Saturday
Apr072012

"Welcoming the Moments When There Is No 'Or'": An Interview with Kevin "Mc" McIlvoy

Kevin "Mc" McIlvoy has been a teacher for thirty years. He offers mentoring and manuscript critique through mcthebookmechanic.com. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina where he has a place in the woods, and behind that place a writing hut.  His newest work is a collection of stories, The Complete History of New Mexico, published by Graywolf Press; it will be released in e-format in late 2012. "When will we speak of Jesus?" (which appeared in Issue Thirty-One of The Collagist) and "Mrs. Wiggins altocumulus undulatus asperatus" (which appeared in Issue Thirty-Two of The Collagist) are from an almost-completed new work, 57 Octaves Below Middle C.

Here Mc speaks to interviewer Joseph Scapellato about sing-thinking and think-singing, pouring and spilling, and the invitation of wildness into one's work.

Enjoy!

1. Elsewhere, you’ve described “When will we speak of Jesus?” and “Mrs. Wiggins’ altocumulus undulatus asperatus” as “fraternal twins.”  Where did these pieces begin for you, and how did they get to here—to fraternal twinhood?

For almost thirty years I’ve found myself writing a story and, later, its non-identical twin. Even after recognizing this pattern in my writing habits, I have not consciously set out to find that second story, though I have placed myself in readiness for it.  I am a sing-thinker mostly – and sometimes a think-singer.  I go where sound leads me: where it spills and where it pours. After I have written a story, I will sometimes hear the sonic aspect of it as “pouring” or “spilling.” I have a great love of Delta blues music; when I hear Blind Willie Johnson, for instance, I feel I am hearing song through which gospel music pours and the blues-cry spills; when I hear Charley Patton, I feel his pouring is the arriving train-sound and his spilling is the departing train-sound. 

I hope it’s not too presumptuous of me to bring them up – I’m only saying that I try my best to learn from singer-storytellers.  After I wrote “When will we speak of Jesus,” which in its very title sounds to me like the narrator might be singing a form of gospel song, I could hear that at the next moment in his life this narrator might be singing as if he was a force of nature (as in kudzu, and as in a kind of horizon-to-horizon cloud-tide called “altocumulus undulatus asperatus”).       

2. The terms “pouring” and “spilling” are so rich in sonic and textural evocations.  I wonder, though: you’ve given examples of how they manifest side-by-side in the same artist, but how do you determine what’s pouring and what’s spilling?  I suppose I’m asking what qualities distinguish these modes.  Can you speak to how you hear or feel them differently? 

A pouring narrative, by my reckoning, has some sense of design (of a spout controlling the pouring) regarding content or form. The narrator in “When will we speak of Jesus” is addressing this one person who will assume the job the narrator held.  He is trying to “pour” out instructions to that one particular person, and is failing: he is, instead, “spilling” out everything non-instructive he feels about the whole wreckage of his life, and he is sometimes addressing The New Silence, sometimes himself, sometimes – implicitly – the band kids and his own children and ex-wife. His narrative cascades over many ledges. The presence of voids in the story and in the sentences themselves is evidence of the spilling quality. The verging into incoherence and into disproportionate evocation is characteristic of spilling storytelling. 

In “Mrs. Wiggins’ altocumulus undulatus asperatus” the narrator is writing a letter that wanders where it will -- in the same manner that kudzu wanders; as his narrative grows, it overgrows; instead of uncovering a story, it smothers the story that might have been told.  What I hope the reader is given is a glimpse of something like that haunting glimpse you get of a kudzu-ravaged structure that creates a riddle about what is underneath.  

3. “When will we speak of Jesus?” is one paragraph/stanza, perhaps two; instead of line breaks, the reader encounters in-sentence spacing of different lengths, some of which heighten humor:

The idea-less band director – that's not bitterness, me calling him that          – well, yes it is, it is, yes –       he stole the idea from a band in Corinthian, Texas  

—and some of which signal painful hitches in the heart, in the throat:

That boost, I don't know how you replace it        when it's      lost.         

“Mrs. Wiggins’ altocumulus  undulatus asperatus,” on the other hand, comes to the reader in multiple stanzas/paragraphs, but because there’s only one period, at the end—and no commas along the way—it reads to me like a single desperate sentence, a plea interrupted occasionally by questions.  What goes into these compelling structural and formal decisions?  When/how do you discover that these decisions are decisions to stand by, to follow?

