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Wednesday
May192010

Interview: Sandy Longhorn

Sandy Longhorn's poem, "Body Sewn Together with Twine And a Dull Needle," appears in the May issue of the Collagist. She is the author of Blood Almanac (Anhinga Press, 2006), which won the 2005 Anhinga Prize for Poetry. New poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in The American Poetry Journal, Copper Nickel, diode, Juked, Redactions, and elsewhere. She has also received an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Arkansas Arts Council. Her blog is Myself the only Kangaroo among the Beauty.

1. Can you talk about the inspiration for "Body Sewn Together With Twine and a Dull Needle"? What was on your mind while you were writing this poem?

Before I answer these questions, I’d just like to say thank you for your support of my work and for the attention you’ve paid to this one poem in particular.

Several of the key lines for this poem were written in June 2009; however, the finished poem didn’t come together until November.  There wasn’t one specific inspiration for the poem.  From 2007 – 2009, I’d been writing a lot of elegies and poems about the dead, giving them a bodily afterlife (not in heaven per se) and imagining what they might be thinking about the living going on without them.  Along the way, I also started writing a few body poems.  They focus on a speaker either at odds with her body or discovering its secrets and strengths.  So, I suppose I was wrestling with mortality and the fact that we are all, ultimately, flawed biologically, no matter how healthy we try to be.

I should also say that I don’t often write from a project-based stance.  In other words, when I sit down to write, I’m not writing toward anything in particular.  Words and lines rise up in me, most often inspired by reading other poets, but also inspired by art/nature/an overheard conversation/etc.  I do not mean to say that I sit and wait for the muse.  No, I have several hours three to four mornings each week that I devote to writing.  I read, I gaze out the window, I let my mind run around a bit, and now that I’ve been keeping this schedule, as likely as not, lines appear of their own volition.  I have tried, desperately, to think of my work in terms of a project, a book circling around one moment or experience; it just doesn’t pan out for me.

From my journals, I can tell you that I was reading Ada Limón’s Lucky Wreck and Lisa Russ Spaar’s Blue Venus on the day I jotted down the first few lines of this poem.

2. This poem seems to negotiate the line between dream and nightmare. The language has a contrasting style between heavier, darker images and the softer ones. For instance, the poem begins with doctors scooping the speaker’s marrow at night, but it seems to be softened by the phrase “little spoons.” This idea seems punctuated with the lines “The womb is a dark/and holy place,” having that contrast to strengthen the phrase. Was this a decision you made on how to present such a dream-like image in this poem? If so, how do you think it illuminates the image in the poem you have built?

Great observations.  I wish I could take credit for crafting that contrast you point out.  The contrast seems to have arrived intact within the lines as they first came to me.  I have been wracking my brain trying to remember if the image of scooping the marrow came from one of my own nightmares.  It feels like it did.  I can see the actual “little spoons” in my mind, but alas, I didn’t put that information in my journal…just the lines.

But back to your question, I can tell you that the image about the bone marrow being scooped out and the image about the womb were initially written on two separate pages of my journal, intended to be two separate poems.  Both contained the contrast of hard and soft images from the very beginning, but neither grew into a full-fledged poem.  I had typed out both beginnings, little poem nubs, and set them aside.  Several months later, I was revising some other poems and shuffling papers around.  These two nubs wound up next to each other and sparked.

Again, I’d like to reinforce that after the spark, after the initial inspiration for each poem, a lot of craft work was necessary, which your next question alludes to.  I don’t want to make it seem that the strength of the poem was something received in a moment of divine creativity.  I do believe that after ten years of work, of being willing to take constructive criticism and improve my poems, I have a stronger instinct for what works and what doesn’t.  All of those years of work contribute to the generation of new lines and images that are the stronger for it.

3. On your blog, you mentioned the acceptance of this poem by The Collagist. In that post, I was most fascinated by the fact that this used to be a left-aligned, single stanza poem, as compared to its current form of multiple stanzas, indentation, and italics. In that blog post, you said this gives it “more white space now because the subject matter called for it.” In what ways does this poem seem to need more white space? How did you decide to satisfy those needs?

My drafting instinct is almost always to stay safe and left align everything.  As each poem evolves, I get a better sense of how formal elements such as lineation, indentation, and white space may or may not add to the poem.  Way back in my undergrad days I had an instructor who talked about white space as a place for the reader to rest, for things to go a bit quiet and gather force.

