Saturday
Dec082018

"Make It Formally Dynamic": An Interview with Evan Lavender-Smith

Evan Lavender-Smith’s writing has recently been published by Arts & Letters, BOMB, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Egress, Harvard Review, Hobart, New England Review, The Southern Review, The White Review and many other magazines and websites. He is the author of Avatar (Six Gallery Press, 2011) and From Old Notebooks (Dzanc Books, 2013), the founding editor of Noemi Press, and an assistant professor in the MFA program at Virginia Tech. Visit him at el-s.net.

His story, "Last Thing," appeared in Issue Ninety-Six of The Collagist.

Here, Evan Lavender-Smith talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about studying Spanish, alternating points of view, and writing about thinking.

Please tell us about the origins of your story “Last Thing.” What inspired you to start writing the first draft?

“Last Thing” was a fairly accurate description of the beginning of a trip to Peru I took with my wife and daughter. I was convinced—as I’m often convinced when getting on an airplane—that the airplane was going to fall apart upon takeoff. I believe I started writing “Last Thing” shortly after it didn’t.

What made you want to write a story that uses Spanish almost as much as English? What was that process like for you?

Sometimes my Spanish is OK, sometimes I don’t seem to have much Spanish at all. I’ll spend several months working hard on my Spanish, and I’ll feel I’m real making progress toward fluency, and then I’ll stop for some reason, maybe because I have to start teaching again or because I feel I have to spend all free my time working on an essay or story or playing the piano. My Spanish was probably at its all-time best at the moment in time when “Last Thing” takes place; I’d recently come off of doing this herculean translation of an epic poem by Chilean poet Pablo de Rokha, a project that took many months to complete. I guess it just felt like Spanish was suddenly a tool I had at my disposal, even though that tool wasn’t especially sharp. But I imagine that was part of the pleasure I took in employing it, leaning on my interminable poverty with Spanish in order to cast myself as the linguistic buffoon that I sometimes am. I remember early on trying to make the Spanish in “Last Thing” really good, really perfect—there were all these Spanish-English dictionaries and grammars littered around my writing space—and then at some point thinking to myself, “Wait a minute, your Spanish totally blows, Evan, so why are you trying to make it seem like you’re so good at it?” So then I went back through and tried to capture some of the malapropisms and hiccups and inanities that occur whenever I attempt to think or speak in Spanish. The other pleasure I took in using Spanish was the way it seemed to allow me to sort of expand the formal territory of the sentence, so many translated qualifications and clauses all over the place leading to new and weird possibilities for the sentence. I think my favorite sentence in “Last Thing,” if I’m remembering it correctly, is this one: “No: no.” The first “no” is an English “no”; the second “no” is a translation into Spanish of the English “no,” which is also the word “no.” I don’t imagine I’d ever have an opportunity to write a sentence like that—that is, one that actually makes sense according to the formal rules established by the writing at hand—in any other context. That was very exciting to me.

Large portions of this story are the protagonist’s stream of consciousness, first-person pronouns sometimes taking over as he thinks to himself. Would you talk about how you represent such free association in writing? Do you attempt to write as freely as the character is thinking in order to make it seem authentic? And how much do you revise parts like these?

In “Last Thing” and a few other things I’ve written, the thinking mind seems to alternately want to inhabit the role of subject, of object, of something in between subject and object, even of some sort of subject-object whole. I can be “I,” but I can also be “you”; I can also be a person named “Evan”; I can also be all three of these things at once. When I think, often I find myself thinking about myself in the first person (e.g. “I need a drink right now”), and often I find myself thinking about myself in the second person (e.g. “You really, really need to go pour yourself a drink right now”), and often I find myself thinking in the third person (e.g. “If Evan doesn’t go pour himself a drink right now, who knows what might happen?”), and often I find myself thinking in a variable POV (“You need a drink! I should really go pour myself one right now or else Evan might lose his shit!”). In these few things I’ve written that play around with this bizarre confluence or alternation of various perspectival modes of thought, I seem to find myself drawn to the possibilities of jamming them all up against one another in order to create, as I’ll refer it when describing such a thing to my students, a “crowding effect.” We encounter such crowding effects in other guises—ones that aren’t as tied to thinking, often—in the writing of people who seem dissatisfied with that more streamlined uniformity of expression that’s most often prized in writing, as well as taught to young writers, which I think is what’s most often actually being signified when creative writing teachers say that it’s important to “Find your voice.” “Find your voice” reads to me as something more along the lines of, “Write uniformly. And don’t fuck around with a whole bunch of different modes of language, especially in the same poem/essay/story/book.” Pound said “Make it new,” and I agree that making it new is important, even all these years on; but, in the face of what I perceive to be so much internal formal consistency among all the writing that most gets read these days—even among things that might indeed feel “new”—I guess I’d be eager to amend Pound’s statement to read, “Make it new—but also make it formally dynamic.”

As far as authenticity is concerned, I’m not sure. I don’t really believe that mere language is commensurate to, or capable of somehow fully or genuinely representing, thought. My primary fidelity as a writer writing about thinking isn’t necessarily to the accurate portrayal of thought by way of words, but rather to the invention of figures for the representation of thought within the context of all the pressures associated with a uniquely sovereign and uniquely coherent aesthetic object—a specific essay, story, poem, book, etc. I don’t really believe that thought can be directly or authentically represented in art. We either have to come up with formal analogies to thought that, at best, remind us of the structures of thought, or, as most writers do, we just try to not really give much of a shit about thought and instead write mainly about “events,” about people actually out in the world doing things with their bodies, etc. The problem, as I see it, is that an appreciation of thought-as-such is so far beyond the ability of our immediate or even our sustained comprehension that it’s almost as if we have to just either give up on it entirely, or, if we’re ambitious enough to make a go at it, the best we can do is create a figure for thought, an allegory or metaphor or something. I don’t actually think the way I think in “Last Things,” just as an IRL Stephen or Bloom or Molly wouldn’t think the way Stephen or Bloom or Molly thinks in Ulysses. The point I guess I’m trying to make is that, for me, the complexity of thought seems to exceed the limit of writing’s potential complexity. So as writers intent on engaging with thought in our writing, we’re put in the position of having to act like bricoleurs, like people scrambling around working with little scraps of whatever’s within reach, working with what little is available to us in language toward the end of just barely illuminating the incomprehensibly vast complexity of the thinking mind.

