Wednesday
Jan292014

An Interview-in-Excerpts with Tom Williams

Photo Credit: Tim HolbrookTom Williams's novel Don't Start Me Talkin' will be published by Curbside Splendor in February, 2014. Williams is also the author of the novella The Mimic's Own Voice, and a contributor to the forthcoming anthology Four Fathers (Cobalt). He chairs the English department at Morehead State University.

An excerpt from his novel, "Don't Start Me Talkin'," appears in Issue Fifty-Four of The Collagist.

Here, he answers questions "in the form of excerpts"--with further excerpts from Don't Start Me Talkin' Enjoy!

What is writing like?

Every night we play I hear it occasionally, that rough and raw and real sound I heard for the first time in my bedroom. Usually in a few notes or, at best, a song or two. Tonight, though, that’s all I hear. Every harp player I stole from is in my ears. Big Walter Horton’s mellow phrasing, Junior Wells’s showmanship, James Cotton’s rhythm, a whole lot of Little Walter’s bends and Sonny Boy’s trills and draws. Plus there’s my own sound, my own blues blowing for all to hear. It’s a different kind of blues, I have to say. It’s coming from all those lonely nights in Troy, later in East Lansing, when I listened at night to black men from another generation—another world, it seemed—and played along, yearning to connect but never dreaming I’d actually get a chance to play next to one. I only hoped I could take a harp and make it talk to me in a voice I understood.”

What isn’t writing like?

“Relief and sadness alternate through me like waves”

When you do it, why?

“I wanted to learn how to kick up such a racket myself”

When you don’t, why?

“[B]eer seems a more tolerable alternative.”

Monday
Jan272014

"Not Everything Needs a Name”: An Interview with Matthew Vollmer

Matthew Vollmer is the author of two story collections—Future Missionaries of America and the forthcoming Gateway to Paradise—as well as a collection of essays—Inscriptions For Headstones. He is co-editor of Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts and is an editor for the University of Michigan Press' 21st Century Prose series. He directs the undergraduate creative writing program at Virginia Tech.

His story, "Gateway to Paradise," appeared in Issue Fifty-Three of The Collagist.

Here, Matthew Vollmer talks to interviewer Thomas Calder about quick-wit, Gatlinburg, and writing when you feel like writing. 

Can you talk about the origin of your story “Gateway to Paradise”? Did it begin with the idea of a robbery gone wrong? Or perhaps the Riley character? How did it come about?

I honestly can’t remember exactly where or when this story first began to unfold. In fact, I just tried to track down the original version of the story and it had the same first line. First page or so remained the same. I remember thinking that I wanted to try to write a crime story because I’d never written a crime story. I remember thinking that I wanted the characters to be young, that I wanted them to be from the town where I grew up. I thought a robbery gone wrong would be fun to write about, in the classical sense of having something substantial at stake. I remember thinking that Riley would work at McDonald’s because I worked at a McDonald’s. I remember wanting to base Jaybird partly off a friend of mine who isn’t a criminal and doesn’t possess the same kind of charisma but who knows how to do all the stuff that Jaybird does. I remember wanting to write from the perspective of a girl who wants to escape but who slowly gains a power and confidence of her own.

Humor is present throughout the piece, but it provides more than mere laughs. It adds to the character’s overall complexity—especially Riley. The descriptions of the people and locations in Gatlinburg—while funny—also lend to the piece’s sense of despair. How important is it to you to have that sort of blend in your writing?

Despair and humor seem closely related to me. There’s a fine line. My wife could tell you that, because she lives with me and can’t get a straight answer from me half the time, like she’ll ask me a question that needs a real answer and I’ll give her a fake one because I think I’m funny but instead of laughing she becomes greatly aggrieved. (Okay, maybe not “greatly.” Just “aggrieved.”) Furthermore, I think lots of things are funny, especially in my hometown, and especially in Gatlinburg, a place I visited a number of times when I was a kid. And maybe that’s why I’ve spent a good portion of my life making fun of others and myself. The people I knew growing up—the guys at the True Value, the old men in the barber shop, the women who worked at my dad’s dental office, the tellers at the bank—seemed to communicate solely by giving each other a hard time. They were all so quick-witted and funny. As a kid I thought, I’ll never be that quick or smart or funny. And I’m still not sure I am or ever will be. At any rate, I do like to use humor in fiction (or nonfiction) as a mechanism for generating linguistic energy—I think I’d classify it as a defamiliarization technique. Sometimes, simply describing something is funny because the thing being described is totally absurd. I feel like I could create an hour-long comedy special simply by putting into words the sights, sounds, and people that flow through Gatlinburg.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee. For those who haven’t experienced it, your story does a nice job of capturing the town. It’s a bizarre place. A sort of permanent carny town, surrounded by the beautiful Smoky Mountains. As with your humor, Gatlinburg itself also seems to be functioning as more than a mere backdrop. Did you know right away this was where the characters would end up, or did Gatlinburg emerge in later versions of the story?

