Sunday
Jul082012

"All Manner of Interstylistic Mayhem": An Interview with Miles Klee

Miles Klee is the author of the novel Ivyland (OR Books 2012). He writes for Vanity FairThe Awl and others. He lives in Manhattan with his radiant wife and two ill-mannered dogs. 

Several of his pieces--"Five Miniatures"--appear in Issue Thirty-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Miles Klee speaks with interviewer Joseph Scapellato about apparent incompletion, infinitudes, and short forms.  Enjoy!

1. Where did these pieces begin for you, and how did they get to here?

I found that my stories—including those that make up Ivyland, my first novel—kept falling into one of two molds. There were manic efforts that ran about 5,000 words, trying to keep three or four absurd plots in the air; then there were stories, closer to 2,000 words, that strove for atmospheric intensity. I wanted to shake off those patterns and scale my ambition down to the atomic level—stories closer to 150 words in length, compressed, that made meaning out of their apparent incompletion. I think many writers come up with fun plots or riffs they have neither the time nor motivation to flesh out; my thought was that the sketches themselves might be worthwhile. Seurat painted lots of studies for “A Sunday on La Grande Jotte” before reconciling the lot into the recognized masterpiece, and there’s something lonely, even haunting, about those loose fragments, parts of a grander process that swept them aside once they had served their purpose. I sat down and over a week poured out a dozen-plus daydreams that could have incited longer stories but resisted further complication. Matt Bell was generous enough to find some merit in these five.

2. I love the decision to call these pieces “miniatures”—for me, strangely enough, this designation makes them larger; they stand independently, as scale models of universes.  Can you talk a little about your decision to call these pieces “miniatures”?  

Two wonderful Steven Millhauser stories come to mind: one, “In the Reign of Harad IV,” is about a diabolically talented miniaturist, who manufactures worlds too small to be sensed; the other, “The New Automaton Theatre” is about a visionary who elevates wind-up toys into the realm of subversive, god-like art. I wanted that degree of precision combined with that mechanical elegance: paragraphs that did only one thing, had only one turn, but executed it perfectly, with no room for error … and yet somehow, as you said, contained infinitudes. 

3. These pieces bring to mind many forms: parables, aphorisms, axioms, newspaper articles, journal entries.  What short forms do you enjoy reading—and why?

Four writers of very short bursts of prose loom large over what I tried to do here: Thomas Bernhard (specifically in The Voice Imitator), Lydia Davis, Donald Barthelme and W.S. Merwin. All are able to pack wickedly funny narratives down to the size and shape of a newspaper obituary or classified ad (incidentally, the best parts of a newspaper). That journalistic or moralizing voice is a wonderful tool for fiction because it allows you to render the fanciful in what we normally think of as objective language, inviting all manner of interstylistic mayhem. A lot of the formality has drained out of the news media—they read people’s tweets on CNN now. What if literary fiction took up the abandoned set of ethics? For its own nefarious purposes, I mean. I also like digging up my middle-school diary now and then, if only to wince.

4. What writing projects are you working on right now?

There are scattered notes for another novel, something that in my cynicism I believe could be successfully controversial, though the less said there, the more likely I am to make a good-faith effort toward it some day. There’s a novella awaiting painful revisions, too; I’d like it to cap the short story collection I’m currently polishing off. That’ll be the follow-up to Ivyland, is the hope.

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

I just finished Robert Coover’s The Public Burning over July 4th, appropriately enough—as well as Coover’s journals covering its troubled production and publication. Both are horrifying and side-splitting in equal measure—a quality I value highly. Barry Hannah has been an inspiration of late, as he tends to be every six months or so. I’m looking forward to Padget Powell’s new book; I do love a good novel about nothing.   

 

Monday
Jul022012

"Where Our Stakes of Self Are Planted": An Interview with Tim Horvath

Tim Horvath teaches creative writing at the New Hampshire Institute of Art and Boston’s Grub Street writing center and works part-time as a counselor in a psychiatric hospital, primarily with autistic children and adolescents. Understories, his first book, is out now from Bellevue Literary Press.

His story "The Conversations" appears in Issue Thirty-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Tim Horvath speaks with interviewer Joseph Scapellato about carrying on a dialogue with one's forebearers, the role of conversation in relationships, and "verbal cheese, beer, sauerkraut."

1. Where did “The Conversations” begin for you?

It is the only story I’ve ever written that came out of playing with my daughter. Since she was very young we’ve collaborated on handmade books together, combining words and drawn pictures and collage. Our first effort was Bees, Bears, Alaska and the Stars, which involved a trip to Alaska and then on to Jupiter, with a riveting climactic scene in the Great Red Spot, I might add. More recently, we were working on a story and she asked me to come up with villain. Well, I thought, we can’t have the classic mustachioed bringer-of-malice. I decided I wanted an infiltrator, someone surreptitious and as close to impossible to detect, and so I conceived of the idea of having “the Conversations” as the villain, where the “bad guys” would disguise themselves as ordinary conversations. She liked the idea on its face, though I’m not sure if either of us really knew what I was talking about, but it went onto the list of items that were going to go into the book—usually we go for broke and just fill the pages, but on this occasion we were actually planning, I guess. Around that time, I was sunk deep into a couple of stories that never made it into Understories, serious, intense stories that were getting bogged down all over, and I started writing “The Conversations” as a distraction, a little side-action, a story-fling while my serious-story-relationship was going south. It came easily because it didn’t matter. And at some point I had to approach her and say, “Remember our villain, the Conversations? How would you feel if Daddy used that in a grown-up story? Daddy could really use that in a grown-up story.” Thankfully she was amenable and didn’t call in a team of intellectual property lawyers or anything. So that was the conception. Before that, though, I’d been reading a lot of Joshua Cohen for the past few years, and he’d become one of my favorite writers, and via an interview I’d done with him on the release of his first novel, a friend. His book A Heaven of Others, which involves a Jewish boy who is blown up while shoe-shopping and winds up in the Muslim afterlife, and so I also had explosions somewhere in my brain as an actual possibility. Josh’s writing is rich with jokes (one of the meanings of Witz, his magnum opus, is in fact “to joke”), and the first line of this story, “The first of the Conversations had taken at once in Rome, in Vegas, and in Hoboken,” sounds like a lead-in to a joke, no offense to Hoboken. One thing I like about this is that we never find out what happened in this third segment—what happened in Hoboken stays in Hoboken. And at first this seemed like cheating, but on reflection, it seemed somehow fitting to have that nod to Hoboken without actually going into gory detail. As in, everyone can go off and write his or her own Hoboken episode.

