Thursday
Mar202014

“The Princess Isn’t Frightened”: An Interview with Rebecca Meacham 

Rebecca Meacham's short story collection, Let’s Do, was published in 2004 as the winner of UNT Press's Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction, and was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” program selection. Her flash fiction collection, Morbid Curiosities, won the 2013-14 New Delta Review Chapbook prize. Her stories have appeared in Indiana Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Hobart, Wigleaf, Necessary Fiction, Paper Darts, and other journals, and she blogs for Ploughshares. An associate professor of English, Rebecca directs the creative writing program at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She lives in the woods of Wisconsin with her family and their 100 lb. German Shepherd puppy, who enjoys chasing the deer. See more at: http://rebeccameachamwriter.com

Her story, "The Glass Piano," appeared in Issue Fifty-Five of The Collagist.

Here, Rebecca Meacham talks to interviewer Thomas Calder about painstaking construction over revision, the power of delusion and the intersection between private anxiety and public spectacle

How did this piece come about?

I was running and listening to a podcast about Princess Alexandra of Bavaria, who, in the mid-1800s, suffered a delusion that she’s swallowed a grand glass piano. At the time, I was writing a collection of flash fiction (Morbid Curiosities), which explores the intersection between private anxiety and public spectacle. Princess Alexandra’s story seemed thematically in line: a historical public figure with a private agony, now made into a public spectacle that I could, in 2013, think about while running through my Wisconsin neighborhood.

The thing was, the podcast imagined her as a tragic figure—with sounds of moaning and heavy breathing in the audio—as someone terrified to move. But I was more attracted to the power such a delusion might seem to confer, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which ends with the narrator imagining she’s seized control of her confines. So as I was running, I literally said, out loud: “The princess isn’t frightened. She’s empowered. What does she gain from this?”

I like the Q&A structure of your story. The common form initially situates the reader, before dislocating him a bit with the more surreal aspects of the piece. Did you have the Q&A structure in mind from the very beginning?

The real Princess Alexandra was obsessed with purity; she eventually became an abbess. I was trying to figure out, to her, “What does a glass piano taste like?” And, in my reading of her situation, she has to want to consume it. Swallowing this piano, housing it within her body, has to give her some measure of distance from a family full of discord, from all the people in her household who invade her privacy and tell her what’s proper, at a fraught time in German history. The piano should taste like a kind of relief.

The story arrived exactly as you see it on the page: the first line was always the first line. I imagine she was questioned by doctors for years, both as a case and as a curiosity.

What was the revision process like for this story? You manage to convey a lot about Princess Alexandra within a very brief piece. 

From the start, I intended this story to be about 500 words long. And the first question led effortlessly to the first full answer. Then, for weeks, I got stuck. What would be the next question? The next answer? When the next question did arrive (“But your delicate throat! How did you consume it?”), I got stuck again. I realized maybe she didn’t know, or couldn’t articulate, the answer, because of her aversion to the human body and its processes. She could have been attacked, or she could have started menstruating; either event would have been shocking beyond words to this character, enough to distort her sense of reality.

So the piece wasn’t so much revised as painstakingly constructed. This is my pattern for any length of story: a dazzling first section blazes in, and then it’s slow, ugly pecking until I figure out the rest.

Do you find it difficult to balance teaching and writing?

Yes. I’m possibly the worst balancer of these two things. Plus, I have little kids and husband and a German Shepherd puppy and a fat cat who like my attention, too. But after an eight-year break from fiction writing (go ahead, gasp, it’s shocking), I realized I was channeling all of my writerly curiosity into new course preparations, which were engaging and taught me a lot, but didn’t allow room for my own fiction. I went on a sabbatical in 2012-13, and vowed, when I returned: no new course preps! Which I’ve totally violated already. But now, at least my course preps, are directly related to what I’m writing, or hope to write. And I’m training myself to write during the school year.

What are you currently working on?

I just published a collection of flash fiction, Morbid Curiosities, and while that project is done, there are some new flash pieces hatching in my head—all, oddly, about animals. I’m also working on another traditional-length short story collection and a novel about the 1871 Peshtigo, Wisconsin fire.

What book are you recommending friends read?  

I’m teaching a Major Authors class on Toni Morrison, so I always recommend Beloved, because it’s one of the best books of all time. More recently, I finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, and loved its scope, from sea voyages around the world to the microscopic growth of mosses.

Tuesday
Mar182014

An Interview-in-Excerpts with Joseph Riippi

Joseph Riippi is author of the books Because, A Cloth House, and The Orange Suitcase, as well as the chapbooks Puyallup, Washington (an interrogation) and Treesisters. His next novel, Research (A Novel for Performance) will be published in fall 2014.

An excerpt from his novel, Because, appeared in Issue Fifty-Five of The Collagist.

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

What is writing like?

Like reliving. (p18)

Like it’s about to snow. (p162)

Like a great actor on a bare stage. (p15)

Like waves. (p19)

Like leaves falling up. (p33)

Like a toyshop. (p34)

Like under a blanket in childhood. (p24)

What isn’t writing like?

Like shit. (p22)

Like swimming. (p32)

Like football players (p35)

Like the heaven where my grandfather lives. (p57)

Like what our prayers might sound like to God. (p57)

When you do it, why?

Because I want, if nothing else, for you to understand how much we love. (p162)

Because I honestly don’t remember and I don’t want to look it up. (p104)

Because of her. (p109)

When you don’t, why?

