Wednesday
Feb282018

"Telephones, Kitchens, and Moms": An Interview with Erinrose Mager 

 

Erinrose Mager’s fiction appears or will appear in The Adroit Journal, DIAGRAM, Hyphen, Passages North, New South, and elsewhere. She is co-editor of The Official Catalog of the Library of Potential Literature (Lit Pub Books) and Creative Writing/Literature PhD candidate at the University of Denver. She received her MFA from Washington University in St. Louis.

Her story, "Before Bedtime with Kate," appeared in Issue Seventy-Eight of The Collagist.
 

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about what we do while we talk on the phone, cat-inspiration, and corking up our stories.

How did this story, “Before Bedtime with Kate,” begin for you?

I guess the short answer is: I’ve always liked telephones and kitchens and moms. The longer answer is: at the time of this story’s conception my friend and MFA cohort-mate Edward Herring was writing a book called Answering Machine. He calls it a “novel out loud.” He and I talked a lot about phones and recorded voice—about what it’s like to speak with/to/about someone via telephone and what that communication over distance or absence of physical presence might look like in prose—how and to what extent those conversations might speak to longing and/[f]or memory. Also, I enjoy thinking about the simultaneity of domestic activity that takes place while two people are on the phone with each other and likewise puttering around their homes, touching objects or pacing or cleaning or drawing or hanging out with cats. It’s a weird intimacy, the phone call. I recognize that this isn’t a revelation.

You start the story by dropping us into a phone conversation between Kate and her mother. Why did you choose to bottle the story into this moment? Was there ever a draft of this story that stretched beyond the edges of the phone call?

To use your word: I like bottling; cork it up, I say! I began “Before Bedtime with Kate” as it stands now, more or less. I often start a piece knowing more about what I want to elide than what I want to foreground. So “Before Bedtime” was always a little story, even at its onset. I think I wanted it to stay little because the scene is little and the exchange is little and it’s important to honor smallness, especially in prose.

If someone were to overhear a phone call between you and a family member, what would that phone call reveal?

An overheard call might reveal that my mom is wicked funny and wicked worried about me all the time i.e. she’s a great mom. Also, I often clean my toilet when I talk to my mom on weekends, and perhaps she takes offense to this, but it’s actually a high honor—maybe the highest. She says, “You’re cleaning the toilet again,” I say yes, and we both laugh. So I guess the call might also reveal my mild anal retentiveness, though my fiction might reveal that aspect of my personhood anyway.

What is inspiring your work these days?

Recently I read The Week by Joanna Ruocco; her asymmetrical, stilted realities are livening. Steven Dunn’s Potted Meat is brimming and discomfiting and prismatic; I revisited it a few months ago and I’m grateful that I did. I also read, finally, Pamela: A Novel by Pamela Lu as part of a workshop with Selah Saterstrom; Lu takes these wide, sentence-level berths away from a phrase’s subject only to circle back, consecutionally, and lines later. That clausal movement astounds me. I rarely read an entire poetry collection in one sitting, but I read Simone White’s Of Being Dispersed without stopping, struck by its pivots and fractures. As for non-books: I haven’t been that inspired by television lately (and I love television) so any recommendations are appreciated. My cat inspires me all the time because he’s so particular and serious about everything.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m trying to write a novel, but it (the novel, the trying) is going poorly. PhD school has slowed my writing process considerably, and I’m resigned. I’m also trying to make sense of a story collection, which feels unwieldy and uneven right now. To use a former professor’s term: I’m trying to find/mute all the ‘bad echoes' in the collection. With two friends (Hannah Waters and Marta Evans) I am editing a collaborative anthology that melds scientific research and speculative fiction, but we’re still figuring out preliminary logistics, and this work involves much trial and error and email.

Tuesday
Feb272018

"We Drive in Circuitous Routes": An Interview with Eddie Kim

Eddie Kim received his MFA in Poetry from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He is a Kundiman fellow from Seattle who served as the inaugural Pacific Northwest Kundiman Regional Chair. He spent two summers as poetry faculty at UVA's Young Writers Workshop and was invited as a poetry guest speaker for the Robinson School for Young Scholars. He is currently experiencing major life changes.

His poem, "In Search of Aliens," appeared in Issue Seventy of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with inteviewer Courtney Flerlage about balance, brontosaurs, and landscape.

How did “In Search of Aliens” get started for you?

My friend and I were on a road trip from Los Angeles to New York, by way of the South. Some of the images formed from observations as we drove out of California. I often find ideas for poems as a passenger, whether in a car or on a bus. There’s something about the rhythm of the road and the freedom to let your mind wander that I find generative. Sometimes it turns into something, sometimes it doesn’t.

I’m interested in the way imagery generates a conversation between wonder and reality in “In Search of Aliens.” As the speaker describes driving through “The corridor East from Los Angeles,” they see, for example, “golden / brontosaurs, but brontosaurs are not real anymore, / demoted by way of Pluto.” Later, the speaker summarizes the drive as “nothing but curiosity and semis accompanying heat,” a line I read as exemplifying the speaker’s relationship to the landscape—driven by a thirst for the spectacular, met with the daunting reminders of reality.  Yet in the final lines of the poem, it is the speaker’s search, itself, that becomes spectacular; the speaker shares, “I’ve been using sesame oil for sunscreen / and now my arms are the color of Mars.” The speaker finds themselves promoted to a planet-like status as the speaker drives on in “circuitous routes.” This wonder that drives the poem remains urgent and real, even as the images of the poem—dinosaurs, “Mech Warriors,” planets—are fantastic. Could you share a bit about this balance—how do you craft images of wonder in such a measured way?  

