Friday
Sep022016

"Each Hand Became a Designated Vehicle": An Interview with Tanya Holtland

 

Tanya Holtland is the author of Inner River, a chapbook from Drop Leaf Press. Her poetry and nonfiction appear in The Collagist, Statement Magazine, Mary: A Journal of New Writing, Oxalis, and elsewhere. She has read poetry in Cambodia and at the Yale Writers' Conference, and holds English and Creative Writing degrees from San Francisco State University. A poet with roots in California and many other places, she currently makes a home in Seattle, where there is so much water.

Her essay, "What Things We Bring," appeared In Issue Eighty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, Tanya Holtland talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about ambidexterity, prose vs. poetry, and writing at work.

What can you tell us about the origins of your essay, “What Things We Bring”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to starting writing the first draft?

Where things come from has always been a difficult question for me to answer. I think points of origin for many of the things we are able to write or create come from the blending and unblending of ourselves with another, and time and circumstance elicit things from our rooms, the houses of us. A couple years ago I got unexplainably ill for about three months. In that strange and difficult season of fevers and intense bouts of sleep I was on my way to work, in the final days I was still able to make it in, and by the time I got to my office this essay flew out. Like much of my poetry it was not an intentional piece but more an imperative married to maintenance of well-being. Sometimes initial arrangements seem to have very little to do with me.

This essay contains references to Tom Robbins and The Year of Magical Thinking. What is the relationship between what you’re reading and what you’re writing? How often do you overtly pull other works of literature into your work, and how does what you’ve read make its way into your writing in less obvious ways?

Both of those books were in the water when I wrote this piece. Some books lily pad, become the bridge. I was thinking a lot about survival at that time, of the body and of will. I love both those authors and I tend to read pretty slowly and so for that I think certain books have more of a chance to get steeped into the landscape. If my memory were better I think I would overtly reference more often. Instead, sometimes the color of a line I love will throw shadows at feeling and my lines come out under that influence. I think of all the things that can be said some authors say perfectly, building castles to a certain feeling. We look upon in awe, rumbling with our own burgeoning generatives.

How would you describe your revision process for this essay? How much did it change from the first draft to the final? Was this piece’s revision typical for you, or different from how you normally revise?

Surprisingly, this piece incurred very little editing. It came rather quickly and largely intact. There was some shaping but it is somewhat of an anomaly in that it felt rather complete early on. Both the creating and editing of it took place at work when I’m sure I should have been doing something administrative. I owe my old boss several hours of work for this.

You are a poet as well as a prose writer, which is clear from the lyrical voice and associational logic of this essay. How do you decide whether a set of ideas is best presented in the form of a poem or a prose piece? What can lineated verse accomplish that the paragraphs of prose cannot, or vice versa?

Often it is dependent on mood. Many years ago I taught myself to write with my left hand and during that time a strange thing occurred. Based on whatever mood/phase/state I was in, when something needed to come out, depending on what it was, I would pick up the pen with either the right or left and each hand became a designated vehicle for specific content. I think of poetry vs. prose in this way. There can be a natural inclination or intuitiveness to a channel, a path towards form. It’s difficult to tell and there are times when I change from one to the other and something is lost, or conversely, something is revealed.

I began writing in my mid-twenties. In these early attempts at writing prose came out first but poetry flew me open faster and I think brought me to appreciating the dimensional aspects of the page and all that space. Prose writers do stunning things I am still learning. There is something irrevocably powerful in a beautiful line that relies on nothing but itself.

What writing projects are you working on now?

Presently I have a few chapbooks that receive rounds of attention and equal time away. I’m learning that I work cyclically and usually over long periods of time. Although, in recent years this appears to be speeding up. Each of these works has been spurred by a lot of changes happening in and out, and played marcato.

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

I will leave you with a few different things. If you have need for it, reading and re-reading Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart, The National’s Trouble Will Find Me, essays by Audre Lorde, and all the poetry you can find by Catherine Wagner. Each of these has held the year together.

Tuesday
Aug302016

"An Infant Bit of Light": An interview with C. L. O'Dell

C. L. O'Dell's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the New Yorker, Ploughshares, New England Review, and Best New Poets, among others. He lives in the Hudson Valley and is founder and editor of The Paris-American.

His poems, "While Lying on the Back of a Blue Whale" and "Dot in the Sky," appeared in Issue Fifty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interview T.m. Lawson about themes involving violence, childhood, and the natural world, the relationship between form and imagery, and the shaping of poems.

“Dot in the Sky” has a simple, elegant quality with a skeletal strength to the lines and diction, while “While Lying on the Back of a Blue Whale” is a meatier couplet; both are rife with imagery in each line. How did you come to write these pieces?

These poems both evolved from a single image or experience that was, at the time, taking up a lot of room in me. This is how most of my poems are made. I love poetry because of how a poem takes on a life of its own, eventually feeding on me when I don’t even know it. “While Lying on the Back of a Blue Whale” started out with the memory of discovering a childhood dog paralyzed on the side of the road after a hit-and-run. This memory somehow transformed into a listing of all very beautiful, wondrous and also haunting and painful moments that could all be potentially happening at the same time. The title and ending of the poem came last, as I became more comfortable inside the poem and where it decided to go. “Dot in the Sky” seems more layered, starting with my daughter playing in the yard. From there I pulled in my father, carpentry, “wings,” etc., and then silence. I love silence, absence, because of the endless possibilities they possess. There’s so much magic in nothing.

I noticed that both poems, while very different, shared similar qualities: themes of childhood and infancy that are eventually corrupted by violence and adult intervention, tragedy in the form of wounded animals, human against the backdrop of natural elements like lightning, water, and grass. Are these essential themes for your regular work or interest?

Yes. My father is a hunter, and a carpenter, and I followed in his footsteps for a long time, and still do in many ways. Everyone’s childhood is eventually corrupted by reality and truth. We are curious because as children we replace what we don’t know with imaginary ideas, and if we’re lucky, some of that curiosity subsists into adulthood even after we find answers to things we love. These are themes that enter my poems naturally, most times uncontrollably, so I consider them essential to my writing.

The serenity within the violence of some of these images is captivating. The form restricts the language in the right way in both poems. Was this intentional or happenstance as the poems developed?

I am usually never thinking about what shape a poem will take until the end. The subject matter doesn’t affect what form the poem will have, but what the words look like next to each other determines spacing and structure. There’s a certain level of “colorfulness” to letters, words, even more so to sentences, and a fine balance of splattered color is achieved in good poetry. The visual representation of my poems follows no strict formula, but more of a gut feeling. I like that part of writing, feeling like a painter feels making final touches.

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

LOOK by Solmaz Sharif, Incorrect Merciful Impulses by Camille Rankine, Flies by Michael Dickman (again, anticipating Green Migraine), and various non-fiction by Shane Cashman.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I just finished my first collection of poems, still making minor edits here and there (and still writing poems that belong in that book), but I think I also just drafted the first poem of my second collection, so I’m excited about that.

