the Renaissance played with this—and there’s no better example than St. Theresa in Ecstasy. I love how this almost in-your-face erotic clashes with The Birth of Venus, which is an image of demure innocence.

SS: Tell me more about the love affair you describe in your book. In “After You Left,” for example, you elaborate on making love: “He whispered: Listen. Something’s devouring the leaves. / Like this, he said, searching my mouth until I tasted salt. / Like this, his palms said, sinking to my hipbones.” The narrative seems to be grounded in the lyrical present. Are you writing about how you experience love, or have you imagined the lover who appears in your poems?

ARW: There are actually very few instances in the book in which the lovers or love affairs described are truly how I have experienced love—and that’s the case in After You Left. A lot of these poems were written during a period of my life in graduate school when I was trying to take more risks and shock myself by what I was writing. I was newly single, spending hours in the same café night after night writing, and I was in love with the thought of being able to create any kind of relationship (or sexy goings-on) I wanted to on the page. After You Left was an exercise in vulnerability; up until that point, I’d never written anything that forwardly sensual and disturbing.    

SS: In these poems, the body illustrates the beauty of movement and seems to be used to express human nature. In “Rough Music,” you’ve used sensory detail to portray the body of the speaker’s lover, “Without clothes / you’re evidence man was created in the Lord’s image.” In “As If Out of Clay,” you write, “I wore pearls like any other bride / and he bit them from my neck like any other man / tears the apple from its core.” And in part VI of “Noah’s Woods,” you describe the beauty of the human body: “I saw two photographs of a dancer: one where her lover lay on the ground before her, his arm pressed to her breastbone.” Why do you find the human body to be the best conduit for these particular stories and/or for your poems?

ARW: I’ve always been fascinated by the body and the different ways it works from person to person. Once, I went with my brother to his appointment at the Cleveland Clinic. I remember looking around at the people walking through the hallways and sitting in waiting rooms filling out forms, thinking about all that can go wrong with the body. And, often, there’s no way to keep whatever is going to happen to it from happening. The body presents us with a fascinating duality. There’s nothing we really understand more than our own bodies—we come to learn what foods will be harmful for us, what medicines we shouldn’t take, what makes us feel good, and when doesn’t. But at the same time, we can’t always control what our body chooses to do to itself; we are at the mercy of our genes, which means we have proclivities for certain chronic diseases or addictions, and for frustrating (yet fascinating) scientific reasons, medicines work differently from person to person.

I also was drawn to the body given my background studying texts about Medieval/Renaissance women and how female saints in particular demonstrated their loyalty to God. So often it involved deprivation and suffering. One of the many non-poetry scholarly books I was reading during my writing spree in grad school was The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 by Caroline Walker Bynum. There was much discussion about the fragmentation of the body, one particularly beautiful passage being, “The body decays only into indestructible bits which God can reassemble or recast as a statue, or as a jeweler, making a mosaic, puts the stones back together again.” I have notebooks full of snippets from texts such as these about the body, and several of the poems in the book—for instance, Redemption, Ravishment, and even pieces of Noah’s Woods—play around with the fragmentation of the body. Depending on who the early Christian writer was, that fragmentation was either something that was a threat to your redemption or a symbol of the spiritual over the physiological.  

SS: Your collection is full of classical Greek and Roman mythology. What is it about antiquity—classical or biblical, or a combination of the two—that allows you to speak to female desire and empowerment?

ARW: When I was first getting into my book, I was fascinated with mining culture: the act of digging into the earth and harvesting the darkest pieces of it that would give the world light. Though I failed miserably at actually writing solely about mining (though my family’s roots are in mining culture), it turned out that my book ended up being an excavation. My poems became obsessed with digging into history and unearthing the stories and voices that haven’t always been heard and finding solidarity with them. I’d like to believe the women that came before me—or the mythmakers—had some of the same questions, frustrations, and identity-shaping experiences as I have had.  

SS: Many of your lines are musical. Eugene Gloria, whose blurb graces your book’s back cover, wrote, “There is a keen attention to music in these poems—a crafting of sound as sturdy as an ark in a biblical flood and as obsessive as the water’s recursive singing.” You’re also a violinist. How do you see music influencing your poetry, and your poetry influencing your music?

ARW: When I was younger, music was a big influence on my writing. The poems I wrote in high school were not completed poems until I had included references to every instrument found in an orchestra. If I learned anything as I became a more advanced writer, it was that, A.) a literal orchestra doesn’t belong in a poem, and B.) that the more time I spent practicing violin, the fewer poems I actually wrote. When I was in grad school, I took private lessons for two years and played in the orchestra for a semester. Given the regular rehearsal schedule and the practice required for the orchestra, on top of private lessons, I was devoting a significant portion of my days to practicing as opposed to writing. So, I ended up leaving the orchestra (though I loved it) and was better able to balance lessons/daily practice and poems.

I’m currently floating about in seemingly unending silence, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I find myself thinking more and more about the Bach d-minor sonata for unaccompanied violin. Playing violin was my first love—I started when I was five—and it was always a critical part of my identity and a huge source of pride (and it still is). It was my second voice—where words failed, my violin was there. Music undoubtedly influenced the sounds and rhythms of each poem. But what I find puzzling is the fact that, while the violin is a lyrical and romantic instrument, known for its soaring melodies in orchestras, so many of my poems—especially today—reject long lines. I’m drawn to stark, brief, end-stopped declarative sentences and double-spaced lines. It’s the absolute opposite of the sound I strive for when playing violin. It’s an interesting dichotomy I don’t quite understand, and I probably never will.

SS: What is your writing process? You’re an editor for Biosimilar Development; is your writing process for poetry different from that of your editorial work? Did you write each poem in Fires to stand alone, individually, or did you write the poems collectively for this book? How long did it take you to put together this collection?

ARW: So much of this collection was written in a quick burst in about a six-month period during my final year of grad school. I could barely keep up with myself at the time. Some of the other poems eventually came out in the year or so after graduation. Overall, during the process of writing the poems, I was aware that I loved writing about water in all forms and many of the poems had to do with God or womanhood. But I wasn’t thinking about them as an overarching conversation or collection outside of putting them together into my thesis. It ended up that, once I put them all together into a thesis, the poems were quite cohesive with each other in a way that leant itself well to a book manuscript. My thesis advisor encouraged me to take a chance and start submitting it.

SS: Along those same lines, how does your work with Biosimilar Development affect your poetry and/or your poetry-writing process?

ARW: My job was a pleasant surprise. When I first started working for my company managing a variety of different pharmaceutical publications, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I felt lucky enough to be an English major and to have ended up in an editorial position at all. But I also expected it would be a step towards something else non-pharmaceutical related eventually. When I first took the helm of Biosimilar Development, I legitimately began to love what I was doing. I’ve always been a curious person. But before taking this job, I don’t think I quite realized what a gift and necessity it is for me to have a job that would regularly challenge me (and pay the bills). Since I don’t have a background in science, business, political science, or regulatory affair, I have to step outside my comfort zone daily and talk to industry experts and do research to learn the ins-and-outs of these more technical aspects of the industry. I’ve actually had to become a “personality” in this space—in fact, I dare say I’m better known today in the pharma industry than I am in the poetry world right now. Another good thing is the fact this process requires me to use the left side of my brain, while poetry stimulates the right side of my brain. So I don’t generally feel “burned out” from my job. But I think it has made me a more analytical writer. I approach each poem from a more narrative, organizational sense. Just like I have to consider organization and pacing of an article, I’ve begun to focus more on the movement of my poem and what the progression of each new image or statement can mean for the poem and what it can ultimately become.

SS: We, Almighty the Fires won the Alice James Award in 2016. What was your experience working with Alice James Books? Your book was also shortlisted for prizes from Tupelo Press, The Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, and The OSU Press. What are your thoughts about literary contest culture?

ARW: Right before my book was picked up, I’d really begun to marvel at a number of Alice James’ books—especially Cecily Parks’ book, O’Nights, and Richie Hoffman’s Second Empire. They’d also signed on to publish my thesis advisor and good friend Jennifer Chang’s second book, Some Say The Lark. So, when I got the call, I remember being stunned because I never thought my book would fit into the caliber of the other writers they published before me. Working with them was wonderful. Though I only interacted with Carey Salerno a few times in the course of editing my book, she was thorough, intelligent, and supportive. The same goes for the other editors when it comes to post-publication awards, review copies, or ordering books/reading promotion.

I’ve personally benefited from the contest culture, given that that’s how my book came into this world. I know it can be depressing and exhausting for many people in the thick of it—and at times I felt the panic of “what if this never happens?”. But what I do like about the contest culture is the fact that you never really know who is on the editorial board or board of readers, and contests with guest judges always change your chances. There’s no way of predicting what anyone is going to like. When I was in the thick of it, I was a finalist for a prize at Tupelo and didn’t win. For the next two submission periods, I wasn’t long or short-listed at all. I submitted to Alice James three times, and the first two times, I was rejected. I went from that to winning. And there’s really no rhyme or reason to it. I often joke that the day the readers discovered my manuscript, they liked it only because they had gotten a lot of great sleep the night before, were well hydrated, and were probably in a happy place eating donuts just coated with rainbow sprinkles.

I think it’s also a good reminder of just how big the writing world is today; I hardly ever know or recognize the names in a list of book prize finalists and semi-finalists. When I was reviewing the list of finalists for the National Poetry Series just this year, I was thrilled to see so many names I didn’t know. I find that so refreshing, given the echo chambers you can run into with social media.      

SS: The cover of your book is really striking. How do you see it being representative of your poetry? How was the image chosen?

ARW: Shortly after I signed my contract, the first thing the editors asked for was a document of 20 different images that I liked. I spent weeks poring over Pinterest and found (too) many images I loved. I found a lot of images by the artist who made my cover—Brooke Shaden—and suggested a few of them, but honestly never would have predicted the folks at AJB would’ve picked the one they did. A few months later the editors sent me several different cover options. I decided to go with the current cover because it felt the most symbolic of the subject matter. It reminded me of the “tongues of fire” from the Pentecost story in the Bible and had a similar drama that I associate with cathedrals and sacred relics. It also implied that the main figure on the cover was looking down on something, like she was an almighty figure, and I thought that complemented the juggling act between free will and faith throughout my book.

SS: It’s hard to find books that interest and resonate with me, but I loved your book. Do you have any recommendations for me, re: further reading?

ARW: So many! I would highly suggest Jennifer Chang, Cecily Park, Sarah Eliza Johnson, Traci Brimhall, and Cynthia Cruz. I recently discovered Susannah Nevison’s Teratology and Anna Journey’s If Birds Gather Your Hair For Nesting, and I’m stunned I hadn’t found their work until now (but that’s the beauty of poetry books). I’m currently picnicking my way through Diana Khoi Nguyen’s The Ghost Of, Nicole Cooley’s Of Marriage, and Monica Youn’s Blackacre, which have been forcing me to stop and really think my way through the individual poems and collections as wholes. In the past year or so I’ve also enjoyed Lauren Clark’s Music for the Wedding, Ruth Awad’s Set Music To A Wildfire, Jenny Molberg’s Marvels of the Invisible, and anything by Jennifer Militello and Katie Ford. As you can see, I’m a huge proponent of reading other women, though I’m also a sucker for Ocean Vuong, Jack Gilbert, Chris Santiago, Paul Guest, Mark Wagenaar, and Richie Hoffman.  

SS: Is another poetry collection in your future?

ARW: God, I hope so (LOL). It’s likely at least another 10 years out, if I am being realistic. In order to write well, I need to be questioning or rebelling against something. Writing has become much slower going and I’ve become even more critical of what I do manage to write since finishing the poems in my book. At this point, I’m trying to remain open to a new project, whatever that might be, and it’ll come to me when the time is right.

SS: Thanks, Anna Rose. I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to talk to me about your book. I really admire your devastatingly beautiful work.

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Samantha Seto graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a B.A. as a Writing Seminars major and History of Art minor in December 2017. Her work is published at The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, Cornerstone Magazine, The Harvard Ichthus, The Yale Logos, Scarlet Leaf Review, Chicago Literati, The Penn Review, Global Vantage, Compulsive Reader, North of Oxford, Writing for Peace/DoveTales Journal, The Los Angeles Review, and The Collagist. She wrote a book, Midnight, published in August 2015. She loves comparative literature. Samantha lives in Washington, D.C.

The unholy idol of narrative: A Conversation with Alice Bolin by Peter LaBerge

BY MEREDITH DOENCH

 Alice Bolin, author of  Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession  (William Morrow, 2018).

Alice Bolin, author of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession (William Morrow, 2018).

Alice Bolin is the author of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, a New York Times Editor's Choice and  recipient of a Kirkus Star. Her nonfiction appears in publications including The New York Times, ELLE, Vulture, and Tin House. She is assistant professor of Creative Nonfiction at the University of Memphis.

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I fully admit it—I’m drawn to dead girl stories. It’s an easy pull given that so much of our popular culture employs the trope for entertainment. Dead girl stories are quite literally everywhere. As a thriller writer who has used the trope in my own writing, I was jazzed to read Alice Bolin’s critical essay collection, Dead Girls. What I found was a collection about so much more. Bolin uses the dead girl trope as an entrance into a journey, one that leads the reader through an Americana of popular culture, which expertly turns back around to examine itself. I was thrilled to have the chance to ask Bolin a few questions about her latest work.

Meredith Doench: The collection of Dead Girls covers so many different topics—it’s fascinating to see how they all eventually come together. How did you determine the structure for the book and what were your goals in the ordering of the essays? I’ve heard you refer to the book as the “unholy idol of narrative.” Could you explain what you mean by that and how it fits into the structure of your collection?   

Alice Bolin: The four sections of the book are mostly organized by similarities in topic—the first mostly about true crime and violence against women, the second about Los Angeles, the third about witchcraft and sisterhood, and the fourth a long essay thinking about when I moved to LA and the politics of white femininity. But I do intend for there to be sort of an evolution through the sections. I start out the way readers might expect, talking very explicitly about Dead Girls, but I didn’t want to dwell there. I wanted to try to find a way out—and I model that in the book, straying farther from the “Dead Girl” theory as I go on. I also wanted there to be a way in the book for me to reflect and revise what came before. In the introduction and in the last essay I was able to look at the first essays I wrote in the book and question the assumptions that undercut them.

In the first essay I say that Dead Girls are sacrifices to “the unholy idol of narrative,” meaning that one excuse for killing girls in pop culture is that “it’s a good story.” Today’s humans are addicted to stories, and we probably consume more of them than at any time in history. And these narratives help us to abstract and metabolize pain, like that of living in a violent, misogynist culture. I do see an overarching narrative in my book, but it’s obviously fragmented, out of order, doubling back on itself. I don’t necessarily want it to read smooth. I want the reader to be aware of their experience of reading it.

MD: I was very keen on interviewing you not only because I love works of cultural criticism, but also because the dead girl trope touches on my own work. One aspect of my writing is a lesbian thriller series where the first two books feature a string of “dead girls.” Your book has given me a lot to think about in this regard. You talk about how the dead girl trope can be found in genre and literary styles of writing. What responsibilities do you think an author has to her audience (and possibly culture) when working with this type of trope? Do you think there is any difference in responsibility between genre and literary writers?      

AB: This is a really interesting question. I think that a writer has both ethical and artistic responsibilities to her audience, meaning that she should tell a good story without also telling a damaging one. This is at the heart of my criticism of the Dead Girl story. That it’s not only politically suspect—the catalyst is a teenage girl body quite literally objectified—but also artistically lazy. If we’ve seen it a million times before, is it still a good story? So I think we can follow both our artistic and political instincts to avoid the clichés and pitfalls of this genre. There are a million ways to subvert or complicate this trope narratively, and quite often doing that creates a much fresher and more interesting product.

I think genre writers actually more often push the boundaries of these narrative formulas, because they are so self-referential and allusive—they take it as their duty to comment on and play with the genre conventions.

MD: I think that your father and I might be cut from the same cloth, at least in terms of our reading tastes! I was touched by the descriptions of your father’s personality and his active reading style. In many ways, the descriptions of your father reveal a lot about you. Was it difficult to incorporate such personal relationships and experiences in a book that also feels very academic at times?  

AB: It was difficult, though my relationship with my dad was the least difficult to write about, especially because he took a pretty active role in the writing process. I interviewed both him and my mom and let them read and give notes on the first draft of the essay. My dad loves the essay and keeps rereading it. He is such a ham and likes being one of the stars of the book.

I think to be a nonfiction writer you have to tell yourself that your relationships and experiences are yours to write about in whatever way you choose, but I’m not sure that’s true—I’m still working on not stepping on or appropriating other people’s stories when turning them into characters.

MD: One of my favorite parts about the book is that it brings up issues of writing—in particular, creative nonfiction. I’ve been thinking a lot about the question you ask regarding how you can use the form of the personal narrative without it using the writer. This “meta” question turns the reader’s eye toward the artist’s structure and choices of what to include (and exclude). In some ways, it is like your discussion of how the dead girl trope works. How does your work invite readers to pay attention and consider exactly what they are reading and watching (i.e. consuming)? Do you see what some might call the “blind consumption” of popular culture connecting with crimes against women and minorities in American culture?       

AB: It is really gratifying that you connected with this part of the book! By talking explicitly about the ethics of nonfiction and my specific aims with the book, I am not only inviting people to think about the ways the essays were created, but to take my conclusions with a grain of salt. I want to allow myself room to think things through and to change my mind, and to let my readers do the same. You’re right that one goal I had with the book was to encourage people to be more mindful consumers of popular culture, thinking about what trends and repeated narratives say about our values, and why we are drawn to what we are. I don’t think that that is going to solve all of our cultural problems—in fact it is probably the last place we should start if we want to end gun violence or violence against women or police brutality. But if our culture is a mirror on our values, we can clearly see the problems of our society by watching and reading more critically.

MD: In the not-so-distant wake of reports that Sherman Alexie has continually sexually harassed (his word, in his written statement, was “harmed”) women in the literary communities in which he was a part (and a HUGE name within), how do you feel about including Alexie in a book that seeks to illuminate the harm done to women by men? Had the timeline been different, would you have thought to exclude your analysis of Indian Killer as a part of your essay, “Black Hole,” or have you thought about revising the essay to include the reports? Also, you only briefly mention the privilege of the “Dead Girl,” that is the Dead [White] Girl, and I’m wondering why you neglected to include, in further depth, cultural criticism surrounding the murders of women of color and people of non-conforming genders/sexuality and, perhaps especially in “Black Hole,” the murders and disappearances of indigenous women in North America?

AB: I don’t think I would exclude Alexie entirely, but if the timeline were different I would have written about the allegations against him. I’m a critic, and my essays are not endorsements. I still think Alexie is an important, if obnoxious, figure, and the book I focus on, Indian Killer, is his least successful and most bizarre, with tons of gratuitous violence and no satisfying conclusions. Alexie used his institutional clout to prey on people and otherwise behave badly, and I think it’s crucial that he is stripped of that institutional power. But his literary legacy will have to be reckoned with, and had I had the time I would have considered the way his known transgressions reflect on Indian Killer, this troubling and complicated book. Whether that attention might add to his institutional power is a fair question, but that’s basically the minefield I work in every day.

I am talking mostly about fictional violence in the book (or the dramatized world of true crime), and I’m thinking about the reasons the murders of white girls and women hold so much sway in those arenas. In another version of the book, I would have written in more depth about the marginalized victims you mention, but in the end I decided that it was not primarily about murder and violent crime—it’s about Los Angeles, reality TV, witchcraft, writing, and my own experiences. The Dead Girl story becomes more of a case study or a backdrop; a way to understand both the threats and privileges I carry with me through the world and the paradoxical way white women can be both oppressed and oppressor.

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Meredith Doench teaches writing at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in literary journals such as Hayden's Ferry Review, Women's Studies Quarterly, and Gertrude. She served as a fiction editor at Camera Obscura: Journal of Literature and Photography and her first crime thriller, Crossed, was published by Bold Strokes Books in August 2015.  Her second, Forsaken Trust was released in May of 2017.  Deadeye will be released in early 2019.

Against Assimilation: A Conversation with Nicole Chung by Peter LaBerge

BY ADORA SVITAK

 Nicole Chung, author of  All You Can Ever Know  (Catapult, 2018).

Nicole Chung, author of All You Can Ever Know (Catapult, 2018).

Nicole Chung is the author of the memoir All You Can Ever Know, published in October 2018 and named a best book of the season by The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair, TIME, Newsday, ELLE, the Today Show, and more. Her essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Slate, Longreads, BuzzFeed, and Hazlitt, among many others. She is the editor-in-chief of Catapult magazine and the former managing editor of The Toast. Find her on Twitter @nicole_soojung.

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Adora Svitak: Your own journey of becoming a mother dovetailed with your discovery of your birth family. What did looking for them mean for you as you were expecting?

Nicole Chung: I had thought about looking for my birth family for years, ever since I was a kid, and yet at the same time I never seriously thought about it. I didn’t know how you would go about doing it. Sometimes people would say to me, “Have you ever thought about going on a TV talk show? They can find your birth parents for you.” And I’ve seen that—the reunions on television or private investigators—but it all just seemed so unlikely to me. I thought about it in the way I thought about any fantasy.

Becoming pregnant was that final push because for the first time, I had to think about the kind of parent I would be in a very real sense. Until you see the positive sign on the pregnancy test, it’s still very hypothetical. I kept coming back to these questions: what was my birth family really like, and why did they give me up?

Practically, there were also medical issues I wanted to know about. In my first prenatal appointment, they asked me questions about my family medical history and I had no idea how to answer. It was scary, and I remember thinking I should maybe try to find out more—not just for this pregnancy and the birth, but for after. What sort of questions will my child have? How can I provide those answers when I don't have them?

AS: You’ve written that thinking about race and identity for you started in college—can you expand on why that was?

NC: One reason was having the intellectual maturity to recognize when people said casually racist things to me. Growing up, I was pretty ignorant of when a microaggression was even happening to me. Remembering the stories now, it seems so obvious—kids pulled their eyes back or called me actual slurs. Eventually, I was able to recognize that as racism. But it took time to recognize the more casual things: people complimenting your English, always asking where you’re from, or the very particular type of microaggression adoptees get, which is hearing, “You’re so lucky to be raised here.” People would say to me, “You might have been murdered or something or abandoned or left in the street if you’d been raised in Asia—who knows if you’d be valued as a girl!” Well-meaning. But also gross. By college I could recognize those remarks for what they were. College was the first place where I had lots of friends of color; that had never been my experience growing up where I did in Oregon.

I was also a history major, and I don’t think there’s a way to study history without becoming very aware of systems of oppression. I had great professors who didn’t just say, “This all happened in the past.” They said, “[These injustices] happened here and this is why we still live with them, why they’re not gone.”

AS: There’s a lot of debate about what multiculturalism should look like in our society. I’m thinking here of the clash between Trevor Noah and the French ambassador, and assimilation versus hyphenated identities. How do you think questions of identity should be negotiated in multicultural society?

NC: When I talk to my kids, I don’t want them to feel that they have to choose between different parts of their heritage. They’re Korean and Irish and Lebanese. I don’t want them to feel like they have to hide or partition parts off. They are whole people, not fractions of this or that. America puts a lot of pressure on people of color and immigrants to assimilate, to not talk as much about race, not make such a big deal out of racism. Yet at the same time, as an adoptive person who was completely assimilated, I can say that assimilation doesn’t save you from anything or anybody. I couldn’t have been raised any whiter. I still experienced racism my whole life. Of course it is never enough for people, even if you are fully assimilated. So I think we shouldn’t [assimilate]. People should obviously do what makes them happy. I’m not worried about trying to please or trying to fit in because no matter what you do, for a lot of assholes, you will not ever be enough. So there’s a freedom now that comes from realizing that, a freedom to be who I am—and to try and teach my children to be who they are.

AS: When you write about your adoptive family in All You Can Ever Know, you mention they had a sort of “color-blind” attitude. What is the kind of attitude you wish white parents of children of color would take?

NC: It’s hard. I didn’t write the book to be prescriptive in any way, and I’m not an expert; there are counselors and social workers who specialize in interracial adoption. But speaking as a lay person and as a parent: we have to have hard conversations about race. And I think it is important for kids to not grow up as the only one [person of color in their community] if there’s any way to avoid it. I know it’s a privilege to think about moving or changing schools, churches, or community organizations. But you as a parent have to empathize with your children,  look at things from their perspective. Parents do this automatically. Before I go into a situation, I think—for both my kids, but especially my younger daughter who’s autistic—how they might experience that space. Is there a way that I can help prepare her for it? Is it a space that maybe isn’t the best for her, that she doesn’t need to be in?

We know from studies that many white parents of white children avoid talking to their kids about race. They may think that just raising them to be generally kind and tolerant is enough. We know it’s not enough. I know a lot of adoptive parents who love talking with their kids about culture and heritage but really struggle when they’re trying to talk about racism and bigotry and oppression. But if you’re really interrogating your connections, communities, your social circle and your family, you have some hard conversations. And you should bring them up; don’t wait for your child to always bring it up. They need to know from the time they’re verbal that it’s a topic, and that they can share their feelings or their questions. Not just about race but about adoption. They shouldn’t have to feel the burden is always on them to ask these questions, or to comfort you or make you feel like everything is great. Because that doesn’t make these problems we have as a country go away. Be honest and forthright. It’s difficult work. But it’s necessary.

AS: Knowing what you know now, is there any advice that you would give your younger self?

NC: I wish I’d had a word for what was happening to me throughout school—that I’d known to call that racism. At that time I thought of racism as something that looked so different, something in the past. And growing up in a white, conservative, and religious family, it took me a long time to start questioning certain things I was raised with. As an adoptee, I was sort of outsider in my family. Sometimes I didn’t agree with certain views, but the pressure to be “one of them” and to fit in—even within my own family—was so great, and I’d be the only one pushing back on certain topics. It was really hard to do that over and over, to be the only one. Often I just didn’t want to do it. I wish I had known it was okay to feel differently about these things in my family—looking back, the reason I felt differently was really obvious.

AS: Did you read any other memoirs that really inspired you while you were developing your book’s form and structure?

NC: I went in not knowing. You have an outline when you propose, but my book looks pretty different than my original outline. Structure was the hardest part of this. I wish I was the kind of writer who could read other people’s brilliant work and think, “Oh yeah, I totally see how they did that.” But I experience books I’m reading in the moment, so while writing I honestly wasn’t looking to any particular other books for form and structure. I’m teaching a class right now on this and this is everyone’s number one question: how do you figure out the structure? This was hard—I muddled through. I finished writing it in a year, and then had a few months where I took it apart and restructured.

AS: As a memoir by an Asian-American adoptee, All You Can Ever Know is groundbreaking in a number of ways. Why aren’t there more books like it?

NC: There are few memoirs by Asian-Americans. There’s Woman Warrior, and Amy Tan’s memoir just came out last year, and some others, but there weren’t a whole lot of examples when I started writing. And this book is very different than a lot of other books about adoption, because the discourse around adoption has been dominated for so long by people who aren’t adopted. Other people have told our stories for us or said what they should mean. So I really hope that if this book is at all successful, that it opens the door for more stories. As we continue to have an evolving conversation about adoption and transracial adoption in particular, I hope that the voices of adopted people are centered.