My father had also recently passed away, and this was the first time I’d driven cross-country. I wanted to do something that made me feel alive and wild, perhaps even reckless or self-destructive. I was completely out of balance in my life, and I wanted to do something that pushed the thought of loss out of my mind. Which, I imagine, is quite common. But even when we do these things, I think things are always there to remind us of reality. Sometimes it’s a semi passing by; sometimes it’s unbearable heat. At the time, I wanted to get lost in wonder and possibility, but something would always bring me back, be it fear, insecurity, or uncertainty. I don’t think I was conscious of it while writing the poem, but it was an internal struggle that I was dealing with, a conversation I was certainly having within: a need for balance, a desire to be wild/self-destructive, and questioning everything in-between. I couldn’t say I was cognizant of the balance you point out in the poem as I was writing it, but I was certainly craving it on some level. Everything felt out of whack and this poem was perhaps one place I could begin to find that balance. Even a poem can crave some semblance of balance. If the images are only fantastical, it can lose its humanity. If the images are too grounded, it can lose its sense of exploration and wonder.  A poem is a place where reality and wonder can reside together, where they can become interchangeable. We were driving through Roswell as I was working on the poem, which seemed very appropriate. The ostensibly fantastical notion of aliens surrounded by a town seemingly built on the commercialization of that possibility.

In the last line of the second stanza, after mentioning Pluto as having been “demoted,” the speaker concludes, “All facts / from my childhood are suspect.” This declaration resonates against the stanza that follows, in which the speaker remembers a teacher’s trick for spelling the word “deserts” with “one less S” because “It’s not something you want more of.” I find this moment both clarifying and complicating: the same “errors” of the speaker’s landscape—those brontosaurs, for instance—that inspire the speaker to doubt certainty also call into question—by way of juxtaposition—this assumption that the speaker’s landscape is undesirable. The logic feels wonderfully paradoxical, an expression of the complications of caring for—and questioning—a familiar landscape. At what point in your process did this memory enter the poem? Has the poem ever existed without it? 

Thank you so much, that is very kind of you to say. Yes, the initial draft of the poem did not include the memory of the teacher. The memory occurred to me after a sort of amalgamation of thoughts as I was going over the poem. At that point, I’d mostly lived closer to coast or somewhat coastal areas, be it Seattle or Kotzebue. When I lived in Fairbanks, it was the most land-locked I had been, and I regularly craved for ocean smells and seagulls. I was used to being near water, so I’d never thought of a desert as someplace I’d find connection with or even want to visit necessarily. So, in thinking about this, and then going over the poem, the brontosaurs and desert we were driving through brought back that memory. I was questioning all those things we learn and take on as our own knowledge, as simple facts that make up who we are and often neglect to question. Brontosaurs were very real to me as a kid, and if they cease to be, everything is open for questioning, myself included, as well as how I see the world and my place in it.

What are you reading right now that you’d recommend?

Most recently, I’ve been reading poems by Jane Wong, Michelle Peñaloza, and Dan Lau. I am inspired by their work.

What project(s) do you have in the works?

I am currently working on a poetry manuscript that explores the wonders and myths we create for ourselves and miss on a daily basis. They span various experiences from childhood to present, which sounds kind of lame when I word it like that, but I more and more like the notion of time being a figment, of past, present, and future happening simultaneously. In which case, one might argue that the stories that make up our lives and feel the need to share, regardless of when they happened, are always relevant because they’re happening now. At the very least, they’re certainly happening in my head.

Monday
Feb052018

"Aroused then Ashamed": An Interview with Patrick Dundon

Patrick Dundon is a graduate of the MFA program at Syracuse University where he served as Editor-in-Chief for Salt Hill Journal. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in BOAAT, Sixth Finch, The Adroit Journal, Birdfeast, DIAGRAM, Word Riot, and elsewhere. He currently lives, writes, and teaches preschool in Portland, OR.

His poems, "Dream with a Piece of Cake," "Dream with Explanations" and "Dream with a Potted Plant," appeared in Issue Ninety-Two of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Christina Oddo about broken relationships, allegorical violence, and writing & repeating.

What really caught me about this work was the contrasting images, presented line-by-line. The first line, “[w]e are in your garden,” creates illusion of a peaceful continuation to follow. Yet the second line, “slaughtering rabbits,” immediately disturbs this. And so the work goes. What kind of advice can you give to new or aspiring writers who are looking to create stark images like this?