In an earlier version, I imagined and actually wrote a scene where Riley and Jaybird purchased a bunch of camping/backpacking equipment and headed for the Appalachian Trail. Just get lost for a while. Then I got bored with that and came up with the idea of Jaybird’s truck breaking down and the two going their separate ways for a while. Also, my wife and I took our son to Gatlinburg a couple summers ago, where we visited the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Aquarium and took him to the Mysterious Mansion, which was so scary we had to ask the hooded monster who was pretending to torment us to show us the way out. At one point during our journeys up and down the main drag, we saw this family and the mother had a t-shirt that said “Property of Jesus,” and the dad had a t-shirt that said, “World’s Greatest Dad.” They were quite a pair. My wife said I should write a story about them. So I put them in the story.

At one point in your story, Jaybird tells Riley: “Not everything needs a name.” Names and how we identify/present ourselves are present throughout the story. Is this something you went in wanting to explore, or an aspect of the story that grew out of revision?  

Jaybird’s a mystic—at least in his own mind. I think, in general, he attempts to resist the confines of the literal. He seeks transcendence and transformation. A name defines and therefore encloses. A name serves to separate. If you asked him, he might say that from a Taoist’s point of view, the world was once whole. Then names came along, and things got separated. Anyway, when Jaybird utters that line in particular—that “not everything needs a name”—he’s expressing his resistance to names, but also his resistance to his own culpability. He doesn’t want to take responsibility for what he’s done, in part because he’s vengeful, and therefore has a screwed up idea of justice.

As for how “naming” works in the rest of the story, you’re right—I’m obsessed with names. At one point, I wanted to refer only to the mom as “Property of Jesus” and the dad as “World’s Greatest Dad.” And for many drafts that’s how it worked. I just thought it would be funny. But then it seemed too repetitive. Like I was telling the same joke over and over. The naming obsession, though, that’s totally related to Gatlinburg itself. Like many American vacation spots, there’s a glut of T-shirt emporiums. Why is this? Maybe because Americans want their identities to be clearly defined, want to be known, want to be recognized by what they endorse and support. In some ways, it’s an act of aggression. This is who I am. (And, as the T-shirt of one of the characters in the story says, “Deal with it.”) I love all this and at the same time it frightens and fascinates me.

This notion of wanting to be recognized by what one endorses and supports seems crucial to the scene in the story where Riley leaves her bag with the mother. Riley’s understanding of the woman—based entirely on how the woman presents herself—leaves Riley (and the reader) expecting the woman to go through her bag and discover the gun and money. Yet this doesn’t happen.  This seems a crucial moment in the story. Would you mind talking more about this? 

In an earlier version of the story, Riley returns to the room to find the mother in tears. There's a sort of melodramatic conversation about how the mother assumes Riley to be a criminal, and a revelation that the woman's family isn't in any position to help her, that in fact they're completely broke and running on fumes of credit cards. Riley ends up excusing herself to use the rest room, then leaves the money behind for the family. I wasn't satisfied with that version, partly because it seemed too convenient that Riley would find a way to dump the money and partly because it suggested a sort of false absolution. (Not to mention that finding a giant stack of money in one's motel bathroom might raise more problems than it solves.) I prefer the final version, where Riley transfers the burden to Jaybird; I see it as empowering for her. No longer is she at his mercy of his whims, and as a final act, it represents (I guess) a sort of liberation.

As a faculty member and director of the undergraduate creative writing program at Virginia Tech, how do balance your writing schedule with your teaching schedule?

