Tuesday
May132014

"Everyone is Alive in Sleep": An Interview with Justin Carter

Justin Carter is an MFA candidate at Bowling Green State University & co-editor of Banango Street. His recent work appears in The Bakery, Hobart, Red Lightbulbs, & other spaces. He blogs about sports at Poets on Sports & never uses his blog.

His poem, "2003," appeared in Issue of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Christinia Oddo about dialogue, the moon, and subverting expectations.

Dialogue and image work closely together in this piece. Did the dialogue aid the development of the imagery, or did the threads of images help create the dialogue? Is the relationship mutual?

I think this was one of my first attempts at using dialogue in a poem, though. I was taking a class with Kevin Prufer & was obsessed with his poem “Churches,” especially with the way the poem moves across the page & the sort-of seamless way the voices in the poem interact. I’d been writing drafts of this for awhile, mostly these single-stanza messes, & I had the images down, but they were lacking something, some final tweak that would pull the poem together. Getting more voices into the piece helped the images pop more. There’s so much emphasis in the poem about the speaker not being present that getting the nurse & the grandfather’s voices in there helped it become cohesive.

The grandfather asks, “Do you want to know the score” “behind a hollow cough.” This is paralleled by the following funeral; at this point, “nothing is said,” and “The moon hides behind the sky.” What symbolic significance does the moon hold for you personally, and for the narrator? 

I didn’t really think about the symbolic nature of the moon when writing this poem. The moon, in this poem, doesn’t really function much like the moon, really. Both times it shows up, it’s during an implied daylight—of course the moon is hiding at the funeral, because the funeral happens during the day. But, I suppose there’s some significance to this moon. Everything happens in cycles here—the seasons (both nature & football), the use of “then” to signify the movement of time. Everything is being pulled along by this moon &, when we see it hiding, we’ve reached a point where nothing is being pulled, when the world of the speaker quietly refuses to move. That’s one reason I used the asterisks here (which, as these little suns, are almost the moon’s opposites), because the sudden shift they represent means we never get closure on the previous scene. It’s still there, always, this funeral and this hidden moon. The second time we see the moon, well—it’s being sliced in half. In Texas, the moon shows up during the afternoon pretty often (my childhood bestfriend & I once wrote a song together with the lines I see the moon/ on a blue sky afternoon), & it’s less about the moon here than it is about the act of violence that the plane is doing. In this final moment before we return to the dream, the physical world has been physically altered, a reflection on how the speaker’s world has been altered by loss.

Everyone is alive in sleep, as in everyone has the potential to be tangible in dream. “Then we are asleep again,” and maybe the possibility exists that the grandfather may stay alive (in dream)(Dallas, in this dream, has the potential to win). The end to 2003 leaves the reader somewhat hopeful, yet there is something sad about this essence of hopefulness. What signaled the end of this piece for you?

I wanted the end of the poem to provide a little uplift, even though it’s clear from the narrative that it’s an artificial uplifting. In undergrad, I took a class with Tony Hoagland & Tony kept telling me that my poems tended toward a depressed fatalism. When I wrote this, I wanted to do something to break out of that mold. It’s easy for a poem about death to be this hopeless thing, to follow this expected trajectory of “person dies, people are sad,” but sometimes poems need to subvert expectations. Am I sad that my grandfather died? Sure, but that doesn’t mean the poem has to wallow in that sadness. Anything can happen in a dream. Back in ‘04/’05, I had a recurring one in which I’d ride home from school & find my grandfather walking down the road, disoriented but alive, & he’d sit down at our dining room table & tell us how he got tired of the pressures of being the same person for so many years & just wanted to run away for a little bit. My goal at the end was for the poem to express that same dream hope.

What are you currently reading?

I’m perma-reading Lynda Hull’s Ghost Money book. Jane Mead’s The Lord and the General Din of the World & Andrew McFadyen Ketchum’s Ghost Gear have both recently slain me, just perfect collections. I flew down to Denton recently & read Anna Journey & Benjamin Landry’s new books on the plane.  I’ve also been reading fiction lately, finally exposing myself to Michael Martone and rereading some Brock Clarke. I also just picked up a non-fiction book about fingers.