When I wrote this poem, I was in the midst of a sexually ambiguous relationship that was driving me crazy. It was a mixture of tenderness, alienation, fantasy, spastic sexual energy, confusion, hope, and lots of miscommunication. I’d tried writing about it, but everything I wrote felt too forced or cliché, filled with contrived anger or longing. Then one morning I gave up whatever emotional agenda I thought I had, closed my eyes, and imagined us together. Where were we? What were we doing? And there we were, in that garden, killing little bunnies. At first I was alarmed—Why so violent? What did it mean? I had no idea, but it felt like the beginning of a movie I definitely wanted to watch. The rest of the writing process felt less like writing and more like watching that movie play out to its natural conclusion. I hate it when writers say “the poem wrote itself” because it’s the kind of advice that is 100% unhelpful, but some poems really feel that way, and this was one of them. I wrote it quickly, in one sitting. But I’d already spent weeks obsessing about this relationship: writing bad poems, texting friends, crying while listening to the Cranberries, having strange dreams, screaming in my car, soothing myself with frosties at Wendy’s. That was all an essential part of the writing process—the path that led to this particular garden.

I know I’ve hit a good image when I can’t quite parse it, when it’s emotionally impactful but there’s no way to summarize that impact except with the image itself. Before I ever started writing poetry, I obsessively recorded my dreams. I like how the right dream image can be emotionally rich, psychologically ambiguous, and gesture toward many meanings without landing on one. It’s so difficult to offer advice about image-making, because the best images, for me, arise suddenly like waking dreams but feel as real and familiar as my own hands. They are a relief to unearth, not a thrill to invent.

There is also a disconnect between the human-touch and violence. “[S]laughtering,” “knife,” and “blood,” conflict with “lean in” and “kiss.” And then in the second-to-last line, the “fuck you” disrupts anything pleasant already presented, much like “slaughtering rabbits” in the second line. What does this disconnect mean to you, and what were you hoping to convey to readers?

Right after I wrote this poem, I texted it to a friend, expecting her response to be something like, “are you okay?” I set out to write a love poem, and ended up with a pile of carcasses. I was aware of the disconnect you mentioned, between human touch and violence but wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. I’m still not. What interests me most about love isn’t its achievement, but instead the gulf that exists between our fantasies and the messiness of reality. It’s in that gap where the imagination can go wild. It’s the moment in the poem when the speaker sees a piece of cake in a bloodstain. This is a reason I like to write about dreams: they are a space where we reconcile our fantasies, where those fantasies cross-pollinate with our subconscious baggage.

I think it’s important that this poem is, in fact, a dream. There are no real rabbits, no actual fucking. That casts the violence in a different light, one that’s consciously more allegorical. My friend just broke up with her boyfriend and told me she has recurrent dreams that she’s strangling him. The dreams are less about killing him and more about silencing him. My favorite dreams are the ones that resist a single interpretation, that gesture toward a complicated psychological state. Here it’s a mixture of desire, daydream, violence, shame, lust, and working toward a common goal. I don’t like having too tight an analysis on what my poems mean. If I knew exactly what I were trying to say, I’d write an essay. Which isn’t to say that the poem lacks intent. I wanted to show what it felt like to cry to that Cranberries song.

What are you working on currently?

I wake up, drink coffee, stare, write, repeat. Some days, there’s a good line or image. Most days, there isn’t. I can’t seem to get away from writing about love, desire, heartbreak, and alienation. I used to feel a certain pressure to write about other things, but when I forced myself into different subject matters, it never seemed to work. Desire and heartbreak is my particular burrow, my tunnel into the self.

I tend to write the most when I’m emotionally jostled, when I have excess energy I need to transmute with language. My most creative state is probably that moment when I’m waiting for a text from someone I have a crush on. It’s awful. It always yields a poem.

I’ve been writing more prose recently. There’s something about alleviating the pressure to create “a poem” that can free me up to say what I really mean. What results is often a poem without lines. I’ll take it.

What have you read recently?

I recently read “The Idiot” by Elif Batuman and really loved it. I pretty much always have a copy of “The Incognito Lounge” by Denis Johnson with me. My friend Abbey Numedahl just sent me a story she wrote that was stunningly beautiful and made me cry. Oh, and sometimes I re-read texts and emails from former lovers.  Which I don’t recommend, but I just can’t help myself.

Wednesday
Jan312018

"The Man Remains in His Dark": An Interview with Jessica Newman

Jessica Newman currently lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where she is a doctoral candidate in rhetoric and composition. Along with other degrees from other places, she received her MFA from the University of Notre Dame. Recent work has appeared in the Denver Quarterly, Redivider, PANK, Caketrain and elsewhere.

Her story, "The Doctors and the Very Tender Man," appeared in Issue Seventy-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about beginning the writing process with a title, fairy tales, and perspective shifts.

How did “The Doctors and the Very Tender Man” begin for you?

The putting of pen to paper of this story began with a title—“The _______ and the Very Tender Man” —and I wrote the first paragraphs in an empty train on the long ride from Harlem into Brooklyn. These paragraphs expanded on what was already present in the title—the man’s tenderness—but it was not long before doctors and medication emerged, and I began to purposefully incorporate them into the plot and then into the title.

The content, or maybe the atmosphere, of the story began much earlier, with my own experience with medication, my own “strangest of weather.” Because the pieces that I write tend to unfold from a sentence or from scraps of phrases, the fact that “The Doctors and the Very Tender Man” developed from a title—an encapsulation of the piece—suggests to me that in this case my experience was particularly fundamental.