I used to think that I needed to write every day. And I used to write (almost) every day. But now, more than ever, I write when I feel like it. And that feels okay, too. Some days, I write a lot. Some days, I don’t write anything. And my schedule is so screwy—I’ve got meetings out the wazoo—so I never really know when my writing time is going to happen. I write when it’s time to write. I write when I feel compelled to write. When it’s fun. And that might be in my office at Tech. It might be in a committee meeting. It might be while I’m walking the dog or cycling or hiking (I’ll stop to take a note, and, yes, I consider note-taking to count as “writing”).

What is the latest project you are working on?

I never have just one project. I work on things sporadically and piecemeal until they start to form themselves into something with real momentum. “Gateway” was years in the making, but only because I’d get interested in it, then get bored or frustrated and take a break. I think that’s important—to let the work breathe. Also, I have a short attention span, and flit around from one thing to the next, so I like to have and basically need at this point a ton of different things to work on; it’s sort of like building a monstrous house with a ton of rooms, and working each room one at a time.

As for what I’m working on specifically, I just finished editing a multi-authored book (with over sixty different contributors) called The Book of Uncommon Prayer. I’m looking forward to working with Karen Braziller at Persea on edits to my next collection of stories. And I’m also working on essays. I’ve been writing a lot lately about growing up in the mountains of North Carolina in a Seventh-day Adventist family. I grew up in a religion that I ended up leaving behind—except that I didn’t really. You grow up steeped in ways of thinking and even after you reprogram yourself the ghost thoughts still hijack your brain.

Are there any works of fiction you are excited to read in 2014?  

I’m excited about Leslie Jamison’s Empathy Exams, which is not fiction but totally worth mentioning and endorsing here. I want to dive into Karl Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book Two before Book Three comes out in May. I recently received a galley of Catherine Lacey’s Nobody Is Ever Missing, and I know that’s gonna rock. And Mary Miller’s The Last Days of California just arrived in the mail. Which reminds me. I also need to order Ben Marcus’ Leaving the Sea. Excited to read that, too.

Saturday
Jan252014

"Risk Another Deafening Day to Whisper": An Interview with CJ Evans

CJ Evans is the author of A Penance (New Issues Press, 2012) and a chapbook, The Category of Outcast, selected by Terrance Hayes for the Poetry Society of America's New American Poets series. He is the recipient of the 2013 Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship, and his work has appeared in journals such as Boston Review, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, Indiana Review, and Massachusetts Review. He's the editor of Two Lines Press and a contributing editor for Tin House.

His poems, "The Wing's Lesson," "Inquiry into Owls," and "Inquiry into Beckoning," appear in Issue Fifty of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about lofty words, questions (or lack thereof), and looking at a windmill.

Could you tell us about your process of writing “The Wing’s Lesson”?

The germ of “The Wing’s Lesson” was A. R. Ammons’s poem “The City Limits”. And—this happens sometimes after reading a poem—trying to get away with using a lofty word he used, “radiance,” in a poem of my own. I put radiance on a page and wrote around it for a few months. Ultimately, though, when Ammons says, “when you consider / that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen, / each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then / the heart moves roomier,” he’s getting a feeling from light that’s foreign to me. I mostly see light as screens at night, the ungodly bright bus interior, nonstop cable news.

To me, transcendence (that radiance) is a low-light affair—on a porch, under a dim incandescent bulb. It’s generally a pretty ‘simple’ poem, but I was trying to get to a breathlessness then ease it with that “millions and millions” at the end. An escape (transcendence?) into something wilder, but less quick.

Your two inquiry poems were interesting to me, because I expected some sort of question in the text, or a hint of a question, but there were no questions! Is it ironic to be asking questions about the lack of questions in two poems about inquiries? Could you talk about inquiries and how you see the question functioning and not functioning in your poems?

The Inquiry poems are part of a series I began writing when my wife and I got married. In them, I was thinking more of scientific inquiry—the positing of a theory then attempting to find a proof. To be a good scientist you have to be able to absolutely commit to your theory, but when it’s proven wrong to your satisfaction, abandon it without a second thought. That seems a lot like marriage to me. Because I’m not sure “because of all of life is only once, but it glows” is really an answer to anything, but it’s certainly a theory of why my wife ignoring me while combing her hair could be so beckoning. Is that an adequate answer to a question about questions without questions?

In “The Wing’s Lesson,” you write, “Pull up your coverlet to conceal / the invading volume of the modern.” Indeed, in your other poems, you focus on the images that reside in and around nature: “the dead fish,” “the arctic night / or the mimic octopus.” Could you talk about how you see these images working in your poetry? Are you often working to reject “the invading volume of the modern?”