And yes, I revise like a maniac. I spend most of my time writing revising.

What writing project(s) are you working on now?

I’m just now completing a collection of essays, which includes “Last Thing” as part of a much longer thing called “Going to Peru”; and, after many botched attempts at trying to nail down a structure I feel OK with, I’m finally completing a collection of stories.

What have you read recently that you want to recommend?

I liked Matthew Vollmer’s Permanent Exhibit a lot. It’s a collection of lyric, associative meditations on a range of subjects. I interviewed him about it here. Now that the academic winter break is about to hit, I’m planning to reread a bunch of books in preparation for a class I’m teaching next semester on shorter debut novels, including Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai (maybe my favorite living writer), Spurious by Lars Iyer (probably the funniest living writer I know of), Event Factory by Renee Gladman (not sure if that’s actually her first “novel,” though), Florida by Christine Schutt, Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli (whose little book of essays, Sidewalks, is very good), Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera (whose book Signs Preceding the End of the World is also very good), and several other books I can’t name because I’m not using the computer on which I have my working syllabus stored and also I have internet-blocking software turned on right now. Which reminds me that Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies is surely one of the greatest works of nonfiction written in this century; I’m reminded of it because the book’s self-imposed constraint—which is actually less interesting to me than the sheer beauty of the writing—is that the author doesn’t allow himself to look at the internet or any secondary material while composing the essays. I’d also like to recommend John Keene’s recent book, Counternarratives, which to my mind is a paragon of the formally dynamic short story collection, an ideal counterexample to the collection in which “Find your voice” is a guiding principle.

Saturday
Nov242018

"Gaining Energy through Torque": An Interview with Caryl Pagel

Caryl Pagel is the author of two collections of poetry, Twice Told (University of Akron Press), and Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death (Factory Hollow Press). Her poetry and prose have appeared in AGNI, Entropy, The Iowa Review, The Mississippi Review, and Volta, among other journals. Caryl is the co-founder and editor of Rescue Press, a poetry editor at jubilat, and the director of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. She is an assistant professor at Cleveland State University, where she teaches in the NEOMFA program.

Her essay, "Lost in Thought," appears in Issue Ninety-Seven of The Collagist. 

Here, Caryl Pagel talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about women's faces in public, the essay's form as tornado, and attention to sound and rhythm.

Please tell us about the origins of your essay “Lost in Thought.” What inspired you to start writing the first draft?

The essay arose from some combination of stumbling into Harry Callahan’s “Women Lost in Thought” series in the National Gallery in 2012 and the pernicious, enduring circumstances of a woman being harassed when walking down a street alone. The Callahan photos are from the 1950s but seventy years later a woman’s face in public is still an interestingly controlled (or vulnerable) space. One must manage not to smile (inviting positive attention), frown (inviting advice, i.e. “smile, honey!”), appear unkempt or ugly (inviting cruelty), or brandish beauty (inviting violence). Moving through a day this way can feel like striking a pose and holding it; becoming closed, ghost-like.

My favorite parking garage in Chicago (where this essay takes place) has a mural from Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s series “Stop Telling Women to Smile.” One imagines that Thoreau, Rousseau, O’Hara, and Walser were rarely interrupted in their reverie by relentless pestering. “Lost in Thought” moves through several other subjects (Vivan Maier’s street photography, mediums as original grief counselors, and trance states, etc.), but that’s where it began.

This essay (over 4,500 words) is presented in only one paragraph, unbroken except for a few interspersed photographs. How did you decide that the essay should take this form? Was it a challenge to compose a text of this length in a single paragraph?

The engine of this essay is association; I imagined the form as a tornado, gaining energy through torque, needing a kind of pressurized formal momentum in order to create instability, to launch.

You are the author of both poetry and nonfiction. What lessons have you learned from your work in one genre that have made you a better writer in the other?

It’s tough to claim “better,” but poetry has a clear influence on my sentences: I pay attention to sound and rhythm, occasionally disregarding narrative ease. I’m interested in moving from moment to moment, step by step (as one does when accustomed to working in the unit of the line), as opposed to generating essays via scene or plot points.

What writing project(s) are you working on now?

I’ve just finished the book that this essay is a part of, currently titled Out of Nowhere Into Nothing. I think I’ll return to poetry for a while.

What have you read recently that you want to recommend?

Last week I attended a reading by Suzanne Buffam and Srikanth Reddy; one of the best readings I’ve been to in years. I recommend everything the two of them have written.  

Two prose books I’d recommend are Hilary Plum’s Strawberry Fields (Fence) and Caren Beilin’s Spain (Rescue Press). For a taste of their intelligence and humor, check out the interviews between the two of them at the Fence blog. 

Three other wonders I encountered this year were Wild Milk by Sabrina Orah Mark (Dorothy), Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (Bloomsbury), and Milk by Dorothea Laskey (Wave Books).

Tuesday
Nov062018

“The Underground Laundromat”: An Interview with Paul Albano

Paul Albano is from Milwaukee, WI. His work can be found in cream city review, Paper Darts, and Whiskey Island Magazine. He teaches English at the University of Alabama.

His story, “Nation of Cavaliers,” appeared in Issue Ninety-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Andrew Farkas about vampiric dental mutilation, the ice floe approach to short fiction writing, and unobtrusiveness.

