Wednesday
Jan152014

"The Thing Reeks of Hot Jazz": An Interview with Amber Sparks

Amber Sparks is the author of the short story collection May We Shed These Human Bodies, and co-author (with Robert Kloss and illustrator Matt Kish) of the novella The Desert Places.

Her story, "When They Shake What God Gave Them," appeared in Issue Forty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, Amber Sparks talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about myth-making, black humor, and writing dreams.

Tell us about how you began writing "When They Shake What God Gave Them."

This particular story started with a phrase I couldn’t get out of my head. I read something somewhere that mentioned jazz babies, and I had just been reading about Lizzie Borden, and for some reason, the two phrases clumped themselves together in my head and were hilarious to me – the Lizzie Borden jazz babies. I loved that phrase. (Not least because of its musical sound.) And the story just sort of took off from there. It was all about matching the language to the time period – I hope the thing reeks of hot jazz.

Reading your story the first time through, I immediately had the feeling I was reading a modern-day myth. (This phenomenon, I think, has something to do, at least partially, with the omniscience of the narrator.) What have you intentionally done to cultivate this fable-like feeling in your fiction?

I’m not sure that I cultivate it, per se, but I think it probably invades almost everything I write because that sensibility, the myth-making, is such a huge and living part of my brain. I’ve read and breathed myth and fairy tale since I was very small, so I think I just tend to look at the world through that lens.

The narrative takes a sharp turn for the dark with the clause "they start making plans to kill their parents." This line was so surprising I had to laugh out loud a little. Can you talk about how much of a role a sense of humor played in the formation of this story? (What makes us find, or supply, humor in the most morbid, morose material?)

Black humor is the only kind for me – or at least, it appears to be the only kind I can write. It’s also my favorite – sad funny is such a different kind of funny - it’s visceral, wet, soaked through and heavy. I like happy funny, too, but it tends to disappear off the page and the mind immediately after the joke. Sad funny sticks. It stays, like wet sand. I found the humor here both in the extraordinary contradictions of that time period, and also in the timeless contradictions and madness of teenage girls.

The final paragraph of the story visits the previously unexplored territory of Cat's dreaming mind. What made you decide to end this tale with a scene set in a dream?

Dreams are tricky things, and as every writer knows, they’re dangerous to write about because the writer either makes them too symbolic or too boring. But I knew I wanted to end the scene with a murder, and a lot of ambiguity, and the only way to really do that is in a dream. In real life, a murder invites immediate and black and white consequences, and I wanted to leave it open what my characters could be capable of, leave them in their own ambivalence, you know?

What writing projects are you working on now?

I finished another short story collection earlier this year, and I’m just in the finishing stages of a novel I’ve been working on for a little over a year. I’m alternately despairing and exuberant over it, depending on when you ask. Today I’m feeling hopeful. I think I’m a short story writer at heart, so I feel a little out of my element most days.

What did you read in 2013 that you want to recommend to the people?

Oh, so much good stuff. Matt Bell’s wonderful book In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, Joseph Bates’ Tomorrowland, Laura Van den Berg’s Isle of Youth, Gabriel Blackwell’s The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men, Joseph Riippi’s Because, Lindsay Hunter’s Don’t Kiss Me, Karen Green’s Bough Down, Ravi Mangla’s Understudies, Jess Walter’s We Live in Water – plus this year I (finally) read Moby-Dick and Confidence Man, and Renata Adler’s Speedboat which if anyone is living in a bubble and still hasn’t read – get to it, clearly.

Thursday
Jan092014

“An Immanent Pattern in the Emptiness”: An Interview with Michael Sheehan

Michael Sheehan teaches fiction at Stephen F. Austin State University. He is a former editor in chief of Sonora Review, and is the reviews editor for DIAGRAM. He is the author of Proposals for the Recovery of the Apparently Drowned (Colony Collapse Press).

His story, "Boléro," appeared in Issue Fifty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, Michael Sheehan talks to interviewer Thomas Calder about layering, stripping away and the intersections between language, music and math.

This is such an intricate and layered story, I’m curious about its origin. What was the initial source of inspiration?

The initial inspiration—and this story has kind of been with me for a while—was an article I read about a woman with this condition, Allison’s; at the same time I was reading my way through David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More and David Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind. So I think it was maybe a confluence of these things that contributed to the story’s genesis. I had notes on this story for a long while, though, before ever really writing it. I don’t remember what exactly was the secondary spark that allowed me to write the whole story out from those notes and first drafts—I know the initial inspiration came just before I started my MFA and the story got written after I’d left. But I’ve always been really interested in the intersection(s) between language, music, and math. I’m also really interested in consciousness, theory of mind stuff. So there was a lot coming together in the story that excited me: Allison’s consciousness and the formal challenges that presented, which also allowed me to explore and talk about math and music and creation and language. Gaddis talked about setting problems for himself as a writer, that this was how he kept interested in writing any particular project. Along with the parts of this story that were just basically fun to write about, the idea of creating a form that mapped onto her deteriorating consciousness while also embodying the idea of seeking patterns, meaning—the pieces of the narrative arranged kind of like music, kind of like numbers through which we seek a greater understanding—was a sort of problem I set myself that I really enjoyed trying to solve.