I don’t fetishize being a luddite, but I do try to be wary of anything too easy. I really like that my Iphone has all my music and maps on it, I know about the mimic octopus from youtube, I enjoy twitter and facebook and all that shit, but I don’t think anybody on their deathbed is going to wish they spent more time playing Candy Crush. (Oh shit, I hope not—could… could I be wrong?) I get annoyed, sometimes, about the value these things are given in our culture. I think we should let ourselves be better than US Weekly thinks we are. Again, I think all of that stuff has its place and time, but I’d just rather go see a windmill.

What’s on your 2014 reading list?

I’m moving to France in a couple of months on the Amy Lowell Scholarship, so my plan for 2014 is to mostly read contemporary French poets, but I’m packing Beast by Frances Justine Post in my carry-on. Bianca Stone’s Someone Else’s Wedding Vows is one I’m looking forward to. Lately I’ve also been revisiting Lorine Neidecker and early Susan Howe. William Gass’s On Being Blue. Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. I would love for someone to buy me the full run of Cahiers from Sylph editions. There are so many great chapbook presses, and I’ll stock up at AWP: Poor Claudia, New Michigan, UDP, Greying Ghost, Horse Less Press, Dancing Girl, Little Red Leaves, etc.

What else have you been writing recently?

Just poems. I was working on the Inquiry series, but I think that finished itself, so just poems right now for my second book.

Wednesday
Jan222014

"Enough Time to Love and Be Loved": An Interview with Marci Rae Johnson

Marci Rae Johnson teaches English at Valparaiso University. She is also the Poetry Editor for WordFarm press and The Cresset. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in Redivider, The Valparaiso Poetry Review, The Louisville Review, Rock & Sling, The Other Journal, Relief, The Christian Century, and 32 Poems, among others. Her first collection of poetry won the Powder Horn Prize and was published by Sage Hill Press this year.

Her poem, "Mr. Rogers Is Flipping You Off," appeared in Issue Fifty-Three of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interview Elizabeth Deanna Morris about fathers, substitutions, and when the poem knows itself better than the writer.

The title of “Mr. Rogers is Flipping You Off” is from a Cracked.com article about unusual photographs of famous people. What about this one in particular inspired you to write this poem?

I grew up in that ancient time period when there wasn’t 24 hour television programming for kids, and Mr. Rogers was one of the few programs I watched regularly. I think for many of my generation, Mr. Rogers functioned as something of a substitute father, especially since so many fathers in the 70s were the only income earners in the family, and thus spent a lot of time at work. The way he uses his middle fingers also suggests, I think, a more innocent time. (Or perhaps more a desire to return to a seemingly more innocent time.) As soon as I saw this photo, I remembered my own father using his middle finger to point, with no awareness of what that gesture meant.

I think the father is an interesting character in this poem, because he arrives as a parallel to Mr. Rogers (both of them use “the middle finger / of his right hand without irony”). Yet, his relationship to the speaker is one of moral education, but a morality that is beyond the speaker’s understanding, to “not comet adultery.” Mr. Rogers, on the other hand, is playing with the speaker. Could you talk about relationship between these two characters and the speaker?

I think we often tend to look at our parents, and especially our fathers as godlike figures (whether you attend church and are familiar with the father language for God or not). And any time there’s an association with God, moral education, and moral judgment as well, comes into play. Mr. Rogers, however, represents the role I think children would rather have their fathers play: that of playmate. The person who not only sets up the train set, but plays trains with them. (He does of course, teach lessons as well, but I remember him first and foremost as playmate.) As a parent now myself, I think it’s hard to find that balance between being the authority/teacher and the friend.

I think that your use of the tercets is really interesting in this poem. I think of the idea of counting “1, 2, 3,” and the end, with the really beautiful line “Never / enough time to love and be loved,” with the idea of counting down “3, 2, 1.” Could you talk about your use of tercet in this poem?

I think the use of tercets in this poem might be one of those occasions where the poem knows more about itself than I do! As I wrote and then rewrote this poem many times, I changed the stanza length often, and in all honestly, I still wasn’t terribly happy with the form. I revised it again recently and turned it into a poem with no stanza breaks at all because I felt the pacing of the poem wasn’t quite right. I wanted to speed the poem up by deleting the stanza breaks, and I wanted to push the images together more dramatically so that the leaps between images and thoughts squeezed together and created more tension. After seeing, though, how the tercets might be working, I’m rethinking the poem again! It often feels to me as though poems are never quite done, and I know I’m not the only poet who will return to a poem and make changes even after it’s been published!