Please tell us about the origins of “Nation of Cavaliers.” What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

It was initially written as a companion piece to another story featuring most of the same characters on another leg of their journey. I’m not sure what the catalyst for that story was, but I remember composing the initial shell of it during the many, many hours I spent waiting for, and riding on, trains and buses around the city—so my guess would be all of that stuff and boredom. 

The version of Chicago you present in your story is a combination of the real one and of a ruinous, seemingly diseased nightmare city. And yet none of the characters are bothered by the terrors that surround them. Why did you decide to portray Chicago this way? And what do you think this portrayal does for your story?

I’ve long been fascinated with depicting things as heightened versions of themselves, particularly with Chicago—which always seems to be teetering on the edge of nightmarish self-parody. For “Cavs,” the ambition is to use the setting to propel the primary emotional arc of the story—one character’s belated realization that he lives inside a nightmare—through the accumulation of madness and despair forever floating around the periphery.

In spite of the Gothic horrors in “Nation of Cavaliers,” this story is hilarious. I would even say, it’s so funny we forget, at times, that almost every living thing in the piece has mutated into some sort of monster (Mugs throughout is even consciously, although only superficially transforming himself into a vampire, no matter how insanely painful that transformation may be). What role do you think humor plays in this story, then?

Well, I suppose the intent at least is for the humor to undercut the potential dramatic moments of the story—which can build an odd tension for the characters (and hopefully even the reader)—as well as magnify the Vampiric dental mutilation and other horrors by presenting them as normal, quotidian occurrences all motivated by an internal logic.  

Unlike the lavish speech Mugs quotes from multiple times (and which supplies you with the title), the prose style here is very straightforward, economical. Even the dialogue is summarized, meaning we get almost the entire story from a first person narrator who does nothing in the piece but tell us what’s happening. Why did you choose this style for “Nation of Cavaliers,” and why did you choose to have the story narrated by a character so innocuous he’s praised at one point for his “unobtrusive presence?”

It’s a style of writing I really like and try to use frequently—and I imagine it started as a clumsy parody of Hemingway’s (in)famous “iceberg” approach (though with far fewer moments of poignancy or depth, so really more of an “ice floe”). In terms of the character, I think of the protagonist as a kind of embodied third person cinematic narrator—he reports on the surrounding people and events that enthrall him, but does so with limited editorializing and virtually no sense of interiority (born from both his intense fascination with the universe and his inability to understand much of it). The aim (and connected to the previous question) is to create humor by juxtaposing the flatness of the narrative voice with the calamitous world it describes. 

What have you been reading recently that you might recommend?

I just finished a Nero Wolfe book (Bitter End—by Rex Stout), which is my favorite of the Golden Age Detective series. There are many things I like about the books—the abundance of important newspaper headlines and drugstores that also serve corned beef sandwiches, and of course all scenes where someone takes off a hat and hands it to another character who seemingly always fails to give it back—but I’m drawn to them primarily because of the language. Stout is the best sentence-level writer I’ve encountered in the mystery genre and while his work never reaches (or reaches for) the hardboiled mythology of Chandler or Hammett (both of whom I’m also huge fans of and would highly recommend), the central conceit of the series—that Nero Wolfe refuses leaves his brownstone on business, and thereby never investigates the actual crime scene, which forces him to solve the mysteries almost purely with rhetoric—is something that I, as someone fond of both words and not going places, find grandly inspiring.

What are you writing these days?

I have a short story coming out in Entropy later this month—it’s a home invasion story about the Ghost of Christmas Present—but beyond that I’ve mostly been working on a novel that refuses to end no matter how many words I throw into it.

Sunday
Nov042018

"And to What Kingdoms, By What Covenant?": An Interview with Robert Campbell

Robert Campbell is the author of the chapbook In the Herald of Improbable Misfortunes (Etchings Press, 2018). His poetry and criticism have appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, The Collagist, Columbia Poetry Review, River Styx, Ninth Letter, Asheville Poetry Review, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Sundog Lit, Zone 3, The Adroit Journal, and many other journals. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, short-listed for the 2015 Black Warrior Review Poetry Contest, third place winner of the 2013 River Styx International Poetry Contest, and previous winner of the Flo Gault Poetry Prize through Sarabande Books, Robert holds an MFA in poetry from Murray State University and an MS in library science from the University of Kentucky. He lives with his partner and animals on a winding country road in the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky.

His poems, "Jesus for Lobsters" and "Hero, by Which I Mean," appeared in Issue Seventy-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Courtney Flerlage about revision, voltas, and the natural world.

How did you begin writing “Lobsters for Jesus”?  

I often stumble into poems with really strange questions in hand. In this case, I wanted to peer into the idea of religion through an animal lens. They used to keep dozens of lobsters in little tanks in grocery stores when I was a kid. They were so crowded that they would be piled on top of each other, and I find that image so disgusting and ripe for metaphor.

Even as its topic seems playful upon initially reading the title, “Jesus for Lobsters” strikes a unique urgency as it describes the imagined “Lobster Jesus” who is “neither kind nor personal.” I’m caught by the poem’s voice, its confidence from the very beginning of the poem: “Say there are fifteen holy beatitudes for lobsters. / Pretend with me. Blessed are the spiny ones, / for their hearts shall be smoothest.” Here, even as the poem invites the (seemingly) playful consideration of lobster beatitudes, the syntax suggests, through its imperatives, that this imagining has a goal, an ending reward, something serious to say. And it does: by the end of the poem, the focus shifts, and the lobster becomes an image of human hunger, emphasized all the more after an empathetic and almost intimate consideration that the lobsters are left unprotected by “Lobster Jesus” who “isn’t going / to save you.” This careful shifting of playfulness and urgency makes for a compelling poem—could you share a bit about how the poem found its way into this balance?