Thanks for your sensitive reading of the story.  To build upon the answer above, I’d say “Mrs. Wiggins’ altocumulus undulatus asperatus” is a spilling-pouring story and “When will we speak of Jesus” is a pouring-spilling story.

In composing my fiction and my prose-poems and my poem-proses, my sentence-level decisions regarding syntax, lineation, etc. are decisions about the nature of the narrative as being pouring or out-pouring or in-pouring, as being spilling or out-spilling or in-spilling, and I enjoy the wild uncertainties of that composing process. I revise extensively, welcoming the moments when there is no “or,” when the nature of the narrative is in-spilling and out-spilling and spilling and in-pouring and out-pouring and pouring, and I enjoy the wilder uncertainties of that revising process.

Forgive me, that’s a lot of words for what I’m trying to say. The essence of my composing process is to invite wildness; the essence of my revising process is to invite greater wildness. 

4. Does the act of inviting greater wildness ever result in the party-crashing of its opposite—tameness?

In my opinion, the writer generates less energy (in the works’ limbs and roots, in the cambium of language itself) when the wildness is not resisting greater wildness or is not resisting tameness. The writer, likewise, generates less energy when the tameness is not resisting greater tameness or is not resisting wildness.  When I am writing badly, that is, when I am over-controlling my own work, it is merely wild, merely tame, it spills but does not also pour, it pours but does not also spill. 

5. The first piece is an “email introduction” addressed to the New Silence, the speaker’s replacement; the second is a letter to Abraham, the speaker’s estranged blind friend.  For me, the presence of an addressee gives another dimension to the speaker, one that’s deeply felt.  Does the act of imagining the speaker’s audience add a dimension to your writing process?

In my own work, the narrative situation (who is speaking to whom and under what circumstances) is important to the story’s authenticity and it is essential to the story’s sound.  The speaker of these stories sounds one way when he is addressing the New Silence.  The root note of his voice is the same when he is addressing Abraham, but the chord does not sound the same as when he is addressing the New Silence.  Were I to ignore the natural chaos in a voice under the complex pressures of a specific narrative situation, I believe I would compose and revise less chaotically: my writing hours would sure be calmer and more controlled, but they would be less disturbingly, pleasurably satisfying.

6. I read in your bio that these two pieces will appear in 57 Octaves Below Middle C, which you refer to as an “almost completed new work.”  Can you tell us a little about this work, and how these two pieces fit (and/or don’t) into it? 

57 Octaves Below Middle C includes short stories, short-short stories, prose-poems, and poem-proses. There are four pieces in the book that have non-identical twins; in some cases, twin appears next to twin; in other cases, the twins are separated by other stories.  I’ve lived with this book for awhile now. I like the sounds in it. I feel right about the Isobel map it places before the reader: a contour map of sing-thinking and think-singing experiences.

7. What other writing projects are you working on right now, aside from 57 Octaves Below Middle C?

I have a novel project that I am happy to say is growing wilder on each page. 

8.  What knockout writing have you been reading recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?

At the top of my list right now is Patrick Donnelly’s Nocturnes of the Brothel of Ruin (Four Way Books); I am a huge fan of his book, The Charge; in completely unassuming ways, the speakers of Patrick’s poems offer wicked-wise prayer. I’ve also been rereading Alan Shapiro’s Night of the Republic and Jennifer Grotz’s the needle: people tell certain holy truths only in their dreams, and these poems place you in those kind of dreams. 

I’ll look forward to reading Darlin Neal’s new book, Elegant Punk (Press 53); I admire her previous book, Rattlesnakes & The Moon. And I recommend Eugene Cross’s Fires of Our Choosing (Dzanc Books) to everyone; Cross, a writer in the tradition of James Baldwin, has written a powerful first book. 

 

Friday
Mar302012

"I Can't Imagine Being Embalmed": An Interview with Peter Faziani

Peter Faziani is a second year masters student at the University of Toledo where he is the founder and editor of The Mill, the university's literary magazine. In addition to his chapbook, This is Envy, Peter's work has been published in The Central Review and The Independent Collegian. He has two Corgi's and a wonderful wife and daughter that support his writing. 

Here, Peter Faziani talks to interviewer Melissa Goodrich about what don't make a man, The Great Lakes, and dying alone.

1. Did this poem begin as a jest, a gesture, and/or a serious consideration for the death of one’s clothes?  Do you find Viking funerals serious business or funny or strange?                                   