2. Forgive me if I’m influenced too much by the title, but as I read this piece I felt as if I were engaging in a conversation with the narrator—as if we were moving somewhere together, and I was participating in this movement.  For me, this feeling was confirmed in the story’s stunning final paragraph, when the narrator speaks for “us”: “We started to talk again.”  I wonder: to what degree is your writing process “conversational”?  And in what crucial ways is it “non-conversational”?

That’s very cool, Joseph, and to be truthful that particular resonance of the title hadn’t even occurred to me. Crazy, huh? That’s very insightful, though. My writing process is conversational in maybe some of the obvious ways, in that I am carrying on a dialogue with my forbearers. I am always talking with Norman Rush and Primo Levi and Borges and Marilyn Bowering and Annie Proulx and William T. Vollmann. I am constantly arguing with Raymond Carver. And with whatever I am reading at the moment. Recently I’ve been chewing the fat with Hari Kunzru and Franzen and Jennifer Spiegel. I’m a very auditory person—I love listening to audiobooks when they are decently-rendered, and there are moments in most of my stories where it turns out that I’ve been speaking to a listener if you read carefully (in “Circulation,” the narrator worries about offending the reader, while in “Planetarium,” the narrator points out that the reader might be wondering why he didn’t reveal a piece of critical information earlier). I think there’s a part of me that is foremost a musician—in my head, I am never tuneless—and improvisation in particular is one of the things I admire most, when an ensemble can carry that off.

Something I’d like to get back to in my work is dialogue. I used to write more of it, and I’m not sure why I got away from it. I’ve been reading Jennifer Spiegel’s The Freak Chronicles this past week and drooling over her dialogue, which consists of a steady series of jabs amounting to a knockout. 

I guess my writing is non-conversational insofar as it undergoes tight revision to the point where the sentences feel fully-wrought and crafted. I worry about wielding the chisel heavy-handedly. I do miss the days when I’d write a bit more un-self-consciously, a bit more conversationally, perhaps, before I even used a word-processor. It’s likely a natural outcome, too, of spending a bunch of years studying the sentences of writers and wanting to emulate those. I’m glad that this story felt as though it enlisted you in conversation, I’m hoping not of the Ancient Mariner type but something with a bit more back-and-forth. If I had to point to the best moments of my life, they’d probably be conversations. I won’t say anything about the context of them, or what was going on around them, behind them, between them…I’ve said enough already.

3. When the Conversations occur, the characters feel like they’re “reading someone else’s lines, lines that made an astounding, uncanny sense in the context of [their relationships],” often “after an impasse of some sort had been reached or at a point of extreme frustration, where those involved had been ‘going in circles,’ or had ‘already talked about this, in one form or another, a thousand times.’”  I love how this elegantly suggests that a relationship’s most mundanely aggravating moments have the greatest potential to be destructive to our lives.  Can you talk a little about how you struck upon and/or developed this trigger for the Conversations?

I think it was a stroke of fortune that when I got to that part of the story, this trigger actually worked. Up until writing it, it hadn’t occurred to me that the Conversations would be anything laden or loaded—remember I began with a villain looking to be inconspicuous, incognito. But my passions and interests incline me more toward human nature and relationships rather than the supernatural, so at some point I realized that the particular subspecies of conversation that was being put on trial here was the perennial conversation, the one we always have. That’s a shapeshifter, nothing supernatural about it—in every relationship, I’m guessing, there are one or two that manifest themselves in every season and every circumstance. They’re like whirlpools or strange attractors, too—they suck the interlocutors in from any given point, any given subject. Maybe each of us, with our significant others, is engaged in that conversation at all times, and everything else, from where to go for dinner to where to spend the holidays to how those choices are made are all variations on that conversation. Can that be destructive? Absolutely. Sometimes, maybe it is better if that conversation is held in abeyance, stays dressed as a sheep, gets drowned out in bad connections. Because it reveals, nakedly, who we are, where our stakes of self are planted, and how deeply, how tough they are to pluck out of the frozen ground. Again, just surmising here, but probably most relationships that end do so with a whimper rather than a bang, and the bang—the explosion—has already taken place, dispersed in a million infinitesimal non-explosions that are strewn throughout time, in the said and the unsaid, the ignored and the “understood otherwise.” Alcohol brings them out more as it brings out the capillaries in eyes, but makes it tougher to actually articulate the issues or understand them, and maybe that’s a good thing.

4. Does this piece appear in your story collection Understories?  If so, how does it fit in?  (And if it isn’t in this collection, does it mark a new direction for you, aesthetically?)