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Adora Svitak received her B.A. from UC Berkeley, where she majored in Development Studies and minored in South Asian Studies and Creative Writing (taking workshops with Vikram Chandra, Kaya Oakes, and Joyce Carol Oates). She was editor-in-chief of the Berkeley Political Review, and has previously contributed to Bust, TED, Social Science Matrix, Women’s Media Center, the Bold Italic, Slackjaw, Edutopia, and the Huffington Post.

Book as Chaotic Good: A Conversation with Erin Hoover by Peter LaBerge

BY AVNI VYAS

 Erin Hoover, author of  Barnburner  ( Elixir Press , 2018).

Erin Hoover, author of Barnburner (Elixir Press, 2018).

Erin Hoover’s debut poetry collection, Barnburner, was selected by Kathryn Nuernberger for Elixir Press's Antivenom Award. Individual poems from Barnburner have appeared in The Best American Poetry and Best New Poets series, and in journals such as Prairie Schooner, Narrative, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Pleiades. Hoover has served as past editor of the Southeast Review, volunteer for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, and co-founder of the literary organization Late Night Library. She earned a Ph.D. from Florida State University and currently teaches first-year writing.

Barnburner was released in October 2018 and is available for purchase from Small Press Distribution.

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Avni Vyas: Let me first just say how cool it is to read your collection from start to finish. There were poems I’d seen published in journals, one of which I remember emailing you about years ago (“What Is the Sisterhood to Me?”) because I simply couldn’t get it out of my head. So pardon my exuberance. It’s always an intimate act, reading the work of someone you know “off the page” rather than someone you only interact with through their work.

In the epigraph, we learn about the concept of a “barnburner,” and it helps frame the argument of the book, both in the external world the speaker inhabits, but also the speaker’s own interiority. Where, in the process of this book, did the idea of the barnburner emerge for you?

Erin Hoover: Everyone who read the book in early drafts, before it was titled, seemed to pull something different from the manuscript: it was a feminist book, or it was concerned with modernity in addressing technology and environmental degradation, or it was like a break-up letter to the working class town where I grew up. I wanted it to be all of those things, not point to one of them. This left me with trying to think more thematically in terms of the book’s emotional content, the tone that I felt tied the poems together. The word origins of barnburner have not only to do with anger, but with self-destruction, which appealed to me not in the sense of personal choice—a person who is self-destructive—but as a driver of American culture. I think the barnburner spirit exists not only in the content of stories, but in extreme rhetorical positions, where politically, you’ve got to dial yourself up to eleven to even be heard. I’m always wondering what people pick up from the book, politically.

AV: I enjoy how you characterize barnburning and how the speaker internalizes it, self-sabotage to earnestly be rid of something—a political framework, a history, a civilization—in order to start over. In Hindu mythology, there’s this concept of the Nataraja, who I’ve always considered a barnburner. Nartaraj is an incarnation of Shiva who appeared on Earth (according to seventh-century poets) in order to disrupt the power held by corrupt sages and rulers. Nataraj defeats his enemies by dancing the earth into flames, calling forth the end of an old era.

EH: Most of the poems have to do with the failure of some ideal that was once held very closely by the people who populate them; I don’t mean nostalgia, but basic social contract stuff around how to value your partner or the worth of work. On the other hand, I hope that readers will see that Barnburner is full of people who are trying to make real connections with one another in the midst of chaotic moral territory, from the first poem where the speaker is trying to subvert the call center script to the last poem where the robber we’re supposed to be afraid of in the poem extends kindness to the pathetic “Valkyrie” character, and vice versa.

AV: Poets have incredible power in engaging politics, and I think Barnburner rises to this occasion, indicating that language helps us identify what to burn down, and language gives us room to start over.

For instance, in the poem “PR Opportunity at the Food Bank,” the speaker questions the larger framework for this “opportunity.” (“This interview / shouldn't be an interrogation, / but with the room's folding table and awful / light bulb, two white people, / me and a journalist, it's clear screws // will be put.”) Then, the speaker finally identifies the question everyone wants answered: “Who is responsible for your poverty?” As a reader, I could see this question being asked all along by the poem, but when it confronts the reader like that, you can't help but engage your own assumptions within that narrative: how am I disenfranchised? am I protected? how have I contributed to others' poverty? The poem openly engages a discomfort and vulnerability we need to better understand, especially in such a politically exhausting time. Do you think poems have a political responsibility or play a role in the process of affecting political change?

EH: In political spheres, language is sometimes used to make the suffering of other people palatable to an audience. As someone who worked in communications for a long time, it is exhausting for me to listen to politicians and pundits because the obfuscation is so apparent. I believe in using language to articulate issues of authentic concern through the vehicle of story. I think this is one reason that in my poems, I have been determined to talk as plainly as I could. For all of the reasons you mention, “PR Opportunity at the Food Bank,” deals very directly with the relationship between language and meaning and the theory and praxis of activism. (“Recalibration” is another poem that I would put in that category.) I want to live an ethical life, and I think that people who will like this book want to engage with how to do that.

I really like what you have to say about Barnburner in some part illustrating the potential capability of poetic language to affect change. Poetry has a limited audience, yes, but that audience is growing, and I think poetry is intersecting more now with other forms of cultural production, so that poems might have some kind of reverberating effect.

AV: It seems, too, that the people in the poems are aware of the limitations of our best intentions as a way to provide for each other. The poems present a constantly shifting tectonic landscape—how do we provide for each other when even the ground won’t stay still?  (“Every party / has a fulcrum, everyone in control / and then no one” from “If You Are Confused…”) The speaker’s interiority and rhetorical questions offer some idea as to the desire of these connections.

EH: I have to admit that I don’t have a very unified theory of the speaker to present; I think it’s the most complicated part of Barnburner, for some of the reasons you identified. I’m wary of identifying her too closely with me, in part because of a national obsession with seeking out the autobiographical threads in women’s writing. Regarding so-called Confessional Poetry, what most people miss are the other aspects of craft that you are going to have to engage to write about the contents of your life. Narrative figuration is a craft I have worked hard to learn; I don’t think that the experiences that I have had are inherently interesting. In Barnburner, there isn’t intended to be narrative arc where we as readers come to a realization. At first I played around with trying to do something like that, but it wasn’t how the poems were written. If the book had a character alignment, it would be “chaotic good.”  

AV: Yes! The poems in Barnburner are seductive in a rhetorical way; they beg unanswerable questions. The subjects—sex, drugs, power—are all intoxicants, and the poems treat these themes accordingly, in moves that are all lovelorn, heartbreaking, scorned. For me, the poems some people may read as lurid reveal the stakes of the speakers, and indeed, the stakes of Barnburner as a whole. (“If You Are Confused…”, “What Kind of Deal...”, and “Takedown” are representative poems of this kind.) Stakes of power, consent, and desire are textured and detailed, which the poems establish for its reader organically. In terms of sexuality, I think of the violence and antipathy enacted by systems onto individuals. To characterize the book as lurid would be to miss the revolt and upheaval in the collection.

In the poem “Girls,” the speaker wades into the territory of desire and acceptance. The turn in the poem comes for me when the speaker declares: “I wanted to be a woman / who could Take Back the Night Somewhere, // hang with those bad bitches at Seneca Falls, / but I’d kissed a drummer from Staten Island / for no better reason than he chose me.” Rather than position the speaker’s desire to be accepted against her desire to be a badass, I appreciate that the poem calls out the temptation to separate those desires in the first place. Can you describe the “absurd position of having been found”?

EH: I’m glad you brought up that line. I intended “Girls” to be a poem that made sense on the narrative level but also lay out a theory of feminism that people could dig into if they wanted, and that is mostly accomplished through the speaker’s internal monologue as she moves through the drama of the poem. While I stand by the job I did evoking the atmospheric messiness of backstage, my interest isn’t really in what happens there, but what the speaker’s intense reaction to it, both an embrace of third-wave, postmodern feminism (the line you mention) and yet a longing for the first- and second-wave feminism of yore in earlier lines. And then it gets highly rhetorical at the end in a way that I hope I pull off as a rejection of gender essentialism. I started writing it after watching the show Girls, which for a while was a real cultural touch point, though I’m glad that I took most of the original references to the show out of the poem.

AV: If Barnburner is a kind of call to action (I read it that way, especially in the penultimate poem, “With Gratitude to Those Who Have Made This Book Possible”: “My job // is to notice”), what kind of action would you want it to be?

EH: That line was meant to clarify the ones before and after it, which describe the overlap between New York’s leisure class and its culture class. As someone who has been adjacent to those people, I have to say, I’m not shocked when we don’t get the literature we need to help us change our toxic culture, because often producers of culture benefit from the status quo. I think the stakes for writing now should be as high as we deserve. And I think part of what we need to do is observe what is actually happening. What are the real and imperfect contents of people’s lived lives? What are our struggles? What does injustice look like?  Real change is usually messy and I really believe that poetry can help us think it through.

AV: When you call your speaker chaotic good character (yes!!), it made me think of how the speaker embraces chaos in many of the poems. Barnburner includes drugs among one of its topics, and in my reading, this serves to deepen arguments around a larger cultural anxiety and escapism. However, Barnburner doesn’t centralize addiction as one of its primary focuses, nor offer a resolution about their role, for instance in “Science Fiction: A Love Poem”: “But what if // there is no evolution, / beyond the good days / of the dope we share and its reliable / result?”

EH: Early readers of the manuscript criticized it for not having something to say about hard drug use, although drugs appeared in the poems, sort of like the rule about Chekhov’s gun. What I wanted to get across instead is how atmospheric opioids can become to a person's life or to the life of their community.  Like what if the drugs weren’t equivalent to a gun, but the color a wall was painted in a scene? At the same time, I was really fascinated by how drug economies work, the communities that form around using. In many ways they parallel legal economics and communities, the difference being that from outside there is this notion that drug addiction is a moral failing, the very definition of not being able to resist a temptation. But of course anyone who knows anything about drugs from a sociological perspective knows that hard drug use is usually about a million other things, and to view them as a matter of individual failing gets a lot of people whose problem this really should be off the hook. Anyway, the more I talk about Barnburner, the more I think about the vision of morality it presents, and in the book, drugs are amoral, in that the people who do them aren't bad or good, necessarily. I hope readers won’t fault the book for not engaging with the way drugs hurt people, locally or even globally. I can only say that the book wasn’t about those issues.

AV: We’re seeing a fascinating moment in the literary landscape where the democratization of the Internet has undone some of the artifices of gatekeeping in traditional publishing models. I think I welcome the floodgates opening because writers and readers are finding one another more immediately without having to go through a publisher. I'm fascinated by this moment where readers celebrate, say, Instagram poets like Rupi Kaur. Kazim Ali identifies this interesting position: “Kaur’s verses—okay, okay, her poems—are simple and yes, I would say, simplistic, but they are obviously resonating with a wide and deep audience.” Regardless of the work’s effectiveness, the social response to poems becomes just as important as the work itself. In your experience, which texts “mentored” Barnburner? Were there particular writers or collections that guided or influenced the book? Who are you reading these days?

EH: Very early on in my “career” writing poems, I decided that it was important for me that an audience connect with what I had written. If I didn’t think I could interest someone else, I wasn’t interested. I often think about how the life of an individual might intersect with phenomena people share in common. For instance, part of my origin story as a poet is that I was two months old when Three Mile Island happened, a baby living in a shadow of a potential nuclear disaster whose lack of agency was only surpassed by that of the adults around her, who didn’t have the money to leave central Pennsylvania. That accident impacted my childhood in a few ways, in that I think I have always mistrusted my environment—there was always this sense that my safety was subject to an invisible danger. So of course that’s a topic I’m going to write about (“Nobody Wanted Such a River,” “The Evacuation Shadow”), not only because it’s compelling to me, but I think metaphorically will work for a reader processing their own dangers.

In her introduction to Barnburner, Kathryn Nuernberger made a very apt comparison to Robert Frost, who was a poet very conscious of wanting to write for people; he was a genius not only of the rhythms of the line but of telling stories, of developing characters. I also think that books that explore the way that the contents of an individual life or a place become part of mythology are in kinship with mine, such as Muriel Rukeyer’s Book of the Dead, and more recently, Claudia Emerson’s Secure the Shadow. I was reading these books as wrote Barnburner in a way I can’t confess to reading Frost. I was also reading Plath, who hardly shows up in interviews like this anymore—because we are all supposed to know Plath—though I think that people who read Barnburner will see her under the surface of my book.

After I’d already written Barnburner, I read Troy, Michigan by Wendy S. Walters, and I admired the way Walters connects psyche and place—what a masterful book! I also will read anything written by Monica Youn, out of pure admiration, because I think she is obsessed with the way words sound and the way they resonate, with the etymology of words and ideas. As Youn’s interest in language seems influenced by studying law, my work is in some ways drawn out of my prior career in public relations.

I tried to organize the book conscious of how a reader would see it, in terms of pace, looking at poem length, considering the perspectives in the poems. I wanted to create a book that was more successful as a book than that poems were in their component parts. In a way, it was easier for me, because although I’d written the book poem by poem not thinking of them as parts of a whole, the worldview of the poems was consistent. Getting back to what you said about Rupi Kaur, I wanted Barnburner to be readable, I wanted people to like reading it, the same way I picked up Sharon Olds’ Satan Says when I was on a break from my high school job at a bookstore and couldn’t put it down. That guided my decisions as much as wanting to tell of the racist patriarchy or make a critique of late-stage capitalism.

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Avni Vyas is a poet living and writing in Florida. Her poetry can be found in journals such as Grist, Meridian, River Styx, Juked, Crab Orchard Review, Gargoyle, Better Magazine, and others. With Anne Barngrover, she is the author of the poetry chapbook Candy in Our Brains (CutBank). She is an Instructor of Writing at New College of Florida.

The Blurry Years: A Conversation with Eleanor Kriseman by Peter LaBerge

BY SHANNON BRADY

 Photo credit: Jeff Clanet. Eleanor Kriseman, author of   The Blurry Years     ( Two Dollar Radio , 2018).

Photo credit: Jeff Clanet. Eleanor Kriseman, author of The Blurry Years (Two Dollar Radio, 2018).

Eleanor Kriseman is a social worker in New York City. She was born and raised in Florida.

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Shannon Brady: First off, I want to say how much I enjoyed reading The Blurry Years and becoming immersed in your protagonist Callie’s world. Her loneliness, with an absent father and irresponsible, alcoholic mother is poignant. From the beginning I was expecting something terrible and relieved by her pluckiness and resilience. How did Callie come to life for you?

Eleanor Kriseman: The book started as a short story, which is the middle section of the book where Callie and Jazz meet. I kept writing about Callie and filling in her early adolescence and the book grew from there.

SB: Callie is an intriguing protagonist. When we first meet her she’s well read, getting good grades, generally raising herself and trying for a long time to not blame her mother for all the turmoil, irregularity, and danger she brought into her life. Her mom, Jeanie, is complicated. How did you approach writing about Callie’s mother?

EK: I wrote a couple of chapters from Jeanie’s perspective that I know wouldn’t be a part of the book. Even though I knew I wouldn’t use it, I needed to have an idea of her backstory and past history, so she wouldn’t be just a villain. I wanted her needs and wants to be palpable, too.

SB: Motherhood is such a loaded topic and role in our society. The unrealistic expectations for grandeur and martyrdom go hand in hand and there’s the other extreme of irresponsibility, neglect, and abuse. It doesn’t seem like we have many cultural or literary models for sustainable, balanced motherhood. Are there any literary mothers you love to hate or hate to love?

EK: I think this is also a loaded question, in addition to a loaded topic. I certainly didn’t want to contribute another mother to “love to hate” or “hate to love” to the canon, and I hope I’ve managed to give Jeanie enough credit and complexity to understand why she might mother the way she does. Callie’s father is largely absent from the novel—I think he’s only mentioned once or twice, but as far as they know, he’s still alive. He’s still out there. But Jeanie’s the one taking care of Callie, not him. The dynamics and responsibilities of parenthood are so gendered, even today, that mothers are the ‘default parent,’ and everyone seems to have an idea of how they could be doing their jobs better (without offering any support to accompany that advice).

SB: I agree that parenthood continues to be gendered and full of unsupported advice, and that as flawed as she is, Jeanie was the present parent to Callie. I also think you did a lovely job of not editorializing about Jeanie but showing her actions and how Callie responded. Was that tough? Dealing with motherhood and parenting and the safety of children, I wonder if there was a temptation to judge her on the page?

EK: It was incredibly tough to write Jeanie. I actually did write at least one chapter from her point of view, as a separate story originally, but it didn’t feel right to insert it into Callie’s story, so it didn’t stay in the manuscript. But, you know, as much as this book is not a memoir, or autobiographical, it is much easier for me to put myself in a position to feel as a daughter than as a mother, even though my life circumstances and relationship with my mom are nothing like Callie and Jeanie’s. What I tried to do—and I don’t know if it fully worked—is to craft her character in a way that would both explain her actions but not necessarily excuse them. Neglect and abuse and cruelty—those are cyclical and systemic issues, and often get passed down from generation to generation, or exacerbated by the precarity of economic instability. Rather than judging her, I’d hope that a reader—by the end of the novel—might get a sense of Jeanie’s own pain, or frustration, or setbacks that played into her identity as a mother.

SB: I was immersed in Callie’s perspective, but I did clearly see the effects of Jeanie’s parenting and the pressure of her having to parent alone, especially as Callie becomes a teen and her life takes a darker, more troubling turn. The weekend I was finishing your book, I also saw a powerful teen performance of Eve Ensler’s Emotional Creatures. It’s a play whose monologues of teens in different parts of the world explore their pain, subjugation, confusion, and their strength. The sexualization of teens was also reflected in your book. How did you approach Callie’s sexualization?

EK: I think it is deeply sad. The way teenage girls are sexualized has changed, but the way it makes a teenage girl feel is the same. When dealing with it in writing, I start with feeling and work out the circumstances from there.

SB: From your work as a social worker, have you seen some of the teen issues you explored in your novel?

EK: Most of the book was written long before I became a social worker. I began when I was a student and continued when I was working in publishing. It’s an age I’ve always been interested in. Now, it’s important to me to not mine the stories of anyone I work with and to keep it very separate. I’ll be at a middle school this year and definitely want to keep my work and writing separate.

SB: That makes sense. You have a good understanding and presentation of teens that comes throughout your work.

EK: It’s easier to write as an adolescent because that time marks you and I’ve lived through it. Right now I don’t feel as if I have the authority and knowledge to write much older characters.

SB: Do you have favorite teen literary characters?

EK: A Complicated Kindness is the coming-of-age story of a young girl in a Mennonite community in rural Canada. It was written by one of my favorite writers, Miriam Toews. I first read her book at age 15 and read it about once a year.

SB: As you read it again, has Toews’s book changed for you?

EK: Initially I was all about the teen narrator, but as I get older, I can interpret and understand the decisions of the other characters more. I also return to I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. It came out in 1948 and has a teen narrator who lives in a crumbling castle with her father and sister. It is a very funny book, basically her journal.

SB: Do you have a favorite genre?

EK: I like coming-of-age, short stories, and place-based novels, especially if it’s someplace I’ve never been.

SB: Speaking of place, although your book is Callie’s story, another protagonist seems to be Florida. Clearly you know the place well and infuse the setting with vivid, lush details that make the reader able to feel the humidity, the pools, the languor, the long, hot, lonely days. What does Florida represent to Callie?

EK: I love that you got the sense that there were two protagonists here, one being place (Florida in particular.) I think Florida represents something very different to Callie than it does to many other people—for Callie, Florida isn’t a vacation destination, or a relaxing break from reality. It is her reality. So the things she finds special and intriguing about it aren’t necessarily what the rest of the world does—a glimpse into the refrigerator of a rich woman whose son she babysits is just as “exotic” and foreign to her as “life on the beach” would be to anyone else. And I think, at least later on in the book, she becomes somewhat aware that what Florida represents to her does not align with the rest of the world’s perceptions of and about it.

SB: Your cover art conveys that duality of Florida well, with a picture of a young girl on the beach holding a blue balloon and another shot of a high-rise apartment and palm trees next to rubble. How did you choose your art?

EK: My mom owned a bookstore when I was growing up and I worked there, and then in another indie bookstore in Brooklyn, then in publishing, so I know that people judge a book by its cover. I was fortunate to have a lot of creative input with Two Dollar Radio. An old friend of the family, Bryan Thomas, did a photography series about the areas of Florida hardest hit by climate change. He calls it The Sea in the Darkness Calls. He had already combined the two images on the cover as a diptych and I liked the juxtaposition.

SB: I found it intriguing that you set your story in the past. What made you choose the late-seventies and early-eighties?

EK: I don’t like writing about cell phones. Hopefully it’s a limitation I won’t always impose upon myself, but cell phones have changed dynamics and communication and I didn’t want to write about that with Callie. It also makes it easier to say it’s not me. People assume autobiography or memoir about this book, and the time setting became a nice barrier. It’s really interesting working with teens now and I’m fascinated by how their communication is evolving. I love reading work set in the present day and writers who are able to weave miscommunication via technology into their work.

SB: Did your writing about Florida happen when you lived there or once you moved to New York?

EK: New York. I’ve lived in the city for 10 years. I came for college at NYU and have a degree in French language and literature, which is the least practical thing you can study. I started writing this book my last semester of undergraduate and finished the rest when working at a bookstore or in publishing. I wouldn’t have seen Florida as clearly had I not left.

SB: Are there any best times of day, places, or ways for you to write?

EK: Late evenings and early mornings on the weekends are good because it feels quieter in terms of the city, not everyone is out doing things. I write at home in a corner near a window. I also like the NYU library. It’s very calm and quiet. I work best when I have constraints on time and when my job doesn’t require the same kind of thinking. I don’t do as well with having a lot of time!

SB: What would you suggest to someone starting out and wanting to write and publish while holding down a day job?

EK: Break things up into more manageable tasks to make it less daunting. Start with a story or chapter. You can submit small parts of something larger and that can fuel your creative process.

SB: What are ways for readers to follow you and your work?

EK: I have an author Instagram account where I’ve been posting old pictures and things researched when writing. There are pictures from my childhood, vintage tourism posters, and images from photographers like Stephen Shore, who used to take extensive cross-country trips in the ‘70s and managed to work Florida into his route on at least one of them!

SB: I’ll take a look at it and look forward to continuing to read your writing. Thanks for chatting and sharing your process and thoughts.

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Shannon Brady has written about dance for The Village Voice, book reviews for The New York Times Book Review, reporting for Vanity Fair and various other freelance writing projects and poetry publications. Shannon once joined a dance troupe in order to write a profile about the choreographer. She has taught high school and college writing in New York and California.

Courting Sadness: A Conversation with Aaron Smith by Peter LaBerge

BY AIDAN FORSTER

 Aaron Smith, author of  Primer  (Pitt Poetry Series, 2016).

Aaron Smith, author of Primer (Pitt Poetry Series, 2016).

Aaron Smith is the author of three books of poetry published by the Pitt Poetry Series: Blue on Blue Ground, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize; Appetite, an NPR Great Read, and finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize and the Publishing Triangle's Thom Gunn Award; and Primer, a Massachusetts Center for the Book "Poetry Must Read." His chapbooks include Men in Groups and What's Required, winner of the Frank O'Hara Award. His work has appeared in numerous publications including Court Green, Guernica, Ploughshares and Best American Poetry. A three-time finalist for the Lambda literary award, he is the recipient of fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. He is associate professor of creative writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His new book, The Book of Daniel, will be published by the Pitt Poetry Series in 2019.

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Aidan Forster: Having read Appetite and Blue on Blue Ground, Primer strikes me as a shift of your lyric needle, a sobering reflection on the episodic escalation of a queer youth and middle age inflected by depression. How has the experience of writing Primer differed from that of your other collections? In what ways was it the same?

Aaron Smith: Blue on Blue Ground, that’s the book that came out of graduate school. I finished graduate school in 1998—20 years ago—so things have changed significantly. You sort of know there’s a book happening, but you don’t really know what putting a book together means, so I was just sort of writing poem by poem, and then I didn’t start shaping it for a long time, or I had versions of it. Blue on Blue Ground was a really lonely book, and it was also a book where, in graduate school, I really realized I was about to start writing queer. It seems silly now, I think, to generations coming up, but we were attacked for identity politics. They were like, “Nobody wants to hear this,” “Think about your audience,” “No one wants to read the lives of gay people—you’ve gotta think about everyone.” It’s thrilling to see now that so many people are bringing their identities to poetry.

Blue on Blue Ground sort of slipped up on me. I wrote poems, and then I sat down with a mentor and we talked about it together. So it was really poem-by-poem. Appetite was the most miserable book to write. What’s funny is people think, Oh, it’s fun. The long movie poemI Love the Part” is in the middle, then there are these Daniel Craig poems—there’s definitely intensity—but I wrote and wrote, and I thought I had a finished version. I sent it to my publisher, and my editor, Ed Ochester at the Pitt Poetry Series who has been really wonderful to me, was like “I don’t think it’s done. I wanna do your second book, but I don’t think it’s finished.” And he was right. He circled ten poems that were working, and that’s ten poems out of an entire manuscript! I was like, Oh my god, I’m never gonna get this done! Then I got snowed in in Buckhannon, West Virginia where I was teaching, a miserable little town with a college and amazing faculty, and that’s when I started writing “I Love the Part.” I was watching movie clips, and that sort of exploded the whole book for me. I do think there’s a history in gay writing: gay men, we’re dishy, and we’re chatty (the New York School poets do this). I’ll say it for me, I don’t want to make any assumptions for all gay men, but the tradition that’s interested me is where we’re gossiping or we’re chatty, and I think “I Love the Part” opened that voice up for me, where I could sort of critique these things while they’re happening, sort of a fun queer aesthetic. And then it sort of pushed all the other poems, and more poems showed up.

I didn’t write for two years after I wrote Appetite. It was so miserable. I like the book now, but I would say in some ways I still don’t even understand it, which is not the thing a writer should say. I get it, but my relationship’s very different, maybe, than what someone else’s relationship to it would be. As for Primer—I have dealt with depression my whole life, and it’s always a weird thing to write about as a gay person, because it’s like: He’s sad because he’s gay, and I didn’t want that to happen. But the truth is I was sad, and I am gay. I felt like I was silencing this part of myself and there was also this sort of weird responsibility to a community. I’ve also really been questioning: what’s community? What’s that mean? Sometimes it feels like really powerful, urban, gay white men who make decisions about marriage rights and equality forgetting rural queers, trans people, people of color, so I was really questioning this idea of community. I always write my truth, and I was in a really bad place. I grew up a Fundamentalist Christian, as you can see in the books, but I’m no longer that, obviously—and I said something about the gay community one day to a really smart therapist, and she said, “Oh, I didn’t know you left one fundamentalist church for another one.” She had me. 