Throughout the piece Allison is dealing with numbers, patterns, music, language—all of which attempt to capture and provide some sort of meaning to what seems, by the stories end, as the meaning: our ongoing connection through our very attempts at explanation. An ongoing dialogue is created that spans countries and time periods. You manage to convey this with such beauty and elegance. What was the revision process like in creating such a narrative?

There was kind of a layering process to writing the story, as well as the stripping away process of revision. So, here, I wrote various parts of this, and then would come back through and add more. I started with Allison, and then kind of expanded more into the historical examples, like with Gödel; at one point Pascal had a section in the story (another historical genius who gave up math to seek and serve God). So, hopefully without sounding too pretentious, this story kind of developed radially out from the center (Allison), exploring her past, her painting, her family, her condition, and also exploring mathematical ideas and history, seeking resonance there, as well as exploring out into other examples of either frontotemporal dementia or creation as a response to absence, deterioration—the Paul Wittgenstein story. The revision process involved a lot over quite a long time, altering the form of the story—it once had section headings, for one thing—as well as tightening the connections between the historical examples and Allison’s character. I also stripped some sections of Allison’s life out simply to focus her character. In general, I revised in favor of the central idea of seeking through the primes, the painting, looking for connections and resonances—my own search for patterns.

There is so much I love about this story. For example, that final scene between Allison, her husband Tim and the gallery owner. It’s such a wonderfully heartbreaking moment when Allison understands Tim’s desperation to recognize her art as “less about his overwhelming acceptance and support, and more about his ability to view [Allison’s art] as something he could handle, eliminating all trace of deterioration and death.” As a writer, I’m always curious about other writer’s means of thinking through a scene such as this. If you’re willing to share, what are some of your writerly quirks and traditions when creating such prose?

I don’t know that I’ve got anything too interesting, in terms of quirks and traditions. What comes to mind—well, two things: I listen to music when I write, which for whatever reason tends to focus my thoughts (as in allows me to forget myself in my chair, ignore the lyrics, unaware of how loudly I’m typing [I type really loudly], such that my thoughts are only on the words and the images, the space between my mind and the page), and second I tend to write really quickly which allows me to kind of go to this space—I don’t know how best to describe it, but this kind of creative trance (dorky as that sounds), where you lose yourself and just don’t stop writing forward, into the scene, etc. I think this scene originally came from that, not exactly a thinking-through but almost a semi-conscious type of creating, or at least a type of writing that is not at that time self-aware. I hate to say something as hokey as the scene wrote itself, because that’s not true. But as for quirks, I’m not sure how I got myself to the place where I wrote this other than to bury my distractions in music and to let my thoughts push into the moment until it seems like the scene, the fiction, is the only thing that really exists—my own self momentarily left behind. 

What’s the latest piece of writing you are working on?

So, I’ve been working for a couple years now on a novel, which is at present pretty long (around 250,000 words) and I would like to say nearly finished. It’s centered on three interwoven narrative threads: an 80s metal singer turned recluse who is working on a magnum opus—a rock opera called The Lamentations—which is inspired by the real life tragedy of an Iraq War veteran with a traumatic childhood who serves during The Surge and comes home with PTSD, and tries to reconnect with his high school girlfriend and ultimately commits a terrible act of violence; then there is an itinerant preacher who was once addicted to metal music as much as he was drugs and alcohol, who has since found Jesus and focuses expressly on preaching against the evils of rock music and sex and drugs and so on—so he becomes set on stopping the rock opera, part of a protest movement that objects to the music itself as well as the exploitation of the soldier’s story. There’s also a literary crossover-pornstar character, a sex addict obsessed with saving her soul, a struggling writer turned librettist, a mythic guitar virtuoso, and a whole lot besides. Not unlike “Bolero,” maybe, the form of the novel is in part inspired by musical composition—it’s broken into four parts to sort of align with Wagner’s Ring cycle, and also to be kind of symphonic in terms of voice, and tempo, and so on. Also like “Bolero,” it balances (I hope) intellectual and emotional development.

As 2013 comes to an end, what were your top three favorite books of the year? What are you excited to read come 2014?

I’m terrible with this type of thing; I always have a hard time narrowing stuff down. Top three of 2013? I really loved Bennett Sims’ A Questionable Shape, Sergio de la Pava’s Personae, and The Letters of William Gaddis, which I took with me when my wife and I went to Paris and Barcelona, which seems sort of appropriate. I’ve got some things sitting on my desk that I’m hoping to get to soon, too—Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, Steven Moore’s second volume of The Novel, which I’ve only just barely started. I read some great research for the novel as well, including David Finkel’s Thank You For Your Service and Louder Than Hell (an oral history of metal music). I’ve already read a couple books coming out in 2014 (I have the good fortune of getting to review these): Ben Marcus’ Leaving the Sea and Robert Coover’s The Brunist Day of Wrath, which I read over the summer and loved.