This story reads like a fairy tale. How do you think the conventions or restraints of fairy tales can shape the way we tell modern stories?

One of my favorite things about building off of fairy tales (whether retelling a particular tale or drawing on general fairy tale traditions) is that their conventions are ingrained in many readers. This allows the writer freedom to subvert those conventions and/or to use them to keep readers anchored as the writer experiments with other aspects of the text (such as using language in unexpected ways).

Halfway through the story, the focus shifts from the tender man to the woman who brings him groceries. Why was this shift important to the telling of the story?

The man is shaped by his physical relation with the world, particularly with people, with women. In my understanding of the man’s story, the most important development is not in his illness but in how he knows others. The story could only end, then, with a woman. The shift to the woman’s perspective was not a conscious choice, but rather one that made sense once it happened, and I see it having three major effects.

First, at the point of the perspective shift, the man is sunk in the time stretching out inside of him. He is background only and must remain that way for us as readers as the woman emerges. A shift to the woman’s perspective allows us to get to know her character while the man remains in his dark.

Also, the perspective shift allows us to better understand the man. We have so far been entrenched in him, inside hearing about his outside. The perspective shift allows us to see his surface, which has defined him, and to see things happening around him, to him.

Finally, the shift in perspective lets us experience how the woman feels about the man. The ending would fall differently if we did not see the tenderness that she feels toward him, the intimacy that comes from her seeing him bared.

If the first section of this story is the man’s, the second section is perhaps the woman’s, and the final section is them interlaced.

What are you reading these days that you’d like to recommend?

Right now, the majority of my reading revolves around my dissertation (which looks at the intersection of writing center studies, community engaged scholarship and listening studies) and teaching. This semester, I’m teaching a course on how women are represented in literature, and I’m excited to discuss Doug Rice’s Dream Memoirs of a Fabulist and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, among other great texts.

I’m also looking forward to reading Calling a Wolf a Wolf, by Kaveh Akbar, after coming across his work in a recent Denver Quarterly. And I just ordered Laura Ellen Joyce’s The Luminol Reels. The excerpt I read in Sleepingfish promises a beautiful and violent morbidness.

Do you have any reading or writing related goals for 2018?

My overall reading and writing goal for the new year is to do a better job of carving out a mental space where I’m allowed to read and write something (anything) not primarily related to my dissertation. I’d also like to work toward having my doctoral work drive rather than drain my literary work, and vice versa. Specifically, I plan to return to and complete the book-length project that I’ve been working on for some time.

Monday
Jan222018

"We Pointed to the Sky at Dusk": An Interview with Hanif Abdurraqib 

Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, writer, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His first collection of poems, The Crown Ain't Worth Much, was released by Button Poetry in 2016. His first essay collection, They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, is forthcoming from Two Dollar Radio in November.

His poem, "A Poem in Which I Name the Bird," appeared in Issue Ninety-Three of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Christina Oddo about about the writing process as a sonic process, specificity, and the struggle between comfort and loneliness.

The language flows smoothly throughout this piece, and I think one of the main reasons for this is the breath that you allow in between the two-line stanzas. What prompted you to format this poem in that way?

I think that I’m often trying to figure out a way to find my own breath in poems, and a way to let the poem do that is to write it and then let it tell me how it wants to be heard out loud. I think the writing process is also a sonic process – one of sound. I commit myself to writing in blocks, and then reading the work out loud to see how it might best fill a room. I chose to format the poem in the way the breaths in it were asking to live in a world where I (one day!) will read it out loud.

What role does the image of the bird play for you in this piece?

Promise and protection, surely. The image also began as somewhat of a soft directive to some brilliant young writers at the Kenyon Young Writers summer program. So many of them had birds in their poems, and I’d ask “ok, what kind of bird?” and they’d all be stuck. And so I demanded that they name the birds in their poems, and they asked the same of me. I was interested in how much more endearing language can become if we lean into specificity.

The seventh and last stanzas are in conflict. The seventh stanza illuminates the presence of human touch, while the last stanza sort of breaks that previous peacefulness. In another way, those two stanzas mirror one another—human touch is never really accessed in the seventh stanza, there are only images of the yearning for permanent warmth. What were you trying to reveal through this language?

Ultimately, the poem is about the tension between comfort and loneliness, and I tried to make that come to life by being as explicit as possible in the short distance of the images of touch and not. How comfort and loneliness can be kind of siblings, in a way.

 What projects are you currently working on?

I’m working on a biography of A Tribe Called Quest due out late this year or early next, which means I’m having a great time digging in old hip hop archives and pulling out stunning gems I hadn’t accessed before. Even as someone who loves the music, there’s always another hidden something or other around a corner to dig up. I’m also working on my second full-length collection of poems—which this poem is from. It is a project unlike my first collection of poems, focused on the interior of isolation and what it is to look for joy there.

What have you recently read that you would recommend to poetry lovers, young or old?