Because I don’t know, not exactly, what I’m trying to say. (p17)

Because even imagined spiders can scare the life out of you. (p92)

Because then I will sweat less. (p113)

Thursday
Mar062014

An Interview-in-Excerpts with Lance Olsen

Image Credit: Andi OlsenLance Olsen is author of more than 20 books of and about innovative writing practices, including, most recently, the novel Theories of Forgetting (FC2, 2014), the collection How to Unfeel the Dead: New & Selected Fictions (Teksteditions, 2014), and the critifictional meditation [[ there. ]], of which the piece in this issue of The Collagist is an excerpt.  He teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.

An excerpt from his book, [[ there. ]], appears in Issue Fifty-Five of The Collagist.

Here, he answers questions "in the form of excerpts"--with further excerpts from [[ there. ]]  Enjoy!

What is writing like?

A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities. Just as language limits what can be said, architecture limits where one can walk, but the walker invents other ways to go.

            Reflected Rebecca Solnit.

What isn’t writing like?

I am only one, only one, only one. Only one being, one at the same time.  Not two, not three, only one. Only one life to live, only sixty minutes in one hour. Only one pair of eyes. Only one brain. Only one being. Being only one, having only one pair of eyes, having only one time, having only one life, I cannot read your M.S. three or four times. Not even one time. Only one look, only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one. Many thanks. I am returning the M.S. by registered post. Only one M.S. by one post.

            Wrote another editor when rejecting a manuscript submitted by Gertrude Stein.

When you do it, why?

Assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients.  That is, after all, the case. What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?

            Queried Annie Dillard.

When you don’t, why?

Consciousness’s continuous harassment by the flesh.

Tuesday
Feb252014

"Mapping in the Air a Woven Net of Clouds: An Interview with Michael Martone

Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he learned at a very early age, about flight. His mother, a high school English teacher, read to him of the adventures of Daedalus and Icarus from the book Mythology written by Edith Hamilton, who was born in Dresden, Germany, but who also grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Martone remembers being taken by his father to Baer Field, the commercial airport and Air National Guard base, to watch the air traffic there. He was blown backward on the observation deck by the prop-wash of the four-engine, aluminum-skinned Lockheed Constellation with its elegant three-tailed rudder turning away from the gates. At the same time, the jungle-camouflaged Phantom F-4s did touch-and-goes on the long runway, the ignition of their after-burners sounding as if the sky was being torn like blue silk. As a child growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Martone heard many stories about Art Smith, "The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne," and the adventures of this early aviation pioneer. In the air above the city, Martone, as a boy, imagined, "The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne" accomplishing, for the first time, the nearly impossible outside loop and then a barrel-roll back into a loop-to-loop in his fragile cotton canvas and baling wire flying machine he built in his own backyard in Fort Wayne, Indiana, whose sky above was the first sky, anywhere, to be written on, written on by Art Smith, "The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne," the letters hanging there long enough to be read but then smeared, erased by the high altitude wind, turning into a dissipating front of fogged memories, cloudy recollection.

His story, "From the Collected Writings of Art Smith, the Bird Boy of Fort Wayne," appeared in Issue Fifty of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about skywriting, myths, and the origins of SKYBARs.

Could you tell us about the genesis of “From the Collected Writings of Art Smith, the Bird Boy of Fort Wayne”?

Having written short stories for thirty years and short short stories for almost as long and micro fiction and flash fiction and even prose poetry, I was thinking just how short can short fiction be.  What would it look like? I wasn’t having much luck. Then when my book, Four for a Quarter, came out, I arranged for a launch party. I hired a photo booth and a barbershop quartet. I made up a mixed tape of songs sung by the Fab Four. Then I remembered a candy bar from my youth called SKYBAR made by Necco. It is a chocolate bar with four different fillings.  I ordered boxes for the party. When I got the order, there was a little history of the confection attached. The name SKYBAR came from the initial ad campaign back in the 30’s when the confection was launched. They used skywriting! I didn’t know that. But finding this out reminded me of Art Smith, a real aviation pioneer from my hometown of Fort Wayne, who was an innovator of many things having to do with aviation and, it is said, that he was the first to write in the sky. And suddenly the answer to my earlier question was there.  Skywriting = 1 or 2 word “stories” in the air.

I did some (very shallow) research, and Art Smith was a real guy who flew planes as a stunt pilot. How do you go about writing fiction about real people? What’s most important for you to maintain? Or, perhaps, do you see it only as a starting point?

Also from my hometown was the great interpreter of Greek Mythology, Edith Hamilton. I became very interested in mythologies then not of Greece but of Indiana and my home city of Fort Wayne. In Greece you know they study with in their history classes. I liked immediately the idea of this in-between realm where fiction and nonfiction mingled in narrative.  Myths are shared stories. They do not have authors and everyone in the culture is the author. One may add to or deflect the story, but one gives up originality. Perhaps for me it goes back too to the great essay by John Barth called “The Literature of Exhaustion” that explores the notion of reusing narrative, its repurposing through the years, and the demoting of originality as a goal of artistry. It is not about making new stories. It is about having new ideas about the stories we already have.

The subtitles in this text take on their own life. Could you talk about the process of writing these subtitles? Did they come late in the process? How do you think these punctuation subtitles function differently then numbers, letters, or even white space?

All of the titles in this work are meant to represent an actual picture of the skywriting. If and when this book every gets published, I imagine it to be a book of postcards with what now seem to be titles as the actual “writing” of Art Smith pictured on the front. The text beneath then is to be read as a gloss, a footnote, a critique written by an amateur scholar named Michael Martone.  The book will be called The Collected Writings of Art Smith, The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne, edited by Michael Martone. So I need to find a designer to help me create the “photographs” of the skywriting.

What have you been reading recently?

I have been reading about wabi sabi, the Japanese aesthetic of imperfection and impermanence

What other writing can we expect from you?