It strikes me that the poem found its way toward a darker tone over several revisions, and I'm not exactly sure at which point I decided that it needed a little darkness. Speculative poems, for me, tend to veer off into a kind of playfulness that can be a lot of fun, but the danger is always writing something that isn't anchored to a necessary discussion. The benefit of delaying the serious voice is that you can avoid being too on-the-nose and also catch the reader off guard. But something necessary really has to be there, otherwise it's all play.

The sonnet form of “Hero, By Which I Mean” accomplishes what voice does for “Jesus for Lobsters”—it generates a sense of momentum even as the poem shifts focus. The poem starts with describing a familiar hero, the “Most handsome person in the room, who laughs / the loudest at lame jokes.” By the end of the poem, however, the harsher side to “hero” is revealed: “Most choked by pills. Most thrown / down stairs.” The repetition of “Most” at the beginning of each sentence (“Most crass” and “Most bar-hopped, most cruised, most stopped”) as the sonnet drives the poem forward through rhyme opens increasingly intimate portraits of the “hero.” Did the poem always exist as a sonnet?

I guess I always intended the poem for the sonnet form (it was written as part of a series of "hero" sonnets), but you know how things go: an early draft usually doesn't fit the form very well, so you begin to whittle and play around with it until it does. The volta was an important part of this poem for me, and that emerged pretty early on when drafting the poem. I like poems that pivot. When I wrote this, I was very interested in the idea of celebrity and the voice of the outsider, so I really wanted a voice to challenge the hero and somehow address how our love of celebrity is often closely paired with our love of destruction-as-spectacle.

What are you reading right now?

Prose poems! Robert Duncan has some really cool ones in A Book of Resemblances. He's such a lovable weirdo. I recently bought The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry, which features poems and essays addressing the form. It's really lovely, and I highly recommend it.

What project(s) are you working on? 

My chapbook, In the Herald of Improbable Misfortunes, just came out this year from Etchings Press at the University of Indianapolis, so I've been doing a few readings and trying to help promote it. My new work is coming along very slowly and is very grounded in the natural world. My husband and I have lived on a small farm for the past two years. You see some wild stuff out in the country: strange weather, animal guests, lots of death and renewal. Some of these poems are quite a bit darker than what I usually write. I always seem to be reaching for the voice of the outsider in my work, and the natural world is kind of the ultimate Other, in a way.

Thursday
Oct042018

"Between Improvisation and Intention": An Interview with Kristine Langley Mahler

Kristine Langley Mahler is a memoirist experimenting with the truth on the suburban prairie outside Omaha, Nebraska. Her work received the Rafael Torch Award from Crab Orchard Review and has been recently published in The Normal School, New Delta Review, Quarter After Eight, Fugue, Gigantic Sequins, and The Rumpus, among others. Visit her at kristinelangleymahler.com.

Her essay, "Lanes," appeared in Issue Ninety-Six of The Collagist. 

Here, Kristine Langley Mahler talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about erasures, our impressions of the truth, and the rules of being a teenage girl.

What can you say about the origins of your erasure piece “Lanes”? How did you first encounter the original text? What inspired you to create this erasure?

“Lanes” is an erasure essay from a book-length erasure project I’m (still) in the process of completing, which started with an old thrift store copy of The Seventeen Book of Etiquette and Entertaining from 1963. I’d always loved the pomp and circumstance of social behavior from the decades before my casual youth in the 90s, and as I read through the guide, I kept encountering so many directives to the reader which offended my sensibilities. I didn’t want to ruin the book—a document of a foregone era—but I had to do something, so I made a photocopy of the book and started removing parts of the text to make the chapters read like what I believed I was really being instructed to do; how I had interpreted the rules of being a teenage girl.

In the process of erasing the chapters, I’m creating a narrative where the sentences are pushing back and illuminating my experience, not agreeing with the “any girl can get a date if you just do _____” bullshit promises of the guide (and the magazines of that era)—those weren’t representative of my adolescence.

Please describe the process of how you composed this erasure. Did you work by hand, or on a computer, or both? Was there a specific intention behind the choices of what language to erase, or was it more improvisational?

I generally erase by hand, but I circle the words/letters I want to keep rather than blacking out the parts I am not using because when it comes to revision, I’m always grateful when I can still see what I removed. I learned this the hard way on a few chapters! Once the chapter is complete, I type it up and begin to edit, though I usually have a pretty light hand—just looking for clarity—because I’ve already removed so much.

For me, creating an erasure is a delicate balance between improvisation and intention. It’s probably important to note that, somewhere along the line, I switched toward using less of the direct text and, instead, creating new words from the text. The word creation still follows the rules of erasure (must remain in original order with nothing added), but has allowed a new lyricism to filter through.

It’s a somewhat mystical process—I can’t describe how I know what words I want to keep and which to remove. I read through a chapter once or twice before beginning the erasure, and sometimes I erase the title first, which helps dictate what I plan to look for in the piece. But mostly, I go with my gut and keep the phrases or words that jump out at me.

Your bio states you are “a memoirist experimenting with the truth.” Can you elaborate on that—how you experiment with the truth and what that means to you? (Is erasure a form of experiment that you practice often? If so, would you tell us a little about why you are drawn to erasure?)

Nonfiction is constantly maligned over readers’ skepticism that its authors cannot possibly be telling The Truth. There’s a presumption that a single, unvarnished, empirical truth exists, and I’m not stepping on any Alternative Facts when I say that in the subgenre of memoir, feelings and emotions can color our impressions of the truth. I can take a relationship from my past and describe it as I knew it at the time; I can take that same relationship and describe it with the knowledge I have now; I can take that relationship a third time and describe it as I wanted it to be; I can take that relationship again and describe it the way my best friend tells me she remembers it, and on and on into infinity. All of those impressions illuminate different facets of the unalterable facts.