In the beginning, this poem was a line or two in jest about Viking funerals, because I've always found them foreign, and intriguing. It eventually became a poem that considers death, but more importantly, considers the death of one's possessions because even though the cliché says, "clothes don't make the man," as I've always seen it, they seem like they play an important role in defining one's self. To me, a Viking funeral seems so prestigious and demanding of respect from people, and that is why this poem uses a yellow raft. As a citizen of the 21st century, I can't possibly command that amount of respect in death, because we don't revere death anymore. Death is something that people seem to fear, hate, and ignore as best as they can.                           

2. The turn at that word ‘our,’ as in “my/black suit, the one I wore at our/wedding” of course changes things.  Suddenly the title “Willingly Implementing Instructions” sounds more passive-aggressive.  What is your intention in this piece, as far as tone (and changes in tone) are concerned?  How do you hope we read those last lines, that last instruction to hold things in place?                         

The role of the 'our' in this poem, was an attempt to reach out and acknowledge that I don't want to die alone. I can only hope that when I do die, there will be someone there to help complete my plans, and arrange my affairs in the way I wanted.                                                                                   

3. What do you hope happens to you (your body, your soul, your car title & registration) when you die? 

I’ve spent a lot of time ruminating on my death for a twenty-six year old, both body and soul. Personally, I can't imagine being embalmed, and being buried preserved in the ground for who knows how long. If I had the ability, I would like to be buried naturally, so my body could return to the earth on it's own time frame, knowing that in twenty or thirty years my physical body would be reclaimed, and recycled.

As for possessions, and poetry, I do hope that I have things to leave to my children that will retain positive memories of me so that I can live on.

4. Are you writing any other instructional poems?  What are your current projects?

I’m currently working on a small series that is inspired by The Great Lakes, and more specifically Lake Erie. I live five minutes from the water and because of this, it constantly seeps into my life, and thoughts. Water itself has always fascinated me and because of this I can’t help but respond to it, the way that it changes so quickly, or the way that it is always reclaiming lost land.

5. What’s the best poem you’ve read all winter, now that we’re slowly moving into spring?

I recently read Campbell McGrath’s Shannon, and this long poem really made me long for a more natural world without so much cement and technology. The way that he invokes such a strong emotional connection to a world that, in Toledo, OH, I simply cannot find, McGrath's portrayal of George Shannon's experiences during the Lewis and Clark Expedition are so internal, and at times almost allow the reader to see what Shannon himself might have seen. 

 

Monday
Mar262012

"By a Thin and Crooked Line": An Interview-in-Excerpts with T Fleischmann

T Fleischmann's first book, Syzygy, Beauty, is out from Sarabande this month. They live in rural Tennessee and help edit nonfiction at DIAGRAM.

An excerpt from SyzygyBeauty appears in Issue Thirty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, T Fleischmann answers questions "in the form of excerpts"--with further excerpts from Syzygy, Beauty.  Enjoy! 

What is writing like?

A friend of mine tells me she has a glass curse, that it came after she lit religious candles she knew nothing about. The glass that held the wax cracked, and then all her glass kept breaking, falling or being taken, suddenly, by a thin and crooked line.

What isn’t writing like?

“What I mean,” you try to clarify, “is that I don’t think this is about me at all.”

When you do it, why?

Eight letters, the 1991 Pet Shop Boys single that quotes Othello.

When you don’t, why?

I once dated a bartender. A weekend routine, shots and hands and barely knowing each other. One morning, stoned and watching Man Vs. Wild, he said “I love you” and so I had to break up with him.

Monday
Mar262012

"The Best Way to Know a Story": An Interview with Elizabeth Ellen

Elizabeth Ellen was born in the Midwest and will die in the Midwest. Her collection Fast Machine is available here.

Her story "Xenia, ----" appears in Issue Thirty-One of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Joseph Scapellato about retellings, rewriting retellings, and story collections that read like novels and feel like memoirs.  Enjoy!

“Xenia, ----”—a stand-alone work in its own right—is also a retelling of Blake Butler’s “Smoke House.”  What about “Smoke House” moved you to retell it, and what were you shooting for in your retelling?  It’d be wonderful to hear about your approach.

Well, I’ve known Blake for years. He’s one of my oldest writer friends. And I actually accepted “Smoke House” for Hobart back in ’08. Then in ’09, when Scorch Atlas was released, he asked a handful of writers, myself included, to remix stories from the collection, and I chose “Smoke House.” But I was never really happy with my version. It was in first person and pretty obvious and flowery and dramatic and overly sentimental. So I decided to rewrite it for Fast Machine, as I still felt some odd attachment to it and to “Smoke House.” It was actually the last story I completed before we went to print. It took a lot longer than I’d anticipated because I ended up starting from scratch, changing it to third person, completely retelling it. I think my attachment to it had something to do with being an only child and having always wanted an older brother. And even though Blake’s a few years younger than I am, I’ve always felt some sort of fraternal (or sororal? Is that the female equivalent?) attachment to him.