My friend Peter Covino, who’s a wonderful gay poet, started a group, seven of us, and once a week we had to send a draft of something to the group. There was no critique—it was just a deadline. My day was Thursday, and I would just treat it as a deadline. Even though I was depressed and I was teaching, I was like, I have to get this done. I would spend an hour writing just to get my piece in, and a lot of the poems about depression showed up, and I wasn’t going to censor them. I understand there’s shame in the book, and I know it’s sort of a taboo to talk about gay shame. We’re supposed to be the “It Gets Better!” movement, and I was like, Maybe it doesn’t always get better. Maybe it gets better, then it gets complicated in different ways, and I just thought I wasn’t being truthful by not writing about this. I knew it was complicated to write about suicide. I didn’t want to glorify it, and I don’t think I did, but as an artist, I wasn’t being true to myself to pretend like that aspect of myself didn’t exist. So, in some ways, I feel like the first two books were a lot more about queer identity and this one was investigating a lot of sadnesses and this secret depression. Because I’m queer, the work’s always gay, queer, but it felt different for me, too, it felt formally different. One of the poems, “Still Life with Gun,” has mostly one syllables or two syllables. I was trying to capture how I speak. I was reading poets who were pretty narrative, and I wasn’t trying to do a lot of tricks. I just wanted to tell what I wanted to tell. David Wojnarowicz, an amazing queer artist, said, and I’m paraphrasing: “I make art for two reasons: so I can see things in the world that look like me and I don’t feel so lonely” and “to debunk the myth that we’re a one-tribe nation.” We might be gay, but we’re not all the same. I love my students, who are open to fluidity and to identifying themselves in ways that are truthful, and it’s a really thrilling time, in that sense, for me to think about queer community.

A. Forster: The myriad speakers in Primer contend with internalized architectures of shame at every turn: a boy’s shame at his inability to mirror his father, or a young adult trapped in the perceived victimhood of his own desire (as in “Bleached,” the speaker “afraid someone would know [he] had a body / [he] wanted to do things with”). As a denizen of the American South, Primer’s prismatic look at shame resonated with my lived queer experience. What do you consider to be the role of shame in your poetry?

A. Smith: I’m extremely interested in shame, the places the larger party line says we should be past: No, you come out, now you can get married and join the military, and you don’t have shame, and that’s not true. I grew up Fundamentalist Christian. I was told I was going to hell not just by family but by everyone around me. I was told my desire was wrong, that my body was wrong. We obviously still have the AIDS epidemic, but I grew up when there was no real treatment or preventative drugs to help people live, so I was basically told that if I were gay I would die of AIDS and I was going to hell. I didn’t have the luxury of moving on and saying, I’m post-shame. I love being in uncomfortable spaces. I was fortunate to study with the poet Toi Derricotte, and she’s always in those spaces that are complicated, where sexuality intersects with family and identity and race. She asked me once in graduate school, Why do you keep the poems about your family and your Christian upbringing separate from your poems about gayness? What would happen if you merged them all together? Of course, I was terrified. Once I started doing that, it opened up everything for me as an artist.

I’ve had people tell me to be careful about shock value in my poems about sex. I literally write about sexuality because I think it’s one of the great confusions of my life. Having sex, the body—I’m always trying to figure out what it means. I don’t know if you’ve seen the comedy special everyone’s talking about, Nanette by Hannah Gadsby, but she’s so open about how she’s middle-aged and she didn’t want to come out to her grandmother because she still has shame. I just don’t believe that queer people in this culture, at least at my age, are completely shame-free, and I just wanted to talk about it, and I always want to talk about it. I want to investigate it, and think about it, and I want to live in the places and the spaces that make me uncomfortable and sort of bring them out, to say it’s still there and maybe eradicate it from myself. I’m a little too jaded to say I can change the world, but I think I can change myself, which makes me better in the world, and thus maybe the world gets a little bit better and a little bit easier. But it’s an obsession. I think some people didn’t like [Primer] because I wasn’t supposed to talk about gay shame, and I just didn’t care. I really had to let go of the notion of what I thought was trendy or interesting for other people and really be honest. I’ve had so many people tell me how much they appreciated that I talked about suicidal ideation, that I talked about being in middle-age and still having shame, or pockets of it that live inside me. Obviously, I’m not the twenty-three-year-old who feels that way. I was thinking about how my sister and my mom and I were in a car and a man got out and started screaming at us over a parking space. It was really nasty, but I think this is Trump’s America now. This is the second time I’ve been attacked in a year—two men bashed up my car when I accidentally cut them off several months before this incident—and I’m sitting there, and I pulled my Mace out, and I said, “You need to get away from my car.” He said, “Oh yeah? You’re going to Mace me? I’ll just call the police on you.” It was so fascinating to me that he was so entitled to his anger and his position and his straight-white-male privilege that he still believed it was my fault. I realized I was wearing these really fantastic women’s vintage Oscar de la Renta glasses, and my family sort of joked about it, but a part of me wondered if I was blaming myself for having fem glasses on. Where’s my shame? When’s it my fault? On subtle levels, I’m still catering to people, or fearful for my life, and it makes me feel ashamed, but I’m also trying to figure out safety, not being murdered. I never thought I would feel this way at forty-four, but I’m more afraid of straight white men than I’ve ever been in my life.

So, all these things are swirling in my head, and shame’s in there, and it’s all been complicated by a world that seems more willing to be vocally nastier and uglier. I will probably always write about shame. I just finished a new book, and my friend said it’s totally in new areas of shame. In Nanette, Gadsby says you put a kid in shame and have them soak in it, and they lose the language for how to communicate outside of it. We’re having to re-teach ourselves. I see some youngsters coming out at twelve with absolutely no shame and I love it, but that wasn’t my experience, and I think I should write my truth, which sometimes isn’t trendy. But I also don’t live this life where I’m constantly beaten down by shame. These are moments, these are poems, and I sit down and think about these things, and then I make dinner and have a normal life.

A. Forster: Primer populates itself with acts of witness and invokes the poet and speaker as voyeurs of their own desire. I’m thinking, especially, of the poem “Liquid,” in which the speaker creates an implicit distinction between himself and those who think “it’s normal to be beautiful / and looked at,” delineates a sexually-charged interaction between himself and a muscled runner, and imparts a wonderfully delicate eros at the poem’s conclusion. Here and elsewhere, the speaker finds a microcosmic poetic reality in the beatific body of another. What is the significance of witness and sight as forms of poetic world-building?

A. Smith: The last thing in the world I want to do is pretend like I’m not implicated. It’s so easy to find a headline where someone has been homophobic and write a poem saying that person is terrible and I’m right because I see it. I miss “doubt” in poetry right now. I want places where we know what’s right, but maybe the speaker is confused or implicated, and they’re investigating their role. I can critique that body culture, but I’m also a man who is sexual, so it’s a weird moment. I’m trying to live up to this ideal that I’ve never lived up to, but, at the same time, I’m mad that I feel this pressure to do that. At times, I look at men in books and I objectify them because men need to be objectified a little bit because women have been going through it for years, but I also try to lampoon it. I make fun of David Beckham—I compare him to myself—and there’s a self-loathing in that. I think I’m a year older than him, and I feel like we’re two different species. What does it mean to try to fit in? I wonder what it would be like to be looked at, or to be the default, what a different life that must be. I’m not saying that I should never be seen, but I like feeling invisible because then I think I can be an artist. There are times when I think, What a burden to be looked at, what a burden to walk into a room and have everyone look at you. I’m fascinated by bodies and how we move in them, our different experiences of them. I’ve had men tell me, “If you just worked out, you’d be really handsome,” and that was a time in my life when I ate almost nothing and worked out six days a week. That was my twenties, when I was so confused about what I should look like and be. I’m fascinated by these blind spots and how we don’t take care of each other.

A. Forster: In addition to writing poems, you also teach creative writing. In what way has teaching influenced your work as a poet?

A. Smith: At a very practical level, it has made me a much better editor of my own work. I spend so much time critiquing that when I go back to my own poems I’m really fast. I’m like, Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. But I have to be careful not to start editing before I finish writing my poems—I have to tell myself to just keep going. But it’s made me really think about how I put poems together and how my students put poems together. I think I’m a good teacher, and I think a mark of a good teacher is seeing what your students try to do and bringing that out instead of saying, No, a poem must be this, and it reminds me of how many different ways there are to do this. I also enjoy when my students are pushing into new territory. I’ve had students write about being asexual, which I’ve not really seen in literature. I have students who are writing about being non-binary or being trans, and I find some of the most exciting writing happening in that space where we’re dealing with a gendered language, taking he/she out and using they, and finding ways to represent that on the page with a language that wants to norm. I love thinking about those sorts of problems with language in writing, and I’m really thrilled right now when I read really smart work by trans students. I’m at Lesley University, and so many  students in my classes are progressive, and I get really excited to see how everyone’s thinking. I get really excited about where I see queer poetry going, particularly trans poetry. I find it to be one of the most exciting spaces now. Jos Charles is a poet I’m very fascinated with, and I’m looking forward to reading her book feeld. She has a book called Safe Space, and I think that book investigates what the language can be pushed into.

A. Forster: I’ve heard a lot of poets say they write the poems they needed to read in their youth. Is Primer a retrospective almanac for a younger Aaron Smith? Who are you priming, and for what?

A. Smith: I think the younger Aaron Smith may have been too afraid of it. Maybe college-aged Aaron would have read it. When I think about you [Aidan]  reading it in high school, I’m happy. I was still in the heart of Fundamentalism and confused when I was in high school. It’s funny, with this new book I’ve been writing, I’ve been going back and digging through significant poets for me. I ordered a new copy of Alice Walker’s Her Blue Body Everything We Know. As I’ve gotten older, people have told me her poems aren’t as great, but I was looking through them, and it brought back almost a muscle memory for me, a memory of how radical it was that she’s questioning Jesus. I didn’t know you could question God. I would’ve been a little afraid of Primer, but college Aaron would have been happy to find it. I remember finding David Trinidad. David and I have become friends over the years, over his work and the work of Tim Dlugos, and when I found them, I was like, Oh! Ok! Timothy Liu’s book, Burnt Offerings, was hugely important for me. But before that, I was reading women. Men weren’t writing for me. I could find women, and they were saying things and putting their bodies on the page, and I could identify that way. Many gay men of my generation would watch movies and pretend we were the women. These women poets, who have always been important to me, were trailblazing so much space, and it started with finding that Alice Walker book and then exploding from there. I finally found queer men, and then I had these amazing women poets, these amazing queer poets, these queer poets of color and women poets of color, and they just opened the door for me.

So, I think college Aaron would have been more prepared for Primer. I also think college Aaron might have been afraid because Primer is a little bleak and he would’ve hated thinking that it was going to be tough in his forties. But, that was really a medication issue. I didn’t get the proper diagnosis for what was going on in my head until a couple years ago. I told so many doctors that I was sad and I fantasized about wanting to kill myself, and they were all like, Here’s Zoloft, the standard. Twenty years later, I’m sitting in therapy, and I’m at my lowest, maybe three years ago, and every morning I’m waking up (it’s in the poem “Blue Exits”) thinking, Should I go to work or should I kill myself? Well, I’ll go to work. I think it was more passive ideation, but that can lead to active ideation. My grandfather was a suicide, and I knew it was something that could be passed down, and they finally identified, between this therapist and the psychiatrist, that I had PTSD from my childhood. I was like, PTSD? I didn’t go to war! But they said, “No, you were so demolished by Fundamentalist Christianity that we think you have PTSD.” Then they got the meds adjusted and I woke up like, Wow, I missed half of my life. If Primer can make somebody start asking questions earlier, then I’m thrilled. I wish I could’ve found a book like it, started asking questions and maybe advocating for myself earlier. If you’re depressed, it’s hard to advocate for yourself. Now I look at Primer and I’m so glad that I wrote it, but it also makes me really sad to look at. Even the forms in Primer—the clipped lines or the enjambment or the tight poems—can remind me of the sadness. In my new book, The Book of Daniel, I’ve been double-spacing, I’ve been playing, I’ve been laughing. It still has intensity and sadness and so on, but I had to change my relationship to form, or I didn’t know if I was going to keep writing. I had another long period of silence. I don’t think I wrote for a couple years after Primer was turned in. I hear people say they have to write, but not so much for me. I can just watch TV and read magazines and look at books when I’m not writing. But I love writing, and I’ve gotten back to where I really love it as an art, and it’s been a lot more fun when I’m not so sad. One thing I tell students: if you have to be sad to be an artist, then don’t be an artist. If you’re an artist and you’re sad, that’s fine, but if you think you have to court sadness in order to be an artist, then I urge you to run away from it. It’s so much better to be happy.

A. Forster: What’s next for you and your work?

A. Smith: I saw an interview with Ada Limón where she said she was a lyric narrative poet. I’m not afraid of narrative—I know that’s a dirty word sometimes, and it was being discussed when I was in graduate school, and it’s still being discussed—and I go back to the idea that there’s room for everything. Let’s quit saying there’s one way. Even as we’ve been talking here, you see how I have so many things that I keep bringing in, and I had a moment where I was like, Can I get that on the page? So that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been double-spacing a lot. I’ve been letting the next thought come and seeing where it takes me, and then in revision, making sure there’s some kind of thru line. I don’t want poems that are just weird things thrown together—I want them to have an emotional heft to them. When I took some time away from poetry, I went to Instagram and started making nine-square collages. They’re very irreverent, erotic. I was doing really well, but then people started reporting them, I’ve had some censorship. But at the same time, it brought me back to poetry. I thought, Can I get a quote by Plath in but also reference a Frank O’Hara poem? I’ve been giving myself these challenges—like, I’ve always wanted to write a poem about Alexander McQueen, so I’m going to title this poem “Alexander McQueen” and see what happens. That’s been thrilling. Primer was really line by line and week by week, but I’ve had so much fun rethinking my process and working on The Book of Daniel: it’s been about getting my influences in and getting a reference to Cher with a reference to Plath. That’s what makes me excited, thinking how can I put these things in. Letting these different voices in, letting tangential things happen, letting the way that I think onto the page, then still trying to keep the energy up, the line breaks interesting, and feeling the form differently. Like I said, Primer, when I look at it, makes me a little sad because the actual forms of the poems remind me of the sadness, so I really tried to shift into different ways of writing to re-energize myself, and it’s been a lot of fun.

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Aidan Forster is a queer poet from South Carolina. a 2018 U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts, his work has been honored by the National YoungArts Foundation, the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the Poetry Society of America, and the Poetry Society of the United Kingdom, among others. His work appears in or is forthcoming from The Adroit Journal, Best New Poets 2017, BOAAT, Columbia Poetry Review, The Journal, and Tin House, among others. He is a 2017 Tin House Summer Scholar in Poetry and reads poetry for Muzzle. His debut chapbook of poems, Exit Pastoral, is forthcoming from YesYes Books in November of 2018. He attends Brown University and plans to study Literary Arts and Gender & Sexuality Studies.

Stay good: A Conversation with Tommy Pico by Peter LaBerge

BY KIRAN BATH

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Tommy “Teebs” Pico is the author of the books IRL (Birds, LLC, 2016), winner of the 2017 Brooklyn Library Literary Prize and a finalist for the 2018 Kate Tufts Discovery Award, Nature Poem (Tin House Books, 2017), winner of a 2018 American Book Award and finalist for the 2018 Lambda Literary Award, Junk (Tin House Books, 2018), and Feed (forthcoming 2019 from Tin House Books). He was a Queer/Art/Mentors inaugural fellow, 2013 Lambda Literary fellow in poetry, a 2017 Fellow in Poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts, was awarded a 2018 Whiting Award, and has been profiled in Time Out New York, the New York Times, and the New Yorker. Originally from the Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay nation, he now lives in Brooklyn where he co-curates the reading series Poets With Attitude (PWA) with Morgan Parker, co-hosts the podcast Food 4 Thot, and is a contributing editor at Literary Hub. @heyteebs

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I am just going to call it. Tommy “Teebs” Pico’s voice is one of the most exciting things to have happened to contemporary poetry.  In an era where GIFs and character restricted tweets have attained unprecedented levels of cultural currency, Pico resuscitates long form poetry and wonderfully distorts expectations of language, space and time as he maps out an extended meditation on what it is we are anchored by and what the stuffing of our lives says about us.

In its prologue, Junk is described as “a break up poem in couplets,” and what this reader found was a visceral gallery of the human condition. In the space of a page, Pico redirects our attention from his candy cravings to his consumption of critical music lyrics (people often overlook the gravity of the Erykah Badu lyric, “I’m feelin kinda heavy/cos my high is comin down”) to his afflictions with the New York gay scene (Edible is the birthright of all butts but I hate gay guys so much There’s this idea that only some bodies are worthy of desire) to mourning the genocide of his native ancestors (America wants its NDNs weary, slumped over the broken horse...but I’m giving you NDN joy NDN laughter NDN freedom) to deeply profound observations of our nature (The way “to see” is also to apprehend? It can’t be that sight is isolating It’s like taking a dip With the water on all ends you are suddenly your whole entire skin). Junk compacts as it expands, Pico’s language takes up space and commands movement in ways that make you learn about poetry on the page.

Reading Junk is consuming art in the truest sense. And like all prize-winning art (yes, earlier this year Pico was awarded the Whiting Award, and just this week the American Book Award), the sum parts of Junk cannot be quantified, only understood and beheld through the lens of each reader as we are forced to consider our own pillars for self-orientation.

Junk is the third in a trilogy of Pico’s published books, and the prolific poet just finished the manuscript for his fourth. He also makes up one quarter of the luminary gay literati behind the hilarious and seriously intellectual Food4Thot podcast. I had the pleasure of speaking to the charismatic poet about Junk, his poetry career, our mutual worship of Janet Jackson, and plenty more.

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Kiran Bath:  Tell me about your commitment to poetry as a career. I remember in one of your Food4Thot podcast episodes you described a moment where you were sitting in a café with a friend in Williamsburg and decided there and then, “I'm going to make this poet thing work What has this journey taken from you? What has it given you?

Tommy Pico: Oh yes that was my friend Chantal (who is a new fellow at the Center for Fiction in NYC! Yay friends!). That decision has probably done some terrible stuff to my blood pressure, wrecked my nerves, upended any sense of job or apartment or income security, facilitated the opening of new credit cards to pay off old credit cards, usurped any energy that I could have committed to a romantic partner etc. etc. etc. But it’s given me a real sense of artistic community, a deep understanding of my direct line to my ancestors, and has given me the satisfaction of knowing that I am capable of anything if I put my mind and my energy and my whole ass into it.

KB: I’m in awe of the stamina that goes into your poetic form, long streams of consciousness that flow into one another and back and forth. Can you describe how this flow works through your mind and onto the page?

TP: I just try my hardest to affect on the page the kind of curiosity and obsession and circuitous Ms. Pacman-ing that happens in my brain thing all the time. It takes drafts, it takes long stretches of working on it a little bit everyday, and short bursts of fireworks that leave me wanting to sleep for, like, 20 years. I’ve just committed to the process, so we’re seeing each other through our ups and our downs.

KB:  Landscape always plays a significant role in your work. In Junk the constant references to the urban foreground and junk food consumption (“mint sour patch kid”, “chicken tikka pizza,” “dumbo carousel park,” “west village karaoke,” etc.) adds a layer of surrealism to the language, which is fun to experience as a reader. This theme seems to be a natural continuation of your previous book, Nature Poem, where you really stick it to the stereotypical expectations of American Indian writing. What has helped you to deny those expectations from impacting your work, and what advice can you give to other poets in giving permission to oneself to do the same?

TP: I don’t think it’s about denying expectations, because I think that has the potential to perhaps reify them even further or create/reinforce all kinds of defense mechanisms. In my case anyway I think it was more about me looking at those expectations very plainly, always staying curious about them, listening to them and where they come from, so that when it came time for me to write it wasn’t with an ignorance or denial of those expectations, but a kind of shouldering through them, and ultimately trying to be all parts of my identity: native, queer, urban, hard femme, jokey, loud, shy, sexy, etc. etc. etc. so that it couldn’t be reduced to any one kind of perspective.

KB: That is a super constructive approach to it and wonderful for aiding self growth. In terms of navigating the online world, and as someone who has a love/hate relationship with Instagram, it’s been really interesting for me to watch how poets and writers I follow use social media and how they’ve adapted to its dynamics. What is your relationship to social media? Do you think it’s important for artists to maintain a social media presence today?

TP: I am not good at making proclamations about what other people should do, so I can’t say it’s important or not to maintain a social media existence. More and more my opinion is don’t do it, because that place is vicious and quick and devoid of nuance. But being quick, it also moves on to fresh meat every six hours. For me, it’s a place for my punchlines and my puns and save-the-dates. I have to delete it regularly, because I don’t really have good impulse control and in general it’s not great for my mental health. I live for the day when I can get off everything and get a landline and sit in the dark alone with my eyes closed lol.

KB: Argh. Same. I feel like apps like Instagram tend to take much more from your identity than feeding it sometimes.

Moving on, I think poets are custodians of culture as much as any other artist, and in that sense what you contribute through writing with authenticity and what you embody through ownership and celebration of your identity as a queer Native American poet is critical for the culture and society we want to create for the next generation (and ours!). Does this concept of being a custodian of culture resonate with you? Do you think there is an obligation for poets to be as authentic as possible to perpetuate this?

TP: My bff Lauren (Wilkinson, look for her debut novel next year from Random House [yay friends!]) said one time that poets were stewards of language so anytime I text her a portmanteau or whatever I hashtag it stew-stew of lang-lang, so I suppose I am a custodian of culture. That question of authenticity is like a game of Whac-A-Mole or something. Most of the time you miss it and even when you hit on it it’s not like anything really changes. And then it’s gone and there you go trying again. But yes, in that sense I think it’s important to fail and miss and that’s pretty authentic, to me.

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KB: In reading your work and the work of other poets there is sometimes a fine line between themes of self-loathing and self-deprecation. Maybe there is no bright line, and certainly many of us don’t actively observe the distinction when we’re in our zone of creating. What are your thoughts on this? How do you practice tenderness with yourself?

TP: Writing sucks and I hate it and it’s very hard and when I give my writing over to someone to look at, it feels like a stab throughout my nervous system or like drinking green tea on an empty stomach. Gag reflex. It’s mortifying. I’m in therapy. I’m mostly okay. When those imaginary detractors come armed to the teeth, the tenderness I try to practice is to let those thoughts come without judgment, without evaluating their worthiness, without trying to push them away or smother them into my ample bosom. Like I said before, to hear them and stay curious and let them go when they eventually peel away, because they always do.

KB: Exactly. Much easier said than done, I’m sure. Now as a fellow fanatic of Janet, I deeply appreciate your reverence of her throughout Junk, and I lost my shit at the J.Lo reference where I think you refer to her cameo in “That’s the Way Love Goes.” How has Janet inspired you as an artist?

TP: Janet is to me a model of someone who continues to make things and put them out there on her own time, kind of like Sade. I saw Janet in concert last year and I wept openly throughout the whole thing because for as long as I’ve been alive she’s been putting music out there, so she’s been a constant refrain in my life. There’s the me during “Control.” There’s the me during “That’s the Way Love Goes.” There’s the me during “Velvet Rope.” There’s the me during “Damita Jo.” And then me and her and this tour. All of my old selves fused into one. It was like she was touching me at all stages of my life and saying I was okay, that I was enough, beautiful even. Anyway I lost my voice that night for the first time in my life and for the next two days I could barely say a gd thing—and the thing is, my voice is super important to me, it’s the only thing I can control, but I was like welp. If I gave me voice up to Janet I can’t imagine a better host.

KG:  Yep, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, your voice is audio silk!

It is such an exciting time for poetry and especially for poets of color, and what makes it even more special is to see how many of the celebrated contemporary poets uplift one another and form close friendships. Who are some of your peer poets that you are excited about?

TP: Jfc so many, too many to list and even if I started I would be leaving some others out and that would not be cute. There are three rn that I want to bring yr attention to because they are new additions into my reading list and you need to be ready for them: Destiny Birdsong, George Abraham, and Ananda Naima Gonzalez. Just wait. Oh and in terms of peers I am super obsessed with Anastacia-Renée Tolbert bc she is probably my favorite performer with my favorite voice and these poems that take my breath awaaaaaaaaaaay.

KB: To close, I want to remark on a challenge for many creatives who come to NY, and that is finding community, both artistically and socially. What does your community(ies) and support network look like? How did you build it? What kind of a bearing (if at all) has it had to your artistic development?

TP: This is a very big answer that I’m going to have to reduce into a very small one because I have to go sign a lease lol. My community has always been lateral. They are all around you, just look out for them. Go to their readings, show up at their book parties, write them nice notes about poems or whatever that you liked. Show up for them when they need you, offer them help if you have the time, and court them like lovers, you know? I made an arts collective in Brooklyn called Birdsong made up of a lot of artists, writers, musicians and academics from 2008-2013 and I made sure to give them and myself an outlet for our creativity and a direction for our ambition. Start somewhere, keep going, stay good.

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Kiran Bath is a multi-disciplinary artist from Brooklyn by way of Sydney. Her work has appeared in Tidal, Antiserious, Live FAST magazine and other journals. Kiran’s work explores themes of sexual liberation, misogyny and identity from a first generation perspective.  She received a fellowship from Brooklyn Poets and she was also a finalist for the annual Yawper of the Year prize. As well as dreaming up poetry, Kiran explores storytelling through film photography and critical essays. You can catch Kiran reading at random events around the city or through her borderline neurotic instagram stories. @kiranbath_

Documenting and Detailing: A Conversation with Lauren Camp by Peter LaBerge

BY HEIDI SEABORN

 Lauren Camp, author of  Turquoise Door  (3: A Taos Press, 2018).

Lauren Camp, author of Turquoise Door (3: A Taos Press, 2018).

Lauren Camp is the author of four books of poetry: Turquoise Door (3: A Taos Press, 2018); One Hundred Hungers (Tupelo Press, 2016), winner of the Dorset Prize; The Dailiness, winner of the National Federation of Press Women Poetry Prize and a World Literature Today “Editor’s Pick;” and This Business of Wisdom. Lauren is the recipient of a fellowship from the Black Earth Institute, residencies from Willapa Bay AiR, the Gaea Foundation, and the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, and a finalist citation for the Arab American Book Award. In 2018, she presented her poems at the original Mayo Clinic, and her work has been translated into Mandarin, Turkish, Spanish and Arabic. She lives and teaches in New Mexico.

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When arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan moved from Greenwich Village to Taos, New Mexico in 1917, she continued her tradition of gathering a creative community around her that included Martha Graham, Georgia O’Keeffe, D. H. Lawrence, Robinson Jeffers, Willa Cather, and Ansel Adams. Mabel’s house, now a historic hotel and conference center, invited Lauren Camp as its visiting poet-in-residence during the summer of 2013. Lauren’s fourth book, Turquoise Door, Finding Mabel Dodge Luhan in New Mexico (3: A Taos Press, September 2018) emerged from this time.