I continue to work on my science fiction collection, Indiana science fiction, called Amish in Space. Also I am trying to find a place that will publish a completed book called Winesburg, Indiana, a collection of my short stories and an anthology of other people’s short stories all set in this town named Winesburg. I have another book of very short stories I call Memos. Also I am starting a book called simply Fort Wayne.

Thursday
Feb202014

"Multifarious as the Names of Rain": An Interview with Isaac Miller

Isaac Miller is a Writer-in-Residence with InsideOut Literary Arts Project and an Artist in Residence with Detroit Future Schools. He has also taught with Youth Speaks and the James and Grace Lee Boggs School. Originally from California, Isaac graduated from UC Berkeley with degrees in Ethnic Studies and Interdisciplinary Studies and received the Judith Lee Stronach Baccalaureate Prize. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Midwestern Gothic, Racialicious, English Journal, and the Berkeley Poetry Review.

His poem, "I-75 South: The Steeple of St. Josaphat Aligns with the Renaissance Center," appeared in Issue Fifty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about movement, Detroit, and epigraphs as spatial mirrors.

What was your process in writing “I-75 South: The Steeple of St. Josaphat Aligns With the Renaissance Center”? I looked up a picture of what the title describes, and its quite stark: the church looks encapsulated by the Renaissance Center.

This poem probably went through more widely varied drafts than any poem I’d written previously. I started with the image described in the title, which is something that I drive past almost daily. Living in Detroit over the past few years this image started to nag at me until I knew I needed to seek out the larger questions that the image was nested within. This searching pulled me in several different directions. In one attempt it took the form of a pecha kucha, after Terrance Hayes. In another, it became a narrative of my grandfather’s memory of the city. I think as the poem approached its current form it began to synthesize elements of each of these drafts and the poem’s current narrative and imagistic threads came into focus.

The characters in your poem move a lot: they are driving, even “speed[ing]” down highways and familiar roads. Even when the characters park, the river—and as the poem says, “the world”—is “falling / away in the ice-choked current.” Could you talk about how you see movement working within this poem? How do you go about capturing that feeling on the page?

Well, living in Detroit you get used to spending a lot of time in cars. So I think this poem was an attempt to capture the movement of driving, and also how that movement continues to effect me even after I've left the car (similar to the feeling of leaving a movie theater and feeling like I'm still watching a movie). Its striking that while driving you don't actually feel the speed of your movement the way that you would while walking or biking, for example. I wanted the poem to contrast the relative stillness of the driver within the car against the speed with which they are actually moving through the landscape of the city.

In a larger sense, this poem was an attempt to grapple with a sense of not only spatial but also historical movement. We often think of cities as static landscapes populated by a skyline of inanimate buildings. But in reality cities are in constant motion, both through the activity that occurs within them and the ways that cityscapes themselves are constantly expanding, contracting, changing.

In writing this poem I thought about how the automobile has informed the way that American cities have been planned. Nowhere is this more true than Detroit, where car-based planning has left the city with an unreliable public transit system as well as decades of suburbanization and White flight. The I-75 freeway that I write about in the poem was built through what was once the historically African-American neighborhood of Black Bottom-Paradise Valley, which was cleared using eminent domain. This neighborhood, the social and cultural center of Black Detroit, was destroyed in order to facilitate the construction of I-75, one of the primary lines of flight for White Detroiters (my family included), who would leave the city for the de facto segregated suburbs.

Thinking back even farther, we encounter the displacement of the Anishinaabe peoples, who like indigenous peoples across North America (and the world), were displaced in order to create “the city” as we know it. With that in mind, I attempted to allude to these many layers of erasure, the “present absences” embedded within our experience of modernity.

So in many ways this is a poem about the limits of progress. The physical movement in the poem mirrors the historical movement of the city, as well as the speaker's own movement through time. Out of this the question emerges: movement towards what? Though we live in constant motion, always in such a hurry to arrive at our destination, do we really end up someplace better or new?

Epigraphs are always interesting to me in poems, because (I think) a single epigraph sometimes stands at the beginning of a whole novel, so it seems large in front of a single poem. How did you decide to choose this one by Rilke? Did it inspire the poem, or did you stumble upon it during revision?

In my mind the epigraph from Rilke responded to this question about the limits of progress. The reader can take it as expressing a pessimistic sentiment, that nothing is truly “new”, and that technological growth only masks over the more fundamental problems of human existence. I think, however, that the epigraph also contains an imperative to realize “The New” as a moment of transcendent illumination, one that human consciousness has always been, and continues to be, capable of achieving. Rilke is very much a mystical thinker, and his rejoinder to a world de-sanctified by the Industrial Revolution and the First World War's mass production of death is to say that “The New” in whose name all of this has been done is already within our grasp, if we choose to realize it.

In my eyes, this epigraph serves the purpose of creating a spatial mirror for the subject of the poem in the text of the poem itself. In other words, the epigraph and the body of this poem relate to one another much as St. Josaphat and the Renaissance Center do in the image described by the poem's title. There's the interplay between old and new, as there is between the poem's speaker and the speaker's grandfather, or between the wheel of the car and the wheel of the city. This doubling/mirroring is central to the structure and movement of the poem, so I thought it would be appropriate for the epigraph to reflect that and serve as a guide toward how the poem should be read.

To answer the other part of your question, I did come across the Rilke quote in revision, while reading the appendix to Sonnets to Orpheus. As I said earlier, it took me numerous attempts to reach a draft that even somewhat resembled the final version and I think this epigraph helped me understand some of the different meanings present in the poem and how they might be expressed through the poem's structure.

Could you give us some reading suggestions? 