Thursday
Aug252016

"The Many Holes in the Borders": An Interview with Lee Conell

Lee Conell's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the Chicago Tribune's literary supplement Printers Row, Kenyon Review online, Indiana Review, Guernica, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. She recently won the Nelson Algren Short Story Award from the Chicago Tribune, and was a fiction fellow at Vanderbilt University where she won the Guy Goffe Means Prize for Fiction. Currently she lives in Nashville, leading writing workshops in hospitals, libraries, and high schools.

Her story, "Guardian," appeared in Issue Eight-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Lee Conell talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about imaginary friends, television shows, and revision.

 

What can you tell us about the origins of your story, “Guardian”? What sparked the initial idea that caused you to start writing the first draft?

My best friend in elementary school and I used to make up stories together all the time, acting the stories out as we went. We called them the Infinite Stories: worlds we would enter again and again, using recess to pick up wherever the story had left off. One story we co-told took place in a jungle and kind of ripped-off Fern Gully. In another we were witches/warlocks trying to collection a certain number of crystals to save the world. In another we were orphans adopted by a phoenix(?). From about age five to age eight, we returned to these worlds again and again, and then we stopped. As I began to work on my own fiction, I started wondering: What if characters from those worlds began to reappear in my stories, began to barge into my fiction without my realizing it? From there came the concept of imaginary creatures from childhood popping up again, sort of flinging themselves onto an adult life.

The character of Cind comes out of the protagonist’s childhood fixation with The Brady Bunch. Can you speak about the relationship between your writing and television or other forms of popular culture? What do you see as the potential uses or roles in literary fiction for references to TV, movies, etc.?

Days of Our Lives was probably my first childhood experience with seriously long-form storytelling. And today I consume my share of not-great reality television. I’m interested in the way those stories I watch—even if I’m rarely watching them with my full attention—affect the stories I’m trying to tell with as much of my full attention as possible. If part of my experience of the world occurs through pop culture, it would seem disingenuous to erase that stuff, rather than to critically engage with, to question, and to reconsider the ways pop culture’s myths and symbols shape my daily life and narratives—in the same way I’d critically engage with ideas of family, gender, education, class, etc.

I’m also interested in characters with an obsession, which lends itself to pop culture and fan culture, which are fueled by obsession. I wanted to use “Guardian” in part to explore what happens when a childhood fandom that is used as an escape follows an adult into a potential tragic loss from which there is no escaping.

Your story ends in such a small, quiet moment with a relatively plain (though lasting) image, especially for a fabulist story where an imaginary friend appears to cross into reality. How did you decide that the ending should be so subdued and grounded? What goal(s) do you have for the ending of a story such as this?

That’s a really good question. In a story like this, my main interest was in exploring the many holes in the borders we put up between memory and imagination, reality and fantasy, the grounded and the fantastic. I needed an image that didn’t emphasize the strangeness of Cind’s appearance, but that hinted instead at its inevitability. I don’t think I ever consciously decided that the ending should be subdued and grounded—I wanted to show, rather, that things we dismiss as mundane (Cindy Brady, a passing headlight) have huge potential to suddenly shift into something that seems wilder, stranger, less obedient. I believe those subdued and grounded images in our lives are generally made of the same mind-stuff as the weirder and flightier fantasies.

Please tell us about your revision process, with this story as an example. How many drafts do you typically take a story of this length through? How do you decide when it’s time to start submitting a story?

I wrote a draft of this story maybe three years ago, but I wasn’t sure what the story really wanted to be about, besides imaginary children coming back without asking permission of their original imaginer. It took me a few drafts to realize I didn’t know what I was doing. I put the story aside for a little while and when I stumbled across it again a couple months ago, I knew what it wanted to be. This version went through only one or two drafts (although maybe that’s because I was subconsciously revising it for three years). In terms of how many drafts a story of this length takes, for me, it varies widely from story to story. Which is too bad. I wish I had a set number so I’d know when to stop.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel about a lot of things, including ghosts, self-published romance novels, birds, and building superintendents. I’m also finishing my story collection, which deals with some (but not all) of those subjects too.

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

Silvina Ocampo’s Thus Were Their Faces: Selected Short Stories, which contains one of my new favorite lines: “Surviving childhood is a severe test on the faculty of reasoning.” Also, W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and Hisaye Yamamoto’s story collection, Seventeen Syllables.

Tuesday
Aug232016

"What Haunts Us": An Interview with Margo Berdeshevsky

Margo Berdeshevsky, born in New York City, often writes in Paris. Her recent poetry manuscript was finalist for the National Poetry Series, 2015. Her published poetry collections are Between Soul & Stone and But a Passage in Wilderness (both from Sheep Meadow Press). Her book of illustrated stories, Beautiful Soon Enough, received Fiction Collective Two’s Innovative Fiction Award (University of Alabama Press). Other honors include the Robert H. Winner Award from the Poetry Society of America, a portfolio of poems in the Aeolian Harp Anthology #1 (Glass Lyre Press), the & Now Anthology of the Best of Innovative Writing, and numerous Pushcart prize nominations. Her works appear in Poetry International, New Letters, Kenyon Review, Plume, The Collagist, Tupelo Quarterly, Gulf CoastPleiades, Prairie Schooner, and Cutthroat, among others. In Europe her work has been seen in The Poetry Review (UK), The Wolf, EuropeSiècle 21, & Confluences Poétiques. A multi-genre novel, Vagrant, and new poetry collections are at the gate.  She may be found reading from her books in London, Paris, New York City, or somewhere new—in the world. Her “Letters from Paris” may be seen at Poetry International. For more information, kindly see: http://margoberdeshevsky.blogspot.com/.

Her story, "A Winter's Story," appeared in Issue Seventy-Two of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about photography, love (or lack of), and cross-genre art.

Where did this story begin for you?

I’ll answer this “slant,” so to speak, in the way Emily Dickinson suggested that a poet, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.

I once had a lover who complimented my best friend because she had seven children. You see, he said, she is a real woman. To her credit, my dear friend stood up and slapped him. (And the relationship with him did not endure.) 

I could start by saying that I’m a woman who decided very young to not be a mama. Why? A choice. A road, taken. So in one sense I’ve been interested in mothering and/or  not . . . for a long while. The tribal imperative that humans are meant to perpetuate the tribe. And, I’ve been interested in the expectation that all women are meant to be mothers, and good mothers, of course. Compassionate mothers. Protective mothers. And that all children are expected to be loved, of course. They must be. That is a human imperative. A human right. But they are also expected to be loveable.

That said, as one way to enter this conversation: I also once had a terrible cat. I love cats. I love what lives. I love living.  I did not want to do harm. But I had to wonder if he was not some demonic force sent into my life to challenge my kindness or torment me.

From such soil, stories are seeded.

In addition to being a writer, you are a gifted photographer. You often include your photographs with your writing. What draws you to photography? What inspired you to merge your two artistic interests into single projects?