With this poem, the images are quite dramatic and also have that dream/nightmare quality that you point out above.  Reading that beginning block of left-aligned, single stanza words was too much.  The subject matter called for me to open it up and let in some breathing room so that the reader could pause and get a little shiver of the speaker’s nightmare/dream situation.  I could have simply revised the left-aligned poem into several stanzas; however, in the end, I opted for the additional indentation as a way to make the poem more jagged.  As I read it aloud, my breath seems to catch on those indentions and it fits the emotion behind the piece for me.

Interestingly, it was italicizing “mother,” calling attention to the speaker voicing that word, that led me to the last two lines of the poem.  As I worked through the revisions, I realized that I wanted the poem to end on an echo of that naming.

4. Along with your blog, I discovered that you were a Goodreads author, a site I frequent. A large number of current writers seem to have an online presence through blogging, library sites, and even social media sites. What kind of effect has this presence had on your writing/career? What is the benefit, in your mind, to an author having such an online presence?

Creating and maintaining an online presence for myself has been one of the best things I’ve done in the last two years.

When Blood Almanac, my first book, came out in the summer of 2006, I knew I needed a web presence, but I couldn’t afford to pay someone to design a website.  I had friends who blogged and I knew it was free, but I tend to be a “Jenny-come-lately” to most technologies.  In fact, I didn’t start my blog until the late fall of 2007, and I didn’t really become a consistent blogger until last fall.  It took me two years to figure out how I wanted to use the technology.  I use the blog as a way to record what’s happening in my writing life, for sure, but this past fall, I became aware of the benefit of an audience.

In some ways, the blog keeps me honest.  It’s a place to record success and failure.  I know that ultimately, that audience isn’t going to care if I draft a poem each week or not, but having a place to write about whether I’ve drafted a poem or not helps me remember that my writing time is valuable and necessary.

As for the blog’s benefit, I can sum it up in one word: community.  I loved my four years at the University of Arkansas when I was getting my MFA, mostly because of the sense of community.  When my life brought me to Little Rock and teaching outside the MFA realm, I felt a bit lost.  Blogging and reading tons of other writers’ blogs has been a way for me to build a new community of writers.

Last year I also became a regular at Facebook as well.  Between the blog and Facebook, I’ve met some fantastic people.  In fact, I first read about The Collagist on another writer’s blog.  So, one benefit would definitely be how my knowledge of lit mags and poetry publishers has grown just from reading where other folks are publishing or where they work.  Another benefit is that I can direct interested readers to poems of mine that are available online.  This has led to several pieces being solicited for journals ~ a real honor, and one that might not have occurred as quickly without my being easy to find online.

Since you mentioned Goodreads, I should admit that I want to spend a bit more time there.  I joined a group within the site this year, a group of people who proposed to read and review 20 books of poetry during the year.   I started off strong, but then teaching duties took over; I hope to catch up this summer.  This brings up the one downside to the online presence: time.  There are so many opportunities to network and sync with different communities that the danger becomes spending all of one’s time networking and none of it writing!

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

I’m circulating my new poetry manuscript, In a World Made of Such Weather as This. This summer I hope to begin drafting poems that will become a third book.  I’m ready to move on and change pace again, that weird shift between manuscripts, and I’m excited about not knowing where the new poems will take me.

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

I’m terrible about upcoming releases.  I’m either living in the moment or trying to catch up on what I missed during the academic year.  I brought home twenty-some books from AWP, so I’ve got a big stack to tackle.  Great books I’ve read recently:  Brent Goodman’s the brother swimming beneath me, Allison Joseph’s My Father’s Kites, Cynthia Cruz’ Ruin, and Mary Biddinger’s Prairie Fever.  Books I’m diving into headfirst now that the school year is over:  Allison Benis White’s Self-Portrait with Crayon, Michele Battiste’s Ink for an Odd Cartography, Simone Muench’s Orange Crush, Oliver de la Paz’s Requiem for the Orchard, Rachel Contreni Flynn’s Tongue, Susan Rich’s The Alchemist’s Kitchen, and Allison Titus’ sum of every lost ship.
Tuesday
May182010

Interview: Michael Lauchlan

Michael Lauchlan's poem, "Detritus," appears in the May issue of the Collagist. He has lived in and around Detroit for his entire life. His most recent chapbook is Sudden Parade, from Riverside Press. Poems have appeared in many publications including New England Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Victoria Park, The North American Review, Ninth Letter, Natural Bridge, and have been included in Abandon Automobile, from Wayne State University Press and in A Mind Apart, from Oxford Press.

