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Interview: Ethan Joella

Ethan Joella's poem "The Ones Left Inside" appears in our December 2009 issue. He is an assistant professor at Albright College where he directs the ESL program and teaches creative writing. He is a 2008 Eric Hoffer Award finalist, and that story appears in Best New Writing 2008. His work has also appeared in Perigee, The International Fiction Review, Tiferet, Retort, Paradigm, and Stickman Review. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and daughters.

1. Can you talk about the inspiration for "The Ones Left Inside"? What was on your mind while you were writing this poem?

I was thinking about the guilt sometimes associated with survival or even success. I think a lot of us experience this sort of guilt and sometimes find ourselves worrying about those left inside or behind.

2. The way this poem moves in and out of the narrator’s self-preservation instinct is intriguing, starting with apology and filtering through selfishness to land, as it were, on some in-between state. It’s intriguing particularly because we don’t know the situation he’s comparing the fire-survivor scenario to and its relative direness. This might make sympathizing with him a complicated affair, or it might not. In writing this poem, did it matter to you what his plight was? Should it matter to readers?

This question is so insightful. I didn’t feel the speaker’s exact plight mattered because I think what is important for the reader’s sympathy is the speaker’s pain and his conflict.  Everyone can relate to pain and turmoil.  Sometimes the whole act of survival has to, intentionally or unintentionally, involve selfishness on the part of the survivor.  And that selfishness, whether needed or not needed, can be a heavy load to carry.  That is where the sympathy comes into play, I believe.  And it also comes from the speaker’s honesty about this pain.

3. Distance seems important here: the narrator’s from his addressee, from whatever this situation was, from safety. The way we place ourselves in relation to others has a lot to do with feeling personally—and, sometimes, physically—safe and settled, and this poem seems to want you to think about that. Can you talk a bit about your intention in that regard, and what you wanted the piece to evoke?

I think I did want the reader to feel the speaker is safe but haunted.  He finds himself at a good place, at a safe place from where he escaped, but he keeps returning to the guilt, I guess.  I wanted the piece to evoke that conflict and pain associated with that survival. This is illustrated in the last line of “Landed semi-safely.”

4. What other writing projects are you currently working on?

I am rewriting my novel and trying to put together a collection of poems.  I am also reworking a collection of short stories. I have a hard time just working on one thing at a time.

5. What great books have you read recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?

Two of my students introduced me to a wonderful writer I am excited about: Miranda July and her short story collection No one belongs here more than you. I find her stories so original and thoughtful. I look forward to reading more of her work.  I also love to read Stephen Dunn whenever I can.  He is as wonderful a poet as anyone can be, so I always look for new pieces from him.  I have two young children, so my reading time is limited, but reading to them is more gratifying than conquering a stack of my own books.

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