As a creative person, I like thinking outside the box. There is a wonderful line in the Tom Stoppard play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” as the characters are contemplating death, and being left in a coffin, and one says, (to paraphrase), but you'd be in a box. Think about it, living your life in a box, I mean you'd never get out, would you?

I often feel that way about writing or offering work in a single genre. To be stuck in a box. More and more, I come to like functioning in the multi-genre or cross genre. Being a “collagist,” I might say. And so, yes, I have liked to merge  photographs or montages with some of my written works. Embedded, or surrounding them. For me it is one way to invite left brain-right brain receiving. Not as show and tell, but as a way to expand the metaphoric, inherent, or implied.

I’m not speaking here of imagism as construed by Pound, seeking only “hard light and clear images.” But I’m interested in metaphor. Linguistically and imagistically. Photography, while it can certainly be documentary and uber realistic, and illustrative, and haunting as such . . . can also be impressionistic, or expressionistic, can also be part of the poetic lexicon. Can also be another way of telling it slant. And that draws me often, these days. The world I wake in is so often painfully realistic. Filled with what haunts me. What haunts us. I want to address what haunts, but also I’m searching for ways to look with another eye or lens, so for me, photographing is one way to force my vision further.

Sometimes, one image is sufficient. Sometimes, words do the heavy lifting, and anything more would be superfluous. But sometimes, I want to stretch the edge, even erase the edges, open the box and let forms overlap, or whisper to one another, to me, to the one who receives the works I can offer.

Your story ends with a black and white photograph of two baby dolls. Please explain your choice to pair the story with this particular image.

No. To explain would defeat the choice. I believe it is a good choice. The rest should belong to the reader.

The mothers and children in this story do not have happy relationships. There is an uneasiness, a loathing between them. We are used to seeing depictions of parent-child relationships that are perhaps fraught, but grounded in fierce love. “A Winter’s Story” doesn’t follow this common storyline. What interests you about the relationship between the woman and her “devil child”?

Allow me to ask you to return to your first question and my response above. That was a beginning. To say more . . . no, it’s not a common storyline, I admit. But it both frightened me as a subject and seduced me to write it. What happens to the lone and lonely in a world when they are not healed by love? What happens when/if they are unable to love the very one, or the very element that might heal them? What happens if the object that should inspire love is inherently not to be loved. If it is experienced as evil. What is a “devil child?” Is it merely, or definitely  the “shadow?” How has civilization, have we, will we. . . deal with what is detestable in our world, or in ourselves, or in the very thing we give birth to, or adopt, presumably to love?

What are three books you could recommend today?

There is a novel that the wonderful science fiction author, Theodore Sturgeon, gifted me with many years ago. It is called The Book of The Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin Jr. It speaks of a rooster, Chaunteclear, confronting a monster of evil long imprisoned beneath the earth. I’d find it a powerful book, today. Parable, or fantasy, a worthy read.

As a poet, and I am that, as story teller, photographer, woman, wanderer . . . I'd reread “King Lear.” Because we are each so lost on the heath, and terrified of being unloved. And “Macbeth,” because the greed and demand for political dominion and power is so much, too much with us. Everywhere. Now, And now. And now.

And a wonderful new book has just been published by Shakespeare and Company in Paris. Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart. Because that bookshop has been a home to me and a place where the ladders start, for many years. This brand new book tells its story—as it was and is, and “slant.”

What is next for you? Are you currently working on any projects?

Yes. Always yes. I have been photographing stones. Giant, protective, dangerous, beautiful stones. I have a new collection of poetry which keeps adding and eliminating new fingers and toes. It was a finalist for the National Poetry Series, last year. But as Collagist editor, Gabriel Blackwell, says so well, Life is cruel just where art is at its kindest. And so the book is homeless, waiting for cover. And, there is a new collection of works, prose poems or stories (crossing genres..., ) Dark Muse / Can Dance. Some have been first published here in The Collagist. They are morphed with my photographs. Yes. “A Winter’s Story,” published here, is one of them. This new book is now standing at the gate, hand on the latch. Along with a multi-genre novel called Vagrant. Because I am. It is. Vagrant. A bit of an alien in a world I sometimes know, and sometimes am lost in. And I have just written a new poem that I rather like: “Whose Sky, Between (...for Hiroshima day, and more...)”

~

“The artist, and particularly the poet, is always an anarchist in the best sense of the word. He must heed only the call that arises within him from three strong voices: the voice of death, with all its foreboding, the voice of love and the voice of art.” —Federico Garcia Lorca

Thursday
Aug112016

"A Necessity of Artfulness": An Interview with Corwin Ericson

Corwin Ericson is the author of the novel Swell (Dark Coast, 2011) and Checked Out OK (Factory Hollow, 2013), a book-length found poem in the form of police reports. His work has been published in Harper's Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, Conduit, Hobart, and elsewhere. He lives in western Massachusetts and teaches at UMass Amherst.

His story, "I Cried So Much that Night, as I Sometimes Did," appeared in Issue Seventy-Three of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about not reading Little House on the Prairie, young narrators, and the power of description.

How did your story, “I Cried So Much That Night, as I Sometimes Did,” come to be?

A couple of years ago, my young niece mentioned “Pa” in a conversation. Who? She’s a hip city girl; she wouldn’t say Pa. Her Ma explained to me that she was referring to Pa from Little House on the Prairie—a teacher was reading one of the books to her class. Those books were important to me as a young reader; they were my first taste of forbidden literature. I remember sneaking them off my sister’s shelf to read them. Not that anyone other than my sister would have cared, but they seemed taboo because I thought of them of them as for girls only. That made them much more interesting.

What were those books about? It turns out, I don’t remember. There was the narrator—Laura, maybe? Her blind sister. Her Pa, you know, Michael Landon. I have no memory of Ma. They lived in a sod house, probably little and on a prairie. There was bad weather and some kind of dangerous animal. Maybe some locust swarms. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is not part of this series.

So, when my niece said “Pa” and invested it with such knowingness, as if we’d all had a shared sense of Pa-ness and have all rolled our eyes at his foibles and admired him for his achievements, I got enthused and wanted to talk about him too, only I didn’t know him. I went to the library and pulled one of the LHOTP books off the shelf and had myself a moment: I realized I didn’t want to know anything more about the plots or characters.

I put the book right back and went home with a sense of purpose—to not read Little House on the Prairie. This was liberating and pleasant. So that’s the sort-of ‘pataphysical way I got to that voice, that character—by hearing a girl say “Pa” and then not reading Little House on the Prairie. I went on to write several stories with those characters and that setting.

We experience the story through the eyes of the youngest sister. What are some of the challenges you faced writing from the perspective of a young narrator, and how did you overcome them?

I wanted to write in a voice that was new and foreign to me, one that allowed for fun and invention and discovery and that I wouldn’t silt up with too much autobiography. That was the challenge. Her limited perspective of the world is exacerbated by her family’s monadic isolation, which was another challenge for me as the writer. I mean a challenge in the sense of an impediment that replaces the journey—we get to the obstacle and explore it instead of finding a way to overcome it. Like doing something instead of getting something done.

