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Interview: Saeed Jones

Saeed Jones poem, "Mississippi Drowning," appeared in the May issue of The Collagist. Born in Memphis & raised in North Texas, he recently received his MFA in Creative Writing at Rutgers University – Newark. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Western Kentucky University where he won the Jim Wayne Miller Award for Poetry. While at Western, he was the poetry editor for Rise Over Run Magazine. He currently teaches in Newark, NJ. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in publications like storySouth, Barnwood Magazine, Splinter Generation, The Adirondack Review, Ganymede, and Mary. His blog For Southern Boys Who Consider Poetry is dedicated to emerging queer poets of color.

1. Can you talk about the inspiration for "Mississippi Drowning"? What was on your mind while you were writing this poem?

This poem had, as far as I know, two specific points of inspiration. The first is that since I was born in Memphis, the Mississippi River was the body of water I grew up with (or rather, beside). Almost every summer, a child – most often a boy – would try to swim in the river, get pulled under by a riptide, and drown. Or a fisher man would find a body in the river. Those seasonal tragedies were my first cautionary tales in a way and I still think about them often, about the river and its riptide hands.

The second was the interest I had (or have) in the spectacle of death and the way we “watch” victims. (Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others certainly comes to mind.) When the news would report stories of drowned 10 year old boys or the bodies of long-missing women being discovered by fishermen, I was horrified, but then I was intrigued. What did they look like? What happened? What did the water feel like? Of course, I kept these questions to myself, but I didn’t stop thinking about them.

2. I am very intrigued with the way this poem uses pronouns to manipulate mood. Starting the poem, the “I” is used, a move which lulled me into thinking about the speaker—the river/body image combinations, the actions being self-inflicted. However, “Scoop at my sparkle. I’ll give you nothing/but disturbed reflection.” brings in that “you,” creating a different dynamic and seemingly a change in the language of the speaker. Instead of lining his/her own throat with silt and lacing eyelids with algae, the speaker now wants to sing to the “you” and teach the “you” about this important thing that is like breathing. Was this an intentional shift in focus or something that occurred naturally in the writing process? Could you speak about this difference?

My goal was to subvert (or drown) a conventional image of victimhood. I wanted the voice to initially be viewed as a victim but eventually to become empowered and dangerous in his own right. The pronouns are a part of that transformation by first drawing attention to the victim – the “I” and then speaking pointing to the witness – the “you.” By the end, a victim that would typically be helpless and certainly mute is not only speaking, but is explaining what he will do to you if given the chance.

This shift was intentional because, for me, the poem was an attempt to figure out if it’s possible to be a victim and still have some kind of power or influence. In some ways, I would say this is as close as I get to a political poem. I had an argument which sometimes “messes up” my poems but I think it works here for the most part because instead of depending on rhetoric, I tried to let the images and language do the heavy-lifting.

3. The water imagery—algae, river, minnows, etc.—is obviously a large part of the language of this poem. How did this set of images seem to work for you in writing this poem?

Rigoberto Gonzalez, my thesis advisor when I was at Rutgers-Newark, said that every poem has to be its own complete and unique universe. I’ve tried to keep that in mind with all of my poems, but especially when writing in persona. This speaker draws from his “universe” which is to say he refers to what he knows and is surrounded by.

Also, I was intrigued by the possibility of beautifying things like algae, silt, and crawfish which, typically, aren’t regarded as very glamorous. I guess then that the imagery reflects the poem’s main idea of subversion. For the speaker, even something like algae has become alluring in its own way.

4. In a blog post from May 13th of this year, you discuss a question you’ve been looking into about what makes a particular poem gay. Boiling it down, you determined the real question is “Where are you?” You end the post: “Point to the lines and images in your poem and show me where you are.” Obviously, this idea of having a part of oneself in a poem is important. I was wondering which examples of you could be pulled from the lines and images of this particular poem.