Wednesday
Jan082014

"The Thing You Want to Be Haunted by": An Interview with Brian Evenson

Brian Evenson is the author of over a dozen books of fiction, most recently the novel Immobility (Tor, 2012) and the collection Windeye (Coffee House Press, 2012). He lives in Providence, Rhode Island with his wife Kristen Tracy and his son Max, and works at Brown University.

His short story, "Lost Dog," appeared in Issue Forty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, Brian Evenson talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about the aftermath of tragedy, readers' imaginations, and ghosts that aren't ghosts.

What sparked the idea that made you start writing "Lost Dog"?

I’d had an idea jotted down for a while, in a very basic way that led to the story:  “a ghost that isn't a ghost, only an earlier or later manifestation of one of them, a time slippage.”  But it might have sat there forever if someone hadn’t written asking me if I had a time machine story for an anthology he was working on.  I didn’t, but thought it was a good excuse to write this story up, though it became more and more clear that it wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination a time machine story.

The story opens with a man living in a kind of stasis after the death of his wife. Why focus the narrative on the aftermath of loss rather than the tragic event itself?

I’m often more interested in the moment that precedes a disaster or the ruins existing after it than on the tragic event itself.  A lot of my stories either truncate at a moment of tension, just on the verge of something huge actually happening, or start after something’s occurred, after it’s already too late.  We all go through tragedy; that’s the nature of being human.  A lot more is revealed about someone’s nature by how they get to the point of tension or collapse, how they resist it or guide it forward, and by how they pick up the pieces afterward.  And I didn’t want this to be a story about a man losing his wife, but about different kinds of loss. I like the idea of being haunted but not by the thing you want to be haunted by...

In part two, the man begins to experience what might be a haunting or a rift in time. How did you make this decision to include a supernatural element? (Did you know from the very beginning you wanted to take this story to a surreal place?)

Yes, I did.  That’s rare for me, but it was the case with this story.  The challenge of this story was to figure out how to articulate that idea in a way that worked, and with a language that didn’t either simplify or diminish the idea, and wouldn’t leave readers feeling like they deserved more explanation.  I ended up opting for a voice that corrects itself gently and folds back on itself, keeps qualifying itself.  That struck me as something that would allow for the strange tentative space of doubled time to exist.

I noticed very few limiting markers of specificity in this story (e.g., the breed of the dog, the name of the man, the appearance of the house). What made you decide to withhold such information? What effect do you think is achieved by having the readers supply such details with their own imaginations?

I think there are often good reasons for giving those details, but I also think that for certain sorts of effects they’re not really important.  I could have had it be a story about Bert Jeppson, owner of a Labradoodle, living in a craftsman house, but none of those details would have really added much to the situation, and they would have distracted a great deal, made the story something that was easier to put in a box and forget about it once you were done.  We always exercise our imaginations when reading, but some stories ask us to take more of an active role in the act of creating their worlds than other stories do.  I like to think that my stories when they give details tend to give evocative details, little things with sensory or phenomenological resonance that galvanize the reader’s imagination into creating a world around them.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I just finished a new story collection, which “Lost Dog” is part of.  It’ll come out in early 2015.  I’m trying to dive into a new novel, but still haven’t really made things click yet.  I have an idea for a Noir that I’d very much like to do, but there are only so many hours in a day.

What did you read in 2013 that you want to recommend to the people?

I loved Chris Wright’s graphic novel Black Lung, and reread and thoroughly enjoyed Chester Brown’s comic Ed the Happy Clown.  John Burnside’s The Devil’s Footprints was really great, as was Rob Walsh’s story collection Troublers.  Really loved Karen Green’s Bough Down.  Also loved Joe Ashby Porter’s Eelgrass, Iain M. Banks’ The Player of Games, and John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.  Those are the things that come immediately to mind—I’m sure I’m missing a lot of good things.

Saturday
Jan042014

"Like a Baseline in Dropped D": An Interview with Josh MacIvor-Andersen

Josh MacIvor-Andersen is an award-winning writer, teacher, and competitive tree climber. He lives in Marquette, Michigan with his family, and teaches at Northern Michigan University.

His essay, "Double Helix," appeared in Issue Forty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, Josh MacIvor-Andersen talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about how we process loss, internet research, arrivals and endings.

What sparked the idea that made you start writing "Double Helix"?

It really was a triple play of grief. My wife and I lost a baby we very much wanted to have, then my grandfather died, then a student from my small, intimate writing class took her own life. I was upstairs one night trying to grade papers in that dark wake and realized I was feeding on two different strains of background music: one worshipful and hopeful and the other accusatory and violent, surging from the screen in dropped D. That’s when the essaying took hold, or the insistence that, yes, all of these things can start to connect and be in conversation with each other—the processing of loss, the binary of faith and doubt, these two postures toward God. All of it coalesced there and I started pounding keys. Like a baseline in dropped D.

In other words, it’s not that all of these things meant anything, but that night I wanted them to mean something, or needed them to, so I essayed the connections. Or maybe the connections were there and somehow cosmically viable, but I still had to essay them into being. I don’t know. Maybe both are true. Either way, the spark was the juxtaposition of that YouTube feed: Tool clips weaving in with worship clips and my hunger for both.