To experiment with the truth is to allow experience to constantly re-filter information which had once seemed static. Erasure essays, for me, are performances of those re-filtered truths. I’m drawn to uncertainty and recalibration, both in my erasures and my essays, as evidence of our capacity for growth.

What writing project(s) are you working on now?

I’m still completing the full book-length erasure of the Seventeen guide, though the end is in sight. I’m also sorting through research I’ve gathered towards a project on the privilege of home, examining immigration and my family’s four-hundred-year occupation on native land. I’ve pored through both revisionist and traditional accounts of Canadian history; traveled to Québec, Wisconsin, and Minnesota to understand the places my ancestors have called home; and spent a year transcribing eighteen years of my great-grandfather’s diaries into 500+ pages of primary source documents. I expect I’ll be confronting the specter of “home” and all its promises for quite some time.

What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?

Two recent essay collections which blew me away were Jessie van Eerden’s The Long Weeping and Erica Trabold’s forthcoming Five Plots, which I was fortunate to receive as an ARC. Their circuitous routes around memory, home, and truth are fascinating and inspiring.

Thursday
Sep272018

“Pygmy Elephants and Cowboy Presidents”: An Interview with Travis Price

Travis Price received his MFA in fiction from North Carolina State University. His work has appeared in pioneertown. He is from Philadelphia and currently lives in Montevideo, Uruguay.

His story, “Molly's Boyfriend,” appeared in Issue Ninety-Eight of The Collagist.

 Here, he speaks with interviewer Andrew Farkas about polyamory, the value of that which is fictional, and “millennial” stories.   

Please tell us about the origins of “Molly’s Boyfriend.” What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

Polyamory was a trending topic among some friends when I was living in North Carolina. I got to thinking about an unwilling participant in a tri-amorous relationship who does his best to convince himself he’s on board with it.

I have heard people say that they don’t read fiction because “it’s not real” or “it’s just something someone made up.” And yet, we make things up all the time and convince ourselves that they are real (even though they exist only in our minds). How do you see “Molly’s Boyfriend” playing with this split between our generally suspicious natures and our tendency to believe our own imaginations?

I agree that we can be suspicious, though I think we are often selectively suspicious, and other times quite credulous. We just need someone to give us a reason to set aside our disbelief. I think Molly does that for the narrator, at least for most of the story. And I think, in general, readers believe that fictional worlds have meaning and relevance because the writer has done something meaningful along the way to earn their trust.  

But it can be very difficult to accept the value of something that is fictional if you believed it was real all along. This, for me, is what troubles the narrator at the end of “Molly’s Boyfriend.”

There is a truly fantastic metafictional conceit at play in this story. After we meet the three characters (Molly, Molly’s boyfriend, and the narrator), and after we start to accept the idea of their budding tri-amorous relationship, the narrator then wonders if Molly’s boyfriend actually exists (since the narrator has never seen or talked to him). When the narrator decides Molly’s boyfriend might not be real, he wonders: “How can I miss someone I’ve never met?” while still feeling pain for his loss – almost as if Molly’s boyfriend had died. Remarkably, I’d argue, the reader feels the same pain. And yet, not a single one of these characters was ever truly alive. Missing one of them is as absurd as missing any of them. Is the idea here that our imaginary worlds are just as important as the real world and losing anything in that imaginary world is just as difficult? Or, is it that everyone ultimately disappears into their own contradictions (the twin impulses of wanting to fit in and wanting to stand out inherent in the tri-amorous relationship)? Perhaps something else is going on here?

This question reminds me of T.C. Boyle’s “Chicxulub,” in which he plays with this same idea—the ambiguous loss of a fictional character—more intentionally, I think, than I did. We’ve all had the experience of reaching the end of a book, and then not wanting it to be over, of feeling sad that we can’t spend any more time in that world, with the characters we’ve come to know. In “Molly’s Boyfriend,” we can commiserate with the narrator on this front before he too disappears on us.

But if literature (or any form of storytelling) lives on with us after the book/film/play has reached its end, if our internal worlds have changed as a result, then dismissing fiction as merely imaginary fails to acknowledge its power. And if “imagination” is the discrepancy between the events and stimuli of the “real world” and our mind’s way of processing them, then that’s where all the good stuff is.

What have you been reading recently that you might recommend?

I keep coming across Stuart Dybek stories I wish I’d written, like “Pet Milk” and “Paper Lantern.” And as a fan of short-story collections in general, I always like going back to Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer and Bobcat by Rebecca Lee.

More than novels, which are constrained by the forward momentum of one, overarching plot, I think short-story collections give insight into the obsessions of an author. I have a much better sense of “knowing” a writer after having read a short-story collection than after having read a novel.

What are you writing these days?

Lately I’ve found myself attempting to write what I think of as “millennial” stories. I don’t always identify all that strongly with my generation, but I’ve also come to recognize that the experience of millennials is relatively uncharted territory in the long history of literature, and that it’s a topic I feel qualified to speak on. What does it mean to be a member of this generation, alive at the beginning of the decline of the Western world? Why might we respond to existential threats with apathy? Why have we overcome some of the prejudices of previous generations but not others? Am I overusing the dog filter on Snapchat, or am I not using it enough? These are the some of the questions propelling me at the moment when I sit down to write.

Sunday
Sep232018

"Dragging the Body of the Thing": An Interview with duncan b. barlow

duncan b. barlow is the author of The City, Awake (Stalking Horse 2017), Of Flesh and Fur (The Cupboard 2016), and Super Cell Anemia (2008). His novel A Dog Between Us is forthcoming on Stalking Horse Press in March of 2019. His work has appeared in The Denver Quarterly, The Collagist, Banango Street, The Fanzine, Sleeping Fish, Word Riot, The Apeiron Review, Meat for Tea, Matter Pressand Masque and Spectacle. He teaches creative writing and publishing at the University of South Dakota, where he is publisher at Astrophil Press and the managing editor at South Dakota Review. For more information about his writing or music, visit: http://www.duncanbbarlow.com

His story, "Unintended Consequences of Utterances," appeared in Issue Eighty-Two of The Collagist

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about family videos, form, and sharing your life with a cat. 