I really loved Beast Meridian by Vanessa Angélica Villarreal. Eve Ewing’s Electric Arches works in every possible way, in every possible room. Angela Veronica Wong is one of my favorite contemporary poets, and last year she released a book called Elsa: An Unauthorized Biography, and I truly loved it. Changed me.

Saturday
Jan202018

"Somewhere, Maybe Here": An Interview with Julia Shipley

Julia Shipley is the author of a debut collection, The Academy of Hay, which was a finalist for the 2016 Vermont Book Award. Her work has also appeared in Green Mountains Review, Gettysburg Review, Harvard Review online, Orion, Poetry, and Verse Daily.

Her poem, "Porcupine," appeared in Issue Ninety-Three of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Christina Oddo about ragmented speech, the challenge of revealing something appealing, and secrets of a porcupine.

The format, of course, caught my eye immediately, even before I began reading. What prompted this decision?

I wanted the poem to reenact the tree’s crevice graphically (along the lines of “form is an extension of content”).  Also, in heightened situations, (of extreme cold or intense emotion) speech tends to issue in fragments, in bursts, in quills-- if you will--of expression, and so I hoped to recreate that staggered phrasing.

I think a lot of young or new poets and writers struggle with finding the perfect symbol, metaphor or image for a piece—something that can drive the work, the anticipated themes and the beautiful language. What advice can you give to us in this regard?

Um, I think a lot of middle-aged and quasi-experienced writers also struggle? Or at least this poet does. I think the objective (at any age remains) to begin and investigate and obey something that seizes you—a scene, a phrase, and an object. And then the challenge remains: to find out what else this scene /phrase/ object is about and reveal that in a way that’s appealing, intriguing and relevant.

Also, (I am now going to try to say what I said above in a different way) when I arrive at the page with an agenda, with something “I want to say”—I am infinitely less successful than when I try and slow dance with the information on hand, taking my cues from it. I can’t force poems. Maybe others can, but I can’t.

How were you able to pinpoint the porcupine as the source of what makes this poem so great?

I love your question with its embedded pun, right?—pinpoint the porcupine?

First of all, it’s a pretty crazy animal—its very body is a weapon. Also, like many things in my life—I  never actually saw this porcupine because the animal had merged with the tree (in more than one way), but I sensed its presence.  I can think of so many other instances where I can’t point (pun) to a truth, but I can feel it, the clues are everywhere. Much like the existence of a secret: this animal was both hidden and evident.

What experience, if any, led you to find this image—the porcupine—as suitable to expose your current and deepest sentiments?

I think I work opposite or reverse to the way this question is phrased. I start with a memory, a scene, an idea and tunnel into it (like the porcupine) to find out why it interests me; I get a draft down and work with what’s interesting.

I think it might enrich this interview to mention this poem took about 10 years to write. At first it was a pretty unremarkable prose paragraph, which included a line about how the porcupine was stuffed up in the tree the way a woman wears a tampon. (I know: Lovely!)

I found the structure late in the game (trying to recreate a tree’s cavity with the form of the poem, as well simulating the way intense expression is exhaled in bits (or at least that's the way I stutter towards my point). I shared later versions of the poem with an online poetry class and got feed back about what wasn't clear and clarified based on that input.

What are you working on?

My first collection The Academy of Hay crashed the idea of  “female” into the idea “farmer.” My current/subsequent obsession is a deliberate confusion/misunderstanding/mash-up of “ingestion” and “pregnancy.” So I am getting ready to give four of my non poetry reading friends a draft of the manuscript with the working title: An Animal Inside an Animal to get their input. I was really inspired by Ada Limon who said her poems in Bright Dead Things were written to engage the most immediate people in her life, and not just her literary cohort/poetic contemporaries.

What have you read recently?

I’ve been engrossed with Anne Carson’s Float, Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars, and Elizabeth Scanlon’s Lonesome Gnosis. A consequence of (sometimes) reviewing books, I no longer simply read a book, as much as I interrogate it. Structure? Sequence? Themes?…and all these aforementioned books keep yielding to second and third reads, keep teaching me things about poems and collections of poems. Meanwhile I’m eagerly awaiting Jenny George’s debut collection The Dream of Reason. Also, I’m a huge fan/cyber-stalker of Jill Osier’s poems.

Tuesday
Jan162018

"How Soon the Stable World Vanishes": An Interview with Patricia Clark

Patricia Clark is Poet-in-Residence and Professor in the Department of Writing at Grand Valley State University. Author of four volumes of poetry, Patricia’s latest book is Sunday Rising. She has also published a chapbook titled Given the Trees. Her work has been featured on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily, also appearing in The Atlantic, Gettysburg Review, Poetry, Slate, and Stand. Recent work appears (or is forthcoming) in Kenyon Review, New England Review, Southern Humanities Review, North American Review, Plume, and elsewhere.

Her poem, "Vertigo," appeared in Issue of Sixty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Courtney Flerlage about instability in form, shifts, and a poem's strangeness. 

Where did your poem “Vertigo” start for you?

It started in a couple of ways. Years ago, I had a couple incidents with vertigo. If you’ve never had it, count yourself lucky! What I had is called BPV: “benign positional vertigo.” The doctor showed me some techniques to help alleviate it, and (knock wood) it hasn’t returned. A few years after that, though, my sister Kathy got very sick and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I wrote about her illness a lot, my reaction and feelings about it. Somehow I hit on writing about the sensation of having vertigo as a metaphor for knowing she was very ill and likely going to die. It threw me; it unhinged me.