What are you currently writing?

I’m fleshing out my MFA thesis right now, trying to cut the bad & revise the mediocre & figure out what narratives are popping out & what I need to do to turn it into a cohesive project. I’m also working on two side things. The first is a series of linked prose poems called I Remember You Well In The Charlottesville Motel, essentially a novella about a couple who can’t find the home they want & have to keep moving around the country searching for it. The other is another series. I’m a huge Houston Rockets fan &, well, it’s playoff time right now, so I’m writing these poetic-reviews of each playoff game.

Tuesday
Apr222014

Episode 14: The Collagist Podcast - Mai Der Vang

Mai Der Vang reads "When the Mountains Rose Beneath Us, We Became the Valley" from Issue 51 of The Collagist. She also discusses the inspiration of her poems and recommends "What My Father Might Say, If I Let Him Speak" by Geffrey Davis from Issue 53 and the classic "Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden.

Mai Der Vang’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Missouri Review OnlineThe CollagistWeave Magazine, Red Branch, The Boiler,The Lantern Review, and Troubling Borders: An Anthology of Art and Literature by Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora, among othersAs an editorial member of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle, Mai Der served as co-editor of How Do I Begin: A Hmong American Literary Anthology. She is an MFA candidate in poetry at Columbia University, a Kundiman fellow, and has completed residencies at Hedgebrook.

Saturday
Apr122014

“What if Sex Is Just Sex?”: An Interview with Michelle Seaton 

Michelle Seaton’s fiction and creative nonfiction has appeared in One Story, Harvard Review, Sycamore Review, Lake Effect and in Best American Nonrequired Reading among others. She has been a longtime contributor to the National Public Radio sports show, “Only a Game.” She is also the co-author of several books, including The Way of Boys (William Morrow, 2009). Michelle teaches memoir and creative nonfiction at Grub Street in Boston. She is also the lead instructor and created the curriculum for the Memoir Project, a program that offers free memoir classes to senior citizens in Boston city neighborhoods. The project has visited fourteen Boston neighborhoods and produced four anthologies. 

Her story, "But Are They Still Doing It?" appeared in Issue Fifty-Six of The Collagist.

Here, Michelle Seaton talks to interviewer Thomas Calder about allowing your character to think your most embarrassing thoughts, galloping plots, and Rex Ryan.

I love how we get told the story through gossip. It adds such a rich layer of complexity to what could have otherwise been a sad, but somewhat typical story had the gossip not been there. Was this the format from the get-go, or did it come about through the drafting process?

The story was always a story of reported gossip, and it was always a story about a woman finding out about her husband’s affair. In a way that is the most mundane plot in the world, and yet it’s the one that these women can discuss endlessly. I’ve participated in a few of these kinds of conversations and I’ve always found that gossip is incredibly compelling, but also fills me with despair. I can’t stand the glee of the people talking and yet I can’t stop listening.

The pacing of this piece is fantastic. The topics these women discuss gradually get darker and more threatening to their own lives. Did you outline the piece before writing it, or again, was this something that came about through revisions?

Once I started writing the story, I couldn’t stop writing it until I had a complete draft, and I knew where it was going from the start. I went to a party once in which a woman showed up with her estranged husband. I knew her only slightly, and yet I knew she’d had an affair and that she’d left her husband. Everyone knew. And when they showed up together, holding hands, a surge of panic went through the room, and I knew I was going to use that here. The arc was clear and yet early drafts of the story failed because the women telling the story weren’t revealing enough about why they were obsessed with her story and her pain. The narrator didn’t have enough compassion for the characters engaging in the gossip. I think that’s always a danger in a story where the plot is moving at a gallop. It’s easy for the characters to become props.

The title of the piece is: “But Are They Still Doing It?” For many of the women in this story, sex seems to function not as something intimate and pleasurable, but rather a way of protecting their relationship. If the sex is there, so too must be the relationship. Is this a fair assessment of these characters logic?