Lately I’ve been reading Mary Ruefle's Madness, Rack, and Honey, and Lyn Hejinian's The Language of Inquiry, two collections of essays about poetry by poets whose styles and sensibilities are quite different from one another (and from my own), and who, as a result, are greatly expanding my thinking as a reader and writer.

In terms of poetry collections, I've sincerely enjoyed Jamaal May's outstanding first book, Hum, which is filled with poems informed by Detroit's many landscapes (both exterior and interior). The latest collection by A. Van Jordan, The Cineaste, has made me look at film and its relationship to poetry in new and startling ways. Lastly, I can't stop returning to Eduardo C. Corral's collection Slow Lightning, which I can only describe as breathtaking.

What other projects are you working on right now?

I have the beginnings of a manuscript clattering around in my head, and I'm hoping to make that my focus over the next few years. I have some ideas for poems that expand on themes expressed in “I-75 South”, such as the tension between the benefits of technological progress and the human, environmental, and emotional displacements that such progress results in. That's a very old theme, but one that I'd like to do my part in investigating. Of course that could all change. We shall see.

Sunday
Feb162014

“The Nasty Narratives We’re Fed About What It Means to Be Alive in 21st Century America”: An Interview with Meghan McCarron

Meghan McCarron's short fiction has been a finalist for the Nebula and World Fantasy awards, and she was recently awarded a grant by the Elizabeth George Foundation. Her work has recently appeared in or is forthcoming from Gigantic Worlds and The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, and she's currently at work on a novel. She lives with her girlfriend in Austin, TX, where she is the editor of Eater Austin.

Her short story, "Terrible Lizards," appeared in Issue Fifty-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Meghan McCarron talks to interviewer Thomas Calder about the boundary between satire and stridency, mashing up genres and how the magic world fucks up different people in different ways.

This is an intricate story, with several intertwining threads. What was the initial story you had in mind and how did it evolve?

I have no idea what the original inspiration for this story was. I wrote the first draft of it back in 2009, which is a scary long time ago. I was thinking about the years I was in college, 2001-2005, and the way those years were bookended by two disasters, 9/11 and Katrina. The surreality of those years is now semi-lost to us; we don’t like to talk or think about it much. When I think back to how pissed off and frightened I was in, say 2003, it’s a very strange feeling.

 (A bit of a follow up to question 1) The structure of this story is interesting, in that we are going back and forth between characters and time, spending brief moments in each scene. Did you write the individual stories as a whole and pattern it once you finished, or was the fragmented structure present from the start?

The fragmented structure was always a part of it. The sections were originally free-associated off each other, which made it hard to rearrange them, though I definitely did a lot of that. Several early versions were all in the second person. A professor wrote a critique in the second person that basically said, “Meghan, no one can understand this story but you and that is a problem.” As far as I can remember, I wrote the draft fairly quickly while I was living in Brooklyn. How it intertwined was what really changed.

My stepfather bought a BMW to do his part for the economy.” There are other moments throughout the piece where the cynicism and satire are just as strong, but this line jumped out each time I read your story. Is satire prominent in most of your writing, or does “Terrible Lizards” mark a new direction in your fiction?

You know, I thought about removing that line over and over again, and now I’m glad I didn’t! With a story like this, it’s really hard to find the boundary between satire and stridency. At the same point, in the fall of 2001 someone did tell me they’d bought their BMW to do their part for the economy. I’m not even exaggerating.

I’m not an especially political writer, any more than I’m an especially political person. I went to protests, but only the big protests. Never helped organize anything or got arrested or built puppets. But I am fascinated by power, and the nasty narratives we’re fed about what it means to be alive in 21st century America. Often my work is more concerned with the politics of gender, or sexuality, rather than specific events like in “Terrible Lizards” is, but I don’t see this story as a massive departure.

Who are some writers that have influenced you?

If I hazarded a guess, I would say the trickiness of this story is inspired by Karen Joy Fowler’s short fiction. Joy Williams is definitely in here, and my dear friend and one of my favorite writers Alice Sola Kim. I have a weird intense love for Pynchon, and the more science fictional folks he inspired like William Gibson. That weird love rarely manifests in my work, but I think it pokes its head out here.

In terms of overall influences, Jonathan Lethem and Kelly Link are the two writers I discovered in college who gave me permission to attempt what I’d always wanted to do – mash up genre images I loved desperately, like dinosaurs on a desert island or lurking vampires, with much more mundane but also emotionally compelling situations, like losing all your friends or figuring out how to be on TV.

I also really, really love Victorian novels. That shows up in now way shape or form here.

What is the most current project you are working on?

 I’m writing a gigantic novel about how going to a magical world as a kid would be a seriously fucked up experience. The novel wouldn’t be quite as gigantic if it were just about that, I guess. It’s about how the magic world fucks up different people in different ways, and also about what an American, as opposed to European-inspired, alternate world would look like. I’m closing in on a full-on rewrite of the last half. Dear god I hope I’m done soon.

I also have a couple stories in need of a bit more reworking – one about a cave full of dads, and the other about a woman quarantined in a Brooklyn apartment during a massive, deadly flu outbreak with her ex-girlfriend and the girl the ex cheated with.

Who are you currently reading?   

I wish I were a ‘who’ reader. When I discover I love an author I stop reading them so I never run out of their books, which is stupid, because if you love someone’s work then its totality has a great deal to teach you. I’m trying to get over this. I bought not one but two Shirley Jackson novels recently but they’re just sitting there on my bedside table, still fresh and uncracked, all anticipation.

I’m actually reading a book by Robert MacFarlane called The Old Ways that is all about walking (and sailing!) ancient paths, mostly in and around Britain. I just finished The Round House, which was really satisfying in its moral complications. Next I’m going to read Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, because I want to read about ghul hunters and fighting dervishes. I’m also looking forward to reading Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch because Middlemarch is the best book. Did you know that? It’s the best book.