Heidi Seaborn: Congratulations on the publication of Turquoise Door, it is a beautiful and arresting book. I have actually visited Mabel Dodge Luhan’s house in Taos. It is a bit off the beaten path. What brought you there and to write this book?

Lauren Camp: I was invited to be the poet-in-residence in the summer of 2013. Even though I live in Santa Fe (not that far from Taos), I had not really experienced The Mabel Dodge Luhan House. I came into the residency thinking it would give me time to work on two other projects—one being One Hundred Hungers, a collection about my father’s boyhood in Iraq. But a few days after I arrived, I felt the place and history grab ahold of me and I needed to set Baghdad aside and be in Taos in the 1920s. I pretty much wrote the entire draft of this manuscript in my little cottage on the grounds during my two weeks there.

HS: Wow! To have walked in to a place with one idea and walk out a couple weeks later with the draft of this gorgeous manuscript is extraordinary. What happened to open up this creative stream?

LC: Thank you. It was amazing. I remember that on the drive to Taos, I was very, very hot. When I arrived, the person greeting me was calm and kind. She guided me through the public rooms and gave a little history. I felt welcomed, and it put me at ease. The people working at the house were quite knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Mabel’s history. I felt this little tickle of a past time. I asked a lot of questions and listened. Suddenly, it became a world that I needed to explore. I started documenting what I was hearing and experiencing as poems. I came home a few weeks later with 52 pages of poems and a working title (which I later changed and changed again). That was pretty exciting. The poems, over the next couple of years, went through massive revisions, but I had a good start. In revising, I was building context. For me, both Turquoise Door and One Hundred Hungers have context—they are a whole thing.

HS: What about the poems written as letters to Mabel. They seem to break in as if to draw attention to what the speaker is experiencing?

LC: The letters to Mabel came later. To bridge the gap between the historical and the present, I chose to correspond with Mabel. Writing letters to someone is a beautiful action—it takes time, is one-to-one. I wrote to her with respect, as a thoughtful person. Each letter gave me a way to talk about what I was doing in the space she called home and express that back, through time, to her.

HS: I felt from the very first poem that you were escaping something when you came to Taos. What were you running from?

LC: I was escaping. It was a dramatic fire season that summer. I was escaping the wildfires. Early summer in New Mexico is sometimes difficult when there is no promise of rain. It’s dry and hot and there is nothing you can do about it. It is heart wrenching. But Taos is up, just far enough to get away. While I was driving up to Taos from Santa Fe, I was soaked from the sun blistering thru the car windows. Then I arrive in Taos, and everything is joyful. It took me an hour and half to drive there and in that time everything changed. Supposedly, when Mabel first came, the trip from Santa Fe to Taos took 17 hours!

HS: Place is so important in your work and you take your reader directly into the landscape whether its Baghdad or New York or now New Mexico. This collection is such a love letter to your adopted state, New Mexico.

LC: It is! When I travel, I try to write. It’s my way of holding things that seem valuable and figuring out places. I came to poetry after having moved to New Mexico. Living here and writing poetry have given me a “focused witnessing” ability that I didn’t have before. Poetry has allowed me to take in what I wanted to take in: a tree, an angle, a detail. I photograph in this way, too—very focused on specifics rather than a grand overall picture.

HS: You are physically moving through these poems, experiencing this time and place, rather than observing. I’m curious what made you enter so directly into this world and make it your own?

LC: I suppose that reflects how I initially wrote the poems. It wasn’t so much a years later, looking back sort of approach. Everything was happening in the present or the very near past. I was documenting and detailing. Later, when I went back to revise, I could find a poem's truth more clearly, which, in some ways, turned out to be different from my truth.

HS: The sky is ever present in this collection. The sky is in the majority of the poems and yet your images of the sky surprised, each evocative and new. The sky is almost its own persona. Was it the lack of rain? The drought?

LC: When you live here you have to write about the sky. It is certainly a subject that remains strong for me after two decades. The drought was around me, over me. Drought in New Mexico is like a wool blanket—so heavy and oppressive. No way to get relief, no rain.

HS: Do you experience drought as a writer?

LC: I don’t experience dry spells, or maybe it’s more accurate to acknowledge that I don’t think of the writing process that way. I can always drop into revision and stay within that. I don’t write every day or generate every day. I don’t want to sit with a blank piece of paper and fill it. I want to write when I have something to write. I revise every day. There can be long stretches when I am not writing and then when I am compelled, I write a lot.

HS: As you were apparently during this residency at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House? Was this different than other residencies?

LC: I’ve done five residencies; this was my second one. Almost all have been self-directed. In this case, I was in a cottage on the property—Auntie’s Cottage, where I could retreat to write at this adorable little table. But I tended to do that only at night. The poet-in-residence wasn’t meant to be a public thing, but I made it a public thing because it was a busy time at Mabel’s, and I’m a social person. I interacted with everyone. I was both guest and part of the house. People would arrive and sit by the fireplace as they did a hundred years earlier. That history took hold and instead of writing what I had planned to write, this came.

HS: Was it Mabel’s spirit at work?

LC: Perhaps, in that Mabel was a connector. She brought people to be with her. I don’t think I would have liked her, and she definitely wouldn’t have been interested in me at all! She was ending her third marriage when she arrived in Taos and then was onto her fourth marriage quickly. Her whole life she was seeking something. Seeking the love or attention that she didn’t get as a child. She started these salons—what she called gatherings, first in Italy, then in Greenwich Village.

In Taos, her goal was to create a Utopian society, continuing the salons. In that time, Taos was an outpost, inaccessible, not overtaken by tourists. She jumped into a space that she didn’t belong in and made herself at home. Soon artists and writers from all over the world were making the long trip to Taos to be with Mabel. People such as Willa Cather, Georgia O’Keeffe, Rebecca Strand. Georgia O’Keeffe’s first introduction to Taos was through Mabel. She came three times to Mabel’s Taos house, and ultimately made New Mexico her home. It was here that she made her most important art. Mabel brought people and gave them the possibility of a different viewpoint. Such an amazing gift for a creative person!

HS: Many of the people drawn to Mabel also influenced numerous poems in this collection.  I’m thinking of the poems about D. H. Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams in particular.

LC: Yes, Mabel was a conduit to all these artists. The Ansel Adams photo. for example, drove me to research his style, and in particular that photo (Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941). I wanted to understand where that came from and how he got that image, which led to my poem “Exposure.”

My visit to Lucero Peak Cave, where D. H. Lawrence set his short story “The Woman Who Rode Away,” was a great adventure. It was fascinating to write about a place that he had written about, as if I had stepped into his fiction when I stepped into the cave.

HS: Yet the sweep of your work in this book is about more than Mabel and the artists or Taos in the 1920s, to me I read also a landscape of grief?

LC: Yes, grief and love and loss and place. This is what I return to over and over. Turquoise Door is a love letter to a time and place. I often choose to write about individuals and set their stories in a place, and then I work to make that place come into being.

HS: And you have done that with Turquoise Door. The reader has a deep and complete sense of living under that vast New Mexican sky. You have taken us behind the Turquoise Door to experience a time and place, to get lost, to feel loss. Thank you for taking us with you on this journey, and for talking with me about your process writing this remarkable new collection.

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Since Heidi Seaborn started writing in 2016, her poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Nimrod, Mississippi Review, Penn Review, Yemassee Journal, American Journal of Poetry and in her chapbook Finding My Way Home. She’s won or been shortlisted for over a dozen awards including the Rita Dove Poetry Prize. Her award-winning debut book of poetry, Give a Girl Chaos (see what she can do) is forthcoming from Mastodon Publishing/C&R Press. She’s a New York University MFA candidate, graduate of Stanford University and serves on The Adroit Journal staff. www.heidiseabornpoet.com.

This body is an inheritance: A Conversation with Elissa Washuta by Peter LaBerge

BY MEREDITH DOENCH

 Elissa Washuta, author of  Starvation Mode  (Future Tense Books: e-pub, 2015; chapbook, 2018).

Elissa Washuta, author of Starvation Mode (Future Tense Books: e-pub, 2015; chapbook, 2018).

Elissa Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and a nonfiction writer. She is the author of Starvation Mode and My Body Is a Book of Rules, named a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. With Theresa Warburton, she is co-editor of the forthcoming anthology Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers. She has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, 4Culture, Potlatch Fund, and Hugo House. Elissa is an assistant professor of creative writing at the Ohio State University.

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Meredith Doench: Your memoir, Starvation Mode, was an interesting read, and I was fascinated with the chosen structure. It covers a large span of time—early childhood into adulthood. I think it can be difficult to write about long stretches of a life so clearly and so succinctly, but your memoir does so beautifully, in large part because of its clear framework. It’s written in three parts and uses a collection of 36 rules as section breaks for Part I and four lies in Part II. Why did you choose such a structure for the book, and how long did it take you to find it? How did the use of vignettes as oppose to lengthy narrative highlight the message of the book?

Elissa Washuta: In beginning to write this book, I presented myself with a structural challenge: to, within a span of about twelve thousand words, using linear chronology, recount my entire life’s history of eating. I was driven by my anger at a review of my first book: the reviewer faulted me for, among other things, failing to apologize for my eating disorder and dysmorphia. I knew responding directly wasn’t the classy thing to do, so I responded with this book in which I tried to dig in further and even more unapologetically. I wanted to experiment with linear chronology because my first book is non-linear. Segmentation and quick glimpses allow me to span a lot of time without rushing: the focus is sharp and fast-moving, without transitions. Using transitional connective tissue would bore me, and so I hardly ever do it. I absolutely reject the idea that prose mastery requires the ability to incorporate seamless transitions.

I was struggling with that project, though, because the idea of being bound within linear time bored me. I believe I’d just heard Claire Vaye Watkins give a lecture on “craft transgressions,” ways of raising the stakes by breaking the rules set by the piece. Part II halts the progress of that recounting of eating that I undertook in Part I.

MD: “I absolutely reject the idea that prose mastery requires the ability to incorporate seamless transitions.” I love this, and I have also given it a lot of thought to this in my own writing.  I like how this method engages readers in a way that invites them to participate in the prose rather than being spoon-fed the ideas. Do you see this as something that designates [creative nonfiction] as literary (as opposed to genre writing)?

EW: I’m not actually sure I know what the distinction is—not in a concrete, detailed way, anyway, not well enough to delineate a designation. I think it’s possible that the method and purpose of inquiry separate the different approaches to nonfiction, but I’m just as willing to believe that the separations are arbitrary and flimsy.

MD: As someone who has struggled with disordered eating since my early teens, I could relate to much of what is written in Starvation Mode. The part that really smacked my gut with recognition was “Rule 9. YOU MUST EAT ONLY SIX HUNDRED CALORIES PER DAY.”  This section so clearly and accurately describes what I’ve always referred to as the betrayal of my body (the moment I grew breasts and my hips widened). You write about how quickly these changes occurred for you and the idea that starving the body would stop these changes. For many of us, this is the moment that changed everything regarding personal relationships with our bodies. It also intersects, in some ways, with issues of gender. Did you find this emotional topic difficult to write about so openly and honestly?

EW: This book was hard to write, craft-wise, but it wasn’t difficult emotionally. Writing My Body Is a Book of Rules was so hard I had to pummel myself with alcohol and cigarettes to get through it—I was remembering acts of sexual violence that I’d forgotten about or remembered only partially. The same is true for the book I’m working on now. But Starvation Mode felt like an opportunity to explore the interior that was responsible for the public acts people around me saw: my weirdly fast and focused eating, my denigration of my own body, my strange and hard-to-keep-up-with dietary restrictions. I felt like I had a chance to explain myself.

MD: Another aspect of the memoir I found fascinating was the discussion of meat (whether to eat it or not), and how the body, despite the mind’s knowledge of its needed protein, made it difficult to swallow/ingest the meat. I’m fascinated by the “mind” of the body, and it’s depicted so clearly in your work. In many ways, I found these references to be reminiscent of Roxane Gay’s Hunger and the way she writes about her extensive nutritional knowledge that is overpowered by the physical body’s hunger. In your own memoir, do you see the body working against the mind or the other way around? How do these polarities in your work add to the larger discussion of bodies and their hunger/starvation?

EW: I think it’s possible that my difficulties with meat are the result of inadequate stomach acid, which can be caused by stress. I mean, that’s what the Internet says. I think in this way, the body is working with the mind: I feel constantly stressed and anxious, and my body behaves accordingly, focusing less on digesting food and more on responding to the stressor. I wrote Starvation Mode about three and a half years ago, and at that time, the Paleo Diet still had quite a hold on me (not that it doesn’t at all now, but I don’t follow it, even if its rules still run through my head), and I really thought I needed meat in my diet, so on top of the ever-present life stresses of trying to make enough money to survive and trying to stay safe while living among men, I was stressed about the fact that I thought I should be eating meat but couldn’t.

I don’t really know how my work is situated within the larger discussion of bodies and hunger. I don’t read other books about disordered eating. I still have patterns of disordered eating, and I can slip back into a full-blown eating disorder very easily.

MD: The fear of slipping back into a full-blown disorder at any moment is stress-provoking in itself! As I was reading, I wondered if this memoir served as a release for you in regards to disordered eating. Do you feel like your life is different now? Have you let go of some of these issues that plagued you in the past?  

EW: No, I don’t think it was a release. Maybe temporarily, but years later, I’m still struggling with it. I just drank a bottle of Ensure instead of eating a meal. My eating and appetite problems are basically the same as they’ve always been. I think the difference, now, is that I’m older and I’ve accepted it and I’m not hiding that I sometimes struggle to stop eating Doritos and sometimes struggle to eat anything at all. I drank the Ensure in my colleague’s office. I think now, I’m more willing to let people in to see it in life and not just on the page. Maybe now that it’s been dealt with in narrative, I’m able to detach it from one.

MD: I found the pairing of binge eating and mental health/medication interesting. Many of the descriptions regarding food during this point of the memoir feature such an urgency to binge, such a deep starvation and hunger within the body: “I would rip [the bag] open at the seams on my kitchen counter and devour the contents like a jackal with her face at a mess of entrails.” Could you explain your thinking about the weight gain that occurred during this period? Was it simply primal need of the body or was the weight a form of protection?    

EW: I don’t think it was either, exactly—I don’t know the mechanism of action of the drug that caused the weight gain, but when I began taking an antipsychotic drug, I gained weight quickly, probably in large part because it made me so ravenous. So in a way, the body did suddenly have this need, but I think of it not as primal but as manufactured and imposed.

I know that other people have spoken to the emotionally protective effects of fat, but that has not been my experience. I constantly find myself—even now, in my house, having not been in the proximity of another human for almost 24 hours—contorting my body to make it smaller. I wrap my legs around each other twice when I sit, I keep my elbows close to my ribs, I often try to gather myself when I’m in public and somebody walks near me in an enclosed space. I am always trying to take up less space. Taking up more so suddenly, without time to adjust, was hard for me.

MD: Your speaker makes a clear point throughout the book that food, no matter how good it might be, doesn’t fill her: “What can I tell you? I am full of holes. I have found many ways to stuff them full.” This idea has been part of a much larger cultural narrative regarding hunger, the body, and women’s identity with the flesh they inhabit, particularly for obese individuals. How do you see your memoir expanding or joining the larger conversation on a “starving” American society? Do you see this as an issue for all genders and races?            

EW: I can only speak to my experience as a Cowlitz woman. I’ve been thin for most of my life. I definitely don’t believe that my problems are necessarily representative of anyone else’s experience of their own body, so it’s hard for me to speak to the larger conversation—I tried to tunnel into my own brain and my experience as deeply as I could.

I think Starvation Mode is really a book about the ways that hunger and romantic or sexual desire have gotten tangled up for me, about boys and men looking at my body and thinking it should be different, and that look is the thing I was devouring. But I’ve been single for years now. Now, if a man thinks my body should be different, he doesn’t get to touch it. My god, I’ve wasted so much of my life listening to broken men tell me to start running or eat Paleo because I needed to be “fit.” Speaking to other Native women about our shapes has helped—I’m never not going to have a thick waist (even at a size zero, with my ribs showing, I had belly fat) and I’m never not going to have a bony ass. This body is an inheritance. Eating has become a lot less charged for me. I mean, I’m still full of holes, and I have more ways than ever to stuff them full, so I keep having things to write about.  

MD: I love the idea of the “body is an inheritance.” It’s not something I’ve given much thought to regarding my own body. Do you see any connection with this quote and your statement that eating has become a lot less charged for you?  

EW: I think so, at least in part. As I said, the eating problems have remained, but I’ve come to (usually) accept and even appreciate the appearance of my body as it is, so I’m not deliberately restricting my intake anymore at all. I’m not sure what changed, but I know that I look at my mother and my ancestors and see clearly that they are and were beautiful, and that I look like them. It’s hard to talk about the period after the end of tension, because as a person who builds narratives, I’m following and modulating the tension. In real life, I wish my ass weren’t bony some days and don’t think about it on others; I notice the lack of definition in my upper arms in a photo and promptly forget about it. I suspect that the answer is as simple as the fact that I realized a few years ago that wearing dresses makes me stop feeling the constant nagging of a waistband digging into my belly, so I hardly wear pants, and I’ve been able to let go of that ever-present, back-of-mind feeling that something with the body isn’t right.

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Meredith Doench teaches writing at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in literary journals such as Hayden's Ferry Review, Women's Studies Quarterly, and Gertrude. She served as a fiction editor at Camera Obscura: Journal of Literature and Photography and her first crime thriller, Crossed, was published by Bold Strokes Books in August 2015.  Her second, Forsaken Trust was released in May of 2017.  Deadeye will be released in early 2019.

 

World Before Page: A Conversation with Jamel Brinkley by Peter LaBerge

BY LEAH JOHNSON

 Jamel Brinkley, author of  A Lucky Man  (Graywolf Press, 2018).

Jamel Brinkley, author of A Lucky Man (Graywolf Press, 2018).

Jamel Brinkley is the author of A Lucky Man: Stories (Graywolf Press/A Public Space Books). His fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Best American Short Stories 2018A Public Space, Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, The Threepenny Review, Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, Epiphany, and LitMag. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was also the 2016-17 Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. His work has received support from Kimbilio Fiction, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, the Tin House Summer Workshop, and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Beginning this fall, he will be a 2018-2020 Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford University.

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Leah Johnson: Hi, Jamel! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions about this raw, moving collection. When you began to craft A Lucky Man, what works and what tradition, if any, did you believe it to be in conversation with?

Jamel Brinkley: Thank you! I appreciate the opportunity. In terms of your question, I didn’t think about the fact that I was writing a collection until fairly late in the game. Prior to that, I was just working on one story and then another story and so on. In some cases, I felt I was trying to be in conversation with individual stories by other writers, including “Old Boys, Old Girls,” by Edward P. Jones, “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin, “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,” by Yiyun Li, “The Mistress,” by Gina Berriault, and “The Ascent,” by Ron Rash. As I began to think of the stories as a possible book, I thought of them as being in conversation with Edward P. Jones’s two collections, which are very important to me. I was drawn to the geographical focus on one place and to the careful, loving, and honest attention to the lives of everyday black people.

LJ: You said you “began to think of the stories as a possible book.” At what point did or does that happen for you?

JB: I honestly don’t think I was truly convinced until I got a literary agent, but then again, maybe not until she told me a year and a half later that I had completed enough stories, with enough to say to one other that we could begin sending it to book editors. People in my MFA program would refer to the stories I was workshopping as part of a collection, but I didn’t really take that seriously. In my mind, I was just learning how to write. But I guess every new story or novel is a process of starting over and learning how to write it.

LJ: You’ve spoken previously about leaving your PhD program because of the inaccessibility of language used to discuss the writing. I’m wondering if A Lucky Man was a stride towards grounding contemporary fiction in something more attainable for a more diverse audience? And if so, how has the discourse surrounding the book so far interacted with that intention?

JB: I wouldn’t say that I had that intention actually. But I did want to write stories in which the language was clear, first of all, with controlled flights of what you might call lyricism. It’s been interesting to see readers call the language of the book precise and simple on the one hand, and poetic or even “mannered” on the other.

LJ: You’ve worked with language in a number of different ways—as a teacher, an academic, a writer—but I’m curious about what it was that spurred you into making writing your own fiction more central in your life?

JB: The desire to write my own fiction, which I suppressed, denied, or redirected for a long time, wouldn’t go away. Eventually I would just find myself doing it, though without much discipline or direction. I finally took a series of writing workshops during the summer of 2012, and the teachers I met then were very supportive of my work, urging me to consider placing it more centrally in my life. Their encouragement helped me believe in my potential as a writer.

LJ: I want to spend a second on process, and more specifically, what the process was or is for writing a collection so deeply grounded in place. What did the day-to-day of crafting this collection look like for you?

JB: I’m a daytime writer, typically in the morning, or from the morning into the early or mid-afternoon. In a first draft, I proceed pretty slowly, just discovering the story and its characters sentence by sentence. The grounding in place helped because it gave me something solid to knock up against during a process in which I’m otherwise fumbling around. Aiming for a solidity in the prose, even in a first draft, also helps me. Once the chaos of a first draft is done, I try to see what’s there, particularly what’s there that I hadn’t really intended to put there but what might actually be useful or important. This can be very difficult to do without a workshop or other readers, by the way. From that point on, in revision I’m just trying to work on one element at a time. I may have a draft where I’m working only on the dialogue, or one where I’m working only on one specific character. I try not to work on more than one thing in a given draft, so hopefully by the end the whole story feels layered and carefully attended to.

LJ: You have quite a revision process. How do you know when a story has reached its final form? And after that, how did you know when your collection was done or ready for submission?

JB: I stop when I feel like I’ve done all that I can do, taking into account some of the feedback from workshops and trusted readers. I never think, “This is it! It’s perfect now. Not a word can be touched.” But I do know I’m reaching the end of what I can do on my own when I’m done addressing the technical concerns I can see. In her Paris Review interview, Toni Morrison says, “I work very hard in subsequent revisions to remove the writerly-ness from it,” and I find myself doing something like that near the end of a draft. I feel like intense technical revisions tighten up a story, but maybe too much. I try to loosen things up near the end, to relax the language and the story a bit so that it feels more like life. I also look forward to the chance to work with a good editor. I’m not a parent, but I imagine that the feeling I have when I send a story out might be similar to a mother or father watching their kid go out into the world. You know they’re not at all perfect, but you hope you’ve done a fine enough job with them that they can fend for themselves and have a good existence overall.

LJ: What struck me in multiple stories in this collection was the discursive nature of the dialogue. It was equal parts sharp and honest. I was struck by the scenes between Claudius and Ben and Naomie and Sybil in “No More Than a Bubble”, off rip. Is there any advice you’ve received on how to make dialogue jump to life that you could give writers who struggle with it?

JB: Dialogue can be hard to teach, but what I’ve found most useful to keep in mind is to prioritize the sound of the speech more than the content, and to allow the dialogue to sometimes move at odd angles. I like the idea of dialogue sounding exactly right, but also reflecting our human tendency to hesitate, to dissemble, to be preoccupied and less than fully attentive to others. That’s how I work to get the tension and contrast in rhythms that I want my dialogue to have.

LJ: I’m headed to Kimbilio for the first time at the end of the summer (yay!), so I have to slide a question in specifically from one Kimbee to another. Did writing in community with other black folks provide you with something that other spaces didn’t—especially as your work seems to wrestle so heavily with issues of race and class? If so, what name would you give to that something?

JB: Congrats! I’m so glad the Kimbilio community exists. In a way, the discussion of craft was heightened at Kimbilio (and at Callaloo, another community I’ve been fortunate to be a part of), maybe because we recognized that craft isn’t apolitical and that race and class and gender aren’t separate from craft. In other, predominantly white spaces, where craft is more likely to be seen as some kind of “pure” thing, people can get tripped up by matters of race, class, gender, and politics. Danielle Evans has said something like, “Some work needs to be done in the world before it can be done on the page.” It feels to me like a place like Kimbilio represents work that has been done or is being done in the world, the work of making authentic community.

LJ: You were raised in New York, and the strength of that relationship to the city is woven beautifully throughout the collection. Has living in other places for grad school and for fellowships changed your relationship to the work at all?

JB: I lived in New York for decades before I moved to the Midwest and, now, to the West Coast, so I think something essential about the city, or at least the city in a certain era, has been indelibly stamped on me. I wrote most of the stories in this book while living in Iowa. It’s hard to say whether that resulted in some kind of loss. I wouldn’t be surprised if it did, but I was able to get the work done, and I think the whole “distance brings clarity” effect was in play too.

LJ: From The New Yorker to Entertainment Weekly, A Lucky Man has been a major part of the conversation of what not to miss this year—and rightly so. That seems like a magnificent way to debut. How are you processing the reception—both the good we’ve seen or the maybe not-so-great that we haven’t? How are you staying grounded?

JB: I’m the sort of person who doesn’t get too excited when things are going great, but who can fall into despair when things aren’t going as well as I would like. I’ve been very pleased with the positive reception the book has gotten so far, and I’m grateful to the team at Graywolf for the huge role they’ve had in getting that reception. While the overall reaction has been good, of course I’ve obsessed over the lukewarm pre-publication review that was riddled with errors, or the fact that the New York Times, for example, decided not to review the collection. Like Erykah Badu said, “Now keep in mind I’m an artist and I’m sensitive about my shit.” What has helped to keep me grounded is meeting or hearing from readers and booksellers who enjoyed the book. It feels like a miracle that anyone has read it! The other thing that has kept me grounded is the experience of reading from the book in New York with my mother and brother in the audience. The book is dedicated to them, and to have them there and to see how proud they were of me has helped keep everything else in perspective. I’ll never forget that evening.

LJ: The collection opens with an epigraph by Carl Phillips, and as I read the book I couldn’t help but note how deeply poetic much of the language is. It seems like there is a definite interplay between genres in your work. What poets are you reading right now?

JB: I’ve just finished the new Terrance Hayes collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, which I really enjoyed. Jenny’s Xie’s Eye Level and Tarfia Faizullah’s Registers of Illuminated Villages are two others I’d mention. Last week I was excited to read a new Layli Long Soldier poem, titled “King,” which was published online by Wendy Xu at Hyperallergic. Keith S. Wilson has been putting out exciting work, and I’m looking forward to his forthcoming collection, Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love, with Copper Canyon Press. I’m still thinking about a recent Traci Brimhall poem, titled “Dear Eros,” which VQR published, and Safiya Sinclair’s “Gospel of the Misunderstood,” recently published in The New Yorker. I’ve been rereading Joanna Klink’s Raptus, as I often do when I’m going through it. I’m looking forward to returning to some June Jordan and Wanda Coleman, and to reading Lynda Hull for the first time.

LJ: What sustains you in this work?

JB: Eating well, sleeping well, reading, and spending quality time with friends and family are all important. But I would also mention this: The writer Kaitlyn Greenidge has been posting excerpts of Toni Cade Bambara’s essays on social media. In one of those excerpts, Bambara says the “underlying standard” in the book reviews she wrote was this: “Does this author here genuinely love his/her community?” I think that’s terrific and true. And even if my work doesn’t shy away from sadness, tragedy, and flawed humanity, ultimately I write out of love for my community. That’s why it’s equally important for me to try to get pleasure, humor, joy, strength, and striving onto the page. Telling the entirety of the story, out of love and a desire to tell the truth, is sustaining for me.