The truth is that I’ve been obsessed with drowning for the last year or so, and it has nothing to do with water or even death. It’s about being (or feeling) overwhelmed and overtaken. I mean that as a gay man of color in an increasingly dicey political landscape. And I mean that as an person trying to make sense of the day to day madness we’re all subjected to. That madness is the water and we’re in it, but what if there’s a possibility of somehow thriving in the struggle of it all? That’s where I am; I’m in that question.

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

I’m currently working on turning my MFA thesis into a viable manuscript. “Mississippi Drowning” is a part of that project.  Also, I’m slowly but surely making progress on my experiences growing up in the South.

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

Letters to a Stranger by Thomas James: A Hunger by Lucie Brock-Broido; Ruin by Cynthia Cruz; Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag; The Brother/Sister Plays by Tarrell McCraney; Ties That Bind by Sarah Schulman; and Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South by E. Patrick Johnson.

Interview: Andrew Richmond

Andrew Richmond's fiction appears in the May issue of The Collagist. He lives in St. Louis. His fiction has appeared in Post Road, New Orleans Review, sleepingfish, Agriculture Reader, and Capgun.

Can you talk about the inspiration for "There Is This Woman Who Gets Me What I Need"? What was on your mind while you were writing this story?

I knew I had a couple in trouble and this man not understanding. Not saying. I wanted some tension, and I think a wife’s work party was a pretty good place for that to happen. A terrible place to fall out. Right now I think I have this habit of writing stories about couples at the end. End of the line stuff. I don’t know if I picked up on it from other stories or if I feel couples are doomed. I think I do know. But I’ve kicked around the merlot teeth sequence for a long time. It kept popping up in stories. Longer stories. I’ve been whittling away at this one.

Every time I re-read this piece I became more aware of the rhythm, and how the work carried me through—a few short, tight, declarative sentences in a row would build up to a longer, looser, more complex sentence. By last line of the piece, (a line that I love, by the way), I felt as though I’d been taken there, not that I’d arrived there myself. Could you talk a little about this structure, about your intentions for the reader’s experience (if any at all)?

I was working for the end so it probably reads that way. I know some people are tired of the last sentence home run so I had that voice telling me stuff. I couldn’t help it though. And I think I keep going back to those kinds of stories. The ones that punch you in the stomach. But this piece had an ending before it had a beginning. The short simple sentences followed by the looser sentences added a tension and release throughout the piece. Plus I liked the cadence when read aloud. I’m better live.

I love the way that people are described in this piece—by quick statements on their behavior, brief snippets of conversation, small actions and gestures. These tidbits really detail the layers of intimacy in this piece, as we move from a play-by-play style of narration to a more personal, reflective one; moving away from the group to revealing some of the truths of the relationship between this husband and wife. Could you speak a little about this narratorial transition, of the realization of this relationship from the social performance in the beginning to the very intimate “merlot teeth” at the end?

As the story became shorter, any middle just kind of became the beginning. Everyone at the table agreeing we’re all going to suffer a cancerous fate felt heavy popping up during a celebration, and I felt it said a lot about the scene and where the story was headed. This couple struggling to keep it between the ditches in a situation when they needed to be at their best. I initially worked with this “I do not say...” to show some quick history between the man and his wife, but the instances turned out to reveal some truths. They’re pretty cooked. There is resentment. Once the narrator accepts some degree of responsibility for his wife not winning the award I didn’t allow him to understand why he was sorry. I didn’t want to have any redeeming characters. That would be a longer story. Ultimately I didn’t want to victimize anyone in the story either, especially the wife, so I afforded her this opportunity to really give it to this guy. I still don’t know if she ate him alive or just indulged him. I think the cruelest notion is maybe these two just continued.

Something that struck me as I read through this piece is how many of your sentences feel like snapshots—framed, carefully composed images. I know that you’re a photographer as well as a writer. Do you find that your eye for capturing images affects how you express ideas in writing, how you conceive of the visual worlds your stories occupy and how you go about composing them?