I spent a few years messing with the text of a Victorian-era children’s novel, The Wide Wide World, which is written in a girl’s voice. I made cross-outs, erasures, collages on the pages. In doing that, I made a deep study of a fairly stupid book, and one of the things I discovered about it was that there was a regular tide of crying in the book. Every tenth page or so, Sophie would choke up, try to squeeze her tears back, and then bawl. Her tearfulness and her diction, which seems stilted and turgid to me, but which was probably considered a necessity of artfulness when it was composed, were appropriated for the voice of the narrator in my story.

The fathers longing to describe and his struggle to do so seems to parallel the experience of the artist. The speaker also feels this frustration. When she first experiences the roof, she relates, I wanted, suddenly, to tell my sister all about what I could see, every inch of it so new to me, yet so old to her. As a writer, can you relate to this sentiment?

Like an author among readers, Pa needs to get out of the way. He’s intrusive and ineffectual. He’s self-deluded, full of rules and inhibitions. Convinced of his own mastery. In those ways, he seems very much like an artist: he must do as he does for reasons he alone knows, and he feels insufficiently appreciated and barely tolerated. In this story, Pa has a fantasy about his daughter going blind. He feels that if she went blind, it would be up to him to describe things to her, as if he were Anne Sullivan. He wants to hone his powers of description so that he’ll be better at it, for her sake. His daughter is actually in no danger of losing her sight, so she resents his meddling and descriptions of the obvious. This is a real peril for many fictional children—someone is always trying to teach them something.

I can certainly relate to this as a writer. It’s both irritating and inspiring to have things described to you. Description can be a real infliction and writers do it all the time.

Please tell us the last book you read that you really loved.

This is a tough question. I’m not sure where I stand on loving books. Just last night, I finished Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer, and I was impressed and enjoyed it. Not long ago I read Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country and was delighted to find parts of it set in a fictitious, sinister version of a town within bike-riding distance of my house.

I can remember years ago loaning a copy of Ballard’s High Rise to a friend, who then loaned it to a friend of his who was very sick in the hospital. I asked my friend for it back, and he said he wouldn’t ask his very sick friend for it back. I then had the entirely unloving, selfish thought, “But I love that book.”

I love the constant flow of books I get from my little rural town’s library—I’m a heavy user of the interlibrary loan program. I do actually love Moby-Dick, though we haven’t seen each other in a while. I’ve given Magnus Mills’ first book, The Restraint of Beasts, to a few people and told them they were wrong when they said they didn’t love it.

What projects are you working on now?

I’ve spent a lot of time the past few months working on a big woven wicker mask, which was just shipped to its new owner in Texas this weekend. A few weeks ago I returned to making “hikaru dorodangos”—that’s Japanese for shiny mudballs. I write poems. I think and make notes about the Arctic and the hollow earth and Vikings and inuksuit, ostensibly in service of writing a novel.

Sunday
Aug072016

"Faced by the Truth of a Looming Extinction": An Interview with Kristine Ong Muslim

Kristine Ong Muslim is the author of seven books of fiction and poetry: Age of Blight (Unnamed Press, 2016), Butterfly Dream (Snuggly Books, 2016), A Roomful of Machines (ELJ Publications, 2015), Grim Series (Popcorn Press, 2012), We Bury the Landscape (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2012), as well as Lifeboat and Black Arcadia, two poetry collections from university presses in the Philippines. She serves as poetry editor of LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, a literary journal published by Epigram Books in Singapore, and was co-editor with Nalo Hopkinson of the Lightspeed Magazine special issue, People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction. Widely published in magazines and anthologies, she grew up and continues to live in rural southern Philippines. kristinemuslim.weebly.com.

Her story, "Genesis," appeared in Issue Eighty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, Kristine Ong Muslim talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about repetition, solipsism, and writing in her second language.

What can you tell us about the origins of your story “Genesis”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

The genesis of “Genesis” has a lot to do with me imagining a boy who lives alone inside a house, which doubles as his body. The boy’s inability to get out of his house (or his body), which I wrote as, “Each time he walks past the doorway that leads to the yard, he finds himself standing again inside one of the rooms of his house...” —this one is taken right out of the first season of American Horror Story, where Taissa Farmiga’s character, unaware that she was already a ghost, couldn’t get past the gate. And because I was also reading Conchitina Cruz’s Dark Hours in the period when I was drafting “Genesis” and I couldn’t get that quote off my mind, I decided to incorporate it as an epigraph and as an inline text element.

This story begins with an epigraph that is clearly evoked in the piece’s final sentences. Why did you consider it necessary to begin such a short piece with this quote? What do you think is gained by framing the story for the reader in this way?

Because the Conchitina Cruz quote lent a more strongly felt foreboding to “Genesis” than one I could cobble up and attach to the piece. Because the quote, robbed of its context, simultaneously stirs up solipsism and desperation, two concepts I’m vaguely alluding to in “Genesis.” Also, the quote seems rather fluent in its invented vernacular—the “no, no” part sounds very much like the exhortation of a naïve narrator consumed by hope, by optimism. I used it as a pointer—laid upfront at the beginning of the piece—pointing out to the reader that this, this is the voice of a civilization feigning disbelief when faced by the truth of a looming extinction.

Although the narrator’s voice makes the piece sound quite grand and sprawling, the entire story is only about 600 words long. How do you achieve such rich world building in such a small space? (Also, how much do you revise when writing such a brief piece?)

Repetition is key. Like constructing, brick by identical brick. When seen from afar, the resulting structure appears quite grand and imposing. Up close, one notices motifs that are used repetitively. It is also important to note that I am ESL. I mainly use English for writing. I have difficulty speaking in straight English. I approach the language as one would an artistic implement (as opposed to how I see my native language and its utilitarian nature). I use English primarily for creative expression. I suppose a native-language speaker would think differently because then the use of English comes naturally. For me, it doesn’t.

In revising? I start with something short, like an outline. I write fast. Otherwise, I lose my momentum. I discovered that there are no obvious hesitation marks (awkward scene breaks, etc.) in pieces that I write in one sitting. They sustain whatever energy I’ve pumped into them from beginning to end. And this limits me. I’ve been wanting to overcome this so I can do the same to longer pieces. Anyway, my first drafts are super short. The sentences have faulty construction. Grammar is all wrong. I polish later, add more to the piece. I add color, tone, decide on specificity or vagueness, sound of words when read aloud, things like these. I don’t revise right away. I revise after a few days have passed. Revision is the technical part of writing, the one a writer does for the reader. I don’t have the potential reader in mind when I draft. It is only when I’m revising that I acknowledge the possibility that someone out there is going to read what I’ve written.

You have published books of both fiction and poetry. What lessons have you learned from writing poetry that you’ve applied to your prose, or vice versa? (What are the special advantages or difficulties of working in multiple genres?)