This, by the way, is exactly where I start feeling excited and pedagogical and want to start riffing on the awesomeness of essays. It’s a sickness. I’ll subdue the urge.

The bookends of this essay feature two singers, Maynard Keenan and Kim Walker-Smith. It can be quite difficult to describe pieces of music in our text-based medium that can't do them justice. How do you rise to this challenge?

The verdict on whether or not I rose to the challenge is perpetually out, I’m afraid. And the idea of doing something “justice” in prose gets us into some complicated theories that I would be in fear and trembling to tackle here. 

But it helped that the attempt was based on videos as well as audio. I agree: those whose job it is to review music in fresh and meaningful ways have a hell of a challenge. I mean, how many ways can you actually describe a guitar solo, album after album after album? Crunchy? Fluid? Like seagulls? Like angry sex? I played my hand with “shotgun blast” and “screeching,” both worn enough to make a seasoned music critique wince, I’m sure, although I’m suddenly wondering why I didn’t go with “angry seagull sex,” which works particularly well for Tool.

The videos, though, allowed me to draw from two pools: the visual and auditory. I can’t tell you how many times I watched those videos trying to get the essay right. A hundred times each, easy. So I got a chance to get all meditative about how Maynard Keenan looked—“shocked by a powerful battery,” I wrote—while also trying to get at the quality of his voice which, like much of his art, is strangely beautiful and menacing at the same time. Similarly, it helped to see the crescendo-ing of the Jesus Culture folks over and over again while listening for the musical nuances of climax, which always seem to center on kick drum, crashing cymbals and a catchy refrain.

Anyway, I want to say something here like: all writing involves the same challenge of wrapping language around the ineffable. Trying to write in a fresh way about what it feels like to be in a good mood can be just as challenging as writing about the gravelly quiver in Emmy Lou Harris’s voice. I’m thinking here of Rilke’s attempt to describe the panther, its actual body, but also its imprisonment. Both aspects (the abstract and the concrete) were equally potent in the poem, and I imagine him agonizing similarly over both. In fact, they both gain potency in relationship to the other. It kind of gets us to the very heart of good writing, I guess—the way someone can move us to tears describing the surface of water we’ve seen a hundred thousand times. It’s a never-ending challenge, and one I’m not sure I rose to in this piece, but it was a sincere attempt!

Your musical framing device is made possible by watching online video clips, including what you call "a YouTube moment so intimate it feels like I should give her some privacy." How have the Internet and other recent technological advances changed the content, form, or process of your writing?

For better or worse, the web is central to my process and has been for years. I started writing longhand in a journal while I traveled, but for almost a decade I’ve primarily sat behind a Wi-Fi connected desk with access to everything all the time, which means I can chase every fleeting idea immediately to an internet end. I waste a lot of time falling down unhelpful rabbit holes. Of course I occasionally find the right one, which is super exciting because a whole vascular system of internet marginalia opens up, but I’ve increasingly felt anxious and overwhelmed by that access, and by the resulting acceleration of the writing process. It feels too frenetic. Way back in the day I would try and write entire essays using only the books on my singular bookshelf and a pacing circuit around the room. These days, it feels like I can’t even get started without exhausting an hour or two of internet curiosity, much of which leads nowhere.

I sometimes wonder, though, if internet “abundance,” as Franzen calls it, is more useful for the essayist, forever circling an idea from angle after angle, than for the fiction writer, who creates under “conditions of absorption,” according to Franzen. Yet I find that when I get deep enough into an essay, regardless of subject or how many hours I’ve spent prodding the internet for answers, I, too, need a vacuum of distraction, the discipline to simply not go chase an idea I might have read about once on, say, Slate, and instead stay in whatever that space is I’m trying to create on the page. In the end, absorption is paramount regardless of genre. At least for me.

This piece ends on a quite a meta note, saying of essays (and more, of course) that "you could tinker forever trying to get it perfect. The trick is to know when to simply set it down and let go." Tell us about what it's like to write about writing in your creative works. What are the potential risks and benefits of this decision?

I’m pretty sure a former writing professor told me to never, ever write about my own writing, unless I had a contract to write a book on craft. Somehow that mantra stuck, and generally I’ve stuck to it. I know I preach accordingly at least twice a year when one of my students tries to narrate his or her writer’s block, or otherwise go “meta” on the creative process (“I stare at the blinking cursor and blank page…”) or, god forbid, anthropomorphize a journal or diary.

But as I tried to feel out the ending for this piece, which is about a specific season of grief but also a lifelong wrestling with faith and doubt, I realized that the conversation I had with my student that one day was somehow significant. It was one of those light bulbs. A quickening. The conversation happened a few months before she took her life, and it was difficult to get myself emotionally back into that space but, when I did (having turned off my internet browser), I realized that most of the dialogue was about knowing when to put a piece of writing to rest, which instantly triggered the connection with my waning faith, the baby my wife and I lost, the ways in which we white knuckle so much in life that turns to sand between our fingers. I guess I broke my own rule, but it felt right when it hit the page. It seemed to speak to the handful of threads I had tried to weave and provide the right knot at the end.