Having read “Smoke House” some time ago, I immediately re-read it after reading “Xenia, ----.”  I love the way these pieces participate in one another’s worlds, the way they enrich each other.  What did you discover about “Smoke House” through retelling it that you didn’t know before?  Do you think that retelling is the best way to “know” a story? 

I definitely think retelling, though a much longer and more arduous process than simply reading, is the best way to know a story. (Must be similar to typing out a novel, as Hunter S. Thompson famously did with The Great Gatsby, something I’ve always meant to do. Not Gatsby necessarily, but a novel. So far I have only typed out Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance.”) I don’t know how many times I read “Smoke House;” a lot. But at some point I had to set that story aside and work from memory to tell my own.

The discovery I made was based on this sentence from “Smoke House:” “The daughter had begun to convince herself that this was all her fault.” I think “Smoke House” is much more centered on the mother, and her obsession with the son, and in “Xenia, ----“ we come to find out the daughter harbored her own obsession, that she and her brother had this whole sort of secret world together of which the parents were either unaware or turned away from.

The word “xenia” is Greek for “foreign” or “strange”—the root of the word “xenophobic.”  It’s also a town in Ohio.  How did or didn’t any of this play into your decision to title this work, to include the “----”?

That’s interesting, the definition. I didn’t know that. I definitely had Xenia, Ohio in mind at some point while writing this. I’m from Ohio, so I have the ingrained or learned fear of tornadoes, had heard the story of Xenia being wiped out in the seventies. And I think Gummo is set in Xenia, Ohio, and for some reason, I kept thinking of Gummo while writing this. But then when it came to titling the story, I didn’t want it to be so obvious. I wanted the reader to make his or her own decisions when it came to place, to not be so limited to the Midwest or Ohio.

One of the things I admire about this piece is the daughter’s fearlessness—“she liked the world as it was: quiet and desolate and simple…she no longer worried about the curse, the darkness within her”—and how because of this she seems to be in charge, even as she’s pursued by a boy with a knife.  Despite her confidence, the story radiates tension.  Dread looms.  How did you work to achieve this effect?

Hmmm. Well, I don’t see her as in charge, or in thinking she’s in charge. I think her whole life she has worried that she would be the cause of her brother’s death, and now that he’s dead, she’s liberated from that fear. She’s not any more in charge than she ever was, but she’s okay with that now, because she no longer cares. She has no more attachment to life. And, because of this, is maybe even a bit drawn to darkness or to her own dread. She is not so much confident as she is accepting, of life, death, violence, all of it. She’s more curious now, than fearful. In the past, she couldn’t afford to be curious.

This story appears in Fast Machine, your collection out with Short Flight/Long Drive Books.  Can you tell us a little about how this piece fits into this collection, how it resonates (or doesn’t) with its fellow stories?

Well, my initial reaction is that maybe it doesn’t fit in. It’s one of the only stories written in third person, for instance. But I like that about it. I like that it maybe feels different from the other stories in the collection. Then again, there are other stories of adolescence – “Winter Haven, Florida, 1984” and “Halfsies” – so maybe it fits with those.

Tell us something we don’t know about Fast Machine.

Fast Machine is a story collection that Chelsea Martin has said reads like a novel but to me feels like a memoir.  

What other writing projects are you working on right now?

I’m currently taking a break from the physical act of writing (though I’ll be starting work on a novel soon, so I’m sort of figuring that out in my head) and catching up/focusing on editorial duties. Next up for Short Flight/Long Drive books is a story collection by Dylan Nice. So I’m going over edits with him. Editing some essays and stories for Hobart. Trying to put together a small, summer reading tour. That sort of thing.

What knockout fiction have you been reading recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?

I can’t wait to read Jac Jemc’s novel, My Only Wife. I think that’s out next month. And Sarah Manguso’s new book is an elegy/nonfiction, and I started it recently, late at night, but it was too sad to read before bed, so I need to write myself a note to start it during the day. One of my favorite books last year was Suicide, by Edouard Leve, and I just ordered Autoportrait, so I can’t wait to get that. I recently finished Amelia Gray’s Threats and I Should Have Stayed Home, by Horace McCoy, and am currently reading A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood and Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson. Now that I have a brief break from writing, I want to read everything!

 

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