Have any books kept you particularly warm this winter that you can recommend?

Yes! I’m a huge reader and I count on books to keep me warm during the winter, especially with all the snow we’ve gotten in Michigan this year. I’ve especially loved Mary Syzbists’s National Book Award winner Incarnadine. Religion is one of my passions/interests, so I was thrilled to see this thoughtful religious work win the award. And then I recently discovered Karen Russell’s fascinating stories in St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.

What other texts are you working on right now?

My first book of poems was released in November, so I’ve been focused on marketing that book—which for poetry primarily involves giving reads. And right now I’m also working on putting together my second book (which will include the Mr. Rogers poem). My second book contains mostly poems that are responses to other texts: books, pieces of art, photographs, weird stuff I read about on the Internet, etc. The book explores that idea that most anything we encounter can be “read” and responded to as a text. I also hope to start working on my third book soon, which is going to involve some research and travel to insane asylums from the World War II era. Most of those remaining are museums, though some still function as psychiatric hospitals (and many are believed to be haunted).

 

Tuesday
Jan212014

"The Hair Stylist Who Fell Twenty Feet and Landed Upright": An Interview with Roberta Allen

Roberta Allen is the author of eight books, including the novel, The Dreaming Girl, which was republished in 2011, two short short collections, a novella-in-shorts, a travel memoir and writing guides. She has recently finished a novel and two story collections. A conceptual/visual artist as well, she has work in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum. She leads private writing workshops.

Her story, "Forgotten," appeared in Issue Fifty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, interviewer Melissa Goodrich chats with Roberta Allen about darkly-humorous details, the collective unconscious, and a series of imaginary islands.

How do auxiliary details help inform your writing? Like the shared stylist who had once fallen twenty feet off a cliff while hiking and landed on her feet, or the all-white bedroom, or the old boyfriend who bar mitzvahed his dogall of them vivid, curious, and full of metaphoric implications.
 

I am drawn to details—some darkly humorous—that exemplify to me, the strangeness of life, the strangeness of human experience and behavior, (the hair stylist who fell twenty feet and landed upright, the bar mitzvahed dog), and the absurdities that abound in the world. Curious and peculiar differences are remembered by the narrator rather than connections between one character and another. Details moved the story in directions I didn’t expect it to take and played a part in determining the form of “Forgotten.” 

 
At the end of this story, the narrator has lost more than her memory—but the actual friendships with the people she’s struggling to recall. Do you consider her forgetfulness a defense mechanism? Or a kind of trauma she’s suffering (“is there a giant repository with all the words that were ever spoken?” “Can the desire to remember fool you into believe that you do?”)? Those black Australian caves stick out to me—kind of magnificent, kind of horrific—“the sort of nothing…which seems to suddenly drop to infinite depths.”
The narrator, who is older and afraid of memory loss,  plays a game with herself. A serious game. She is testing her memory. I imagined the narrator as a character who doesn't have much feeling for Katherine, Valerie or Yolanda. The narrator’s anxiety about her memory (not the friendships) fueled this story for me. But she may be hiding her motives for remembering. Of course, the unconscious has its own motives. The “black Australian caves…which seem to drop to infinite depths”) are a metaphor for the unconscious, for all the memories that are lost, that may never be retrieved—not only in the narrator's memory but in the collective unconscious as well. The same holds true for “the giant repository of all the words that were ever spoken.” After the banal incident that triggers her memory of the characters, I imagined the narrator struggling to recall them because they are unimportant to her.
If I said that memories of important people in her life, important events, might have aroused too much anxiety in the narrator, I think I would be reading into my story more than is there.
You’ve written many short-shorts (a novella in shorts as well as two short short collections)—is your current writing still signified by the brief, or are you writing longer work these days? Do you ever combine your writing with your work as a visual artist?
 
I am reworking longer works, originally written years ago, that were unsuccessful or left unfinished. The ones I’m rewriting still resonate with me. In between, I am writing surreal flash fictions, each less than 200 words, as part of an ongoing series, Amulets From Imaginary Islands. The name of each island mixes up the letters of an existing one. The flash fictions were inspired by a series of my photos, which I call amulet photos. These are my only stories that combine images but the stories also stand on their own.  My conceptual art is something quite different.
 