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

Late this fall I was stung by airborne grit on one very windy day. I think several memories rang simultaneously.  I had spent a couple weeks in a Honduran “dump community” last summer, on an International Samaritan medical mission with students, doctors, my wife (who is a nurse) and a few colleagues. Of the many ways the experience left me staggered, one was the memory of the cutting texture of the particulate laden air. The poem recalls one demolition in a tough Detroit neighborhood called Brightmoor.

2. Reading the poem aloud to myself, the first aspect of the poem that jumped off the page was the alliteration, most notably in the beginning with the “s”-sounds: shingles, sand, slashing, siding, scrappers. Throughout the poem, there are several instances where a beginning sound is repeated. How did this alliteration develop, in terms of your writing and revising process? How do you feel it helps the poem?

I spent this evening listening to Sarah Vaughn. If I could sing, I probably wouldn’t write. During the revision process, I am increasingly driven by sound, hoping that the music will provide the kind of formal and emotional unity the reader and the writer need to navigate disparate voices and difficult images. I think of the redemptive force in the quiet music of Jane Kenyon’s work, or of the subtle unity of Ellen Voigt (who really can sing). I would love to approach such a light touch on the keys.

3. Taking “Detritus” to refer to a mass of dead organic material housing microorganisms that decompose that material (thank you Wikipedia!), I found particular fascination in the relationship of the title with the story told in the poem. It seems, through placing humans—Gloria, the tall boy, we—in the place of the microorganism, there is a social commentary here. You handle the balance of being poetic and making that statement well. How do you strike such a balance, writing a solid, socially aware poem?

A kind comment and a fine question! I appreciate your exploration of the title (which came later in the revision process). In our historical moment, we tend to dispose of kids, old people, places, species, and human stories rather quickly. But you have put your finger on the balance I struggle (and often fail) to maintain. A sense of place—an inherently political value—is very important to me. Details of place and narrative can burden a poem, reducing it to a trivial fragment rather than a lyrical moment.  In addition to the musical/formal choices, perhaps the dramatic moment and the rope help this poem hang together. The narrative element of the poem is an amalgam. The real Gloria was not an easy person to live with, but she was (in a wry, pragmatic way) loved by neighbors, volunteers (directed by my son), and the neighborhood organization (directed by a saint). Loving a marginalized woman is political. Organizing to overcome a broken economy and a broken city is political. Finding a way to record such a moment has always been part of the definition of the lyric, and has always been a challenge. Needless to say, it doesn’t always work on the page.

4. In your bio, you mentioned that you’ve “lived in and around Detroit” for your entire life. How has living in one city, specifically your hometown of Detroit, influenced your writing? Have any other cities influenced your writing, as a result of your travels or other experiences?

I have been involved with poor communities in Detroit for many years in different ways. My earlier poems are largely driven by stories from that work. Now that I am teaching, I still try to support the organizers and devoted community workers who are keeping our society from blowing apart. Recently, some of my students (including the “tall kid”) have gotten involved in the demolitions.

Getting to know (even superficially) some of the more dynamic cities in America has helped me to see that many issues recur, though Detroit has seen a perfect storm of racial division, economic and social hardship. We also have some of the biggest hearts and some unbelievable musicians. The arc that leaps between those two realities has animated much of my writing.

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

Frankly, I have never planned a series of poems. After hearing Louise Gluck read last summer, I felt impelled to welcome more distinct voices into my poems. I certainly haven’t written a series of persona poems, but I have a few quirky voices, so maybe she got me out of a rut.  My current goal is simply to be more awake to the lyrical possibilities all around me, from the music in the phrases of my students to the images in our cities and the murk of my memories.

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

In addition to Louise Gluck’s new books, W.S Merwin’s Shadow of Sirius has affected me in a whole new way, perhaps because I am older and quieter. Each poem is like a large room in a great library—many stories suggested, but deep silence in the center. I have also been very moved by finally discovering Larry Levis (Winter Stars and Elegy) and Jane Hirshfield (Lives of the Heart). Phil Levine’s What Work Is reminds me why he has been so important to me for so long.
Monday
May172010

Interview: Jennifer Pieroni

Jennifer Pieroni's flash fiction appears in the 10th issue of The Collagist. She is a founder and editor of the literary journal Quick Fiction, which features stories of 500 words or less. Jennifer’s short fiction and prose poetry has appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, Bateau, Guernica, Hobart, elimae, Word Riot, and Wigleaf, among others

Can you talk about the inspiration for "Husband and Wife"? What was on your mind while you were writing this story?