 

Thursday
Feb062014

"A Private Moment between the Writer and the Writer": An Interview with Gretchen VanWormer

Gretchen VanWormer grew up in Burlington, Vermont.  Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, The Laurel Review, The Los Angeles Review, Zone 3, and PANK.  She lives in Washington, DC, and teaches writing at American University.

Her memoir, "You in the Navy, 1941," was published in Issue Fifty-One of The Collagist.

Here, Gretchen VanWormer talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about dismemberment, meta-writing, and a love letter.

What inspired you to start writing about this story from your grandfather's life?

It’s a pretty visceral one, so it’s always stuck with me. Nothing like a good dismemberment story. After he died, I wanted to try to make something out of it (the loss & the story). That’s when I realized the story itself had all these missing parts. So the essay became about that as well.  

How did you make the decision to use second-person pronouns throughout this essay? (What effect do you want this unusual point-of-view strategy to have on the reader?)

The point of view choice was less about trying to affect the reader in a particular way, and more about that feeling of missing someone and wanting to talk to him. The essay’s a love letter of sorts (albeit a slightly creepy one), so it just felt natural to use those pronouns.

About halfway through the essay, you express a desire for more precise details to enhance the original narrative, and you imagine some of the possibilities, for the sake of telling a richer story (with purposes such as "If I knew these things, I could do a better job with atmosphere" and "Anything to tweak the tone"). Later, you refer to the connection between black thread and typed words as "the obvious metaphor." At these moments, I understood the essay to be rising to the meta-level: writing about writing, to some extent. What are the benefits and risks, in your mind, of inserting this kind of meta-storytelling into your work?

As a reader, I like a little meta; it has so much potential to be moving. Rick Moody’s “Demonology,” for example, is heartbreaking in the best way. I think it just has to be grounded in the emotional terrain of the story. When I was writing this essay, the meta part grew out of the feelings of loss, so I was comfortable using it.

Of course, some cases of meta-writing do strike me as too cold or cerebral, because their meta bits don’t seem to connect to anything resembling a feeling. It’s as if I’ve stumbled in on a private moment between the writer and the writer. And I want to say: “Yikes, dude. Lock the door if that’s what you’re up to.” 

It's not until we read the phrase "now that you're ash" in the final paragraph that we learn your grandfather is deceased. Why did you choose the ending as the right moment to reveal that information?

I think my instinct there was that a dead grandpa story is a hard sell. So I wanted the reader to hear the propeller story (and the other war stories) before getting to that part. It’s an important detail, because it helps the reader understand the purpose or motivation of the essay. But it’s a shorter piece, so it seemed like it could come at the end and the reader wouldn’t bail.

What writing projects are you working on now?

Lately I have an obsession with natural history, and enjoy looking at humans through that lens. So I’m writing a number of essays that are in conversation with that. I’m also working on short stories—I seem to especially like writing about women who are funny & dark & Odyssean.

What is on your reading list for 2014?

Related to the natural history thing, I’m reading this book edited by Tom Baione called Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library. The colored plates it comes with are really odd and beautiful. And it’s making me want to track down some of those books, especially works by EHA (Edward Hamilton Aitken). He’s so funny—says of the weather: “The only thing to be complained of at this time in Bombay is a certain tendency to liquefaction. Chemically speaking, one gets deliquescent about the end of May.”  

I also want to read Christopher Hitchens, Mortality & Amy Leach, Things That Are. And many, many others. 

Tuesday
Feb042014

"Long, Lavish, Latinate Sentences, Carefully Balanced": An Interview with Edward Gauvin

Two-time winner of the John Dryden Translation prize, Edward Gauvin has received fellowships and residencies from the NEA, the Fulbright program, PEN America, the Centre National du Livre, Villa Gillet, and the Lannan Foundation. His volume of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s selected storiesA Life on Paper (Small Beer, 2010) won the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award and was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award. Other publications have appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Conjunctions, The Coffin Factory, and The Southern Review. The contributing editor for Francophone comics at Words Without Borders, he writes a column on the Francophone fantastic at Weird Fiction Review.

His translation of Pierre Bettencourt's "Incidents of Travel Among the Metamorphosians" appeared in Issue Fifty of The Collagist.

Here, Edward Gauvin talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about translation, European fabulism, and internalized habits.

Could you please briefly tell us about the origins (author, historical context, etc.) of this story, “Incidents of Travel Among the Metamorphosians”?

As a writer, Bettencourt was best known for his “fables,” which these days fall somewhere between flash fiction and prose poems. He penned hundreds, much to the disdain of Vichy censors, but shrugged off his friends’ praise, saying he was too influenced by Belgian Henri Michaux, or protesting “Who could claim to be a writer after reading Rabelais?” He was an eccentric whose life, in many ways, rivaled his fiction for strangeness, a world traveler who sojourned in Dar es Salaam, Madagascar, and Vanuatu.

It’s very difficult to establish a Bettencourt bibliography in any way complete or reliable, since almost all his early works were self-published—self-printed, in fact, on a press he bought for 10,000 francs in 1941. He printed his fables in an outbuilding while Nazis were billeted in his father’s house (his mother left when he was seven). He got offcuts from a local stationery shop, which suited his chapbook-sized press. His greatest sorrow was having to melt down an old, barely serviceable set of Elzevir and make new type, but it was a time of scarceness and scrounging. On this tiny press, seven pages at a time, he printed works by playwright Antonin Artaud and poet Francis Ponge. He took unique liberties with his own books, inserting altered banknotes, drops of blood, or such notices as: “This book was printed in an edition limited to 110 numbered copies, of which 25 are scented… Readers who have purchased numbers 26, 48, 69, and 109 will die within the year.”