The poem really takes off for me in the fourth stanza. After describing the physical sensation of vertigo as “the world unhinged, aswirl, a tent uprooted,” the metaphor of the speaker’s stomach as an “uneasy sea” kicks the poem into an imaginative address: “oh ocean-sick sailor, how will you board / the tanker for the next port.” I love how the poem turns stranger here, emphasizing the speaker’s distress by switching briefly to the second person and then returning to the first.  In this way, the poem itself experiences a shift in grounding as it wavers between point of view and context. Could you discuss this shift? How did you decide it was right for the poem?

I’m glad that the shift in the poem works. I realized it was quite strange and I decided, instinctively, to just go with it. So it wasn’t so much as a decision as feeling sure, in the revision process, that this strangeness was part of what I was trying to have a reader experience.

Syntax and organization work so well in the poem to make the sensation of “Vertigo” feel real and urgent for the reader. The first sentence, a question, lasts for almost four stanzas, and it’s continually driven forward by commas and dashes; meanwhile, the line breaks within prevent any kind of rhythmic balance, each triplet clipped short at the third line so that the reader trips from one stanza to the next. It seems to me that conveying this sense of imbalance through line length is difficult to pull off—it's easy for that kind of move to turn gimmicky, though of course yours doesn't.  Can you talk a bit about the structure of the poem—how the content informed it, how the poem found its way into this shape?

I was simply writing, trying to stay in the zone of my remembered experience of having vertigo—and I just about got nauseous trying to recall it! Horrible. And it is hard to explain when you don’t have it. The images just came rather quickly to me. I have no idea about the leap to the “ocean-sick sailor,” though I suspect I had been reading something, a novel, I think by Brian Doyle called The Plover. I want to be influenced by everything I read or see, and I’d like my work to include more of the world, as much of the world as I can get into poems, so there you have it. The structure of triplets seemed a natural choice since quatrains would be absolutely too stable for vertigo, right?

What are you reading now that you can’t stop talking about?

It’s just after Christmas and I’ve been reading some of my presents. A novel called Autumn by Ali Smith, and another one by Joan Silber called Improvement. Then there’s nonfiction: Leonardo da Vince by Walter Isaacson. And a book of poems called Earthling by James Longenbach. I’m not thinking about poetry as I read but I am gathering information that could later be useful or helpful in a poem.

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

I’m working on poems for a new book. How many poems I’ve written so far, whether enough of them are “keepers” to really be part of my sixth book of poems, I can’t say. It’s also too early to give even a working title. I’ll know in a few months more of where this work stands.

Monday
Jan152018

"Looking for Rats": An Interview with JoAnna Novak

JoAnna Novak is the author of the novel, I Must Have You, and the book-length poem, Noirmania. Her writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The New York TimesThe Paris Review, The Washington Post, and Salon. She is a co-founder of the literary journal and chapbook publisher, Tammy.

Her short story, "Mouse," appeared in Issue Seventy-Seven of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about New York subways, writing in multiple genres, and dichotomies.

Where did this story begin for you?

At night, in a big old loft in Massachusetts, where my husband and I had our first mouse.

The speaker in “Mouse” carries both fear and love for the mouse that haunts her house. I think mice have an interesting place in literature. They’re either portrayed as cute and loveable or as scary pests that invade our homes and carry diseases and trespass on our “human” space. Did (or how did) this complex mythology of mice inform your story?

I remember the first time I rode a subway in New York City—all I did was look for rats. I wanted to see one, I was terrified to see one, and, ultimately, for many subway rides, I couldn't tell what I'd seen ... if anything. Those dichotomies—anticipation and disgust, attraction and repulsion--interest me, especially in a domestic setting.

You are prolific in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. When you’re starting a new project, do you start with a form in mind, or does the story/concept come first and does the form arise from that?

Well, I always know what genre I'm writing in (i.e., fiction, nonfiction, or poetry), but the shape can change quite a bit in drafting and revision. "Mouse," for instance, began as only three or four sentences. It grew—in size and emotional complexity—after months of setting it aside.

Do you have any recent publications you’d like to give a shout-out for?

My first book of poetry is out in February. It's called Noirmania: it's a book-length poem about fashion and death. In March, I'll have a story in The Paris Review.

What are your writing or reading related goals for 2018?

Finish revising my second novel, write more short stories, remember to apply for grants and residencies. Read lots more.

Monday
Jan082018

"Dogs, Redheads, and Concoctions": An Interview with Helen Betya Rubinstein

Helen Betya Rubinstein's writing has appeared in Okey-Panky, The Kenyon Review, The Millions, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She was the RP Dana Writing Fellow at Cornell College and the Provost's Postgraduate Visiting Writer at the University of Iowa.

Her essay, "Recurring Dog & Rare Thing (9 Years, 13 Dreams)," appeared in Issue Ninety of The Collagist. 

Here, Helen Betya Rubinstein talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about keeping a dream record, creating a found essay, and a year without teaching.