What excellent things have you been reading?
 
I was impressed by The Guardian, Sarah Manguso’s memoir, and by the novel, Acqua Viva by Clarice Lispector. I thought I had read just about everything by Lispector, translated into English, except for the two novels that came out last year, Acqua Viva being one. (Her other books I read in 1989.)  The story collection, Family Ties, which isn’t recent, I somehow missed but I’m enjoying it now. I wish I had more time to read. There are a number of books on my list but my writing, my art—the solo exhibition I am preparing for—and my writing workshops keep me very busy.
 

 

Saturday
Jan182014

"As They Wobble into View": An Interview with Kyle McCord

Kyle McCord is the author of three books of poetry, including Sympathy from the Devil (Gold Wake Press 2013). He has work featured in Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Verse and elsewhere. He co-edits iO: A Journal of New American Poetry, and he is the co-founder and lead content editor for LitBridge. He teaches at the University of North Texas in Denton, TX.

His poem, "[I may never understand why you purchased the bonnet]," appeared in Issue Fifty-One of The Collagist. 

Here, he speaks with interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about human correlative and the length lines want to be.

Could you tell us about the genesis of [I may never understand why you purchased the bonnet]?

Truth be told, I’m not sure of the genesis, but here are some possible ways I could have written this poem:

1. I was on residency in Latvia. I had recently returned from a visit to Krakow. After the visit to Krakow in which a friendly man with a sword insisted that I take photos with him, then pay him, I wrote this poem.

2. I was on residency in Latvia. I was eating a fancy breakfast at the Hotel Bergs and thought “today I will write a poem that’s fancy.” I’ve had this thought before. I will have this thought again. I ate another plate of baguette and sliced meats. I returned to my room to write.

3. I was on residency in Latvia. I started thinking about my strange form of employment. I thought of my father, who is a law professor, and his years working for a firm in Phoenix. I thought of the sun. Then I remembered that I needed to finish the section of The Odyssey I was planning to teach my students. I went downstairs to get a kiwi, but there were no kiwis. I returned to my room to write.

Some of the details in this poem seem too specific not to be drawn from real life (“the bonnet / embroidered with a nude merman” and the numbering of the evil law firm and evil corporate client.) If these are drawn from real life, how do you go about picking and choosing what will be represented in the poem, while still remaining accessible to outsiders? If I’m totally off base here and they aren’t drawn from real life, how do you pick details that ring true to such a specific feeling?

I don’t have a nude merman bonnet and I have since been asked to resign from Evil Law Firm #5 (the partners found me insufficiently discrete following Evil Convention #7), but these things do have some basis in the real world. When I am picking an image I think: “What can’t be in a poem?” Resistance to an image indicates that a space hasn’t been carved out for how that thing could happen in a poem. It’s one way to “make it new.”

To me, the question is less about whether a poem is accessible and more about what it provides access to. Is a poem an abandoned building? Is it a shrine? Is it a party for ghosts? How does the poem make you access it? Do you feel comfortable accessing it? Does it change when you turn it upside down? Is it two places at the same time? Is it in a duel with itself?

A poem has got to have some emotional resonance, some human correlative. I do my best to bow to that. But I also want to offer an array of ways to access and inhabit a poem. That means letting go of some literal meaning and perhaps changing the means of access.

This poem’s line breaks pace it wonderfully, so that the reader can move easily through the poem. The poem itself is almost entirely “regular” sentences, though, and so I’m curious as to how you came to this line length (as opposed to having a prose poem, having much longer/short lines). Is this something that came with revision and playing with the text, or was it more organic?

It’s kind of you to say. I’ve written very long lines, and I’ve written medium length lines. This piece is from my forthcoming book You Are Indeed an Elk, But This is Not the Forest You Were Born to Graze (Gold Wake, 2015). It’s the first book where I really diced things up.

I demand some leaping on the part of the reader. The linebreaks are my way of shortening the distance. The lines didn’t want to be long anyway. I tried that. The images needed too much space. The winos and the spirograph didn’t want to share. I prefer to let images have their own life on a line when it doesn’t impede meaning or flatten things out too much. The smaller line gave me that permission.

Could you give us some reading suggestions?

Rebecca Gayle Howell’s Render, Hannah Gamble’s Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast, Nick Courtright’s Let There Be Light. Jason Bredle’s Carnival.