And how did you come across this text? What was its unique appeal to you?

Over the years, my research into the French and Belgian fantastic has led me down some twisty, obscure alleys. I first heard of Bettencourt from the dryly witty, impeccably dressed Jean-Louis Gauthey, founder of the French indie comics press Cornélius; rather, it was his fervent recommendation over dinner that reminded me I’d seen the name listed, almost as as an afterthought, in the only major histories of the French and Belgian fantastic, by Marcel Schneider and Jean-Baptiste Baronian (respectively).

Thankfully, it’s not hard to get your hands on some Bettencourt these days, for a slight but not outrageous premium. The renaissance of his reputation is based on the rediscovery and re-publication of works old and new almost a generation later, mostly by the small press Les Lettres vives in the early ’90s. Of course, as I’ve noted in a longer biographical piece on him at Weird Fiction Review, Bettencourt comes from an important family, and has always had well-placed fans, like editors Jean Paulhan and José Corti, or writer Marcel Béalu. He just chose to go his own way most of the time. As he once said, “I am a man who never made himself a career.”

“Incidents of Travel Among the Metamorphosians,” a later work, dates from 1983 and was published in a 1994 triptych of stories called Le Piège [The Trap]. Much of what I translate is fantastical; I was looking for something with a science-fictional edge, and in Bettencourt specifically, for a longer piece, as I’d come off reading a lot of his fables. I’ve been gathering the various fantastical tales I’ve published in the last few years with an eye toward an anthology that traces the evolution of the Francophone fantastic from the end of World War II to the present—a period gone missing from literary histories, but during which a great many astonishing things happened, which are just waiting to be brought to light. “Incidents” strikes me as very Calvino-esque, a distinctly European fabulism that developed in reaction both to American SF, which dominated the pulps there, and the legacies of various avant-garde movements gone underground.

 

What is your first priority when working in the medium of translating someone else’s words? Please explain.

Like writers who can’t move forward till they perfect the first sentence, which somehow informs or begets all sentences to come, I’m a stickler for setting the tone. A bad first step wrongfoots everything else.

Unless perhaps you weren’t referring to “first priority” in terms of process, but aesthetics? The late William Weaver, translator of Calvino and Moravia, identifies a kind of translatorial buck-passing wherein “but that’s what it says” is offered as an excuse for resulting obscurity or obtuseness. You’ve had those conversations, haven’t you, where you and a friend seem to be talking about the same thing only later to realize, when camaraderie or alcohol has abated, that despite using the same words, you weren’t referring to the same things at all? Misapprehension is constant and ubiquitous, but translation, I think, masquerades as a kind of fixative for that: the possibility of agreeing on meaning.

It’s interesting that you refer to translation as a “medium”; rather, I think it’s the process of adapting between the two media of different languages. And each medium has its own constraints: cultural or technical, perceived or imposed.

Have you found that lessons learned from translating text from one language to another have influenced the way you compose your own original writings in English (including, perhaps, everyday things, emails, etc.)? How so?

I’m supposed to speak on this at AWP very soon, so thanks for asking! I better start thinking!

Both languages have distinct syntactical advantages. I don’t think one learns lessons from working so much as internalizes them directly, sometimes as (bad) habits, such that you really have to dredge deep to articulate them. I’m honestly not sure which came first, my love of long lavish Latinate sentences, carefully balanced, or my immersion in French reading. A certain “work amnesia” other writers have talked about results with the products of both writing and translation: you get it out and forget it, though it actually remains a part of you, later surfacing in unexpected ways only a third party can more clearly point out.

I also think translation, like any non-writing profession a writer has, tempts readers with a “handle” that is useful for marketing but not necessarily applicable to the work in question. Bits of biography cloud our readings of things because, thus informed, we go looking for evidence of them, and often as not find them as a result of determined looking. Which is to say, French will always be a valid way of reading my English, but not necessarily the most pertinent.

What writing/translation projects are you working on now?

This is a busy year. I’m looking for an agent for my first story collection, seven stories which came out over the last year in various litmags like The Kenyon Review, West Branch, and Birkensnake. Apart from the aforementioned Francophone fantastical anthology, also seeking a publisher, I’m doing the next 2 Toussaint books for Dalkey. Hopefully, Wakefield Press, the publisher of my recent Ferry collection, will have some good news soon about a certain Belgian fabulist.

Meanwhile, the comics mill keeps turning. Recently, I’ve enjoyed working on Frédérik Peeters’ SF series Aama, a historical epic by Alejandro Jodorowsky (he of the gory, hallucinatory El Topo), and the next volume of Best of Enemies, a history of Arab-American relations by David B. and Jean-Pierre Filiu.

High profile releases for the coming year are probably Ludovic Debeurme's Renée (Top Shelf), Joann Sfar's Pascin (Uncivilized Books), and Weapons of Mass Diplomacy, a prizewinning political satire based on the writer’s time as a speechwriter for former French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin during the two crucial years between 9/11 and Gulf 2—remember, when Bush made everyone hate us? It’s sort of a political tell-all meets The Office, with great cartooning by Christophe Blain. Writer Antonin Baudry is now the French cultural attaché at the NY embassy. Apart from the book’s own qualities, this was the first time I've worked so closely with an author whose English was so good, and together we actually adapted/re-wrote parts of the book, moving away from the original text.

Ah yes, and February will bring some other comics excerpts in the annual Graphics Issue at Words Without Borders: Matthias Picard’s Jeanine, the oral autobiography (so to speak) of a prostitute; Nicolas Wild’s Tehran travel memoirs, Silent Was Zarathustra; and the aforementioned Weapons of Mass Diplomacy.