Where did this story, “Unintended Consequences of Utterances,” begin for you?

My sister had received a DVD of old family 8mm films from the 70s that we didn’t know existed. In one of the clips, I was a baby (a toddler) and I wandered to a mirror. Perhaps it wasn’t the first mirror I’d encountered, but as someone who teaches critical theory, I was captured by the idea (or fiction) that I was seeing my entry into symbolic order. The earliest footage I’d ever seen of myself before this was shot after I was sixteen so the entire experience was quite captivating and heartbreaking; on the one hand I was a happy baby, smiling and spitting, on the other hand everyone in the films beside myself and my siblings is now dead. It filled me with such strange and conflicting emotions that I turned the video off and sat down to write. At the time, I’d just started trying my hand at flash fiction, so it was one of my earlier experiments.

This story is remarkable for its brevity, for its punch. Do you start a story with a form in mind, or does the form come later?

Thank you very much, that’s very kind of you to say. I never know where my stories are going until they reach a certain mass and the shape of the thing becomes undeniable. There’s a kind of momentum that occurs from that point, where I know I’m closing in on something. Its only in revision where I go through and tidy things up. This particular story came quickly and required very little revision. I think this is one of the liberating things about brief fictions versus the longer things I write (30 pages stories and novels)—there’s a lightness to them where I’m not dragging the body of the thing thorough the dirt as I march forward to some unknown horizon.

Does your work as an editor and teacher influence your writing? How so?

It does. I’m close reading far more than the average person and constantly learning about writing. One essay that I teach and revisit regularly myself, is Lutz’s The Sentence is a Lonely Place. I’ve read it a hundred times and every time I feel it shift something inside of me. I think editing has taught me to pay far more attention to the balance, shape, and sound of language in my fiction now than did I when I published my first novel in 2008.

What projects have you been working on since the time of this story’s publication? What are you working on now?

I had three books come out and I’ve been focusing quite a bit more on short fiction and short stories. I’ve enjoyed the kind of liberation they offer me as a writer. Yesterday I finished the first draft of a story I dreamed up while having a lovely trip in Europe. Of course, things in the story will be a little grimmer than what we experience on our trip. I did recently finish up the first round of edits on my forthcoming novel, A Dog Between Us, with my editor at Stalking Horse Press, so I’ll be babysitting that for the next few months as we move toward publication. There are two texts I’ve been pecking away at as well, an autobiography of my time as a musician and an historical novel set in Kentucky Coal Country.

What is your current favorite thing? Something you’d like to recommend to readers. A book, a song, a movie, anything that you think we should all know about.

There’s so much to love which is such a luxury, isn’t it? I’ve just received an ARC of Laird Hunt’s new book In the House in the Dark of the Woods and it’s fantastic. Laird is a true wonder. And as always, my cat gives me new favorite things every day. So maybe I recommend sharing your life with a cat above all else.

Wednesday
Sep052018

"How the Creature Felt Then": An Interview with Laurie Stone

Laurie Stone is author most recently of My Life as an Animal, Stories. She was a longtime writer for the Village Voice, theater critic for The Nation, and critic-at-large on Fresh Air. She wonthe Nona Balakian prize in excellence in criticism from the National Book Critics Circle and two grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts. She has published numerous stories in such publications as N + 1, Tin House, Evergreen Review, Fence, Open City, Anderbo, The Collagist, Your impossible Voice, New Letters, TriQuarterly, Threepenny Review, and Creative Nonfiction. In 2005, she participated in "Novel: An Installation," writing a book and living in a house designed by architects Salazar/Davis in the Flux Factory's gallery space.  She has frequently collaborated with composer Gordon Beeferman in text/music works. The world premier of their piece “You, the Weather, a Wolf” was presented in the 2016 season of the St. Urbans concerts. She is at work on The Love of Strangers, a collage of hybrid narratives. Her website is: lauriestonewriter.com.

Her stories, "Window," "Raincoat," and "Sophia," appeared in Issue Eighty-Two of The Collagist. 

Here, she talks to Dana Diehl about trusting the narrative voice, wanting to be in two places at once, and endings.

In May 2016, you had three stories published in The Collagist: “Window,” “Raincoat,” and “Sophia.” Do you feel that these stories are in conversation with each other in any way? How so?

Yes! I think all my work is in conversation with other stories I have written. I am probably writing one giant, messy, collage thing and breaking off bits here and there to send out. Most of my stories sound narrated by the same person. The voice of this person sounds like it’s taking you by the collar or whispering in your ear, and it works in two times frames. It looks back at the creature it was in the past and tells the reader how the creature felt then. The narrator also tells the reader how the narrator feels now, looking back. Those feelings are different. That difference sometimes substitutes for plot, creating a sense of momentum free of resolution or even necessarily understanding.

All of these stories focus on a very specific subject or moment. How do you know when you’ve stumbled upon a subject that you’d like to make into a story?

I don’t know anything ahead of beginning to write how a story will go or even what a source might be. I don’t think anything is intrinsically interesting or uninteresting. Again, it’s that narrative voice, tugging at something and allowing associations to arise, that makes the thing sound like a story. I work consciously to make something ordinary seem strange or something strange seem ordinary. I am also attracted to contradictions that can’t be resolved, the feeling of wanting to be in two places at the same time. To me, that’s the make or break element in something I want to pursue. Here’s an example. One day while I was staying in London, I found a jasmine plant on a high street. I was in London for three weeks, and I was able to nurse the plant back to radiant health. The leaves were gleaming. It had a little trellis. I knew I would have to leave it. Ah, heartbreak! What to do, what to do? What happens in the story is not what happened to the plant in real life.