This was one of the last stories written for Understories. I’d like to think that I want to try everything, aesthetically and thematically. I was thrilled when The Collagist wanted this piece, because I dig the journal greatly and it was only one of two stories that was still unpublished. It’s interesting because I don’t think of myself as a writer of fantastic stories in general, but rather of stories that enlist reality and imagination in, if you’ll pardon the borrowing, a conversation with one another. In some sense, I think that this story may be viewed as a darker, menacing reprise of “Circulation,” which was the first story written that made it into the collection. Both are teeming with stories within stories, but in “Circulation” those stories serve as balm, showing off their power to connect, to nurture and sustain. I was younger when I wrote it, not necessarily more optimistic—I am still—but I hadn’t then read Joshua Cohen or Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas or Gary Lutz’s or Matt Bell’s work. Again, though, I wouldn’t describe this as a new direction, per se. My tendency in the past has been to veer in the opposite direction from what I’ve done most recently. One direction from the story where I’m likely to wind up, though, is the desert. I’m a desertphile, and I want to write something that takes place in there to a significant degree, although Hari Kunzru has now written Gods Without Men, which is like three or four desert novels in one. Between that and Breaking Bad, I think I should just go off the grid and just read and watch the desert itself, first-hand. 

5. What writing projects are you working on right now?

Picking up on the previous point, one of the stories that I was most heartbroken about not being able to get it up to par for Understories was called “The Desert of Maine,” which is about a young woman who essentially abandons her home and family and relocates to the Desert of Maine, a 45 acre tourist attraction that actually does resemble a very tiny desert. At this point, it—the story, not the attraction itself— is threatening to becoming a novel, although whether that is mere bravado or not on its part remains to be seen. I’m also working on several stories, including one called “The Nodder” and one involving people who climb bridges and recovering addicts. 

6. What knock-out writing have you been reading recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?

Two books to look out for later this year are Gabe Blackwell’s debut novel, Shadow Man and Peter Tieryas’s collection, Watering Heaven. Gabe is someone with whom I share more than one obsession, including shadows and film. Shadow Man  brilliantly reimagines biography as a mashup of literary criticism, history, and noir itself, at once parodying and paying homage to each of these genres—all that while being plain fun and having some of the funniest similes I’ve seen this side of Chandler. Tieryas’s collection sprawls over a lot of space, geographically and thematically, but his specialty seems to be nascent relationships, which flicker in his stories like neon signs from which maybe a letter has been knocked out, so we read them while ever-reminded of what is missing. His writing is incredibly witty and intelligent, and science seems to find its way into most of his stories in thoroughly unexpected ways. I’m also enjoying and admiring Jennifer Spiegel’s The Freak Chronicles, just out from Dzanc (I know, it will appear that I am playing to the home crowd, but it is all sincere and circumstantial that I happen to be reading these). Other things I’ve enjoyed a lot recently are Lauren Groff’s Arcadia, Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk about Anne Frank, “The Particles” by Andrea Barrett in a recent Tin House (best story of hers I’ve read since “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds,”), and Gary Lutz’s Divorcer sentence #414. Seriously, although I can’t vouch for the number, you could number the sentences in that book and cull from them a top list. I open at random: “An accelerating metabolism meant he needed starches within arm’s reach—pillowy regional bagels, pretzels candied in their contortions.” What a great description of his own sentences, come to think of it. I love it. His brain is like a fermentation tank, English words undergoing a chemical change into something new—verbal cheese, beer, sauerkraut.  Also, as I mentioned earlier, the Kunzru novel really stole my breath away. Upcoming, Junot Diaz is going to have a short story collection out, his first since Drown. He’s such a master of rhythm and voice—talk about a conversational writer, in the best possible sense. I’m also excited about the next issue of Camera Obscura, issue 5, which includes “The Selected Mugshots of Famous Hungarian Assassins” by Tamas Dobozy, a story which somehow manages to live up to that great title. And presumably next year, Norman Rush’s Subtle Bodies will come out. I see his work the way a certain type of astronomer might view a long-awaited comet—the first faint gleam in the scope is enough to make me slightly giddy.

 

Sunday
Jul012012

"I Missed the Things I Could See": An Interview with Nicole Walker

Nicole Walker is the author of the nonfiction book, Quench Your Thirst with Salt won the 2011 Zone 3 nonfiction prize and will be published next year and a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street, 2010). She edited, along with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Nonfiction, which will be released by Continuum Press in 2013. She currently teaches at Northern Arizona University’s MFA program.

Three of her micro-essays appear in Issue Thirty-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Nicole Walker talks to interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about small things, big things, and micro things. 

1. Could you discuss how to came to writing these there micro-essays, about micro-words? (Did at any point you say/read/write the word micro so much that it became weird? Is it doing that now?)

I started writing about metaphors and what’s troubling about them. Do they in fact shrink the world by making two things one? Is the problem with comparing the large to the small that the world becomes reduced? Don’t we want to touch everything and if it’s smaller, can’t we hold it in our own hands? I was worried about forest for the trees, running in the woods, staring at tiny rocks while missing the owl flying overhead.

Some of this negative view persists but sometime last summer I decided to be less grumpy and cynical. I went looking for a more positive spin and found it while interviewing scientists down at ASU about microorganisms. I wrote a long, long essay about how microorganisms can reduce pollution in wastewater. Maybe the small, on its own, is the big thing. What came up in the writing about these microorganisms and in several other longer essays is a sense of interconnectedness. Things don’t interconnect on a large scale—a person is not a road. But, there is interconnection between the miniscule. If you look closely enough at what’s around you, it’s not that everything is one—there’s no collapse—but there is a link between the microorganism (water, yeast, horticulture, sanitation) and microbrew, (water, yeast, hops, wheat, barley, sanitation). It’s the word “micro” that brings them together. 