Also, check out these journals: Big Lucks, Gulf Coast, and Tin House.

What other projects are you working on right now?

I edit this site: http://www.americanmicroreviews.com/

I co-edit this site with the amazing Wendy Xu: http://iopoetry.org/

I run this reading series: https://www.facebook.com/KrakenReadingSeries?ref=hl

I’m also hammering away on a new manuscript that moves in and around art.

Friday
Jan172014

"This Is a Middle That Looks Like a Beginning": An Interview with Kate Petersen

Kate Petersen is a Stegner fellow at Stanford University, and holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, New England Review, Crazyhorse, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. She is at work on a novel and a book of stories.

Her story, "Jukebox," appears in Issue Forty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about self awareness, self conciousness, and the proper order of things.

What was your process for writing “Jukebox”?

Many many many hours staring at “the glowing screen,” as my family calls it.

The speaker in this story is very self conscious, both about her story (“I know: you've heard this one before.”) and the way that she’s telling it (I’m thinking of the line “Anyway, this isn’t even the beginning. / This is a middle that looks like a beginning.”). Could you talk about writing this speaker who is very self-aware?

Interesting question, and I’m intrigued that you use both “self-conscious” and “self-aware,” which strike me as two very different modes.

But in any case, writing seems to me to be a terribly self-conscious sport. At least from the writing side, there’s none of that self-losing purported to happen in other art. Acute, uncomfortable self-awareness seems definitional to the act—for me, anyways.

In a third-person story, in which a writer disappears behind her imagined world (or aims to), some of a writer’s energy gets tied up in masking that self-consciousness, pushing it beneath the surface of the story, making her choices seem invisible and inevitable. To a certain extent, one senses this happening in many first person stories and novels, as well.

But in “Jukebox,” rather than masking that narratorial self-consciousness, I wondered whether I could harness it to a sort of advantage by leaving it opened up. Whether fronting a certain amount of worry over the telling itself might not torque the story in interesting ways—especially because the story is all about the very deliberate working out of a problem, a woman trying to introduce light or at least order into a life that seems to keep certain things dark for her, and out-of-reach.

A secondary answer might be that teaching writing for a number of years now has made me ultra-aware of the "Whys" of everything: why does the story start here? Why does the story end here? Why is this sentence given this room, why the white space? Teaching means one has to have semi-legitimate answers for all of these questions, or at least have asked them. I was interested in what might happen if I fronted all of those very legitimate questions within a piece—whether the piece might then have to take them up and carry them somewhere.

The form seems to mimic the speaker’s self-consciousness: paragraphs are rarely more than a few sentences, often times only one line, and flit from subject to subject. Towards the end of the story, when the speaker seems to be reaching her peak of falling apart, we get fourteen one-line paragraphs. Could you talk about working with these lines? I’m also particularly interested in your process of revision, as I could see them being shifted around fairly easily.

I’m glad you see form and voice working in tandem here.

It’s hard for me to talk about working inside this piece line by line, because the story came to me early on as told, as Brooke’s voice—this cool, tough voice with heartbreak that fissures in. She wants to make a joke of all this, but it’s getting harder and harder to do. It’s very spoken story, which I heard first, and I did my best to honor that with the writing.

How does anyone revise? I wish I had a better answer. My current one is just hours, saying and reading these things back to yourself until a sort of logic introduces itself to the work, and sticks.

Order had to lock in for me, because it had to lock in for the narrator, Brooke. At bottom, “Jukebox” is all about a woman trying to put things in the right order, to do things in the right order, to find a logic to these almosts that will give her life a sort of meaning.

I don’t mean to suggest there’s not a sort of messiness to the leaps and returns Brooke makes. The piece is a deliberate working out of a problem in a way, and messy in the way that always is. I do sense a desperation that gets in at the end of the piece, where her experience-loop has left her empty-handed again, and she cannot quite believe it.

What have you read and loved recently?

Story-wise, I recently enjoyed Laurie Colwin’s The Lone Pilgrim, and am reading Edward P. Jones Lost in the City now, which is masterful. Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation (out this month) is singular, winsome and heartrending. John Brandon’s A Million Heavens stayed with me—he is so good at doing the desert. And I’ve been relishing the stories in Tin House, especially the twilit hypnosis of Alexander Maksik’s “Trim Palace” in the winter issue. He gets the weight of a dog’s head on you exactly right.