Each outlet does different things for me. If I’m not writing I’ll scooter around and take some pictures just to be making something. Compared to writing, taking pictures is pretty easy stuff. Helps me think and is less demanding. If I spend too much time out of the chair I try to come back. I don’t know if I’ve ever considered one affecting the other. I know when I take photographs my main focus is on composition. Everything in its right place. Trick is finding those things existing in nature and then making the translation. And sometimes you get lucky and you have a well-composed photograph that also has some interesting narrative. Some relevance. That’s the big idea. I think the same should be said for the stories we see ourselves writing.

What other writing projects are you currently working on?

Right now I’m trying to write a novel. It’s been a little novella or long poem for some time, and despite some suggestions to leave it alone, I think it has some potential to be a killer. Other than it, I just keep trying to crank out stories.

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

I picked up a few good books from AWP. Pathologies by William Walsh stands out. I recently revisited I Looked Alive by Gary Lutz but cursed myself for drunkenly loaning out Stories in the Worst Way when I lived in NYC. It’s gone. I usually keep a volume of the Paris Review Interviews nearby, and I’m always revisiting Hannah’s Airships and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by Gass. I think it’s been out for a while, but I’ve been meaning to get my hands on Dalkey’s The Other City by Michal Ajvaz. Robert Lopez also has a short story collection, Asunder, coming out in November. I’m excited to see some of Robert’s stories in one place.

Interview: Matthew Roberson

Matthew Roberson's fiction appears in the May 2010 issue of the Collagist. He has published two novels—1998.6 and Impotent—with FC2. His short fiction has appeared in Fourteen Hills, Fiction International,, and others.

Can you talk about the inspiration for “Do Not”? What was on your mind when you were writing this story?

I’d just finished a piece about a woman who seemed to have survived cancer, and my mind turned to what story I might have written if she hadn’t survived.  In the end, I didn’t pin down any specifics about the absent woman in “Do Not,” because I liked the idea that her character could be gone for any number of reasons; her absence was the more important part, not the why.

I think, also, the first story about the cancer survivor pointed me toward the feelings of caution and prohibition that come with trauma or tragedy, and they emerged as the primaries of the new piece.

It seems to me there’s a pretty essential difference between the command of this title versus the apparent neglect and/or refusal in the narration: All things this man didn’t do, say, think. Yet these are still painful didn’ts, still things he’s somehow barred from, and through these negations, his needs and wants are stunningly clear. Were you trying from the beginning to achieve something like that by writing strictly in the negative, or did this piece go through a life or two before getting here?

That’s a great, complicated question.  The truth of it is that I didn’t have the title until I got the piece finished.  The piece, while in process, was—as you suggest—about the main character’s more passive-aggressive impotence.  He’s barred from doing things in the positive, by circumstance, yes, but also by his own inability to move forward.  I think we can sympathize about why he can’t push himself forward, but he’s still, largely, the force holding himself back from the many things he wanted and still wants and might want in the future.  And, yes, I aimed at this impotence from the start.  I didn’t get to the imperative DO NOT, until the end, when I realized that underneath all of his passive-aggressive inaction is a more powerful, all-encompassing sense of prohibition, the character’s feeling that he MUST NOT, for whatever reasons (because he feels like his kids come first, because he’s got survivor’s guilt, and so on).

Of course, the biggest absence here is the one that does its best to avoid the man’s thought process. It creeps in, though: “He didn’t rush the kids to sleep. He didn’t say no when they wanted him to stay and sit. They didn’t ask much anymore about her. He didn’t forget to say she’d loved them.” We don’t get much; just enough to know this is not a void but a knife wound. It opens a trunkful of ‘ifs.’ How many of the answers to those ifs do you, as the author, have to know to write as spare a piece as this? And do you wish any of those things to become specifically apparent to us readers, or is the pleasure in letting us find something personal in the openness?

Here I did, originally, have many more specifics, and then I realized that, of course, they only ruined the story.  Not only do we, as readers, enjoy speculating about what’s happened, and what he’s feeling—it’s part of the pleasure of fully engaging the text—but being more specific interfered with my writing:  The whole point of the main character, I realized, is that he can’t come to terms with his situation, and his feelings.  If I were to pin them down, it would entirely undermine his condition, his character.  I got lucky realizing this, and it was a real pleasure cutting out all the extra bits that didn’t work.