Absolutely. I think it’s at the core of so much questionable advice women give to each other about marriage. Have more sex, and your marriage will be okay. But what if sex is just sex? And what if marriage is more of a business arrangement, an economic partnership with assets and shared goals? And what if that is essentially boring? In the story I also wanted to dwell on the financial threat to all of them. If your mortgage is under water and your job could end at any time and if you’ve got kids who require a huge, ongoing financial and emotional investment, then the stakes of divorce are unthinkable. They are unthinkable until you have to think about them.

How much fun was it to write a bunch of characters who want reassurance so very badly, but who are so unwilling to directly discuss their own issues and insecurities?

Their insecurities are my insecurities about getting older, about money, and about sex, and dwelling on my insecurities isn’t that much fun. But it is fun to give my worst and most embarrassing thoughts and traits to someone else, or in this case, to a group. In fiction, your characters can have the feelings you would never admit to, and they can say and do all the things that would get you in trouble.

The character of Jennifer seems really important. She’s the one character who both participates in the gossip and eventually finds herself the victim of gossip. Can you talk more about her story and the way you went about creating her character?

It’s great that you noticed her. The challenge of this story was to make sure you can see the women as individuals, and I think you can in several cases. They each have a style of responding to every event in the story. Yet, Jennifer was the only one for whom I imagined a detailed backstory. She has about five pages of interaction with the group that I never used about her husband’s first wife and her step-children. It informed only a few of the lines in revision, but those lines are important. Also, I knew the group would fracture at some point, that there would have to be factions and that someone would get pushed out, because someone is always pushed out of these groups.

You’re an essayist, a creative nonfiction instructor, a co-author of books covering topics from the psychological to the biological, and a fiction writer. All but poetry, it seems. Are you the type of writer who can work on several projects at once, or do prefer focusing in on one?

I’m always working on a lot of projects and helping other writers with their projects. Right now I’m helping someone write a book about cancer so I have to learn about the effects of chemotherapy on the body. I’ve been helping a writer with a project about South Sudan, so I’ve been learning about the war and poverty in that region, and about the shaky politics that plague new nations. Yesterday I was editing part of student’s memoir on fighting with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Today I owe a story about private jets to an editor. Actually, it was due last week. So, if you want to know about the Gulfstream G650, I can tell you what a new one costs ($71 million) and its cruising speed (670 mph) and I know I’m going to spend time today studying the seat configurations and the avionics. I like thinking about so many different subjects. I find that projects pollinate each other, and they inform my short stories, but when I’m really busy, like now, working on darker nonfiction, my short stories tend to contain more humor and more sex. 

Lastly, what book recommendations are you making these days?   

Oh, dear. This is where I get embarrassed because I’m no book snob. I love a narrative that moves and I want to be obsessed with the story. If you pick up Rape: A Love Story by Joyce Carol Oates, or The Virgins by Pamela Erens or The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison, you’ll be up late. I promise. I’m also waiting for my husband to finish Collision Low Crossers so I can read about Rex Ryan and the Jets. I’m no fan of the NFL, but I’ve covered football and I know the culture, and Rex Ryan fascinates me. All football coaches do. I bought The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer for my son, but he hasn’t read it, so I’m stealing it from him. (He’s reading The Whisper first). As a YA title, it seems to have the perfect mix of politics and science and outsized characters, which is the sweet spot for me.

Thanks!

Friday
Mar212014

Episode 13: The Collagist Podcast - Kendra DeColo

Kendra DeColo reads "The Vocalist" and "I Heart Pussy" from Issue 42. She also discusses the inspiration of her poems and recommends "Man Hanging Upside Down" by Patrick Rosal from Issue 7.

Kendra DeColo is the author of Thieves in the Afterlife (Saturnalia Books, 2014), selected by Yusef Komunyakaa for the 2013 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming inSouthern Indiana Review, The Collagist, CALYX, Muzzle Magazine,and elsewhere. She is the recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Tennessee Arts Commission, a work-study scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and residencies from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Millay Colony. The founding poetry editor of Nashville Review and a Book Review Editor at Muzzle Magazine, she lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

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.