LJ: Now that A Lucky Man is out in the world, what’s next for you—with the Stegner Fellowship and beyond?

JB: More stories, and maybe a novel too! I have a few projects going, and some notions about others that I haven't started yet. We’ll see what works out.

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Leah Johnson is an essayist, fiction writer and hopeless midwesterner currently moonlighting as a New Yorker. Leah is a recent graduate of the MFA writing program at Sarah Lawrence College and a 2018 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow. Her work—which can be found at Bustle, Electric Lit, Yes Poetry, Cosmonauts Avenue, Faded Out, and elsewhere—is centered on the miracle and magic of black womanhood.

 

Conversations with Contributors: José Olivarez by Peter LaBerge

BY DUJIE TAHAT

 Photo credit: RJ Eldridge. José Olivarez, author of  Citizen Illegal  (Haymarket Books, 2018) and contributor to  Issue Twenty-Four .

Photo credit: RJ Eldridge. José Olivarez, author of Citizen Illegal (Haymarket Books, 2018) and contributor to Issue Twenty-Four.

José Olivarez is the son of Mexican immigrants and the author of the book of poems, Citizen Illegal. Along with Felicia Chavez and Willie Perdomo, he is co-editing the forthcoming anthology, The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNEXT. He is the co-host of the poetry podcast, The Poetry Gods and a recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo, Poets House, the Bronx Council on the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, & the Conversation Literary Festival. He lives in Chicago.

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Dujie Tahat: I want to start off by thanking you for writing Citizen Illegal. As an immigrant myself, it was really heartening. I’m not a Mexican immigrant, but I grew up working in the fields of Eastern Washington. My family and I picked fruit alongside undocumented immigrants, and they were my best homies growing up. So in a lot of different resonances, the book really spoke to me.

José Olivarez: Thank you. That really fills me with joy. I wrote the book in part for the students that I work with here in Chicago and in part to a younger version of myself that I’m imagining. So to hear that it resonates with people not to just here in Chicago but in other parts of the country has just been—I don’t have the words. I’m filled with gratitude. Thank you.

DT: Of course. Of course. Let’s jump in. In the tile poem “(Citizen) (Illegal),” the parentheticals almost enact the way immigration—the process or the politics of it—can interrupt the normal course of life. There’s a certain shock that feels particularly familiar to me. In your crafting of the poem, how did you arrive at interruption as a formal mechanism? And why, specifically, the parenthetical?

JO: Yeah, there are a few answers to that question. One is that I was attempting to do exactly what you’re talking about. I was thinking about the ways in my own life an everyday experience becomes interrupted with this realization. Or it’s like I’m having a day and everything is fine, then someone will say something or a headline will creep by, and suddenly, I’m once again aware and present in my own body, in my own experience, aware of everyone else in the room. So I was trying to recreate the way that that experience occurs, the way it interrupts just constantly this routine from time to time. In the book, the parts that are not parentheticals are not necessarily wild experiences, you know? It’s a baby growing up singing Selena songs or hiding from El Cucuy. But I was trying to figure out a way to interrupt that narrative, to interrupt that experience with these quick judgments.

In terms of how I arrived at the parentheticals, part of that comes from my deep love of hip hop and ad libstrying to find a way to play with poems in a way that mimic some of what I love about rap songs. So thinking about how you layer a text with multiple voices and different experiences, the parentheticals felt like a good way to accomplish both what I was trying to do in terms of layering voices as well as a good way to interrupt this experience, to bring the reader back to this constant recollection of where one stands at any given moment.

DT: You know, I hadn’t thought of ad libs, but that makes perfect sense. I really love that. In my first reading of the poem, I thought of boundaries a lot, and borders—both because the physical shape of the parentheses and the notion of a border or line cutting into someone just living an ordinary life. I’m curious too in the writing of that poem, when you knew you wanted to do that, did you write the whole poem and then insert the parentheses or did you write the parentheses in as you went along?

JO: I wrote one part, the first part: “Mexican woman (illegal) and Mexican man (illegal) have / a Mexican (illegal)-American (citizen).” I wrote that first sentence and put the parentheticals in because I was trying to interrupt it. And when I read it and thought about it, not only did it work for that sentence, but I could think of any number of moments and experiences that are also interrupted, that also have this judgement placed on them whether it’s silent or spoken. From there, I started to build out the rest of the poem. So it was that first sentence and then thinking through how else I could play with the form that I had developed.

DT: You have a pretty incredible resumé and bio on many accounts. In the traditional sense, you have Harvard, Poetry Foundation, Lincoln Center, the Met. Another way to read the interruption of the parentheticals in “(Citizen) (Illegal)” is the immigrant interrupting “traditionally American” spaces—if we limit “traditionally American” to mean institutional, exceptional, superlative, white. Do you ever get imposter syndrome? How do you claim your space within those institutions?

JO: Oh man. Yeah. Absolutely. I get impostor syndrome all the time. That’s one of the things that I’m thinking about right now even as I’m talking to you, like who am I to pretend like I have any more knowledge than anyone else? I have always battled impostor syndrome because I’m in these spaces where I’m acutely aware that there aren’t a ton of other people of color or a ton of other people with immigrant backgrounds or a ton of other people who are non-traditional in the way that you explained. And that can make me feel like I have to be everything, like I have to be almost a Super Mexican and make sure that I’m doing right by all. You know what I mean? Like really make sure I’m putting on properly for all my people at all times. And that’s just an impossible thing to do.

Also, my being in those spaces is not going to fundamentally change those spaces, so it’s not a mistake that I feel that way when I’m in any one of those cultural institutions, right? It’s by design that they are predominantly cis, het, white, upper middle class, whatever. It’s by design that those institutions are that way. I don’t have any more faith in those cultural institutions than I do our government. I know that likewise they are only kind to me and other people from marginalized background when it’s beneficial to them, when it’s useful to them. That’s part of why I feel impostor syndrome in those spaces too. Because I know that a lot of the other people in those spaces have been trained to be there. They feel like they own the place, and I never feel that way. I never feel like when I’m in a big museum that I own that space or that it’s for me. I always feel like I’m on the outside even when I’ve been brought in. Maybe that’s just a personal thing, but I’m always constantly battling that.

In terms of the second part of your question, I guess I take care of myself by trying to create space not necessarily within those institutions, sometimes outside of those institutions, and by making sure that when I am in partnership with institutions, that I’m there with a purpose. That it’s beneficial not just to myself but for the people I care about. I partner with the Poetry Foundation because it allows me to teach in a Mexican neighborhood in Chicago, for instance. So I’m very clear about why I take on these partnerships and why I am building partnership with them. That helps.

Another thing is, within those spaces, I’m trying to find people that do understand and are in solidarity with me—building those connections so that within those institutions, none of us feel like we are isolated or alone but that we are working together and finding ways to collaborate with each other. Those are two things, but you know, a lot of it, honestly, goes back to building spaces outside of those places.

One of the things that’s been important for me that I’m really interested in is building pathways for young Latinx writers in Chicago. And I can go to those different institutions to try to find ways to collaborate with them, but I can also just immediately start to do that myself working with neighborhood spots to host an open mic or workshop. Having that place then feels good, feels powerful and safe. So when I do interact with other people in institutions, I’m doing good, I feel nourished, and I don’t always feel like ‘'m in a space where I’m othered or marginalized.

DT: The point you make that those institutions aren’t actually designed for your or my comfort is something I think of a lot. Thinking of my own interaction with institutions, I think those things are useful in so far as they give me access and a certain capital—both real capital and social capital—that then allow me to hopefully do the work that I’m actually interested in, which it sounds like you’re really invested in. The other half of your bio I find personally fascinating. My come-up was with Youth Speaks Seattle. I went to Brave New Voices, and I know you did too. You’re also a big part of LTAB and Young Chicago Authors. You’re clearly invested in youth education and cultivating young voices. How much of teaching and working with youth is part of your writing process? Does working with young people keep your language fresh?

JO: In terms of how being an educator and working with young people is part of my artistic process, it’s not that they keep my language fresh. I think working with young people is useful because it means that, for me, there are stakes to my work. When I write my poems, I’m not just theoretically considering the fifteen year olds that I want to save or the fifteen year old that I was. I’m not just remembering that fifteen year old version of me. I have young people that are going through their own lives and trying to process and figure out their own place in the world. So it matters to me that they see the poems and that they gain something of use beyond just like, “Oh José is dope.” You know what I mean? And in a way that they can articulate that goes beyond “He’s older than us and therefore he must be skilled in this particular way,” but that they really connect with the poems. I’m pursuing the craft of poetry not just for the sake of the craft itself but because I really believe in the power of language and stories to build bridges and to help create new possibilities. It’s completely connected to that for me. I give those poems to my students and then they tell me that they begin to lead workshops for young people using those poems and poems of other writers that we studied, and we begin to build a conversation between us that hopefully then results in their writing of books and inviting more people into that conversation.

As for the language part, I like my language from, like, 2006, you know. I still say “Word” and things that are way out of fashion. I kind of love that. I love old-timey language. I love saying that I’m going to get into shenanigans. And I love the language that young people are using, but I don’t feel compelled to use it. I love the language of my own youth and try to work with that.

DT: Would it be fair to say that working with youth rejuvenates your poetics? How would you characterize that relationship?

JO: I think it it gives the work a different energy, for sure. In part, the way that I was able to finish the book was coming back to Chicago and getting into deep conversation with three students in particular who are now going off into the world. They’ve graduated from high school. They just finished the first years of college and are beginning to lead community writing workshops and become teaching artists. In particular, working deeply with them and seeing what kinds of questions they were grappling with gave my own poems a new energy. I was thinking about their frustration with the walls that were getting in the way of their own writing, and that helped me gain a sense of clarity about what kind of boundaries or walls I was coming up against in trying to make these poems fresh, trying to turn the story and find new ways in, trying to find more nuances, and trying to find new possibilities for the poems. Working with them to find their own limitations helped me see my own limitations as a writer. Then figuring out how I could show them, with this book, my own way through those limitations.

DT: It strikes me that your sense of poetics is deeply rooted in community, and I think when folks with Youth Speaks or BNV backgrounds say “poetry community,” we mean something a little different than “traditional” institutional poetry communities. There’s something really urgent about it. The slam scene and spoken word culture has obviously shifted—and I think juiced, in a really good way—contemporary American poetry, especially as this crop of BNV youth age into adulthood. Obviously there’s The Breakbeat anthology you’re in, folks like Nate Marshall, Danez Smith, sam sax, and Safia Elhillo that are breaking into or are fully in the institutions of poetry. Given that sense of poetics, both in the actual speaking of a poem in a room where there’s performance and urgency and then also the bigger sense of what you’re talking about—working with former students who are leading their own workshops—there’s this real-time thing happening. Do you see that as crucial to understanding contemporary American poetics? And how does that urgency translate?

JO: Let me see if I can try to answer that. The first way that I got feedback on my poems was via the open mic. And that was important because I could see people react. Everyone is nice at an open mic, but there’s a difference when I’ve read a poem that sends a jolt electricity through the room. That was useful in beginning to be able to see what part hit and what part I could cut or needed to rework in some way. It made me a good listener.

People think of an open mic as a performer reading their poem but it’s really a conversation. The audience is giving you notes. The audience is part of it. You can learn to read that conversation and get feedback on the poems. For me that was crucial in becoming and continuing to grow as an artist. It’s still something that I love to do, to read poems an open mic—and to read new poems because it gives me a better sense of if I’m getting closer to what I’m trying to accomplish. It gives me a sense of if I’m being successful or not.

In terms of how going from the open mic or the slam has helped to give an urgency to the work on the page, both of those things require craft. Like I said, they require you to listen and pay attention and figure out what has energy and what does not. Part of this for me, it just so happens, is that some of the best craft writers right now are also really attuned to their craft as performers. They’re also really strong in that regard. Either they started that way or they didn’t, but if you write a bad poem you can’t perform it into being a good poem. Both of those spaces require one to pay attention and listen and be thoughtful about their work and make decisions about how they want the work to live in the world.

It also just so happens that before publishing came around to younger poets of color, the slam was one of the places that was somewhat open to young poets of color. I think it’s just a matter of opportunity and now that there’s been more of an opportunity, you see people not just winning slams but winning all of these book awards.

DT: Definitely. And I think of youth slam culture as very fundamentally opposed to the long-standing narrative of the rugged, solitary, romantic writer who is tortured and writes on their own—

JO: Yes. Yes. I didn’t even think about that, but yeah I think you’re absolutely right. I think the ethos now is a lot more shared, and I do really get excited when I see my peers do well. When I read their poems and they move me, I get excited for their own possibilities and my own work. You’re right. It is a shift from this idea of a writer going into the woods and pursuing their craft separate from the universe. I think the world of spoken word—in particular, the youth poetry culture at Young Chicago Authors and Brave New Voices and all these other places—is all about how to get connected with the world, how to become more in tune with the world. They’re not try to separate themselves from that, and I think that has absolutely given the work new urgency. I don’t want to say that it’s made the work real, but it’s work that has urgency today. It’s useful right now. It helps us envision the future, and it helps us reckon with the past. And, you’re right, it’s in community, which makes it all the more powerful because it is rooted in the work of making connections with people and not trying to separate oneself from people.

DT: And to your point of it being rooted in connection and listening and responding and being thoughtful about how you speak into a room, it also has implications for the urgency of your narrative. You, José Olivarez, your narrative in contemporary American politics and what that means for an immigrant on the other side of the country who’s not a Mexican immigrant but can, like myself, can read your book and see themself in these pages. Poetry has always been written in time, but it seems like this new ethos has even amplified that. The narrative of the individual poets, in some of ways, are as urgent as the craft of the poems that they’re putting out there.

JO: I hear that. Part of me wants to push back a little bit.

DT: Please do.

JO: I guess the reason why I feel a little bit of hesitancy towards that is because the narratives that we’re telling are absolutely important, but it still doesn't work unless you’re attuned to the room and attuned to the craft. I sometimes get backhanded compliments that are like, “Your poems are so timely. Congratulations!” But I worked really hard on writing the best poems that I could. It’s so much deeper than just the narrative that I tell. But I hear you. The narratives are important.

DT: I’m with you, and I don’t mean to mischaracterize the poetry itself or diminish the craft of the poems. The way I think I meant that question is in the way that you can’t perform a bad problem into being a good poem. Obviously people have different relationships to poetry, but the poet’s narrative shouldn’t supplant how good the poems are. But it’s an element of it, right?

JO: Yeah, absolutely. There’s also an element of who’s being invited to read poems now. There was just that report that came out not too long ago explaining that the readership of poetry has increased over the last however many years, and for me the reason why is because more people have been invited to partake in poetry now than in a long time. Part of that, for sure, is because the stories have had more appeal to  young people of color, to queer young people of color. There’s been an intentional invitation to them to come in and listen to the poem and participate and write their own poems. Before, it was a lot harder. Poetry felt a lot harder to access in some ways. It required an advanced degree or it required a particular class upbringing or race or whatever. And now it feels like the door has been flung open to so many people who are so excited to see these different narratives.

DT: And that kind of gets back to what we started the conversation with—inhabiting these spaces but at scale. Shifting gears a bit, though, how do you practice tenderness in your writing?

JO: Tenderness is hard. I love trying to write with tenderness in part because the risk is being corny, is being overly sentimental. That’s easy to fall into, and yet tenderness feels so urgent for me. I wake up and I could use some tenderness, so I try to craft that space into the poems. I try to do that not at the expense of the real world that we live in that is constantly showing us these images and reminding us of all the violence and pain that’s being inflicted here in the United States and all over the world. But tenderness feels like a way to interrupt that stream of violence. It comes in a similar way to what we were talking about with the first poem “(Citizen) (Illegal)”—to try and interrupt every day violence with a stream of tenderness can sharpen the edges on both those things, so I can make tenderness feel as important as I think it is. I can get at it the proper way. That’s one of the ways that I try to practice tenderness: thinking about how I can interrupt life and all of its reminders of violence and insistences on violence with the things that make me feel good, with the things that make me feel tender and soft—writing about my  family members and the people I love and everything else in a way that is as soft as I want them to feel.

DT: That’s beautiful. Family figures very strongly in your work. In “The Day My Little Brother Gets Accepted into Grad School,” you write “my dad prays between gulps. My mom / drinks when god blinks.” I think that perfectly summarizes the characters you’ve rendered out of your parents in the meta-poem that is the book. Do your parents like the portrayal of themselves? Do they feel that they’re true? If not, how do you navigate that with them?

JO: That’s a good question. I hope that they like the portrayal of them. In reality, I don’t know exactly how they feel about the book. My mom doesn’t speak or read English, so I don’t know. I have to sit there and explain each of the poems to her. I get the sense that they’re proud though. In part because the other day I was supposed to meet someone for an interview at a taquería here in Chicago, and we canceled because their flight was delayed. But when they landed in Chicago, they went to this taqueríia, and they’re sitting there. They just got in from New York. They’re preparing for the interview, and they hear someone talk about poetry. So they think maybe this person is a poet. Then they hear them say “breakbeat poets,” and they’re like, “Oh maybe this person knows José.” And it turned out that it was my dad and his friends. They were at the taquería talking about my poems. My dad doesn’t tell me directly if he’s proud of me or not, you know what I mean? But I hear these stories. My brother Pedro will tell me he’s picked up the book and that he’s reading it, so I get the sense that, at the very least, they’re cool with it.

When I wrote the book, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just writing about them to exploit their lives and their own stories, but that I was trying to deepen my relationship with them through these imaginings and through these poems. That was very important to me. I haven’t had a chance to talk to them about the book yet, but I hope they’re proud. I hope that they love it. I’m excited that my brothers really dig the book, and my cousins who have read it are excited. They’re buying copies for their friends and talking to coworkers about it, so I feel good, but I haven’t had a chance to talk to them yet.

DT: Yeah. It strikes me that for immigrants and children of immigrants, the concerns about writing about family are a bit unique. I mean in my experience of even exposing my status and talking about it out loud outside the family, the different sensibilities we had were clear. My dad was super private, and he struggled to even articulate why. He’s just said, “Don't do that.” There’s this inherent—I don't know if it’s politics or polarization or exposure—certainly, potential for exploitation that happens when you just speak it into being. That’s a thing I struggle with. When you were putting the book together and when you were thinking about deepening your relationship, hoping that that’s the outcome you were driving towards, what were the questions you were asking of yourself? How did you stay away from exploiting stories? And then there are times too when they are overt political statements that need to be made—do you then just do that?

JO: A couple things: One, it’s not just one poem about my mom or one poem about my dad. They are characters in the book. Each of them are treated from multiple angles, and you get to see them in different ways. One of the critiques I got early on as a young poet was when I wrote a poem that was meant to be an ode to my mom. And in that poem, my mom was making food for the rest of the family, which is one of the things that my mom did. But a poet, Toni Asante Lightfoot, read that problem and told me, “There are parts of this poem that are beautiful, but I wonder if you could write a poem about your mom that doesn’t have her just be your mom in the poem.”

In all these poems I’m trying to think about my parents even beyond the ways that I know them as just my parents. I have to imagine who my parents are not just in relation to their children but in relation to the world, in relation to their own youthful dreams and desires, in relation to what they consider their work and purpose, and what their goals still are in this life—not just to treat them as people responsible for me and my brothers but as people with dreams and ambitions completely outside of being parents. So I was trying to make sure that that was happening, that I didn’t just imagine my mom at work for the family or that I didn’t just imagine my dad at work for the family.

Part of the reason that they’re in this book is because when I think about the interruption—the violent part of being Chicano in this country, of being first generation—that puts a distance between me and my parents sometimes. That’s one of the ways that I see it and feel it. So it felt important to include them and to try to write through those violences, to try to find ways across.

It was also important for me that before I publish the book, that I sent the book to my younger brother Pedro. And I asked him, “I think that these things are true, but could I be making them up?” Memory isn’t 100% accurate, so I sent it to Pedro. When he got really excited about the book, that’s when I felt comforted knowing that I wasn’t just packaging my family story into a commodity for the sake of somebody else’s learning. That this was something that my family would feel excited about, that they would take pride in.

DT: That’s beautiful, too. In terms of memory, does poetry give you the freedom, or alternatively the constraint, to engage with memory? Or do you feel an ethical obligation to remain one hundred percent factual knowing that that’s obviously impossible due to the nature of memory? How do you balance the intent to have your memory in the service or something and then be true to that memory?

JO: Absolutely I struggle with how to write the poems as ethically as possible with regards to the people in the book. I can’t help but write towards memory. I’m naturally a super nostalgic person. I was on the Internet yesterday, and I saw an article pop up about Pokémon and I got really excited. I love memory and I love the past. I love history and personal history. I love learning where people are from and what they used to do when they were kids and what gets them hype about the world. All of those things are just what I’m naturally drawn to.

In terms of how I try to engage with memory, I tried to create a voice where the faulty narrator contradicts themself and different parts of the story. One of the poems might tell the story one way, but then the poem gets told another way. Using a faulty narrator, not as a way of contradicting different stories but using stories as a way to complement one another—using contradictory stories as a way to compliment what might be missing from another story. So then that releases the pressures to be one hundred percent accurate all the time because if I visit the memory in another poem then maybe I get some more of the facts right that second time, and altogether the book—the meta-poem, as you said—hopefully gets closer that ethical truth—if not factually the truth, then at least an emotional truth.

DT: So, I want to talk about humor. I’m impressed by and deeply obsessed with how humor works in poems. When you set out to write a funny poem, they often feel like the hardest ones to do right. All of the “Mexican Heavens” are some of the funniest poems I’ve read, and you’re very playful in your book. It’s super interesting to me the ways playfulness reconciles with seriousness and the other major themes throughout. It almost seems playfulness raises the stakes for seriousness. Do you see playfulness as a way to get more serious? Is there a way that poems can be more serious the more playful they seem?

JO: I think that’s absolutely true, but that wasn’t the intention in writing the poems. Again, I was coming up against a problem: I was writing these poems about being Mexican that all felt tragic. And they felt tragic in a way that didn’t jive with the way that I experience it or the way I think about the experience. I kept writing and I would tell different stories but it would still end up being tragic. Those poems were failing in part because they were missing humor, because the entire time me and my brothers were going up together, we didn’t just see ourselves as tragic. We were cracking jokes about each other. There was a playfulness that was missing in those poems. I set out to try and use humor and playfulness as a way to leap this hurdle that had presented itself, which was that I had internalized too much of this tragic way of writing about myself. I needed to find a way to do more than that for the poems to have the type of life that I wanted to give them. Does that make sense?

DT: Yeah. I’m thinking specifically about “I Ask Jesus How I Got So White.” I think of White Jesus as more of a punchline than anything—at least in my experience. But baked into that, White Jesus is obviously a vehicle for white supremacy, racial politics, and that history. It makes me think of George Saunders, I think, who wrote something like, “We laugh when told the truth too bluntly.” So in a way, it is speaking a truth in the most forward kind of way—

JO: You’re right! And so the problem with the poems that I was writing wasn’t that they were tragic but that they weren’t the whole truth. They weren’t truthful enough. Absolutely. In order to make the poems closer to the truth, I needed to change something about how I was telling those stories. And I was able to find at least one way via humor.

DT: “Mexican American Disambiguation” is one of my favorite poems in the book. It puts a finger right on the conflict and the division and the cleaving of immigrant identity—what you have throughout our conversation so eloquently called an “everyday violence.” How the immigrant perceives themselves depending on what country they’re in or who’s in the room with them at the time, how others perceive them, all the euphemisms they’re confronted with day to day. Walt Whitman would say that he’s all these things, that he contains multitudes. Obviously it’s easy being a White dude in the time he was a White dude. But in your sense of poetics—or if you’re willing to make a statement about immigrant poetics, whatever that is—is it important to parse out all of those things like what you are v. what you aren’t v. how others see you? Or are you all those things?

JO: I will try to answer for myself. For immigrant poetics, that feels a little bit harder.

This was another one of those poems that I couldn’t write in a tragic way, but I needed to figure out how to write the fluidity of experience. I had this experience when I was a college student. I studied abroad in Brazil and it didn’t matter that I was just Mexican. You know what I mean? It didn’t matter that I was of Latin American origin. Everyone there is of Latin American origin. Having that kind of disruption to the way that I identified and how I moved through the world—the way I saw myself was just suddenly gone. And how I could see myself, at least in Brazil, made me realize all the ways that identity is always shifting and moving. It made me want to play with that. So I don’t know that I have any particular answer about whether it was important to parse out all of those parts or whether it’s important to claim all of those parts. For me, what was important was to show the ways that this identity is always moving. That this identity that we generally think of as static and one thing, this idea of what it needs to be Mexican American is actually this huge multitude of things way beyond any one particular story about Mexican American identity.

DT: Your poem “If Anything Is Missing, Then It’s Nothing Big Enough to Remember” asks similar questions about identity, I think—but more explicitly through the form of language:

“…you scissor yourself along the lines,
you choose a side, you cut & cut & one day you wake up & the
voice in your head speaks English, you stop coming around here,
the old photos fade down here, your name mispronounced
here on your own tongue, your grandparents graying like
your memory of them & you graduate from college, & your
classmates say you must be so happy to be so American now”

In this poem, is the narrator speaking to the you before or after the voice in his head started speaking English? Are the memories in your book related to when the voice in your head made that shift? 

JO: One of the things that jolted me was realizing—and this is only probably like four or five years ago—that the voice in my head was speaking a different language. At one time, my only language was Spanish, and I was translating everything from Spanish to English. And now, I have to translate the other way. Throughout the book I’m trying to reckon with what that means, and how that does affect my memories because a lot of those early memories I experienced in the completely different language. That means that I had a completely separate experience than what I can remember because I remember now only in English. Maybe that is why I’m so enchanted with this idea of a faulty narrator. It’s in part because there are entire scenes from my childhood that I can never truly remember because I just don’t have the language anymore. I still speak Spanish but I don’t have the intimate relationship with Spanish and with those memories I once did. In a lot of ways, there’s no way that I can ever hope to reconstruct those memories again. At least not right now.

DT: It strikes me fluidity might be the commonality here, but how much does language then have to do with your identity? Obviously, there’s something really important about that shift, and there’s something really important about your ability reflect on memory through different languages. But if the poet’s businesses is language, if our work is language, then what does that mean for your identity?

JO: With language, I’m trying to tease open all of these places that feel closed. So I’m trying to take these identities that feel static—or are shown as static—and open them up to everything. I’m trying to see if Mexican American is put under a microscope, then what do you really see? What is everything that grows out of there? And if you take these different memories and you tease them open and you try to find language for them, what are all of the ways that you can then stretch that language. What I’m trying to do is both create a language for these memories that I can’t possibly piece back together and also, within the present time, find ways to open up the possibilities for the language that I’m existing in today. I’m trying to open up the ways that I can inhabit English. If English in a colonial language, then so is Spanish, you know what I mean? In my relationship with English, I’m trying to stretch and figure out how I can make space for myself and claim the language as my own. 