What else have you been writing and working on?

I have been going headlong at a novel for awhile now, as well as some stories that make use of my long and storied love for Costco. I am about to read Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene” again for a project, and I’m looking forward to that.

Thursday
Jan162014

"What It Might Look Like to Manipulate Time": An Interview with Chris Daley

Chris Daley teaches creative nonfiction for Writing Workshops Los Angeles and academic writing at Caltech. She has reviewed fiction and nonfiction, primarily on music and L.A. history, for the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Review of Books. She earned a Ph.D. in English from the City University of New York Graduate Center, and she enjoys wasting time.

Her essay, "Thoughts on Time After Viewing Christian Marclay's "The Clock"," appeared in Issue Fifty of The Collagist.

Here, Chris Daley talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about time constraints, research hallucinations, and writing based on art.

Tell us about when you first saw Christian Marclay’s "The Clock." When/How did you decide you would write an essay on your reactions to it?

One thing about “The Clock” is that it’s relatively hard to see. While it has the body of a film, it has the soul (and exclusivity) of an installation. There are some clips on YouTube, but otherwise, you have to wait for it to come to a museum near you. Fortunately for me, it has shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art twice—once in summer 2011 and once in spring 2012.

I’m sure there are people who have seen more of it than I have, considering I’ve only watched two hours, one at each run. The first time I saw a portion starting at 3:30 PM between tourist stops with a friend from out of town. What most struck me then was how difficult it was to describe in the aftermath and how I couldn’t stop thinking about it. When it came to town the second time, I went for the 10:00 hour on a Sunday morning as if attending church. I was equally compelled. The next time it comes to LA, I’d love to go at 4:00 AM or midnight. Or midnight to 4:00 AM.

I’m sure I thought about writing the essay after that 2012 viewing, but I didn’t attempt it until about six months later. Every September I take myself on a writing retreat to Lake Arrowhead, and one day I was stuck on what I was working on, so I went down to the fireplace in the lobby with the intention to just write for one hour (goddamnit). I remembered my desire to write about “The Clock,” had the idea to time the sections, and got started.

You say you gave yourself an hour to write this piece. How long did you take to revise it? Did you take extra care to keep the text close to how it originally looked?

I almost don’t want to admit this because as a writing teacher, I constantly emphasize the importance of revision, but I didn’t revise it much. Partly I wanted to honor the time constraint and partly I was happy with it. When I decided to start submitting it, I didn’t change or add any content, but I did tweak word choice right up until it was published here. I think I was anxious at the end that there hadn’t been more of a revision process. Matthew Olzmann was extremely understanding.

This essay is an example of ekphrasis. How does art beget more art? How do you see this phenomenon taking place in your other work?

I did not sit down and think I was about to compose ekphrasis, but it definitely was a rhetorical exercise in creating expression out of artistic inspiration. I am occasionally an academic, and at other times a book critic, so it’s interesting for me to think about the distinction between reviewing or critiquing art and engaging with it to produce more art.

I don’t know if ekphrasis can be literary commentary on literary objects, but the novel I’m working on now does have another book at its center. When I was completing my dissertation on Los Angeles literature and alternative religion (over the course of three delirious months), I thought I came across a pulp novel called The Power. In this book, as the result of a radiation explosion, a group of San Fernando Valley housewives turn into colossal Amazons and torment the citizens of 1930s Los Angeles. When I finished my defense, I went looking for this book only to discover it didn't exist. A research hallucination. Now I’m trying to bring The Power into existence for real.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I haven’t worked on The Power for awhile, but I’m looking forward to my first residency at Ucross in April. I plan to spend some time tracing the imaginary history of this imaginary novel using its author, printer, readers, collectors, detractors, and the text of the book itself. Right now, I’ve got lottery winners, used bookstore owners, UPS delivery men, homicidal mothers, and Albert Einstein all coming into contact with the book in some way.

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

I like that—to the people. I’ll stick with nonfiction. After my essay appeared in The Collagist, someone recommended that I read David Antin’s i never knew what time it was, a collection of prose poems that explore the nature of time, and I pass the recommendation on. I also enjoyed Wayne Koestenbaum’s My 1980s and Other Essays, Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey, Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, Ali Smith’s Artful (although this is many genres at once), and Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped. Thanks for asking.

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.