If nearly every word can have a micro in front of it and still have meaning, then that digging down into the linguistic small might be a way to break the big ideas into their constituent parts to see where things might connect and build a link between this small and that small until the map becomes plainer.  

2. In all of these essays, it’s the smallness that seems to make the biggest impact: the small sound that stopped, the small lump, the small environment. Could you talk about how these micro things are emotionally large?

Looking at the small is one way I train my eye to be more generous. I tune in, from the force of the form as well as from the title, and look out. That pressure of containment, which works sometimes well for me in formal poetry, has, at least sometimes, the power of sublimation. From the small solid to the large gas, skipping the liquid state entirely. Squeeze and explode. Don’t tell the whole story, just part of it. Don’t define the word, jump from it.

3. I read in your bio that you co-edited Bending Genre: Essays on Nonfiction.  As someone who usually writes poetry, I could see myself writing something similar to this and just throwing it into that genre.  What’s your reasoning for calling this non-fiction?  Do you think it matters what’s it called or is that just a vehicle for finding it a home in something like a literary magazine?

I think about this a lot. In my classes, my students ask what’s the difference between a prose poem, a microessay and flash fiction? And then I get to roll around in discussions about genre for a semester which is my favorite thing to talk about. In these microessays, I claim the conventions of nonfiction. Etymology is a common trope of nonfiction which is why the essays begin with the word in its dictionary form, even if the definition abruptly veers away from the strict definition. I use lists, white space, voice, and actual facts to help propel the essay. I toggle back and forth between research and personal history. 

Nonfiction relies on different tropes than poetry or fiction. Flash fiction relies, even when it’s brief, on character, scene and plot. Fiction is always starting with a character name: “Jimmy Houston bit the rattlesnake right back.” A whole different part of me writes poems. Poems are the domain of the metaphor and the leap. This is not to say that these genres and tropes don’t bleed into each other. Obviously they do. But when I look at one of these essays and think, could I line break this thing into a poem, for the most part I can’t. They’re born of the nonfiction part of my brain that says, your voice and those facts are the main thing here—not image, not metaphor, not believable characters. When they show up, they’re welcome, but they are not the impetus for the piece.

4. What’s worth reading these days (at least in your opinion)?

Because it’s summer, and because it seems appropriate to my micro project, I’m reading a lot of short things these days. Recipes and facebook status updates, flash fiction and tiny poems. Interview questions. I’m horrible at choosing books. I will read anything thrust upon me.  Someone gave me Mark Slouka’s Visible World so I’m reading that. David Hawkins’ Lorraine Nelson: A Biography in Post-It Notes, Sean Lovelace’s blog. I’m also reading Little House in the Big Woods as I prepare for post-apocalyptic meat-preserving and jam making. I think everything’s “worth” reading, if you have the time.

5. What else are you working on? Are there other micro-essays written or in the works?

Speaking of the apocalypse, I’m working on a book about cooking salmon in drought-ridden world. I’m also writing the larger essays about micro—microclimates and micropreemies (which I think I’ll work on right after I finish this.) I do have a number of micro essays in the works but they have to be tight-fisted and full of turns and something about writing in the hot, dry summer seems to make everything open-palmed and loose-fitting. It’s a good time to write about beer. Microbrews!

 

Tuesday
Jun262012

"She Did Not Think to Stop Him, This Stranger": An Interview-in-Excerpts with Sybil Baker

Sybil Baker is the author of two books of fiction, The Life Plan, a comic novel, and a linked short story collection, Talismans. Her MFA is from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She spent twelve years teaching in South Korea before returning to the States in 2007. She is an Assistant Professor of English (Creative Writing) at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where she serves as the Assistant Director of the Meacham Writers' Workshop. She is currently on the faculty of the first international MFA program at City University of Hong Kong and is Fiction Editor at Drunken Boat.

An excerpt from her novel Into This World appears in Issue Thirty-Five of The Collagist.

Here, she answers questions "in the form of excerpts"--with further excerpts from Into This World. Enjoy!

1. What is writing like?

Until the end of April, Mina’s life was a shiny ribbon unspooling from a center she hoped she’d never get to. She’d wake up in her studio in Ilsan, have a cigarette, and then walk around the lake before the retired Korans crowded the five-kilometer track, edging her out of the path she’d cut. She’d reduced her life to basic needs, and the morning walk was one of them. The running and cycling paths, the tiny islands, the pagodas, the wood bridges, the landscaped gardens—all brought her a kind of peace. 

2. What isn’t writing like?

She would have returned to editing manuals and technical papers down the hall from Ray, listening to Norah Jones and Sarah McLachlan on Pandora, refilling cup after cup of Tension Tamer tea, going for soup and salad at Applebee’s or Panera or Chili’s with the girls on Thursday, gossiping about the latest Idol or Dancing with the Stars, sneaking in online virtual tours of homes she couldn’t afford, even now with the housing downtown, not alone. Her life had not been one of unhappiness, a life not unlike most people she knew. 

3. When you do it, why?

She did not think to stop him, this stranger who wanted her—or something—so desperately as if his life depended on it.

4. When you don’t, why?

She moved up to Seoul to work in the Dongil Textile Company. She lived in the company dorms with the others workers, all female, working fourteen hours, seven days a week for 220 won a day, enough to buy a cup of coffee. She did piece work on a sewing machine in a space four feet high that blew dust and cotton and other particles in the air with no ventilation. 