DT: If excavating both memory and language is the activity that you’re engaged in, then is the outcome a more full self, or is there something else?

JO: I mean, I think that’s what I'm hoping for, right? I’m hoping that the outcome is a more full self. And I’m hoping for that outcome because I’m hoping, then, that the young people and people in general—in particular, those who have felt similar disruptive experiences—will read the book and feel that they’re seen too, that they feel more possible and less like anomalies. I’m hoping that’s the result—not just for myself but for others as well.

DT: That’s lovely. Chicago has a rich literary tradition, and people from Chicago love talking about Chicago.

JO: That’s true. 

DT: How has the city shaped your writing? Which past and present Chi-city poets do you turn to or inherent from?

JO: Chicago has given me so much as a writer in terms of language. I think of my language as being a very local language. I think I make most sense in Chicago. The city has given me not just a backdrop, but I almost think of the city like another character that I’m always in conversation with. So I’m always asking the city of Chicago for more. And the city of Chicago is also terrible at times, so it’s also like an antagonist. The city of Chicago is a huge part of my writing.

In terms of the poets from Chicago that have helped shape me, poets from right now include Eve Ewing, Nate Marshall, Raych Jackson, H. Melt, Kevin Coval, Jamila Woods, Britteny Black Rose Capri, also a lot of my students: Kara Jackson, Pat Frazier, Victoria Chávez Peralta, and Luis Carranza. There are people like Melissa Castro and Keren Díaz de León, who's really lovely, and Alison Rollins lives here now and she’s dope, Beyza Ozer, Luis Tubens, and Erika L. Sánchez, who doesn't live here anymore but is still really dope. I could shout out Chicago poets for days like Avery R. Young, Krista Franklin, Toni Asante Lightfoot, and Michael Heflinger, who used to live in Chicago and actually now lives in Washington.

Then in terms of past poets, the two big influences on me are Gwendolyn Brooks and then Sandra Cisneros. When I was learning to write at YCA, everything started with Gwendolyn Brooks. We always read her poems before workshops, and we aspired to be poets in conversation with community in the way that Gwendolyn Brooks was always so giving and always in conversation with her neighborhood and the people around her. So I grew up with that understanding of what poetry was and what poetry could be like. Then Sandra Cisneros, discovering that she was from Chicago too. Her books and her poems have given me the language to begin to start to tell my own stories and have allowed me to enter particular memories that I had no idea were worth touching on as stories until I read her writing. For me, those two are the ones I come back to the most. But then there’s also Studs Terkel, who’s book Working is one of my favorite books of all time just for how it gives language to so much of the angst that I feel around working and so much of the wonder of working. Studs Terkel is really important. I’m sure I’m missing like a million people, but I’ll leave it at those three for now.

DT: Last question. Maybe the most important question. I know that you’re a big fan of the Netflix show Lovesick, so I need to know whether you’re team Dylan or team Evie?

Why do we have to choose a team? Why is it team Dylan or team Evie? I don't understand. They are in a relationship together. I’m team Dylan and team Evie. I want that relationship to succeed so badly, and I’m so worried that it’s not going to. I just feel like it can’t work and that stresses me out because they’re so thoughtful towards one another. I was wondering how the show was going to treat their eventual getting together and whether that was just going to be the end of the show. But to see them go through their own anxieties about themselves and themselves in relationship to this person, helps me practice being communicative and just fills me with so much joy. It makes me feel like I’m not so clueless. So I’m rooting for both of them. I’m team Dylan and Evie and, really, I’m team anyone who watches Lovesick because, in my opinion, it’s—if not the best show on Netflix—then one of the top three or four shows, for sure.

DT: Hey, I’m with you on that. Thank you, José, so much. I appreciate you and the extra time you were willing to spend talking to me.

JO: Of course. I wasn’t going to miss the question about Lovesick. I appreciate your questions. I’m glad we got to talk. A lot of the questions you asked are questions I haven’t been asked before, so I’m excited to keep grappling with them. Hopefully, the answers were good. Thank you for talking to me.

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Dujie Tahat is a Filipino-Jordanian-American writer living in the Pacific Northwest. His poems have appeared or will soon in Shenandoah, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Strange Horizons, The American Journal of Poetry, and elsewhere. Dujie is a recipient of fellowships from the Richard Hugo House and Jack Straw. He serves as poetry editor at Moss and Homology Lit.

Oh, Canada: knife | fork | book Poets John Stintzi and Lauren Turner by Peter LaBerge

BY JOHN STINTZI and LAUREN TURNER

 John Stintzi (left) and Lauren Turner, both shown with their chapbooks published by knife | fork | book.

John Stintzi (left) and Lauren Turner, both shown with their chapbooks published by knife | fork | book.

INTRODUCTION

I moved to Fredericton, New Brunswick, nearly one year ago, and in that year, I’ve tried my damnedest to learn about Canada’s literary and publishing communities. It was Adroit that brought me to John Stintzi, however, when they interviewed author Hala Alyan for the journal earlier this year.

The conversation, below, between Ontario-born Stintzi and Montréal poet Lauren Turner, came about because, as an American living abroad, I have been anxious to merge the literary communities I know in the U.S. and those I am still becoming acquainted with in Canada. As the Director of Content, I am in a position to provide the confluence for such a conversation in the pages of Adroit. Both Stintzi and Turner recently published chapbooks with knife | fork | book, a poetry-only small press and bookstore in Toronto. I had the privilege to visit k | f | b in June, and I am so excited to give it—alongside its owner, Kirby, a CanLit institution—some much-deserved attention in the States.

The subject line of the e-mail I received from John, with this conversation attached, read “Lauren Turner conversation!” and I don’t think there’s a better way to express the excitement I feel in hosting these poets, below.

Lauren R. Korn
Director of Content
The Adroit Journal

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John Stintzi: We’re Not Going to Do Better Next Time—your chapbook out from knife | fork | book—is a collection of poems, but it’s also a modern retelling of the Samson and Delilah story (from the Old Testament) set in modern day Montréal. I’d love to start by just hearing about what drew you to that story in particular?

Lauren Turner: I didn’t intentionally set out to write about Samson and Delilah. The project started in procrastination to writing an essay about Samson Agonistes by John Milton, a closet drama I was studying for a grad school seminar. Like most literature and pop culture devoted to the parable, Milton’s work presents Delilah as a conniving femme fatale and Samson as the wronged man ensnared in her trap. Beyond the misogynistic and two-dimensional nature of the Miltonic text, I started thinking about how when relationships end badly, there’s a knee-jerk temptation to paint the instigating party as the villain. I wasn’t convinced that Delilah made a good villain.

JS: I wonder how many great projects started as procrastination? My current novel started out as an attempt to write a short story in place of a term paper, only it refused to stay short and I had to write the term paper anyway! I love how you modernized this story. Like, Samson with a man bun is perfect—the book feels like Lynn Crosbie’s Liar meets Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. It strikes me that while being a part the chapbook’s narrative, each of your poems feel self contained. Did you find that to be a challenge?

LT: Right? In my defense, I was also due to submit poems for workshop that week! And thank you, that’s a tremendous compliment. Those two books were very influential during the writing of We're Not, along with Ariana Reines’ Coeur de Lion for added grit. Rereading Liar is always the best remedy if you’re writing a piece that has lost its pulse! I wasn’t fully aware of what poetry could do until I started reading Lynn Crosbie.

Anyway, to loop back to your question: I’m relieved to hear that my poems read like individual entities. You brought up your novel and the writing of this project definitely felt novel-esque. But I’m envious of you, as a novelist, because the same pressure isn’t exerted on book chapters to stand alone outside the whole! When I started We're Not, I was 23 and admittedly under-read, so I didn’t realize the mental gymnastics required to complete it. That sounds like a humble brag, but there’s a reason it’s chapbook-sized and not a 100-page tome!

JS: Every time I work on putting together my poetry manuscript, I have the distinct urge to write nothing but novels for the rest of my life. Collections (of poetry and otherwise) are so difficult to wrap a head around, because of they bring disparate work together, but also require some sort of constructed ordering. With We're Not, I’m guessing the ordering was more straightforward to put together than a more general collection of poems, since you did have an underlying narrative timeline to tack the poems to.

To put together my poetry chapbook, The Machete Tourist, I had a hard time coming up with what to include, and ended up doing a “sampler” of several of the different kinds of poems in the wider manuscript rather than, say, feature a single strain of the underlying (lyric) narrative. But having the trajectory of the book in mind did give me something to hold onto when it came to ordering the poems I selected. What part of the chapbook experience (before or after publication) have you found most difficult?

LT: Oh, really? That’s surprising since The Machete Tourist reads like a very intentional whole. For me, your speaker holds the poems together. Their voice is the blade that crisply, and patiently, parses apart each thought. How you play with focus across the collection is really exciting, too. It feels like sitting in the optometrist’s chair, being asked to look through different lenses: “How does the poem look this way? What about now?”

As for my chapbook experience, I had things pretty easy! David Bradford, who formerly did editing for knife | fork | book, sent me a Twitter DM (of all things!) after a reading I did in May 2017 to ask if I had a chapbook to submit. At that time, I hadn’t even met (Jeff) Kirby, the owner of knife | fork | book, or visited their delightful bookshop in Kensington Market. So, I thought my odds of a “yes” were low to moderate—especially since 3rd-person poetry about biblical figures isn’t exactly en vogue! Anyway, I was scheduled to have coffee with Kirby, a month later, after a knife | fork | book launch in Montréal to discuss We're Not. But the coffee never happened. Instead, we met at the event, chatted for a bit, and when my chapbook came up in conversation, Kirby said simply: “Oh darling, of course, we want to publish you!” And that was that.

JS: I’m glad The Machete Tourist felt put together—I guess the feeling (and fear) of their seeming disparate-ness is a curse levied on the creator!

Also, I definitely sympathize with the cautious pessimism of submitting my manuscript. I’d also never met Kirby, and was also solicited through a Twitter DM! Though it was from Kirby directly, after I’d tweeted about being 5 away from 100 magazine rejections. Kirby’s eventual response to the manuscript was: “You had me at ‘Dayspring,’ and held me through ‘War Wounds.’”

It did turn out that the real reason I was on their radar was that at one point (2013!) I had a blog (which nobody read) where I wrote a post against admiring people in secret—arguing that you should be vocal to people when you appreciate what they do, even if though it can feel weird. Somehow, Kirby had read that, and retained it, and followed me for it. It was weirdly disappointing to me to have to consider that they didn’t publish me out of pity regarding a silly tweet about rejection but because I’d actually—years and years ago—written something that made them feel something earnest.

 I will say, on the “ordering” of manuscript idea, I did very clearly want to start at “Dayspring” and end at “War Wounds.” Most importantly, I wanted to end with “War Wounds” (a poem about experimenting with shaving my legs) because it was the queerest poem in the book, and was therefore the poem I was the most scared to have people read. I figured some people would put the book down before getting to it, but if they read the whole way, they would probably be on my side.

Did you find the experience of publishing yours scary at all, despite that the surface of the story is Samson & Delilah’s story? To me, it feels way more urgent and vulnerable than your cheeky description of it being “3rd-person poetry about biblical figures” might belie. I don’t want this question to seem to be too leading—“no” is totally cool—but was there anything you were afraid of in publishing this book?

LT: But Kirby is all about publicly admiring poets and championing their work! I’m not surprised an essay “against admiring people in secret” would stay with them. As someone who is (apparently) too hard on myself, I relate excessively to your “they must be publishing me for secret, alternate reasons” anxiety. Do you find that writing auto-poetry heightens the feelings of insecurity over rejections vs. being accepted? Like it’s difficult to untangle yourself as a person from the poems as art? The Machete Tourist is clearly written from the skeletal level. I like how when I said “the speaker” earlier, you just threw that mask out the window and referred to “War Wounds” as “a poem about experimenting with shaving my legs.” The ownership of the work is powerful. And ha, I’ve been found out! We’re Not Going to Do Better Next Time is filled with my own self-interested concerns. A few years back, I was very preoccupied by the idea that your past could close off your future. It’s an anxiety that backbones my chapbook. I never intended Delilah to exist as a stand-in for myself. But there are overlaps between her existence in the poems and mine from the ages of 24 to 26. She’s hurtling towards everything, yet living almost entirely in her head, which fuels the lightning-paced relationship with Samson. They get married quickly, but I wanted their connection to appear ambiguous despite its intensity. Performative love, almost. But ultimately, I wasn’t afraid of publishing anything in We're Not, because moving away from 1st person allows a certain degree of anonymity.

JS: I’m happy to hear that it wasn’t scary for you! And I will say that I haven’t had any bad reactions to mine, either—though I do think I probably have some conversations in my future related to it. I absolutely love that We're Not takes up a space in the middle distance between your experience and simply projecting a voice onto the fictional lives of fictional characters. (I will maybe make enemies calling the bible “fictional.”)

As much as my poetry—these days—can be described as “auto-poetic,” I think there’s no lesser value in work which extends beyond the autobiographical or lyrical self, which is why I appreciate your use of “speaker” to refer to my voice in “War Wounds.” I don’t see value in reality over fiction, is what I mean to say, because I think that line often gets in the way of valuing the expression.

When it comes down to it, it’s simple: I don’t want readers to care about my life, I want readers to care about what I’m saying. Which is what I love about We're Not. It says a lot of stuff about life and performative love (and generally relationships in this day and age) that I deeply connect with as a human being who has experienced these things. I don’t come to the book hoping to learn something about ex-boyfriends of yours, I come to it to feel things about the characters that I refuse to let myself feel for myself.

One thing I personally didn’t expect when the chapbook came out was how many people would, you know, actually read it. What has the experience of having the chapbook meant to you as a writer? (Besides getting to become part of Kirby’s entourage, which is not to be undervalued.)

LT: I went to an Alex Dimitrov reading where he was launching Together and By Ourselves, which comes across as intensely personal. And before the Q & A, he said: “Ask me anything, except about my book.” As a statement, it seems so counter-intuitive since the poems read as confessional, but I feel that way too. I’m very comfortable putting secrets in poems, tucked carefully under the gauze of aesthetic. It doesn’t mean I want to have a conversation about what I’ve disclosed. Essentially, this is my convoluted way of trying to show solidarity. I hate that writing auto-poetry—which is my main focus these days, too—forces you to defend the actual content, rather than strength of the writing itself. I’m open to gripes about word choice and metaphor, not about my version of the “truth”. In any case, The Machete Tourist is beautiful, affecting, and brutal, and it deserves a large, enthusiastic readership. So, I’m very happy that it’s getting one! Being primarily based in the U.S., did you worry about going with a Canadian publisher? A chapbook feels like a concrete indication that you’ve been working really damn hard.

In CanPo[etry], it’s definitely treated like the biggest step prior to publishing a full-length collection. Before knife | fork | book showed up, We're Not felt like a failed thesis project. The manuscript didn’t work well at 50 pages, so I’d hacked it down to 20 pages and rewrote half of it. By this point, I wasn’t sure if the poems were even good anymore—which is what happens when you obsess over a project for four years! So, getting the green light for We're Not was a huge confidence booster. Kirby’s resounding “yes” motivated me to spend more time writing, submit more work to journals, and ultimately felt like a welcoming hand into the community. Having a chapbook helps from a career standpoint, but it benefited me more emotionally. When knife | fork | book accepted my manuscript, I was living in the aftershock of being diagnosed with a terminal illness, barely two months earlier. Considering my affinity for the Samson and Delilah story, I’m shockingly agnostic. But new friends and good news have historically shown up at the bleakest points in my life.

JS: There’s so much I love here, and I think I shared many of these feelings. I’ll say that I have no qualms with having a Canadian publisher despite that I’m in the U.S. for the foreseeable future. (Unless, of course, that future gets much, much worse.) Also, a piece of advice that Brad Listi has been sharing a lot lately on his podcast—the Otherppl Podcast—is that you should “follow the enthusiasm.” It’s been a rare thing to feel as considered through a publishing experience as I have with Kirby. I don’t think I know anyone who loves poetry quite like Kirby does. Also, since poetry is such a fickle market, I don’t think it matters in the same way as it does with fiction where you’re being published. Silly as it may be from a “career” perspective, I’m actually really happy to publish in Canada as well as the U.S. Despite a lot of the pain in CanLit these days, there’s so much exceptional work happening, and I’m happy to pretend I’m a part of it.

And you’re right, a chapbook is definitely viewed as a big step towards publishing a full collection. It’s a great thing to have, but I personally don’t anticipate that if I ever find a home (in Canada or the U.S.) for Junebat—the full manuscript—it will be with someone who has read the chapbook. But I’m more than happy to be proven wrong.

For me, I don’t know that the actual achievement of getting the chapbook has hit me as much as the fact that the chapbook has actually been read by people. Don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t had a large readership (though I think my mom has bought and distributed ~20-30 copies) but more people have read it and responded to it than I (jaded as I can be) really ever anticipated.

I want more writers to have this experience, and I think more will. I love chapbooks, and love that they seem to be having a moment right now. It feels like, for me at least, most of the stuff I publish in magazines doesn’t really get read by anyone once it’s published (with one recent exception being my poem in The Puritan). Being out of school for awhile now, it’s been a time since I felt that an amount of people were reading my work. Which is all I really want.

One great thing also about chapbooks is that they don’t take long to publish, which is a kindness. Junebat has been under consideration with a press since before I was ever solicited for The Machete Tourist—and the chapbook has been out for three months now. I’m really heartened to hear that your acceptance was there to brighten up the dark times of your diagnosis. Shifting gears a smidge, I’ve been thinking a lot about time and publishing lately through the lens of writers who are working with illness, like you, and how the industry could better serve them by—for example—prioritizing their consideration and expediting publication. This said, I haven’t heard of any publishers doing anything like that, and I hate that this translates into sick writers having to compromise their ambitions by approaching smaller presses—often with a more limited distribution—because they have a quicker turnaround because they don’t have the privilege to tolerate the industry’s glacial pace, and just want to get their work out there. What has having knife | fork | book and Kirby championing you and your work meant to you? And how might we as an industry do better to serve writers with illness?

LT: This interview should double as a bat signal for readers to flock to your Goodreads page and leave their reviews of The Machete Tourist. We need some quantitative evidence here!

To start dancing around your questions, time is definitely a major concern in my life. Mainly, not having enough of it. But I’ve learned that it’s better for me if other people don’t conform to the pressure of my self-imposed schedule. Having such a serious illness, I often get stuck on what I’m going to do next and how fast I can accomplish it. It’s a little maddening for myself and for anyone close to me. Plus, I lose the enjoyment of my life as it happens. However, you’re entirely right. I’m wary of submitting to a press with a large backlog because my health is unpredictable. I don’t think I feel resentful about that fact or want publishers to speed up on my behalf, rather I’m hurt when my peers can’t empathize. The hardest part of being sick is the emotional isolation. So, I appreciate that you’re asking me how I want to be accommodated, even if I don’t have a perfect answer. Sickness is so individual. To create a CanLit that serves every sick writer, we’d have to start making an effort to ask everyone separately what would help. Looping back again, it’s easy to get hung up on the big-name publishers. But I try to remember they aren’t the be-all and end-all. Would wide circulation and prestige be amazing? Of course! Is it necessary to produce a book that readers enjoy? Absolutely not. I mean, Billy-Ray Belcourt just won the Griffin Poetry Prize with This Wound is a World, which was published by Frontenac House, a small press based in Calgary. The quality of the poetry comes first. I would be thrilled to home my full-length manuscript with a publisher who was excited about the work. That’s it. You and I both had positive experiences with knife | fork | book, which isn’t a large enterprise, but their impact throughout CanPo feels tremendous. We’ve been profoundly spoiled, I think!

JS: I so agree. I think that’s one of the great things about CanLit, is that—unlike the U.S.—a smaller house loving your work can still make a big impact. Billy-Ray is one of many great examples. It still happens in the U.S., of course, but I think in the U.S. there feels like there’s just so much more noise. I also think it’s worth mentioning that experiences with smaller presses (k | f | b being a great example, since it’s pretty much a one-Kirby operation) can also be much more rewarding than being taken as one of 30 books at a bigger house. There’s a trade-off, and just because the house might have wider distribution, you might not get that love-campaigning that can make all the difference.

And you’re right, I’m definitely guilty of oversimplifying how sick writers could be better served—there’s no one-size-fits-all, and I appreciate your calling me out! I just know how much the prolonged waiting erodes me, and I figured that if my time were more limited, I’d lose my mind.

I so appreciate your taking the time to converse with me about all things serious. Another of the great things about having been one of the three chapbooks launched this spring (mine, yours, and the amazing Roxanna Bennett’s Unseen Garden) has been meeting and connecting with you and your wonderful work, both in We’re Not Going to Do Better Next Time and otherwise. What’s next for you? Is there anything exciting (brand new or coming out soon) we should keep our eyes peeled for?

LT: Likewise! It was a pleasure to meet you and your lovely partner at the launch in March! I’m so glad that we got to have this chat. Thank you for taking the time out of your week, and thanks to The Adroit Journal and Lauren Korn for facilitating this conversation. I have some exciting, top-secret news to announce in August. So, stay tuned for that! Readers can find me on Twitter and Instagram as @sickpoettheory where I post any new publications. Otherwise, I’ll be here in Montréal, trying to survive the summer heat and toiling away at my full-length manuscript, tentatively entitled The Only Card in a Deck of Knives.

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John Elizabeth Stintzi's writing can be found in Los Angeles Review of Books, PRISM International, Black Warrior Review, wildness, and other venues. In November of 2018, John will be working on their novel Field Notes On Desire as an Artist-in-Residence at The Watermill Center in Water Mill, New York. John currently lives with their girlfriend in Kansas City, MO, and is seeking to place their first novel as well as their first full collection of poetry. For more information, head to www.johnstintzi.com.

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Lauren Turner is a writer living in Tiohtiá:ke/Montréal on the unceded land of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation. Her poetry chapbook, We’re Not Going to Do Better Next Time, was published by knife | fork | book in March 2018. Other poems and essays have appeared in Grain, Arc Magazine, Poetry is Dead, Canthius, Minola Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Puritan, and elsewhere. She won the 2018 Short Grain Contest and was a finalist for carte blanche’s 2017 3Macs Prize.

Conversations with Contributors: Gala Mukomolova by Peter LaBerge

BY ALI SHAPIRO

 Gala Mukomolova, author of  One Above / One Below: Positions & Lamentations  (YesYes Books, 2018) and contributor to  Issue Seventeen .

Gala Mukomolova, author of One Above / One Below: Positions & Lamentations (YesYes Books, 2018) and contributor to Issue Seventeen.

Gala Mukomolova earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. Her work has appeared in the PENPOETRYPANKVINYL and elsewhere. In 2016 Mukomolova won the 92nd Street Y Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. Her first chapbook, One Above / One Below : Positions & Lamentations is available from YesYes Books.

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Ali Shapiro: Can you talk a bit about the title—how you chose it, why you liked it, how you got that Hole song out of your head (assuming you have at this point, which I haven’t)?

Gala Mukomolova: You know what? I can’t get that whole album out of my head. I’m a sucker for a hook and Courtney has so many sharp and jagged ones. I think I wanted to invoke a certain kind of girl when I chose this title, and I want to assert here that both parts of my title are important. When I chose One Above One Below, I was speaking to a girl who grew up radicalized by Courtney on stage with her leg up on an amp flashing her pussy and daring you to shame her. I was speaking to a girl who grew up desperately consuming every and any mention to magic—to negotiating the veil between. It’s one of my deep beliefs that Live Through This is a powerful ritual turned record, that Courtney was a medium for the divine feminine, and these songs were sacred offerings for survivors. My book is not an ode to Courtney Love or Hole or even that record; it’s an ode to the divine feminine force that permeated so much music at that time, to the Lilith part of Lilith Fair. Regarding Positions & Lamentations, I wanted to make sure that these poems were not tops or bottoms, that they didn’t lie prone on a pillow waiting to be deified or defiled, that they didn’t hover hungrily waiting for permission. This book, as you might have guessed, is a switch.

AS: I did guess—or rather, I noticed and felt—lots of switchiness in this book. In some ways I think it parallels what Courtney Love does in “Violet,” the way she flips between registers—she’s laid back, she doesn’t care, then all of a sudden SHE’S FUCKING SCREAMING, then she’s laid back again. The line “one above and one below” is a moment like this—a mid-sentence flip. That strikes me as paralleling a thing you do in your poems, often in the space of a single line or stanza: “you give her a name, you break her neck,” for example. Is this part of what you mean by “this book is a switch”? And how does that relate to the girl you just talked about—the one who negotiates the veil?

GM: My friend Sara Jane says I’m a poet who’s interested in embodiment, and I’m so prone to dissociation that I didn’t see it until she said it. Embodiment, what’s that? I think I’m getting to it; like some people who feel with their eyes first, I’m feeling with my words. Sometimes to know something, you’ve got to find its edges—the parameters that keep it in place and keep you from slipping into it. To investigate that edge, to claim knowledge, that’s a kind of violence, and it’s beautiful, right? I need the rough and the gentle in the same body, I need to know you’re capable of both. Now I’m thinking of a mosh pit in 2007, a Team Dresch reunion show, and the ecstatic crush of women’s bodies against mine chanting lyrics to "Fagetarian" and "Dyke." That was a ritual too, so many daggers digging the ground; when I fell in the pit, my ex-girlfriend’s new lover extended her hand and pulled me back up into her arms.

AS: Your description of falling in the pit is so lovely and communal and safe (despite and because of the crushing, I guess)—it reminds me of other references to deep friendship between women in your book, “deep friendship” being kind of too cheesy and platonic to capture it. What I mean is that your book feels populated by women who care for you, who visit, bring flowers from Home Depot, and so on. And yet these relationships also remind me, paradoxically or perversely, of all the times in your poems when there’s a reference to not belonging, to aloneness or loneliness. The speaker says it sometimes—belonging to no one; I don’t belong to you; accept aloneness—or it’s explored via images, often animals who are lost or unclaimed. Can you talk a bit about how this idea of being claimed/unclaimed fits into your book? And maybe also about all those dogs?

GM: I think the problem of aloneness in my work is a problem of alienness. I think it might be an immigrant problem, rootless and refusing to be solved, even when transplanted amongst companion species—plants that can copacetically grow alongside. Friendship is so powerful to me, so vital to my survival, I want to honor it at all costs—to crown my friend family in flowers. To be loved, to feel cared for and protected, is not paradoxical to the feeling of aloneness for me. There’s a poem I touch in the chapbook, a Rumi poem I used to treat as a prayer when I was young, it ends with the words “there are love dogs no one knows the name of, give your life to be one of them.” All my life I thought that kind of love was sacred. I still do. But, I’m tired. Who calls love dogs in to rest by their hearth? An alien problem, if no one knows my name then no one can call me home. I’ve got to call myself—that’s an aloneness I used to fall down heart-heavy from but now I’m rising.