Only very occasionally do I write with a story or concept in mind. Instead, I typically begin with 5 prompt words and try to follow the words to express something emotional. So, I hate to be coy, but nothing was on my mind. I was in a blank, feeling state of mind.

In an interview at Smokelong Quarterly, you said that when writing flash fiction “You kind of have to ask yourself if each word, phrase, sentence, image, and action pushes forward the narrative and emotional impact of the story”. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on how the demands of the medium affected the style of “Husband and Wife” as it was being written. Could you speak a little about the interplay between this selectivity and the language of the piece?

Contrary to what I may have implied in that interview, my writing process is intuitive, not scientific, so it is difficult for me to explain all of my choices. But I will try.

"She admitted she'd cried. He had too as the officiant declared them husband and wife."

Here I chose not to write "She'd cried with tears of joy," or to access any other familiar image. I left it at "cried," because it felt a little more personal, more open to the density of their experiences, their history and future.

I’m still sort of marveling at the complexity of this very short and deceptively neat piece—there are so many themes here, of love and competition, disappointment and confusion, commitment and devotion. I’m left wondering about the history of this husband and wife—how the tradition of simultaneous conversation and football originated, about the tears at their wedding, the complementary distribution of their memories. What was your approach to forming these characters when you wrote the piece, in ideation and in revision?

Thanks. I've been writing about this couple for a while and as the stories pile up the characters are becoming more and more complex. Maybe that makes it something other than flash fiction, but I'm not so sure about that.

You’re the editor-in-chief over at Quick Fiction, which deals exclusively in flash fiction—500 words or less, to be precise. What attracts you to this form, and what inspired you to dedicate an entire literary publication to it? What are some trends or phenomena you’ve noticed, either in the submissions you receive or in work you see in other publications, that you’re interested in or excited about?



I started writing this way, short, about a decade ago. Something fell into place. And now it's just how I feel most comfortable communicating. So when I see someone else writing this way it's like we speak the same language and it's nice to try to connect with that person by reading and trying to understand their work. That's the primary reason why we chose to publish it.

There are so many great independent venues for flash fiction now, to read and publish. It seems more fashionable now than it was.

There are a couple of writers I'm watching. Kirsten Rue, a recent graduate of the University of Washington's MFA program, will appear for the second time in Quick Fiction, in our upcoming issue. Another writer worth finding is Michael Thurston. We've been publishing Michael's work for years, almost since the beginning, and I'm always overwhelmed by his talent. Both Kirsten and Michael have the incredible ability to develop characters and build anxiety within a very brief narrative.

What other writing projects are you currently working on?

I'm working on my first collection.

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

I'm so behind. I live with an adorable infant, my son. But this winter I managed to read a lot of Shirley Jackson, her short stories and the novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Then I read her biography and got so sad, I couldn't keep reading her. I still need to read the collected Lydia Davis. But I'm looking forward to Pam Painter's new book, Wouldn't You Like to Know, coming out from Carnegie Mellon.
Saturday
May152010

Issue Ten: May 2010




The tenth issue of The Collagist is now live!

In our May 2010 issue, you'll find new fiction by Kevin Kaiser, Jennifer Pieroni, Andrew Richmond, and Matthew Roberson, as well as novel excerpts from Aaron Michael Morales' Drowning Tucson (Graywolf Press) and Zoe Zolbrod's Currency (OV Books). This month's poetry comes from Carroll Beauvais, Saeed Jones, Michael Lauchlan, and Sandy Langhorn, and our non-fiction is provided by Emily Kiernan and Heather Momyer. Our Classic Reprint series also returns with Steve Stern's "Moishe the Just," introduced by Corey Mesler's essay "On Steve Stern and Faith."

In book reviews, we've got coverage of I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson, Nox by Anne Carson, Art Without Compromise* by Wendy Richmond, Light Boxes by Shane Jones, and Where I Stay by Andrew Zornoza, plus Anna Clark's video review of Alina Bronksy's Broken Glass Park.

I'd also like to welcome new Collagist intern Tyler Gobble to our staff. Among other things, Tyler will be conducting many of the poetry interviews for our blog for this issue and others in the future. I've really enjoyed his initial interviews, which will be appearing in the new week or so, and I look forward to watching his talents and contributions grow.