 

Sunday
Jun242012

"In My Writing I Prefer to Torture the Living": An Interview with xTx

xTx is a writer living in Southern California. She has been published in places like PANK, Hobart, Puerto del Sol, Smokelong, Monkeybicycle, Storyglossia, Kill Author, and Wigleaf.  Her new story collection, Normally Special, is available from Tiny Hardcore Press.  She says nothing at www.notimetosayit.com.

Her story "The 33rd Word for Cold" appears in Issue Thirty-Three of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks to interviewer Joseph Scapellato about hells, dungeons, and making what's ugly beautiful.

1. Where did “The 33rd Word for Cold” begin for you, and how did it get to here?

It began early one morning before work when I had all of my Radiohead albums playing on shuffle.  I was still half-asleep, the sun wasn’t out yet and the suddenly music became everything and the only thing that existed around me and I wondered, what if I couldn’t escape this?  Then the line, “We exist in a Radiohead dungeon…” came out of me and I just went on from there.   

2. In part, I read this as a fresh and emotionally gripping approach to what could be called the “trapped in hell” story.  Whereas most depictions of hell feature an unchanging eternity, this hell changes—new words are coined, multiple mental dungeons are revealed, a character dies.  I’d love to hear about how you did/didn’t conceive of this as a “trapped in hell” story while you were composing/revising.  Did you do some thinking about the conventions of such works?  (Any favorite hell fiction?)

I can see where this could be a “trapped in hell” story, but in my writing I prefer to torture the living so maybe that’s why it remained in a dungeon instead of a hell.  I didn’t consider other works while writing it and can’t think of any hell fiction at the moment.  I think the scariest hells are ones here on Earth, some we are thrust into, others thrust upon us and how we deal with them when they do.  That’s what I had fun exploring with this piece.

3. I love this story’s neologisms—how the characters name the varieties of cold to “make the misery seem a bit pretty, maybe exotic.”  Do you think that most writers are “guilty” of this—of beautifying misery?  To what degree should this be a writer’s duty?  (For you, for others?)

I think misery gets beautified/glamorized in a lot of fiction; some inadvertently, some not.  I don’t think it should be any sort of “duty.”  I sometimes find myself getting caught up in it though, especially when the misery they are beautifying is drug, alcohol or sex focused.  It’s only after I close the book that I realize, “Hey, that wouldn’t be fun.”  I do love and admire when writers can make even the ugliest things beautiful. 

4. Does this piece appear in your story collection Normally Special?  If so, how does it fit in?  (And if it isn't in this collection, does it mark a new direction for you, aesthetically?)  

 This piece is not in Normally Special but I’ve noticed that the writing I’ve done since the stories in Normally Special are more fleshed out, more developed.  I think I’ve gained some patience to stay and grow a story instead of maybe ending them early just to have them finished.  Aesthetically, it’s a bit different, yes and I am finding myself dabbling in a bit of magical realism lately.  I like being able to not have typical boundaries in my stories.  

5. What writing projects are you working on right now?

Currently I am working on a novel.  It’s been a long and painful process and I suspect it will continue to be so for some time.  I pray there is a happy ending.

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

Some outstanding books I’ve read this year include, Murakami’s, IQ84, Cheryl Strayed’s, Wild, Matt Salesses’, The Last Repatriate and Matt Bell’s, Cataclysm Baby

I am excited to read Frank Hinton’s, Action, Figure, Mel Bosworth’s, Every Laundromat in the World, Brian Allen Carr’s, Vampire Conditions, Poisonhorse by Brandi Wells and all the other books I can’t think of right now. 

 

Friday
Jun222012

"The Past on the Closest Tree": An Interview with David James

David James's book, She Dances Like Mussolini, won the 2010 Next Generation Indie book award for poetry. He teaches at Oakland Community College.

His poem "The Death in Your Face Game" appears in Issue Thirty-Four of The Collagist.

Here, David James speaks with interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about games, dying, and the inevitable.

1. Could you please talk about how you wrote your poem, “The Death in Your Face Game?”  (Also, have you ever “played” this game?)

I have a long series of game poems like “The Moo Game,” “The Pizza on Your Head Game,” “The Tired of Your Present Life Tree Game.”  This is a recent one and I started with the title first.  Most game poems are silly and have a bit of humor, so I tried to use the format to write a serious poem.  “The Death in Your Face Game” is actually a rhyming poem called a weave (a form I created).  Its rhyme scheme is abcad befbg ehiej hklhm, etc. 

The older I get, the more my poems deal with death in some way, shape or form.  Maybe it’s my attempt at understanding the inevitable.

2. Could you speak a little more about the author’s relationship to death in this poem?

The narrator’s advice, hopefully, is the kind of advice I take to heart: carpe diem or seize the day.  I can dwell on the certainty of death or I can accept it and find joy/pleasure in my daily life, however mundane it may be.  Writing has always been my method for confronting issues, challenges, disappointments, miracles.

3. I find the last two lines of this poem, “Those who grind a path toward next week / or next year get blown away like human debris,” to be interesting in their self-referentialness. If humans are the ones getting “blown away,” it seems odd to compare them to “human debris,” something human in origin, but destroyed and broken into pieces.  Could you talk about the difference between humans and humans as parts?

The last two lines speak to that human tendency to project ourselves into the future, to think about next month or the next vacation, or when we retire.  We must do a bit of planning, for sure, but that preoccupation takes us away from the here and now.  We should focus more closely on today, this moment, this experience, or else, as the poem predicts, our lives blow away in the wind like litter.  For me, human debris is the equivalent of pieces of torn newspaper tumbling down the street.

4. What’s been sitting in your bag/on your beside table/on the top of your desk to be read, recently?

I’m just now reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s precurser to Extremely Loud and Incredibly CloseEverything is Illuminated.  I loved the second novel so I’m going back to read his first.  And I am constantly reading The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry, trying to broaden my aesthetic view of poetry.