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

I’m genuinely puzzled by how books find their way into my hands: some mysteriously cut ahead in the to-read line, while others jump in from elsewhere altogether. These lists never seem to match up with my stated intentions or research interests. Maybe I read them to get away from what I do? Over the past year, I enjoyed

the novels

Angela Carter, The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman (aka The War of Dreams)
Charles McCarry, The Miernik Dossier
Don Lee, Country of Origin
Steve Weiner, The Museum of Love

the collection

Robert Aickman, The Unsettled Dust

and the graphic novels

Hans Rickheit, The Squirrel Machine
Jason, A Pocketful of Rain and Other Stories
Jim Woodring, Weathercraft

The French digital comics magazine Professeur Cyclope is good fun.

I have trouble keeping track of individual stories and comics issues, but I liked some horror by David Nickle, some Daredevil by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee, Prophet by Brandon Graham, poems by Dean Young, and French short stories by Pierrette Fleutiaux, Yvonne Escoula, Sylvain Jouty, Eugène Savitzkaya, and of course, Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud.

Sunday
Feb022014

"Alive Again, and Born Double": An Interview with J.P. Grasser

J.P. Grasser is originally from Maryland. His work explores the diverse regions he has called home, most insistently his family's fish hatchery in Brady, Nebraska. He studied English and Creative Writing at Sewanee: The University of the South and is currently an MFA student in poetry at Johns Hopkins University. His work has appeared in, or is forthcoming from The Journal, Cream City Review, Ninth Letter Online, and Nashville Review, among others.

His poem, "Sign," appeared in Issue Fifty-Three of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about slanted light, pre-birth re-birth, and papyrus.

Could you talk to us about how you wrote “Sign”?

“Sign” developed from a conversation I had with my mother on a bright morning last spring. Nature was beginning to wake up, the trees were greening, and life seemed endless—though of course, the “glare” Larkin describes in “Aubade” is always crouching somewhere in the subconscious. I was particularly struck, that morning, by the magnetism of the pagan or occult in relation to spring. When she confessed that the in vitro fertilization occurred on a Friday the 13th—a day she has always (strangely?) considered to be lucky—I knew there was a poem waiting to be written. The more of the story she related, the more I was sure that it was one of those rare occasions when life provides a writer with all of the necessary symbols, and it becomes his job to synthesize, organize, and commit them to the page.

The poem went through many drafts, the initial of which was written quite quickly. Given our twin-ness, I knew it had to be in couplets, though I tried slant-rhyming couplets first. Somehow, these seemed too austere for a subject I considered tender—and already tempered by science. So, I reined the form in some, opting for internal rhyme (which seemed appropriate, given the internality of the fetuses). Once I felt I was in the right vicinity, formally, the content quickly fell into place.

The image of objects being slanted comes up twice in this poem: first, as something complicated the speaker’s mother’s pregnancy (“cervix slanted.”) At the end of the poem, we learn the light “does not come in slants, / but washes, or else grows up from the river itself.” Both times, the slanting seems negative or at least not preferable. Could you talk about your use of “slanting” in this poem?

Though I didn’t intend for “slanting” to have particularly negative connotations within the world of the poem, and wasn’t entirely conscious of the meaning during the poem’s composition, I suppose I have always carried around an image that defines winter light: somewhere, in a study that I’ve never been to, light slants through the Phoenician blinds. Dust motes dance in the light-lancets, thrown down in parallel bars to a hardwood floor. Someone has stacked books in parallel rows, on a shelf, and the light and the edges of the bindings form a type of grid. I’m not sure where this image came from, though it feels as real as any memory. The way I imagine spring light, when the world is in full swing-dance, is as a type of envelopment. Blinds and doors are thrown open, the dust is beaten from oriental rugs draped over wrought-iron railings. Children play in the street.

I have also been quite intrigued by two poems that deal with light and its qualities, which certainly influenced my treatment. Dickinson’s “A Certain Slant of Light” and Anthony Hecht’s “A Cast of Light” both inform my poem. While Dickinson views light that comes in slants as a morbid harbinger, Hecht uses the chaotic, archipelago-like pattern of light cast on a forest floor to expose the fundamental interrelatedness of all things. I like Hecht’s take a whole lot more than Dickinson’s; he suggests a type of connectedness and inclusion that I agree with completely.

In this poem the speaker muses over the different possibilities of what could have happened to a twin in the womb who had vanished: the possibility of the living twin absorbing the dead one completely, as well as the possibility of fetus papyraceus, or, as you more delicately describe it, “Or else each of my fibers pressed by your new growth / into a parchment-like disc at the base of her womb.” And yet, neither of these happened to the speaker or the speaker’s sister: instead, both reappear and live, live until the day, at least, that the speaker commits this poem to the page. Which is interesting in that it feels like a pre-birth re-birth. A re-awakening before becoming fully awake. Could you talk about this theme in your poem?

In many ways, you’ve described something fundamental to creation in any sense, but especially to art. I’m always writing to surprise myself, to wake myself up to the truth of a given situation, in the hopes of becoming fully awake in the world. What a reader’s mind does to a text is—I think—a different type of reawakening, though no less worthy. We read and explore the world around us for the same reasons we write, to sharpen perception, to wake up to our lives. Maybe every poem we write or read is a smaller order re-birth? And each time we sit down at the blank page, a type of pre-birth?

I was particularly struck that the very syndrome that might have ended me before birth was etymologically related to papyrus, a medium that has been used for artistic creation for millennia. It resonated with me, on a thematic level, that one’s job as a writer is to put life down on paper, but what if the writer became the paper? It could have easily happened, but it didn’t. Ultimately, the possibility of non-existence is at the heart of every poem, and for some, that possibility is glaring.