Lessons learned from writing poetry that I applied to prose and vice versa—that there are many ways to tell a lie or a fact. I can sing it, as in the case of poetry. I can go on and on, as in prose, and then end up either not saying anything or saying too much. In prose, I worry about the effectiveness of my transition. In poetry, not so. There are no drawbacks to working in multiple genres. When I get stumped in one format, I can switch to the other. There’s just one slight problem though. If I work straight in one format for far too long, like months at a time, I find it harder to write in another format.

What writing projects are you working on now?

Two interrelated book manuscripts, plus a long essay on my folkloric writing influences.

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

Brendan Connell’s Metrophilias (Snuggly Books, 2016). In this book, various cities are settings and sometimes motivations for escapades and trysts in the name of fanatical love. Metrophilias is a perfect companion to Lives of Notorious Cooks (Chômu Press, 2012), another book by Connell. Lives of Notorious Cooks is a collection of fictional biographies of cooks. Connell has long been one of my go-to models for the fully fleshed out, wacky, and daring vignette. I heartily recommend any book written by him.

Adam David’s The El Bimbo Variations (the Youth & Beauty Brigade, 2016), which consists of 99 retellings of a line from a song by a Filipino band, makes a compelling point about the occasional pointlessness of language and society, about constrained literary techniques and hybrid poetic forms as emblematic of what seems to me as a desperately hopeful attempt to dissociate art from its surrounding context. It mixes smart-alecky swagger and elegant construction, sprinkled with a dash of macabre humor, making the book an entertaining, thought-provoking read.

Another creation by David that I want to recommend is the 39 side-stapled pages of hybrid poetic texts called Repaso (the Youth & Beauty Brigade, 2015). To say that I love Repaso would be putting it mildly as I’ve reread it far too many times the flimsy edges of the front cover have curled slightly I had to weigh it down with a heavy book to whip it back to shape. Two essays, which were indicated to be penned by Adam David, bookend the writings of Mona Lisa P. Cajucom, who was rumored to have killed herself. Footnotes in colloquialism-riddled Tagalog were interspersed with Cajucom’s found-poetry tracts. Whether or not Mona Lisa P. Cajucom existed in real life doesn’t and shouldn’t matter. What matters is that Repaso was eloquent in its recitation about the parts of our lives that happen in small rooms behind locked doors. Cajucom’s writings, which David claimed to have collected (and contextualized through his essays and annotations), consist of a series of rote, oftentimes optimistic depositions that begin with the word “here,” a powerful invocation that instructs the reader on how to view Cajucom—an eyewitness holding a bunch of snapshots she took with her omniscient camera, holding them up to an audience, and describing what those snapshots held. I really love Repaso, and I hope people will check it out. I love it because it lays bare our “hunger for a sort of emotional connection” even in times when we don’t really need one or even in times when we are contentedly out of tune with the rest of the world. Remember being cheerful while stuffed with 100 percent interior darkness—Repaso is more or less like that.

Conchitina Cruz’s There is no emergency (the Youth & Beauty Brigade, 2015) is a fascinating poetry collection. It is suggestive of journalistic reportage. It also doubles as an eerie, hypnotic simulation of the way some of us tend to curate bits and pieces of our lives for publicizing in social media. In There is no emergency, personas painstakingly document reality in an effort to skew it.

Not in the picture is Sarah Sarai’s gorgeous collection of poetry, Geographies of Soul and Taffeta (Indolent Books, 2016), a juxtaposition of the otherworldly with the trappings of modern existence.

Wednesday
Aug032016

"You've Got to Consider Thanksgiving Dinner": An Interview with B.J. Hollars

B.J. Hollars is the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. In February, he’ll release Flock Together: A Love Affair With Extinct Birds. He serves as the reviews editor for Pleiades, a mentor for Creative Nonfiction, the founder of the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

His essay, "Spotted," appeared in Issue Eight-Four of The Collagist.

Here, B.J. Hollars talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about brevity, close reading, and writing about family.

What can you tell us about the origins of your essay, “Spotted”? What sparked the initial idea that caused you to start writing the first draft?

It started with the phone call from my father. When he told me about finding the impaled deer, I simply found myself unable to shake myself from the image. I knew it made for a powerful moment, but I also didn’t know how to give that moment a deeper context until weeks later, when I realized that our phone call corresponded with my parents’ anniversary. Only then did I begin to see the loose thematic connections emerge.

This entire essay is only a little over 500 words, yet it contains so much—the story of the dead fawn combined with family history and your father’s “fish out of water” feelings. How do you achieve this economy of language? Does it require a lot of revision and/or restraint to write with such brevity?

Most of my essays start out as drafts twice as long as the final product. I think that’s just part of it. I often tell my students that writing an essay—or writing anything, really—is like carving an ice sculpture (full disclosure: I have no experience carving ice sculptures). That is, they start with the big block of ice and then you pare it back to the bare essentials, to the hidden beauty beneath.

I think often of a phrase I first read in Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer: Put every word on trial. When writing a short piece, in particular, it’s crucial that the writer puts every word on trial. In this way, the writer will always have a clear sense of each word’s function. And if a word isn’t pulling its weight, you got to let it go.

Do you ever have any qualms about using a family member’s stories in your writing? Does your father get to read an essay like this before you publish it, for example? How do you navigate the tricky situation that many nonfiction writers face of writing about family while not wanting to alienate them?

Beth Kephart has some really great ethical guidelines when it comes to memoir writing. Specifically, she gives five rules for what memoir isn’t, including the notion that memoir isn’t “an accusation, a retaliation, a bit of take that! in type.” When writing about family, I always try very hard to remember Kephart’s rules.

But to get more specifically to the question: yes, when my family and friends make an appearance in my work, I often share my work in advance. You’ve got to consider Thanksgiving dinner, after all, and the awkward situation a writer can easily create ‘round the cranberry dressing when it’s revealed that the writer spilled the family’s secrets to the world. For me, memoir writing is never about “spilling beans”; it’s about considering the significance of moments after the fact. It’s about making sense of the mysteries.

Yet beyond sharing my work with family and friends in advance, I often share my work with others who play a role, too. More often than not, people appreciate having the chance to read the work in advance, and I can only think of a handful of times in which someone reacted negatively. Mostly, people appreciate your efforts to tell a story honestly—at least from your perspective. And giving a little advance notice can be a useful courtesy in the world of creative nonfiction.

A few years back I proposed at AWP panel titled “How To Lose Friends and Alienate Loved Ones” which addressed this very issue. And by panel’s end, I’d broken down most of my ethical concerns into a single question, one that I still use to test my work today: In writing this essay, are you trying to document something or exploit someone? For me, documentation vs. exploitation is at the heart of most of this.

With so much focus on your father’s experience and relatively little use of the first person, this essay reads much like a short story. You are the author of both fiction and nonfiction work. What lessons from one genre have you been able to apply to the other?