5. What do you plan to write this summer? 

I never plan to write anything.  I create time to sit and think and then poems start and, when I’m lucky, develop lives of their own.  I like paraphrasing Robert Frost who said, writing a poem is an act of discovery.  My pleasure stems from the process of imagining and stumbling into a poem and its topic.  In the best possible way, I want to see where the hell each poem will take me.  And it always takes me somewhere . . .

 

Thursday
Jun212012

"Words Make Us Into Monsters of Ourselves": An Interview-in-Excerpts with J. R. Angelella

J.R. Angelella is the author of the novel Zombie (Soho Press) as well as a forthcoming Southern Gothic supernatural YA series (Sourcebooks/Teen Fire) co-written with his wife, Kate Angelella. He is a contributing author to the forthcoming murder-mystery anthology Who Done It? (Soho Teen), benefiting the nonprofit organization 826NYC and his short fiction and essays have appeared in numerous publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College and teaches fiction at the Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City. He lives in Brooklyn.

An excerpt from Zombie appears in Issue Thirty-Five of The Collagist.

Here, J.R. Angelella answers questions "in the form of excerpts"--with further excerpts from Zombie.  Enjoy!

1. What is writing like?

The screen flickers. Thin, white lines streak and scroll up from the bottom, horizontally, thin at first, but widening as they reach the top. The lines grow and widen, before cutting back to a soundless black—disappearing. A screen of nothing. The black continues. Then, a buzz breaks into the background, faint, but constant and steady. The buzz, too, fades away and disappears and reveals for the first time actual sound—movement. General movement without words. Like when Dad returned from his walk with Dog earlier—coughing, grunting, walking, moving, breathing, whatever-the-fucking. I punch up the volume and lean in close. The screen still black, a muffled voice speaks in short, clipped phrases. A calm voice. A male voice. A direct voice directing others. The whatever-the-fuck noise in the audio scrambles like tuning an AM radio station, finally correcting itself, clearing away the cobwebs. Then the voice.

“Some call it God’s Will. Others—Devil’s work. Some call it Fate. Others—self-directed destruction. Maybe you prefer Destiny. The semblance of it amounts to utter garbage. We live a pre-determined life, an inevitable existence. A name matters nothing. What we seek is absolution. What we seek is beyond a higher power. What we seek is reckoning. What we seek is an uncommon valor. A code—this is it and it is all we have—a code. Wholeness. Transgressing without the slowed process of phases. Skip the burn and get right to the healing. Fractured, bitter, endless pieces familiarized into a singular oneness. You. A man. Adam. God’s creation. The first. Fuck Eve. It’s about commitment. Sublimation of spirit. Will. Fate. Destiny. Bullshit. One code. Without it, we are merely base animals. Do we agree?”

A wall of deep and heavy male voices responds, “Yes.”

An electric buzzing begins. A power tool. Far away. In a single tone. Then, it changes. The buzzing changes.

Gentlemen, let us suppose that man is not stupid. But if he is not stupid, he is monstrously ungrateful! Phenomenally ungrateful. In fact, I believe that the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped. But that is not all, that is not his worst defect; his worst defect is his perpetual moral obliquity.

The men respond, “Yes.”

The buzzing now screeches—slowing for a moment, before speeding up, ripping through something. I want to press pause and stop this whole thing, but my fingers don’t move or can’t move. The buzzing screeches and screams, ripping and ripping. Silence again. And an uneven breathing, which becomes whispers. A new voice, almost invisible, speaks to himself.

“Jesus Christ, no. I—no—I. I have to—no. Shit. No, no, no.” The man’s voice sounds fragile, frozen, and far closer to the speakers than the other man. The man stops talking, but his breath picks back up—fast, heavy, and hard.

Silence resumes, which forces me to search the black screen for something, anything, and then I see it—a thin circle of light at the edges. I touch my finger to the screen and a blue spark shocks me. I trace my finger along the light.

The main voice continues, “Things finally come down to the business itself, to the act of revenge itself.” Footsteps. Walking. Shoes.  Crunching of plastic underfoot. The man’s voice moves closer to the camera now. His tone changes, no longer reciting words, but rather taking registration. “Month—August. Day—Twenty-Nine. Sublimation one—Ralph Andersen.”

There is a dark void of silence. Until an avalanche of sound comes crashing down—a collective primal scream. Who knows how many people are involved, or what it means. The microphone pops and cuts between silence and the communal scream. A reverberating echo pounds the speakers, the screen still black.

A new voice close to the camera says, “Are you a fucking virgin at this? Take the damn cap off.”

Cap. Camera. Someone has forgotten to remove it.

The circle of light disappears as the cap pops off and a hot, bright, white light crashes into the lens, causing the camera to shuffle and refocus, shocking it into disorientation. The group primal scream now filters through mechanical camera adjustments. Everything blurs and nothing is clear. The scream stops and a choking is all that remains. The choking is violent. Maybe better described as gagging. Like someone having chopsticks shoved down their throat. The robotic sound of the camera auto-focusing stops and the white light settles and the white emptiness looks like what I imagine Heaven to be.

The aggressive white rushes away from the camera as color descends. An image comes through in flashes. A man. A man’s body. Thick, industrial plastic covers him like a blurry blanket. Monitors and machines run wires to him, slipping under the plastic; his eyes taped shut; a clear tube stuffed down his throat, chocking him. He is awake. His body twitches. His neck turns, pulling away, gagging, chocking. A seizure, maybe. The way he thrashes under the plastic and the plastic begins to move and slide and gains speed and clears away from the body completely and the anonymous head finally becomes a head with a body and arms and legs.