As always, thank you in advance for reading, and for helping us spread the word about The Collagist. I hope you enjoy the issue!


Wednesday
May122010

Interview: Jac Jemc

Jac Jemc's short story, "The Grifted," appears in the April issue of the Collagist. She lives in Chicago. Her first novel, My Only Wife, is forthcoming in 2012 from Dzanc Books.  In the meantime, she's the poetry editor for decomp, a fiction reader for Our Stories, a member of the editorial team at Tarpaulin Sky Press, and a regular contributor to BigOther.com.  She blogs her rejections at jacjemc.wordpress.com.

Can you talk about the inspiration for “The Grifted”? What was on your mind when you were writing this story?

I realized not long ago that I have a habit of writing stories where a person shows up unexpectedly to someone’s home.  This story is one of those.  The first line, “It was Saturday at the mansion,” I stole from a Patty Griffin song.  I liked the idea of mentioning a mansion so casually – that both living in a mansion and identifying it as such were the norm.  There was something at odds there for me that I wanted to try on.

The quotidian detail of the opening paragraph is such an intriguing way to pull in your audience: “It was Saturday at the mansion. Grandfather had finished breakfast. I was bussing the dishes to the kitchen, as it was Enza’s day off. “You’ve turned into a nice young man, Jim,” Grandfather called from the rear sun porch. The doorbell rang.” It’s so even-keeled and ordinary, but I knew I had to keep reading because I had to find out what kind of direction they were going to move in, and of course the direction becomes more and more convoluted as the girl moves through the house, through Jim’s life. Were you counting on the initial grounding to keep readers focused through all the subsequent turns?



I think I started out trying to write a domestic story of a grandfather and grandson who were ridiculously wealthy and really aware of their condition, but that didn’t last long.  I had to add an intruder.  I had just read about the hipster grifter, if you remember that whole debacle.  If not, this girl from Salt Lake City was forging checks and stealing from hipsters in NYC and pretending she had cancer.  I think that’s the gist of it.  So I was thinking about con artists.



This title, like much in the story, is kind of open for ownership; the grifted ones could be Jim and his family, or the girl and others like her, or the readers, or whomever. And though it doesn’t really matter to whom the title of ‘grifted’ goes, it does feel important that it go somewhere. This also goes for some of the most bizarre and abstracted things in the story, as here: ““Do you have the time?” I was confused, excited, stupid—I pointed to my watch on the dresser.  She grabbed it, scanned the face, and shoved it into a pocket…” Like by putting it in her pocket she traps it and stops it and she knows it’s safe so she’s safe. Can you speak a little to this, this crazed desire to grab all the things and feel better for thinking you’re, well, better off that way?

Well, I meant the title to refer to Jim, for sure, but I’m glad you tried applying it to other units. As for the crazed desire of the intruder, I think she barges into the apartment with a sort of crazed hunger that doesn’t discriminate, but once she’s in, I think she can tell that Jim is into it and so she doesn’t hold back.  She takes it all.

You work (once worked?) at Women & Children First, a feminist independent bookstore in Chicago. What kind of insights and opportunities has the bookselling world lent to your writing and/or submission process?

I’m still covering odd shifts at Women & Children First occasionally.  I think I learned a lot working in bookstores, especially W&CF because it’s so small, that I got to learn everything.  I learned a lot about publishers and how they’re tiered and how to get your book into booksellers’ hands once it’s been published.  I got to meet a ton of people I admired and pretend like it wasn’t a huge deal.  I think I read different books than I might have been reading otherwise.  I think a lot of what I learned was nuts and bolts kind of stuff, more than learning about writing or submitting.

What other writing projects are you currently working on?

I’m shaping and reshaping a poetry manuscript.  I’m working on a series of stories loosely based on this photographer Roger Ballen’s work.  I’m erasing D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and rearranging Emily Dickinson’s poems. I’m embroidering some non sequitors.

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

I just read David Toscana’s novel, Our Lady of the Circus: I love the circus and this was a really smart book about how we define ourselves.  Brandon Downing’s Lake Antiquity is so gorgeous and playful.  Oh! That book of the three day interview with David Foster Wallace – Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself – that was really comforting and heartbreaking and stimulating to read.  I’m excited about OK, Goodnight by Emily Kendal Frey and Zachary Schomburg.  I’m excited about the Potential Books Project.
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