Lee Gutkind has written often of the many tools available to writers in the world of creative nonfiction. And what he says, mostly, is that creative nonfiction is simply the genre in which writers use fictional tools to write about something that occurred. To this end, I employ many of the same tools I use in fiction: scene-building, character-building, dialogue, narrative arc, etc. For me, nonfiction allows me a little more variety in terms of organizational structure, but everything else—the scenes, the characters, the use of dialogue—are all techniques I first honed with my fiction writing.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I just completed a book titled Flock Together: A Love Affair with Extinct Birds due out next fall. That was quite an adventure, let me tell you. In short, I attempted to track down several extinct birds (as well as a few “thought-to-be-extinct birds.”). Spoiler alert: I didn’t find any live ones.  But I did stumble upon some glimpses into their world, as well as gaining some unique insight into what we might learn from the birds we’ve lost and keep losing.

Additionally, I’m currently powering through a new nonfiction book on the Freedom Riders. I’m so moved by stories from the civil rights movement, and I’m doing my best to share these stories with as many folks as I can.

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

I spend so much time critiquing others work that I admit I don’t read nearly as much published work as I should. But I did just reread the Francine Prose book I referenced previously, Reading Like A Writer. I’m a sucker for a book on close readings, those that really zoom in tight on a single paragraph and dissect it word for word. Writers can learn so much under those conditions.

Another thing that’s been keeping me from reading more is a new artist residency I’ve been working with this summer. Take a look! And then, maybe apply yourself for next summer…

Tuesday
Jul262016

"Creatures of Complication": An Interview with Kelly Dulaney

Kelly Dulaney began in the cinders of Arizona; now she lives among the red rocks of Colorado. She is the author of the novel Ash (Urban Farmhouse Press 2016) and her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from Fairy Tale Review, Penny, The Best American Experimental Writing Anthology (BAX) 2015, The Collagist, Caketrain, and Abjective, among other venues. She holds and MFA from the University of Colorado, Boulder and edits The Cupboard Pamphlet.

Her story, "Oil Dog," appears in Issue Seventy-Two of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about buried family history, dogs, the quest for oil.

Please tell us where this story began for you.

Truth told, this story is not entirely fictional and so it did not begin strictly with me.

I have been working for some time to understand the way in which narratives are passed through a family line—I want to know why we repeat and deny the actions of our ancestors; I want to know how we emerge out of our forebears. In 2014, I began to interview my family members about aspects of our family history that had been deliberated buried by those long dead—particularly those buried by my grandfather, Richard Gordon Dulaney. I also began to comb through family documents that had been in storage: old letters, paper clippings and the like. I discovered a copy of a legal deposition that laid out the true timeline and concerns of my grandfather’s life—suddenly, I could see what had made him what he was and I could see how that echoed outwards through the family line.

Here is what in “Oil Dog” is true: my grandfather worked the oil fields of Saudi Arabia in the 30s, earned a degree in physics and deployed to Europe as an officer in the 40s, and planned and purchased the pipe for the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline in the late 60s; my father did survive a fiery and disfiguring car accident; my brother did deploy to Kandahar, Afghanistan; Alexander the Great did once conquer the known world, naming cities and sectors in it for himself (like Kandahar).

I had the impulse to take these truths and weave them—to see what close placement could reveal. I also had the impulse to tell a lot of lies about what I had discovered, because I feel that an invention can lead one closer to an emotional truth than can a litany of facts.

This story is admirable for the way it addresses a global problem without being preachy or prescriptive. Often we see novel writers tackling the “big issues.” Do you think short stories can address issues in a way that novels cannot?

That’s a good question! It’s not one that I’m sure I have an answer for—I hesitate to say that one form can do something that another cannot because I am almost always immediately proven wrong. That said, I do think short stories occupy a strange space in the literary landscape: it’s a form pushed within the workshop—perhaps for ease of pedagogy or tradition—but not one that usually gets the kind of acclaim or attention that the novel does. Perhaps some writers save their energy for the “big issues” until they know they have a novel’s worth of words to write; perhaps short stories that tackle these aren’t as on the radar as they ought to be. I’m not sure. I do know that I myself feel more at home in shorter, more fractured forms—in writing, I want to focus in on emotional resonance rather than explanation.

Why did you choose a dog to represent the demand for oil in this story?

Dogs are creatures of complication. They occupy the border between the human and the natural worlds. They’re uncanny and culturally loaded. They’re communicative, showing an intense interest in and responsiveness to human activity and thought. Dogs are chthonic, too. When my brother redeployed, he told me that it was difficult to see dogs through an American lens again—he had seen them be literal corpse-eaters. I can’t shake that dissonance—a dog is hearth animal kept in the home and a dog is a dangerous animal that scavenges that which has not been properly interred.

There is so much that isn’t interred; there is so much that is kept at the center of the home. I did not intend for the dog to be a representation of the demand for oil (though I really like and respond to that reading); I did intend the dog to be a representation of haunting, of border-space, and of war. Oil lends itself to these things because it is land and territory based and because humans have always found a use for it. And my grandfather remade himself in images of oil and war—whatever he was before that he tried to erase. None of his descendants have been able to properly inter those images: we are still responding to their effects. Or I am—and I keep calling people’s attention to that which they’d like to forget.

So the dog—it seemed a natural link to me.

Describe how you settled on the chronology of this story. One of the many interesting elements of “Oil Dog” is how you move us through time—from the 1930’s to the present day and to decades in between. What was it like to write a story in this way?

I struggled with chronology in my initial drafting! Some of my first attempts were too much like a weak cloud—all dissipation, no tension. Some of my first attempts were too long, too windy—a result of trying to scatter time. So I left it alone for a long while, then came back and played cut up. I preserved only the placement of the first section (necessary to me because it normalizes the presence of the oil dog) and last section (necessary for its ambiguity). From there, I allowed myself to organize in a way that slowly divested the oil dog of its ability to say a full name (moving from “Richard Gordon” to “Alan” to, simply, “Oss—”) and that allowed me deeper access to theaters of war (moving from my grandfather on the practice plains to Alexander at pause in the midst of his campaigns to, finally, my brother in Kandahar). Having those arcs in place allowed me to add the other sections as punctuative or commentary moments, without sacrificing the narrative tension that I had wanted.

What are three last books you read?

In some kind of order, these are:

1: Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which I loved for its rhythms and variances in voice, for its refusal of anything that might be easily expected in favor of rot and character.

2: Aase Berg’s With Deer (translated by Johannes Göransson)—a reread, and one that I return to often. The lemurs! The fox. Everything in it seethes. It’s so strange and so good.

3: Yu Xiang’s I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust (translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain). A former student challenged me, once—he said that my canon is too western. That’s true. I bought this book because of that and then became caught it its interest in framing, its interrogation of narration. I can’t get out of this book and I don’t want to—I want to stay behind Xiang’s door. She’s so loyal to her own eyes.

What projects are you working on now?

I am still writing about strange dogs—flint dogs, salt dogs, red dogs. I want to write a book about myself—about what made me, about my inability to name what matters most to me. I have a title—Cynocephali—and a six part structure. I’m waist-deep in that work.