The man is strapped to the bed, restrained with long, leather straps crossing over his chest, his stomach, and his knees. The man is fully naked, his junk exposed and all. The body extends out of the frame of the camera, stopping at his knees. No one is on camera at all except for the man—only this man in pain.

Two men dressed in pale green surgical scrubs and caps and masks covering their faces poke around the monitors and plunge a syringe into the IV bag. They talk to each other, checking vitals, but their voices are inaudible. They finally exit off screen—doctors of some kind.

The main man’s voice returns. “Oh, absurdity of absurdities!

Snuff film—is this what I am watching? No. Snuff films are not this. They are where some dude fucks a chick and then kills her on film for serious pervs to get off on, but this isn’t that. I don’t know what this is. This is something else altogether. I lean forward, lean closer, look closer.

The camera pitches again—auto-focusing—and I see them. A crowd stands in front of the man strapped to the bed and the bed is centered on a slightly raised stage. I see them and think it’s a trick of light. I see them, all of them, standing. I hear the man’s voice again.

. . . that you have not, and perhaps never will have, an object for your spite, that it is a sleight of hand, a bit of juggling, a card-sharper's trick, that it is simply a mess, no knowing what and no knowing who, but in spite of all these uncertainties and jugglings, still there is an ache in you, and the more you do not know, the worse the ache.”

The man strapped to the bed gags.

Dog leaves the living room, sleepy, moving away in a slow walk. I wish I could follow.

The surgical tape over one of the man’s eyes snaps loose, so that one eye remains taped shut while the other is open wide, seeking, searching the room. The eye finds the camera. I tilt my head like people tilt their heads in horror movies, all cliché-like and shit. I try and see the man’s face, like I might know him, like I might be able to identify him for the police or something.

I see them there. Others. Men. Their heads are covered in black hoods and masks, like executioners. Some of the men are shirtless. Some in suits. They stand in front of the stage with the bed. They just watch, doing nothing, except for a few that rub their dicks or suck on their fingers.

The main man, the leader says, “This is what redemption looks like, gentlemen. This is the real Ralph Anderson.” 

The man in the bed gives up, stops fighting, breathing shallow breaths, and I keep breathing, breathing for him. He closes his one eye and breathes through the tube down his throat and then exhales and opens his one eye. A surge blasts from his chest as he throws everything into a final fight, twisting his body with enough force that forces some men away from the bed. The doctors rush back into frame, holding him down. The movement startles the crowd as they shift like current away from the stage and collide with the camera. The tripod with the camera crashes to the ground, the camera still filming, but only legs and the heavy plastic covering the floor and the crunching of feet stepping on the plastic. Then the audio goes silent as legs moves past the camera and the screen cuts to black.

Sublimation goes back to Dad’s closet like a fucking bullet. Fucking leave that bullshit behind. I wish I had never found it. I wish I could make myself forget it.

This is the savage animal ripping through my body at this very moment. 

2. What isn’t writing like?

The problem is that I don’t feel horrible from the art, but rather absolutely terrified from failing to feel anything.

3. When you do it, why?

This space is endless. Nothing matters in this space. Zero. Nada. Zilch. Because nothing actually exists here. Everything is possible here, but nothing is certain here. There’s no telling how long this moment will last, but I want it forever. Forever and forever and then a little more forever. To feel this protected. An endless spot in time where our decisions and our actions are nonexistent. I share this space with no one and wouldn’t let anyone in if they came knocking. The anger and rage and presence of certain people in my life are all gone, leaving only a flat line of possibility.

My memory is left intact, but emotion gutted. The memory of what was said that has brought me to this place is a trail in the woods, leading from the house to the dark, unknown destination beyond the house. To watch all this take place. Spoken about. Preached about. Prayed about. To bring us all together is what it is about. The truth is that we all have things to say and whether we are right or wrong, we say them. We say things we believe and most often we’re wrong. And even if we’re right, we fight so hard at making someone believe we’re right, we become wrong. Words make us into monsters of ourselves.

4. When you don’t, why?

And this is the space we exist in for now. A kind and quiet and gentle place.

Nothing is undone here. Hands not re-attached. People not un-drugged, de-sexed, un-plaided, re-booted. People simply stop.

I realize now, here, in this stuck state, that there had been a rattling, snarling demon inside me, growing in strength for some time. Ready to eat its way out. I know this now because I feel nothing now. I am empty now. There is nothing. The heavy, sick darkness stuck inside my skin is gone. Evaporated. Ripped clean. Vaporized. Disappeared.

I am brand new.

There is nothing left to put back together with tape or glue or nails—this is what is left.

 

Wednesday
Jun202012

"Unnaturally Large and Abnormally Thick": An Interview-in-Excerpts with Matt Dojny

Matt Dojny co-authored the illustrated essay “Impossible Sightseeing” in A Public Space, as well as contributing an illustrated piece to THE MOMENT: Wild, Poignant, Life-Changing Stories from 125 Writers and Artists Famous & ObscureThe Festival of Earthly Delights is his first novel. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, son, and dog. Visit him at www.mattdojny.com.

An excerpt from The Festival of Earthly Delights appears in Issue Thirty-Five of The Collagist.

Here, Matt Dojny answers questions "in the form of excerpts"--with further excerpts from The Festival of Earthly Delights.  Enjoy!