AS: OK yes, I see that—not paradoxical at all. Let’s talk about the other kinds of relationships in the book—I’m thinking about the poems that deal more explicitly with sex, thinking (because of what you just said about being called) of the various moments in which you’re called or claimed in italics: pretty fag, for example. How does sex in this book relate (or not) to the kinds of aloneness you’re talking about? To the question of being claimed?

GM: Sometimes the questions you ask me make me feel like you missed your calling as a therapist. I want to imitate the poem here so that I might maintain some level of personal mystery, but I want to be candid with you... How to be both opaque and candid at once? A pet name means nothing until a lover enters it into your poetic memory (yes, this is an Unbearable Lightness reference). All of a sudden your body collapses around the words sweet girl, becomes a mess of sugar. Some lost dogs don’t come by the name etched into their tag when they’re found because it’s not about the name, it’s about the mouth that first spoke it. Sex is the tug of a leash, a reminder, it only works when both animals choose it. By that reasoning, this book might be full of poems that are carrying their names like useless collars. Sniffing the air, marking their territory.

AS: Sometimes the answers you give make me feel like you missed your calling as a—oh wait, you are a poet. But listen, what about that bird: “you give her a name, you break her neck”? And what about those bad bitches in the second poem, the one that ends: “Don’t linger, I won't give anything a name?” Are those examples of what you’ve just described—poems that carry their names like useless collars? Or are they different animals—names the speaker gave, instead of names that were given to the speaker?

It won’t surprise you to know that typing the word “name” so many times has summoned up a Richard Siken poem, “Saying Your Names”—his is a long list of names, a torrent, a howl—an effort, I think, to not only call but name an absent lover home. And then perhaps it won’t surprise you to know that I’m thinking of your dedication: I wrote this book for a handsome woman and her handsome absence.

GM: Perhaps, in my dedication I meant to say something that I hadn’t truly managed to say throughout the whole book—since so much of it catalogues what I witness rather than what I feel. I guess I want to reveal two things to you. One, which will come as no surprise to you, is that this dedication is very deep lez of me—it references Rita Mae Brown’s small book of poems titled Songs to a Handsome Woman, which is about Rita’s relationship with an older woman (it was written to seduce Alexis Smith, I’ve read); and two, which is an impulse I know you’ll understand, is my choice to use the word handsome twice: once, to underscore my devotion to female masculinity as a site of desire, and the second time to measure the absence—handsome as significant, as substantial.

[As for the absence itself,] all absences are a kind of wound, aren’t they? A kind of cut or ditch. Some of us love a concave we can store things in. Some dykes. Sorry not sorry, dad joke, I know.

The poems you’re picking up, they’re the ones where the speaker did the naming, and in participating in it, recognized her own vulnerability. That to name something is by no means to claim it or insure that it belongs to you. In fact, I’ve found that every time I named something, a poem, a relationship, I was already letting it go. Maybe that’s my bad luck but maybe it’s a dynamic understanding of love and attachment. Anything alive can leave, it’s what’s dead that stays with you forever.

AS: Speaking of claiming and reclaiming, what role does form play in your work? I’m thinking first of the “found” forms—the Craigslist emails and the essay on The Awakening—but also of the poems that are kind of contrapuntals, or those that start off looking like contrapuntals but often become something else, cleaved and then rejoined. What strikes me about these formal decisions is that they feel, ultimately, quite unconstrained—like, you take what you want from form but don’t worry about breaking the rules….

GM: Form is a funny thing for me. I respect form, I’ve learned and relearned the names and syllabic measures. I have a feeling half my poems arrived to me subconscious in some ancient form and crumbled into sapphic fragments once they reached my brain.

I like to play with restraints, I like feeling like I’m buckled in tight by a shape or margin. I’m sensitive to syllabic balance in a line. All of this and a kind of chaos, a refusal to surrender entirely to anything that wants control. If I’m going to submit to a poem, an energy, I want it to be toward boundlessness.

AS: It occurs to me that this kind of play creates a similar experience in the reader—of being controlled, of having our expectations set up and then subverted, of your poems’ refusal to stay still or be just one way, just one thing. In other words, we’ve now arrived at the idea that your poems are actually… Tops?

GM: But isn’t the subversion where a switch really shines?

AS: So, um, speaking of fucking, the end of this book breaks my heart. Is the fucking the thing, or isn’t it? And what if it is? And what if it isn’t?

GM: It took me a long time to get here, and it’s true that sometimes it’s easy for me to convince myself of things I want to believe, but I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t matter if the fucking is the thing. So what? You know? Partnerships have roots, love is born somewhere in the body. Maybe like Greek goddesses, some connections are born of foam and some from the head. I know this isn’t what you asked me but I've got to tell you how, just now, I needed to understand how Athena was born from Zeus’s head and so I looked it up. I think in grade school I was taught that Athena didn’t have a mother, that the goddess of war and wisdom came from Zeus as if she was Eve transforming a rib. But, Athena had a mother. Her name was Metis and she was an oceanic Titan known for her wisdom. Zeus raped her like he did almost all the mothers of his children. He raped her because he wanted her and killed her because he was afraid of her. He killed her by swallowing her while she was trying to escape in the form of a fly. That’s how Athena came to gestate inside Zeus and that is why she sprang from his head. I guess I shouldn’t compare any kind of love to the ways in which goddesses are born. But, and this is something I might whisper to you after one drink too many in a dark booth, isn’t desire the root, symptom, and cure for violence? As if there’s someone out there that can love us in all the ways we want to be loved, as if there’s a human being out there born to serve our every hunger gladly. If someone can only love me in one way, let them.

AS: You also write horoscopes for NYLON. Do you see similarities between your horoscopes and poetry? Or does the process/tone/persona you inhabit feel totally different?

GM: It’s a different work, the horoscopes, no matter how lyrical I make them. When I write them, I’m trying to reach a large audience, I’m trying to speak in a language that NYLON readers will more-or-less “get.” Even when I write an essay, I get lost in this endeavor—to somehow bend the rivers that flow through me and make them into one cohesive body of water that’s easy to recognize. With poetry, I feel wild. I’m tempted to play God and suck the rivers dry. I don’t care so much what you “get” or don’t “get.” I’m working the realm of feeling and tone—I sew a veil and I place it over your head. You see, just talking about making poems has got me mixing weird metaphors… Veils, rivers, what? I’m coming back to it. No matter what about the process is different, one thing is the same and that’s my antennae. I’m always fiddling the rods and opening up the channel, listening to something bigger than me that speaks from the other side.

AS: You’ve got a book coming out—WITHOUT PROTECTION. How do you think about the book in relation to the chapbook? Sister? Mother? Other half?

GM: The mother, for sure. The big romantic cunt without protection that birthed my chapbook animal.

AS: Can we listen to that Hole song again?

GM: Yes. Come over.

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Ali Shapiro writes, teaches, and draws comics in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Conversations with Contributors: Meg Freitag by Peter LaBerge

BY LAUREN R. KORN

 Meg Freitag, author of  Edith  (BOAAT, 2018) and contributor to  Issue Twenty-Two .

Meg Freitag, author of Edith (BOAAT, 2018) and contributor to Issue Twenty-Two.

Meg Freitag was born in Maine. She has degrees from Sarah Lawrence College and UT Austin's Michener Center for Writers. Her poems can be found in Tin House, Boston Review, and Black Warrior Review, among other journals. Her first book, Edith, won the 2016 BOAAT Book Prize and was published by BOAAT Press in late 2017.

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The following interview took place over Google Hangout and GMail between March and July 2018.

Lauren R. Korn: Edith is your first book. What has the process of publishing a first book been like?

Meg Freitag: It’s been really good! I’ve loved working with the folks at BOAAT. As far as the book is concerned, because it is a first book, I didn’t feel much outside pressure to publish it right away. I ended up spending a lot of time—a couple of years—revising it. I’m really proud of the finished product.

LRK: You said you didn’t feel a pressure to publish. You earned an MFA at UT-Austin’s Michener Center for Writers—you felt no pressure to publish while in the program, either?

MF: No. Not so much. My professors in the MFA program were pretty encouraging of me making the work into what I wanted it to be.

LRK: What is your day job?

MF: I work as a conference producer. I put together industry conferences on esoteric tech topics for Silicon Valley folks. It’s unlike anything I thought I’d end up doing but it’s been fun. I’m learning a lot and I travel a ton.

LRK: It doesn’t sound like you have much writing time, then?

MF: No, I don’t. It can be hard. I have to really muscle it into my schedule.

LRK: With so little time afforded to you, have you been able to tour with the book?

MF: A tiny bit, yeah. I went to Austin for the book launch. I still have a lot of friends there and some of my family’s there, so it made sense to do it there. And I’ve toured a little bit around the Bay Area doing readings. I did a reading when I was in Tampa for AWP in March. I’m hoping to do a little more of it before the end of the year.

LRK: The poem that begins your collection, “When Edith Doesn’t Have a Body” is not addressed to Edith—it speaks of her in the third person. It is also separate from the rest of your collection—it is not part of Parts One, Two, Three, or Four. The poem reads, then, as a preface to the collection, and I’m curious as to why you chose that particular poem to act as such when there are other poems in the collection that speak to life after Edith; e.g., in “Sometimes It’s Easier to See Into the Future Than It Is to See Into the Self,” you write, “So much goes on without you, Edith.” Are you speaking directly to your readers here, introducing us to the parakeet who becomes not only the subject of your narrative, but the object, as well?

MF: You know, it’s funny, I actually hadn’t realized until you mentioned it that it’s the only poem in which she’s addressed in the third person. I guess it does serve as a kind of introduction to Edith in that way, and introduces my impulse to speak directly to her. I like that it also establishes Edith’s death and the circumstances surrounding her death right away so it’s not a distracting mystery throughout the book.

LRK: That’s a good point. Putting that poem at the front, you wouldn’t have to keep mentioning her death in other poems; you could just put it out front.

MF: Yeah. I feel like sometimes, when you have something big that’s unsaid, it ends up taking over everything. It can be so distracting.

LRK: Was that a pretty big question brought to you in your workshops?

MF: [Laughs] No, not so much. My workshop peers were really close to everything that happened. I had started writing these poems to Edith as a writing exercise. I didn’t realize they were going to turn into an entire book. I was just interested in experimenting with apostrophic address. At the time I started writing to Edith, it was quirky and fun, because she was still alive. And then a few months into the project, she died, so the tone of the poems changed (obviously) due to that. And, you know, I was close with everyone in my workshop, so everyone knew what had happened. 

LRK: How long did you have Edith before she died?

MF: Five and a half years.

LRK: Is that pretty typical?

MF: I think 7-8 years is typical—in captivity, and even longer in the wild. There are a lot of accidents when birds are kept in captivity, as proven by my situation. I thought I had a couple more years with her.

LRK: You mention “captivity.” Containment and boxes, too, play a large role in your collection—from Edith’s cage to an airplane’s black box, from the internality of one’s body to loneliness (read: the relationship of one’s body to another’s). In “A Limitation of Mockingbirds,” you write, “If someone hurts your feelings, there is an impulse to thrash around / Inside your own body.” How did your relationship with Edith exemplify or make clear the poet-speaker’s reality of containment and/or captivity?

MF: This is a great question, but I’m not sure how to answer it. The truth is, I think, it didn’t really. You’re definitely onto something here, and I think that’s the case with a lot of the themes that you’ve drawn out with your questions, but these themes aren’t always apparent to me at the time I am writing. This relationship, inside versus outside—it wasn’t something that I was really consciously infusing into my work. But I’m sure there was something going on in the back of my mind or deep down in my psyche that kept putting those images into the poems.

LRK: It’s interesting to me, the way that you brought captivity into our conversation: that there is danger in keeping an animal in captivity, that their life can be shortened. This isn’t really a question, but there seems to be some semblance of guilt there, that Edith may have lived longer had she not been held captive in an indoor space.

MF: Absolutely.

LRK: In that way, I feel like this manuscript acted as a vessel for your grief. You came out the other side not only with this enormous product, but you probably dealt with your feelings in a way that was a lot more manageable.

MF: Yeah, I think so. The project worked to bring a kind of heuristic order to my world, which is helpful when you’re going through something that feels otherwise bottomlessly meaningless. But I think part of it was also just the time it took to write it. The fact that the manuscript took me several years—during that time, the natural grieving process was also working itself out. And I mean, any time you lose someone who is really dear to you, you’ll always have feelings of regret and a kind of imagining of a different life in which that loss didn’t happen. It’s still something that is very sad to me, and I’m sure always will be, but time takes the edge off. By the time the first draft of the book was finished, the grief had aged--it was less of a visceral, emotional experience and more of an intellectual mind-fuck. Like, it had reached a point where it wasn’t so much, “GUH…,” but more like, “It’s so fucked up that she’s not still here.” 

LRK: It becomes a logical reaction versus an emotional reaction.

MF: Right.

LRK: So many of your poems speak to your dreaming life in relationship to your waking life in a seamless way. In thinking about poetry and its place in genre (i.e., its place in literary marketing), I can’t help but think of how poets utilize fictional narratives as metaphors. Is this what you’re doing with dreams in Edith, or should your readers see these references as literal?

MF: It’s a little bit of both. They're definitely not solely metaphorical devices, but there were times when it was convenient to use them as such. A lot of the dreams are based on dreams I actually had, and some of them aren’t, or they’re kind of revised dreams. Dreams, to me personally, are really important and inform the way that I live my life. I have a Jungian sensibility about dreams in that I believe dreams reveal truths to you, they teach you how to live. And so there was no way that dreams weren’t going to be a huge part of the speaker’s experience of the world of the book, because it’s something that’s so present in my own life.

LRK: You say, “the speaker.” There is the confessional “I” so present in these poems. This book reads so confessionally, so narratively, and I’m wondering, do you want your readers to read the “I” as you?

MF: That’s a good question. There is of course a natural inclination to see the speaker as the writer in “I”-centric poetry. Even as someone who writes and reads a lot of poetry, and as someone who’s taken a lot of poetry workshops, I still tend to assume sometimes in the back of my head that the “I” is the author, the “I” is the writer. I have to constantly remind myself that that’s not the case.

I would say that the speaker of my book is someone who is very close to me and someone who is very similar to me, but is not me. And I agree with you: Edith is arguably in the big-C Confessional tradition, but at the same time, it’s not completely autobiographical. A lot of it is. A lot of the big, important things that happen in the book are, but the art of narrative is also at work. I’m trying to tell an interesting story.

I believe that a poem can absolutely be written in the “confessional” mode without having to be entirely factually true. Take Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” for instance. One of the pillars of Confessional poetry, but it’s also a personae poem. Sometimes you must circumvent the self to get to a deeper, more vivid truth.

LRK: I assume the speaker-author relationship a lot, too. And so often I find myself having to bring myself out of that. Some writers even get agitated by that assumption.

MF: While I don’t feel agitated by it, I do understand the resistance to it. It can feel a little reductive I think. Even if you are writing exclusively from personal experiences, the work ends up being this kind of false or constructed life. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end to a poem or book of poems. But who experiences the world like that?

I think there is also resistance to feeling like, as poets, we owe the world our deepest, sloppiest truths.

LRK: I get that, too.

I’d like to talk with you about your writing practice, the spaces that you were able to write from (or in) and the spaces in the book, itself. There is an astounding sense of space or place in Edith. A good many of its poems mention a “kitchen” or “tile” or “floor” in a way that has me wondering whether a) Edith’s cage was kept in the kitchen; and/or b) this manuscript took its shape in the kitchen (if those two questions aren’t one and the same).

And what does your writing process (in the kitchen, if that is, indeed, where the manuscript was written) look like? How has it changed throughout your movement through educational institutions, and how do you see it changing in your immediate future (whether that question portends a forthcoming project or career change, etc.)?

MF: So, first, Edith’s cage was not in the kitchen. It was in my living room. And just a PSA for anyone thinking about getting a parakeet, you're actually not supposed to keep their cages in the kitchen. Birds are really sensitive to smells, particularly chemical smells. Like Teflon. Like, if you burn a non-stick pan—that can kill them. But that’s where Edith’s remains were found, in the kitchen, on the floor, so that brought it explicitly into a couple of the poems.

And as far as my writing process, I’m not the kind of person who works at a desk. I’m a rover. When I started Edith, I lived in a tiny one-bedroom house. It was a very small, 500-square-foot square that was divided into four tiny rooms. One of them was a kitchen, one of them was a bedroom, one was a sort of living room, and one was an office. I think most of the poems were written from my bed. I’m a big bed-writer. I think zero percent were written from my office. My office is a place where I end up stashing stuff. Some of the book was written in the kitchen, though.

It’s hard to say exactly how my process has changed over the years. It’s always been somewhat of a fluid thing for me. Just like I move around my environment when I’m working, I move in and out of different phases, different processes. Different things work well for me at different times. I’m pretty adaptable in that way, which I feel lucky about. But the flip side of my procedural easy-goingness is that I struggle with self-discipline. If I find a project that has a lot of natural momentum for me, then all’s well. But I can get really squirrelly when I’m working on something more challenging or elusive to me. I let myself off the hook pretty easily. I’m trying to be better about it. I’ll say that entering grad school did have a big impact, just because of the vast amounts of time I was suddenly allowed. I could plan my whole day around the writing. I could stay up all night working on something and sleep until 1 if it felt right. 

And yes—to answer your last question, I do see this all changing once again in the near future. I’ll be leaving my current job at the end of July, actually, and moving once again to go back to school. To study fiction of all things. I’ve never focused on prose-writing full-time, so I’m not even quite sure what that’ll be like for me. 

LRK: Where will you be studying fiction, and how did you come to decide to try your hand at fiction in a workshop setting? Are you solely looking for a lengthy time to write, the time afforded to graduate students?

MF: I’ll be attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. I’ve been working on fiction for a while now, but the more I work on it, the more I realize I have a lot to learn. I think my fiction has something going for it on the sentence level, but I have a really hard time with structure, pacing, character development, etc. That is all totally overwhelming to me. I want to get better at it. Part of that is taking classes with people who can teach me how to do these things, and part of it is, yes, just having the time to practice.

LRK: I think it’s easy to understand how craft at “the sentence level” might be a strength for a poet, and how things like structure and character development might be, initially, out of reach. That said, I think your poetic inclinations towards character may be stronger than you think. I’m interested in how you created a speaker in Edith who is so transparent, and I’d like to talk with you about lying and how you use it as a device in your poetry (and how it operates outside of your poetry).

More than one of your poems “sees” your speaker lying, but that lying is either transparent: “I’ve been lying a lot lately,” or it’s introduced only to be re-examined in a come-clean sort of way: “When I was ten I found a dinosaur bone / In my backyard, beneath the Slip ’n Slide. // … When I was ten I lied a lot—About…finding a dinosaur bone / In my backyard, about having a Slip ’n Slide.” I think there’s a vulnerability to announcing yourself in a such a way, and not only does it elicit a child-like interest in perception, it also creates a striking intimacy between the poet-speaker and her readers. Can you speak to that desire for transparency and, ultimately, that page-playfulness?

MF: The way that I play with “lying” in this collection is a little more intentional than some of the other things you’ve mentioned. This goes back to what we were talking about earlier, about the speaker and the self. Like I said, I do think it’s natural to come to an “I”-centric book and assume that it’s entirely autobiographical. To bring up the idea that there is even the possibility of un-truth in a poem is destabilizing in a way that I think disrupts the assumption of writer/speaker continuity.

Also, there’s just something really exciting about an unreliable narrator or speaker. There’s a complexity there that’s interesting to me.

LRK: I read this as being a collection of events that probably did happen, but that destabilization made me question that assumption. Like, there was a point at which I was like, Did this actually happen? Was there, actually, a bird? Was this all constructed in order to bring these internal things into focus? So, I, too, am really interested in the unreliable narrator—in both poetry and in prose. I mean, it’s very clever, and you’ve done it so well.

MF: Thank you.

LRK: So, I’m at an age where I’m very conscious of the female, child-bearing body that I inhabit. Assuming that you, too, identify with that feeling and that embodiment, I’d like to know the thought- and writing-processes that birthed a collection so tightly threaded together by the repetition of that imagery. “Birthed” is a good word, actually, because birth and babies are two (or one) of the motifs I see in Edith. I think that each works with and against Edith’s character in certain ways; how did you imagine babies working within your Edith concept? Babies and birth (and milk, too) are, at times, paired with animals and insects—also very prevalent in your collection. Aside from Edith, what roles do animals and insects play in your every-day? What role did you wish them to play in Edith and/or in the characterization of your speaker?

MF: Again, this wasn’t really conscious for me. Both of these things are just a part of my world, the world that I draw from in order to write what feels real and alive to me. I think those are two separate things for me, though, animals and birth/babies. I don’t think the themes are so related in my head. Animals represent the natural world, which is something that I think about a lot. And being a woman of childbearing age, it’s inevitable that it’s a part of my psyche. So even though it may not be something I’m actively thinking about, it makes sense to me that it would be something subliminally revealed in my work.

LRK: Can you go into a little more detail about how animals are a part of your world?

MF: I’m looking at my dog right now. So, I have a dog, and I had a bunch—well, not a bunch, but I had several birds. Edith wasn’t my only bird. And other pets, too. For a long time I worked for a reptile sanctuary that also did educational programming. I’d bring snakes, lizards, tortoises around to different schools in the Bay Area. We even had an 80-lb. Burmese python I’d take around sometimes. I’d bring her on the city bus in a rolling suitcase. Everyone would think I was just on my way to the airport. Her name was Julie. 

I love animals and have a lot of respect for them. I feel like we have a lot to learn from them—about ourselves, about our relationships with each other and with the earth. About death.

LRK: That’s amazing. I love that. I hope that’s something that continues to thread itself throughout your poetry. It’s unique. It’s not “nature poetry,” per se, but the connection I felt in reading Edith was similar to the inextricable sense of being “at one with.”

MF: Thank you! I hope it continues, too. I think it will.

LRK: Was there a point at which you knew this collection was, indeed, going to be a collection? Did its cohesiveness come about through workshop input, or…?

MF: It was pretty late in the process of actually writing the book when I realized I was writing a collection. I was just focused on writing the individual poems at first. I had a lot of energy for them. I’d sit down to write, and I’d get really excited. So, the collection sort of took off from that point, that energy. I kept going, and at some point, I was like, maybe there’s a book in here.

LRK: You begin your collection with an epigraph by Édith Piaf: “Formerly you were breathing the golden sun. / You were walking on treasures. / We were tramps. / We were loving songs.” Can you speak to how that epigraph defines or best suits your collection?

MF: Edith—the bird—is named after Edith Piaf. And I’m just a big Edith Piaf fan. I knew I wanted her to be present in the book somehow, but that presence just never worked out in any of the poems. And that song really speaks to me. It’s a song about loss. I thought it was appropriate in that way.

LRK: Edith won the 2016 BOAAT Book Prize, judged by Dorianne Laux. What is your poetic relationship to Laux’s work? Did you see Laux as someone who would read your manuscript with a certain amount of enthusiasm, or was she peripheral to you entering the contest?

MF: She wasn’t the main reason I entered the contest. I love BOAAT, and so I was excited to see that they were doing a first book contest. And I love her work, and I do think there is a little bit of a thread there. She writes pretty narratively-cohesive poems, and I guess, when I saw that she was judging the contest, I did think it could make sense. But when you submit to a contest, you have to get by other very discerning eyes before you get to the contest judge anyway, so was hard to imagine that she was going to end up seeing the manuscript. But she’s great. I met her once, and she’s wonderful. Very generous, very irreverent.

LRK: Your dog is named Ramona Quimby. You must have been a Beverly Cleary fan as a child? Can you speak briefly to your evolution as a reader? How did you come to poetry?

MF: Yeah, I love Beverly Cleary. I used to really, really love books when I was a kid. My favorite was horror-writing, scary stories. By the time I was in fifth grade I’d read every Stephen King book that had been published at the time. But when I got to middle school—or maybe I was a bit older—I started resenting books, because they reminded me of homework. I was very into visual arts—painting, drawing, photography. That’s all I wanted to do. But when I discovered Sylvia Plath [laughs] and Anne Sexton—maybe my sophomore year of high school—they totally blew open my world. Their work gave me a lot of renewed energy for reading and writing.

LRK: It’s always interesting to me when Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton come up in any referential spaces. I mean, a lot of girls, a lot of women, a lot of people, came to poetry through them. And in your book, I can see a bit of that influence, too. Especially in the confessional mode and your speaker’s unabashed attitude, re: truth and un-truth. I don’t know whether the conversation has to be new, regarding those poets… I wish I had something more insightful to say, except that I see their influence in Edith.

MF: That’s high praise.

LRK: Good. It was meant to be.

You’ve said you read a lot. Because I’m a book hoarder and greedy reader myself, can you throw some book or author recommendations my way?

MF: Okay, full disclosure: I’m in a writing phase at the moment. I don’t really write and read at the same time. I get too enamored with the voices of writers I admire and end up losing myself. And I’ve been trying to be in a writing phase, and so I’ve been reading very lightly.

But as far as what books or writers have really excited me recently, I’d first have to mention Hera Lindsay Bird, a younger poet from New Zealand. Her first book came out on Penguin, and it’s self-titled. So bold. I’m recommending her to everyone right now. Um, Emily Kendal Frey’s Sorrow Arrow, which was published by Octopus a few years ago. Their whole catalog, really. Larry Levis’ Winter Stars is a book I’ve been returning to a lot. Laura Kasischke. A dear friend of mine, Bridget Talone, just published her first book on Wonder. It’s called The Soft Life and it’s out-of-this-world good. Hieu Minh Nguyen’s new book Not Here. Frank Stanford has been speaking to me a lot in recent years. His opus, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, is enduring and powerful. No one’s ever written anything like that. It’s an exhausting read but 100% worth it. Anne Carson is a big influence. I re-read “The Glass Essay” recently and can’t stop thinking about it. And Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, of course.

LRK: You should pick up Sina Queyras’ My Ariel, from Coach House Books. It’s in direct conversation with Ariel. It’s a big collection—it’s 120-some pages. But it’s really beautiful and really dynamic.

MF: I have to admit, the recommendations question always stresses me out. I just know that I’m going to end the conversation and then think of someone else I want to add. This question is something I’ll wake up in the middle of the night thinking about. So many wonderful, necessary writers out there right now. It’s a golden hour for poetry. 

LRK: That’s a great note to end on, Meg. Congratulations, again, and good luck with your book tour and new writing life in Iowa!

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Lauren R. Korn is a poet and graphic designer currently living in Fredericton, New Brunswick. An M.A. student in English at the University of New Brunswick, she is also the Director of Content for The Adroit Journal. Her work has appeared and is forthcoming.

Scar Tissue: A Conversation with Catherine Lacey by Peter LaBerge

BY SPENCER RUCHTI

 Photo credit: Jesse Ball. Catherine Lacey, author of  Certain American States  (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).

Photo credit: Jesse Ball. Catherine Lacey, author of Certain American States (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).

Catherine Lacey is the author of four books, most recently Certain American States. She lives in Chicago.