And, when that’s too much, I rewrite Greek myths that are about bodies. I want to make that into some kind of collection, though I’m not there yet. One day! One day.  

Saturday
Jul232016

"Until There Are No Edges": An Interview with Natanya Ann Pulley

Natanya is an Assistant Professor at Colorado College. She teaches Creative Writing, Innovative Fiction, and Native American Literature. She's been an editor at Quarterly West and South Dakota Review, and is currently a guest editor for Black Candies. She writes fiction and nonfiction with outbreaks in poetry and collage. Her work can be found at The Toast, Drunken Boat, As/US, and Waxwing (among others). She enjoys felting wool and spending time near the Rockies with her husband JP and two dogs, Voodoo and Mojo.

Her story, "Seven Years of Cups," appeared in Issue Seventy-One of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about grief, lies, and the strangeness of motherhood.

What first inspired you to write this story about a family that lives inside a hospital?

I’m pretty obsessed with the idea that humans exist in many planes at once. That I can be in my own home with all of the things I know around me, but feel separate. Or that one can be outside in the open with a great sky above, but experience a physical crushing—not just emotional or internal, but a physical reaction like a panic attack. The idea that people who spend a lot of time at a hospital become a part of it isn’t an unfamiliar one, but I really wanted to push that as far as I could. I wanted to see what living years there might look like especially for someone stuck in the suspended, but ongoing loss of a father and I wanted to complicate it further by including a growing family. I think we like to believe that people pull out of dangerous grief and trauma for their family and over time and because they have to, but I wanted to see a person and his family defined by this grief for too long and in an unrealistic way. I wanted to see how long someone could hold onto holding on.

I’m intrigued by the idea your speaker poses of a “possible un-truth” that has floated inside him for so long that it had started to seem like a truth. Are there are any “possible un-truths” you’ve experienced in your life?
When I think of a lie, I think of a vicious thing: something invented as a weapon. While there are plenty of lies in everyone’s world, I’m much more interested in the un-truth. The truth undone. Or a type of lie that exists out of defense or denial or necessity. Not a white lie, but a thing to believe in order to wake up each day. In a very ordinary sense, the lines on a road boast an un-truth. They suggest I’m safe if I stay within them, if I understand their meaning, and if others do as well. I believe in those lines so much that it doesn’t faze me how often I’m putting my life on the line by getting in a vehicle with hundreds of others, often distracted, tired, driving too fast and under weather conditions or other influences. But I do it all the time to move throughout this world. Many years of driving and these sorts of un-truths meant to build some trust in me and the world around me begin to pile up—laws, justice, that fair is fair, authority’s intentions are good, that skin color doesn’t matter. One thing I find incredibly damaging right now when considering #BLM and police brutality is the idea that anyone could ever really understand what this particular type of racism feels like for a black person or a targeted person of color. I’m half-Navajo, but don’t present as Native American to many people and so even though I do experience racism, I’ll never experience it the same way a black individual being pulled over would. We(I) tend to think with enough information and empathy and rational, we can put ourselves in another person’s shoes. It’s not just that this is untrue—it’s that the truth we’ve built up (“We’re capable of really understanding racism now that we’re in the 21st century”) is undone over and over and over. It wasn’t just a vicious lie used as a weapon by some, but it was also a sad untruth invented to comfort us into believing change is possible in an easy way—a convenient way. I think lies are cruel and painful, but untruths are heartbreaking.

There are hints in the story that the speaker has been violent in the past. Early in the story, he describes a frustrating experience with a contractor friend: “He was just trying to help out but by the time the staff caught up with us, I’d already dug a needle through to his bone.” In his retelling, the speaker is not angry. He actually relates to the contractor, understands that his friend meant well. The violence is buried in the sentence; the speaker seems detached from it. Can you speak to the narrative choice behind this moment? Why is it important that we know about his violence early in the story?

The story starts seven years into the character’s time at the hospital—after this traumatic event of both his father’s demise and the birth of his first child (within some span for him that feels very close). It felt clear to me that the character has been through various stages of grief and trauma—that anger was certainly one of them. Part of his acting out may be due to the type of story it is—this bloated world with everything over the edge, over the edge, over the edge, until there are no edges anymore. But also, I wanted it to be clear that he was not okay, even dangerous and his detachment was not safe. I’m also enamored by detachment—both its blessings and its curses. Seven years into his “life” at the hospital, I wanted his most basic reactions to be worn out, to be old news to him. Obviously, he should worry about this attack of his and possible future attacks. Obviously he should be worried about a lot of things. But detachment cares little for things obvious. And it has no need for shoulds.

The speaker describes his children by their precise age, weight, and height. He seems to know little else about them. Why do you think his children’s measurements more memorable to him than anything else?

Ha ha. This was a fun detail to include for me. First, I was thinking about how newborns are just little blobs of sensations and reactions and how it takes a little time to get to know their personalities (or rather for those personalities to develop). So we relay the strangest information about them when they are born. I am not that great with measurements, but still seem to relay the weight, length, toe count, and eye color of babies when describing them. It’s a strange desire to want to know a person when one can’t. To want to account for an unknown when little simple measurements is all one has. Second, because this character is detached from his own emotion, because he’s in some sort of denial, I think he believes these details make sense. That they relay something real or truthful about his children, when he can’t do it himself. The first child arrived when his father was dying and I think maybe the measurements were the easiest thing for him to hold onto it. And he hasn’t let go of that. Third, I played around a lot with the kind of language these characters might pick up from being in a hospital and in an earlier version of the story, the narrator used more medical terms. But I found this to be … well, cumbersome to read, but also just not fun for me. So I decided this would be the thing that he would pick up on. He was given the measurements of his children when they were as born, it’s what he hears about new life in the hospital each time a child is born, and that’s what he’s sticking to. 

Who are you reading right now?

I recently read Natural Wonders by Angela Woodward, which was such a delight—playful, funny, sentences to nest into, and also, something very sad, but strangely hopeful. And I’ve started Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary and Carmen Lau’s The Girl Wakes. I’m also casually reading Saga, which is a very fun, amazing “space opera/fantasy” comic series. And I’ve been revisiting Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus.” I touched upon it in a class when teaching Joanna Ruocco’s Dan last Spring, but I was so struck by the idea that there is no absurd world. Rather, absurdity is something we bring with us because the world is unreasonable and our expectations of the world can be even more so. Camus says, “What is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational (world) and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.” I’ve been re-positioning myself in our current reality with this idea and through this reading. The violence, the election, losing both Prince and Bowie feels very absurd to me, like we all were dumped into an alternate universe this year. But this isn’t a constructive way for me to work through it, I think. Calling the world absurd doesn’t deal with the very real things that were always in motion before this—that led us to this. My “wild longing for clarity” tends to capture me and keep me from action.

What projects are you currently working on?

Mainly my non-fiction collection which deals mostly with being biracial and different forms of trauma I’ve experienced. Honestly, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional toil of working through this collection, so I’m learning patience with this project. But I’m a short story writer mainly, so I’m always kicking about some little somethings here and there. I wonder sometimes if I’m a novelist, but usually I end up thinking: this is just a really long story. Or worse, a story cycle. Ha ha.