You have authored two novels in addition to your short works. Does your writing process differ much when you’re working in longer forms? And could you tell, during the starting periods of your novels, that they were going to need much more space, or were they things that evolved into larger creatures as you dug into them?

Another great question.  My novels were atypical, in that they both started with clear forms.  The first book rewrites a brilliantly weird period novel by Ronald Sukenick, so I knew already what my book would look like; formally, at least, it would look a hell of a lot like his.  The second book took as its form the idea that every character’s story would emerge from the medications s/he takes (Paxil, Viagra, Ortho Tri-Cyclen, and so on), and this constant threaded the book into coherence.  Once I had the larger forms, I could do anything I wanted, which often meant having lots of short pieces that made the whole, as well as some longer pieces, and footnotes, etc.  In other words, having the larger picture up front allowed me to do whatever felt worked within.

What other writing projects are you currently working on?

I’m halfway through a collection of stories about middles: middle class, middle age, the Midwest.  It’s been really enjoyable.  Lots of different stuff emerging, at least in content.  I’m doing less formal experimentation, though I guess “Do Not” suggests I’m doing some.  I plan to do more.  I want a story that literally starts and ends in the middle.  I have yet to figure out what that will involve.

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

I’ve got some awesome new colleagues here at Central, and they write the stuff I want to read.  Robert Fanning’s American Prophet, and Jeffrey Bean’s Diminished Fifth, and Darrin Doyle’s The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo.  More generally, I’d have to say I love just about everything that comes from FC2, and from presses like Starcherone and Chiasmus, and Dzanc.  Peter Markus.  I can’t wait to see what he writes next.  And Shelley Jackson.  I like Kate Bernheimer’s stuff a whole lot, too.

And, please, please, everyone buy a copy of Steve Tomasula’s digital text, TOC, which is perhaps the most brilliant “reading experience” ever.  It’s a genius piece of literary multimedia.

Interview: Emily Kiernan

Emily Kiernan's work appears in the May 2010 issue of The Collagist. A native of a decaying Pennsylvania steel town (the one from the Billy Joel song), Emily Kiernan writes about islands, vaudeville, implacable but unjustified feelings of abandonment, the West, and places that aren’t the way she remembered them. Lately, she’s been living in Los Angeles, where she is pursuing her MFA in creative writing at CalArts, and interning with the literary journal Black Clock.

Can you talk about the inspiration for "Hector at the Gates"? What was on your mind while you were writing this essay?

The essay actually began its life as a class assignment: I was taking a course about adaptation and retelling, and we were asked to write a short piece that “talked back” in some way to a myth, religious story, or other “master narrative.” Hector was an obvious choice for me—I’ve long harbored a depth of feeling towards The Iliad, and towards Hector in particular, that has exceeded the emotional depth of an essentially dorky interest in classics and folklore. I nearly did a Classics minor in college, but American Studies won out: same themes, less language acquisition. The line in the essay that mentions Starbuck is really the one I wrote the essay to get to—he’s Hector all over again, as is, I suppose, every action-movie throw away sidekick.  The bell-clear loss that Hector embodies is still resonating, in American literature at least.

I find the last paragraph so haunting; there is something eerie about inviting a character from a story so many years old to imagine his story differently, to take part in the making of it so long after it was created. You breathe life into Hector in a piece that mainly concerns his death. Could you speak a little about your narrative approach to this piece, and to the relationship between Hector and this narrator?

It’s just a crush, really. I suspect that to most modern readers Hector comes off as the dream-boat of ancient literature. He’s kind to his horses, loves his mother, talks in glowingly romantic terms about his wife and infant son—all without sacrificing high-minded ideals or the ability to get worked up into a twitching, frothing-at-the-mouth battle rage. I want a happy ending for Hector in an absolutely uncomplicated way, because he is the absolutely Good Man—but ancient literature was certainly not going to give him one, and his death is so beautiful that it sort of set the bar for what could be done to a reader’s feelings. American literature shares a lot with Homer—much has been conceived contingent upon the death of Hector, in opposition to everything that Hector loves—the home, the family, the moral and social obligation. The Good Man has become a sort of gleeful cannon-fodder to prop up a different kind of hero, an essentially anti-domestic hero who you may cast as Achilles or John Wayne interchangeably. I feel alienated by all this, because I love Hector, and Starbuck, and all those action-movie sidekicks too, and I love the home and the family and the moral and social. And so what I’d really like is for Hector to have begun a different sort of tradition: one that embraced his life rather than his death. The history of literature would certainly have been better for it, and maybe the history of the world too. To this end, I embrace the power of the fan-fic.