In terms of craft, to get started, I write a paragraph. Maybe there’s one good sentence in there that takes a surprise turn or uses language in a striking way. I pluck it out and start the piece there, thinking about how to follow it with sentence B that also needs to seduce the reader into wanting to read sentence C. I think this way of working is more like writing poetry. Occasionally, if I’m lucky, I will come up with a potential plot (the fate of the plant!), and this helps to propel things forward, too.

We often think of the end of a story as a true ending, as a way of tying up loose ends. But your stories seem to leave us on moments of opening: “Soon I would look that way.” “I wore them under the khaki raincoat and I went to see him the next day.” Your stories end with a feeling of possibility, of more to come. Can you speak to this? What is your process for ending a story?

I’m glad you think the endings are beginnings! Sometimes, to subvert the temptations of memory and chronology, I think about something that has happened and that might be the basis of a story, and I write a sketch in four paragraphs ordered this way: the end, the beginning, a moment of gratification, a moment of confusion. I’m not interested in resolution or the arc of “I used to be, and now I’m not.” I  believe we remain ambivalent in dramatic moments if we search our minds with enough energy. A story is finished maybe the way a piece of music is finished—after I’ve thought as richly as I can about each element in the contradiction. That approach may offer some sense of satisfaction for the reader. You’ve exhausted them without making them happy!

Who are some of your favorite flash fiction authors? Who inspires your work?

There are many. These writers have been important to me during the time I wrote the stories in The Collagist. I am including writers of hybrid narrative and poetry: Chris Kraus, Diane Seuss, WG Sebald, Édouard Levé, John Haskell, Lydia Davis, David Shields, Richard Rodriguez, and Diane Williams.

What projects are you working on now?

I am pleased to have three hybrid pieces in issue #32 of N + 1. I have been writing for The Women’s Review of Books, and I have a new manuscript of hybrid fiction called The Love of Strangers ready for a publisher. The new book picks up from my last book, My Life as an Animal, Stories in that some characters recur. I would say, overall, the writing here is more reliant on voice than anything else for its sense of continuity. The forms, too, are more experimental, using among other formats, lists and love letters. I try things out on Facebook, posting in four categories: micro fictions, social commentary, art criticism, and memoir. I have been “harvesting” bits here and there from social media and using them to construct texts I think of as a series of postcards. The postcards freely move between genres and incorporate them all, much the way our minds flit around and form connections. I love working this way. Give it a shot.

Sunday
Aug122018

"The Lone Tree No One Could Name": An Interview with Ben Jackson

Ben Jackson is the director of The Writing Salon, a San Francisco Bay Area creative writing school for adults. He has taught at a wide range of colleges, schools, and retreat centers, including the University of San Francisco and the Esalen Institute. His writing has appeared in New England Review, Southern Review, Hudson Review, FIELD, Poetry Daily, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. A graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, he has won awards and fellowships from the Tor House Foundation, Warren Wilson College, Vermont Studio Center, Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, and Jentel Artist Residency Program.

His poem, "Christmas Break, 1997," appeared in Issue Seventy-Six of The Collagist. 

Here, he talks with interviewer Sarah Huener about using nature as a figure for human dynamics, how images are like lava, and relishing the mystery of synthesis.

Despite being a scene from the past, there’s a real immediacy in “Christmas Break, 1997.” The many details we get, from floating ice to an unidentifiable tree, form a vivid catalogue of touchstones to memory. How did you arrive at this final collection of images?

Maybe there’s an immediacy to the poem because the memories and images are not purely past for me, particularly that scene of my sisters huddled around my mother or the image of cigarette burns on my brother’s wrist. To this day, I’m haunted by their presence, and I hoped to convey this sensation with some dramatic urgency. While I wanted to include personal, even private, images and memories in this poem, I also chose imagery that, though linked to that period of time in 1997, might both stand outside of and inform my personal life, images that would implicate the local landscape and correlate with the larger world, even a deeper history, say, the lava that makes the island. Still, it’d be a stretch to say that I arrived at these images by altogether conscious means. I’ve found that, by the time I reach the final draft of a poem, the images usually connect in some fashion, whether elementally, tonally, or sonically, but I don’t quite know how or why they’ve all come together. I relish this mystery.

Television appears a few times in this poem—first showing Discovery Channel island formation, then a cold front on the Weather Channel, then, finally, blankness. How do you see these TVs and what they display functioning within the poem as a whole?

Just as the television offers distraction and refuge from the family’s grief, it’s also an image-maker, teacher, and messenger. In stanza one, the island formation on Discovery Channel is crucial to the poem for it suggests, to some degree, the beginning of the speaker’s own maturation after the rift in his parents’ relationship. In stanza two, the imagined scene of the father watching the Weather Channel pins another layer of oppressiveness and loneliness to the Chicago winter, the father experiencing the cold front alone inside his apartment. The “imageless TV” as a “black galaxy” sets up the transition into stanza three where the speaker begins to process his grief and attach stories and wounds to those glow-in-the-dark stars on his bedroom ceiling.

I love the lines “And no snow, not when paradise/ kept changing its rules, unapproachable/ as the lone tree no one could name/ out there on the bluff.” Not only does the speaker constantly return to the weather throughout the poem, but the weather itself is almost a shadowy character of its own. Could you talk a bit about this poem’s treatment of nature and the elements?

Thank you. I’m glad you like those lines. A Chicago winter, in my experience, is “a shadowy character.” In any dramatic piece, I’m interested in the ways that an environment, including the elements, might reflect and animate the human drama that’s unfolding.

In stanza one, I wanted to create an exchange between fire and water. The mother, as if to calm the fire within her, lives on “a diet of floating ice.” During island formation, water yields to fire, the island birthed by fire. The tension between husband and wife occurs alongside this pairing of often-oppositional elements.