I’m also delighted to be a guest editor for the annual horror literary journal Black Candies. This next issue is the “Gross and Unlikeable Issue” with female writers only. While submissions have closed, the reading process has been eye-opening. I expected some of the same topics (pregnancy and menstruation) and we certainly wanted body horror in the mix. But, oh man, so many dead babies. Metaphoric or not. Miscarried, stillbirths, infanticide—dead, dead, dead. It’s been tough reading on my heart. At times, my response has been very poor—wishing for other topics, squirming away. And there are plenty of other story ideas, but these dead babies outweigh them. However, I always have to end my wishing and remember: here it is. This is what women think about and we are told not to. We are told to think of the potential of our bodies and the gifts we give—life, like it’s a prize. But for many women, this is what is horrific about our body’s potential or sometimes failure. Making life, ability and or the monthly reminder of life, keeping a child alive—this is dangerous, dangerous stuff. And here are the female writers that don’t want to hear the glossy and fairytale stories of it. They want to talk about the horror, the abject. So I’m reading with respect and open to the wail here—instead of wanting to shut it out. And, oh, we’ve got some really amazing ones.  Of course, there are plenty of other wonderful and super gross stories by women I’ve enjoyed reading. It’s going to be a great collection with plenty of stories about other topics as well, a girl that turns to candy, another that grows another pair of legs that fall off, and tales weird, cosmic, and disgusting.

Thursday
Jul142016

"Forever Married to the Pseudonym": An Interview with Michael Shirzadian

Michael Shirzadian lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he studies and teaches rhetoric at Ohio State University. His stories and essays have appeared in Brevity, The Collagist, theNewerYork, Identity Theory, *82 Review, and elsewhere. Before returning to Columbus, he lived in Grants, New Mexico, where he taught high school English, and Boulder, Colorado, where he earned an MFA in fiction. You can contact Michael at michael.shirzadian@gmail.com.

His essay, "Recessional," appeared in Issue Eighty-Three of The Collagist.

Here, Michael Shirzadian talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about dwelling in scene, writing about family, and whittling down the work.

What can you tell us about the origins of your essay “Recessional”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

Originally “Recessional” was a section of a longer, braided essay, but I couldn’t figure the braids out, couldn’t make it work, so I excised the section and retooled it as flash. I wouldn’t have written it otherwise; I’ve got a journal full of memories and writing ideas about my friend Ben, but every time I try my hand at one of them I end up scrapping the piece. Every time. I think “Recessional” works because it wasn’t originally a piece about Ben. I don’t think it is now, even. It’s a family piece. I started writing the first draft because I needed a scene where my parents actually worked together—I needed that scene in the longer, family essay—and the weekend when Ben died was the first scene to come to mind. It was only after my wonderful CNF workshop—led by the brilliant Lee Martin—mentioned that the braid might make for a strong flash essay that I returned to the piece with an eye on the kind of narrative/thematic closure that a standalone piece demands.

There are difficult, personal subjects in this essay: suicide, divorce, grief, and imagining your parents during a happier time. When you’re writing about these things, do you allow yourself to imagine how your family might react to reading it? How do you navigate the choppy waters of writing about family in an honest, vulnerable way?

I struggle with this all the time. Part of the reason I struggle is because I never start writing a piece thinking about this kind of reception. There’s something I want to say, maybe need to say, so I say it. It’s on the back end, just before submitting, that I’m forced to wrestle with those choppy waters. The easiest thing at that point is to roll with a pseudonym—which I do often. Too often, maybe. Honestly, “Recessional” doesn’t take on the most sensitive of my CNF obsessions, so I elected, here, to use my real name. Still, I emailed the piece to my mother for publication approval. That’s been super awkward. She gave a curt “ok” and we haven’t discussed the piece since. For me, a piece dies when I get too caught up in considering this kind of reception before the end. Maybe that means I’ll be forever married to the pseudonym. And there are some constellations of words that will never make it off my hard drive. I used to just think fuck it and submit everything and tell myself that the writing comes above all else. But I learned the hard way to take a more nuanced approach. So I’m still working on it, still improvising. I’m very much open to suggestions.

Your entire essay consists of only a little over 400 words. Is it a challenge for you to write with such concision? How do you achieve this economy of language? (Does it require a lot of revision and/or restraint?)

This piece’s economy derives from its origin as a fragment, one part of a defunct whole. That’s an old, reliable trick for flash-writing: take a longer piece and whittle it down. I’m always surprised at the resonant power a piece can accumulate the more you take out, undo. That’s why I dwell in flash. I’d actually say it’s more challenging for me to write a longer piece, to sustain an essay or story beyond, say, page twelve. After that, my longer stuff’s just stringing together multiple fragments anyway.

As far as restraint goes, I’m always opening new documents while I write, copy/pasting lines or ideas that I had included in the original piece but decided ultimately to excise. One flash might produce ten of these documents. I’d be surprised if even one of these ten generates a new piece, but having them written down somewhere—knowing that they live outside my head—occludes my anxieties long enough for me to finish the original.

Your bio says that you write fiction as well as nonfiction. Have you learned any lessons from one genre that you’ve applied to the other? How does your work in nonfiction inform your fiction, or vice versa?

There’s hardly a difference in my work. I could retool a few sentences from most of my fiction and ethically call it nonfiction. As an essayist, I hate exposition; I’m so so so bad at it. So most of my nonfiction is straight narrative, rendered almost entirely in scene. When one of my essays leaves scene it’s usually for something closer to character interiority than exposition. I’m not sure I can even articulate the difference. So here’s maybe what I’ve learned by crossing genres: to dwell in scene, to move slowly through space and time even in the compressed form, to construct characters and to enter their interiorities when I’m looking for the emotional turn—that moment of recognition or tenderness or grace. Both fiction and nonfiction, for me, rely so heavily on that turn. Why not recycle strategies?

What writing projects are you working on now?

I just completed a collection of essays and stories (I wish I could just say one or the other, but the meaning—at least on the title page—would, I fear, be lost). I’ve begun sending it to contests. I’m also a rhetoric PhD, and my current project interrogates the police body camera and the state’s insistence that it adequately addresses the problem of police violence against black communities.

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

My rhetoric research occupies most of my time these days. But I’ll never pass up an opportunity to recommend Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Good Squad or Lyn Hejinian’s My Life. Those are both beautiful exercises in fragmentation. I also really dig Holly Goddard Jones—both her novel, The Next Time You See Me, and her collection of stories, Girl Trouble. Jhumpa Lahiri’s Year’s End (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/12/24/years-end) is sad and lovely. And this strange little piece, 26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss was almost unanimously adored in Ohio State’s most recent graduate fiction workshop: http://www.kijjohnson.com/26_monkeys.htm. I haven’t read Kij Johnson, but after reading 26 Monkeys I’m definitely intrigued.