It’s tough business, these endings. That final punctuation. In my less than contemplative moments I lean toward exclamation points. I’m trying to learn the simple period. Or even better, the ellipsis… 

But to answer your question, finally, I stick with my professor’s advice: avoid going meta on yourself at your writing desk unless Harper Collins has asked for a personal memoir on craft.

What writing projects are you working on now?

Mainly, I’m tethered to a manuscript that has been through so many permutations I want to stab it in the eye. I’ve recently admitted, reluctantly, that it is a spiritual memoir, a story of multiple conversions, but it took a while to land there and I’m not sure it’s ultimately the right form. It could just as easily be (and until recently was) a memoir centered on my years as a professional and competitive tree climber, forever hungry for transcendence: chemical, spiritual, relational, etc.

These things all overlap, of course. And that’s the crux: finding the deepest or most important undercurrent and organizing accordingly.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to arrive, to return, the dynamics of landing or docking or coming to rest. Specifically as they apply to the giant ore ships that float quietly into Upper Harbor here on Lake Superior, having traveled across what can be a very scary body of water. Some, of course, never make it, which leads to a different kind of arrival. I have a feeling I might try and get on one of those ships in order to feel all those thousands of buoyant tons leaning in against the docks. See what starts to connect. I’m still not sure if it might be a book or a long essay, but I like the idea of exhausting the idea creatively.

In the meantime, I plug away on smaller projects (a hybrid fiction/cnf piece about a dream in which I am a heretical youth group leader named Dirk) and blog posts for a great journal called Ruminate.

What did you read in 2013 that you want to recommend to the people?

I enjoyed Tracy Kidder’s recent book on nonfiction craft, “Good Prose,” in which he has a conversation on the page with his long-time editor and friend, Richard Todd. I guess it’s geeky and nostalgic, but ever since I read Steinbeck’s “Journal of a Novel,” I’ve loved the idea of a literary relationship that arcs through one’s creative life. A person who pushes on you both professionally and personally to get the job done, and get it done right.

I’m late to the game on this, but Ann Carson’s “Autobiography of Red” kind of messed me up in a good way. I was going to teach it without having read it for an entry-level mythology class that was cancelled last-minute, so I kept the book in my pocket for a month or two, and it started to feel as if it were something close to scripture, as if I were carrying around one of those old Gideon pocket bibles.

This, too, isn’t new news, but John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Pulphead” is one of the more important releases in creative nonfiction I’ve recently read, and I’ll plug Louise Erdrich’s “Round House” here, too, which was both accessible for students of an entry-level English class but also challenging and ultimately timely, as some of the very issues of jurisdiction and justice at the center of the novel were tackled earlier this year by lawmakers who ended up tweaking the Violence Against Women Act.

I’m currently reading Rachel Kushner’s “The Flamethrowers,” and next on the shelf are Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild,” Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “Once Upon a River,” and Junot Diaz’s “Drown.”

Anyway, cheers, Collagist crew. It’s an honor to be included in the journal, and equally great to be asked for my thoughts. Here’s to 2014!

Sunday
Dec222013

An Interview-in-Excerpts with Elizabeth Gentry

Elizabeth Gentry received the 2012 Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer’s Residency Prize for Housebound. Originally from Asheville, North Carolina, she lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she works as Writing Specialist for the University of Tennessee College of Law and teaches for the University English Department. She received a MFA in fiction writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

An excerpt from her novel, Housebound, appeared in Issue Fifty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, she answers questions "in the form of excerpts"--with further excerpts from Housebound Enjoy!

What is writing like?

Lately they all came up from reading as if at the end of a morphine drip, incapable of making the transition into the concrete reality of their surroundings, anxious to plunge back down again.

What isn’t writing like?

“When the stairs are up, and you want to be somewhere else, you not only can’t get there, you can’t stop thinking about the place where you want to be—the kitchen or your father’s workshop or the woods. The places don’t have to be important for it to become impossible to settle back into the bedroom, even for pleasant activities. You’re upstairs breathing fresh air from the open windows, but you might as well be buried.”

When you do it, why?

For they had all begun a struggle over what to say and what not to say, when to say it and in what way and to whom. Maggie knew they would do so badly and in spite of themselves, hoping others would listen past the details for the origin of stories, occurring once and repeatedly across the limitless span of time.

When you don’t, why?

Novels in particular, with all of their morbid focus on what happens at the end, had caused her to depend on the ending of her own story to clarify the argument of all the preceding chapters—that love was possible, that healing and renewal reclaimed lives, or that everything was in an inevitable state of degeneration and unraveling—as if from her deathbed she could look back and decide then and only then what to believe about her own life, evaluating the recurring images and central themes for the appropriate messages, telling her what to believe just at the time that it no longer mattered.