In your essay, “Recurring Dog & Rare Thing (9 Years, 13 Dreams),” each dream is dated. What can you tell us about the process of recalling these dreams? Do you keep a regular record of your dreams, or are the dates only approximations?

I’ve been keeping a record of my dreams since 2005, and the dates in the essay are exact. The record began as a writing exercise: I found that, in recording the dreams, I’d reliably discover details I wasn’t conscious of until I was already writing them down, and it seemed worth cultivating a practice in which writing causes me to remember (or invent) more—something related to what John Gardner calls the “fictive dream,” or what now gets called “flow.”

But the truth is that after so many years of recording my dreams, I often dream of writing down dreams, and almost always spend my first few wakeful moments composing a dream-record in mind while gathering the energy to open my eyes and reach toward my notebook. So it’s possible that the exercise has finally backfired, leading me to strengthen the composing-before-writing muscle instead of the one that composes through writing.

Still, I can’t quite bring myself to quit the surprises of the dream-record—the way that, ten or twenty minutes after recording a dream, I’ve already lost the memory of writing it. It’s as though the act of recording the dream is part of the dream, and comes from the dreaming self. Even the handwriting is different. This is why I think of “Recurring Dog & Rare Thing” as a found essay: I don’t know the writer of these texts, even if all the details she uses are mine.

Given that dreams are themselves (bodily, reflexive) fictions, it felt especially interesting to collect them as an essay. The dates ground them in a world outside the imagination.

Clearly these dreams contain some common elements: dogs, babies, pregnancy, marriage, family. Why these thirteen dreams? Are dreams of these themes rare for you but show a pattern when strung together? Or have you had many more dreams of this kind, and these thirteen comprise just a handful of examples? And if so, how did you select them out of all the others?

This project began when, out of curiosity (and as research for a larger project), I decided to review all the dreams I’d ever had in which I was pregnant. There were fewer than I thought there would be, but the inquiry led me toward other dreams, and by the time I’d reviewed nine years of dreaming, I’d flagged about 150. I hadn’t planned to make an essay of what I found, but I felt tickled by the collection as I’ve been tickled by other collections of material that have led to found-text projects: I just wanted to edit and rearrange the material until whatever was ticklish about it came into focus. So I cut and carved away until I was left with these bits. Pregnancy, babies, and marriage are what I started with; dogs, redheads, and concoctions were the surprises.

Usually I’m averse to hearing about other people’s dreams, but reading this essay was a delight thanks especially to the playful quality of the language. Right out of the gate: “My family with Ben Jacob’s family, which had lots of girls, happy, dating girls. We all looked at a wife’s jewelry, and then Ben came in with a baby on his back—happy. The wife was his.” (I confess my eyes initially skipped over “The wife was his” and I’m so glad I discovered it on rereading.) The sentence fragment to start, the repetition of words, adjectives qualifying the nouns they come after—all creating an air of strangeness befitting the logic of dreams. Can you describe the process of achieving this effect? Do these formal choices occur naturally when dealing with this subject matter (or perhaps throughout your writing more generally), or did you have to consciously work at this playfulness in revising the piece?

The language and syntax are faithful to the original record of the dreams—my only edits were for clarity, efficiency, or privacy (I changed names). In one sense, this is just note-taking language: the language I use to talk to myself, since I recorded these dreams with zero intention of ever sharing them. In another sense, the language is evidence of the whims of the dreaming self, the writer who is and is not me. It’s just as much fun to discover writing choices “I” made but have no memory of making as it is to discover scenes I have no memory of imagining or recording. The style of the dream-records seemed to shift over the years, becoming less overtly playful, though they still surprise me with syntactic twists that are probably reflections of whatever writing problems I’m trying to solve in waking life.

I resist the notion that other people’s dreams are uninteresting. Dreams are a parallel language for narrating one’s life. Even if a dream-story is dull on its surface, a dream recounted always reveals a bit about who the speaker is—their character is expressed in the dream’s details and structure, the same way a fiction writer’s character is reflected in her fiction. Dreams—which aren’t controlled in the way fiction is controlled—are an indirect but intimate way of knowing someone, like eating the food they cook, seeing their handwriting, watching them dance, or smelling their clothes.

According to your web site, you are currently “spending the 2017-18 academic year on the road (aka the Nothing Nowhere year, the Rambling Woman year, my year at large…).” Besides writing (which I’ll ask you about next), what have you been doing in this special year, and what kind of impact has it had on you? Would you care to mention any favorite place(s) where your travels have taken you?

I spent five weeks working at Carter Notch Hut in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, cooking, cleaning, and serving as human pack mule. I also spent a night on the beach at Prince Edward County Island in Canada, which I learned is not the same as Prince Edward Island (but is lovely anyway). But I’ve mostly been reading, writing, and sitting still, thanks to the support of several artist residencies, where I’ve met other artists whose work expands my sense of the possible: at the I-Park Foundation, for instance, I witnessed the construction of a gigantic floating baby carriage and, for a fellow resident’s film, took on the persona of a bigheaded monkey.