I’m interested in the status of Hector here, both as an established literary figure and as one created and transformed through the writing of this work. How do you think your piece transforms this ancient character? How does the narratorial style—this mode of address—shape that transformation?

I felt pretty easy in my interpretation of Hector. As a character, he’s really pretty much up for grabs—The Iliad does not characterize the way modern writing tends to do. It’s cinematic in the sense that we only see action, but not so in the sense that we do not have the anchor of a physical body on screen. Character is really determined by the fine tones of words, and I, like most readers, have only ever encountered The Iliad in translation. Fagles’ Hector is different from Lattimore’s Hector, is certainly different from Chapman’s Hector. That my Hector should be different from any of these was not, then, problematic for me. The character I came to was really just my own reading-into those translations, and some romanticization and exaggeration of the bits that appealed to me and supported my thesis.

You’re currently working on an MFA at the California Institute of the Arts, as well as serving as an editorial assistant for the school’s literary magazine, Black Clock. How does your work with the magazine factor into your education as a writer?

I came to CalArts with a good deal of writing done, but absolutely no experience with publishing of any kind. Writing I had a grasp on—the dissemination of writing, not so much. Working with Black Clock has been a wonderful opportunity to learn the day-to-day functioning of a magazine, and to try my hand at everything from copy-editing to event planning to blog-writing. I’ve definitely gained a lot of confidence in my understanding of the literary world, and am simply proud to be part of what I think is a truly excellent publication.

What other writing projects are you currently working on?

I’m in the early sections of an online choose-your-own-adventure novel about a couple on opposite sides of the country driving to meet each other at the geographical center of the U.S.  As they progress the world behind them is ravaged by disaster and their chances of turning back obliterated so that they are forced to embrace the unknown future. It’s good times.

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

My reading right now is about evenly divided between the classics that every literature major has already read and the unreleased (for the moment) work of my classmates. I suggest reading Lolita to anyone who’s missed it, and keeping an eye out for graduates of the Calarts program—there is some good stuff coming down the tracks.

Interview: Kevin Kaiser

Kevin Kaiser's fiction appears in the May 2010 issue of the Collagist. He was born and raised in Orange County, California and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University in Pittsburgh. His fiction, poetry, and music are internationally published. He lives with the poet Angela Parker.

Can you talk about the inspiration for “µ  π  {0}  >  ∑  ®  ∫  ∑”? What was on your mind when you were writing this story?

I'd recently discovered V. Ulea's manifesto on Quantum Genre Fiction, originally printed in an issue of Sein und Werden. In the manifesto, she proposes the concept of a style of fiction rooted in quantum behavior. Quantum Genre Fiction should not be about quantum physics; it should manifest those concepts. So, with that in mind, I created a story that portrays my thoughts on "god" and "universe," which are interchangeable. I wrote it in chunks, and didn't think too much about what I was writing as I wrote it. But I couldn't have written it without accumulating some knowledge of quantum physics and Buddhist thought, which I've had an interest in for the last decade or so, as well as having an awareness of Madame Blavatsky's notions. The story is at least a year old now. When I wrote it, it was my way of explaining the concept of "god," as I understand it, to the average reader.

Your sentences are striking, so simple and easy that they seem like things we should already have known, so we soak them right up and it takes a little while before realizing each new statement seems to unwrite the one that came before it. Going forward, the story admits to this: “The first words should not have been so concrete. The first words were meant to confound. The point is not to ground but to disorient.” But as it turns out, these words, even as they worm about however they please, are indeed looking for something specific. How do you mean the winding construct of this piece to push up against what it wants to get?