Monday
Dec162013

An Interview-in-Excerpts with Yuriy Tarnawsky

Yuriy Tarnawsky has authored more than two dozen books of poetry, fiction, drama, essays, and translations, including the books of fiction Meningitis, Three Blondes and Death, Like Blood in Water (all FC2), Short Tails (JEF Books), and most recently The Placebo Effect Trilogy (JEF Books, 2013), consisting of Like Blood in Water (revised edition), The Future of Giraffes, and View of Delft. His other most recent book is a collection of Heuristic poems Modus Tollens: IPDs (improvised poetic devices; Jaded Ibis Press. 2013). He was born in Ukraine but raised and educated in the West. An engineer and linguist by training, he has worked as a computer scientist at IBM Corporation and professor of Ukrainian literature and culture at Columbia University. He writes in Ukrainian and English and resides in the New York City area. “The Quarry” is one of five mininovels from The Future of Giraffes.

Excerpts from his novel, "The Future of Giraffes," appear in Issue Fifty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, he answers questions "in the form of excerpts"--with further excerpts from The Future of Giraffes Enjoy!

What is writing like?

Like hitting a tin sheet with a hammer and then taking these flat forms and turning them into round ones, joining them together….  I’d do it all day long, sitting on my stool and hammering away, and cutting and bending, with no one bothering me.

What isn’t writing like?

Like a silly child’s game. Like a giant malignant tumor under the skin. Like a fierce black bird.  Like a black cat.  Like a thin red snake.  Like nothing.

When you do it, why?

Because it makes a wonderful sound.  Because I don’t want to fall into the sky and disappear in it. Because it’s lonely up there.  

When you don’t, why?

Because I’m afraid to disappear in it like Jonas inside the whale. Because it’s pitch-black in there.   Because no matter how hard I scream it would never be loud enough.

Thursday
Dec122013

An Interview-in-Excerpts with Morris Collins

Morris Collins's first novel Horse Latitudes is out this August. Other fiction and poetry has recently appeared in, or is forthcoming from Pleiades, Gulf Coast, The Chattahoochee Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Nimrod among others. He received his MFA in fiction from Penn State in 2008 and he lives and teaches in Boston.

An excerpt from his novel, Horse Latitudes, appeared in Issue Forty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, he answers questions "in the form of excerpts"--with further excerpts from Horse Latitudes Enjoy!

What is writing like?

[I try to get in over my head…]

On his stunned walk back into town, he had seen a lake pooling out on the plateau behind the shanties. Under the slivered moonlight it hung flat and motionless and Ethan thought about what he would have to do in the coming days. Once when he went snorkeling off the north coast of Honduras he had watched pearl divers in boats out beyond the reef line grab weights and jump overboard. It was like that. Getting down there would be easy. You let yourself sink. Anyone could do it. But getting back without consequences, where the stakes raised with every moment, would be difficult.

[and stay determined…]

She set out for one of the many raft launches. The sun had fallen and the lights appeared on the far shore, blinking between the trees like the moving lanterns of phantom guides. In the stories she had been told as a child, to follow the lights through the jungles was to follow the Duende—the spirit that lured children into the forest. But she was not her little sister, she was not afraid of spirits and did not believe in stories, and she knew as she watched the lights flashing out of the crooked coves of shadowed trees that she was drawn to them, that she would cross the river and move toward the lights the way the fishermen on her island followed stars, or the way the fish themselves rose toward the lure of the reed lanterns rocking below waiting spears. So be it.

What isn’t writing like?

Ethan stood and watched Doyle dance and felt the sudden freedom one feels when a menacing dream turns to nightmare. At least now he knew what he was dealing with, and whatever it was, it was another world altogether, a new wrinkle forever removed from any choice made in any morning at any table in New York. The whole thing reeked of ruin, and Ethan felt the urge to reach for a camera that was not there. He raised his hand to Doyle but Doyle did not see him. Doyle had made his way to the stage, where he frolicked with the club dancers, the women paid to stay and dance as long as there were customers. He moved between them, he bumped and bounced, he laughed over the hundred decibels of reggaeton—he produced, in the blackened half-second between strobes, a dead chicken.

When you do it, why?

[Usually,]

He had woken alone in a stranger’s bed wearing only his argyle socks.  Fine, that was the state of things, the way the evening played out, but it was a hard state to ignore.

[But also,]

Ethan kept the picture. He didn’t take many and he kept even fewer. In it, she’s turning her head to the side to look not at him but at the sea, at the boats there, the darkening waves. She’s saying something, though—her mouth is open and her lips drawn up in an expression of wonder. The day’s last light tangles in her black hair. Condensation glints on the outside of her piña colada, but if you wanted you could say the blush in her skin is just sunlight, the glow in her eyes some kind of pleasure. Sometimes, when he looks at the picture, he knows it for what it is: a vanishing life tricked into permanence, the last perfect moment before the falling dark. Other times it’s simply evidence and he tries to see her as she saw herself—diminished somehow. But for him it’s just the opposite. If he could, he’d reduce the whole of their lives together to these photographs, moments outside of memory, stills that if you tried, could mean anything.

When you don’t, why?

At some point, to some degree, everyone abandoned their charmed life and lived as best they could in the world. What did it matter? There was purity in light but not in illumination. The light touched the world and the world appeared sullied. Get over it.  We mold our own scars, we make our own mercy.

[And, also, unfortunately, sometimes:]

The margarita came and it was terrible.