1. What is writing like?

There was a pregnant pause, and then, with a tremendous shudder, I felt something begin to slowly, gently slide out of my body. It was unnaturally large and abnormally thick and went on and on and on, seeming as if it might not stop until my intestines had unspooled in a heap onto the floor. The violence of the act disturbed me, but I simultaneously experienced an illicit, adrenaline-filled rush that made my head swim. After I finally heard the thing fall with a thud into the ceramic bowl below, I hovered there, savoring an empty-headed moment of blissful calm, and then cautiously turned around to see what I’d created.

2. What isn’t writing like?

DICKSPLASH: [pause] Um… whiskers?

3. When you do it, why?

During the Exercise, you may experience Joy in many forms and intensities, ranging from the Joy that raises the hair of the body, to the Joy that raises you off the ground, sometimes to the ceiling.

4. When you don’t, why?

I spent an hour trying to pull nightcrawlers out of my tearducts.

 

Monday
Jun182012

"I Hate Cake": An Interview-in-Excerpts with Carissa Halston

Carissa Halston is the author of a novella, The Mere Weight of Words, and a novel, A Girl Named Charlie Lester. Her shorter fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Wigleafkill authorPrecipitate, and Consequence. She currently lives in Boston where she edits a journal called apt, hosts a quarterly reading series called Literary Firsts, and is at work on a novel called Conjoined States.

An excerpt from The Mere Weight of Words appears in Issue Thirty-Five of The Collagist.

Here, Carissa Halston answers questions "in the form of excerpts" -- with further excerpts from The Mere Weight of Words.  Enjoy!

1. What is writing like?

How I reveled in the existence of the International Phonetic Alphabet, how well its symbols fit my mouth. I used to read them aloud, believing that if I could pronounce them all, I could make any word in any language come true—or at least sound true. Drunk with the power of speech, I fell steadfastly in love with a field I knew nearly nothing about. I would be a phonetician. It seemed the surest thing in the world.

2. What isn’t writing like?

I hate cake. Its form nauseates me. Hiding in a guileful happiness, it purports a celebratory aura, sometimes being so bold as to boast sprinkles. But as soon as it enters your mouth, it enters your system, and, ultimately, your life, bringing its insidious crystalline glucose in tow.

3. When you do it, why?

I clutched their unwritten gesture, gripped it next to my heart. Its edges fluttered when pinned to my pulse, beating a rapid cadence, so charged was the setting and each glance and the often uttered notion, “What next?” Everyone had asked in one way or other. Somehow, graduation hadn’t been enough. It lacked finality. We remained unfinished, unending. Something was sure to follow, if only it would reveal itself.

4. When you don’t, why? 

These memories irk me. They’re akin to reading loose where the word should be lose.

 

Friday
Jun152012

"Dreadfully Ordinary and Mythic at the Same Time": An Interview with C. Dale Young

C. Dale Young's most recent collection of poetry is Torn (Four Way Books 2011). He is a 2012 Guggenheim Fellow in Poetry and lives in San Francisco.

His poems "What is Revealed" and "The Ninth Metal" appear in Issue Thirty-Three of The Collagist.

In the following interview with Amber L. Cook, C. Dale Young explores his fascination with the Hawkman and the hidden. 

1. What inspired you to write poems about the Pietà sculpture and Hawkman respectively?

The poem “What Is Revealed” is, for me, more about perceptions of mental and emotional stability than actually about the Pieta.  But reading about how Michelangelo chiseled his name across the sash of the sculpture, something he had never done with any of his other work, is really what prompted me to start the poem.  That behavior could be seen as either quite normal or completely mad.  As for Hawkman, I always found the fact he had wings but didn’t really use them to fly a fascinating thing.

2. In “What is Revealed,” I enjoyed the meditation on Michaelangelo’s Pietà sculpture which shifts into the discussion of themes like modernism vs. tradition and skepticism vs. belief. How do you see these themes in conversation with one another? How did the Pietà spark this conversation for you?

I don’t really see the modernism vs. tradition in the poem.  And though I can understand the notion of skepticism, I am not sure that such a dialogic as skepticism and belief exist in the poem either.  I really think the poem is about how ideas of what is “crazy” are always shifting and are affected by who makes that judgment.  The story of the man attacking the Pieta with a pick-axe is 100% true, and it why the sculpture resides behind bullet-proof glass today.  But it made me think about all the things we hide in order to give them value, in order to show them.

3. “The Ninth Metal” hinges on a speaker who is juxtaposed with the fantastical comic book character, Hawkman. The speaker goes through moments of clarity contrasted with moments of insanity and repeats phrases like “I’m not crazy” and “Men aren’t supposed to fly.” How was Hawkman a catalyst in helping to guide the speaker through these moments?

I liked the idea of writing a rant against a comic book hero.  As I mentioned, Hawkman has wings but cannot use them to fly.  I found that so shocking.  Like “What Is Revealed,” this poem plays with perceptions and the same character, a man who has wings.

4. What is something that you’re currently reading that you can’t put down?

I am not currently reading a book.  I work full-time as a physician, so time is limited.  I did re-read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness last weekend.  It was the 22nd time I read it, and I found things, once again, I had never noticed before.

5. Are these poems part of larger projects? If not, is there a larger project that you’re working on?

Since 2008, I have been writing these poems, poems I refer to as the Halo poems.  They seem to be of one mind.  Other poems in this group have appeared in The Collagist previously.  They all seem to circle this charcater who is both dreadfully ordinary and mythic at the same time, mythic because he has wings he cannot understand.  The poems are odd.  I have had friends suggest to me these are all sections of one long poem, but I am still resisting that notion.  I keep thinking I am done with these poems, and then a new one arrives.  Sometimes, I have gotten excited as I think through a poem because I think it is a new break, a shift.  And then when the draft is down on paper I see it is another of these poems.  Time will tell the story, I guess.