The sentences are an embodiment of the Burroughs and Gysin cut-up technique, which I'd been playing with a lot when I wrote the piece. In fact, I did a cut-up version of it, which isn't nearly as good as this one. And yes, there is something specific in the piece, which I refer to as "god." But it is impossible to understand it fully unless taking into account the contradictions, chiefly that, once you start talking about it, you're already moving away from the thing you're trying to describe. So it is necessary for this piece to "wind" to arrive at its "point." In pushing up against its meaning, resisting its meaning, the meaning pushes back. This story was also born of my frustration for, what I feel, is an emphasis on the concrete in literature. Once you explain the abstract in concrete terms, it becomes ripe for misinterpretation. This piece is meant to occupy two states at once: one concrete, one abstract. It negates itself, but it cannot negate itself because it still exists. It is itself a quantum construction.

I’m a big believer in the power of titles; how they can predispose you to a piece, or how they suggest a subtext, or how they might simply work as the first line of some stories. So, part A of this question is: What are these title symbols in the first place? And B: How should readers interpret this title, this thing that is supposed to be a signpost of sorts, when it’s something we might not recognize?

Honestly, I didn't want to title this. It reads "U N I V E R S E," but I didn't want to call it as such, because it's not that. So, I decided to use alternative symbols (as opposed to the Latin-based alphabet). The first symbol is the Greek letter "mu" which corresponds to Orphic verse on Zeus as beginning, end, and middle (G.R.S. Meade's The Orphic Pantheon mentions this, referencing Plato). Also, it relates to Neptune, the Möbius function, chemical potential in thermodynamics, the standard gravitational parameter of a celestial body in orbital mechanics, etc. The next letter is good old pi: the neverending decimal, the circle. The next is a set of zero, which, as far as I know, can't really exist. It should be an empty set, but it has the zero included, so is it empty? Next is the "greater than" symbol. Then "sigma," which is summation and the cliché way to write capital "E" to denote that something is Greek-related. Or, you know, to write an "E" in the title of this story. Followed by the "registered" symbol, which is simultaneously the most concrete and abstract symbol in the whole piece. Followed by the symbol for an integral (see Leibniz). And the last previously appeared. Since each symbol really has multiple interpretations, this is how readers should interpret it: however they want. If "universe" stands for "god" and, as such, is both everything and nothing, and, not as such, is both nothing and everything then... That's about as much as I can or want to explain it.

What other writing projects are you currently working on?

I'm working on a collection of short stories dealing with so-called environmental, political, social, cultural, etc. issues, which are all the same issue, really. The stories follow the Daniel Quinn school of thought: "There is no one right way to live." Read Ishmael. Each story is set in a different country on each of one of the current seven continents. Each features a non-human animal interacting with a human, either directly or indirectly. All the stories concern the dominant global human cultural myth and how it leads to extinction.

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

The book that inspired the story here—along with her manifesto—was V. Ulea's Snail, so I should plug that. But most of the fiction I've read in the past few months is literature in translation: the anthology Words Without Borders: The World Through the Eyes of Writers, Ghassan Kanafani's Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories, and Clarice Lispector's The Foreign Legion. Also, Amadou Hampaté Bâ's The Fortunes of Wangrin, which is listed as fiction despite the fact that Bâ emphatically states it is non-fiction. Unfortunately, I can't read anything in its original language, aside from some works in Spanish—Latin American Spanish, mostly; less so in Spain Spanish. The last book I read that I really loved was Haruki Murakami's after the quake. But I also like to follow my contemporaries and peers, so I can't wait to read Jason Jordan's Cloud and Other Stories and Sara Ries' book of diner poems, Come In, We're Open. And I recently published a chapbook of Angela Parker's poetry, Old Magic, in collaboration with David McNamara of sunnyoutside. The book is available from ! Press at, and her writing is definitely worth reading, especially since I brazenly stole some of her concepts for use in my story published here. In fact, she's the muse for the "you" of the story.
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