Throughout stanza two, I aimed to set down what Eliot might call “the still point” in nature, “but neither arrest nor movement.” The wind is “circling, circling back,” and the cold front is “stuck to the Great Lakes.” Even if the wind is circling, it’s doing so on a kind of axis, with no discernible forward progress. The weather’s near-inertia stands beside the father’s leave-taking, a moment suspended in time, the father and family “waiting.”In the final stanza, once the snow has fallen, the deer prints recorded, there’s the possibility for change, for the speaker to interpret this familial experience, just as the characters in Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” when washed ashore, become “interpreters.”

Are you currently reading anything you’re particularly excited about?

I’m reading Frank Bidart’s Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016. It’s thrilling to read more than five decades of his poetry in a single collection. There’s a remarkable unity to his complete work, a sense that in his lifetime he strived for a cohesive poetry while still boldly experimenting with voicing, repetition, font types, punctuation, and subject matter. It’s striking to observe how certain aspects of his work may have either subtly evolved or didn’t evolve at all, how he arrived at an aesthetic decision and sustained it, quite nearly an aesthetic conclusion.

Do you have any current writing projects you’d like to share with us?

“Christmas Break, 1997” is part of a collection of poems that I’m currently working on, a collection that’s primarily centered around family, both the one I was born into and my growing family with my wife, daughter, and son-to-be.

Thursday
Jul122018

"What Makes the Dream a Nightmare": An Interview with Martha Grover

 

Martha Grover is an author, poet, artist and writing coach living in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of One More for the People (Perfect Day Publishing) and The End of My Career (Perfect Day Publishing). The End of My Career was a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards in creative nonfiction in 2017. Her work has also appeared in The Collagist, Vol.1 Brooklyn, and The Portland Mercury, among others. She has been publishing her zine, Somnambulist, since 2003. Martha is currently at work on a book of prose poems and essays about Catastrophe, Myth, and being a sick person in the 21st century. When she is not writing, Martha is making zines, coaching her writing clients, making art, and selling Real Estate.

Her essay, "The Math Class," appeared in Issue Ninety-Five of The Collagist.

 Here, Martha Grover talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about recurring dreams, recalling high school, and creating zines. 

Please tell us about the origins of your essay “The Math Class.” What inspired you to start writing the first draft?

I had been having some version of the dream described in the essay for years and years. Several years ago, I thought I had “won” the dream, meaning I’d confronted the situation in the dream and I stopped having it. I didn’t have the nightmare for over a year and then it came back again. When I had the dream again, I started thinking: what does this dream represent? Why do I keep having it over and over?

Part of what makes the dream a nightmare is the fact that, not only am I forced to go back to high school, but I have to go back to take a math class. Math has always been a very challenging subject for me. In comparison, everything else is a breeze. I’m lucky in that getting good grades has always been incredibly easy for me, except when it came to math.

Your essay describes a recurring dream that you must have been dreaming for many years now. Have you done any journaling of your dreams prior to writing this essay? Did you rely on any such documentation when composing this piece, or did you work from memory of the dreaming? More generally, what has been the relationship between your dreams and your creative work?

I have always been interested in dreams, in what they mean, how they relate to our waking lives. Once, I was taking a prescription drug that gave me very vivid dreams and I actually made a little dream journal zine during that period and gave it to friends. But when I wrote this piece, I had been having this particular dream for so long that I didn’t have to refer to any old writing. Also, embarrassingly, I’d seen status updates referring to the dream come up in my “Facebook Memories” around the same time that I started having the dream again. So in a way, Facebook memories acted like a dream journal to jog my memory.

Another dream I often have, always involves some very particular harm or disfigurement/ dismemberment to my body. I should probably write a sister piece to “The Math Class” to explore that recurring dream. I think it’s fascinating how our brains return to the same scenario, with slightly different details, over and over. It’s like a riddle our unconscious is trying to solve.

Amid the narrative of this dream, you recall many details that evoke your experience of high school, one after the other, some in sentence fragments, like a catalog of images. Can you describe the process of selecting and arranging these particular details? Of course there must be so much more to that setting that had to be left out of this picture, so how did you choose what to include? Are all of these details somehow associated with iterations of the dream, or do they fit some other criteria or goal that you had in mind?

One of the things I had to ask myself in the course of writing this essay, is why would it be not only awful to return to high school as an adult, but why would it be awful to return to my particular high school? To answer this question I obviously focused on the more negative details of my high school years and the environment there—in rural Oregon. Of course, I have many positive memories of high school but that wasn’t the point I was trying to get across. And those positive memories are mostly surrounding having fun with my friends. When you are out of public school for a while, at least this has been my experience, you get a better perspective on the institution as a whole. You see the drudgery, the pettiness, the lack of professionalism and going back there, especially for a math class, begins to look more and more dreadful. I really wanted to convey the feeling of dread and hopelessness that came along with the dream.

What creative project(s) are you working on now?

Right now I am slowly writing my third book, which is a collection of traditional essays. I’m also simultaneously writing a fourth book of essays that are a bit more like “The Math Class” – shorter, more lyrical, more experimental. (I’m looking for an agent!)

I’m also in the beginning of turning part of my first book into a play. In 2008, I was forced to move back in with my parents. At that time, there were several other siblings living with them. Every Sunday morning my parents forced us to have a family meeting. So I took the “minutes” and posted them on my blog, and then eventually compiled them into a zine. And then those eventually got published in my first book. And now I am working with a playwright to translate “The Grover Family Meeting Minutes” into a play. It’s very exciting!

In addition to being a writer, I’m also an illustrator and fund my work through my Patreon page. This keeps me busy producing podcasts, artwork and zines. You can look me up at: patreon.com/marthagrover

What have you read recently that you want to recommend?

I really loved Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters. I’m also reading Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot and it’s breathtaking.