Sunday
Feb032013

"To Talk, Even If No One Talked Back": An Interview with Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes

Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes's work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Coffin Factory, NANO Fiction, Pank, The Yoke, SpringGun, Echo Ink Review, Mary, Ghost Ocean, and elsewhere. She is an MFA candidate and graduate teacher at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Her essay, "Important terms for walking on water," appeared in Issue of The Collagist.

Here, Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes talks to interviewer William Hoffacker about making lists, the grieving process, and creating our own hauntings.

How did you begin to write this essay? What inspired you to construct it in the form of titled paragraphs and lists over a more narrative format?

I think that loss wrecks narrative. It’s not just a plot twist, the entire idea that our lives follow a comprehensible narrative is shown to be false. So writing a narrative about grief seemed very false. But I am a list maker, mostly of what needs to be done. I wanted to explore that—how narrative is replaced by lists, by strings of moments and the need to remember them, how memory, which is nonlinear, but creates its own time, replaces narrative.

This piece comprises a series of concise sections, some no more than a few sentences long (e.g., "What I will not write about" and "What I keep writing about"). Did it require a lot of editing or restraint to keep them so brief, or were they this concise from the outset?

I knew that I wanted some sections to be shorter than others to create a varied rhythm and to allow pause into the piece. But the sections that ended up being shorter happened that way organically because they were the most difficult to write. That is another thing I’m interested in: what are the limits, when writing about something so personal? Where do I stop? I’ve sectioned some parts off—moments I won’t write about. I am both glad I’ve done that and I wonder why. It’s as if some moments are sacred, but that seems to go against why I write about any of it. Because I do believe the process itself is sacred. It’s a form of prayer, the only kind I do.

In the section "What I keep writing about," you include "A desire to be haunted." Do you see this desire appearing in other works of your own writing? (Does it drive your writing to some extent?)

Yes. The novel I’m finishing now is largely driven by haunting, in fact, all of the fiction I’m writing now is. I think writing is a form of haunting, because it brings our ghosts out and makes them slightly more tangible. So my desire has become real in a sense. I’m haunted by my desire, and I create my own haunts.

What advice can you offer to anyone struggling to write about a lost loved one?

Strangely, this work was not a struggle. Much of my writing is—I have to force myself to do it and it’s painful. But with this essay and others that I’ve written about my brother, it absolutely had to happen, I think so everything else could. It was the grieving process for me. But I think it was also about opening a conversation, to not letting everything be closed, to talk, even if no one talked back.

What writing projects are you currently working on?

I’m finishing my novel, Las Moscas, which is about four young people in post-Franco Spain who leave home on a whim and get dragged bit by bit to the edges of existence. I’m also working on what I hope will be a novel that is set in a religious enclave in Depression Era Northern Wisconsin, as well as several essays.

What have you read recently that you want to tell people about?

I recently finished Arcadia by Lauren Groff. A friend pointed me to The Log of the SS Mrs. Unguentine by Stanley Crawford, which is amazing. The Beginners, by Rebecca Wolff, Man’s Companions, by Joanna Ruocco. Not recently, but I think of it constantly, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Kristin Prevallet’s I, Afterlife. I’ve also been reading older works looking for narrative structures—Zola especially. I just finished The Most Human Human by Brian Christian and The Worst Hard Time by Tim Egan. I like to read a lot of varied material and then I feel I’m able to write varied material. During the semester break, I read some popular novels. I think that’s important too. But my list of what I want to read is much, much longer.

Wednesday
May232012

"Choose Your Swords Carefully": An Interview with Karrie Waarala

Karrie Waarala holds an MFA from the Stonecoast Program at University of Southern Maine. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Iron Horse Literary Review, PANK, Arsenic Lobster, Radius, and The Orange Room Review. Karrie recently debuted her one-woman show, LONG GONE: A Poetry Sideshow, which is based on her poems about the circus, to critical acclaim. She really wishes she could tame tigers and swallow swords.

Her poem, "The Sword Swallower's Mother Speaks," appeared in Issue Thirty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer, Melissa Goodrich, about defeaning silence, sharp things, and her "one-woman" poetry show.

Does a poem like “The Sword Swallower’s Mother Speaks” start in research, in speculation or spectacle, is there any way to write about side-show freaks without spectating? 

The majority of my circus poems begin in speculation, and this one was no exception—though in this case, it was the speculation of Patricia Smith, who was my MFA mentor at the time. I was just beginning my foray into these sideshow persona poems, and she wondered aloud what this sword swallower must have been like as a child. As soon as she put forth the question, I knew his mother needed to be the one to answer, rather than the swallower himself. Generally speaking, after the initial “what if...” or “I wonder...” comes the research, though; I read everything on the subject I can get my hands on, and have been fortunate to have the opportunity to interview a number of wonderful people in the world of circus, including the lead clown on Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, and the owner of Kelly Miller, which is a fantastic one-ring circus.

As for the question of spectacle and spectator, that is something I both explore and wrestle with in these poems. I know that I’m as much a spectator as any reader, since I don’t have first-hand circus experience. While I write these characters from a place of respect, I constantly worry about appropriating stories and lives that are not mine, and always hope I am doing them justice. I’ve chosen my two main characters for their archetypal resonance, but I also think it’s no accident that they are a “working act” and a “made freak,” since there is an inherent hesitance to be a spectator of “born freaks,” the human oddities that were once so prevalent in sideshows.