Could you provide our readers with some reading suggestions?

A good friend recently gave me Richard Jones’s The Correct Spelling & Exact Meaning, which I have been finding delightful in its handling of etymology, engagement with typographical characters, and syntax. While I was unfamiliar with his work, Jones has kept my critical and emotional attention fully engaged. Additionally, I have (finally!) gotten my hands on a copy of Traci Brimhall’s Our Lady of the Ruins. The poems Traci creates are always exquisitely wrought, chock-full of sprezzatura and tenderness. Of course, the poems of Philip Larkin, Richard Wilbur, and Michael Longley continue to instruct and delight me. And, I’m looking forward to picking up a copy of Erica Dawson’s The Small Blades Hurt.  

What else have you been writing recently?

I’m currently working on a full-length manuscript, which ultimately tries to reconcile my experiences on my grandfather’s fish hatchery in Brady, Nebraska with my upbringing and education near Washington, DC.

Saturday
Feb012014

"Still I Will Find Ways to Open Myself": An Interview with Kate Wyer

Kate Wyer lives in Baltimore. Her writing has appeared in Wigleaf, Unsaid, <kill author, PANK, Exquisite Corpse, and past issues of The Collagist. She attended the Summer Literary Seminars in Lithuania on a fellowship from Fence. Wyer has completed a novella and is at work on a second. She is employed in the public mental health system of Maryland.

Her story, "Land Beast, Part Two," appeared in Issue Forty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about the language of animals and the economy of bodies.

Could you talk about writing “Land Beast, Part Two”? What was it like to write a sequel to a short story?

It’s less a sequel and more of a continuation. I divided the story into parts because it felt like there should be a pause when the two rhinos meet. I also wanted readers to spend more time with her alone, to feel more, before the story shifted. I knew there would be a lot of time for the two to interact in confinement. I’m still working on Land Beast.

I had a friend from undergrad that came back from a workshop in which a classmate had written a story about a family going through a divorce from the perspective of the family cat. The workshop did not go well, because no one understood why the cat mattered--it was more of a novelty then anything. Here, though, we aren’t viewing human actions through the eyes of a beast (at least, not as the main thrust of the story) but instead understanding the beast interacting with its environment and other caged animals. Why tell this beast’s story from her perspective? How did you balance writing the life of a non-human animal in a human language?

That workshop sounds unfortunate. I hope that writer didn’t end up too discouraged to try again. I say, if there has to be a divorce story, be the cat. The cat matters.

I choose my rhino’s story because she matters. I saw a picture of an Asian rhino who had had her horn chainsawed off her face. The picture hit me. It hurt.

If I thought too much about it, I wouldn’t have been able to write the story. I found myself saying, Would a rhino say that?, but that question was just so ridiculous I had to let it all go and just write what was coming. I did get a little tripped up on whether or not the rhino would say attenuated, when she says a blanket felt like “attenuated mud.” Now, was that pushing it? Was that word in her vocabulary? Ha. I went for it.

When it comes down to it, I’m a land beast. It is my hope that the story of a brutalized female experiencing the loss of her child and her freedom transcends the boundaries of her species.

In “Land Beast,” we learn that the speaker killed a woman who was trying to get the beast to stop eating her mustard greens. In “Part Two,” the beast says “They have women handle me. Before these women, the closest I had been to one was the one I killed. The smell of that kill flares in my nose and makes me pant. How easily my body humiliates me. Shames me.” Could you talk about how the body figures into this piece and your writing, generally?

Land Beast is definitely about a loss of control over what happens to her body. She was drugged and then her body was mutilated for profit. The story comes from my real anger and despair about the economy of bodies. I mean that in the broadest sense, not just poaching and not just beasts.

When I was writing the story I became interested in how the mind is often not able to control the body. I enjoyed writing from the point of view of a rhino because they have terrible eye sight and a very, very strong sense of smell. I was able to imagine seeing through smelling and what that would mean for memory. The immediacy of smell. In my imagining, the smell completely overwhelms her and places her back in that field. Her body brings her back to violence.

The body also overpowered her grieving, or I should say, compounded it, when she thought about mating and having another calf. She felt desire and then became angry with her body for moving on before her mind processed her grief.

I have a fear of anesthesia because I can’t control who touches my body when I’m under. That fear definitely played a role in writing her story. I wrote a story that was in Issue Eleven of The Collagist back in ’10 that came from an opposite point of view—it was loosely based on Michael Jackson’s near constant desire to be unconscious.  When I write about the body, I’m writing about control. Writing a story from the point of view of an animal allowed me both distance and intimacy.

What are some of the best things that you read in 2013?

Baltimore writers had a really good year. Heather Rounds wrote a book called There (Emergency Press) that is a fictionalized account of her time as a reporter in Kurdistan. Jen Michalski had The Tide King (Black Lawrence Press), which is hard to sum up—it’s about what happens when a solider in WWII is given a Polish immorality herb.

I also read all of the English poet Alice Oswald’s work. I especially loved her Dart, which is a book-length prose poem in the voice of the huge (and deadly) river Dart in Devon, England.

What else have you been writing recently?

I started a new novel. There are three characters: a girl, a cow, and a monk. There isn’t much talking, since one of the characters is a cow, and another is a monk who has taken a vow of silence.  

I have a novella, titled Black Krim, that’s ready for the world.

And, as an aside, I want to mention that the Western Black Rhinoceros went extinct in 2013. The International Rhino Foundation is one conversation organization working hard on behalf of the remaining animals. I recommend visiting their site.