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Ask anyone who’s read her: Catherine Lacey writes some of the best sentences in the English language. Dwight Garner once called them “the sign of a writer settling in for a long backcourt game, one who is going to wear you down rather than go in for the kill.” I’m inclined to disagree. Even when her characters are seeking answers, exhausted and unsure of themselves, Lacey’s fiction is sharp and fluvial in nature: part Kafkaesque non-arrival, part sick-of-your-platitudes, part unconcerned about the kill because living is hard enough.

Her new book of stories, Certain American States (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), is full of characters losing track of themselves, moved or paralyzed by grief. Devotees of Lacey’s previous work will find the same preoccupations with loss, what makes us love another person, and why that love fades. “No one should trust the feelings that occur at nineteen or twenty,” Lacey writes in one of her stories. “Everyone should just sit very still until they reach the calmer waters of later-young-adulthood, that promised land of lowered expectations. Even so, I still don’t get it—how so many people manage to keep asking the same person the same question every day—Is this what you want? Am I still what you want?—without going insane.” Lacey writes about artists and their transgressions; the strange texture of those desires “incommunicable between strangers”; what happens when we are at the end of our sorrow and decide to give everything away; what happens when a person becomes tired of being a person.

I met Lacey at the Tin House Summer Workshop, where I was her student. We conducted the following interview over e-mail.

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Spencer Ruchti: The earliest of the stories in Certain American States were published in 2013, just a year before Nobody Is Ever Missing. What’s changed the most for you since then, in your writing and in your taste in books? What differences did you notice when you started looking at these stories as a collection?

Catherine Lacey: I’ve been writing short fiction for myself for as long as I can remember, but around 2010 I started writing every morning like it was my real job before I went to a job that paid bills. I wrote a ton of unpublishable stories then—mostly trashed now—and I think the main thing that changed since then is that I’m less impressionable. I have a clearer vision of what my stories need to have in order to be mine; I’m not looking outward for confirmation that I’m doing it right. I think there’s a necessary period in a writer’s development during which you allow all your favorite writers into your head and you judge your work against their work. My crowd was Grace Paley, Flannery O’Connor, Gary Lutz, Lydia Davis, Donald Barthelme, Sam Lipsyte, and Lorrie Moore, among others. But eventually you have to tell everyone to go home so you can start judging your work on its own terms. A few stories survived those early years, and they’re the ones that stood out as distinct from everything else I was working on at the time—sort of premonitions of a latent voice that I didn’t realize I was developing.

SR: How did you come to this initial crowd of writers?

CL: Sometimes a writer feels so entrenched in my head that I lose track of when I first read them. Barthelme is this way. O’Connor is the same. The rest, also, I’m not sure how I first came across them. I remember someone I don’t particularly like talking shit about Lydia Davis in 2005 and I later realized that because that dude didn’t understand her work, I knew immediately that I would like it. Also, it makes sense to go figure out who are the favorite writers of your favorite writers and go read them.

SR: You once described yourself as a “spongy” writer, someone who absorbs and inadvertently mimics the styles of other writers. What writers do you feel spongiest toward? When you notice this foreign voice in your work, do you let it stay, or do you mute that voice in the next draft?

CL: You must learn to use that sponginess as a tool, I feel. If a writer does this to you, you must only read them when you want to use their voice as a direct influence on a particular work. I think I contracted a mental virus from Thomas Bernhard about ten years ago and I still work around the scar tissue. He’s a dangerous one. And my partner has noticed that often when I complain about something it often comes out sounding like a Lydia Davis story. (Representative complaints: You’re often walking a few paces ahead of me; The bird you pointed out flew away before I could see it; We cannot understand why everyone dislikes our friend Margaret.) Davis has completely colonized a part of my brain, and I think she’s brilliant so it’s fine with me. Most importantly, you cannot read low quality shit or watch low quality films or whatever. It will hinder your verbal and visual vocabulary.  It will mess you up before you even know what hit you.

SR: Sort of speaking of Lydia Davis, who’s a prolific translator: can you speak about the process of having your work translated? What’s essential in the author/translator relationship?

CL: I admire translators so much—they’re the most careful readers and they care intensely about language and meaning and precision, which is more than I can say about most people. If I had my pick I’d surround myself with translators. They’re my favorite people.

Yet the possibility of my books being translated did not occur to me until it was already underway. The experience has varied widely by country. My publisher in Italy is a small, independent house, but both novels have done well there because independent book sellers in Italy have been my advocates. I can show up at a bookstore in the middle of nowhere on a Sunday morning and it’s packed. I can only assume that my Italian translator, Teressa Ciuffoletti, improved the books with her vision.

With most translations, I’ve gotten a few emails asking me to explain a line or word choice and through that I’ve realized how much unconscious thought and intention goes into every decision.

SR: You also write some of my favorite sentences in the English language. Here’s a representative passage from “Please Take,” which, even out of context, knocked me out of my seat when I first read it: “I weep athletically almost every day and sometimes I cannot get down a city block without collapsing but Adrian is always upright and smiling and glad, so glad, so glad. It may be we do not live in the same world at all. Some nights I wake up and panic, thinking he’s truly gone, for real this time, and I lie there shaking, all my organs going wild in me for hours until I roll over and see he’s been beside me all along. I keep sleeping in the wrong places, I think, or maybe I’m just waking up not where I am.”

When you’re writing something like this, with its own current, rhythm, and gravity, how do you start? Do you draft meticulously?

CL: Thank you. I feel I write the best sentences when I’m in a place of total embodiment with the character who is speaking. By embodiment I mean that I am inhabiting, physically, the space of the character, that I feel I have briefly become that person, that my mind has been given over to their way of seeing the world so fully that my body feels different, too. When I’m in that place of embodiment, I often won’t even have to edit much. Once I have a full draft of something I will read every line of it aloud to make sure the audial integrity and spatial balance is there. I still do a good deal of nitpicking and vacillating between words and moving commas around.

SR: When you get to the draft where you’re reading every sentence aloud, what makes you pause and revise?

CL: I read my pages as quickly and as loudly as I can; any time I stumble or meet resistance, I stop and figure out why. Also, any time I get bored with a sentence or feel like I’m repeating a point that’s already been made in the story, I delete savagely and without remorse.

SR: Can you talk about where the story “Violations” came from? It acts as a parody of your own writing style, or maybe a rebuttal to how critics have tried to define your voice. The narrator is obsessed with the idea that his ex-wife, a novelist who writes in monstrous, unwieldy sentences, is writing about him in an autobiographical sense.

CL: There’s a long version and a short version to where that story came from and I’ll tell you something of both. On the one hand I was feeling angry and childish and petty, so I was trying to make fun of myself for feeling that way, and on the other hand I was feeling a little burdened by the idea that the facts and experiences of a life are not exclusively our own—that is, the things that happen to us usually involve other characters, other people, who will inevitably have a way of telling the story that differs from one’s own. Writing stories well, however, is difficult, and some of us have cultivated this skill more than others, so there is often an imbalance in who gets to tell a story based on who is simply better at telling them. This is something we all have to contend with in our families and relationships and friendships. Looking back at that story now I can see how there’s another level going on, which is that I’m in the unusual position of having given stories to the public that are then professionally and non-professionally critiqued or discussed in terms of syntax or style or whatever and that experience is a bit weird but ultimately humorous to me. After a few critics describe some aspect of one’s style it inevitably changes your experience of that style. You start looking over your own shoulder a little. This also happens interpersonally; we often contend with other peoples’ ideas about who we are (or who they want us to be) in ways that can be exhausting and limiting. I wanted to stop doing that, so I used this story to exorcise that feeling.

SR: So much of your fiction deals with grief and how people function in the wake of death. There are some characters who are paralyzed by the death of a loved one, and others who fantasize about performing their grief. (From “ur heck box”: “The months after Rae died I had the repeated impulse to do something inappropriate, something dangerous, but the only thing I could think to do was not get off the subway when my stop came.”) What is it about grief that interests you?

CL: I really don’t know. Something strange that happened when I wrote my first novel; the parts about the main character’s adopted sister dying young came really immediately and honestly; I never edited or questioned any of those parts. Then, after the book was done but before it was published, my step-sister died young and it felt like I’d had premonitions of that loss before it happened. It’s only been recently that I’ve realized there’s so much grief in my work. I don’t know exactly where it comes from, nor should I, but the stage of grief is a rich one for fiction, I suppose, because it connects a character to the past. It implies a narrative immediately.

SR: Do you feel a unique connection with any character or narrator in the story collection?

CL: I suppose I feel a unique connection with all of them, that is, each character feels like a very distinct perspective and each requires a different mode of connection, but in general, I feel an aversion to aggrandizing characters. I don’t like it when a character feels too precious. I prefer to leave them unnamed when it makes sense, and I tend to avoid physical descriptions if I can. A character is a way of looking at the world, not a person to idolize.

SR: What new books are you excited to read in the next year?

CL: Laura Adamcyzk has a debut collection—Hardly Children—coming out from my publishing homebase, FSG Originals, and it’s really excellent. Miriam Toews, an incredible mid-career writer from Canada, is publishing a book called Women Talking that is a total miracle. I adored that book and cannot wait for everyone to read it.

SR: In the last few years you’ve lived and worked out of New York, Montana, Mississippi, and now Chicago. How have you reconciled with nomadic living? How does writing in Brooklyn contend with, say, writing in Missoula?

CL: I had a fear that if I left New York I wouldn’t be able to write as well because I always thought there was something about the pressure of that place that made me work, but that hasn’t been the case. Ultimately the transience of the past few years is what shifted the story collection from being titled Small Differences to being titled Certain American States, and I ended up replacing some older stories with some newer ones (“Because You Have To” and “Family Physics”) that were generated by all that moving around. No matter where I live, I always find it reasonable and compelling to wake up and have some coffee and write for a while.

SR: Did you find new pressures in new cities? Different anxieties than the ones you found in New York?

CL: American cities differ the most, to me, in their forms of loneliness and disturbance. In some places it’s the loneliness of car travel, in others, stringent societal norms create a feeling of solitude. In Montana a deep relationship with nature is a virtue. In Mississippi it’s seen as a marker of poverty—why would you go outside if you can afford to be inside? The main difference between people in Chicago and people in New York, as I see it, is that people in Chicago are comfortable being happy while people in New York distrust happiness. The latter stance is more natural to me, but I am trying to see the usefulness of the former.

SR: The last story of the collection, “The Grand Claremont Hotel,” has a voice that’s strikingly unlike the others. The narrator is fired from his job while on a business trip and undergoes existential dread in his newfound freedom. Hotel management upgrades him from room to room in a Kafkaesque series of events until one day he realizes the hotel won’t let him leave. He’s trapped in purgatory but seems to find peace there. What inspired this story?

CL: Oh dear, I’m not sure I really know. I’ve stayed in a lot of hotel rooms lately. One night I was in Reno to speak at the university and I was upgraded for no reason to a room larger than a small house that had a bathtub in the living room. I feel this enticing, numbing sense of being coddled every time I stay in a hotel. I find it both enjoyable and upsetting, which is usually a good place for me to begin writing.

SR: “Enjoyable and upsetting” sounds like a perfect blurb for this collection. What other enjoyable/upsetting events have inspired these stories?

CL: Crying in public, watching and practicing martial arts, filling out family court paperwork, air travel, unsuccessfully attempting to teach high school students, co-owning and running a bed and breakfast, setting up temporary homes in drastically different places several times in two years.

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Spencer Ruchti works as a bookseller in Harvard Square. He lived a long time in Pocatello, Idaho, and then Missoula, Montana. He now lives in Boston, where he’s writing a novel.

Poetry is hope: A Conversation with Nicole Sealey by Peter LaBerge

Back to Issue Twenty-Six.

BY KATIE WILLINGHAM

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Born in St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. and raised in Apopka, Florida, Nicole Sealey is the author of Ordinary Beast, finalist for the 2018 PEN Open Book Award, and The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, winner of the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize. Her other honors include a Jerome Foundation Travel and Study Grant, an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant, the Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize from The American Poetry Review, a Daniel Varoujan Award and the Poetry International Prize, as well as fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, CantoMundo, Cave Canem, MacDowell Colony and the Poetry Project. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming to Best American Poetry 2018The New YorkerThe New York Times and elsewhere. Nicole holds an MLA in Africana studies from the University of South Florida and an MFA in creative writing from New York University. She is the executive director at Cave Canem Foundation, visiting professor at Boston University and the 2018-2019 Doris Lippman Visiting Poet at The City College of New York.

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Katie Willingham: Let’s talk about the very first poem! I love how it’s full of personal detail but by enacting this relatable catalogue of “medical history” it becomes universal. This poem also has me thinking about facts and what they can and can’t offer. Would you talk a little about the last line, how the speaker says, “I understand, / the stars in the sky are already dead” and this is corrected in your end notes? How did you decide to embrace this falsehood and also let readers in on it by having that note at the end?

Nicole Sealey: “medical history” is all about (if a poem can be “about” anything) what we know, what we think we know and what we have yet to discover. “I understand,” I believe, speaks to this. Though the line does not tell an actual truth, it does tell a poetic one—one that reiterates the tone and sentiment of the poem. Plus, poems owe nothing to truth. Though, I must admit, I believe that I owe it to readers to provide scientific truth. Hence, the note at the collection’s end clarifying that stars are most likely not dead. That the distance between the stars and us is so great that we can only see the brightest stars.

I guess one can argue that I embrace both falsehood and reality.

KW: And when did you know this would be the first poem?

NS: I don’t remember the exact moment in which I knew, but the collection itself called for an opening poem void of pretense. Part of the pleasure I take in writing poetry is an instant intimacy with readers. By the first page, we’re practically family. As we know, the relationship between reader and writer is reciprocal. We bring with us all that we are, the sum total of our experiences up to that point. There’s an exchange happening—one that encourages vulnerability, one that can transform strangers into kin. Which is why the opening poem is one of my most intimate poems, which is why I was so comfortable opening the collection with “medical history,” its lines: “I’ve been pregnant. I’ve had sex with a man / who’s had sex with men. I can’t sleep.”

KW: I love this idea of bringing all that we are as writers and also as readers. Is this “instant intimacy” something you look for in collections you read as well? Does something you’ve read spring to mind?

NS: I definitely look for “instant intimacy” in the collections I read. I look for heart and sentiment.

As a reader, I want to feel. However, I don’t want to be told when and what to feel. Poems by poets who write against sentimentality often end up lacking sentiment altogether. Whereas sentimentality is contrived, designed to elicit a specific response at a specific time—the cued music on a television show that tells the audience when to clap or cry, sentiment is real feeling. Poets like Lucille Clifton, Vievee Francis, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Sharon Olds, and Matthew Olzmann write poems with heart and gut. Everything these poets have written comes to mind.

KW: On the subject of the real and unreal, I’m drawn to your use of the hypothetical in this book, especially in “the first person who will live to be a hundred and fifty years old has already been born,” in which mother and daughter discuss immortality and their different conceptions of time. I’m thinking about how you use the hypothetical to provide this beautiful distance from which to consider what is. How do you think about this alternate world-building in poetry or any writing and what it can offer?

NS: I truly believe that poetry is drawn from the collective and colored by the individual. Though we have immediate access to images provided by personal experience, such as the time and place in which we exist and the circumstances into which we were born, the I, by virtue of its humanness, is the we. Whether we know it or not, we access a history much older than ourselves and geographies beyond ourselves. That said, “beautiful distance” is natural. This distance, I think, is in all poems, including “the first person who will live to be a hundred and fifty years old has already been born” and “in defense of ‘candelabra with head.’” Distance gives us the opportunity to see ourselves objectively.

KW: Another way this book engages possibility is via revision or addendum. I’m thinking of “clue” and its erasue “c ue” and also “candelabra with heads” and “in defense of candelabra with heads.” Can you talk about engaging these coexisting paths through the same material?

NS: Yes, revision and addendum and addition. Just because a poem is “finished,” doesn’t mean the conversation is over—poems are ongoing conversations about what it means to be human. For example, I remember neither what I was thinking nor reading when I drafted “medical history.” I do know that it was conceived on the heels of “the first person who will live to be a hundred and fifty years old has already been born.” But, I believe, all poems work in this way: one poem leads to another, and that poem leads to another poem and so on and so forth. In this way, we have no choice but to engage coexisting paths through the same material.

Also, I’m not sure if the “same material” remains the same. With each reading and re-reading, the material is as changed as we are.

KW: Your “cento for the night i said ‘i love you’” perhaps comes at this idea of retooling from another angle, offering a new path through both an incredibly significant but common phrase, “I love you,” and also through the lines of so many other writers and thinkers that are filtered together here. I read elsewhere this poem took quite a long time to write, but it’s also very patient on the page to me as a reader. Can you talk about the white space and why you chose to break the different sections across pages?

NS: White space is an important part of “cento,” of any poem. White space indicates points at which readers are encouraged to take a breath, to take it all in.

As I’ve said, a poem, by default, accesses times and spaces beyond itself. “cento for the night i said, ‘i love you,’” however, intentionally set out to do just that. Because of this, the poem required more room to breathe, to stretch out, hence the double spacing and the sections.

KW: Would you share a little about how you go about titles as well? I’m thinking about “Imagine Sisyphus Happy” and the way it contextualizes the poem that follows. Where do titles come in the process for you, or does it vary, and how do you think about their work in relation to the rest of the poem?

NS: At the CantoMundo retreat last summer, Rigoberto González said that a poem’s title is actually the poem’s first line, which I wholeheartedly agreed (and still agree) with. And, like any first line, a title ought to be compelling. As you know, a title isn’t garnish, it is doing the revelatory work of contextualizing and situating the poem within larger conversations. In the case of “Imagine Sisyphus Happy,” the larger conversations include love, pity and the absurdity of life.

Though every poem requires something different of its title, for me, titling is an important part of the poem making process—as important as the image, as the line, as voice and style, as revision. As such, I spend as much time on the title as anything else.

KW: I noticed in your interview with Kyla Marshell for Mosaic Magazine that you mentioned adding love to that famous list of certainties normally composed of just “death and taxes.” I’m fascinated by this and how hopeful it is, but also how you discuss the way love and death are intertwined. Your book would suggest to me this is a hopeful thought, but I thought I’d ask you to expand. If love and death are intertwined, where does hope fit? What are your thoughts on hope and poetry, or hope in poetry?

NS: Hope, I think, is inextricably linked to love and death. So, too, is it linked to poetry. I’d even argue that poetry is hope. Hope, as Webster defines it is: “to cherish a desire with anticipation” or “to want something to happen or be true.” I often attribute that or a similar description to poems as well.

KW: I’m tempted to end there because that’s such a powerful sentiment, and it really brings into focus what’s so precious about poetry, so thank you for that. Perhaps it works though, to leave our discussion of poetry there and conclude by asking about other art forms. Do you practice other arts aside from writing? If you could be a virtuouso of something else what would it be? And is there a piece or an artist of that form you admire that you could recommend to us?

NS: I’m a fan of art in the most expansive sense and of beautiful things in general. Like most people, I love music, theater, dance, visual art, literature, et cetera. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a ballerina. As a teenager, a singer—I sang in the gospel choir. And, how could I forget interior design (I recently reupholstered my dining room chairs) and fashion (I love pairing classic and unconventional pieces together)? Basically, I’d want to be a virtuoso at everything! If there were more hours in a day, I would seriously pursue all my passions, not just the writing.

At present, I’m still awestruck by Deborah Dancy, whose 2016 work, Queen Bea, is the jacket art for Ordinary Beast.

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Katie Willingham is the author of Unlikely Designs (University of Chicago Press, 2017). She earned her MFA at the Helen Zell Writers Program, where she was the recipient of a Hopwood Award in Poetry, a Theodore Roethke Prize, and a Nicholas Delbanco Thesis Prize. You can find her poems in such journals as The Kenyon Review, Bennington Review, Poem-a-Day, Third Coast, West Branch, Grist, and others. She has taught both composition and creative writing at the University of Michigan. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

The cause to remain open: A Conversation with Colin Winnette by Peter LaBerge

Back to Issue Twenty-Six.

BY REID KURKEREWICZ

 Photo credit: Jennifer Yin

Photo credit: Jennifer Yin

Colin Winnette is the author of several books, including Haints Stay (Two Dollar Radio) and The Job of the Wasp (Soft Skull Press). He lives in San Francisco.

Reid Kurkerewicz: You mentioned once after a reading that you appreciated your particular MFA program because you were able to work alongside artists in many different mediums. Can you expand on what that experience did for your writing.

Colin Winnette: I was in writing workshops during undergrad and went on to study at an interdisciplinary graduate program. In general, that meant I went from studying with a small group of people all working in the same medium (which was extremely helpful and inspiring in certain ways, especially when starting out), to an enormous group of people trying to do a lot of different things all at once (which opened a lot of mental blocks and re-framed my thinking as a developing writer). I learned a lot about craft in the workshops and about writing itself, but studying fiction in an art context helped me better understand the ways in which writing fiction was an act of making art, and could be thought about as such. Every element in the production and presentation of a piece of writing can be looked at as an artistic decision, to be engaged with in ways that alter the meaning of the work itself. That helped me better understand that there aren’t rules for fiction, but there are things that people have done for a reason, or to achieve a desired effect (conscious or unconscious). That might be obvious to some, but for me it was an important distinction that was reinforced in graduate school. It helped me because it created a sense of freedom that was based in decision making.

RK: The Job of the Wasp seems to take place outside of identifiable time, and objects that would date the historic period are conspicuously absent. In particular, I get the sense that you avoid communication technologies, even as you grapple with issues surrounding the gathering and processing of information. In Haints Stay, especially, but also in The Job of the Wasp, information seems to float around unmitigated by technology, yet confusion abounds. Why do you leave out the machines we usually blame for our problems?

CW: Contemporary communication technologies aren’t used or described in those novels, but I wouldn’t say they’re absent from them. Haints Stay and The Job of the Wasp are very different books, though. The Job of the Wasp required an isolated narrator and a setting that was difficult if not impossible to place in time. Haints Stay is set in a different world altogether—one that refracts our own, sitting somewhere between reality and dream. It uses that setting to engage with ideas about masculinity, identity, and violence, and problems I think pre-date modern communication technologies, but remain pressing issues. My favorite novels do this: explore something urgent by looking at it aslant, or even looking away from it or obscuring it (see Moby Dick writing about America, religion, and humanity by taking to sea on an isolated ship, or Marie Ndiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In, in which you never learn the specific reasons for the narrator’s persecution, only that she, and people like her, are viewed with contempt by the members of her community). But I don’t make a point of avoiding modern communication technologies. You’ll see them in other things I’ve written. I think with an iPhone, as with any other element in a story, the question is how to write about it or write around it in an artful way. It’s in there (or out) if that decision adds to the meaning and experience of the work itself. That’s all that matters to me.

RK: The danger in the idea that truth is partially personal is that it can obscure the obviously harmful actions of those who intentionally operate in that moral grey area, like a Henry Kissinger or the bullies in The Job of the Wasp. The narrator himself begins to take actions knowing that others will have their own unique understanding of the current situation. If we accept that truth won’t stay in one place, how does one go about setting up a system of morals? Is a moral compass even possible in the world of The Job of the Wasp?

CW: Every system is limited in scope, so when it comes to the question of how to treat other people, I try to listen and respond to the person and the situation itself rather than apply a system. I don’t always succeed, and this isn’t always a sensible approach, so sometimes I hate myself. But a lot of the problems in The Job of the Wasp come from the rigid application of a system of thought onto a situation in which not everything is known (or the manipulation of well-intentioned systems by potentially corrupt individuals). I’m as skeptical of that rigid application as I am of anyone who says there is no truth, so who cares what we do. Growing up in Texas, I was steeped in morality, surrounded by very moral people, and they were some of the most close-minded and hateful people you could ever meet. In some cases. Others were spectacularly generous and beautiful. I love them to this day, will always love them, and consider them role models. A system of morals is only as good as the person using it to get by.

RK: There seems to be distance between the reader and the characters in your novels. Even as we come to know them, important aspects of their identities are withheld. The most obvious example, to me, is the narrator’s unknown name in The Job of the Wasp but extends to more complicated facets of identity like religious belief or the entirety of your character’s pasts. Do you know the answers to some, or all, of these questions, or are they hidden from you too? What’s an example of something you don’t know about the narrator in The Job of the Wasp?

CW: I know the answers to certain questions, and there are others I still wonder about. But, for example, I tried to fully understand the physical setting, although it’s obscured in the book itself. As for the narrator, if there’s anything I can’t say for certain, it’s what happens to him next.

RK: Another reason it is difficult to get to know your characters is because you continually traumatize them, and we often catch them in the middle of readjustment to a harsh world. How do you go about evoking these readjustments without having experienced them yourself? (I assume you haven’t dug up too many corpses.)

CW: A book is its own world, complicated and clashing, and that world is (significantly) a work of the imagination (h/t: Patty Yumi Cottrell for this phrase). When writing, I try to let whatever happens happen, just to see what’s there, what’s possible. When revising, I try to look at the terms the novel is setting up for itself, the decisions I’ve made (consciously or unconsciously that are working together in a way that feels meaningful). I do my best to engage with those decisions when describing what a character is going through, thinking, feeling, saying. One of the ways a book comes to feel unique and true, and therefore alive, is by thoroughly and consistently engaging with its own terms. But this book isn’t inviting you to step into the skin of a boy who has uncovered a corpse, and live what that must be like, because I don’t think that is a singular experience. The world of this book is absurd, surreal, scary, and sincere. Everything that happens is shaped by those characteristics.

This question touches something at the heart of this book, though. The Job of the Wasp is very skeptical of our ability to perceive or communicate what is happening with another person, or what they’re going through, thinking, or feeling, and why. If anything, it’s about the terror of detecting the distance between the life that surrounds us and our limited ability to perceive and respond to it. I have these limited tools and this narrow psychology, and yet I am impacted daily by external forces that exceed those things and demand some kind of response. It’s a beautiful part of living, the cause to remain open and changing and growing, but it can also be terrifying and difficult. Enter this horror novel, in which the narrator urgently and obsessively tries to understand what is happening to him, and why, so that he might come up with some kind of proper response to it. To me, that can be what it feels like to be alive.

I would be skeptical of any book that claimed to be a 100% accurate depiction of a specific experience—which isn’t to say one’s experience doesn’t matter. Every individual brings something unique and important to their work, and as such, experience gives one an incredibly valuable set of resources from which to draw on. The more books written and published and celebrated by writers with different backgrounds, the more we’re able to see, and the more ways we have of seeing. This is one of the many reasons diversity in publishing is essential.

RK: Your work seems to be in direct conversation with worlds we usually think of as cinematic, like horror movies and westerns. Conversely, what non-narrative artworks inspire you?

CW: The paintings of Agnes Martin.

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Reid Kurkerewicz is a journalist, poet and author living in Madison, WI. He is currently writing a novel about a goose in the garden of Eden. His poetry has appeared in Sea Foam Mag, and his fiction has been published in Watersoup and Placeholder Magazine