Fault and trust are introduced early in the poem, and there are these beautiful repeating images of silence/voicelessness—the son “with butter knife pressed/against his small voice,” “smolder of his father” buried behind the newspaper, not speaking, “My throat never let loose the words/that would teach him how to choke.”  How much does silence operate for you as a poet, in the creation and performance of your poetry?  Is silence loud?

I think silence can be deafening, which is one of the reasons people tend to fear it, especially performers. But silence is so underutilized, even though it’s exhausting as an audience member to be under a constant barrage of sound. So many people get behind a mic and are afraid to give an audience enough space between the words to get their fingers in there and pry them apart for meaning. The silent spaces are essential in the performance of my poetry, and I’m constantly working to get more comfortable with them myself.

That image you end on—of a house with no sharp things—is haunting, like institutions where anything that may be used as a weapon has been removed.  There’s displacement, false safety, sterilization—do you feel this every-sharp-thing-gone turn parallels the sword swallower turning from one kind of life to another, is there a relationship between sword swallowing and word swallowing, are both he and his mother performers?

If this character inherited his knack for swallowing (s)words and his performer’s sensibilities from his mother, the thing that sets him apart from her is the need for an appreciative audience. She is someone for whom life in the wings has been enough in a way it could never be for him. To me that final image is a starker shift in reality for the mother than for the sword swallower himself. For him it’s an escape, and an inevitable one, to finally be able to break away from the silent and stifling life of his youth and embrace all that sharp for which he was born. But for her, it’s so many losses rolled into one: in letting go of this son for whom she feels so responsible, she is losing the one family member who, despite his trying flaws and obsessions, has been the sole glint and shine in her life—and her buffer against all of the sometimes brutal masculinity roiling around in that house.

The relationship between swords and words weaves itself throughout a number of the other poems in the collection as well. The first poem I wrote from his point of view, “From the Sword Swallower’s Notebook,” begins with the line “Choose your swords carefully.” I’ve been attempting to live up to his advice ever since.

Tell us about LONG GONE: A Poetry Sideshow—what was it like adapting your poems for the stage, how different did they become, and what was opening night like?

There are many of the sideshow poems that aren’t in the show, as LONG GONE tells the story of my other main character, the tattooed lady (though my sword swallower does make a guest appearance). However, the poems that made it into the show actually remained almost entirely unchanged from their page counterparts, except for a couple that I braided together to become duets between Tess and important figures in her life. (“One-woman show” is a bit of a misnomer: while I’m the sole live performer, playing Tess, there are a handful of prerecorded segments of other people performing poems told from the point of view of other characters in her life.) The majority of the work that went into adapting the poems for the stage was not tinkering with the poems themselves, but rather building all of the connective structure between them in order to provide a clear narrative arc, writing monologues and creating the audiovisual component of the show. A significant piece of that structure turned out to be building a context for the audience to understand and appreciate some of the rich sideshow language that I have fallen in love with and that informs much of this work. What started as a fun experiment in breaking down the fourth wall to accomplish this—Tess delivers a series of lessons in “carny speak” to the audience—ended up evolving into a narrative framework for the entire show.

Opening night was the most dry-mouthed, terrifying 75 minutes of my life. I honestly thought I was crashing and burning the entire time and was shocked at the standing ovation I received. Thank goodness that halfway through the second night’s performance a little voice in the back of my head whispered, “Hey, Waarala, in case you haven’t noticed, you’re starting to have fun,” or else that premiere weekend would have been the show’s closing, too. Instead I’m starting to take it on the road this year, beginning with the Renegade Theatre Festival in Lansing, MI this August.

What have you been reading that’s excellent?

As it’s been the end of a semester, the majority of my reading lately has been student portfolios. I have been reading quite a bit of persona work, though, as I’ve been preparing to teach an online workshop on persona for The Rooster Moans Poetry Cooperative. Coming back to Anne Sexton’s Transformations is always a welcome experience, and there’s some delightful work in the new collection A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry. I’ve also been enjoying The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall, a novel about a Coney Island tattoo artist. The book gets so much right about the powerful undercurrents of transformative story and intimacy found in tattooing as an art form.

Will your love-of-circus still spill over into new work, or have you a new project?

Now that I’ve completed my full-length manuscript of circus poems and am looking for a home for it, I’ve been turning my attention elsewhere. There are so many other things to write about, and I don’t want to be seen as a one-note writer—but also my circus characters deserve a rest after three years of work on Pierce & Brand’s World of Dangerous Wonders. Lately I’ve found myself writing a number of instructional poems—or more accurately, poems that seem to be masquerading as instructional—so I do appear to have stumbled into a new project, but I think this will be on a smaller scale, perhaps a chapbook. However, my love of circus spills over into just about every aspect of my life, so I won’t be surprised if it sneaks back into my work at some point. I can’t seem to stay away from the sawdust and spangles for very long.

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