As for impact—this year is the first since 2008 that I haven’t been teaching at a college, and as much as I truly miss students and syllabi, the lack of semesterly schedule has uncorked something. Maybe it’s slowed my experience of time.

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

I’m reluctant to say. But if anyone happens to read this who…

-       wants to translate 250 pages of handwritten court transcripts from the Soviet Union in the 1940s;
-       has polycystic ovary syndrome and wants to talk to me about their womanhood;
-       teaches writing and wants to be in conversation about subverting workshop conventions;
-       has ever talked about New Orleans, and wants to tell me what they said; or
-       is interested in publishing or contributing to an anthology of fiction flirting with fact

… I’d love to hear from you.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

I loved Anna Prushinskaya’s A Woman Is a Woman Until She Is a Mother. Masha Gessen’s Ester and Ruzya astonished me with its depth. Renee Gladman’s Calamities delighted me, Inara Verzemnieks’s Among the Living and the Dead made me cry, I spent last month ravenously listening to Rachel Zucker’s Commonplace podcast (if that counts), and I can’t stop rereading Eve Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading.” And I have to recommend my sometime-collaborator Nicholas Muellner’s slippery and delicious In Most Tides an Island.

Wednesday
Jan032018

"A Form of Survival": An Interview with Dennis James Sweeney

Dennis James Sweeney's hybrid fictions have appeared in The Collagist, Crazyhorse, Five Points, Indiana Review, and Passages North, among others. He is the Small Press Editor of Entropy, an Assistant Editor of Denver Quarterly, the recipient of an MFA from Oregon State University, and a recent Fulbright fellow in Malta. Originally from Cincinnati, he lives in Colorado, where he is a PhD student in creative writing at the University of Denver.

His three pieces, "The Plan," "Empire," "Out Hunting," appeared in Issue Seventy-Eight of The Collagist. 

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about writing as improvisation, Clarice Lispector, and goals for 2018. 

What inspired you to write “The Plan”?

I was working on a series of pieces that began “I went out in the woods,” and ideas were coming to me very quickly for a very short period of time. Sometimes this happens; when I have a basic form within which to write a story, and am writing several stories in that form, content arrives that I didn’t know I had in me. In the case of “The Plan,” and in the case of a number of the stories in that series, I think the unforeseen theme was the selfishness of men like myself in their attempted epiphanies.

The original line that began the stories was “I went out in the woods to find myself.” I have long had an impulse to leave my everyday life for nature, or travel, or some other relief from my commitment to the things and people I love. And while following that impulse does yield epiphanies, the epiphany is often that I want to return to the life I fled.

So much of this story is in what we don’t see: the men’s relationships with their families, what triggered them to follow through with the plan, etc. The beauty of the story comes, in part, from what you chose to leave out. When you write a short story, do you feel like you know the details surrounding the story, or are they a mystery to you, as well?

I’m afraid to say I do think of writing as a mystical process. Or at least an improvisational one—while I used to believe I was seeking out a story that already existed in the ether, I now feel as if I’m manifesting unmanifested possibilities by writing, so that the finished product is the trace of my mind’s momentary path instead of a representation of some ideal form.

A mystical interpretation I hear more often is that a voice speaks through the writer, and the writer is just a conduit. But to me thinking of writing improvisationally leaves more room for mystery: suddenly what you create is the product of an impossible-to-reproduce collision of time and space and circumstances. My best writing moments are animated not by determinism but by accident—when on my way to find what I was looking for I find something entirely else.

In the time between the present and publishing “The Plan” in December 2015, you have lived as a Fulbright fellow in Malta. Did writing about your experience in Malta as you were there shape your experience of the place in any way? If so, how?

Immensely, and writing continues to shape that experience even now—or misshape it. Since leaving Malta I’ve started about a million projects that fail over and over to describe what it was like to be there. Being in Malta was an incredibly rich and trying experience, but I still haven’t discovered how to convey that.

A lot of the time, writing in Malta felt like a form of survival; when I was struggling to get through an experience it helped me to tell myself I could write about it. Since I’m an every day writer, the real-time processing of these experiences anchored me in a way I rarely felt anchored otherwise. In the case of the series on Entropy, it particularly helped that I could immediately share these experiences with people. It made the experiences feel more meaningful, and contextualized them in a world I already knew.

What are you reading (or watching or listening to!) right now that you love?

Clarice Lispector’s short stories. It’s a constant epiphany with her, and though that is exhausting it’s also exhilarating in a way that reading has never been for me before. Sometimes it feels irresponsible to read her work, because it fuels the part of me that goes for runs in the cold, and eat too much chili, and forgets itself, and has no idea how to write. But it would be worse not to read it; to know that these paths are carved and I haven’t followed them would be a shame. I also love discovering a writer while so many other people are reading her, and while New Directions is still in the process of publishing translations of her work.

Do you have any writing or reading related goals for 2018?

After my failed NaNoWriMo commitment to producing a blockbuster sci-fi novel, I decided to be more modest in 2018. I’ll only work on projects I’m really committed to, only revise projects I think are worth revising, and treat the unknown not as an end in itself but as a means that allows me to invest stories with meaning. And trust the process: keep writing every day and trust that doing so will take me where I need to go, wherever that is.